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A rousing goodbye from the Gallagher family to 2010. It has had its high points, that much is true. But, boy, has it had its lows.
Last New Year’s Eve, Austin was in the hospital for chemo and radiation. It was, remarkably, our very first holiday to spend in-patient (but not our last). Braedan went off with friends and had a sleepover on the westside, happily celebrating with too much stimulation and too little sleep. It was Mark’s night to stay with Austin and, usually, we made our switches pretty quickly, always eager to take full advantage of those few free moments away from the hospital. But it was New Year’s, so I decided I’d stay until midnight before heading home by myself. Mark picked up pizza and we had wine while Austin zoomed his remote control cars around the room, all the while hooked to his chemo pole.
By about ten o’clock, the two of them were lying in bed sleepily watching basketball, and I was pacing the room with nothing to do. Mark kept urging me to go home and get some sleep; I kept insisting that we be together at the stroke of midnight.
“It’s just a day, honey, just like any other. One date on the calendar. We’ll have more New Year’s Eves together.” All together, though? I wasn’t so sure.
Finally, giving in to my own exhaustion, I kissed them both and headed out into the cold. As I was driving up the hill, I contemplated stopping at my parents’ house, where I knew they were gathered with friends having dessert and champagne after a dinner out. Or at another friend’s house, also nearby, who was having a small party. I didn’t really have to be alone, I mean, I had options. But it just seemed like so much work, I’d have to tell the same Austin stories over and over, like how I’d ripped his Mediport out by accident twice over the two preceding days.
So I went home and straight to bed, which was where I needed most to be. The particular chemo Austin was on that week required his pee to be measured every two hours — which meant he was sleeping “like a baby” (and not in a good way), so a solid night was definitely in order. After about an hour of fitful sleep, I was awakened by the sounds of celebration coming from Coventry Road — bars and cars, people cheering and horns honking. I checked my clock and sure enough, 12:01, we had passed into a new year. I felt alone, but strangely not as alone as I’d felt on some New Year’s past, when I’d actually been surrounded by people. I knew my life was full and complete, with my wonderful husband and my two dear children, and I just held on to the thought that next year would be different.
And different it is. In only good ways.
So, goodbye 2010. And hello 2011. Here’s to wishing it’s nothing but bright.
Santa returned with a late present yesterday, this time for me. A new hybrid SUV, now allowing me to transport kids and their friends (and gear) without the guilt!
It’s not likely that I will enjoy my new ride a la Austin, but on the off-chance it happens, you won’t be seeing any pictures here!
And yes, to you moms who’ve gently reminded me that Austin will be none too pleased with the posting of those recent photos, I can go back and edit everything I put here and will do periodic purging of all embarrassing images and text from this site (long before the kids reach middle school, I promise!).
Well, I think we’ve finally dug out from under the pile of wrapping paper and boxes and excessive toy packaging (how ridiculous are those tie tabs that hold toys to their boxes?). Christmas was another major success for the Gallagher boys. Somehow my attempts at simplicity always fail (much to their relief and delight).
Santa brought new bicycles, Braedan’s outfitted with a speedometer.
Austin’s is small enough he’s able to maneuver it around the house, so he’s been pedaling away, lap after lap through the kitchen and living room. I’m not quite sure his choice of attire is what Santa had in mind though:
Braedan has to take his outside (clothed), which he somehow convinced me to do on Christmas morning when we rode through the snow to my parents’ house. Not great cycling weather but we managed (and even went “12.6 miles per hour!” — I had to keep reminding him to look up every once in a while).
Christmas Eve was lovely, as always, although it is rather difficult to snap a good picture of five sweet grandchildren ranging in age from 9 months to 7 years. We certainly tried though (these are the very best out of at least thirty):
Braedan celebrated his birthday (again), with cake and candles and a few more presents (just what he needed!):
Mark and I got them some fun accessories for the treehouse — a periscope and steering wheel and this cool extension thing for the tube slide so when you come down it in the summertime you land in water. I painted wooden wishing stars to hang inside from the peaked ceiling (I was considerably more excited about them opening these than they were):
Braedan had purchased gifts for the rest of us at the holiday shop set up in his school cafeteria and I’ve never seen him so excited about giving. He carefully wrapped each item, complete with tags and bows, and as they were waiting (im)patiently at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning, he announced that he wanted us to open our gifts first. For Austin, a little red racecar and a light-up key chain (you know, for all his keys), Mark got the obligatory #1 Dad pen and a tool set, and yours truly received “diamond” hoop earrings and a little gold butterfly ring. Which, yes, I wore all that day and several times since. It was all very sweet.
So, all in all, I’d say all our Christmas wishes have come true.
We’ve had a very busy few weeks leading up to this day. Starting with Braedan’s holiday concert. Here he is with two of his buddies after the show:
And during the grand performance:
And Austin discovering the reverse camera option on my phone (during said grand performance):
Then there was the visit with Santa Claus with their cousins:
And the carefully written letters providing evidence of “goodness”:
Then we celebrated Braedan’s birthday at school, with homemade “B” brownies:
Following that, there was the obligatory kid party at Great Lakes Science Center (and fabulous cake made by our old Edgehill neighbors):
This past Monday, my little elves and I drove a full carload of goodies down to Providence House, everything from hand-knitted blankets (thanks Cori) to toys and games (thanks Judi) to boxes and boxes of baby food and diapers and paper towels and bleach (thanks Braedan and Austin).
And now here we are, on this most special day when my sweet Braedan turns seven (we did spend one Christmas in the hospital, after all!). As he ate lunch today, having just noted the minute of his birth (12:46pm), he sighed and said, “Wow, look, we all made it another year.”
Happiest of holidays to you and yours.
That’s what it says in a little text box as I type in each new post: “enter title here.” So that’s what we’re gonna do today. Ooooh, this one ought to be fun.
As many of you know, as long as I’ve had a draft of a book (two and half years now), I’ve been calling it Whoosh. I chose this word for a few reasons: 1) It played a role in the early cancer story when my friend’s mom used it as the title of each of her Carepage messages, meaning the sending of a wish off into the universe. 2) For me it came to symbolize the suddenness with which our lives went from completely normal to — whoosh — anything but. And then, back again (and back again and back again). And 3) there was that little moment in 2008 when I was rocking Austin to sleep and thinking about what to name my about-to-be written book when I looked down at my beautiful sleeping baby to discover he was wearing pajamas with tiny airplanes surrounded by the word “Whoosh.”
I like the word. And I like the title. But (there’s always a “but”), it is hard to say out loud. No, not hard to say but hard to hear. I find that when people ask me in person (as opposed to on the computer) and I say it, they inevitably look at me like “Huh?” and then I have to say, “Whoosh, you know, W-H-O-O-S-H. It means blah blah blah.”
When I go to the conference in one month’s time, I will have three minutes with each agent: 90 seconds to pitch my book and 90 seconds of feedback. Trust me when I say that I don’t want to waste any of those precious seconds spelling out the title of my book!
Soooo, here’s your chance: Enter title here. I’ll take any, no editing necessary. Of course, I’ve toyed with others over time. The Luckiest is a natural option. I forget why I didn’t go with that from the beginning, maybe it’s already been used. I went through a brief period of calling it Little A and Big Wilm (“Little A” being one of our nicknames for him and that book my mom and sister-in-law made us for Christmas a few years ago was titled Little A Climbs Big Wilm). But that seems very cancer specific. I like Eternal Spring (already used, for a Holocaust book) and The Wrong Side of the Window (where we’ve spent so many of our days). Ordinary Miracle, the name of the Sarah MacLachlan song used for Austin’s first Miracle Story is great, except that my anti-religious stance makes it sort of hypocritical. I read another mother-of-a-cancer -patient memoir a while back (which wasn’t any good, except for the title) called Cancer’s Gift. I do like that — for all it’s taken away, cancer has given us gifts. But . . . already used.
So, start that brainstorming. I’m willing to consider any and all suggestions. And I’ll be sure to thank you on my Acknowledgments page if I choose yours! Of course, I may end up going back to Whoosh. Or this may also ultimately be decided by an agent or editor, but I have to be able to call it something when I pitch it. “As Yet Untitled” just doesn’t have that great a ring to it.
So, what is the purpose behind wanting to publish this book? Naturally, it’s to achieve great fame and fortune. Wait . . . what? What’s that you say? I’d be better off joining the cast of the next big reality TV show? Real Cancer Moms Versus Real Housewives?
Truth be told, I never sat down at my computer and said, “Wow, that was really something; I should write a book about it.” The writing just happened. In a day-to-day and moment-by-moment kind of way. It was necessary, first to share the actual information but ultimately for me to grapple with all that had befallen us.
Now I know that “therapy writing,” while helpful to the individual, does not necessarily produce great literature. And I know that my story, Austin’s story, is not unique in the world of pediatric cancer. Countless families go through all the same drama that we did every single day. Lots and lots of people have stunning and sometimes tragic and sometimes miracluous things that happen to them (and some of us have all three). And not all those people should write books. The conventional wisdom about memoir is that it has to be both a fascinating story and well written. And I do believe this achieves that.
I love to read. Mostly fiction but also memoir and narrative non-fiction. I know exactly my kind of book — and I bet some of you will agree wholeheartedly, nodding your head at every title listed below, while others of you think, “Um, really?” I like The Time Traveler’s Wife and Bel Canto, Help and all of Wally Lamb. The Red Tent, The Secret Life of Bees and Water for Elephants (all classic Oprah fare). The very best books I’ve ever read, although by far the most disturbing, are Fall On Your Knees and The Way The Crow Flies, both by Anne-Marie McDonald. I like memoir: The Middle Place, A Long Way Gone, Always Running (a great LA gang story that I read while teaching in Compton), Eat Pray Love. I like narrative non-fiction (still has to feel like a story) like Three Cups of Tea and (my current) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I love to read.
And I have to tell you (and I don’t mean to sound like I think I’m the best thing since sliced bread) but when I read through some of my pages, I sit back and say, “Damn, that is good.” I love it. I want to read more (and I know exactly what’s going to happen!). So I guess in part I want to publish this book simply because I think readers like me will really like it.
But obviously there are themes — and therefore messages — underlying all I write: a sense of strength and hope and conviction; carrying on even when you can’t see the end; finding and truly appreciating all the good that lies amidst all the bad. It’s about the ordinary, about the small moments of life that make it beautiful. I think there is a clear message to be learned by what we’ve been through — that you are stronger than you think you are, that hope is stronger than you think it is, that love and family trump all. And that laughter helps.
It’s not just a cancer story. It’s a mothering story and a parenting story and a love story. A great big public declaration of a mother’s love for her sick son, her healthy son, her husband, the family, friends, doctors, nurses and wide community that sustains one family through its darkest hours.
Wanna read it?
Thank you for the many very thoughtful comments. You’ve all given me a lot to mull as I move forward. A few issues you raised are quite easy to address — the arbitrary deadline for one: I think having a date ahead of me is a good thing. I love to write and have a ton to say, but just haven’t had the time lately to sit down and do it. Or maybe I haven’t made the time. So having the conference looming in the near future provides excellent motivation to sit my butt at my desk and just start typing (something other than blog posts).
Of course I know that no agent is going to expect a complete work immediately following the confernece. At the very best, they could invite me to query them, which would only require the first 5 to 50 pages, depending on the agency. So it will easily be months before I need a finished manuscript. (Although memoirs, like fiction, are expected to be complete before a writer even sends out queries.) Of course, even a “finished” manuscript will then be subjected to many revisions based on agent and editor suggestions.
But I do hope to at least have a sense of the scope of the book, what period in our lives it covers and to what degree. Which is what I’m trying to work through now with all of you. I need to know the direction and narrative arc of the book before I sell it to someone else. And the purpose (more on that later, Alfalfa — you know who you are.)
I think I will spend the next week or so (when I’m not shopping, baking, wrapping, celebrating, etc) drafting an epilogue of the recurrence. And then I’ll just see how I like it and whether I feel it accurately covers enough of the important stuff (without all the boring stuff) and then go from there.
Ultimately, all these decisions will lay in the hands of first an agent, and then an editor at a publishing house. If they read the manuscript and say, “This is great — can you give us more?” well, I certainly can.
In the meantime, I will comb through my discarded work of the past month as well as through the past fourteen months of blog posts to pull out the best and most poignant moments. And not even just the moments but the words and phrases that best capture those moments. Some of them will go in the epilogue and others can be woven into earlier parts of the story.
One thing I will have to work hard to ensure doesn’t get totally lost in the epilogue route is the spark of Austin’s personality. In his first round of cancer, he was only a baby and still pre-verbal so the reader simply can’t see the boy who begs to be unhooked from his IV pole to run laps around the nurses. I know this is a largely a story of a mother, but that boy running laps plays a pretty big role too!
So, I haven’t ruled out one or the other option. I’m going to move forward and attempt both and see which one feels most right to me. Which is what matters most. But keep those comments coming — I like having this built-in community of first readers.
(And thanks to those of you who said it’s not boring!)
Wow, I just realized that title could sound very forboding. No, this isn’t about another recurrence. But I would like to talk about Austin’s recurrence, in an artistic sense (if recurrences of pediatric cancer can be “artistic”!), and ask your advice.
I’ve been hard at work on my manuscript over the past few weeks in preparation for the Writers’ Digest conference in New York City in January. The weekend includes a pitch slam, where you get 90 seconds to make an individual oral pitch to up to fifty literary agents. I’d like to have my book mostly done by then, so that 1) I can give an accurate summary and word count (which is expected) and 2) I can mail it out the next week on the off-chance that some agent says, “Wonderful! Can’t wait to read it, send me your work asap.”
Now, you may remember that I had written a book, one I was very happy with, after our first round of cancer. It originally checked in at about 250 pages. I then revised to add our almost-recurrence, which I managed to describe in less than 25 pages. I feel like that event is important to the story because, even though it ended up not being a huge deal in terms of Austin’s overall health, it was enormously consequential to me and Mark and how we thought about his disease and all of our futures.
But now I’ve spent weeks struggling with how to include Part Three, the actual recurrence, spanning from our worrisome fall through spring (end of treatment) and even summer (recovery of kidney). The truth is that it is dreadfully boring to write about. Dreadfully. It is repetitive and tedious — the same worries (oh, what should we do with his kidney?), the same procedures (day after day and week after week of platelet transfusions), the same ups and the same downs and ultimately, the same ending.
Now, of course, I am thrilled we got the same ending (a happy one) — that’s all we want, but it doesn’t make for interesting literature. The entire recurrence fails to move the story forward in any way.
That first part is full of drama, especially the mysterious and horrifying growth of his primary tumor, which occurs four weeks and ninety pages in. That is followed by two more dramatic surgeries and then, in perfect climactic fashion, the unexpected clear scan that fall. The story has flow–there’s build-up and mystery and climax and resolution.
The recurrence is just boring. It was boring to live and it’s boring to write (and I’m afraid would be boring to read). Yes, it’s true, it happened, which is why I feel the need to include it. But honest memoir doesn’t mean you have to write about every single thing that’s ever happened to you. There are many reasons I want to include it — it was hugely significant in his life and in all our lives. It mattered.
And yet, it’s boring.
Mark suggested that I just include it as an epilogue, an abbreviated looking-backward kind of essay: overview of what happened, overview of how we felt and feel, overview of where we go from here. That’s it.
Oh, I just don’t know! What do you think?
Wow, we thought we had a snow storm last week?
To help you imagine long lazy summer days with the sound of squealing children wafting through the neighborhood air, here’s an article that was written about Austin and his treehouse for the December edition of the Heights Observer.
Too bad the treehouse is buried right now . . .
First of all, if you haven’t read my (ahem, award-winning) essay “DeadBoy,” find it here before continuing on.
And now, you can go read this article, the cover story about Cleveland’s punk rock scene for December’s Scene Magazine, “A Dead Boy Lives On.”
So fascinating. Still not sure which of them is the owner of that car, but I sent my essay to the woman who wrote the article, with whom I did some political work during the John Kerry campaign.