Saturday, November 8, 2014

Don't mind the Nails

I took a test recently--one of those mindless, facebook quizzes that rate a little about yourself and if you're half gullible you would believe that your aura is golden, you were a cat in your past life, and your real profession should be in the medical field, specifically,  that of a surgeon.  I take these quizzes because I'm addicted to them. Yes, dumb, superficial and mundane. But I take them. And then, as always, I say, what idiots. I'm not 21, I was never married to a musician, and I do NOT have 3 kids.

Going back to this recent test.  I took a girly test that gave me a score of 25% and I was dubbed a tomboy.  True, I hate pink. True, I can't relate to my oldest sister's obsession with Hello Kitty, and I don't know what to do with an eye liner but I'm no tomboy. I can't climb trees, I won't know what to do with a flat tire, and I'm petrified of snakes. But girly things? It's been my lifelong obsession to be a girly girl. And so, it's also been my lifelong failure.

About 6 weeks ago, the Board of Education showed up at a UPK I run in Brooklyn. It was an insane day, the first day of school.  The very first day we opened our doors to 4 year olds from the board of ed. Just the night before, there were no tiles in the second classroom and I threw construction papers on random tables hoping it would distract the inspectors and they would think the classes were fully supported with materials. Maybe they won't notice that only 5 blocks were in the block center and that the paint area only had brushes and that the science table only had one piece of paper that read, "Science Center." The paint, the books, the blocks, the toys, the manipulatives...they were all still in Amazon, waiting to be ordered.

I sat in front of 2 women. One seemed very eclectic, the other...polished.  My posture was erect and when I'm under tremendous pressure I tend to be a bit more articulate, punctual with my responses, and competent in my tone. I was hard at work not to reveal that I did not know what I was doing. That although I ran a successful and difficult program for children with autism, Universal Pre-K, Common Core, and all the rules and guidelines of the typical early childhood world eluded me.  I didn't find the task intellectually challenging, but there were a lot of bullets on my paper and they were too much too soon for an unprepared educational director and the idea of merging the world of autism with universal pre-k was daunting.

They asked questions, I answered. They made suggestions, I wrote furiously.  They offered advice, I took them. But one of them, the polished one, did not say much. She seemed a bit preoccupied. She was kind and understanding and helpful, but she was preoccupied. And then I realized why. She kept glancing at my nails. They were chipped, dirty, with old nail polish that should have been removed or re-done 6 weeks before.  I curled my fingers into a ball to hide them and then eventually, I placed them under the table, where they would neither distract nor appall anyone. I wondered what she was thinking. If she can't take care of those nails, how is she going to run a school? I wanted to say that I was good at what I did because I was psychotically dedicated. I neglected the woman side of me because I poured everything into my work. But who was I kidding? What excuse did I have for overgrown, chipped nails? I wondered if she noticed my unwashed hair, pulled carelessly into a messy bun? I started biting at my cracked lips and wondered if she thought my glasses were too big. After all, one of the students had asked me if they were goggles.

And then, ever so discreetly, I looked at her. Not a hair out of place. Make-up flawless. Lips intact. She looked like she smelled good. Some women know how to be professional and pretty at the same time.

I'm just not one of them.

And so, the UV gel nail era began for me. I ran home and found a nail salon down the block. Two weeks later, I got them done again. And then before another three weeks were gone, the nails had been redone--this time blue, with a hint of sparkle.  I couldn't commit to make-up and hair, but the nails, the one hour I gave myself every 2 weeks, felt good. They felt right. I was finally doing something for myself that I deserved. Something nice and pretty. Something girly.

"I guess you didn't watch that segment on Dr. Oz about gel nails?"

It was my best friend on the phone. The only woman I know busier than me. The brilliant World Health Organization doctor.

"What did he say?" I panicked, looking at my flawless nails.

"Don't worry about it. They can cause skin cancer but don't worry about it. Just cut down on red meat."

"I don't eat red meat!"

"Oh," she chuckled. "Well, then, maybe exercise. That may eliminate the dangers of you getting your nails done."

Laughter from my friend. Silence from me.

"How can you say that? You know I'm the most paranoid person! How can you say that? Just when I finally turned into a girl, you'd say that!"

"Well, maybe you can get manicures instead?"

"They take forever! I have to sit under that blowing thing forever and it makes me crazy. I can't go get a manicure done every 3 days! They chip after I wash dishes and then I have to sit under that thing forever for them to dry!"

And so, I am sitting here today, my last set of UV gel nails slowly but surely fading. I am wondering and calculating and deciding whether or not to go to the nail salon. Of course I will never get gel nails. That's out of the question. But do I really want to get a manicure? A manicure that will chip and fade within days only for me to keep going back religiously to get them done?

I can see that Board of Ed woman in my mind. I can see her glancing, distracted, preoccupied by my lack of girly-ness.  I know what will happen the next time she comes. I will curl my fingers, turn my hand into balls, and hide them under the table. At-least I'll know, deep down, that I tried to be better. I tried to be more girly. Three weeks. For those that know me well know that that's a very long time.

I think that should count for something.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Scars

"Easy," my new doctor, the rheumatologist said, placing the stethoscope again on my chest, "your heart is racing. Take it easy!"

That was right before he told me I had lupus. And that for 20 years the disease had spared my organs, although there was extensive scarring around my heart and my lungs. Twenty years. Untreated. My blood vessels feeding the major organs of my body had been flaring up for years, and I was still alive. The prognosis was good.

"Low level lupus." That was what the doctor called it.  I googled it later on and couldn't find it anywhere. There's mild, there's severe. Low level...low level that has me gasping for air sometimes and wincing in pain as I rub my chest. Low level that scarred the engine and transmission of my body. Low level that has had me in constant pain for years. Imagine high level.

It would be a week tomorrow since I was in that office, where my heart raised wildly and I clenched my fists and I took deep breaths so I would not burst into tears. Crying is something I don't do. But I did take the next day off. I needed some time to process this new diagnosis in my life.

Just a week before, while sitting in heavy traffic, I found myself frustrated at how tired I was.  I was angry at myself for feeling drained and exhausted, especially since I had to go to my second and third jobs and wouldn't be home until much later that evening.  It was always this way since college and every doctor ignored me. Waves of sudden exhaustion, my body trembling in fatigue. My hair would fall. The soles of my feet would be filled with red, painful bumps. And then I would feel like I'm tingling, like I'm buzzing.

I laid in bed that night and said, " goes my body buzz-zing all overrrr!"

My husband shook his head. There was not much he could do married to a living cartoon. "You want me to get you something?"

And then, of course, I find out through discussions and forums that this buzzing was one of the signs of a flare up. Lupus. The very word is foreign. How can something that's been my companion for the past 20 years be so unfamiliar?

Serositis.  It's the specific kind that goes after your heart and lungs.

And so, I took advantage of this all week at work. Whenever I forgot something, or made a mistake, I sighed dramatically, "What do you people expect? I have scars on my heart and lungs!" And I don't think my staff knew what to do except chuckle, then shake their heads.  Early this year, all they've heard me say was, "What do you people expect? I'm forty!" And now it's been replaced by something much more sinister, but exclaimed in the same ridiculous manner.  I made sure during First Aid training, that all the teachers in my room knew how to administer CPR. And I raised an eyebrow, "Anyone who doesn't pay attention will get fired. You people need to keep me alive." More chuckles across the room and declarations of, "Miss Anna Marie, you're not going to die! Such a drama queen!"

Only once, only once this past week have I broken down and cried. And only for a minute.  I told my husband, "All this time I've taken pride in never being sick and something so much more sinister was happening inside me." And then, just like that, the tears fell.

I think I cried really because I've been told that I now have to listen to my body. I cannot drive it to the ground. I have to rest when it's tired. I no longer can skip lunch and dinner. I had to let go of my afternoon jobs...and then, the hardest of all: I must try not to be stressed.  The very idea of not being stressed stresses me out.

I thought immediately of the traffic, the slow cashier, the teenager in a Mustang changing lanes without signal, the hairdresser speaking about me in Chinese...the everyday stuff that stresses the (bleep) out of me. I'm never, ever going to be able to do it!

But really, I am grateful and I have nothing to complain about. I think, 20 years...imagine what they could have discovered by now? What my body has been through...God has surely spared me. If scars around my important organs are the only things to show for after 2 decades, then I have much to be thankful for. And then I think of my son, my Aaron who has lived with diabetes before he was even 2 years old. The most calm, well adjusted child battling the meanest autoimmune disease.

I cannot complain.

But I can ask for prayer. Prayer from you, my blog friends, to ask the good Lord to keep me healthy. Prayer that I learn how to read the signs and to listen to my body.  And to do the miraculous: stay stress free while living and breathing in this great demanding city.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A month's worth of pride at 40

I wanted to reflect on every week of my first month being forty:

First Week:  It involved running everywhere to prepare for Wlad and I's 40th birthday bash.  I pride myself in being thrifty and wise with money but a dollar here and a dollar there heaped up to more than a couple thousand and I was upset at myself for spending so much for a birthday party.  Jennifer Covelli, who was my assistant teacher for a while, was the brains behind the event (Roaring 20's theme) and she had to keep reminding me that I was only going to be 40 once; that everyone will remember this day, and that yes, Wlad and I were well worth it...It turned out to be a party worth every penny and more. A night Wlad and I would never forget.

Second Week: Baby Paris, my cousin's daughter, who was 2 1/2 years old,  died two days after that birthday bash.  I learned that I was not as strong as I thought. I pride myself in being able to muster cerebral strength no matter the situation and I could focus on anything, especially when it involved work, no matter what was happening at home. The day after Paris died I wrote my boss and told her I could not come to work that week.  I could not sleep. I could not eat. I cried everyday.  For me, it wasn't about losing Paris, although that in itself brought its unbearable weight of sorrow.  I could not function because I had witnessed my cousin, Nightingale, and her husband, Chris, wrestle with their sanity in the process of losing their first born.  I watched them in that hospital room, overcome with anguish and pain...their sorrow was maddening.  I had never felt so helpless, so useless in my life. I walked out of the ICU room at one point, found a corner in the hallway, and sobbed. I wasn't weeping at that moment for Paris. I was in agony for my cousins...

Third Week: The day after we buried Paris, Alanna got sick. The next day she tested positive for Influenza A, the same flu that eventually put her on life support four years before. I pride myself in staying calm and cool in front of others, nomatter the situation. But by Tuesday, when we had to take Nana to Columbia Presbyterian, I bursted into tears at work. I never burst into tears. I do not cry in front of others over my pain. I cry for other people's pain but I do not cry over my own, especially not in public. We had just buried Paris. And now we were back in the hospital with my daughter.  I was physically, mentally, and emotionally spent...but I knew, deep down, that Nana would be ok. And she was...I learned that it was ok to break down and cry. Earthquakes do not follow as a consequence. The world does not fall apart. Sometimes it is quite ok to burst into tears.

Fourth Week: The last week of March was my busiest at work. I had 5 tours and I was finishing a course online. Toward the end of the week, I had an interview with a clearly well educated and wealthy parent. I had prided myself in not accepting a child impulsively in our program--but that day, I went against my own protocol.  I did not complete the interview the way I normally do. I did not consult with the teachers in the room who were assessing the child. I accepted the child impulsively. And by the time that interview was done, every fiber of my being knew I had made an absolute wrong decision. I went home angry. Before the night was over, I knew I was angry only at myself. I have learned from the past that impulsive acceptance always had a consequence, and I had made a vow to follow protocol. But because I set the rules, I freely broke them. I learned, once again, that even if you're the one calling the shots, you have to abide by the regulations set in place. Rules are there for our own protection.

What a roller coaster it was for my first month being forty; I realized that even at this age, the things I think I can pride myself over are dependent on the situations going on in my life. I have entered 40 so full of confidence at knowing who I am. In one month's time, I've discovered I am still in the process of getting to know me.  It was a rough month and I am so thankful for God being there, and I am relieved it's over.

And now, April has begun...

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Baby Paris

(I was asked to speak at my 2 ½ year old niece’s Wake. This was what I read for Baby Paris that night.)

I did not plan to stand before you tonight to speak…I know my cousins did not plan to ask me or anyone who spoke to stand tonight before you to speak. But God, in His sovereign wisdom knew that this day, at this moment, we would gather here together to send Paris home.  I want to be transparent with you…I don’t want to stand before you today.  I stand as a broken family member, a confused mother, full of questions, and filled with agony. 

What can I say about Paris?  I can’t reach into my treasure box of memories without chuckling a little.  She was so feisty. She had more spunk, more energy, more life than what was supposed to be humanly possible in that little body.  I don’t think that it was because she wasn’t aware that she was supposed to be frail, supposed to be too sick to be happy---I think Paris just did not care that she was supposed to be too frail or too sick to be happy. She just was.

I remember just a few weeks back visiting the family in the hospital.  We were at the Ronald McDonald home and Night and Chris gave me and Wlad the update.  I was filled with dread. She was in the ICU, so obviously, she was very sick.  I pictured her laying there, fatigued, eyes closed and I dreaded to open her door.  But when we went into that half lit room, she was sitting up, her famous pig tails bouncing around, and she had a bed pan in her hand and she was banging on it like a drum.  She looked up and laughed at us.  I’m sure she was thinking, “What strange, worried faces! Do you guys need this bedpan?”

To Paris, that hospital room was her playpen and she was going to have a good time.

I had many encounters with Paris; I wish I had known to treasure every second of it…My encounters were mostly when she was in the boxing ring of life, swinging her arms at challenges and winning small and big feats.  But my favorite was when Night and the family came over at our house and Night tried to take a picture of me and Paris. I was holding her, of course, and Night would count 1…2…3…cheese! Paris would smile real big at the camera during 1…2…but when it got to 3, she would quickly turn to look at me to see if I were smiling. She did that a couple of times. 1…2…3, are you smiling??  We finally had to click at number 2 because she was just too busy making sure I was doing what I was supposed to do.

I think, for sure, Paris learned to laugh and smile at adversities through her grandmother, her Lola.  One of my earliest memories of her was in the hospital room in Long Island and Auntie Estella was there and I had tried and tried to make her acknowledge me but she wouldn’t. But whenever her Lola picked her up and said, “Hi, Paris,” she would squeal and laugh…and I don’t think she did anything but smile through every difficulty and every hurdle after that.  I think, Auntie, you taught Paris to smile through it all.

And then Paris taught me and tried to teach all of us, to smile through it all.

To fight adversities like a trained boxer,
To face fears without flinching,
To be feisty and look at pain in the eye, turn an object like a bedpan into an instrument, and laugh.

It’s partly genetics, really. Last night, I watched my cousin Nightingale comfort many who wept in her arms. I watched Chris walk with people up to Paris and be their support and strength. And amidst the muffled cries, I heard the sound of laughter from my cousin, Night, and I thought, there it is. There is Paris. That baffling laughter amidst all the pain. She will always be with us.

I say the strength in Paris was partly genetics, but all God.

After the Lord came into that hospital room to call Paris home, to end her fight, to give her rest—after what felt like forever of brutal agony, my cousin Nightingale managed to pull herself together, step out of that room for a moment to call everyone to let them know that Paris was no longer with us.

I was in that hallway with her and I had been given strict instructions by a hospital staff to be strong for the mom. So, I put on a strong front. But deep down, I kept asking God,  “Where are you? Where are you?”

And Nightingale, trembling in agony and anger, overcome with sorrow, her face drenched in tears, looked at me and  said, “I have peace.”

And I knew, I knew then where God was. He was right there in our midst.

Chris and Night, I can’t pretend to know the measure of your pain but in your pain, in your sorrow, Jesus is there.

And in those moments, because those moments are going to be many, when you feel that excruciating pain of loss,  know that the Prince of Peace is with you and remember Paris and her smile...and if you can, find a bedpan,  bang on it and keep on marching.

That’s what Paris would do.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Bag Lady

I have become the bag lady.  Not the kind that collects bags--although I admit that's a weakness that needs a soft intervention--but a bag lady associated with long coats, drooping hats, mismatched socks, and a smeared red lipstick.

You know the kind. The crazy ones.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror this past Sunday, as I frantically made my way to meet a post graduate student I needed to supervise and I had to stop and glare at my reflection.  I was wrapped in a black, floor length wool coat, the belt clumsily tied across my waist, a hand knitted scarf wrapped 3 times around my neck.  You couldn't see my hair because it was covered under a drooping newsboy hat, my eyes hidden behind dark rimmed glasses.  I think my head tilted a bit and I examined myself for a quick second.

A nutty professor.  I looked like a nutty professor.

I had turned 40 the day before.

I think what disturbed me the most was the psychotic giggle that escaped my lips. For that split second I felt like I was at a crossroad.  I mean, I was 40 now.  I had always held intelligence over beauty on a pedestal and here I was, middle aged, looking like a scattered nut.  My hair under the hat was in absolute disarray, knotted and frizzy.  My eyebrows were growing in 5 different directions.  And as always, the corner of my lower lip was peeling.  I was the visual antonym of my student who was young, with piercing blue eyes and long, shiny luscious hair.  But she clung onto my every word because I was the expert across the table.  She was brilliant herself but clearly, she found me a genius. How could you not?  I looked like a lunatic, and aren't all geniuses teetering on the side of insanity?  I thought, I like this...this feels right. And I felt a little emotional at the possibility of joining a small army of eccentric bag ladies, the kind that students look up to but crack jokes about.  The very thought of students cracking jokes about me was disturbingly appealing.

But then a few days later I went to visit a school I supervise.  I cloaked myself in the same fashionable hysteria and the lack of acknowledgment bothered me. I sat there, looking at these young teachers who did not seem moved or startled by how knotted my hair was and how dry my lips were.  They were clearly accustomed to my clumsy appearance. But they are equally used to hearing me come up with ideas that don't work and my level of genius does not impress them. I drove away from that school ruminating on beauty and womanhood and being 40. And then I thought of what Audrey Hepburn once said: "The only beauty that doesn't fade is elegance."

And so I faced my crossroad at that moment as I drove through Coney Island in Brooklyn.  I can be a brilliant nut like a handful of my professors in college who did not care to bathe or change their clothes. Or, I can be a Diane Sawyer, who clearly does not trade elegance in exchange for smarts.

The next day I woke up slightly earlier to iron out my hair and to pluck my eyebrows.  I don't have to go downhill just because my age is going uphill, I decided.  I will maintain a level of poise and beauty, along with some level of expertise that come with education and with age.

But today I woke up and looked at my reflection in the mirror. Hair in disarray and lips hopelessly dehydrated.  I realized that a bit of toothpaste had dropped on my black shirt.  I got to school and one of the teachers, tall and pretty and young and perfectly put together, went to my office with a wet paper towel in her hand.

I'll clean your shirt for you, Ms. Anna Marie.

I looked down at my shirt then looked up. Nah...who cares?

I could tell she did not know how to react. She chuckled a little then walked away.  I smiled after her, a psychotic giggle escaping my lips.

So much for that crossroad.  Hello, Bag Lady.