Bobbing Along

A Lifetime of Stories: collected, painted, shared.

A Bit of History, A Bit of Mystery

How I loved my mother‘s stories. They weren’t the usual fairy tales and fables. These were stories based on actual events with actual people, stories about her family, whom she referred to as “my people”. These hardy souls, who emigrated from England to Newfoundland in the mid-1800s, were her beloved aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins. In spite of the many miles between them, their familial connection always remained strong.

My mother’s “people”. Photo taken in Carbonear, Newfoundland, 1913. Back row from left: Uncle Frank Hollands, Uncle Jack Hollands, Grandmother Emily Burles Hollands with Cousin Winifred Rusted, Grandfather Charles William Hollands with Cousin Nigel Rusted. Front row from left: Aunt Winifred Rusted, Uncle Ernest Rusted, Aunt Faith Hollands holding Cousin Sybil Rusted, Uncle Harry Hollands.

We sat spellbound, my siblings and I, hanging on to her every word. As children we considered this a ghost story and as such we later shared the tale with our own children. Rest assured, what is written here is true. The characters are real. The setting is real. The history is real. This is the story of one John Rupert Weigall Hollands, my Great-uncle Jack.

Jack taught school at Coombs Cove and Bishops Cove. At Coombs Cove he made friends with Arthur and Phil Jensen of Harbour Breton. In July, 1914, the three travelled to Montreal. I am not sure of their plans [but] World War I broke out on their arrival and Phil and Jack decided to enlist. There was some delay due to the army not being ready for recruits and Arthur told me he was amused over what the two would say to the official [about] the delay. (Jack was 6′ and Phil was 6’2″ or 4″). [Eventually] they joined the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, and were the first to go overseas in September 1914″.

So wrote my mother’s cousin, Dr. Nigel Rusted, as part of an address he gave years ago to the Newfoundland and Labrador Genealogical Society. At the time of enlistment, Jack, born on June 7, 1892, would have been twenty-two years old. His friend Phil, born in 1888, was twenty-six. The recruits were eventually dispatched to what became the Canadian Forces Base in Valcartier, Quebec, which, in August 1914, had hastily been erected for military training. Great-uncle Jack sent postcards to his sister, my grandmother, who was studying nursing in New York City. She too would answer the call during this war, serving as a nurse in France.

Front of card showing troops in training in Valcartier. I am still trying to identify Jack.
September 18, 1914, message to my grandmother, damaged from scrapbook glue
Front of second card
September 21, 1914, his note announces he is soon to be deployed.

Jack wrote on the above postcard that his deployment was imminent. Four days later, on September 25, 1914, they embarked on the long journey by sea to England. Once there, he and Phil, as part of the 13th Battalion Canadian Infantry (the Royal Highlanders of Canada), spent more months in training. It was not yet time for them to join the war. Cousin Nigel continues:

A letter [written by Phil] from England on February 5, 1915 , said that [they] would be sent to France at any minute and mail would be forwarded. He listed the articles they carried on a march, weighing about eighty pounds: rifle weighing 10 lbs., 150 rounds of ammunition, field glasses, trenching tools weighing 3 lbs., bayonet, water bottle, haversack, grub, great coat, fatigue pants, one shirt, helmet, two towels and soap, pair boots weighing over 3 lbs., mess tin, rubber sheet, oil coat.

In February, 1915, the battalion landed on the coast of Brittany. By April they had headed north into Belgium, taking up position in the Ypres Salient. The Second Battle of Ypres, one of the most lethal battles in the war, was about to begin. On April 22, while attacking an area to the left of Jack’s battalion, the German army used chlorine gas for the first time. The Allies were entirely unprepared for this and the result was devastating. They held their position, at least for that night.

Phil and Jack were relieved for rest and clean up. [They] had a shower and went to bunk. [Around midnight] Jack awoke Phil to say that “he would get it tomorrow” and wanted him to promise to visit his uncle [George Hollands] in London and to take some knickknacks back to his mother [in Newfoundland]. Phil told him, “You had a nightmare” but Jack insisted. He said that his late fiancé, Stella, who had died [around Christmas, 1913,] from tuberculosis, had visited him during the night. “She said”, replied Jack, “I will see you tomorrow.”

Early on the following morning, April 23, 1915, the two friends were among those called out as reinforcements. There were too many men for the small French trenches, so Jack joined others behind the trench, hunkering down in a hole left by the previous day’s shelling. At 8 am an enemy shell found its way to that site.

According to a letter from the officer commanding (OC 13th Bn), Pvt. Hollands was “killed in action by a shell exploding in a dug-out of which he was an occupant. It was impossible for us to bury him owing to the heavy operation at that time.

It is said that Great-uncle Jack was the first Newfoundlander to be killed in action during that war.

At the end of the war, Phil returned to Newfoundland. He brought with him this story and those knickknacks Jack had entrusted to his care. He later became a minister and moved to the United States, serving as rector of St. Thomas Parish (St. Thomas Episcopal Church) near Baltimore, Md. His son, Dr. Philip J. Jensen, Jr., was a physician who taught pediatrics (serving as Head of Outpatient Pediatrics) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine during the time my husband studied there. Small world, is it not?

To learn more about the contributions of Newfoundlanders during World War I, I suggest the following links:

https://www.therooms.ca/sites/default/files/sommecanadiansaahollands26404.pdf

http://www.canadiangreatwarproject.com/writing/13th.htm

Two Uncles, One Apple, The Internet, and Me


What keeps me occupied during times of Crisis? Chaos? Covid? Once I finally crawl out of bed, I head to my studio and busy myself with projects I have ignored for a very long time. Throughout the earlier months of Covid, I spent all day every day working on art. Having uninterrupted days to create was a godsend. I have waited my entire life to do that.

At this moment, however, I’m concentrating on bits and pieces of family history. I’m trying to document more than the ‘who married whom and when and how many children were born of that union’. I have some stories that are treasures and I feel compelled to preserve them. Physical papers, letters, and certificates as well as photographs won’t last forever. If one great-great-grand-something ever becomes interested in what I manage to save, the hours at my computer will be well spent. So, thank you, Crisis, Chaos, Covid, (also Cancer who certainly opened my eyes and kicked my butt into action), I am on it!

The work is slow-going because, it would appear, everything I do goes slowly, but, hey! I am having a great time with this! Yesterday, my goal (still unfulfilled) was to write one specific, fascinating story about my Great-uncle Jack. As I began to peruse the collection of letters and postcards lovingly saved for well over a century, I also poked around on The Internet to clarify some details. And that is where my path went awry. Why? Because I LOVE The Internet. With the assistance of The Internet I discovered something that my Great-uncle Harry might have found a bit embarrassing. Of course, there’s also a chance he didn’t and we’ll never know for sure because, well, it all happened a very long time ago.

“Wait!” you ask. “I thought you were writing about your Great-uncle Jack! Who in the hell is Great-uncle Harry?” Good question. I didn’t know I had a Great-uncle Harry.

Thanks to a few of those lovingly-kept letters, I learned that Great-uncle Harry was Great-uncle Jack’s youngest brother. Born November 15, 1898, in Newfoundland, long before Newfoundland was part of Canada (which The Internet says didn’t happen until 1949, by the way), his full name was Henry Martyn Hollands. He was the youngest of nine children. One of his four older sisters was Emily Agnes Hollands Kirk, my maternal grandmother.

Henry, rather, Harry, was only eighteen in March of 1916 when he enlisted in the Royal Newfoundlanders, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. This, of course, is during World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars. He was following the footsteps of Agnes, my grandmother, who was heading overseas where she served as a nurse on the front lines at the French Military Hospital V.R. 76. Her stories may be found here.

He was also following the footsteps of his brother, my Great-uncle Jack. Yes. That Jack. Jack had enlisted into the Royal Highlanders of Canada. His story of service is the next one to write but it is important to know that he died in the trenches of the Battle of Ypres, Belgium, on April 23, 1915.

If we follow the math (fingers and toes), Uncle Harry chose to enlist less than a year after his brother had perished in that same war. That takes a special kind of courage, does it not? And let me be clear: that apple, the ‘courage‘ apple, is not my apple. That apple fell pretty far from my particular tree. I cannot fathom what amount of courage it took to make such a significant decision, especially given the loss the family had already endured.

Perhaps now one can understand why my focus shifted. Suddenly I had to learn all that I could about Great-uncle Harry. Surely his was a story worthy of a few words.

The Internet and I got busy.

With some sleuthing, I realized I already had a couple of photographs of Great-uncle Harry. In this one, he was mis-identified by someone in the family as Great-uncle Jack. But here he is, Harry, standing in military uniform beside my seated grandmother, his older sister Agnes in her wartime uniform.

Thanks again to The Internet, I was able to access Harry’s military records, stored online by The Rooms, a museum in St. Johns, Newfoundland, dedicated to the culture and history of the area. I truly had no idea how complete one’s military record could be. It is here that I found his enlistment papers and discovered his military “number” used throughout his time of service. He was not only Henry M. Hollands but he was also #2239.

His military record was fairly unremarkable, I suppose. Once deployed to England, he was assigned to the British Expeditionary Forces but there is no particular mention of his assignments there. I did learn that during his three year commitment he was hospitalized twice, once for scabies (two weeks) and another time for a shrapnel wound to his nose (three months).

He sent fifty cents of his daily pay to his mother, a tidbit I know because there are many documented messages back and forth through the payroll office. I know that after the war ended, he continued to serve for another few months but was granted compassionate leave after his father had died suddenly in May of 1918, leaving behind his mother who was “of advanced age”. (She was sixty.)

Amidst all the military this-and-that, I was stunned to see a document with very familiar handwriting. I had just recently posted a story here with letters written years later, letters with rather distinctive handwriting. Those letters, and the one I found amongst Great-uncle Harry’s military records were written by Emily Agnes Hollands Kirk. Yes! My Grandmother! Great-uncle Harry’s sister!

Puzzled about their inclusion in these archives, I immediately took a closer look and then broke out into hysterics. As you read the letter below, keep foremost in mind that it was written in the midst of the war. There were thousands of uniformed men all over Europe. They were fighting brutal battles. Think our lives during Covid are chaotic now? I can’t even imagine the pandemonium then. And the ability to keep in touch regularly? Communication was marginal in the best of times, let alone during a world war. Still, his sister clearly had expectations for timely updates…

In spite of all the disruption of a war, the reply to her letter was sent the very next day…

And there you have it. Anyone reading this blog will now know that my great-uncle’s big sister was pretty annoyed that her baby brother hadn’t written to her so she worried herself into a tizzy until she took action and very possibly embarrassed the uniform off him. And THAT APPLE? That’s MY APPLE. Tripping over myself to locate someone I deem “missing” is something I have done over and over and over again—like when my first-born traveled to Italy and didn’t call when I, the untraveled, thought he should have arrived at his destination. Or when my sister moved to Mexico just in time for that big earthquake which took out all possibility of communication (talk about anxiety!). Or like every time one of my children drove anywhere and, you got it, forgot to call me when they arrived wherever they were headed. I won’t tell you what I did or exactly how I might have embarrassed them but, yes, embarrass them I did. That particular apple has created mortification to siblings and children everywhere. Just ask mine. No. Come to think of it, don’t. Just don’t. Please.

Now…about Jack

P.S. For the complete collection of Great-uncle Harry’s military records, follow this link:

https://www.therooms.ca/sites/default/files/hollands_henry_2239.pdf

Apples and Other Things: Memories of Maeve

Sometimes, some people are just too extraordinary for this world to sustain. Sometimes, perhaps, their light, their glory, shines too brightly and simply cannot be contained. Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean was one of those. To lose her and her son Gideon is a tragedy beyond belief. It isn’t fair. It defies logic. It defies reason. And losing those we love, like Maeve and Gideon, hurts us to the deepest parts of our beings. In spite of our sorrow, however, we know that Maeve, being the force that she was, would rather us remember her with the effervescent joy that she shared. I thank the good Lord that she shared it with me.

For many of us, the earliest memory of Maeve would be of Maeve bursting. Bursting into a home. Bursting into a meeting. Bursting toward you with long, lean, outstretched arms and a lightbulb of a smile. She burst into our lives and immediately burst into our hearts. With her irrepressible smile and uncontainable energy, she managed to elevate the atmosphere of any gathering, large or small. She was Maeve. The mere mentioning of her name to anyone who also had the good fortune of knowing her would bring a smile and a nodding head, instant acknowledgment of her magnetic personality. Maeve the Magical.

The first time I met Maeve was a bit different. She and my daughter Erin, having become great friends during college, were driving home together for one college break or another. Maeve arrived at our home to deliver Erin before heading further down the highway to her home in Baltimore, about an hour away. It was late. It was dark. It was winter. The drive from Boston had been long and Maeve was feeling just a bit under the weather. That meant two things: one, there was little of her typical bursting and, two, the mom in me insisted she rest at our home for the night. After alerting her parents, she tumbled right into bed.

She awoke the next day feeling better. Upon hearing that she was hungry, my husband Dave and I went into high gear with breakfast planning. 

“Bacon? Eggs? Pancakes? French Toast? Fried eggs? Scrambled eggs? English muffins! Oh, did I mention eggs? Oatmeal? What sounds good to you, Maeve?”

“Umm…Do you have any fruit? Maybe a banana? Or an apple?”

Thus, began what I believe may be a slightly unique connection in our friendship with Maeve.

She loved fruit. All kinds of fruit, the fresher the better. From that point forward, if I knew Maeve was coming to our house, I made certain I had a large bowl of assorted fresh fruit. And when she left, I also made sure she took a hefty helping of the fruit with her, along with, maybe, some home baked cookies. Maybe.

Erin and Maeve continued to build on their friendship and generously brought us into their happy world whenever possible. Even over summers, she and Maeve spent as much time together as their various internships would allow. Maeve spent time with us, cheerfully fitting in with any plans we may have already made. Pool party? Yes. Birthdays? Oh, yes! Trips to Farmers Markets? Absolutely yes!

Our local Farmers Market was a particular favorite. While visiting us for one weekend, Maeve joined Erin and me on a jaunt to the local market. There, we each took advantage of the stunning array of fresh fruit and vegetables. Maeve was enchanted with all of it and enthusiastically (was there anything she didn’t do enthusiastically?) bought quite a bagful of fruit: plums, strawberries, nectarines and, probably, an apple or two. As we rode home in Erin’s little car, Maeve munched happily away, excited to take the rest of her fruit with her when she returned home later that day.

Not long after, Erin returned to Boston, leaving her car in our driveway. There it sat for the rest of the summer, through sunshine and rain, humidity and heat. As autumn arrived, I decided I should drive it for a bit, just to make sure the car was still in running order. 

In I hopped. After slowly pulling out of the driveway, I began to smell something odd. I rolled down the window thinking (hoping?) the smell came from outside. It did not. The smell continued to gradually increase. Could there be something inside the car? I wasn’t sure until I came to a sudden stop. It was then that I heard an alarming slurrrsh followed by an overwhelmingly foul odor. I pulled over to investigate. There, under the front passenger seat, I found what was left of Maeve’s bag of Farmers Market fruit, nicely liquified. Obviously, the fruit had never made it down the road to Baltimore on that summer’s day. Maeve is unforgettable for many reasons, but this memory is likely to be uniquely ours.

A few years later, I was asked to prepare the centerpieces for Maeve and Dave’s wedding. “Nothing fussy” I was told. “Just something simple and kinda functional, like fruit or something. Green, too. I like green.” 

I was delighted and began busily testing ideas and sending photos of prototypes to them. One idea after another was rejected, always politely, always patiently, and always with the caveat, “Just keep it simple. Like maybe, I don’t know, like maybe apples. Green apples.” Eventually, I got the message. Apples. Lots and lots of green apples. Green apples everywhere. She did allow me to throw some votives and such around the tables too, but in the end, apples perfectly fit the day, the bride, and the party.

Maeve and Dave became members of our family. We shared some holidays, even a Christmas here or there. We delighted in the birth of each of their children although it was Gideon whom we knew best. As the years went by, between raising three children of their own and being engaged in dynamic careers, we didn’t get to see them as often as we would have liked. We knew Gideon to be a miniature mixture of both his parents. We had no doubt that the future held great promise for him and, he for the future. We looked forward to the day when life settled down just a little and we could once again be together. We looked forward to that day when once again, Maeve, carrying on her hip whichever child needed her, came bursting into our home.

The last time I saw Maeve, David, and the children was at the Memorial Celebration for her grandfather. We had been thrilled to be invited and hoped to see each of them for a little bit after the program. There were a lot of people who evidently felt the same way, as many who sat like us in the audience wormed their way toward the family members who had been seated along the sides. It was crowded but we were determined. It had been far too long since we had seen this very special family. With my Dave trailing along behind me as best he could, I made the proverbial bee line toward the area where I had last spotted Maeve.  Alas, she was no longer there. Disappointed, I turned to Dave who agreed that we should probably leave.

Suddenly, a brilliant, energy-charged voice burst through the chaos. And there she was, grinning, laughing, eyes twinkling and arms outstretched toward us. May I just tell you how powerful her hugs were? Had I known what was to come, I would have never, ever let go.

We love you, Maeve. We love you, Gideon. We love you Dave and Gabriella and Toby. If there can be any consolation in all of this tragedy it is perhaps that they are travelling though time and space together. The world is darker, true. The Universe has diminished in ways we will feel for the rest of our lives. We will go forward but not without a permanently deep and abiding sense of loss. 

It is always said that each day should be treasured as the gift that it is. Maeve did just that. She lived that. She treasured every person, every apple, every moment, every day. And perhaps that is the lesson she was put here to teach us. It is now our lesson to live. 

Maeve, Gideon, you are both so loved. Your lights will continue to shine in our hearts. Forever. 

Love,

“Bob”

Monopoly: Loving and Losing during the Pandemic

Monopoly. The very word conjures up some of the best parts of my childhood. I immediately travel back in time where I once again hear the voices of my family, my West Virginia family, gathering at the Lost Creek home of my grandmother, my Mommom. I smell chicken frying and home-canned beans simmering. I taste peppery gravy on the tip of my finger having just dipped it into the pan. I feel a swat on my bottom when I am caught reaching into the pot for one more taste.

Shooed out of the kitchen, I head toward the basement where the other kids have disappeared. Carefully I navigate the old, bare wooden stairs in an effort to avoid tumbling downward, one of my less fortunate talents. The room is warmed by a crackling fire. The fire eases the damp and brightens the area where my three youngest siblings–the triplets–are squabbling. My other brother is off on his own, in another area, quietly trying to avoid all the confusion.

Kenny, Janice Lee, Pam: Summer 1949, pre-Cindy

I look for my older sister and my cousin. He is my favorite cousin, mostly because he is also my sister’s favorite cousin. Only a month separates them in age and they have essentially grown up as separated twins. There they are. I spot them in the back area of the basement which holds the small kitchen where my grandmother does her canning every summer. They are setting up a board game on the small red table. Ah. Monopoly.

Let’s not assume here that I had any skills playing Monopoly. Nor did I have a particular fondness for the game no matter how well or poorly I may have played. For me, it was all about being included in a very small group, the small, exclusive group of the big kids. If my begging to join the game failed, I would be left with my younger siblings for company, which, in my mind, meant babysitting, something I did far too often on any regular day.

On the other hand, if begging succeeded, I somehow felt I had become older, more sophisticated, even wiser. (My inner voice has always erred a bit on the side of fantasy.) Nonetheless, if I were to be included, it usually came at Kenny’s instruction. So yes, there’s that reason for my fondness, too.

“Sure, Pam,” he’d say to my sister, with his lopsided, dimpled grin and his twinkling eyes. “She won’t be in the game for long, anyway.” This was true. I was always the first one out, unless his older sister, my cousin Janice, played. She usually was getting beat almost as badly as I, so returning to help in the kitchen, with the real grown-ups, suited her just fine. For me, what made the game special was being accepted, being included and also not being condemned to playing with the little kids.

As years went by, the Monopoly board gradually gathered dust. We grew up, moved away, started careers and families. Our gatherings as extended family eventually became limited to funerals or weddings. The last time I saw Kenny was two years ago when we gathered to celebrate the life of my father who had passed away a few months before.

Kenny had not changed a bit. Though his hair was pretty long (a nod to having missed the 70’s hippie style perhaps, due to his time in the military) his eyes still twinkled and his smile was still crooked, punctuated with deep dimples. He still had his devilishly sly sense of humor. He was still fun.

June 2018, Kenny flanked by my sister-in-law, Danette, and my niece, Cassie

We had time to talk, just the two of us and as we did, he gave me a gift that I will remember forever. You see, my older sister had died many years before. She was about to be married when tragedy struck. Kenny was in Germany at the time, serving in the Army, and was unable to return for her funeral. Consumed at the time with my own pain, I failed to think of how the loss must have affected him and how difficult it had to have been for him, mourning alone in a country far away. In all the years after, he and I had never discussed her death.

This time was different. And it was he who brought the subject up.

“I don’t know if you know this, Cindy, but Pam wrote to me while I was in the Army. She wrote me many times but I especially remember her last letter. She wrote in that letter how happy she was to be getting married, to be moving to San Francisco. She told me how much she loved the guy she was to marry. She was so very, very happy.”

I had not known about the letters. It was just like Pam to take the time to write. The connection and devotion they shared continued to the very end.

My heart was overwhelmed. I had never doubted her happiness but it was comforting to be reminded that she was at the peak of happiness when she died. More importantly, his words reminded me that he was one who had known her as long and as well as I. In sharing his story, I learned something new about someone who had been gone for fifty years. He gave me a piece of my sister, a gift beyond gifts. I thanked him. I can only hope that I thanked him sufficiently.

Two weeks ago, Kenny passed away. He had had heart issues for a very long time but his passing was still sudden and unexpected. With the ongoing Coronavirus restrictions, we were unable to join his family to mourn and celebrate him. We were not able to share our hugs nor our stories. One can never truly appreciate the strength that can be found in numbers until one has to mourn alone.

The Covid 19-Coronavirus has impacted not only one town, nor only one nation. It has impacted the entire world. Daily life has been forced to change. Being separated from family is the hardest to bear. I long to hold my grandchildren and cannot wait to be able to do that again. In the meantime, we do what we can do and the internet is a godsend. In the evenings I read to one of my grandsons. He loves “chapter” books though he is not yet able to read them himself. It delights me to spend part of every evening reading to him. Long distance. Via FaceTime. On a device no less, one of those things that his parents kept calling a no-no! HA!

On some afternoons, I play online with a couple of my “older” grandkids. The game? Monopoly. Of course!

With each and every game, I remember Kenny. In this small way I like to feel I am honoring him and all he meant to me. The game takes me back to a place of greater innocence. It reminds me of two people I dearly loved and now have lost. I will always remember Kenny. I will always remember his smile. I will always remember his ability to wallop my butt. I will remember him for many reasons and playing Monopoly becomes a tangible source of joy as I share the game with my grandchildren.

By the way, the Peanut, the grandchild whose text message I show above, was walloped in a game of Monopoly the other day. By me. I didn’t mean to. It was a matter of luck, mostly their bad luck. Still, it was the first time I have ever won a game. Ever. Like in seventy years ever. I’m not sure I will be forgiven any time soon.

When I am not walloping one grandchild in an online game or reading a book to another, I am calling the others, enjoying video chatting, video teasing, and video kisses. A new norm. It will have to do.

Life, with all its ups and downs, deserves to be celebrated. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, it needs to be that. It is up to us to celebrate those we love, those we lose, those we simply miss. It is up to us to celebrate all who remain. It is up to us to make each and every day count, now like never before. Be well, my friends. Be safe, my loves. Be happy. In spite of this pandemic, make every day count.

The Best Short Story I Have Ever Read in My Life. And I Mean EVER.

The title says it all: this is the best short story I have ever read. Granted, it features me as one of the main characters. And granted, it was written by my young grandson, the Chickadee. Before I share (dare I say “publish”?) his story I must acknowledge that he also illustrated it. Fine work all around. If you are a new reader of this blog, you may have questions about the veracity of the story. His classroom teacher certainly did. Fortunately his parents confirmed every detail when queried at their parent/teacher conference. They had to stop giggling first, but confirm it they did. So, yes. A short-but-true-story by The Chickadee. Enjoy.

True story that happened to my grandma. She was a Pirate.

This is her in a fight with another pirate.


She got a scar in her belly from the fight.


But now she is a grandmother and this is me.

The End

Portrait of the Author, with a chocolate mustache, reading beside his grandmother, the pirate.








Moving on…

Well, hello again! As usual, too many months have passed since my previous post. Consistency is not something I do well. I do try. Truly. Or, at least, I try to try.

But, moving on…

Chemo is done. It wasn’t horrible, for which I am overwhelmingly grateful. One could call it beginner’s luck, I suppose. I prefer to call it just luck. “Beginner” be damned! I’d rather not even consider having to do it all over again. And maybe I won’t have to! Look at me being positive!

When staring at the bottle of 112 pills at the beginning of each chemotherapy cycle, I must admit to having moments of oh-shit-will-this-never-end? I also became a bit curious about this whole pharmacological process. I mean, I was consuming a lot of pills. In addition to the standard old-folks’ collection (statins, blood pressure, probiotics, vitamins, sleep aids, the occasional Tylenol as well as the cherished anti-anxiety med), I was also consuming two anti-coagulants, one anti-nausea, and eight huge chemo pills daily. My phone became my charge nurse; its alarm app kept me on a timely swallowing schedule.

At one point I began to wonder how in the bloody hell these pills know where to go once they cascade their way into my stomach. Is there some reason, other than identification, for the various shapes, sizes, and colors? I mean, is our pharmaceutical industry that, uh, good that medications are coded by color, size, and shape so the body can sort them? Do the pink oval pills go here while the white square pills go there? Do the orange and red pills head straight to the knees while the teeny brown pills find their way to the sinuses? Perhaps, somewhere inside our bodies there is an undetectable sorter, like this:

Wouldn’t that be fascinating discovery! I must say the very thought amused me. Probably amuses only me. I am rather easily amused. Apparently.

Anyway, moving on…

Throughout the six month run of chemo, the most debilitating side effect I experienced was fatigue. If it were possible to italicize that word at an even greater a n g l e I would surely do just that. The fatigue, when it hit, was bone crushing. It was akin to being encased in cement. I learned quickly not to argue with my body. When it said “SLEEP”, I slept.

It was on one such morning that I shuffled out of bed just long enough to pee. After sleeping for two additional hours, I dragged myself again to the bathroom to brush my teeth and get a shower. Those two activities wiped me out and as I dressed back into my jammies, my most urgent thought was get back into that bed. NOW.

As I continue with this narrative, keep two details in mind. One, there is a door between the dressing room and the bedroom. Two, that door was on my left. Ok, make it three details and this one might be the most important: the left side is my blind side.

As soon as my clothes were on my body, I swiftly turned toward the doorway, slamming the side of my headBAM!—into the door.

The impact caused the door and me to rebound back into each other—THWACK!—with the door’s edge meeting my face squarely down the middle—forehead, nose, chin and all.

Worrying about the effect the anti-coagulant meds might have on such a collision, I staggered right back into the bathroom to check for bruises, blood or similar damage.

Nothing. Not one dent. Not one bruise. Not one drop of blood.

Now, if you have not seen the movie “Sing!”, I suggest you stream it someday soon. To begin with, it has a lovely, family-friendly story. And it has some amazingly lively characters, like my personal favorite, the iguana, Miss Crawly:

Do you see where I’m heading here?

Yes, as I stared into the mirror that morning, it was Miss Crawly who stared back at me. Miss Crawly, minus the lipstick.

The collision had caused my prosthetic eye to spin around in its socket, resulting in that winning wonky-eyed-look just like Miss Crawly. If ever I needed a laugh, I needed it that morning. And my spinning plastic eyeball, having repositioned itself to point in the opposite direction, rose to the occasion. I must admit I can be my own best source of amusement. If I have to have a fake eye, I might as well enjoy it, right? My only regret that morning was that I was too damn tired to retrieve my phone for a selfie. Now that would have been an image worth posting.

And so, on I go. Enough of cancer stories. Enough of eyeball stories. On to other things, at least for now.

It is time for moving on…with goals, with stories, with laughter, with life.

Two Surprises, One Silver Lining

Assuming you have read my previous posts about the uveal melanoma diagnosed in mid-2006 (and if you have not, begin here and continue here and here), then you may be wondering why I have chosen now to finally write about it. I mean, I’m slow with my posts but twelve and a half years?

Okay. I admit it. Taking twelve years to write about something that significant awesome may not be so unusual for me. I adapted to the eye and moved on. The only part of the experience stubbornly kept alive is being a one-eyed Pirate which is just too much fun for this grandmother. The eye never slowed me down. It has become just another point of fascination for the grandkids. Simply put, it added to my panache.

In truth, my melanoma was considered to be an aggressive form of the disease (a monosomy 3, whatever the hell that means). I kinda figured something would happen eventually but until it did, I was moving forward. Once a year, I would visit the ocular oncologist who had diagnosed it. Once a year, I underwent an abdominal MRI to rule out metastases. For twelve years, each MRI had been clean. In September 2018, that ended. With a thud. The newest MRI showed a spot on my liver.

After all this time, could my time be up? I was well aware that the primary site for a melanoma to metastasize is the liver. Fortunately, we knew where to go: back to Philly, this time to the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. There we met with a treatment team that specializes in Metastatic Uveal Melanoma cases and is diligently conducting clinical trials to find effective cures for the disease. Everyone—including Dear Dave and me—assumed that was what this spot was: a metastasis. After all, what else could it be?

The prognosis was not looking particularly positive. The tumor was in a very bad location, wedged too closely to some major blood vessels. Removing the tumor was deemed unlikely, no frankly, impossible. My options seemed to be a clinical trial or radiation, both palliative but not curative. Before we selected an option, we had to confirm via biopsy that this was what we knew it was.

But—surprise of surprises—it wasn’t. It wasn’t that at all.

After two biopsies, we were floored to learn that this was not a metastasis of the previous melanoma. It was a brand new, equally rare, primary liver tumor: a cholangiocarcinoma. Uh. Oh. Now what?

Suddenly, we found ourselves adrift. Out to sea. Cast away, as it were. The treatment team in Philly, as extraordinary and as wonderful as they are, was not the right place for us after all. And this tumor with the new name? It was still in a terrible location and it was still a nasty cancer to have.

Three weeks later, after many hours logged onto our computers, after a number of inquiries by phone, and after many conversations with professionals and friends whose wisdom and guidance we can never repay, we headed to New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. And there we found the answer to our prayers.

We met with Dr. William Jarnagin, Chief of the Hepatopancreatobiliary Service (try saying that three times quickly. Actually, try saying that once!). It was Dr. Jarnagin who gave us the second surprise of this saga: he was confident the tumor was removable after all.

Two weeks later, I walked into the operating suite. Yes, in my hospital gown, open in the back, butt flying in the breeze, I walked myself down the hall. No, it’s not at all the way tv and movies depict it. There was no lying on a gurney, family gathered clutching my hand, sobbing and blubbering. None of that. Thank God.

Almost four hours later, the tumor, along with half of my liver, was removed by Dr. Jarnagin and his team, including this Surgical Oncology Fellow, Dr. Jash Datta, whose steady, gifted hands sliced that sucker right out of my body. Gifted doesn’t begin to adequately describe his skills as a surgeon. Add to that his devilish sense of humor and his compassionate care, his future as a physician is brilliant.


I started down this path feeling absolutely fine. I had no symptoms, not an inkling that anything was amiss. With the melanoma, I knew my vision was compromised and because of that, I sought help. With the cholangiocarcinoma, I knew nothing. Were it not for my annual MRI, I would still be without a hint of a problem. Once the cancer began to affect me, it would have been quite advanced and this story would be very different. The eye—or the melanoma of the eye—proved to be one gigantic silver lining. And that, my friends, is something I would never have imagined saying.

I am grateful beyond words for the care I have received both in Philadelphia and in New York. Everyone—and I mean everyone—with whom I came in contact was so kind, concerned, and patient, and so damn good at what they did! From the receptionists to the custodians, from the surgeons to the aides, my experience was truly remarkable. There are many more parts to this story which will be shared eventually. For now, I am concentrating on my recovery, my art, and, as you can tell, my writing.

I am currently undergoing chemotherapy, which to date, is going pretty well. I feel strong and I am determined to live my life as I did before, making the most of every day. I was blessed to have the prayers of many, many people. I am extraordinarily grateful for Dear Dave who has been at my side, taking such good care of me, steadfast in his support. Without question, however, I must be grateful for that melanoma which required the MRI in the first place.

Crazy. This life is just crazy but I’ll take it—silver linings, surprises, and all.


The Back Story: On Becoming a Pirate

If you have read my previous posts, (here and here), and were a bit mystified by them, it is important first to understand how I became a Pirate. Yes, there might be more pressing questions you’d like answered, but becoming a Pirate is the start of it all. Or, almost the start. Maybe the result of the start. Follow along patiently, please. It’s been quite an adventure.

In 2005, I noticed that I was missing a small circular area of vision in one eye. At that time, this spot of gray in the midst of my vision didn’t affect me other than making me feel like my glasses were smudged and I hate having smudged glasses. Nonetheless I realized that I should probably have it checked.

Off I went to my optometrist who could see that there was a “freckle” located on my retina. She was concerned enough to immediately pass me over to a retinal specialist in our area. As the freckle continued to grow, he passed me over to another specialist in the Well-Known-Big-City-Eye-Clinic just south of us who got the diagnosis wrong. Yeah. It happens.

Eventually, in 2006, I made my way to Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia where the lesion was diagnosed as a melanoma. Specifically, an Uveal Melanoma. Inside the eye. On the retina. Obviously the one location that sunscreen cannot reach. To be honest, this very rare eye tumor has nothing to do with sun exposure. It has mostly to do with pure dumb luck.

In an effort to shorten this part of my narrative, suffice it to say that the tumor was irradiated but the eye itself later developed some interior hemorrhaging and in 2008, it had to be removed. That was the second most significant event of that year. The First Most Significant Event of 2008 was this little guy:

This is my first grandchild. This is the Rooster, as he is called for blogging purposes. (Actually I used to call him that all the time until the day I was walking him to his bus stop and he quietly asked that I not use this nickname in front of his friends. Also, he asked that I not give him kisses before he boarded the bus. The nerve, right?)

As you can see in that photo, I had become a Pirate around the time of his birth. And a Pirate I have doggedly remained—for all of the grandchildren. All six of them. After all, how many children have a grandmother who is a pirate? I once asked the now five-year-old Chickadee if any of his friends had a grandparent who’s a pirate. His initial response was, “No…” Then he added, “Actually, Mommom, I’ve never asked my friends that question.”

The grandkids may be slightly skeptical about my Pirate-ness (Yes. That is a word.) but they are endlessly fascinated by the fake eye. At every opportunity, someone asks to touch it. I love their hesitation before approaching my eye and, once it’s touched, how quickly they retreat, grinning from ear to ear.

One day, the Rooster asked if I would remove the eye so he could see it. He was young at the time and I truly did not want to be the source of nightmares, so I quickly answered, “Oh, no, not ’til you’re fourteen.” Many months later, as he and I were hanging out in the yard, the eye began to itch. I reached under my glasses to rub the area and inadvertently caused the prosthetic to pop out. Fortunately I was able to catch it and once I did, I held it in my palm, extending it so he could see it. He was not amused. “GROSS, Mommom! What are you DOING? I’m NOT FOURTEEN, yet! I’m only eight!” Well done, Mommom.

Knowing that it is possible for the thing to pop out, another grandchild decided to surprise me when I visited her in Chicago. Yes, the Peanut spent one afternoon creating this rather large eyeball just in case I needed a spare. I’m guessing its generous size is due to all the love that went into making it…

Yes, I do have battle scars, maybe more than any one person ought to have. I do have a sword, perched high, well out of reach of small hands. I do have a fake eye and I always carry my eyepatch with me just in case, well, you know. I might not always catch the thing.

I told you it’s been an adventure! And there’s more to this saga!! So keep an eye out for what’s coming next, matey, as I continue on.


Arrrgh…

Once again, I sit here in January, duly writing on my computer and wondering how I failed to acknowledge an entire year. An entire effin’ year! And what a year it was, that 2018. One for the ages, I suppose. Or, at least, one for the blog. I’ll catch up on all of it bit by bit. Really. I have to because much of what is going on now began last fall when I was diagnosed with yet another rare, inexplicable cancer.

I am now in the very beginning stage of chemotherapy. I have been assured by some that my particular medication is considered a “friendly” form of therapy. My daughter shared a friend’s advice, words that brought immeasurable comfort: “This is not your (my) mother’s chemo.”

My mother was afflicted with two cancers: first breast, then oral. She succumbed to the second. I distinctly remember how much she suffered with it and its chemotherapy, so much so that she was far too weak to complete the regimen. As brutal as it was, there are still stories I hope to share about that time, if not for you, then for me, lest I forget the glimmers of brilliant sun that peeked through those times of great darkness.

During her first cancer, which had been diagnosed some two decades earlier, she did undergo successful surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. At the time, busy as I was with my household of teenagers, I failed to visit her as often as I would have liked. I do remember a visit not long after her mastectomy. Mom, sitting on the side porch and enjoying the warmth of the summer afternoon, was frustrated because wearing a bra without two breasts was a bit unwieldy. One side stayed put, obviously, while the other side kept riding up. She looked to me for a solution. Unsurprisingly, mine was as impractical as it was humorous:

Fishing weights, Mom! They come in all weights and sizes!!

And off I went to the local hardware store. She gamely let me pin them on the cotton bra. My idea helped a little, though the belly-dancer-like fringe of weights clinked as she walked. Whether she used them once I returned to Pennsylvania or not, is anyone’s guess. Eventually, she got a prothesis and the Case of the Lopsided Bra was solved for good.

I visited again (Hey! I visited more than twice but these are the two stories I want to share! Jeez.) while she was in the hospital undergoing her chemo treatment. This time, I arrived with gifts. (See? I am a good daughter!) Somehow, in those pre-internet days, I had located a boutique which sold head coverings specifically for women who lost their hair through chemotherapy. I had purchased all sorts of scarves in all sorts of colors and patterns. All very lady-like and pretty. Just the sort of scarves my mother could use with her wardrobe of colorful blouses and skirts and such.

I remember being in the hospital room—just me, Mom, and my sister Becky. I don’t remember where we sent Dad, who was staunchly by her side throughout their life, in, yes, sickness and in health. There we were, though, the three of us creating our own “fashion show” as we placed one scarf after another on Mom, holding up a mirror so she should see just how stunning she looked. I remember us ooh-ing and aww-ing and laughing…and crying. Just a bit. It was the sort of evening that still warms my heart. We were making the best of a miserable situation. Together.

It appears that in addition to certain memories and memorabilia, I have become the Keeper of Family Stuff. Included in that ‘stuff’ are those very same headscarves. I figured eventually one of us would need them, though the thought that I might be the one wasn’t quite on my radar. And it isn’t clear if I will lose my hair as my drug is “friendly” and balancing the therapy regimen has greatly improved.

I have, however, been advised that my hair may thin “a little”. Given my hair is already thin and short, I really don’t relish losing what I’ve got so I struck a deal with my hairdresser: as soon as I begin to resemble a duck with mange, we’re going to buzz the rest of the hair off. Or, as the child’s rhyme goes,

Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy-wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy-wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?

If all of that comes to pass, the question might be asked, “Will I use the same headscarves I once gave my mother?” I loved my mom. To the core of my core, I loved my mom. But she and I were two very different beings. Those scarves were right, for her. Me? I’m the Pirate Grandmother.

I have the eye patch. I have the fake eye. I have the scars from my last sword fights, which may or may not double as surgical scars for tin knees and such. I have the sword. I have the savvy. And, best part of all— I have each of the grandchildren convinced. So, these…

…these bandannas are what Pirates wear. And I have plenty, as badass Pirates always do.

Arrrgh! Indeed.

Green Bananas

I hear my mother’s words. Sometimes in my head. Sometimes, coming right out of my mouth.

“March!” she would say to me and my siblings when we dawdled too long.
“March!” I would say to my children when they, too, dawdled.

“Just put one foot in front of another,” she advised when I shared a problem I felt I couldn’t handle.
“Just put one foot in front of another” I advised others when their problems seemed insurmountable.

“Cindy, you know your dad and I don’t buy green bananas anymore” she told me with a wry smile as cancer began to ravage her body.

I now face the challenge of all challenges.

I am marching.

I am putting one foot in front of the other.

And with infinite optimism, I will continue to buy green bananas.