“Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.



Four years and one day ago, I told Ky we would do this one thing, one day at a time.  Today, it’s been 1,461 days.  Four years and a day.

Four years and a day since Ky asked his oncologist in the middle of the emergency room at Maine Med if the cancer would kill him.  It was a hard question; I loved and hated that he had enough courage to ask.  Dr. Weiss, having only known him for a total of ten minutes at that point, said “We are going to do everything we can so that does not happen.”  I loved and hated that he had enough courage to answer.

Four years and a day since Ky pointed the hard question cannon directly at me and said “How will I get thru this?”  I gave him the first collection of words my brain and mouth could collect into a semi-sentence:  one thing, one day at a time.

Beginning May 18th, my social media becomes an alley of anniversaries.  It’s an alternately well-lit and completely dark alley; there are things I remember so well that they might as well have been moments ago, while there are other things I remember only because my words or a photo tell me that it happened.  Memory is funny like that, and, funnier still, is that the edges of Anniversary Alley feel sharper some years than they do others.

I realize that there is luxury in memory.  I don’t have to live in fear that I’m going to open something and find a memory that I can’t escape from by hugging him.  Ky is here.  I can put my arm out and be sure of him.  Tonight as I write, I’m wearing a flannel of his that is huge on me, but won’t fit him for much longer.  He’s growing.  For others whose own footsteps wore a similar path along the hallways of Maine Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital, this is not the case. Tonight I’ll tell him good night and I love him and he’ll respond that he loves me too; Jane Kenyon reminds me it could have been otherwise.


Forward To Never

PrayingIn late July, Ky and I met with a new oncologist.  We’d known for a while that his care was going to be transferred from Dr. Weiss, the pediatric oncologist who had been our steady from literally the first moments of Ky’s diagnosis.  The separation was bittersweet.  Ky loves Dr. Weiss.  I love Dr. Weiss.  But leaving his watchful eye meant something special.  Ky’s care was being handed over to the survivorship side of Maine Children’s Cancer Program.  This was the day I had waited for since the moment we found out Ky had leukemia.

I remember, shortly after returning home from Ky’s transplant in Boston, calling his doctor there to go over an odd lab report.  One of his levels was off and, for the life of me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I worried it was the first marker of relapse, the first sign that, in the dark recesses of his body, one little cell waited out the chemo.  The doctor reassured me that things were okay, that a relapse wouldn’t look like that, told me to try to focus on the child in front of me, not the numbers; he would worry about those.  “When can I breathe again?” I asked him.  It was a serious question.  I remember the silence as he drew a breath, then the crackle as he exhaled, “Good question.  If he makes it to the three year anniversary of his transplant without issue, you can take a breath.  But also, in my experience, you’ll never totally exhale.  That isn’t how it works for the parents of pediatric patients.”  I sat on the bathroom floor, tracing the design on the vinyl flooring with my finger.  Three years and never.  The countdown began that day.

On that late July day, we sat in a room at MCCP.  We were only a few weeks from the three year anniversary.  A nurse reviewed Ky’s pertinent medical information with us.  We had always had access to social workers during Ky’s inpatient and outpatient work with MCCP, but Ky rarely engaged unless he was sharing something with them that he wanted to do for other kids.  That day, though, for reasons I may never understand, he engaged with the social worker.  She marveled at his strength and asked him what it meant to him to be a cancer survivor.  At that, my eyes filled with tears.  I tried not to look up.  I didn’t want him to see that or feel the weight of my emotion.   I heard his voice begin “To me, it was just an experience I went through.  I don’t think it stuck to me like it did other people.”  At that, our eyes met.

On the way home, I asked Ky more about the question the social worker asked.  He looked out the window and said “I didn’t do anything, Mama.  I laid in a hospital bed.  The nurses, the doctors, the medicine…that’s what did it.  I just laid there.  I didn’t fight a battle.  I waited for science to help me.  Science fought the battle.”  His answer was so practical it moved me to immediate frustration.  “Part of that is true, Ky.  Nurses, doctors, and medicine did part of your healing.  But your spirit – that had to be strong, too.  You had to believe in your nurses and doctors and medicine, but you also had to believe in you.  It’s more than science.”  He remained unconvinced.

On August 17, we low-key celebrated the third anniversary of his transplant.  I let him sleep in and, when I heard him stirring, I went in and wished him a happy third birthday.  He smiled and rolled out of bed, into the day ahead.  I took stock of him all day.  Three years.  Here we were.  It stuck to me.

Today marks the three year anniversary of our return home from Boston.  Three years.  And now, forward to never.

Cheers to you, Cappy – my boy who believes in science.  Love, your mama – who will always believe in you.

“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1

Magically Average.

“It takes a night to make it dawn
And it takes a day to make you yawn, brother
And it takes some old to make you young
It takes some cold to know the sun
It takes the one to have the other…”

-Jason Mraz, “Life is Wonderful”


It was too early to feel anything and I was sorely under caffeinated for the task in front of me…but there I was, feeling it all with no coffee life preserver.  I took a chance and slid my hand over to Ky’s leg, under his own hand.  “What, Mama?”  It wasn’t too early for teenage angst and grump, I guess.  “I love you…”  “Mama…”  “No, I know.  I’m just really proud of you, excited for you.”  We hadn’t taken a traditional first day of school photo, instead Ky snapped a selfie of us on our drive.  Unconventional and silly as it seems, it was perfect.

We pulled up to the middle school and parked.  There was a moment of quiet before I gathered up a “Here we go…”, less an exclamation and more a statement of fact.  This, his return to school, is what he has wanted since the day I picked him up from 5th grade and drove him to Maine Medical Center.  May 18, 2016.  So, we were ready.  So, were we ready?

There is a lot from the fifteen months that I truly cannot remember.  It’s frightening sometimes, comforting others.  One moment I cannot forget is sitting in a chair in Kyan’s hospital room in Boston during last year’s first day of school.  It was an absolutely awful day of social media for me.  It took all I had to “like” posts from my Facebook circle – beautiful children, rosy-cheeked, hair combed, ready to start fresh with a new year.  But how could I not like them?  Of course I was happy to see healthy, amazing kids doing exactly what kids should do in the fall.  But, three hours away, without me, Lou’s was having a first day of fourth grade…and three feet away, Cappy lay nearly motionless, unable to eat due to complications from chemo, and puffy from a plethora of steroids.  Where was his fresh start?  Where was the childhood he was supposed to have?  I ached for the simplicity of a battle over bedtime or of a zillion reminders to please brush his teeth.

As I’ve often done, I counted steps, this time from the parking lot to the front doors of Lake Region Middle School.  I wondered how fast I could run from my Jeep into the main office, in the event he ever needed me.  I looked around, all kinds of activity that felt very familiar to a version of me from years ago; I spent a handful of years as an 8th grade English teacher.  Instead of seeing it as a hive of activity and hope and fun, I wondered about germs, who was up-to-date on vaccinations, and if I could trust these children to be kind to Cappy.  I was awash in worry.  And then I saw his face.  He was a little lost and kind of overwhelmed, but the corners of his mouth were finding a way toward a smile.  With the help of a school secretary, we found his homeroom and, I think, a homeroom teacher that will be perfect for him.  He walked in without much more than a “Bye, Mama…” and a quiet “I love you.”.  Though I tried not to alarm his teacher, I likely overwhelmed her with some key details that might matter, even on day one.  Teacher me was mortified, Mama me knew it had to be done.

When I got home last night, I asked about his day.  He raved about his homeroom teacher.  His locker is a next-level labyrinth which appears to only respond to the wisdom of his friend Avery.   Some kids are really tall.  Some aren’t.  The more he talked, the more I cried.  By all accounts, it was a magically average day.  I couldn’t have asked for more; it was the stuff of my dreams.

When I woke him up for school this morning, he grumbled about how early we needed to be up.  “You know,” he mumbled as he walked to the bathroom, “the nurses did 6 a.m. vitals but they were always nice enough to let me sleep.  Can you get me ready for school without waking me up?”

Tomorrow is September 1.  Tomorrow it will, once again, be Childhood Cancer Awareness month.  Last year, I wrote about what that meant in the context of where we were last year.  This year, I write about it in the context of where we are now.  I still hate cancer.  As often as I am able, I work to find the silver lining, but that doesn’t change the fact that I hate it.  I hate that I have a small circle of other parents who I know that didn’t get first day of school photos yesterday, who ache for a magically average day.  I see you; I’m so sorry.

I promised last year that we would spend time paying it forward in terms of the support and love we received when we were able to do so.  And we will.  There are several organizations that go above and beyond to support children in situations such as the one we found ourselves in.  I would be happy to share those with you if you are care to give time, money, or some other donation.

I wish you a magically average September…and the wisdom to know it is so.





The Least Complicated

In a rare moment of vulnerability, I shared with someone yesterday that I’ve been afraid to write.  In case the Universe had forgotten about us, in case we were due to be left alone for a while, I didn’t want to raise my hand and remind it that we were still here, still fighting.  What good comes of remembering and reminding?

On February 17th at 6:17 p.m., Ky had officially been in remission for six months post bone marrow transplant.  I walked to him at his computer desk as the clock ticked from 6:16 to 6:17 and kissed him on his head, just as I had after pressing start.  “Mama….”  I couldn’t help it.  6 months. 

Three weeks earlier, we’d been given permission from Ky’s Boston team to have his central line removed.  They had started weaning him off the major immunosuppressant that kept his body from attacking the donor marrow.  As a result of that, he doesn’t require labs as often and since that’s really the only purpose his line has served in a while, it was time.

Except, it wasn’t.  Ky wasn’t ready.  Since May, Ky has had a central line.  That line was the way most things medical and miracle went from the outside world into Ky’s body.  It sent chemo into his system, medicine to combat the side effects of the chemo, nutrition when he couldn’t eat, and, of course, his donor marrow.  When the line was first placed, he wanted to know immediately when it could come out.  Cancer makes you look for strange security blankets and for Ky, it was one.   In a weird way, it was for me too.  It was a way to measure time.  Every 12 hours we flushed it, Heparinized it, and capped it off.  Every 4 days we changed his caps.  Every few days (though it should have been less frequent), we changed the dressing.  During a dressing change a couple of weeks ago, he looked up and said “When can I get this out?”.  Of course it was a Saturday, so there was no one to call.  Monday arrived and so did a huge snowstorm, so I called on Tuesday.  And this morning, Ky’s line was removed.

We drove away from Maine Medical Center just before noon, we’d only been there three hours.  I watched as the nurse accessed his line the last time, a little teary that I wouldn’t be the last one to do it.  I reminded myself that is how it’s supposed to be – leave the medical things to the medical professionals, leave the mama-ing to the mama.

While we were there, we had two amazing visitors who came to see us in the surgery unit.  The trek from the unit where Ky spent his summer to the basement Maine Med involves several floors and two absurdly slow elevators.  But, two of his favorite nurses were undeterred.  Wendy arrived first and Ky’s grin lit my whole soul up.  Wendy was, without a doubt, Ky’s partner in crime.  No one was safe when the two of them were armed with Nerf guns or silly string.  She hadn’t seen Ky since just before we went into transplant.  It was on Wendy’s shift that we had to shave Ky’s head…and now he was in front of her with a beautiful head of baby soft hair.  Shortly after Wendy left, Misty arrived.  Misty sat with us on a shift right before the 4th of July and watched fireworks for a few minutes.  She was over Ky’s shoulder as I took one of my favorite pictures of him, his face aglow in the light.  We didn’t know it at the time, but a really rough night waited for us.  She knew something was up before she transferred our care…and she made sure he was on their radar.  Two doctors had to take a bit of a backseat for our reunions with these two incredible women.  Neither seemed to mind.  As Misty hugged Ky and rubbed his head, I leaned over to one of the doctors and explained that he was pretty close to some of his nurses – there was a look in his eye that let me know I didn’t need to explain.  He understood.

Ky’s procedure was fairly quick and straightforward.  As I’d done so many times before, I walked him into the operating room and told him that I loved him repeatedly as he counted up to ten, resisting the anesthesia for as long as he could.  His hand feels impossibly heavy in those first moments when he goes under.  I kissed his forehead and thanked the team, then returned to the waiting room to wait.  Twenty four minutes later, his surgeon appeared.  He explained that all went well and that they’d be out to bring me to him in just a few minutes.  “Congratulations,” he said as he shook my hand, “today is a big day.”  When Ky and I were reunited in recovery, there was a cake waiting for us from the hospital.  Today was a big day.

On our ride home, we listened to NPR.  Among the top stories at noon was Donald Trump and the way he plans to address the Affordable Care Act.  They cut to a clip of him saying “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”  It was ironic, at best.  I thought about the last nine months.  I thought about the care we (used intentionally) had received from social workers, housekeepers, a man named Tom at our medical supply company who has sent all sorts of medical things to our house, other families, our community, doctors, nursing assistants, and, of course, our beloved nurses.  I think they know just how complicated it is.

But then there’s also the least complicated part.  The best hug I’ve had in a long, long while came right after surgery – a boy and his mama, nothing medical in between.

Within moments of seeing me, he asked when we could go home.  He wanted the blood pressure monitor off and could they please take out his IV?  Why, he wondered, did they have him hooked up to all that stuff?

We’re still here, Universe.  We’re still fighting.

Yes, Lou – there is a Santa Claus.

A favorite from a few years ago.

A couple of weeks ago, Lou got into my car at backdoor pick up with a telling furrow on her brow.  I braced myself – when she has a rough day, I think she starts a running checklist of all that has gone wrong in her mind and saves it up, only to regurgitate it into my lap upon first sight of me.  “What’s the matter, Lou?”.

As it turned out, someone told her at recess that Santa isn’t real.  But Lou?  She’s a believer, so she settled on “He is too!”.  In the quiet of my Jeep, though, she wondered.  “Is he real, Mama?”  I could hear it in her voice.  Part curious, part nervous, part sad.  “I told him, Mama – I told him Santa *is* real and he shouldn’t try to ruin Christmas.”  2016 has been a year and we’ve let go of a lot, but damn it, Santa was not going, not this year.  “Santa is real, Lou.  He’s kindness and wonder and magic, all wrapped into one.”

Later that night, as I tucked her in, Lou started crying.  “Santa can’t come, Mama.”  Lou isn’t one to let things go…I can’t imagine where she might get that from.  “Why not?”  I was ready for just about anything:  because he isn’t real, because we don’t have a chimney, because….just about anything…except for the one thing she said.  “Santa can’t come because he’ll be in all the other houses first.  He’ll be covered in germs and he’ll make Ky sick.  Santa can’t come, Mama.”  There it was.

Lou is 9.  For as much as they fight – and wow, can they fight – her brother is her hero.  It was a long summer of infrequent visits.  She missed him.  He missed her.  Each week after Ky’s doctor’s appointment, Lou finds a way to quietly ask how things went.  Is he okay?  Did anything change?  What medicine is different this week?  She never does it in front of him, instead she waits for a quiet moment when I’m starting laundry or laying out clothes.

Like Bill and I, Lou is keenly aware of germs.  She doesn’t love it, but each day she comes home from school, showers and changes clothes.  She’s aware of who in her class has the sniffles or went to the nurse…and she avoids that kiddo….and provides a full report, as only Lou could, of the arc of their cold or stomach bug.

Laying there in the dark, I didn’t have any answer but this:  of course Santa will come, Lou.  Of course he will.  He’ll find a way.  A moment later, she said “I’d rather he didn’t.  It just isn’t safe.”

I had a long weekend of my stomach being gnawed by the sadness of that.  As it happened, we had two clinic appointments that week.  One of Ky’s levels was low on Tuesday, so we went in Thursday for an infusion.  Ky was premedicated prior to his infusion and mostly sleepy when I enlisted the help of a nurse to save Christmas.  He smiled as he heard my plan; he isn’t a believer in Santa, but he’s a believer in the magic of Christmas.

The nurses at Ky’s oncologist’s office are, like so many others we’ve met in the last seven months, angels among us.  Within an hour, they’d made my vision come to life.

Tinsel, our Elf On A Shelf, was quiet for 24 hours.  That’s pretty unusual for a guy known for making huge messes on the daily.  When he stirred back up, he had a package and a note.  The note was to Quinn – Santa heard her concerns about germs and he consulted the top doctor at the North Pole.  She put together a safety kit for Santa – complete with a chemo-proof gown (surely germs can’t penetrate that), gloves, boot covers, and a cap to cover his hat.  Santa would be able to visit the Macdonald family after all.  His special outfit will be by the door, next to his milk and cookies.

Yes, Lou – there is a Santa Claus.  He dwells in the hearts of all the people who have found a way to hold us close and pray for our family.  He is in the minds and hands of doctors and nurses who cared for all of us during the last seven months.  He is the twinkle in the eye of a total stranger – all the way in the Netherlands – who gave Ky a second chance.  He lives in your brother, Lou, who is braver than anyone could have ever imagined.  And he is absolutely alive and well in you, Lou – like Santa, your heart is full of love and wonder.


Milk Chocolate M&M’s

We crossed into Maine and Ky shifted in the passenger’s seat.  He conked out as we crossed the Tobin and snored through the entirety of New Hampshire.  “I’m hungry, Mama…and I need a bathroom.”  I had a feeling that would happen eventually.  Ky can only be two places with a roof:  home and the hospital.  When we were first discharged from Children’s, I asked what I should do if, as we traveled home, he needed to use the bathroom.  The nurse practitioner gave me a fresh container of hospital grade wipes (that will even kill Tuberculosis!) and special gloves…I could disinfect something enough so that he could use it in an emergency.  Shit happens…and now I could deal with it.

Eventually came today.

The Kennebunk rest area is located twenty five miles up Interstate 95.  6 months ago, it would have provided a fascinating location for a study of humans and their behavior.  Today, all I could think about was germs, the number of people who had touched the doors, that sort of thing.  But, I could get him squared away.  I got him a fresh mask and purple gloves.  I tucked the wipes under my arm and in we went.  “Mama, I’m okay now…I just need to pee.”  We were already beyond the threshold of the door, so we continued.  “I’ll just use a urinal, Mama.  It’ll be okay.”  Ky could sense my nervousness, but I saw his too.  His gloved hands were tight inside the pocket of his sweatshirt and, I think without realizing it, he was looking ahead to figure out where the least amount of people were so he could walk there.  It wasn’t hard – it wasn’t all that busy today.  I’m assuming Ky’s trip to the bathroom was, mostly, without incident.  He emerged pretty quickly, declaring that he felt much better.  As we walked out of the rest area, Ky said “Mama!  They make milk chocolate M&M’s now!!”  I looked over to where his eyes were fixed.  The classic brown and white packages were stacked high on a display.  “I think they’ve always been milk chocolate, Cappy.”  “No, Mama.  I think those are brand new – brand new since I had my transplant!  I’ll have to try them!”  I agreed and we continued back to the car.

As I buckled my seat belt, it occurred to me that since August, Ky hasn’t been anywhere but the hospital, Maine Children’s Cancer Center, and home.  No convenience stores, no malls, no Wal-Mart, no Target.  Since I’m a mama who is particularly adept at feeling guilty,  I immediately wished I’d at least found him a nicer restroom.  Something with…slightly more class, more clean, more…just more.

“Woah, Ky – that was the first time you’ve been somewhere but the hospital, clinic or home…in a long time.  I just realized that.  How was that for you?”  He looked over and smiled.  “It was great, Mama!  Did you see the tank with lobsters?  People must be buying them like crazy.  There were only two in the tank.  It was nice to see people.  And no one really stared at me.  And you know what?  I got to see a new kind of M&M’s!  I’m so trying those.”

People have asked a lot about how we are, how things are going, what’s new.  They’ve asked what’s next and where we’ll go from here.  All fair questions.  I’m sorry I haven’t answered sooner.  I’ll try to be better at that.

Life is a lot like this little snapshot.  We’re good.  Things are good.  We see things differently than we used to.  None of it is easy or perfect, but my word – he is a warrior – and my word, I am a worrier.  Today, right now – that’s what’s in front of us.  Where do we go from here?  Probably to the store.  We need to try some new M&M’s.





Going Gold

I need to tell you something.  Lean in a little closer, please.  Forgive my language, but I fucking hate cancer.  I hate it. I hate that I have a reason to know that September is ‘Childhood Cancer Awareness’ month.

Cappy, the day we found out he was in remission.

I have held my son’s hand through things I wouldn’t dare explain here.  I’ve wiped vomit from his lips, dried tears, breathed with him through panic, I’ve cleaned feces from a hospital floor and spoon-fed him the world’s smallest bites of food, just so that he’d have something to eat.  I’ve signed on his behalf for treatment that, if his cancer stays away, will cause other side effects we don’t even know about yet…five, ten, or twenty years down the road.  I’ve called a couple of friends, declaring myself at the lowest point of my life, unsure of how I will walk back into his room and not weep by his bed.  I always walked back in…and most of the time, I didn’t weep by his bed.

I’ve made a careful point not to talk about Ky’s odds, the odds for his subset of leukemia and the things that make Ky’s particular version of it unique.  As awful as this sounds, I cannot be invested in how other kids have done.  I have one beautiful boy in front of me.  One beautiful boy who is battling.  Numbers don’t change his will, the way Bill, Lou and I love him.  They don’t change what we do or how we treat this.  Long-term survivor rates don’t account for the miracles that have already happened:  Ky’s leukemia was discovered very early, long before it had a stronghold on his bone marrow that is typically seen in kids with AML, Ky went into remission after one round of chemo and has remained there since, Ky had ten perfect matches, one of whom gave a liter and a half of his marrow so generously.  Percentages don’t account for his spirit, his determination, the way he loves and is loved, the medical team that we are blessed to have on our side.  Put simply, I’m not interested in someone doing a Google search and forgetting the mighty that is Kyan.

It’s easy for me to name what cancer has taken.  Too easy, I think.  I’ve worked really hard to try to show up in each day and see what cancer has given.  I hope you’ve seen that in my writing.  Sad as this all can feel, there is always, always hope or a blessing to be found.  Cancer has given me a whole new set of eyes to see, not just my son, but the world.  I have perspective that I will work to never lose.  I’ve had to find a courage in me over the last few months that, quite honestly, I had no idea was there.  I’ve chosen to find a voice.

The other night as Ky slept, I wondered if I could wave a wand and magically make the last several months not happen, would I?  My gut says – absolutely, give me the wand and I will hand over anything for that.  But then, would I ever have found my way to the appreciation I have for the moments between his breaths?  The last few months have taught me to live entire lifetimes between those breaths.  If life hadn’t been reduced to moments and complicated beyond belief last May, I don’t know what answers or wisdom I might have lived my way to.

But still, I hate cancer.  My reason for knowing it’s ‘Childhood Cancer Awareness’ month is five feet away from me, exhausted, but feeling a little better today.  He’s silly and bold and thoughtful and salty all at once.  He’s lived lifetimes in the past few months…and his future remains uncertain.

Childhood cancer research remains ridiculously underfunded; large pharmaceutical companies see childhood cancer research as not profitable and too risky, so they don’t invest.  Consider these statistics from Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a non-profit dedicated to childhood cancer research and support:  In the past 20 years, there have been three drugs approved to treat childhood cancer.  Three.  In 2012 alone, there were 23 new drugs for adult forms of cancer.  The lack of research means that the treatments available to children are more toxic than their adult counterparts and that means an eight times higher risk of future diseases and death.

I know everyone has a cause that they champion.  If you’ve been moved by Ky’s journey thus far, I would invite you to ‘go gold for childhood cancer’ too.  Wear a gold ribbon and if someone asks, tell them why you wear it.  If you want to donate money to a group or organization that has eased some of the financial or emotional burden for our family, I would gladly give you the names of specific places that have been wonderful resources for us.  We are blessed with good insurance, but there are silly realities, especially given the scope and goinggoldsequence of what we are dealing with (like paying for parking my car in downtown Boston) that add up really quickly.  We’ve been given some support with such things that all families in this situation get.  We will pay that forward when we are able to…and we can provide contact information for such organizations if you’d like to do the same.  If you can, do something kind for a child this month.  I don’t know if there’s a greater tip of the cap you could give my Cappy than that.