When life takes a dump on your chest

Mmmm. What a ladylike title, right?

It’s how I’ve been feeling lately. Because trying to raise a toddler when your co-parent has Stage IV cancer isn’t bad enough, I was fired from a job I actually liked for literally no publishable reason on Friday.

Pluses: My boss offered to be a reference and write a letter of recommendation. I now can party with Ronan more. I can be with Andy all mornings before his call. I can wear yoga pants more regularly.

Minuses: Oh, you know, just, like, a lack money and healthcare and security and meaning and purpose and structure. Just those things.

I had a mini-piphany the other day. This is when you have an epiphany that shifts your perspective just a little so you don’t end up having to travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia to find meaning.

I have been telling the religious among me to pray for peace for us. We have strength, we could use some peace and calm.

But, what if this is actually just my normal?

What if the plan for my one small life is to bring me immense challenges and force me to navigate them? What if I do this so others can learn about their own strength or so they can develop a road map for themselves? What if it teaches me how to find calm in a storm or peace in a war? What if all of this is so Ronan can see what it’s like to do good work in a world full of trials so he can do something incredible like be the best damn chairlift operator in all of Washington?

Who am I kidding, he’s totally going to go the East Coast and swear the snow is better like a weirdo.

But truly, what if this is it?

Maybe if I stop hoping for a break, I’ll be less thrown for a loop when the hits keep coming. And maybe then the moments of respite will seem sweeter.

So I’m going to try that. It means expanding my capacity for turmoil a little more and I’ll have to change some things in my physical environment and the systems I use, but we all know I’m a willing and able prototyper.

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A letter

Dear Congressional Representative,

I am so tired today, aren’t you? I’m fighting a cold and my 18 month old is sick and my husband is having a hard time with his chemo treatments. I started a new job last week and I’m managing the stress of getting the kiddo off to his grandparents or his nanny share every morning and all the different logistics and checklists for myself, my baby, and my husband are kind of overwhelming.

My son got really sick on Monday. We ended up having to go to urgent care for his first ear infection, which, because us Willhelms do everything to the extreme, turned out to be in both ears, plus an acute viral infection in his throat. No wonder he wasn’t drinking any fluids. I had to leave him at home on Tuesday, which was so hard because I both wanted to be with him and desperately wanted to work at my new job so I could have some respite from the constant onslaught of logistics and management all day long.

See my husband, he’s 47, was diagnosed with Stage IV Colon Cancer in November. It was really sudden. He had no symptoms and it’s a type of cancer that can’t be detected through the annual colonoscopies or CT scans he was getting to monitor his Crohn’s Disease. Hell, we had been saying that it was best he had felt in the 10 years we had known each other. What a kick in the ass to find out it was Stage IV cancer.

But anyway, he was home with the baby on Tuesday and I had to keep saying silent prayers and checking in to see if he was doing ok because he’s immunocompromised. And a cold, which was already tricky because of his Crohn’s, could be devastating with the chemo.

But we had no other options, right? He couldn’t go to his nanny share. We didn’t want to get her kid sick, too. Grandparents, while they are amazing, we try to use them judiciously and a sick baby for a whole day is a lot to deal with. So he stayed home, fatigued from the chemo with a fragile immune system that I hope holds up to this bacterial and viral onslaught.

So in addition to the sickness of the baby, we’ve been managing the cancer: the treatment, the grief, the upset to work. Thank God he has an employer who actually cares about him and is making our lives less hellish by actually making it easy for him to work. He’s the Master Electrician at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, a big regional non-profit theatre that he’s worked at for 20 years. He LOVES his job. Like in a way that tells you someone has been paired up with their true calling.

But I write today not about his healthcare (thank God for his union’s good coverage) or the lack of affordable daycare, or the difficulty I had finding work with two Bachelor degrees and a Master’s degree and the crushing amount of student loan debt I got following the advice to “get more education” so I could get a good job. Today I want to write to you about guns.

You totally knew that, though. The little form online made me tell you that. So, spoiler alert, I’m feeling mad about the recent shooting in Parkland, FL.

I grew up in South Florida and moved to Seattle in 2008 after college. My sister in law is a teacher, my brother’s best friend and his wife are teachers. I don’t fear for their safety every day, because statistics means that it’s unlikely that the shooting will happen at their schools. But, what about when statistics catches up with me? What happens when my son, who isn’t in school yet but will be eventually, because we believe in the public school system, what happens when his school is the site of something like this? How on earth could I live with myself if I didn’t do my due diligence to make my fear and anger known to those who actually have the power to do something?

But then I pause and think, “What the hell is the point? The Dems did their one sit in and nothing happened.”

And now you have so much you are fighting for: healthcare, taxes, Dreamers, general nonsense from fellow lawmakers who seem to have forgotten they are governing people and not faceless voting blocks or donors. How can I, in good conscience, add to your list of struggles?

But really, how can I not? My son’s life is on the line.

My son’s life is on the line.

Do you have kids? I think you do. So, you must know this fear. The fear of motherhood where you let a piece of your heart walk around outside and the strings of worry and love and strength stretch from you to them in a way you didn’t know about until you had your child. I didn’t know the vulnerability I would feel until I held my son in my hands (he was 5 weeks early so he was little) and realized just how vulnerable I would be for the rest of my life. I could be made to do anything for him.

My husband’s mortality is something we are dealing with every day. We don’t know if he will kick the cancer and survive or die a young death, but his mortality that is literally in question right now does not feel as fragile as that of my son’s and his future classmates.

Please, for the love of God, do something.

I listen to NPR and watch CNN and read the New York Times and listen to Pod Save America like a good liberal does. I work very hard to break down internal bias and fight for equity and help my husband and those I can affect learn more about sexism and racism and ableism and fatphobia, but you have got to help me here. I need to take something off my list of things to worry about and fight for and my son’s safety in his school really needs to be one of them. Please.

So, what do you need from me? I’m joining a local mom’s group to be an activist for change in firearm legislation. I support local government and vote in every election. I donate to campaigns when I can and to charities and the odd GoFundMe for people who can’t afford medical care or need to send their kiddo to a once-in-a-lifetime ballet camp. What else can I do to make our country safer and better and less hard to live in?

Thank you for your guidance. I promise I will take the information you give me and be a constituent you will be proud of. Just don’t send me something like “donate to the blah blah blah.” I can’t do that anymore.

Thank you,

Verhanika Willhelm

I am an emotional shamwow

I’m a little brain fried today. We’ve had a few days of battling some illnesses and my body and brain are tired from logistics of a slightly under the weather baby, husband, and self. But, I’ve been getting a lot of private messages and texts asking about how am.

And we all know I love to talk about myself, so here’s an update.

Things are…ok. Stable-ish.

Andy is coming to the end of the second round of chemo. We’ve found a rhythm. Ronan and I are back in the swing of coworking and grandparent daycare and hanging out together.

I no longer have to lay down for all of Ronan’s nap time to feel human again. I actually got everything lined up for my business taxes, which is a pretty sizable undertaking.

The fog of grief and depression are lifting and things feel…normal. Breakfast, activities, lunch, nap time, errands, dinner, bed. The rhythm has emerged again.

But I still get slammed regularly by a reminder of the non-normality of it all. Andy has a pump on and can’t turn easily in his sleep. Ronan is being a baby and kicks Andy in the chest and Andy’s immobilized with pain because Ronan, of course, found his chest port. A list of everything we need for chemo day for ourselves and Ronan sits on the kitchen table. The cards and presents from loved ones sit in our living room as a reminder that we are loved and that love is coming in strong, hard waves because of something as devastating as Stage IV cancer. Someone posts in a Facebook caregiving group about how their loved one had a symptom like Andy and it turned out to be even worse cancer than they thought. Someone has entered hospice care. Someone has died.

Those ones are particularly hard to read and I usually have to walk away from that part of Facebook for a few days.

But never Facebook as a whole because sometimes reading about other people’s stuff is the only way I feel connected.

Also, y’all are good fodder for blogs for Willhelm Consulting. I can take a societal temperature via social media.

I’m still sometimes overwhelmed with the concern about how to pay our bills. Or more accurately, how to buy groceries, gas, diapers, and the crazy non-essentials like a take out meal when our baby has fallen asleep in the back of the car and we want to keep driving so he gets a decent nap. I’ve been told over and over that help will come and people won’t let us go without help. And yet, there is no structure or rules around how and when to ask for money in these situations. And, call me crazy, but out of all the things I’m managing, finding the courage to ASK for money is not something I’m really going to work up the energy for. The human brain can only handle so many open loops and some are bigger than others. My brain hit its capacity 58 enormous loops ago.

At some point I’ll update the GoFundMe with a new amount if Andy is out of work during the HIPEC procedure (God willing that happens. I’m so superstitious about it.), but for now I’ll just check into Mint every day and be very, very judicious about how and where I buy groceries.

You know, the fun stuff that a family in existential crisis should be dealing with.

And even if I wanted a full time job (I don’t) it’s not like the offers are rolling in. That’s not true, exactly. I did get an offer for a slightly less than part time job that comes with childcare for a company I care deeply about. It’s not consulting work (yet), but I can do my back end stuff if things are quiet, so that’s a positive development I need to keep in mind. The start date is fuzzy, which is why I’m not treating it like a done deal yet. A lot can change.

I’m using some consulting dollars to hire a resume coach to help, but I’m sort of mad that I have to do that.

I’m just mad a lot right now.

I’m mad that people can’t keep their shit together or get help so their crazy doesn’t spill out sideways.

I’m mad that the richest country in the world has no safety net for those of us managing serious illness or caretaking those who do.

I’m mad that a group of very wealthy people thought donning black designer dresses would be helpful to those of us who can’t pay for health insurance AND still deal with discrimination and harassment. Or maybe they weren’t thinking about us. Thoughts for another time.

I’m mad that I’m highly educated and smart, sensitive, compassionate, and funny as a banana peel, but I can’t find a way to make a living at 31 that can sustain my family. It’s just not what I had pictured at this age.

I’m mad, so so so mad that our lawmakers don’t just make single payer healthcare a thing. It’s fucking inevitable, let’s just do it now.

And I’m still mad at all the usual stuff like our President and mansplaining and fatphobia and the diet industry playing on new mom’s tenderness to make a buck and a lack of affordable, cute shoes in size 12.

So, yeah, the initial fog is gone and I still feel wildly helpless. Andy still has cancer, we are still stuck in this shitty shitty situation with not a lot of options or ideas beside the course we’ve been set on.

I wake up every day scared that I’m about to lose him. It sucks to go to bed on New Year’s Eve and wonder if this is the last time you will see the calendar change over together.

Will Ronan grow up without a father? Will I have to raise a teenager on my own? Were we poised to raise a well-adjusted, happy, healthy, adaptable boy who could actually be a part of the change in our culture we desperately need, but now that will all fall apart because he won’t have his papa?

Fuck.

It’s probably because I’m tired and listening to music that is making me sad, but I still can’t quite see the light. I still can’t plan more than 4 days in advance. Some days I can’t think about more than what Andy and Ronan need in the moment and completely forget my own needs until I’m dehydrated or hungry or have a bladder that’s about to burst. My body aches all the time from a lack of good movement. It just all sucks.

The shining light in all of this is that Ronan is still a smiley, happy baby and Andy seems to be managing everything very, very well. These Willhelm boys are mighty resilient and I hope that this resilience is working its way through the mucousal membranes of Andy’s body to kick the shit out of cancer.

I am their emotional shamwow and after all of this I’ll need someone to wring me out.

 

Less dark, still a little twisty

If you’re not keeping up on our CaringBridge account, we recently had an appointment with a surgical oncologist that was very positive. Given the uptick in the mood in the Willhelm household, I wanted to check in with a slightly less dire/macabre/ennui filled post.

It’s still very hard right now.

As I write this, Ronan is playing with our friend, Sarah, while Andy chills on the couch. I find that this space from the day-to-day caregiving of Ronan is such a relief AND I feel incredibly guilty about that.

Up to this point I hadn’t experienced a ton of mommy guilt. I was with him almost every waking minute of his day. He was surrounded by a lot of good, loving caregivers, and we still got time together in the evening for just the two of us. I was clearly fitting all the societal standards as a “good mom” balancing time with my son and time away from my son, a precarious balance that seems to be undefinable except when we see a mom not managing it. And then the internet has a lot to say.

But now, he’s cared for by a veritable battalion of people. Everyone adores him. No one signs up if they’re not into kids. He is proving to be happy, adaptable…interesting, even to some.

But I worry as this is the big initial push for Andy and his care, am I doing harm somehow to him?

Of course, my higher self who can get on the balcony says, “Absolutely not.” Even now his laughter comes easily with everyone who he is with, the ultimate sign to me that he is fine.

But now that the pressure of Andy’s immediate care is letting up, I have mental space again to start to stress about stuff. And first up gets to be my son.

I know I’m not a bad mom. By all other measures, I’m a fucking great mom. But if you know anyone who is a mom, or are a mom yourself, you know the weird standards that are put on us by, largely, white older Christian Republicans for whom family is defined by how it appeared in the 1950s, aka the height of oppression in the post-war age. We’re fighting back against this, but since the internet is full of trolls and people who don’t have to hide their judgment or civility, we still hear regularly about how we’re not doing motherhood right.

For the most part, I can remain immune to this pressure, but my defenses are down and instead of brushing off the bullshit, I find my inner voice that is concerned about single parenthood internalizes this judgment. If I can’t have Andy, can I still handle raising a boy in this time? I don’t know, says the voice, you certainly abdicate your motherhood to a lot of people.

Smarter, more compassionate parts of me look at it as expanding the motherhood circle, really embracing the whole “it takes a village” especially when mom is occupied with, like, keeping Papa alive. And my village is full of wildly capable, extremely loving people. So Ronan’s in good hands. Probably more qualified than me in some cases.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

I’m also wildly overwhelmed with projects. I have several full time jobs I want to apply to, I have a lot of writing I need to do for one of the consulting firms I’m in the dugout for, and I’m still trying to manage a household and a business. It’s just a lot and it feels like a lot of things on my to-do list truly can’t be put off. But when I sit down to work I just want to write about Andy, or about my experience, or just read Facebook.

Again, smarter, more compassionate parts of me are able to see that I’m battling depression, fatigue, overwhelm, and the desire to do self-care first and work second is normal. But I also have a part born out of the trauma of a country that judges a person’s worth on their work contribution and thinks that I’m just not bootstrapping enough. Why can’t I do more?

Because you can’t and that’s fine.

Ugh.

Fine.

I’m back to working out fairly regularly. Listening to my body and doing what it wants as a way to release some of the pent up anxiety. So I’m getting stronger again and it’s helping me sleep better AND I’m not punishing my body in the process in order to meet fitness goals. I’m just moving for the joy of moving…and the better sleep that comes from it.

That’s me. Less dark than before, still a little twisty. Feeling cautious about the future and trying to stay positive, but not Pollyanna about all of this.