Humping gecko cake and a tough Fall

January 8, 2018

It was a long Fall. There were some good parts, but there were enough hard, even awful, parts that I’m ready to bury the whole season. Remove it from my brain and my heart, put it all here, and move on.

I should start with the good stuff. In September, Tristan turned five! We had his birthday party on a Friday afternoon. His classmates took the bus home with him, and several of his preschool friends and school-in-town friends arrived later, chauffeured up the hill via mom limo. The kids ran around screaming, snacked, put on costumes, did a treasure hunt for plastic lizards and frogs, and smashed a piñata that Phoebe had constructed from a cardboard box and colored paper. The moms drank wine and ate the potato chips meant for the kids.

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The highlight of the party was the unveiling of the birthday cake from its bakery box. Tristan’s cake decoration request had been specific: two geckos, one a mom, the other a baby. For each kid birthday, I order a cake from a wonderful café / bakery in town. Every order involves a long conversation with a barista, who jots down detailed notes on an order sheet about the cake flavor, icing, filling, and decoration. They always get it just right. We’ve had soccer balls, baseball diamonds, fawns, ponies, and firetrucks, each one even better than imagined. Tristan’s birthday cake, too, was better than imagined, but not quite what we ordered. As I presented the cake, the moms paused mid-sip of wine, mid-crunch of potato chip. There was a brief silence. The green lizards adorning my five-year old’s birthday cake appeared to be humping, the eyes of the humper hungry and wild, those of the humpee rolling back in delirious pleasure.  “Huh,” I said, “It kind of looks like these geckos are fornicating.” Laughing, we toasted the humping gecko cake, stuck in the candles, and called the kids (who admired the reptiles and took no note of the sexually explicit nature of the cake) to the kitchen for the birthday song. We devoured the delicious cake. Since then, I’ve wondered about the baker who decorated that cake. Is she an aspiring author of steamy romance novels who, as she painted green icing onto the cake, was lost mid-thought in the urgency of handsome, dark Eduardo’s efforts to untangle the laces of swooning Stephanie’s bodice? She most certainly was NOT in the five-year old kid frame of mind. We all look forward to the next cake from this bakery, which will be Phoebe’s next month. I hope the baker hasn’t taken on a new S & M writing project. I should probably preview future cakes before making them public.

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All three kids played soccer through the Fall, Tristan and Phoebe in a local league and Tomas on a competitive traveling team. Gary took on most of the travel with Tomas. I was sad that I wasn’t able to see him play much, but it was a pleasure when I did. Tomas was a captain of the team and played a very solid defense through the season. Tristan and Phoebe both blossomed on the field this year, enjoying their practices and interactions with their teammates. Phoebe tried out the goalie position a few times and loved it, and Tristan had a few games in which he fired one shot after another into the goal.

Both Tristan and Phoebe continued to take karate lessons. Phoebe is now an Advanced Purple belt, and Tristan will soon test for his Advanced Yellow belt.

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Somewhere in between the good and the bad of the Fall was my crazy new job – a lectureship at Humboldt State University. Through the semester, I gave three lectures a week to 95 students of Introductory Zoology. If writing and delivering about 40 lectures to almost 100 students doesn’t already sound nuts, perhaps I should disclose that I have a pathological fear of performing in front of audiences, and that I have always done everything in my power to avoid this. I’m not sure what possessed me, but in June, when I was offered the position by HSU, I decided to take it on as some sort of intensive personal Toastmasters challenge. I started writing lectures in July, and I finished writing the last one a few minutes before the very last class. It was an all-consuming, huge project, and I am glad I did it. I learned a ton and defeated a few demons. Best of all, I shared a tiny, pantry-sized office with two other women, both PhD Biologists who also were lecturing, and I adore them both. With not an inch to spare, we held our office hours crammed side-by-side with students and with each other, spilling out into the hallway. We laughed about our dismal pay, complained about the totally un-ergonomic, institutional, green naugahyde chairs that gave all three of us aches by the end of the semester, and drank mimosas in the office on the last day of classes.
On the down side of this experience, I was stunned by these millennial students with their enormous senses of entitlement. One student told me in scathing email that her learning should be fluid, without struggle. The word she used was “seamless”; she should be able to seamlessly read from slide to slide without having to cross reference with other lectures, work through seeming inconsistencies, or muddle through confusing bits. Mind you, this is in regard to the PowerPoint lecture files that I PROVIDED to the students. Were any of you who are above the age of 30 ever GIVEN a copy of any of the lectures you attended? This is now standard practice, something to which the students feel they are entitled. Ugh. It was hard to come to know this new kind of student. I did have some fantastic, hard-working, appreciative students, but many were of this “seamless learning” variety.
So, now on to the dark parts of the Fall, the parts I need to bury. There were four terrible things that happened this Fall, some of which began in September and about which I began to write in my last entry. They are, all of them, so painful.
First, after my friend Susan’s son Noah was hospitalized for an excruciating intussusception (telescoped gut), which resolved on its own, he relapsed again. His leukemia came back, a second time. His doctors hit him hard with another round of chemo, extra mustard, and then they nominated him for Car-T immunotherapy, a new gene therapy that was FDA-approved at the end of August. He was selected, and even insurance-approved for the half million-dollar treatment. Susan said the treatment took ten minutes. We talked about all the years of chemotherapy, all the needle pokes, all the anesthesias, and, in their case, the radiations. Then, ten minutes in the clinic, while Noah’s modified cells were squirted back into his veins. I wish I could say it worked. It didn’t. Noah is cancer-free right now, meaning that no cancer is detectable in his body, thanks to the last round of chemo, but it’s clear from his blood counts that the Car-T did not do its thing. Now they wait. Maybe they’ll be lucky. Maybe the last chemos sniped out the remaining cancer cells.

And then there’s Mia, Gary’s nephew’s baby daughter with the colander heart. So many holes in it that it’ll never really work like a proper heart. That sweet baby has done well over the last few months. She’s nursed, and she’s grown, and she’s got a beautiful head of black hair. At a family birthday party for Tristan at Noni’s house, we marveled at her chub and I was so happy to see how well her mom looked – lovely and composed and not like the ghost with whom I’d sat in the hospital. I could see that she’d become a Warrior Mom and that, one foot in front of the other, she was doing what needed to be done. After growing stronger and bigger, a week ago Mia had her first open heart surgery. A first step to create for her a unique, working heart. Three days ago Mia coded. She now lies, with her chest open, on a bypass machine and a ventilator. In a day or two we will know if her heart has recovered enough from the surgery to beat on its own. I’ve sent text messages to her Warrior Mom, and haven’t heard back. She is busy holding her baby’s hand, and, I hope, taking a moment here and there to let the iron scabs form on the freshly broken bits of her own heart.

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And now there’s something so terrible that I don’t know where to start. I just have to plunge in. In mid-September, Kneeland friends of ours, a family of five, were vacationing on a friend’s houseboat on Lake Shasta when their three-year old daughter went missing at bedtime, after life preservers had been shed for sleeping. They found her toothbrush floating on the surface of the water next to the boat. In borrowed scuba gear, in the dark, the father dove to the bottom of the lake, to about 70 feet depth. Somehow, he found his baby girl, and he scooped her up and brought her to the surface. I don’t know any of the details, and so I can only imagine what ensued. The girl’s mother, my jogging and playdate friend, is an ICU nurse. I imagine that she breathed air back into the child’s lungs. Then there was a med-evac to UC Davis. And then there was month of waiting and hoping, with just enough good news now and then to make her doctors and parents believe that there was some possibility. In the end there was no hope, and, after a month, the life support was disconnected. Our friends lost their beautiful, mischievous, curly-haired baby girl. The memorial was sweet and beautiful and very painful. At a reception afterward, tiers and tiers on tables and tables were covered with pink and purple cupcakes decorated with butterflies, the child’s favorite. I will never forget it.

Finally, as if the pain of the above wasn’t enough, Phoebe’s beloved pup, Pablo, disappeared the day after our friends lost their daughter. I am by no means equating the loss of a child with the loss of a dog, but the timing was awful and the loss more poignant, at least for me, because I was so raw from all the other stuff going on. Initially Phoebe was not very distressed – we hoped Pablo would just show up after a few days’ jaunt, and we put up posters on trees and poles and posts on social media – but, when she realized he probably wasn’t coming back, she was devastated. He was a fabulous dog, a cuddling expert who gave Phoebe all the wiggly, canine attention she could ask for. I miss him terribly, too.

Now it’s time to bury all this. It’s a blog burial. A WordPress funeral. Moving on.

The kids went back to school today, and I have a whole week before I launch into the next phase. I am relieved to report that I will not be doing such an extreme version of personalized Toastmasters as I did last semester. Humboldt State offered me a small, low-stress position for the semester, teaching one Mammalogy lab a week. A great opportunity for me to review a topic once close to my heart and brain, but off my radar for more than a decade. In addition to that small teaching position, I’ll again take a class – Microbiology – at the local junior college. I’m looking forward to the class, and to again spending time on the JC campus; I enjoyed it so much last Spring when I took Physiology there.

Tomas and Gary will go to Asia together in late February for a few weeks, a long-awaited raincheck trip to make up for the Indonesia trip they cancelled just after Tristan was diagnosed in 2015. Tomas is very much looking forward to it.

For Phoebe I am hunting for a puppy, one qualified for cuddling but perhaps better suited than is a Chihuahua to living on Kneeland, where the mountain lion population has reportedly exploded over the last few months.

Tristan has been growing like crazy. He’s very tall, he’s smart​, and he loves school​, features not shared by all kids in their third year of chemotherapy. He has only nine months of treatment left, and only three more anesthesias. It’s still a while, but I can see the end now. I am really looking forward to no more chemo. Our marriage to UCSF won’t end yet, as we’ll have about five years of follow-up monitoring, but, honestly, I think we’d both be kind of sad to no longer see our doctors and nurses. Tristan would, for sure, miss the constant influx of Lego from both the infusion clinic and Family House. Better, for the sake of free Lego, we not yet divorce UCSF.

Onward!

And some photos from the last few months…

 

2 thoughts on “Humping gecko cake and a tough Fall

  1. May 2018 be all positive for you and yours, me and mine, our state and our country. Love you soooo much. Please give Phoebe a big hug from Lolo. I loved that dog too and am so sorry. Hugs to all those beauties of yours. L

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  2. I am so sorry to hear about all the difficulties and pain that have befallen you and yours in past months…I feel like this phase of life is one of the most vulnerable to intense pain because it is the time in life I feel most attached and loving to the most people…hope the spring brings a renewal of health and well-being

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