Mother’s Day

 

I don’t really celebrate Mother’s Day because I am 400 miles away from my mom. Truthfully, I miss most holidays and celebrations. But I send cards. I call with my well wishes.

Mom has terminal blood cancer. It’s tough to write about Mother’s Day when your mother is dying, when it might well be the last. It’s not that she is on her death bed, but she is getting thinner and weaker every day. She is grinding to a halt.

I read an incredible poem once, “Our Lady of Perpetual Loss” by Deborah A. Miranda that suggests the death of the mother is the worst one must endure. But I know better. There is no consolation for parents who lose a child. There is no consolation for a child who loses a parent.

It is hard for me to imagine a more difficult death than my father. I was 12. He was 50. I was old enough to understand what had happened but so young that I did not have the capacity or experience to process it. It stands as the most traumatic experience of my life.

My mother has lived a full life and at age 78, she is of an age. She is at the time in life when one might expect its end. Still, I know the loss of her will crush me. She is my life giver and the person I met first. You only get one mom.

Back in January 2013, my mother had a doctor’s appointment to look at an irritation she had in her mouth. But a week before she could get in, my childhood home burned. She was homeless. She cancelled that appointment and did not get examined for another few months.

The irritation turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the tongue.

She had surgery to remove the lesion and was diagnosed. In September of that year, she had more surgery to remove those parts of her tongue that had cancer. They also removed her lymph node to check for migration. The hope of course was that the cancer was in its early stages, that her speech and ability to swallow would not be greatly affected, and that the cancer was localized to her mouth.

The surgery went very well, and she was sent home two days later. We lucked out with the speech and swallowing but not so with it staying localized…  The lymph node indicated that the cancer had spread to other parts of the body. There was no way to know where until it appeared again. As a precaution, she opted for radiation and chemotherapy. Eventually, the treatment ended, and she was declared ‘cancer free’. But unfortunately, there is a known risk for ten years post-radiation of developing myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS)…

She developed MDS five years later.

When mom called in May of last year and told me that all of her blood counts were down, I knew. I had spent years editing a book about leukemia treatment. If your red cells and white cells and platelets are all low, you have blood cancer. I was relieved that it was only MDS, not leukemia. But the result is the same. They are both blood cancers and the only cure is a stem cell transplant (bone marrow transplant). Mom is too old. She would never survive it.

There are seven sub-types of MDS with varying survival outcomes. I struggled to get the answers I needed about her condition long distance. She would forget to ask the doctor for the information and when she did get information, it was not specific enough for me. I needed to know exactly what type of MDS she has and how long she was expected to live.

In December 2018, I met with her medical team and they told me that she has myelodysplastic syndrome with multiple cytogenetic abnormalities. My mother is in the high-risk group which gives her a life expectancy of about a year and a half after diagnosis. She was diagnosed in May 2018.

We are at the one-year mark.

If you do the math, it makes the coming holiday season a bit foreboding. What will Christmas look like? I have caught myself imagining life after my mother goes. I think this is all part of the pre-grief, trying to process the inevitable.

Grief can trap you in time. Grief can steal years of your life away. Grief kills people.

But truthfully, anyone can die at any time. A dear friend has said to me, “You don’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s going to.” In other words, live without the grip of your fear of pain because pain is coming. Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one which is why we must live in the present, just this one day, and not anticipate trouble so much it sucks all the joy out of it. Fill the cup of life with as many good memories as possible to see you through the darkness.

It’s not just that life goes on… Life must go on. We must choose it.

And so, we do. Last month, mom traveled to Louisiana to meet her first great grandchild at 4 months of age. And in June, she will attend her 61st high school class reunion. We also have a fabulous road trip planned around her 79th birthday that will include beaches and margaritas. We can sit and enjoy our time together.

I pray we are given more than we dare hope…

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, May 2019

Cycle St. Paul. Hills and All.

I am seated on a steel bench just after lunch: June 25 at 12:30, hot sun, and worries about my sunburn getting worse. I cycle this university campus. Indeed, I was here 18 hours ago peddling my bike up the hill to the student center. I’ve cycled over 800 miles this season getting ready for RAGBRAI, most spent on the terrain of St. Paul. I hear a lot of groans from other cyclists when I tell them I choose to train here.

No really. I choose to ride these hills.

RAGBRAI is a 7-day ride from the western to eastern border of Iowa. About 20,000+ cyclists make the journey annually during the last full week of July. It averages about 468 miles in total length, which means 67+ miles per day. I can also expect over 12,000 feet of total climb. Iowa is not flat.

Have I mentioned the corn sweat?

I frequent a coffee shop downtown. It’s a good mid-way point and I have spent many hours there in the off-season writing (not in spandex). But it is summer, and the baristas are impressed by my mileage. I got a 50-mile ride in last Sunday and plan for 55 miles the next. I come into town by way of Shepard’s Road and out again by Big Rivers Regional Trail.

I often see eagles hunting along the river. Soaring grace until a fierce dive to the fish below. I feel that way on my bike. I feel like I am flying. There is no other world besides the connection between me and the steel bike frame… the bike tires and the road… the road leading forever to the horizon. Sometimes, the meditation is so deep I really believe I can go on for days. Then I stop for a snack and a dose of reality.

I came to cycling in 2014, about a year after my back surgery.

A friend asked me on a whim, “You wanna ride RAGBRAI with me?” I knew what it was having attended the University of Iowa as an English major years before. But I had never cycled before. I thought there was no way I could ever do such a thing.

Then I paused.

Two years earlier, just after my 40th birthday, a disk in my spine herniated and cut into my spinal cord. Intense waves of pain and weakness in my left leg caused it to randomly stop working. Some days, it was all I could do to walk the few blocks from the bus stop after work and lay on the floor all night. This went on for nine months: pain, mobility loss, and isolation all stealing my life and dignity away. Then I got back surgery. I got my life back. And I got asked to ride a large, insane cycling event.

My leg was working again… why couldn’t I ride RAGBRAI?

There is something about the slow pace of 14mph that allows you to see the world in a way that driving does not: deer darting through the high grass, tiny flowers of yellow and blue, and every butterfly that lights upon them. But that’s fast enough that if you are panting, and a June bug decides to commit suicide by flying into the back of your throat, you have little choice but to swallow it.

Hey, it’s fuel for the ride.

We are so spoiled in the Twin Cities by our extensive system of bike trails and lanes. I’ve tried cycling in other cities, in other states, but there is simply not the same quality and quantity. This place is dedicated to cycling access. I feel safe here. I don’t have to ride on the streets and when I do, there are safe places to do that. Without it, I don’t think I would have taken up what has become one of the best parts of my life.

Thank you for that St. Paul… ride on!

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, October 2018

Outerwear

No matter what the groundhog says, we are only halfway through winter. It is still 7 weeks to the vernal equinox and the astronomical start of spring. I have heard it said that there is no bad weather, only bad gear. These people have clearly never dealt with -55°F windchill.

Like most Minnesotans, I have multiples of all my winter outerwear: parkas, boots, hats, and gloves. I even have a sense of the temperature rating of my socks. You do not wear the same ones in 20°F as you do in -20°F. All cold climate residents will tell you, layering is the key to staying warm.

Back in April 2013, I had an apartment fire that consumed almost all my possessions. My entire wardrobe and all my winter gear did not survive. In the following months, each season of the year, I had to assess what I was missing. What were the most urgent items to buy and what had to wait for next year or the year after that. When you have nothing, you start with a hairbrush and go up from there. It was a constant state of flux in budget and stress. What can I afford? What can I do without?

It is hard to express how humble an experience like that can make you.

Friends and strangers stepped up and gave me their extra clothing and other household items. The thrift store is also a great way to immediately replace large sections of a wardrobe for not a lot of money.  This got me through the spring, summer, and fall months in clothes that didn’t fit quite right and were not my style, but I was so grateful to have. They were clean, gently used, and good enough for my job.

2013 stands as the hardest year of my life. By the end of it, I was worn down by grief, stress, and anguish. Somehow, I managed to forget that January in Minnesota was coming. I had to scramble to find a good parka that fit me on the post-Christmas clearance rack. What I found in my price range that fit and was sturdy was a men’s Jack Spade army green down jacket and some grey snow pants.

FYI- There is nothing sexy about snow pants.

Cheap women’s coats may be cute, but they are often poorly made. At 5’9”, I have a long frame and the sleeves on women’s clothing is often too short or cut too tight around the shoulders. If I want cute that fits, I have to spend money. So, I just bought my man-coat and wore my man-coat and dealt with people thinking I was a man in a coat.

In the basement of my apartment, there was a lighter men’s Columbia yellow polyfill jacket that hung to dry for over two years. The person who owned it obviously did not live in the building anymore and I was sick of looking at it. I intended to donate it to the thrift store but tried it on and it fit perfectly. Now, I had two man-coats. This one had a logo on it- “Winter X Games”. I know about the X games but don’t care about the X games. I didn’t notice the logo until someone decided it was cool and asked me about it. I still need to come up with a better story than “I found it in the basement”.

When you are a man in a coat no one questions your choice in outerwear.

One of the great mysteries of life is why some men have chosen to monitor whether women have overdressed for the weather. It is not clear to me if they are sick of their girlfriend complaining she is cold or if they are personally dissatisfied in your lack of sexiness or if they experience discomfort with ambiguous gender identification or what. I do not understand people who think nothing of verbally accosting strangers about their choice in outerwear. They have absolutely no clue how useless cute, cheap, shitty women’s coats are.

I will almost always choose quality and value over style. It is why my army green man-coat has lasted me these five years. But I’m tired of wearing men’s clothes. The general consensus that big women don’t need cute and that there are not enough big women to produce stylish mass market clothing gets old. I want to be pretty too. And even though my man-coat is still good and saw me through some raw years, I decided for the sake of my self-esteem, I needed to up my game. And as it turns out, if you spend some money and take some time, you can find coats that are stylish, warm, and actually fit.

Here’s proof:

IMG_20190125_184835

Happy mid-winter festival, everyone. Stay warm no matter what you choose to wear!

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, February 2019

The Great Wide Open

More than one person has said to me- take time. Be with your mom before the cancer makes her really sick. Plan a family vacation somewhere and make some quality memories together, one last time. We’ve been talking about what that might look like in practical terms of time, money, stamina, and risk of viral infection.

I love to travel. I am willing to travel just about anywhere in the world, for almost any length of time, for almost any reason. I am an adventurer at heart, an international explorer. One of the greatest gifts my father gave to me was his love for travel. It made me understand that there were other places, with a lot of other people who did not look or act like me.

Nothing held more interest for my dad then just getting out and seeing the USA. His career gave us the ability to take two big vacations a year. These trips were what I would describe as ‘The Bill Mounts Family Vacation’. They were characterized by an extreme urgency to see everything you could possibly see in the short time allotted. Two weeks was just not enough time to sit and relax. We had to go, go, go and went, went, went we did.

By the ripe old age of twelve, I had traveled to no less than forty states. I had been to innumerable national parks- Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Petrified Forest, Red Wood Forest, Rocky Mountains, etc. I had been in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, and Pacific. I had been to countless museums, forts, State Capitols, wayside historical markers, tourist traps, national monuments, scenic overlooks, zoos, amusements parks, etc.  Once dad died in 1985, our annual family vacations stopped for the most part.

Mom did take me to Hawaii…

So, where do I take mom for that one last ride? From my perspective, the most obvious choice is Florida. Dad was in love with Pensacola. He was stationed there during his time in the Navy and my parents planned to retire there. It feels like we visited every year while he was still alive. We camped on Santa Rosa Island, played on the beach, visited Fort Pickens, Trader Jon’s, the National Naval Aviation Museum, and wherever else dad wanted to feel nostalgic.

That was all before the island was built up with hotels. You could still collect sand dollars, starfish, and seashells. We even picked up a couple conch shells once. No one was combing the beach at the break of dawn collecting them all to sell. I have very clear memories of the smell of orange blossoms and the feel of the white sand beaches. I count them among the happiest memories of my life.

But that was Pensacola of the 1970’s & 80’s. It begs the question: could a trip to Florida today ever live up to those memories? And does mom want to go where dad would have chosen? Or does she have one last great adventure in her, one last uncharted destination, one unfulfilled wish?

It remains to be seen. And it may come to more than one trip this year with the various members of my family. We may not all be able to get the same time off. Quality time with more intimate groups of people might be a better way to go. And if we end up hanging around the mid-west… well, at least we won’t get lost.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

Resolution

It’s the new year. Like most people, I overdid Christmas. I celebrated with reckless abandon knowing that the last two weeks of the year are to feast, imbibe, and be rowdy. Let’s face it: I travel for Christmas, I’m not exercising in the hotel gym even if you paid me, and I am not cooking at home. So, letting go of my fitness goals is just reality and I embrace it.

But then New Year’s Day shows up with its fresh calendar and same old life, same old body. There seem to be two types of people- those who make New Year’s resolutions and those that don’t. For those that don’t, I get it. The turning of the year does not change your life. New Year’s Day is just January 1st.

But I fall in with those that make resolutions. Or I at least reaffirm my commitment to the goals I already have and work toward every other day of the year. I meditate on where I was at this time last year. What in my life has changed? What did I learn? What am I grateful for and what was hard and painful? And I readjust my course.

I have three major goals guiding my life at all times: Health, Wealth, and Purpose.

Health is paramount. Everything else is built on this single goal because without it, you cannot do anything else. Ask people with chronic illness and they will tell you this truth. Health  goals for me include physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The big ones of course are diet, exercise, and managing my depression. But it also includes meditation and prayer, seeking companionship with those who love me, and recreation.

Wealth at its simplest definition is money but I mean more than that here. Paying off debt and saving for the coming rainy days. Focusing on my career and what I want to do before I retire. Planning for major purchases like a home. Managing my current possessions and budgeting for my current bills. At the end of the day, money is green paper but life without it is so mean we dedicate a third of our lives in its pursuit. But I understand that it is simply a tool that I must use in order to function in our society, not the purpose for living.

Which brings me to my last goal- Purpose. What is my life’s purpose? I have enough work, projects, and writing to shut myself off from the world for the rest of my life. I could isolate and focus only on my plans, accomplishing them one by one, and maybe stop to appreciate how far I’ve come but that’s unlikely. There are always more plans to be made, more goals to achieve, no time for satisfaction… But that is not what life is for. That is not what brings life meaning.

My life’s purpose is simply this:

  1. Learn how to love others. Learn how to allow others to love me. Both require the hardest of all: Learn how to love myself
  2. Write my truth and share it with the world
  3. Live well according to my Higher Power’s guidance

It’s not about resolutions. It’s about refinement and recommitment. It’s about gracefully accepting the lessons of time and allowing all those big, big plans of youth to fall away to focus on what really matters. Time passes so much faster than we realize. It is the most precious commodity we have.

And what I would say to you for the New Year is simply this: figure out what you really want and resolve to do that in whatever capacity you still can. What else is this time for?

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

P.S. 2018

I love winter. I must since I chose to move north to Minnesota 15 years ago. It’s not the cold, it’s the 3 solid months of writing and reading with very little distraction. Cycling does not lure me out onto the forested trails and social invitations slow down to a crawl. No one wants to leave their home either and that’s fine.  I have plenty of paper and ink to spare.

Last winter, I committed to waking up at 5am and working on my novel before work. I had a smoke damaged, sooty copy of a 2nd draft I wrote 10 years before. It was somewhere to start. So, I scanned the 263-page document using optical character recognition software and imported that into Scrivener. After 1.5 months of work, it was formatted and cut up into sections, chapters, and scenes.

For the next 1.5 months, I wrote roughly 22,000 words of new content; total word count is sitting around 143,000 words. Now, I realize that if you participate in NANOWRIMO that 22K in 1.5 months is a puny amount… but what can I say? Slow but sure… It feels like I am writing a different book. 10 years will do that. Characters and the basic story are roughly the same, but I am not. I’ve had some practice. My writing voice is much more confident and authentic.

But 2018 was a tough year. By April, I was absorbed in implementing software at work and in May my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I did not have the energy or emotional resources to continue work on the book. I did continue to write poetry and post on my blog. I attended many poetry open mics and had my first show as a featured poet in March 2018. And I rode an emotional roller coaster for the rest of the year, often overwhelmed and feeling like a deer in headlights.

In November, I had a revelation: I was still hiding. I wrote for literally decades and shared very little of my work with anyone. I set-up my blog in 2014 and did not start posting on it until 2017 after I sent ‘Popcorn from the Void’ off to my editor. But I was mostly posting poems. I could still fool myself into thinking I was being vulnerable- and I was- but not in a way that people could see a clear picture of me. I could still hide behind the form.

‘Popcorn from the Void’ is a book based off personal essay blog posts that Todd Park used to manage his cancer- both in providing information to family and friends and in processing his experience. Was I not about to walk through my mother’s cancer and death? And could my personal essays about this journey help others?

My 2018 blog stats are very modest but solid: 43 posts, 1,147 visitors, 1,733 views, 107 total followers. That means I averaged 40 views per post and 10 visits per follower. There aren’t a lot of you, but you are loyal! I had two shows in which I was one of the featured readers. And I submitted ‘Popcorn from the Void’ to the 2018 Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And while it did not win, it received a rave review from its judge and scored 30/30 points on its assessment. Not bad for an amateur.

So dear readers, 2019 promises to be an even tougher year personally but it is also the year that I intend to try to be published for real, for the first time. And it will be a year of personal essays where I will feel very, very naked. And it will be the year of my first finished novel.

It has to be… if I want to be sure mom can read it…

Blessed New Year!

Christine

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

Life as I know it: November 10, 2018

Life as I know it is this: My mother has a terminal blood cancer diagnosis (MDS). I am an artist with a professional career in IT. I am dog person living alone with two cats. And I burn with deep pain and passions that frequently erupt into the quiet practice of writing.

What is the function of my blog in my life? I consider the direction it has taken. I have many poems, hundreds probably, and have posted them here. I could keep up with that work, but I feel the call to something different.

My friend Todd blogged his personal journey through blood cancer- from his leukemia diagnosis to untimely death. It is a body of work I believe has helped others on that same journey (Popcorn from the Void). In the coming months, I intend to write about my own journey through grief alongside my creative writing.

Grief is my constant companion. It is the direct result of loving and having loved deeply and lost. I don’t write about my broken heart very much, but it plagues me with rage and sorrow. My deep fibers. They take my breath away.

I am standing on the tracks and there is a light coming toward me, a freight train that I cannot escape. I have read that all other death is merely practice for the death of your mother. Having lost my beloved father at age 12, it is difficult for me to imagine anything more painful than that (other than child death).

My mother is fine right now. She has treatments of chemo to deal with the cancer and anti-biotics to deal with the infections that low white blood cell counts allow to grow. She is active and living her life as normally as possible. She is not close to death yet.

But I am experiencing pre-grief. It is the sort of thing that comes at you sideways. It is feeling anxious without being able to do anything about it. It’s waking up, walking out, letting go. The ground beneath me is shifting- by my choice. I shaved my head. I broke my celibacy. I accepted a promotion.

In the midst of crisis, I am calm. This is typical for people who grew up like I did. I can be calm because I delay. I hold my shit together in order to get through it, to calmer waters. And when I get there, I let it wash over me. I experience the grief, the pain, the anger, the loss. But I have had a lot of crisis these past five years. I have both outgoing and oncoming grief now.

So, what is the solution?

I am in the in-between hours. It is the time for collecting good memories, to fill my cup, to feel free and alive, and take stock. I am visiting with friends, seeing live music, cuddling my cats, reading books- simply being without driving myself to some more constructive end. When the difficulties arrive, I will be able to look back on this time of my life and rejoice. There is happiness within me and within those I love.

It is precious to me, a reminder that life is not all darkness even when it is the darkest.

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018