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Riding on the past (63 days till “The Ride”)

April 21, 2012

   I cannot believe that today is the day. The idea was spawned in the fall, and implementation went into effect in late January with press releases, blog posts and social media invites. Family and friends were put on notice: Save the date for April 21, 2012, because Lisa is likely to take a couple of hilarious falls for charity.

   Planning the Stick it to Cancer events has become second nature for Mom, Mary and me. Set up the blood drive and venue date, write and distribute the press release, design the flier, stamp and address about 200 donation letters, e-mail about 50 more potential donors, collect donations, assemble gift baskets in Mom’s basement, plan the food and recruit volunteers. All of this is easy. The hardest part is the waiting to see if donors will respond, if guests will attend and if the fundraising goals with be met. I fret over everything, the perfectionist that I am, but somehow, when it’s all over, it seems to have gone perfectly – even though the five hours had seemed like complete chaos.

   The event doesn’t begin until 2 p.m. today, but I’m up before 7 a.m., mostly because I’m too excited to sleep, partly because I’m worried that something will go horribly wrong. Since I was a child, I’ve been known as the worrier, and I never have been able to stop myself from earning the label. I always wondered, “If I don’t worry about these things, who will?” Today I’m concerned more about the bike-riding portion of the event than anything else. The worst-case scenario is that I ride the bike into the crowd and hurt a few people. A close second to that is that I fall off and hurt myself to the point where I cannot enter the Ride for Roswell. I’m going to end up worrying myself into a catastrophe.

   Days like this often prompt me to reflect on my life, mainly on how where I have been led to where I am today. I have lymphedema because I had surgery to cure cervical cancer. As ugly as it sounds, I contracted cervical cancer through the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted disease. I consider myself extremely lucky that the cancer was discovered early enough to treat without further complications. This was because I had annual PAP spears since having my first son. Once pre-cancerous lesions were discovered in my early 20s, I was checked out every six months. This was so important because cervical cancer usually has no symptoms until the disease is in advanced stages and difficult to treat.

   So would the next logical step in this thought process be that I contracted HPV because I was sexually active at a young age and a young mother? I often wonder about that, and I wonder if things would be different had I waited. Back in the day when I was naive and impressionable, I cared a great deal about what people thought about me in regard to this. It made me feel dirty and embarrassed. Not anymore. Life is too short to care about the naysayers. Besides, with HPV being the most commonly contracted STD and 20 million Americans aged 15 to 49 suffering from it, the odds were against me. We hear “the talk” from our parents when we’re budding adolescents, but do we really hear much past “don’t have sex” without wanting to do whatever comes after “don’t”? And I’m most certain that had I heard, “certain STDs can lead to cancer” during those uncomfortable middle and high school health classes, I would have been more inclined to hold off on sexual activity.

   It truly is difficult to regret anything that led to the introduction of my wonderful children into my life, so I could never say that I would do anything differently; well, much differently, anyway. The only thing I would change is how I handled my pregnancy with A.J. A sophomore in high school when I realized I was pregnant, I was scared to death to tell anybody about it. Not his father. Not my parents. Not my best friends. I would try, but I simply could not choke the words out. Just attempting to reveal the truth induced feelings of hyperventilation. I came close to spitting out the confession twice: before the first time, my mom announced that she was pregnant, and before the second, a cousin had announced her happy news. The perfect time never presented itself.

   So, I was one of those teen moms who people are alarmed about because they don’t tell anyone else they are pregnant until the baby comes. With others around me having babies, the stigma of teen pregnancy and the thought of completely disappointing my family hanging over me, I simply felt that I couldn’t tell anybody, so I internalized it for six months. As August 1992 trudged on, I realized that I would have to inform my parents about my situation before I began to show and before school started up again in September. A.J., however, didn’t want to wait until I made the announcement. He decided to come along in the middle of the night in the middle of August. I woke my parents, but I still couldn’t tell them the truth. Apparent symptoms of appendicitis led us to the emergency room at Kenmore Mercy Hospital, and even when the sonogram showed the evidence of my condition in black and white, I still couldn’t admit to the truth aloud. But the word was out, and my mom was so wonderful in taking the news.

   She sat with me as I continued to have contractions.

   She joined me in my fighting the doctor who was trying to diagnose me with false labor and send me home.

   She watched as the staff at the hospital rushed me around after my water broke (they didn’t know where to put me because the hospital no longer had a maternity ward).

   My only regret is that I didn’t speak with my parents sooner and receive prenatal care for my son. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been born three months early, weighing in at a frightening 2 pounds, 3 ounces. He wouldn’t have spent three months in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. I’m so thankful he was strong enough to make it through it all despite the rough start.

   When I decided to keep a journal of my bike-riding experience, I realized that I hadn’t written in a diary since A.J. was teeny tiny and still in a hospital incubator. It took a while to work up the nerve to dig up those writings, but I finally found the strength. Jotted within two hand-sized notebooks – one blue, one yellow (Buffalo Sabres colors … figures) – were my thoughts from A.J.’s birth to the day he came home at 5 pounds and dressed in an orange Halloween outfit Oct. 30, 1992.

   Thumbing through the old journal this morning, I’m realizing a few things. My handwriting has become increasingly worse over the past 20 years as keyboards replaced pens and pencils as the main writing instruments. I always have been the type to re-read my work, even if it’s just for myself, as evidenced on Sept. 19, 1992, when I crossed out “dad” and replaced it with “day” (it’s hard to have a hectic dad).

   Most of all, I recalled exactly all that A.J. had to endure to survive. At only 13 inches long, he could be held on one forearm. Blood transfusions, heart murmurs, a hole in the lung, jaundice – my poor baby battled through so much. It was heartbreaking watching him through the incubator, breathing with the assistance of a respirator, wiggling around wires protruding from his body and being fed through a tube, but it was important to remember that all the beeping electronics, doctors and nurses were necessary to save him.

   It took almost two months for the feeding tube to come out and for him to eat like a normal baby. I still tear up reading this little notebook. “October 13, 1992: A.J. got his first bottle feeding at 8:20 p.m., so today I also got to change his diaper. It was hard, too, because he wiggled so much. When [the nurse] was feeding him, he seemed confused, but he did well on his first try. … A.J.’s now 4 pounds, 5 ounces, and on 12 CCs of formula. … Everything’s going so well now.”
After A.J.’s birth, Mom discussed losing her baby, adding that God wanted this family to have a new addition in some way. How lucky I felt to have parents who could find the silver lining in such a serious situation. It’s no wonder where I get my strength.

   I have been through a lot, and I’m sure I will be through a lot more as the years wane. That’s why I am certain that today is a day to embrace, not to fear. No worries. I’ll get on that bike, and even if I don’t stay up there for very long, I’ll enjoy the ride.

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