I find it difficult to summarize essay collections, but I’d say Ann Patchett’s main point in These Precious Days is:
“Life has been wonderful. I never could have predicted any of it. And I am so so happy. So very very happy.” (paraphrased)
When I mentioned this to my husband, he commented that she sounded a bit smug, but I said, “No, not at all. She’s completely heartfelt and genuine,” perhaps influenced by the wholesome upbringing she alludes to when she describes her father and his comments on her writing – how her characters didn’t need sex, drugs or swearing in order to tell a good story – or perhaps indicated by her general life outlook of “no one deserves anything, life just comes, the good with the bad” (paraphrased from different sections) – how she was accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop but denied admission elsewhere, how she published her first novel at 27 years of age, how she met her literary hero and inspiration (John Updike) face to face at an awards ceremony, and how she found deep friendship during the start of the pandemic, a friendship that culminated in the celebration of her friend’s lifelong dream.
This book is truly a celebration of life, written by someone who accepts its setbacks. So as I was reading, I wondered to myself: why is this book getting under my skin and making me so irritable?
A successful essay starts strong, as if to tell the reader, “Ecoutez-moi! Listen up! I am about to tell you what I have come to say.” Ann Patchett does this. She grabs our attention, carries us through, and imparts her life advice and experience.
This, however, is not a memoir. There is no central struggle for our main character. There are small battles (trying not to vomit while her husband practices repeated take offs and landings in a single engine plane somewhere west of Alaska) but no lifelong torment or deep-seated resentment or really any inner conflict. These essays are also completely void of blame. They are nearly void of sex, drugs and swearing. Which is refreshing, in a way, and in another way, I found myself wishing I was in the middle of a novel.
I decided that there are two main differences between a novel and an essay collection. A novel, unlike an essay collection, centers a particular question or quest or struggle. The bulk of the pages hang in this question, with the conclusion and denouement reserved for the smallest segment at the end. Therefore, the reader is immersed in the tension of one singular story for such a length that a conclusion, when it comes, is immensely satisfying.
Also, novels, of course, are fiction. There is no reading through them – as with essays – and wondering how you might react in a similar situation. Or rather, you might put yourself in a character’s shoes, but with a nonfiction piece, it could be entirely possible that you might have had a life such as the real life described on the pages, only it happened to another woman and not you. Perhaps novels contain brilliant turns of phrase or messaging sprinkled throughout, but you don’t have to take these messages as life advice the way they seem to come across in personal essays.
As a writer, it was hard for me to read about Ann Patchett’s successes, even though they are well deserved. To have written a novel by age 27! To have discovered the joy of running a bookstore – a profession that surprises her but one that I was primed to embrace having just finished Ellery Adams’ series The Secret, Book and Scone Society with delightful (though someone self-important) bookstore owner Nora Pennington!
And then there were other things that hit even closer to home, like the essay on giving away her things, including pricey flatware, and deciding that she didn’t have to be the woman she thought she would want to be when she was older, namely, the kind who collected all sorts of kitchenware.
Along those lines, about six months ago, my husband and I filled a 15 foot U-Haul with things from our house, mostly seasonal or occasional items that we kept in the basement. We thought this would cull the supply in preparation for our upcoming cross-country move and possibly make the house look better when it came time to stage and sell. As we loaded everything in, each thing seemed important, a part of our story, and yet, after I pulled the rolling door closed on the back of the truck, I allowed myself to imagine letting it all go, just driving it off to a donation center and getting rid of it all rather than driving it across the country and unpacking it in a new house. How nice, I thought, it would be to unburden myself of all of this stuff, and of the need to keep things around for the sake of memory or just-in-case scenarios.
But I couldn’t do that, which brings me to the next essay that was difficult for me to read: Ms. Patchett’s long-winded thoughts on why she doesn’t have children, why she never wanted children, and why she is irritated at people insinuating that her life is incomplete because of this. Perhaps I read her wrong, but I discovered, in this long essay that says many more things than this, that to her, children would have interfered with her writing. And, that she knew she wouldn’t be able to stand the mess.
There is a room in my new house that the previous owners used as a wine cellar. When I toured the house one year ago the racks were full. I have since counted, and there is space for over 200 bottles of wine. I’m sitting in this room right now, attempting to carve out a writing space for myself away from my kids, away from the mess, away from the noise. The racks are empty, begging to be repurposed. The tile floor is bare, craving a rug covering on this day when the temperature is below zero. Yes, Ann Patchett, kids would have interfered with your writing, and you always wanted to be a writer, so why take that chance at derailing what you wanted?
People have told me what makes me interesting is my many varied interests. Conversely, I look at people like Ann Patchett and am intensely curious. How is it, I ask her, that you could know so clearly what one thing you wanted, when there are so many things to pull at your attention?
Clearly, personality plays a role. But the mess! I can’t stand the mess. But does this mean I shouldn’t have been a mother? I think about the women I know who also can’t stand the mess and what wonderful mothers they are and think, no, this is not a reason not to be a mother.
But it is one to manage…perhaps by buying a house big enough that it comes with a wine cellar that can be converted to a writing closet. (Wow, now that sounds romantic, doesn’t it?)
My jealousy mounted at every essay and hit a peak near the end, just when her collection reached its own climax: For me, the pandemic accentuated a disconnection I had already felt with my friends and my community. For her, the pandemic ushered in an opportunity for life-changing friendship. So that was hard to read.
I closed the book and felt the need to remind myself of certain truths: I always wanted to be a mother. I always wanted to be a writer. My literary hero Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish until her sixties. Also, Ann Patchett is older than me, writing these essays with a perspective of someone much further down the road. Moreover, she is not a memoirist. There is one essay that delves a little bit into her writing life and practice of the craft, and in that essay, we see, just for a moment, her vulnerabilities, her reticence to examine the past, to examine her own early work. We see a reluctance to analyze herself or those close to her.
In short, she is a different type of writer than me, and there is no sense in comparing.
I am reminded of a quote that a writing instructor used at the beginning of a class I took a few years ago. Jean Rhys once said:
“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
So do I give up, having not yet published a book at age 40?
No, I write. I feed the lake. And if you are reading this, then I thank you very much.
Sometime in college, I found myself missing all sorts of friends from throughout my life, including ones I made in college and then didn’t see much as schedules and focuses changed. I tried to tell myself I was lucky to have known them at all, whether they were still present in my life or not. I wrote down my thoughts on this and put it to music and ended up with a song about friendship and how sometimes the only thing left is an annual Christmas card.
I hadn’t mailed Christmas cards in a few years, but since it seemed important to also announce our new address, I got my act together, albeit reluctantly. Reluctantly because as I made my list, I felt the pain of missing all of the people on it. Christmas cards are nice and all, but wouldn’t it be better if we could walk down the street and grab a cup of coffee together? I sort of felt like I was being asked to accept a consolation prize.
I debated how many cards to order. So many consolation prizes. So many people to keep up with, to check in on, who I would never again see on a daily basis.
And then I got a Christmas card in the mail from a friend. Someone I hadn’t talked to in years. And I was so touched that she still thought to remember me.
And then I got a text from a friend saying that a boy we knew in high school had just passed away from cancer, leaving behind his wife and three kids, and couldn’t we get together soon?
I told my friend yes and then located my address book and got to work. I found the name and college address of that boy from high school. I hadn’t known him that well, but there he was, right in my book, a name preserved in time for over twenty years. I found old addresses, ones I knew were out of date and ones I took a chance with and later learned were beyond the limits of mail-forwarding.
I addressed 99 envelopes. Many times, I started to write our old address in the return section and would have to scratch it out and start over. This reminded me of how about a year after I got married I accidentally wrote my maiden name when signing a credit card receipt. It was like I had been incredibly vigilant for a year after changing my name but as soon as I let my guard down, I reverted to muscle memory. It’s going to take a while to undo the muscle memory of 11 years at the same address as well.
Still, I felt better about the process as I wrote the names of my friends, even the ones I hadn’t seen in years, hadn’t talked to in years. (If I missed you, I apologize. Send me your address, and I’ll send you a card!)
It reminded me of something I did on my 40th birthday earlier this year: I made a list of the friends I was glad to have in my life. I tried to think of a top 10. Then, when I realized I had more names to write down, I tried to make it to 40. Then, the list kept going.
I was glad to have known them for big and small reasons, for short and long amounts of time. They were all important to me, and that was the whole point. I emailed some of them. And some of them will get a Christmas card.
In the end, I decided that the cards weren’t enough, but I was glad to give and receive them. It was nice to be thought of. It was nice to think of my friends, which reminded me of the song I wrote in college, the one that went like this:
Lucky Am I
When you live in a place for only three months at a time
When you find a new spot for an hour or so
So many faces to meet and always new smiles
I guess it’s only natural, some won’t last long
But how lucky am I
How incredibly lucky am I
To have known you
To have known you
And how lucky am I
How incredibly lucky am I
To have known you
Back then I saw your face several times a day
Or our weekly coffee date round the corner in town
But then you moved on from there and someone moved in
And now it’s just a Christmas card. Guess I’ll talk to you next year
But how lucky am I
How incredibly lucky am I
To have known you
To have known you
And how lucky am I
How incredibly lucky am I
To have known you
For a short while
For a long while
Forever and a day
For all of my life
For a short while
For a long while
Forever and a day
For all of my life
How lucky am I to have known you….
This debut novel has it all: a hook, a clear setting, increasingly dire stakes, and a new voice from a character whose circumstances make you wonder, what year is it?
The specifics of Adunni’s journey from ignorance and impotence to knowledge and self-advocacy are perhaps not too surprising. However, Abi Dare writes with an attention to setting and sensory and emotional detail that this reader had to keep turning the page. Adunni’s world is vivid and her needs are urgent. Moreover, Ms. Dare expands her story by giving Adunni a heart for those around her, whether they deserve it or not. She cares not only for herself but also for the rest of the girls in her village who have no chance at choosing their own futures. And she casts forgiveness on her father for the way he treats her like property, forgiving his failures as he succumbs to the pressures of his own circumstances.
Above all, this western reader learns just how difficult it might be for one Nigerian girl to navigate the world, how she must learn when to speak out and when to keep quiet in order to position herself for her next move. This is truly one of those stories that is in high demand from agents, publishers and readers: one that tells an untold story, one that gives voice to a type of person who previously had none.
Ms. Dare, however, points no fingers. She acknowledges British rule over Nigeria. She acknowledges Nigerian corruption after independence. She acknowledges the brutality of “jungle justice” practices. She acknowledges the real families in the “jungle” who lean on their own law. It is my understanding that Ms. Dare isn’t asking for a revolution but more asking that we look and see and understand the complexity of all of the stories revealed in the world created in these pages.
Ms. Dare is herself a Nigerian native, born in Lagos and educated in the UK, making me wonder how much of this story was researched, and how much of this story was lived. Whatever the case, I was confident that I could rely on this author’s descriptions. My one objection to the text was that it used on an imaginary book of facts in order to provide context to certain chapters and plot points, first making this reader believe that such a source was real and then providing a note at the end explaining that while the book is made up, the facts could be easily found on the internet. I would have appreciated a list of sources rather than just being asked to defer to a Google search, although I understand this would be incongruent with the formatting of a novel.
I was hesitant to pick up this book, and as I reflect on why that was, I think it was because I assumed this book was about everything we got wrong in the past, “we” being mainly colonialists. However, after reading it, I feel this book is less a book about the past and more a book about the present, with specific ideas of where to move forward from here. This is a book for now, and having learned that, I feel its momentum, as if it advocates for itself, as if it insists on being passed along to you, the next reader.
A friend of mine recently shared an article from the New York Times on healing prayer, and one neuroscientist’s mission to prove that it works. She thought the essay was lovely and knew I would find it interesting. And I did, in fact, find it interesting. Uplifting too. And yet, at the same time, I had to confess to my friend that it also revealed my own unbelief.
My new church in the Chicago area prays for its neighbors. My previous church did this, of course, but my new church does this in specific ways. My previous church drew its congregation from many surrounding towns, and my new church is no different. But each week at my new church, a deacon or support person from the church prays for a specific town included in our draw area and what the people there may be facing. They also pray for specific churches in that town. Occasionally, a specific person is named, but mostly, the names dropped are the names of the towns and the names of the churches. Even so, I have to tell you how powerful it was to sit there with my head bowed and hear the name of my new town and then hear the prayers said with me in mind.
Perhaps the church leader had divine inspiration regarding what to pray for, or perhaps I’m just in a stage and season of life where most people need the same things, but whatever the reason, it really felt like the prayers were said specifically for my family and me.
I remember a few of them now. I will voice them again, for myself, and for you, reader, should you find yourself in a similar position to mine.
On the eve of this new year, as someone in a new place, I pray:
For new friendships and belonging
For reconciliation in relationships
For employment and needs met
For closeness to God and his people
For love, joy and hope.
As for my friend who sent me the article, I told her I had a hard time believing in healing prayer. When my own mother was battling breast cancer, I hedged my bets and prayed for wisdom for the doctors and clear treatment plans. I didn’t pray for a cure.
In the Bible, miracles are performed to bring glory to God, which is a way of saying to draw people to him. Will curing my mother bring glory to God? Will my getting a job bring glory to God? I find it easier to imagine that making new friends and hosting community events and actually telling people about God will bring glory to God. I have definitely focused my efforts in these areas in the past. But now I think, maybe it’s okay to ask God for what we want in other areas. Maybe it’s okay to get specific. Maybe it’s not up to me to know ahead of time how the granting or not granting of prayer will be used for God’s glory. Maybe it’s just up to me to pray and lay out the cares of my heart, having the faith that God could intervene, having the faith that he will make all things right in his time.
It’s hard, this prayer thing, whether praying for a miracle or praying for something we actually believe we should try to go out and get ourselves. God, give me discernment to know where to put my efforts, and remind me always to begin with you.
Amidst all of the strife this year has brought regarding women’s health issues, it was refreshing to hear about one practical step I could take to help women who find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy. After all, that was once me.
I remember lying on the ultrasound table and hearing the tech hesitantly ask, “Um, do twins run in your family?”
An unexpected pregnancy and twins on top of that. The paper on the examination table rattled as my whole body trembled with the news and I wondered where I would sleep four children under the age of four, including three children under the age of two.
It could have been worse.
I can remember one woman I visited as a medical student. She knew she was pregnant. She was about 30 weeks along when we saw her. But she wasn’t just pregnant. We also had to inform her that she was pregnant with twins, that her umbilical cord was dangerously positioned such that she needed hospitalization and close monitoring, and on top of that, she had a sexually transmitted disease that indicated her partner had been unfaithful.
She didn’t tremble when we told her, but she slowly closed her eyes and stopped talking to us, her medical team, as if closing her eyes might shut out the world too.
When friends and neighbors asked what they could do to help me after my own twin delivery, I asked for three things: playdates for my two toddlers, dinners, and diapers. Sure, the latest toys and books and gadgets would have been fine. But first, we needed an abundance of the basics.
So when a representative from Caris* climbed the stage at church last month and asked for diapers, my first thought was, “There’s no way we can ever collect enough.” One baby needs thousands of diapers. Our church’s goal of collecting 10,000 diapers this season sounded like a lot, at first, but then again, not very much at all when we heard of how many women and families this organization sought to support.
I told myself that this was one of those times that doing something was better than sitting on your hands and worrying you wouldn’t ever solve the whole problem, so the next time I was at Target, I bought two boxes of diapers in the sizes Caris said they needed most.
I have purchased diapers from Target countless times over the years. I remember I got into a rhythm with it – watching the sales and making sure to get the bulk discount. On wipes too. Then I would approach the checkout and hope the cashier would ask me about my babies. I wanted someone to witness it. I wanted to explain how many babies I had at home, how I still had four children in diapers and training pull ups, how I still needed emotional support long after the post-partum flurry of gifted diapers and dinners had faded (though I still remain incredibly grateful for all of that – we didn’t cook dinner ourselves for three months after my twins were born).
I hadn’t thought about any of that in a long time, but buying diapers last month unearthed it all and made me uncomfortable about approaching the checkout. I didn’t want anyone to assume I had babies at home. I didn’t want to take undue sympathy. And if they asked, I didn’t want to have to explain that the diapers weren’t for me, that I shouldn’t need their sympathy. I didn’t want to explain that I was helping with a diaper drive. Because, wouldn’t that mean that I had it together enough with my own life to help? Wouldn’t that mean that I was claiming I knew best what was needed?
Clearly, I was overthinking it, but I still used the self-checkout.
Now I think maybe a short conversation with a cashier would have been nice.
“No, these aren’t for me, and they aren’t enough for anyone else. But maybe they’ll do a little good. No, my babies are older now, but I still have four of them. Mothering babies is hard, and mothering children is hard, and mothering preteens is hard.”
After all, the cashier was probably a mom too. She probably had her own story to tell.
We don’t have to hide our stories, though I understand the impulse. And if Caris can help make a difference in the lives of a few new mothers, then maybe they will understand that they don’t need to hide either. Maybe they will understand they are seen and loved, and that there are people out there who want to help come alongside them on their journey too.
*Caris is a faith-based nonprofit organization in Chicago that seeks to help women with unplanned pregnancies through counseling and practical support.
Oh the happy leaf blower
Who sees me raking across the street
Dragging my tool over the scattered litter
My chapped hands catching splinters from the
A film of green develops from right to left as I toil
While the piles of leaves along the curb
Grow taller and taller,
The wind threatening to destroy
All of my work.
He crosses the road to the neighbor’s lawn
To help them, I think,
Only he backtracks slowly
Moving me out of the way
Towards the garage.
I take refuge from the insulting
Noise and fumes of his blower
As I watch the tornado of swirling gold and red and brown
Take flight in the fall morning
He scatters them and gathers them up
And leaves them in a larger pile on the curb
Before offering me a satisfied smile and a wave goodbye.
I raise my hand, rub my ears,
And wish I had more to rake.
*this image was pulled from an internet search...
You know that scene in Outbreak when Dustin Hoffman strides purposefully into the hospital, ready to tackle the impossible task of curing a novel virus, when another doc grabs him and points out that a patient in isolation now has signs of the disease? Remember how Hoffman looks up and we get that whiplash-inducing tour of the air vents that shows us how the virus jumped between rooms?
There is no such connection between my kitchen pantry (where the moth infestation started) and my laundry room (though they are back to back and each behind a closed door), but when I opened the laundry room door two weeks ago and spotted a pantry moth on the ceiling, I felt Hoffman’s panic.
It had already been a dark month, where the darkness brought on by the increasingly shorter and cloudy days only felt like one of the many plagues sent my way, plagues that started with the (five) mice in my closet crawl space and then became larvae on my pantry rice. Instead of escaping to Florida for Thanksgiving like my neighbors, I found myself setting and emptying mouse traps and throwing out food and spraying a bleach and water solution over every pupa, whimpering with disgust, no matter how much I tried to inhabit my friend’s mindset, the one who absolutely reveres the process of metamorphosis.
Because Ms. Pennington not only owns a bookshop and solves mysterious murders that happen at a ridiculous rate in her sleepy North Carolina town (perhaps even more ridiculous how little the characters fear for their lives while living through these ordeals), she engages her customers by offering them “bibliotherapy,” that is, suggested reading to help them with whatever emotional problem they may be dealing with. While Ms. Pennington does resort to traditional self-help titles when a friend wants to learn how to promote herself at work, she mainly sticks to fiction.
I think this is why I love these books so much (and will go back to read books two, three and four in the series next): While they are fast-paced murder mysteries that skip the gore, they are jam-packed with reading recommendations! I love seeing both familiar and unfamiliar titles and gathering ideas for future reading. Ms. Pennington and her friends read both deeply and widely and somehow, in the midst of running businesses and solving impossibly difficult crimes, they also manage to meet for a weekly book discussion.
I’m still searching for my next book club, but in the meantime, these characters were great company on a dark, cold day after I was done scrubbing the pantry ceiling, shelves, walls and floor. And, when the moths returned and somehow jumped locations to the adjacent-though-not-connected laundry room, a neighbor offered her portable ozone machine.
“Just leave the house while it’s plugged in and air everything out afterwards,” she warned.
The dog and I took a walk. Time will tell whether sucking all of the breathable oxygen out of the space succeeded in ending the life cycle of the resilient pantry moth or not.
The days are still gray (enough that I planned our next trip to Florida), and I still need to set more mousetraps, but I had an unexpected gift waiting when I turned the blinds one morning: a November snowfall. Suddenly, everything was brighter and more peaceful. (Those landscapers manning leaf blowers couldn’t work in the cold weather, thank goodness!) My kids were wishing for a snow day as they stomped in their boots to the bus stop, but I told them that whether school is in session or not, it happened. Here, a snow day. A respite. Blanketing us, soothing us, and tucking us in for the long winter to come.
During my first month as a doctor, one of my elderly hospital patients refused my recommendation to schedule a colonoscopy. I had conducted a small bedside test that indicated she had blood in her stool. It was standard procedure, I explained, to then find the source of the bleeding, and most importantly, rule out colon cancer.
“No,” she said softly but firmly with her husband next to her, equally resolute. She’d been through enough. No more workup.
She refused my senior resident. She refused my attending physician. She became the subject of debate. How much to push her while she was still in our midst, receiving care for another issue? Everything we had taught ourselves said that she needed this test.
But what if our assumptions were wrong?
In the middle of this crisis of conscience – which might have lasted one day or three, I can’t remember – I had an epiphany: I had read my test result wrong.
Everyone who has taken a COVID test by now knows that there is a line that appears for “control” and a line that appears for “test.”
Her “control” line had been positive, I realized, not her “test.” In my first-time-as-a-doctor nervousness, I had invented a problem.
By the end of my intern year – really by the middle, after a winter of calling time of death on multiple people each time I was on call – I had changed my tune from “workup at all costs” to telling my husband that if they asked him for my advanced directives, please let any hospital personnel know that I was “do not resuscitate,” “do not intubate,” “do not hospitalize,” and “do not touch under any circumstances let me die in peace thank you.”
Because was death, especially in this 80-something-year-old woman, really the worst thing?
After reading Dr. Jane Weeks’s story first in the Boston Globe and later in her husband Dr. Barrett Rollins’s memoir In Sickness, it seems like the renowned Boston oncologist and researcher would have agreed with me – that patients should be empowered to be able to make a clear-eyed choice regarding medical and end-of-life care, and to even be able to decline it, especially weighing the toxicities of certain treatments, like chemotherapies.
Indeed, in real life, she largely refused treatment for her own breast cancer, which she diagnosed in herself about ten years before her death, kept secret for six years, and only confided in her husband when she thought she was dying. For the last four years of her life, she bound him to her secret, refusing to let him speak of it to anyone.
This is another layer to the mystery: Not only does Weeks make us question how treatment conversations should take place between doctor and patient, she also demands we consider who has a right to know our medical history to begin with.
Was she wrong to refuse treatment for breast cancer? Was she wrong to force her husband to keep her secret? And was her husband wrong in keeping the secret from everyone else? When the news finally leaked that she had end-stage breast cancer, concerned family members and colleagues who yearned to be close to the fierce woman they long admired as a mentor and physician researcher wanted to do something to help her. And the reader presumes that these family and friends would have wanted to know what was going on with her.
This month, ten years after his wife’s death, Dr. Barrett Rollins lays it out for everyone in his scene-driven story about his wife’s struggle with breast cancer. The memoir opens with her near-death experience that landed her in the ICU and from there, chronicles her last year of life and her husband’s caretaking role during that time.
By the end, we definitely know what happened, but we are no closer to understanding why, or whether the writer thinks it should have happened this way or what the alternatives might have been. I expected this memoir to delve deeper into Dr. Weeks’s research and arguments, or at least some greater exploration of her past that created her intense phobias and personality. I thought such a discussion would be worthy of attention and could be used to try to improve communication between doctors and patients, especially regarding end-of-life issues.
Then again, this wasn’t her memoir; it is her husband’s, but the thing is, while he is present on every page, we learn so little about him that I don’t think it can be called his memoir either. He includes a few lines about his intense reluctance to face conflict and the turmoil he experienced as he considered several times whether to break his vow of secrecy. Still, in the end, it avoids any deep reflection regarding their marriage or the role of sharing medical news.
By the end, I couldn’t see this as anything more than an attempt to absolve her of any requirement to seek medical care or share her medical condition, and to absolve the writer of any complicity in the outcomes. Did they have love in their marriage? Yes, he argues. Did they support each other? He supported her every day of her life. This book could have been titled, “In Defense of My Actions,” and yet, perhaps he chose “In Sickness” in order to argue that no one can know the nuance of a marriage from outside of it. Theirs was a particular relationship, he argues, that in revealing the story on these pages, he hopes to explain to the world.
I’m not sure if Jane Weeks' life and death will have an effect on the practice of healthcare or oncology or the research of either, but for those who are aware, perhaps we might individually reflect on our motives for seeking medical care or not. For anyone seeking eternal life, I still strongly recommend religion. For my friend, Grace Segran, who sought treatment for her breast cancer, chemotherapy deprived her of enjoying her life, and she chose hospice in the end. For myself, I recently waited through almost four weeks of congestion, coughing and sinus pain, only going in for treatment when my kids fell sick. I might wish to never step foot in a medical office again, but how could I knowingly spread germs to them? For them, I took my antibiotics and steroids and began once again to sleep at night.
We can’t know Jane Weeks’ motives completely, but we can hope that she lived tenaciously, purposefully, and in accordance with her own wishes, to the very end of her truncated life.
Last week, a friend of mine donated hematopoietic stem cells to be used in new research on gene therapy for those with Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome, a genetic disease that affects the bone marrow, causing it to fail. She did this in hopes of new treatments for her daughter and others who are affected. She will spend the next 7-30 days recovering, if she is a typical case.
She asked me to follow her on social media and to get the word out about the research going on at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Notably, she didn’t ask me to recommit to be a bone marrow donor.
That would be the biggest ask, don’t you think?
I first fundraised for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training back in 2003 when I was living in Rhode Island. I ran a half marathon in Virginia Beach that year in honor of my cousin’s husband, who would in the ensuing years be put through the ringer with both diseases.
In 2010, I met up with the Team again in Boston, where we ran back and forth on Route 9 in preparation for the Boston Marathon. I mostly ran with my coach, but I was excited to also run into a high school friend I’m not sure I’d seen since he delivered his valedictory speech on the day he was cured of leukemia.
During one of our training sessions, our team was visited by representatives from Be the Match. I already knew that sometimes a family member can provide bone marrow needed for a transplant in order to treat blood cancers (as my cousin’s brother was in order to help him) but other times, recipients are at the mercy of strangers who volunteer. My high school friend and I each swabbed our cheeks, filled out the paperwork, and signed up.
That was 12 years ago now.
Would they still have my cheek sample from 12 years ago? All it would take would be a few clicks, or a quick email to find out, but why would I sign up when I might never be a match for anyone?
I took some time to review the pledge I made in 2010:
Your commitment to patients Once you join the registry, the most important thing you can do is stay committed. Show your commitment by taking this life-saving pledge:
As a Member of the Be The Match Registry®
I understand that:
I read it over, searched my email for my old donor ID number, and then updated my contact information. I clicked submit on the form and felt flooded by a wave of possibilities: the chance that it wouldn’t matter to anyone, and the chance that it would make all the difference.
Pray for my friend. Pray for her daughter. And ask yourself if you might be able to donate, either money or your own cheek cells and commitment too.
If a neighborhood’s wealth can be estimated by the number of landscaping trucks parked on the roads, then my street is very well-off. Most days this fall it was hard to negotiate a drivable path around all of the service vehicles, and the related noise has been deafening.
My husband reminds me that we jumped more than one culture when we moved from Cambridge to here, one of the suburbs on Chicago’s North Shore. We went from East Coast to Midwest. We went from city to suburb. We went from mixed income to affluent. We went from stratified ages and family groups to single-family homes with more traditional family structures.
All of the habits and mannerisms of this new culture landed on me in the form of intense sticker shock. I began to look for a part-time job in order to try to gain a little control over what felt like a losing battle with unpredictable expenses, but I was heartedly disappointed to lose out on a few jobs I might have genuinely enjoyed (bookseller, library aide). In the end, the one that took me, no questions asked, was the grocery store. After a few weeks of picking items for online orders, I actually began to enjoy the work, until a union rep came along five weeks in, demanding a portion of my paycheck and sincerely but firmly explaining that this was nonnegotiable.
I left my position at the end of the week, not having expected to pay the machine in order to keep a low-paying job, but before I did that, I got to know some of my coworkers. Coworkers like the Ukrainian woman and her refugee daughter searching for affordable preschool, the grandmother caring for her cancer-suffering boyfriend while also babysitting her grandkids, and the teenager who didn’t seem to have any plan for college.
When the Ukrainian grandmother approached me about preschools, I had to admit that I was unfamiliar with the area, but I went home that night determined to bring her an answer that would help her situation. I called the Village Hall and spoke with a social worker. I contacted someone at the local Head Start program. I spoke with the public school and the park district about their more affordable options. All of these options had multiple hoops to jump through. Nothing was straightforward. And everything had a waitlist. I compiled all of this information onto a document and presented it to my coworker, hoping something in there would prove fruitful for her family and wishing there was more I could do.
Recently, our church gathered on a Saturday morning to pack 1,440 Thanksgiving dinners for families in need around Chicago. The congregation had already spent weeks raising the funds to purchase all of the food and supplies. My kids had memorized Bible verses to “earn cans” that would be donated to the event. Behind the scenes, connections were being made and nurtured with the groups who would receive the dinners.
Then, on the big day, approximately 300 volunteers, my kids and I included, showed up in the sanctuary, first to worship in song and then to hear from the 13 ministries and organizations who had requested the food baskets and would carry out their distribution, organizations like:
West Deerfield Township Food Pantry
Youth Services Glenview / Northbrook
Good News Bible Church
Westside Ministers Coalition
CASA Lake County
Family Empowerment Center of Chicago
TEDS (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
Trinity Ministries of Chicago
El Puente Nuevo
New Church of Joy
When it was her turn to speak, a representative from Youth Services in Glenview shared that, “I think there’s a misconception that there isn’t any need on the North Shore. You look around and see all of this wealth, but there are a lot of families in need.”
I thought about my coworkers and wondered how their salaries were stretching to make it work. I could never fix all of their issues no matter how many phone calls I made, but in leaving them, I had lost the opportunity to be in community with them.
My dad likes to tell a story from the middle of the pandemic, when my parents’ car broke down in the middle of Iowa and they spent a few cold days outside of Des Moines debating whether to buy a new vehicle while trying to console their brand new and now once-again freshly traumatized rescue dog who was along for the ride. I guess the situation made my dad desperate enough that he started to crave Taco Bell. And yet, when he approached the drive-through on foot to place an order (lobbies being closed due to the pandemic), he was told they couldn’t serve him – because he didn’t have a car.
You need a car to get around the Chicago suburbs. My gas bill skyrocketed immediately when we moved here. (And if you are fit enough to bike the distance, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bike rack when you get to your destination.) I knew the property taxes were going to be much higher here than in Cambridge, and I knew the sales tax was going to go from nonexistent on essential goods to very existent.
But I didn’t realize that there aren’t kitchens or food plans in the public schools, nothing easily accessible if you are food insecure. I didn’t realize that there would be additional school fees and add ons for every activity, with no great way to deflect costs without simply not participating. I commented to my husband this fall that I felt like I was being treated like a blank check and that if I had to order one more specialty t-shirt for an activity, I was going to scream.
I decided that the attitude of the area was something like, “If it’s nice to have, then buy it,” without thinking about what stress such an idea might have on families. It seemed a baseline assumption that families would be capable of taking care of themselves, as well as stepping up to give above and beyond that.
How would a lower income family live comfortably here? How would a family like that ever feel part of the community?
Coming from Cambridge, there wasn’t really a “keep up with the Jones’s” type of vibe because there was so much diversity that you couldn’t target out any particular type of living. Or maybe closer to the truth, like the “tall poppy” idea in Australia (aka “cut down the tall poppy”), anyone who wanted to ask anything of families or the community would be asked to think of how it might impact the various socioeconomic and cultural groups. I was told that our public school system included speakers of over 500 different languages. That’s a heck of a lot of groups, and yet, the mission was to ensure we were all in the same boat together.
Back at church recently, during the basket drive, I was glad the benefitting 13 organizations exist, and that they know the families and can work to fill the gaps. I hope the families who received the Thanksgiving meals were blessed by the gesture and nourished by the food.
I also hope my family gets some new way to expand our community, to meet these families ourselves and share life with them. Without the grocery store gig, I need to search for another way. Because, selfishly, we all lose out when we don’t see them.
Packing up baskets in the church gym that day reminded me of setting up for the monthly marketplace at our Cambridge elementary school. An organization called Food for Free would donate canned goods, fruits, vegetables, dairy and frozen items. (I wrote previously about this endeavor here and here.) A handful of moms and I would arrange the food on tables and then invite families in to shop after school pick up that day. I also shopped. I visited with the staff and families. Then we’d go home and cook the same food that week which made me feel more connected to them.
By living together, we are all more blessed and nourished every day.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.