Sunday, June 18, 2017

My niece has cancer, and I'm ticked about it. But, I'm learning from her.

Queen Nefertiti 2017, Katie Herrera

First appeared in the HuffPost blog. Click below for HuffPost.

Katie looks like an Egyptian Goddess.

Specifically, she looks like Queen Nefertiti with her beautiful bald head which we all kiss unabashedly. In New York City, where Katie lives, her shaved head is fashion. To those who know and love her, it is fashionable cancer.

She’s thinking about going as Nefertiti for Halloween.

So Katie.

My oldest niece, who found out she had cancer shortly after her 30th birthday, works as a nurse in an emergency room hospital in the Big Apple.

At first, she felt a lump near her stomach, no symptoms. Katherine Anna Herrera and her emergency room cohorts named it Terry for a disgusting cyst called teratoma that can grow teeth and even an eyeball. It is grotesque humor.

Again, so Katie.

A few weeks later, when Katie decided to get tested, she didn’t tell anyone. “Why worry them if it was nothing?” she said.

It was cancer.

Margaritas were snuck in, and once she got out and knew chemotherapy was the option, she went with a friend, shaved her head, donated her long, beautiful waves to Locks of Love, and went out for wine.

“We went out and got cancer drunk. It was kind of fun. I didn’t really care about being bald,” she said.

If I had to describe the babe, it would be as a bubble in sunlight. One of those lovely floating beings that rises into the air capturing the light and creating a rainbow. You see it and just smile in awe of its beauty.

My Katie.

I am so ticked that she has cancer, but I’m learning a lot from my niece.

You are never too old to learn life lessons. I’m grokking that there are basically two kinds of people in the world: Those who kvetch and question why did this (insert whatever crap you went through) happen to me? And those who ask, “How can I take this bad experience to help me live life better?”

“I’m at peace with it and haven’t worried much because everything happens for a reason,” Katie said. “And, I know I’ll learn something from this.”

Katie, her dad, and her two younger brothers, have spent more of their lives with cancer than without it. My brother’s wife, Irene, was diagnosed with breast cancer when the kids were just single digits, 6, 4, 2.

Irene fought the battle and taught her children more than she probably ever knew. She passed when the kids were double digits: 19, 17, 15.

“Of course I had my mom as this great example. She was always so brave and she was always optimistic. There was never really a state of denial. There was never really a profound fear,” Katie says of her own diagnosis.

That doesn’t mean that everything is great or that her family and friends don’t worry about Katie or pray for her. It just means that we all don’t know what’s going to happen - just like any part of our lives - and we have to find acceptance in that no matter how difficult.

It was a weird day when I broached the subject of cancer with my niece.

The family was gathered to celebrate her brother Tom’s graduation from medical school. I knew I wanted to write about Katie, but frankly didn’t know if I should.

Unfortunately, cancer is common. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1.6 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the United States.

This year, Katie is one. She has leiomyosarcoma. (As if cancer isn’t bad enough, the name of it has to be so outrageous, it is the stuff of a sick and twisted spelling bee.)

Can I talk to her about it? Do people talk about cancer? What’s the protocol? I asked myself. I mean, I know a lot of people who have it, but not so close to me. I don’t know why it felt wrong. But it just did.

I prayed and took a jog. I happened upon a boulder that was scrawled with graffiti, the lyrics from a Coldplay song, “Look at the stars. Look how they shine for you and everything you do.”

So, I took that as a sign and took the plunge to talk about cancer.

Katie sat basking in the sun smiling and joking about how chemo treatments mean hair loss - everywhere. “It’s summer and I’m bikini ready,” she laughs. “I save money on waxing, razors, and shampoo.”

Later, I asked her dad to describe her in five words: loving, charitable, determined, spiritual, beautiful.

His favorite memory of her is when she was almost two, was in the middle of a mall, and had a butt itch she couldn’t reach so she pulled down her pants to reach it. They shared a moment of laughter.

His Katie.

I don’t think I understand cancer or ever will. But I am trying to understand life.

We all have challenges, some more than others. We all have to find some way to break through them like a high school football team crashing through the banner to take the field to play life hard and with everything we’ve got. How we deal with adversity is what defines us.

Sometimes, many times, it’s not easy, joyful, perfect. But it is life. And sometimes getting through the toughest moments with perseverance is what makes it worth living.

Katie isn’t battling cancer.

Cancer is battling Katie. And, I think it’s in for a fight and a sincere butt-whipping.

So Katie.

Our Katie.

(Enriching music: Yellow, by Coldplay; My Wish, by the Rascal Flatts)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Beautiful Flowers

Title: Beautiful Flowers
Medium: Old window screen from a shack near Roscoe, Tx, rodent skeleton, bouquet of dried flowers
By: Clara G. Herrera

(Enriching music: Feeling Good, Nina Simone; Where is my Mind, the Pixies; Here I Am, Lyle Lovett)

The Chaos of a Disciplined Mind

On my first full day of summer, my mind races against itself.

It is a cacophony of thoughts. Hopes of sleeping late were thwarted by brain tremors that awakened me like an earthquake to action well before 7 a.m.

These synapses included:

Why is my classroom and science lab cleaner than my house?

Why am I up so early when I vowed to sleep late?

Will I get everything on my summer list done?

Gotta make that summer list!

I know the final touch on the art piece Beautiful Flowers. That's why it has been vexing me, incomplete.

More coffee, no maybe less coffee.

Finished the art piece! 

Will I ever catch up with my brain?

Slow down. No, speed up. No, pace yourself and breathe.

Welcome to my mind.

Monday, May 29, 2017

I don't want my son to be a Memorial Day Tribute

As a child, I would play Taps on my saxophone but didn't know what it meant.

It was a joke in our home that Dad had built a cellar, not for tornadoes that might hit West Texas, but to shield the family from the squeaks of my atrocious alto.

The only thing I could really play well, because it was easy on my saxophone, was Taps. No one, except my family, would really hear it because we were surrounded by hay fields and ponds.

Mama would tell me to stop. Dad would say, "Shut the hell up," in the kindest of military voices.

I was ignorant and had no idea why they hated the only song I could play well.

Today, we honor Memorial Day. It is a day to remember those lost in combat. I say combat, and not war, because not all wars are declared or known.

What matters is that someone's family member didn't come back, a brother, a sister, a father, a mom, a partner.

I didn't understand that as a child playing Taps in the cellar.

I grokked this as an adult. My father came home from Vietnam. Two brothers arrived safe from Gulf War combat.

But the full realization came when my father died. Art Herrera was a retired enlisted Air Force Master Sergeant who spent his later years of his life as the town barber. They played Taps in trumpet at his funeral. My mom shuddered at each volley of bullets shot into the air.

I had no idea.

I hate that song now.

I cry every time I hear it.

My son celebrates his 16th birthday on Memorial Day, today. The picture here is with his retired decorated Colonel uncle, my brother, and me. It is a happy picture.

The Boy wants to make the military a career in the Air Force and attend an academy. This weekend Aidan took part in a World War II battle reenactment at Camp Mabry as part of the Texas Military Forces Museum. He was thrilled. I was proud. We took lots of pictures with smiles.

Then they played Taps and the full realization of war hit me. I looked at my son in his World War II uniform shooting a gun and thought, these are just characters playing a part in a play. How many people did not come back? How did my mom deal with this with a husband and two sons not knowing?

What if I lost my son in real life? It was a devastating moment. I thought about all of those mamas who lost a child in battle.

I had no words.

I have no answers. I have no real resolved thoughts. All I know is that every military person I encounter,  I think about my son, somebody's son, somebody's loved one, and I say, "thank you."

I don't want to memorialize them, ever on Memorial Day. I want to appreciate them now.

(Enriching music: I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home, Grand Funk Railroad because Dad said this was played over and over in Vietnam; Sentimental Journey, Doris Day version, because it's the best one.)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Don't Be A Chicken!

Chickens can cure everything: The end of another school year comes. Like most teachers, I laud it and now grok why teachers get summers off to recharge. But, I also enter these last days with sadness. I teach all 5th grade science - 140 kiddos - and know I may never see some of them again. My students know this. I told them I might cry at their graduation. I asked them to buy me a chicken mask, so that if I start to cry while speaking I can put it on until I recover. One did. So, I've got my cover for this year. Last year, I used a mask of the blocked YouTube face. I'll let you know how it turns out. Heels, a dress, and a chicken mask, should be something. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Owls Are Wise

I dissected owl pellets with 141 students yesterday.

Owls, in mythological stories, are associated with being wise. An owl is the mascot of Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom. It represents truth, knowledge, and wisdom. How apropos that I was born in Athens, Greece, the Goddess' namesake.

It was a fun, messy experiment. Many thought the pellets were owl poop. However, that is untrue. The owl has adapted to its environment by regurgitating things it can not digest like bones and complete skulls. It poops out the things it can.

Life is all about adaptation. You might not be able to throw up your challenges in a nice compact cylindrical package, but you do have the ability to rid yourself of them.

Don't give a hoot about what others may think of you. Be wise. Seek positive knowledge. Rid yourself of the other waste because it is a waste of your time.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wild, but not bored

So, I just won a wild boar hunt adventure to take with my son. It was at a church chilli cook-off. I had to think, only in the South could you go to a house of worship and be awarded with such a hunt.

The Boy is excited, as am I. Not once did he flinch and think it was unusual to shoot wild pigs with his mama. I suspect we'll be hitting the shooting range to get used to the right rifles.

Sometimes life is about aim and straight shooting in all realms. I suspect building memories is much better than a wrapped gift. However, I would have no idea how to wrap a slain boar as a birthday present anyway.

I'll let you know how it turns out.