An Open Letter To the Lady Who Sat Near Us at Children’s Hospital

Dear Grandma,

Remember me? You, your daughter and grandchild sat at the next table from us in the Children’s Hospital cafeteria last week. My almost three year old son had a temper tantrum. It was because he didn’t want to share his pizza and yet didn’t want to eat it, although the real reason was that he was overtired.
He was screaming. I was ignoring his temper tantrum. You turned to me and said “Can you do something about your child?”
I turned to you and I explained, “He’s throwing a fit.” Did I need more of an explanation?
“We’re trying to eat here,” you explained. “Will you please do something about your child?”
I did not reply. I didn’t feel the need to point out how a cafeteria in a place that has a sign outside that says “Children’s Hospital” is probably not an ideal place to have a quiet lunch, especially after you choose a seat next to our big family. You honestly shocked me so much that I didn’t even say anything else. I didn’t know how to reply to you without using bad words at that specific moment, so I said nothing. I did pack up the children, four of them with me at the time, and moved ourselves mid-lunch to outside, lest we disturb you some more. Outside, my son quieted down and then threw another tantrum over something new. A CHCO staff member walked by us and offered support- she told me I was doing a great job.
I noticed that your baby grandchild was in a car seat in a Children’s Hospital wagon hooked up to some gizmos. While I don’t know what those gizmos were for, I can tell you that whatever your grandchild’s illness is that the doctors here at Children’s Hospital Colorado are all top-notch. They are doing the best for your grandchild and doing the best they can. I hope that your grandchild has a speedy recovery. How scary this all must be for your infant grandchild to need to go to Children’s Hospital! I am so glad that you are there to support your grandchild and your daughter. They both need you. It is beautiful that you are able to be there to offer support.
I’ll also assume that since your grandchild is an infant, you are new to this whole sick-kid thing. As an experienced sick-kid-mom, I wanted to take time to explain some things to you that you may not be aware of. Our children are fighting a war against their illness. As their mom or grandmother, we are in the trenches with them. Our love for our child binds us there. Our job is to fight with our children, fight for our children and to be their Mollie Pitchers. Since we’re all in those trenches together, we have the same camaraderie as soldiers at war. We would never attack each other verbally. You violated a major war rule today. There are enough attacks from the enemy- our child’s illness. We all support each other, even if its just a kind word, a nod or a smile. We are on the same side.
My family has been coming to Children’s Hospital for a while. Our encounter was the first time that I have ever heard an unkind word from another parent or grandparent or even anyone. As a matter of fact, I usually get compliments on my children’s behavior, and my temper tantrum throwing child was an anomaly. I invite you to ask my son’s nurses or doctors or the speech lady or the lady in the daycare room or anyone else about my children’s behavior. They will tell you. Thursday my almost-three year old was very tired. His brother’s illness is hard on him, too. He schlepps with us everywhere. He witnesses our stresses in this battle. His brother was diagnosed originally when my almost-three year old was four months old, so having a sick brother is all he knows.
Can I point out the ratios? You, your daughter and infant grandchild had a 2:1 ratio of adults to children. I had only four of my children with me at the time, so our adult to children ratio was 1:4. How about the next time you see such a discrepancy, you offer to help? Just a suggestion.
Grandma, you and I apparently have different parenting styles. I ignore temper tantrums. I’m not saying that your parenting or grandparenting style is wrong, I am just saying that it is different. I support parental rights and I believe that you should have the right to discipline your child or grandchild as you see fit (of course as long as it’s not abusive) even if it’s different than my parenting style.
BeforeMRI

Here is Vince before that MRI, not long before we met.

You had no way of knowing this at the time, but my son Vince was in his MRI, actually under sedation in the MRI machine at that very moment that you asked me to “do something” about his brother. Vince is a brain tumor patient and I cannot remember the last time he had a “good MRI”. Actually I do- it was right before I became pregnant with my last baby. We had an all-clear, although it was short-lived. My baby is 16 months old now. How many “bad MRIs” can my son have? I wish I knew. My other missing child was at speech therapy since she goes to speech therapy while her brother gets chemo.
We did get the results yesterday afternoon and my son’s tumor did not change in these last two months, thanks for asking. Chemo first works by slowing the tumor growth, then stopping the growth, then shrinking the tumor. His tumor was unchanged. It’s actually a victory, even though I shudder to think that no-growth/no-shrinkage is a victory. It is still a long slow healing, but this is a good first step. So I guess I’d call this a “good MRI”, finally.
I am sorry that we are in the same sick-child club, the club no one wants to be in. But we are here. We must fight our child’s illness and not each other. Will you remember that during your next trip to Children’s Hospital? We are a band of brothers, not enemies with each other. Your grandchild is in the best hands at Children’s Hospital Colorado. I hope that the gizmos and the illness are all short-lived, that your grand baby is healed quickly and that you can get on with life, without having to do this battle. But if you do go back to Children’s Hospital and if you ever need anything, do let me know. I am right here in the trench with you. Don’t ever forget that.
Sincerely,
A mom of a child who threw temper tantrum

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The People You See In the Hall

These are my children walking down one of the halls in Children’s Hospital Colorado this past April. You can see Vince’s IV bag on the wagon.

During our many trips to Children’s Hospital Colorado, I have bumped many people in the hall. Some of us had lengthy discussions, some we have just seen or see all the time and some we have just seen once or twice. (I have changed all the names here.)

There’s Sally, the teenager. Every time I see her, she looks worse and worse, weaker and weaker. She comes by herself and meets her father at CHCO after he comes straight from work, leaving early. I have no idea what type of cancer she has and if it is her disease or the treatment that weakens her, but I think of her often and cannot imagine what it must be like to go through that as a young lady.

There was John and his father. John is also a teenager. He was there for his first annual MRI and checkup. He had had a brain tumor, had a few surgeries, had been on and off of chemo for a total of 8 years. He was clear and was down to annual MRIs for the first time. John’s father said the doctors had told him John wouldn’t make it, and I’m so grateful that he is still with us. John had a stroke from one of the surgeries and still walks with a limp and has limited use of his non-dominant hand. But he is still with us and smiling. What a nice young man. It was so nice to see John on the other side of treatment.

There was the lady and her teenage son Ernie who had down syndrome and leukemia. Ernie’s treatment required hospital admission during the week. For months and months. Twice. Ernie’s half-sister had to go stay with her otherwise absent father because she was not allowed in the in-patient areas. Ernie’s mother was a single mom and somehow held it all together. I haven’t seen them in a while and I pray that it’s because Ernie has recovered. Or moved. I don’t want to think of any other possibilities.

There was Stacy and her mom. Stacy was a teenager and had just started chemo and had to receive it six days per week for three weeks. She had long dark straight beautiful hair past her butt. I’m scared to think what happened to it.

There was Suzy, the single mom whose son Peter had only spent one day outside of a hospital ever in his whole life. He was 18 months old and coded out multiple times per night sometimes. She had already lost a child years before.

There was Harry, the four year old boy who was playing with my kids but could not even turn his head because his tumor was so big sticking out on his neck. He did not let that stop him from pedaling a tricycle through the oncology floor.

There was the little boy in the elevator yesterday who had just had brain surgery a month before. He reminded me of Vince. He was about the same age as Vince when Vince had his second surgery (four) and had the same scar, in the same place, just on the other side. He even had the same hair color as Vince.

There’s the lady who takes her born-premature infant twins there a few times a week for follow-ups to their issues. My kids play with her other child in the daycare room.

There are the parents I see with tears in their eyes in the halls, trying to hide it.

There are the happy patients. There are the miserable patients.

I see people leaving the hospital with suitcases, stuffed animals and helium balloons.

I see families with an entourage of support in the form of aunts and uncles grandparents, cousins and what-not. I have seen twenty people in the PICU waiting room for just one child. The parents were in the PICU with the child and the other relatives would rotate in and out.

I see parents by themselves.  I see single moms, single dads. I cannot imagine this. This is hard enough and I have Kevin’s support.

I hear children scream and cry. They are in an infusion room with the curtains closed tight. Their chemo is painful to them and they scream the whole time.

I see small families. I see big families.

Kevin’s even seen a former inmate, he thinks, and it did not hit him who the guy was until after we’d left.

I see people who don’t speak English and have a medical translator translate what the doctors and nurses are saying to them so they can understand what is happening to their child.

I see all kinds of races and backgrounds.

I see all kinds of religions. Everyone from those who look literally like Marilyn Manson to Mennonites, to those in full hijabs, to… everyone.

I see all kinds of classes. There are those who have old beat up cars and those who have new Lexuses. There are those parents who come straight from work and are wearing a suit and tie and those who have a fast food uniform on. If you want to see everyone getting together, not caring about class, race or teeth, look to Children’s Hospital- they help everyone. And just the reverse is true, too- cancer is also non-discriminatory.

The doctors and nurses are the generals.
We are all soldiers. The kids are soldiers. The parents are soldiers and Molly Pitchers. We offer each other a kind word, a quick conversation, sometimes only just a smile. Not one of us is there because we want to be, but we are. We love our children. We are fighting with them.  We are bonded with each other, like no other camaraderie I have ever known in this war we don’t want to be in. We are bonded by our love for our children. And we fight…


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June Was a Month Of Schlepping

June is over and I’m honestly grateful. Here on the prairie, June is a month of schlepping. I’ll define schlepp here because although it’s a common Jersey word, people out here probably don’t know what it means.

Schlepp- To carry clumsily or with difficulty; To move slowly or laboriously; To go on an arduous journey. (Yiddish)

We homeschool. We also live in the middle of no where. You may recall that I have already discussed how out here, the schools are everything. My own theory is that because there are no other cultural institutions, there is just nothing else and therefore schools are thee defining cultural institution by default. A post office, school and a grocery store is really what makes a town out here. I mean I suppose that given that your other options are hanging out at the grocery store, the railroad tracks or the post office, the school seems appealing. Even though I belong to two different homeschool groups in the Front Range area, they are far and we hardly know any other homeschoolers out here. The two other homeschooling families I know live 25 and 35 miles away, respectively. There are hardly any other activities (besides school) for children to participate in out here. 

Out here, the local school calendars roughly run from the Assumption (August 15th for all you non-Catholics out there) to Memorial Day. While I one of the reasons that I originally homeschooled was to not arbitrarily plan my life around what some school board decides when the children should be off or in school, I find that I must do this anyway, as the schools finish in May and June is when they start the summer activities. These summer activities are wonderful in their own right, however, they are my children’s only chance to participate in these type of things. So it’s June or it’s nothing.

This was my son’s third year and my daughter’s second year playing tee-ball. While there is nothing wrong with tee-ball, it’s tee-ball or it’s nothing. There are no other sports for them to participate in. I really don’t know exactly how the tee-ball league is structured. I do know the tee-ball is through the towns, not the schools, but the players use the schools’ fields. The participating towns range from 60 miles away from my house one way to 40 miles away the other. The games are against the teams from the same town the same night, which is great at accommodating siblings. On a typical game night, for example, my daughter played her game at 5 p.m. and my son played his at 6 p.m. Tee-ball is pretty much the whole month of June. There was one practice in May and the tournament wrapped it all up the last Saturday in June.

My daughter's team won the tournament. She is wearing last year's shirt.

My daughter’s team won the tournament. She is wearing last year’s shirt.

My children also attended swimming lessons in Limon. While the program was great and professionally run, it is still about 25 miles away. These are the closest swimming lessons to us. I am extremely happy with them and so were my kids, but honestly, I’m glad they’re over.

Action shot of my son at swimming lessons...

Action shot of my son at swimming lessons…

My children are also attended Dance Camp, and, yes, I sent my son, too. While these ballet lessons are expensive (thank you to my kind in-laws for paying for them) I view them as a once in a lifetime opportunity. The ballet teacher grew up here in Lincoln County and teaches dance in Denver. She came back to hold camp. In my children’s lifetime, they have never before had an opportunity to attend professional ballet lessons in our area.

IMG_0563

Dance recital.

And then there is Storytime… The very local library only had a summer story time for June. The librarian is extremely awesome and has thoroughly motivated my children to read, but again, it’s June or it’s nothing.
Additionally, the librarian in the next town has cranked up Storytime to twice per week in the park. Her Storytime is always fantastic year round, but we have made an increased effort to attend it for the summer because we’ve been in town anyway. She also tends to cater to the grade school kids more in the summer as opposed to just the preschoolers during the school year.

The librarian in the next town holds Storytime in the old one room schoolhouse that is part of the museum complex.

The librarian in the next town holds Storytime in the old one room schoolhouse that is part of the museum complex.

Oh, and I forgot lunch in the park! A wonderful charitable group seeks to bridge the gap on summer lunch and lunch during the school year. They recognize that children from low income families receive free school lunches and that these low income families may struggle to put food on the lunch table throughout the rest of the year. The result is lunch in the park, free to any child, no questions asked. We have joined the group for lunch quite a few times. It is wonderful for both the children and their parents to socialize with each other, not to mention the free lunch.

June was also an extremely busy month for my farmer husband Kevin who planted maybe 300 acres of millet and still worked his full time job.

We had also planted a huge garden which the grasshoppers now chomped down in its entirety. We had two out-of-state friends visit us separately. My dog ran into the street and got hit by a car and died. My cat that I had from the time I was single got sick and had to be put down. I also have new baby chicks that I’m taking care of- they’re now about a month old now.

This was George's last trip to the vet.

This was George’s last trip to the vet.

And then there is the usual- getting Vince to Chemo, going to Mass, buying groceries which are insanely far, etc.

I had a day on June 16th, for example, where we went to Limon (25 miles away) for swimming lessons, Storytime still in town, lunch in the park, back home because we forgot my daughter’s shorts, the pool in Hugo during a little down time, dance lessons, back home while they were in dance, back to Hugo to pick them up and then off to Stratton 60 miles away to play two tee-ball games. That was about 200 miles and a whole lot of wear and tear on all us. My wonderful husband took Vince to Chemo the next day just so we wouldn’t have to schlepp again.

So, yes, June was a month of schlepping, mainly because there are otherwise no local activities for my children to attend. These enrichment activities are blessings and are almost necessary to make my children well rounded and be able to interact with their local peers. However, I honestly couldn’t wait for June to be over so we can go back to our normal life of just about never leaving the house except for going to Mass, Chemo and Costco.

 


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Another Fourth of July

It was in June of 2015 that we learned that Vince’s brain tumor had grown back again. Vince would need another tumor resection surgery and perhaps chemotherapy. They were unsure about his prognosis. We made plans for a second brain surgery.

Last Fourth of July (2015), as I was driving the children to the fireworks in the local town (to meet my husband there after he got off work) it hit me: what if this was Vince’s last Fourth of July? Independence Day was the first holiday since that diagnosis, and it hit me, hit me hard- this mama had a break down that night.

Well you know the rest:
He had the brain tumor removed.
It grew back again.
He started chemo in March, and now chemo is our new normal.

Vince is surviving and thriving.
Yeah, his tumor did get bigger between the last two MRIs in spite of starting chemo.
Yeah, they moved up his next MRI a month sooner to keep a closer eye on it.
Yeah, they may change up his chemo depending on the next MRI results.
Yeah, this tumor could be a lifelong battle for him.
Yeah, he could be on chemo for years.

We don’t know what his future brings.

But yesterday, Vince celebrated another Fourth of July. And this is a victory.

I rejoiced in celebrating the Fourth of July- not just because it’s our country’s birthday, but because it was one more Fourth of July that I can celebrate with Vince!

Vince cannot wait to celebrate Fourth of July 2017- he’s already talking about more fireworks.

Happy Fourth of July- 2016!

Happy Fourth of July- 2016!


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Goodbye, Good Neighbors

“There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors.”
Ma Ingalls, quoted by Laura Ingalls Wilder in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Living out here on the prairie, we probably have a different definition of neighbor than most others. The houses are extremely spread out. I would use the word “neighbor” to describe someone who may live 10 miles away. I have to say that every one of my neighbors has always treated my family and me kindly. They can be counted on for a helping hand always, even to put out fires.

Certain neighbors have sold their house and are moving to a different state.  I will miss them. While I wish them the very best in their new state and their new chapter in their lives, I am selfish and I will miss them, I will miss my friends.

My neighbors were there for me, time and time again.
There was that time when my cat Mr.Hooper kept running away to their house and I drove over to pick him up. Mr.Hooper stepped on the lock button in the pickup truck and locked himself and my oldest (who was a baby at the time) inside. My neighbor and my father-in-law had to break into the pickup to rescue my son and Mr.Hooper. Mr.Hooper decided he like them better and is now their cat. He is coming with them to their new state.
And who could forget the time my pasture went on fire and my cordless phone was lost and dead and I threw the children into the pickup and sped over to their house and barged right in screaming for them to call 911 for me? They watched my kids for me while I went to go check on my house, and they kept my sanity. They weren’t even the slightest bit upset when I ran into their house.
And then the time they helped me chase my llama all over the prairie, getting Kuzco home again when he wasn’t very happy about his new home.
They have supported all of my little endeavors, even purchasing eggs from me back when I had chickens.
They have always shared their kindness with me, cooking meals or treats for us when I had a baby or was going through a hard time.
They have remembered my children. They have shared sentimental things with us, like a book, for example, that their neighbor shared with them when their own kids were little.
They have always offered me kind words and encouragement and hope.

In short, while I am so happy that my neighbors will be starting a new chapter, I am sad to loose my friends.

Goodbye, Good Neighbors. I hope that you enjoyed your time in your little house on the prairie as much as I have enjoyed your time here. Geography had made us neighbors and your wonderful constant kindness has made us friends. I am proud to call you my friends and I will miss you.

We will miss you, Good Neighbors!

We will miss you, Good Neighbors!


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These Are My Thirties

I am in my thirties.

There is an old Catholic tradition that since Jesus suffered, died, resurrected and ascended all at 33, that we’ll all be 33 in heaven.  At the end of the world when our bodies rise, we’ll be our perfect 33, even if we died before or after 33.

I always thought that my life would be a lot different in my thirties.  I’m actually past the age of 33, and even with these extra few years, I’m still not anywhere near where I’d want to be.

I thought I’d have more of life figured out by now.
I thought I’d be farming.  I mean farming for real and my husband not having an off-farm job.
I thought I’d have more kids. (I know I have six, but I really thought I would have started earlier and had more by now. I’ve always wanted a big family.)
I thought my house would be bigger. And cleaner.
I thought I’d be richer, a lot richer.  I thought my student loans would be paid off.
I thought I’d have another degree or two.  I have a Bachelor’s, but I thought I’d have a Master’s. I’m a grad school drop out.
I thought my faith would be stronger.
I thought I’d always know where my keys are.
And of course skinnier- I always thought I’d be skinnier.

It’s not all bad. I have had some successes. I had a llama. I am pretty successful at being a cheapskate.

But I’m frightened because I do not have too many more years left in my thirties. I wonder about the tone my thirties are setting for the rest of my life.

But then, I look at my six beautiful children. My children make everything worth it.  All my children have been born when I was in my thirties. They have challenged me in ways I never thought I could be challenged and yet they have delighted my heart in ways that I never thought it could be delighted. I’ve had to find strength that I never thought I had and this strength was something I never even thought existed.

I am tougher.
I am smarter.
My heart and my soul have grown tremendously.

My thirties are nothing like I thought they’d be, that’s for sure. Of course I still wish I was skinnier and richer and above all else that my son was healed from his brain tumor. We take it day by day with him.  We enjoy Vince’s preciousness, even if that means trying to have fun at chemo, something that was never on my radar. I enjoy all of the precious moments with all of my children.

So these are my thirties and it’s clear that this is not heaven’s version, yet I am here now as God draws me closer to Him.


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Heifer Bulls

Every once in a while I finally think I “get it”, living out here.  And then something slaps me in the face.
heiferbull
This afternoon I was reading Thursday’s edition of the weekly local paper.  I had that slap in the face.

They were advertising for heifer bulls.  Heifer bulls?  Talk about a contradiction.  This whole cow vocabulary had confused me, but I thought I was over it. If you remember correctly, a while back I shared my new found bovine term knowledge with all of you.

If you recall, a heifer is a female bovine that has not had a calf (baby) yet and a bull is an uncastrated male bovine. So obviously a heifer bull just confuses things.

As my husband explained (twice), it turns out that in the world of ranching, that is raising bovines, that the birth weight of baby calves is determined by genetics on their father’s side. A heifer that makes her entry into cow-dom, that is has a baby for the first time is younger and will have smaller hips than a cow who is older and has done this a few times. A lower birth weight calf is desirable for heifers, but not necessarily for cows. A heifer bull is a bull that is better to have a honeymoon with heifers to have low birth weight calves.

So heifer bulls exist. Mind blown.


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Chemo

My son Vince, who is 4 and half as of this writing, has been fighting a brain tumor for the last two years.  He is now receiving chemo weekly from Children’s Hospital.
Many of you have asked me some questions, so I’m going to attempt to answer the most common questions here.
What is the history of his brain tumor?
Vince has a pilomyxoid astrocytoma in his left frontal lobe.  We discovered it during an MRI (January 2014) for something else (a little lump thing at the base of his neck). His first tumor was the size of a golf ball. He exhibited no brain tumor symptoms at the time.  If it wasn’t for the MRI, we wouldn’t have known about it.
His first tumor was resected in March 2014.  The surgery was a success. They got the whole thing.  They sent it off for analyzing and it was a pilomyxoid astrocytoma.
The tumor grew back again and was resected the second time in July 2015.  It was the size of a grape and was still a pilomxyoid astrocytoma.
The tumor grew back again.  Since it grew back twice after surgery, we’re trying chemotherapy.
How did the tumor grow back twice if both surgeries were successful?
If even one cell was left, the tumor could grow back from that.
Is it cancerous?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
The World Health Organization considers all brain tumors cancer.  Physicians in the United States do not. Brain Tumors are “graded” on a scale of 1 to 4.  A pilomyxoid astrocytoma is a grade two. United States physicians only consider grades three and four cancer.
If it’s not cancer, why is he getting chemo?
He is getting chemo to kill this tumor.  Chemo will still kill it in theory.  Without treatment, he could die from this brain tumor.
What is his prognosis?
They are saying it is good, but they also said it wouldn’t grow back.  It’s all very scary.
What is his exact chemo regiment?
He is getting carboplatin, a milder chemo, once per week.  He goes four weeks on, two weeks off. Each “four weeks on, two weeks off” is called a “round”. They say for a year, but it could be more or less depending on his MRIs.
How do you know it’s working?
We don’t.  He’ll have a new MRI approximately every three months, after every other round.  His next MRI is in May.
If he’s getting chemo, why does he still have hair?
The particular type and dosage of chemo (carboplatin) that he has does not cause severe hair loss.  They said it would thin his hair, but we haven’t noticed it thinning yet.
What is chemo made from?  What is it like?
Vince’s chemo is made from platinum.  It’s clear, like IV fluids.  He gets it through his port.
What is a port?
A port is a long term IV (implanted surgically) that’s in his chest.  They take his blood and give him his chemo through the port.
What care is involved in the port?
Now that the incision is healed, we only have to watch for a fever.  If he has a fever of 101 or over, he has to go to the hospital to get fluids and tests for infections.  This happened once, before his first chemo treatment. He did not need to be admitted at that time.
What do they call it when he goes for chemo?
Every chemo treatment is called an infusion.
How does the chemo affect Vince?
Vince gets nauseous.  He’s thrown up from it.  We have zofran, an anti-nausea medication to lessen his ill feelings.
He has had a day on the couch all day, just feeling sick.  He has also had times where he was out playing the next day.
He sometimes gets pains in his legs, behind his knees.
My second-cousin-twice-removed’s former college roommate had cancer and beat it with eye-of-noot/ raw honey/ essential oils/ going vegan/ going paleo/ smoking a joint, etc. Why don’t you____ and skip the chemo?
We have tried a few “alternative” things.  They haven’t worked.  The tumor is back.  We need to kill it.  I would not not treat it with chemo and have my son die because we did something unproven.  I feel like we are past the point of trying these “alternative” things.  We already did a few. They didn’t work.  We just can’t fool around anymore.
Denver is no New York. Why don’t you take him to a better hospital in another city?
Children’s Hospital Colorado’s neuro-oncology is within the top ten in the nation.  We have also consulted long distance with another top ten hospital in another city.  Treatment in Colorado is the best for us as far as the impact on our family.  The treatment itself isn’t any different.
How far is Children’s Hospital from your house?
101 miles.  There are no local resources.
You have children that you homeschool. How do you do that and take Vince to chemo?
We reworked our schedule and chemo is part of our new normal.

 

 

This was Vince's last infusion. He was receiving his chemo and drinking juice.

This was Vince’s last infusion. He was receiving his chemo and drinking juice.


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The Danger of Fire Is Real Here

Spring had come. The warm winds smelled exciting, and all outdoors was large and bright and sweet.  Big white shinning clouds floated high up in clear space.  Their shadows floated over the prairie.  The shadows were thin and brown, and all the rest of the prairie was the pale, soft colors of dead grasses…
The dead grass was so tall and thick that it held up the sod…
“I do believe it’s going to storm,” Ma said, looking out of the window.  Laura looked, too, and great black clouds were billowing up in the south, across the sun.
Pet and Patty were coming running from the field, Pa holding to the heavy plow and bounding in long leaps behind it.
“Prairie fire!” he shouted. “Get the tub full of water! Put sacks in it! Hurry!”
Ma ran to the well, Laura ran to tug the tub to it… Ma was pulling buckets as fast as she could. Laura ran to get the sacks that Pa had flung out of the stable. 
Pa was plowing, shouting at Pet and Patty to make them hurry.  The sky was black now, the air was as dark as if the sun had set,  Pa plowed a long furrow west of the house and south of the house, and back again east of the house…
Laura stayed close to the house,  She could see the red fire coming under the billows of smoke…Pa was going along the furrow, setting fire to the grass on the other side of it. Ma followed with a wet sack, beating the flames that tried to cross the furrow.  The whole prairie was hopping with rabbits…
Pa’s little fire was all around the house now and he helped Ma fight it with the wet sacks.  The fire blew wildly, snatching at the dry grass inside the furrow.  Pa and Ma thrashed at it with the sacks… they stamped it with their feet.  They ran back and forth in the smoke, fighting that fire.  The prairie fire was roaring now, roaring louder and louder in the screaming wind.  Great flames came roaring, flaring and twisting high. Twists of flame broke loose and came down on the wind to blaze up in the grasses far ahead of the roaring wall of fire.  A red-light came from the rolling black clouds of smoke overhead…
Pa’s little fire handmade a burned black strip. The little fire went backing slowly away against the wind, it went slowly crawling to meet the racing furious big fire.  And suddenly the big fire swallowed the little one.
The wind rose to a high, crackling, rushing shriek, flames climbed into the crackling air.  Fire was all around the house.
Then it was over.  The fire went roaring past and away.
Pa and Ma were beating out little fires here and there in the yard…
The air smelled scorched. And to the very edge of the sky, the prairie was burned naked and black… But Pa and Ma were cheerful because the fire was gone and it had not done any harm..
…from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

We’ve had a very dry late winter here in Lincoln County. We have a burn ban here now.  This means there is no burning allowed under any circumstances and that we must bring our trash to town and not burn it.
Fires were a problem on the Kansas prairie for the Ingalls family in the 1870’s.  They are a problem for us on the Colorado prairie now, too.
There was a recent fire in the Punkin Center area of Lincoln County that burned 2286 acres of land.  It didn’t burn any structures or house, thanks to the heroic efforts of the local fire departments.  They say it was started by a smoker tossing out a cigarette. The fire “jumped the highway”, that is went across the paved road, which is actually unusual out here.  It is all very scary and unchecked, it could have burnt my little house on the prairie down, too.  We are grateful for our fire fighters.

Almost four years ago, there was a fire in our pasture.  Thanks to the heroic efforts of the fire departments and neighbors, we were also unscathed.  The fire did not touch our house, outbuildings, firewood or garden.  We are truly blessed.  Now on with our pasture fire story…

Thursday, June 28, 2012, when it was very overcast and had cooled down quite a bit, I went outside with the kiddos to work on my project in the chicken house.  (I was working on a stall for the goats.  I wanted to be able to keep a few separate for times like this when one [Jade that time] has an injury.)  The children were contentedly playing while I checked the chickens, took some clothes in, gave water to all the animals, etc.  I happened to notice my closest neighbor drive by my house away from her house.  I gathered some of my tools.  It got darker and darker.

Suddenly I heard the loudest thunder that I had ever heard in my life.  I turned to the children.  “We’re going in the house,” I said.

I happened to glance south to the pasture.  FLAMES!  Straight south of me, my pasture was in flames!

I ran into the house.  I intended to get the cordless phone to dial 911, going outside to get the children as I called.  I could not find the phone.  I tried the corded phone.  It was dead.  That’s right, the baby had been playing with the phone earlier.  I looked for the cordless phone.  I couldn’t find it.  The pager on the cordless didn’t work, it must have been off the hook, too.

OH… MY… My babies were outside, by the chicken house.  I went outside to get them.  I saw the pickup in the driveway.  It was closest. I ran and grabbed the baby and yelled for my other two to run to the pickup.  I literally threw them in the pickup.  Snuffles the dog jumped in.  The children were on the floor of the cab.  The dog was on the seat.  The baby was in the car seat, but not strapped in.  I took off.  I somehow remembered that I had seen my next-door neighbor drive in the opposite direction as her house.

I drove to my next closest neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbors-One.  I kept hoping that I would see someone drive by that I could flag down to call 911.  I did not.  

As soon as I got to the road that goes to Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbors-One’s house, I started honking.

When I got to their driveway, I ran to their house, banged on the door and flung it open.  I was frantic.  They called 911 for me.  They called my in-laws for me.  I called Kevin at work.  I spoke to the shift commander.  I told him that I needed my husband home now, I think.  It’s all a blur.  Mr. Wonderful-Neighbor-One went to my house to check everything out for me.  I called Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbor-Two who lives further down the road.  I asked her to come help me with the animals.

I found out later that My-Other-Wonderful-Neighbor had come home, saw the fire and tried to rescue us.  “I’m surprised your door is still standing,” the neighbor said. “I banged it that hard.”  The neighbor didn’t know we were at the other neighbor’s house.

I felt so helpless.  I was at Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbors-One’s house.  Their dog jumped in my pickup at one point.  I had my dog and my children, but I left all my possessions, my van that I had just dropped comprehensive on, my cats, my goats, my chickens, my cows, etc.  I didn’t know what to do to fight the fire myself.  I thought about dunking the stocktank, getting a hose and all sorts of other crazy things.  
Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbor-One offered to stay with the children while I went back.  I hopped in the pickup and went back to my house.
On my way, I ran into Mr. Wonderful-Neighbor-One.  We stopped in the middle of the road. He said the fire had blown east and they pretty much had it under control.  My house was OK.  

I still went back to the house. I found my father-in-law in my driveway.  I must have hugged him forty times.  There was at least a fire truck in the pasture.  There were some little flames, but not much else.

The Genoa Fire Department came.  Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbor-Two came.  Some man came with a red pickup and a water tank on trailer.  Kevin came home.  I hugged him.  My father-in-law left to pickup the children from Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbors-One’s house .  I really don’t remember the order of all of this.

This is the Genoa Fire Department getting the part closest to our house…

Mrs. Wonderful-Neighbor-Two left once she’d seen that Kevin was here and that the house and animals were OK.  Kevin and I went out to the pasture in the pickup.  We saw Kevin’s brother, my brother-in-law.  Although he doesn’t live close by, he happened to be visiting my in-laws (his parents).  He was out there with my father-in-law’s pickup with a trailer hooked to it and a giant water tank on the trailer.  

Sure I knew my brother-in-law, but there were all these people.  It was kind of like giving birth in a hospital- all these people in and out of your room or your pasture.

Kevin left to get a shovel.  When he got back, he kept sending me to get him stuff.  I got rakes.  I got him his farm boots (since he didn’t want to ruin his work shoes).   I got water.  I got the baby formula and sent it with my father-in-law who had come to get it.  I think I was making him nervous as I was trying to put out the little embers with the rake. I was six and a half months pregnant.

On one of my trips back and forth, I drove so quickly through the pasture that I knocked down the spare tire holder thing and was dragging it on the ground.  I think that’s the time my father-in-law had come for the formula.  He crawled on the ground and put the spare tire holder back up with wire.

On my way back into the pasture, Mr. Wonderful-Neighbor-Three stopped me.  
“I have your spare tire,” he said.  He took it out of his pickup and put it in the back of mine.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I’m So&So,” he said, using his real name.  “I live blah-blah.”

“Oh, you live in the blah-blah-house.” I said.  I asked him the ages of his kids, since I knew he had little ones.  I told him that since our kids were the same age, we’d have to get them together for a playdate. We still haven’t.

Again the order of exactly what happened when was blurry.  Mr. Wonderful-Neighbor-Four happened to own an entire water truck which he brought over.  More firemen (and some fire-ladies) came.  More neighbors came.  I don’t think I even knew who was here, or who they were.  I think Kevin knew most of them.  I know I asked the red pickup man his name and he told me, but I forgot it. “I know your husband,” he said.  

We still haven’t figured out his name.  I still run into him in town now and then and I mention it to Kevin and he still doesn’t know who I mean.

Mr. Wonderful-Neighbor-Five came over.  He had a fire down the road on his land, and he came over to help here when they were done with his fire.  

All the wonderful neighbors, all the wonderful firemen and fire ladies and my brother-in-law all left.

Here are some of the fire trucks leaving…

The smoke was still smoldering in little areas where there were cow manure patties.  Kevin and I went around and put them out with the rakes.

This is what a pregnant woman looks like putting out a manure pile fire with a rake… I should note that Kevin was there, but he was still in his uniform. I’m not allowed to post pictures of him on the internet in his uniform because of his profession.

I shudder to think about the what-ifs.  What if it went towards the house?  What if I didn’t see it right away?  What if the first time I noticed it it was already in the house?  What if my neighbors weren’t home?

The fire was only about a football field away from our house.  It blew east, and a little north and south, too.  If it had gone north before east it would have taken out our outbuildings, our animals and our house.  It didn’t burn our garden or even our firewood.  The area burned was on two sides (south and east) of our house.  It was about 30 acres-ish burned.  I can’t imagine what the results would have been if the fire blew in a different direction, or if my neighbors or firemen weren’t there.  Thank you God for your protection.  Thank you neighbors and firemen.

This is looking north… I don’t have any pictures of actual flames…
This is looking northwest.  Those are our trees…
Burnt grass…
Yucca and cactus don’t burn…
Thank you, Hugo Fire Department…
Thank you, Hugo Fire Department…
My father-in-law’s trailer with the water tank and the Hugo Fire Department…
Cactus still doesn’t burn…
Some weeds don’t either…
Cow manure patties on the other hand burn really well…
These are most of the fire trucks when they were just about done…
An overview, looking east…
The steers seemed pretty excited about eating the yucca.  Of course this was after the fire
trucks left and the steers went out the open gate and Kevin had to get them back in…
Yummy yucca…
Although the yucca did not die in the fire, it did die shortly within a year after the fire.
I took this this morning.  This is looking south, from the northeast corner of our property.
The fence post you see on the bottom right is part of the fence by the road.  If the fire had
been this far north a little further west, it would have burned down the house…
The cows still seem pretty excited about it…
The fire even missed (barely) the wood that Kevin had dragged out there to cut for firewood…
On the left you can see our property line with the neighbor.  They got a little damage, too.
Looking southwest…
The tire tracks are from the fire department putting the fire out…
The fire went almost to the southern border of the property, but did not take out any farm fields there…
I think it’s amazing that that little strip of grass didn’t burn…

 

 


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Learning Michael’s Lesson: Be Prepared For the Unexpected While Traveling On the Prairie

When I was a kid, I followed the story of the Stolpa Family.  They had been traveling out west somewhere (Nevada- it was all the same in my Jersey mind) with their young baby. Their pickup truck had broken down.  It was winter.  On the side of the road, they waited days in their pickup truck. They turned it on periodically to warm themselves with the heat.  No one ever drove by.  When they finally ran out of gas, they set out on a 50 mile journey to a paved road.  Finding shelter in a cave, they spent the night there and the next morning the husband set out by himself to bring help to his wife and baby.  They survived.  A few years later they made a TV movie about their ordeal starring Neil Patrick Harris.  

During the news reports of the Stolpa Family’s survival story and again during the TV movie, I kept on wondering how it was possible that no one drove by the road they were stranded on. For days. I remember even asking my mother about that.  It’s just out west somewhere, was her reply. Now that I live on the prairie of Colorado, I understand how there are some roads that people really might not drive on for weeks at a time.  I’ve been in the Nevada mountains, and yes, it is more desolate and rough than the Colorado prairie, but the Colorado prairie and the Nevada mountains are really not that different from each other when you compare them to New Jersey.  We both have sagebrush and in Jersey sage is simply a spice to cook with.

Here in Lincoln County, Michael Anderson from Wichita Kansas was recently traveling through, on the dirt roads between Arriba and Hugo.  He ran out of gas in his pickup  and set out across a pasture to get help.  This was December 12th, which according to Weather Underground, had a high of 21 degrees in nearby Limon. Michael was never seen or heard from again until December 21st when they found his body in the original search area.  The authorities are not saying if Michael simply succumbed to the elements or if he met with foul play.  There is a current investigation so everything right now is hush-hush.  I wish Michael would have had a better outcome, one more similar to the Stolpa Family.  Although I never knew Michael, his tale has hit me hard.  His story points to our vulnerability traveling these prairies. May his soul forever rest in peace.

Living on the prairie, it seems that all I do is travel.  I travel to the Front Range frequently to go to real doctors and go to real stores.  Although not recently, I have frequently travelled to visit my relatives in Jersey through western Kansas, which is just as rural as it is here.  Here I must even travel to the “neighbors” who are maybe five miles away.  I even occasionally travel to more out of the way places like Karval or travel dirt roads for 40 miles if I take that shortcut to go to Colorado Springs.  Most of the time when I travel, I am alone with my six children six and under.  We are perhaps more vulnerable than Michael, who was a single man in his twenties.

So we can perhaps learn some lessons from Michael?  Can we be prepared so that we do not die in a pasture between Hugo and Arriba like he did?  We can try.  I am by no means a survival expert, but I will share with you what I do to attempt to avoid a fate like Michael.  The truth is that out here on the prairie it can happy to any of us.  So here is my “list” in no particular order.  I hope it can help you.  It is by no mean inclusive and I welcome you all to add to it in the comments section.

1.  I have a cell phone.  In theory I keep it charged, but not always.  This is something I have to work on.  I have T-Mobile which roams off of AT&T, but reception is spotty for GSMs and CMDAs.  I keep an old Verizon cell phone charged in my minivan, too.  If I do not have service in a particular area with a particular carrier, I might have service with the other carrier.  I can dial 911 if the need arises, with the charged up phone.

2. I try to make sure someone knows where I’m going.  My husband does not control me, but I always let him know where I’m going.  If it’s in the dark, I let him know the general route I’m taking.  Even when I was single and lived by myself in Pennsylvania, I would sometimes call a friend and tell her that I’m at a certain place when it was night and I was by myself.  If I go missing, I want someone to know to call the Marines.

3.  I keep my vehicles gassed up. I know. You’re shaking your head because you recall that time three years ago when I went down to Karval and ran out of gas on my way back.  (The closest gas station to the town of Karval is maybe 30 miles away.) My husband was at work and my wonderful saintly father-in-law came and brought me gas.  It was a few kids ago and it was in the middle of a beautiful sunny day, but I really learned my lesson and vowed that that would never again happen to me and it hasn’t.  I am not responsible for just me anymore.  I have the responsibility of my beautiful children and I am determined to not let something stupid like gas be our demise.  I always make sure I have enough gas in all of my vehicles to go to a real hospital, or for whatever unexpected adventure awaits us.  I also have money with me.  When I was a cashier at a truck stop, I can’t recall how many times travelers were stranded with no gas to go on and no money to buy some.  That’s not going to happen to me.

4. I don’t blaze a trail.  You’re also shaking your head because above I just told you that sometimes I take that 40 miles of dirt roads shortcut to Colorado Springs.  I do, but I always make sure it’s high and dry and during the day.  I will only venture that way when there are perfect road conditions.  And even so, it’s a known shortcut and it is very well travelled, for out here at least.

5.  I don’t always stop to check on strangers. That day when I ran out of gas, a kind pastor-man stopped to check on me.  The very time before that when I was stuck on the side of the road when my transmission died near Rush Colorado about four years before that, the very same pastor-man stopped to check on me.  If it is a well enough travelled road, I’ll drive right on by because someone else will stop.  I fear Jack the Ripper is there.  I’ll judge the situation. Sometimes I’ll call the non-emergency number of the sheriff dispatch.  Sometimes it will be my neighbor and of course I’ll stop.

6.  I ask our guardian angels to guide us there safely. When I’m traveling alone with the kids, we’ve got our 7 guardian angels in tow with us.  I’m sure we keep them working overtime.

7. I keep the van stocked. You name it. I got it. Water, glow sticks, granola bars, blankets, hoodies, diapers, formula, bottles, candles, matches,  etc. If we had to hunker down and spend some time in our van, we’d be OK.

8. Although our vehicles are older, we keep them in good working order.  I wouldn’t feel safe if they weren’t.   Of course anything can happen at any time, but we try to minimize the risks and have reliable vehicles and tires.

I feel so bad for Michael Anderson.  What a tragedy  that he ran out of gas on dirt roads in Lincoln County and it claimed his life.  I try to be prepared and take precautions so that we will not have the same fate.  The Stolpa Family in Nevada survived, but I do not think I could.  I aim to prevent situations like Michael’s and the Stolpas’.

Update 12/30/15: I have since learned that Michael did meet with foul play allegedly from his own traveling companion.  However, if he did not run out of gas, the murderer would not have the opportunity. We could also argue that if the murderer was determined, they would have found another opportunity.  Sigh. At any rate, this is a truly unbelievably sad tragedy.  May Michael’s soul forever rest in peace. 
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