Hearts in February

hearts1Inspired by my friend Cathy Michaud, I am putting a heart on each of my kids’ doors for every day in February.  On the hearts I write something I love about them. 

As you probably know, I was away from the kids for more than six months due to my successful battle with lymphoma, so I wanted to do something special, something meaningful for them to remind them that I’m here, I’m here to stay and I lohearts2ve them.  Beyond that, though, being away has given me a little distance on the kids and I feel like I’m looking at them with fresh eyes.  These kids are not perfect, not even close!  But for an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, they’re pretty great people with a myriad of talents, ideas, and activities.  These hearts also serve to remind me of the things that make them special – to me and to others with whom they interact.  And it shows them specifically that they are valued by their dad and me. I continue to be grateful.

The Chemo Room

In the big recliner in the chemo room

In the big recliner in the chemo room

Every three weeks I have chemotherapy at The Katzen Cancer Center at the George Washington University Hospital.  It’s not the place I would chose to spend my time, but since I have to have chemotherapy, this is the place I want to be.  Every person, from the women who check me into the center, to the people who draw my blood, to the people who schedule appointments all work together to ensure that my experience is as painless and easy as possible.

The room itself is very sunny with about fifteen chairs – or chemo “stations” if you will.  There’s a big desk in the middle where the administration of the room happens, but it’s all so open that every nurse can see every patient all the time.  Each chemo station has a huge recliner and a small table along with separate lighting.  The nurse can come and do what she needs to do with each patient in a well-lit environment, but then adjust the lights so the patient is

It's open and bright!

It’s open and bright!

comfortable.  I often sleep a lot during treatment, so I like the lights lower.  There is a chair for a companion and plenty of room to store stuff and move around.

It takes a really special person to be an oncology nurse and this staff is no exception.  Every person is great, but every time I’ve been in the room, I have been under the care of Katy Dolan, who makes me feel cozy and comfortable.  She

Katie and me!

Katy and me!

tells me what’s happening every step of the way and is as gentle as possible.  I’m so grateful to her.

Every person’s experience with chemotherapy is different.  Some people stay awake, some sleep; some people needs four hours and some need longer.  I am taking not only chemotherapy, but also a monoclonal antibody called Retuxin, which is a drug that attaches itself to bad “B” cells in the body and kills them.   I have  B-cell lymphoma, so I need to get rid of these B cells, so this is the drug I need in addition to the traditional anti-cancer drugs, or chemotherapy.  Unfortunately I had a reaction to the Retuxin early on, so the nurses are extra careful when giving it to me, meaning they drip it into my port very slowly and pre-medicate me to prevent reaction.  All of that means that my version of chemo/Retuxin days are very long and very sleepy.  I am in the chemo room for about seven hours and I snooze for most of it.

My dearest friend Bonnie has accompanied me into the chemo room twice now, cancer centerand she is as impressed as I am.  Bonnie is a chemistry professor at the University of Maryland and keeps track of my drugs, my blood work, and every other scientific element of my disease and treatment that is of concern to her.  Katie explains every step to Bonnie as well, and in a way that is better for Bonnie – on a scientific level that I don’t need to know.

With Dr. Siegel

With Dr. Siegel

The other amazing element to this entire process is my wonderful Doctor, Dr. Robert Siegel, who is the head of the Hematology Oncology Department as well as the Director of the Katzen Cancer Research Center.  I’m so lucky to be under his care, and under the care of his team.  He supervises a team of interns and fellows and to a man, each one under his tutelage  is as kind and gentle and encouraging as he is.  Dr. Siegel answers not only my questions, but also Bonnie’s and my husband’s.  Knowing that Marc is in Tokyo, he offered up his email address and told Marc that he would answer any questions he had.  Dr. Siegel always asks about how Marc is holding up so far away, as does Katy.  I always feel like my whole self is being cared for, not just my cancer.

I am so lucky to have my treatment in this wonderful place with these caring, terrific people.  Doing the treatments  is not a choice – to get well I have to go through all of the treatments, including the yucky side effects.  I’m also extremely lucky that the treatments are going well. So if I have to do it, I’m grateful to be doing it here.

A Change in Summer and Autumn Plans

clockWell, just when  you think things are going along all right, life throws a curve ball.  More in tune to a writer however, as a friend of mine likes to say when things go wrong: PLOT TWIST!

I wasn’t feeling so well when I left Tokyo in June for a long visit to the U.S. and there was good reason why.  I have lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.  No panic necessary – it’s a curable form of cancer and I am tolerating the treatment – chemotherapy – quite well.  Oh, I don’t mean to imply that it’s all fun and games, but the good news is that treatment appears to be working already and I will be my regular reading, writing and raring-to-go self in a matter of months.  I have an excellent team of doctors at the George Washington University Hospital and my friends and family in the U.S. have been wonderful.  I have treatment every three weeks through October, and then post-treatment testing, so it is likely that I will not be back in Tokyo until after the December holidays, in January.

In the meantime, as I undertake this treatment, I am going to try to do some writing about not the ins and outs of cancer treatment, but more like what’s happening in my brain as I go through it.  What happens in my brain is much more interesting (and less..um…gross!) than what’s up with my body.

So, dear reader, I hope you will forgive my many-month digression away from solely Japan-based writing and continue to read my blog for other reasons as well.  Don’t worry – I’ll be back in Tokyo and writing about it with fresh eyes in no time.

Happy summer, wherever you are.

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

clock2Writing has been part of my life since I could first use a pencil and left scraps of paper all over my grandmother’s house – my “notes” – when I visited.  She said that from the time I was about six years old, cleaning up after I had spent time with her was entertaining. She never wondered what was on my mind – I wrote everything down. I planned on being a writer all the way through college and graduate school when I realized that I needed a day job to pay the bills.  I resisted teaching for a long while because it was sort of my “family business” – Mom still teaches elementary school (finishing her 46th classroom!), my father was on the board of education for years, my uncle teaches law, another uncle was the vice-chancellor of a big university, and even my grandmother was assistant superintendent of schools in a system in Connecticut when I was little.  I didn’t want any part of it.  I tried advertising, public relations and even a computer firm until I finally caved in and got a doctorate in English education and started teaching writing on the college level.

As any woman knows, balancing the demands and rewards of work and family is no easy feat.  When our family moved to Japan, I was lucky enough to find part time work at Temple University where I could teach two courses a semester and still have plenty of time to not only be a participatory mother, but even volunteer in the kids’ schools and never miss an event.  Adjunct teaching isn’t for everyone, but I was lucky enough to have a husband with a steady job so my career didn’t have to be primary and I could focus on the kids.

Babies tend to do this funny thing: they grow.  A lot.  Quickly.  Though it seems like only seconds ago I walked down a street holding the hands of a toddler and a kindergartener, my current reality has one child graduating from middle school and the other graduating from elementary school.  Yep, in a few short months I will be the parent of a high schooler and middle schooler.

More often than not, the kids are busy after school these days and not home until close to dinner time.  I don’t always have to go with them to these activities because many of them are associated with the school and they have busing.  So that leads me to the question of what I’m going to do next.  It’s an interesting question for any woman at any time, but in Japan, where I’m a trailing spouse, sometimes the issues seem insurmountable.  I don’t speak or read the language, and most Japanese companies don’t want a foreigner working for them anyway.  In addition, with my children’s school schedules, I want to be able to take them to the US for a long summer holiday so they can reconnect with our extended family and American roots.  I can’t take just any full time job, so the Temple University position, for just two semesters a year, is ideal.

Luckily, as a writer I have a lot of other options too.  There are blog posts to read and write, contests to enter, and even English-language magazines for which to write.  I’ll do another posting on writing vs. editing and the challenges therein, but this leads me to another point – focus.  I can’t do everything.  I have to pick what it is that’s important to me and focus on those things, otherwise I’ll do many things and none of them very well or successfully.

So now it’s time to raise the bar and figure out what it is that will claim my focus going forward.  Teaching will hopefully be part of the equation, but what I choose to write and how I choose to organize my time in the next few months remains to be seen.

One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that what I want to be when I grow up is not a static thing.  The idea of it can grow and change as I grow and change – emotionally, physically and even situationally.  That same grandmother who found my scraps of paper when I was little used to tell me, “when I stop learning, that’s how you’ll know I’m dead.” I subscribe to that theory. I’m not sure what exactly I want to be when I grow up, but figuring it out is a great journey

A Journey of Lessons (A Hopeful Sign)

Please see my latest posting on the e-zine A Hopeful Sign about being in Southeast Asia and experiencing the 5-star hotels juxtaposed with the extreme poverty of the region, as well as its affects on our kids.  To be fair, it’s also about bringing the lessons of the world in which they do not live to them and making it accessible via experiences right here in Tokyo as well as the tie-in to the Jewish holiday of Passover, that happened while we were visiting Cambodia.

The E-zine is called A Hopeful Sign for a reason – the messages of hope and positivity it brings are a breath of fresh air in today’s increasingly negative and pessimistic world.  Go see my posting, but also go to see all of the other wonderful writers who post there.  Click HERE.

Here’s the body of the text:

Our Journey of Lessons Travelling in Southeast Asia

Photo: Child begging for money from her little “boat”, a pot (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

(Post by AIMEE LEDEWITZ WEINSTEIN)

I never doubt that my kids are indeed children of privilege, which is not necessarily bad, because the important thing, I believe, is what one does with that privilege.  In recent weeks my kids have had many lessons in humility and giving, and the grace that comes along with the ability to recognize the gifts of humanity, no matter how they are packaged.

We started our journey of lessons at the Asian University for Women (AUW) fundraiser.  AUW, located in Bangladesh, takes young women from around the region and gives them a top-notch university education. The support committee, of which I am a part, showed an American PBS film about Women and the Taliban in Afghanistan and how they are fighting back.  My son who is 13 understood a lot of it, but my daughter who is 10, did not.  The important part for both of them, though, was the speeches that followed the movie by the two girls who had come to Tokyo from AUW in Bangladesh.  One girl, originally from Afghanistan, stressed the importance of education, finding one’s voice, and telling one’s story.  The other, from Nepal, spoke eloquently on the idea of one person making a difference and changing the world.  Both kids were enthralled by these two girls.  Obviously young, they carried themselves with poise that belied their backgrounds and they spoke confidently about their viewpoints and ideas, something my children could admire and appreciate.

The next day after hearing the girls at the AUW event, the kids, my husband and I got on a plane for Southeast Asia.  We spent the next six days exploring Hanoi, Vietnam, and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh Cambodia.  (You can read about our adventures on http://TokyoWriter.com)

It wasn’t our first trip to the region, but seeing the extreme poverty never gets any easier, especially for the kids.  Hanoi was chock full of honking cars, a mix of traditional and modern architecture, and people who were thrilled to see tourists.  Many people approached us on the street to sell us something, and of course, some were kinder than others.  When my daughter expressed discomfort, my husband explained that this was how people made their living; not everyone can afford a storefront.  We bought things we wanted and said no to vendors when we had to.

In Siem Reap, the resort hotels eclipse some of the more extreme poverty, but it was really unavoidable as we took a boat ride up the Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating villages there.  Random kids approached us over and over again, begging, one little girl with a snake around her neck asking if we wanted to give her a dollar to see the snake up close.  Another girl approached us as we were eating our dinner at a sidewalk café.  My daughter was stricken when we wouldn’t buy her books and the girl groaned her disappointment. I faltered when I explained that one to my own darling girl.  That young lady was helping her family by trying to sell the books.  Maybe she had been in school all day and worked a little to make extra money at the dinner hour, but this was her life and this was what she knew.  Even I could tell that the explanation fell flat – of course the girl could observe that we could afford dinner in a restaurant and she couldn’t – but we noticed our daughter chewing on what she had seen and the ideas I presented.

That night was the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and our normal celebrations at home include a large seder with many friends.  It’s the holiday when we retell the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt – it’s a celebration of freedom.  I had packed a few copies of our Haggadah, the book we read at the table for Passover, so the four of us sat in our hotel room after dinner reading about our ancestors and telling the story as it is commanded, as if we ourselves were enslaved in Egypt, feeling the yoke of slavery and the gratitude for the miracles wrought by God to bring about its end, even if did mean forty years of wandering in the desert.  We tell it that way to encourage empathy and enhance that gratitude.  In addition to telling the story faithfully to our children every year, we – Jews – infuse the seder with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, saving the world.  “Let all who are hungry come eat,” says the Haggadah, commanding not just Jews, but really everyone, to share the gifts they are given.

Even though it was the lowest-key seder we’ve ever had, and the smallest, it was by far the most meaningful.  The kids were both able to talk about not just freedom to walk around and go wherever they please, but also freedom from tyranny and freedom from want.  The Haggadah gave them language to appreciate the accident of their birth into a loving and financially stable, Western family.  We were able to talk about the gifts of their good brains and the ability to use them and the bright girls who go to AUW on scholarship who have a stroke of luck to get their fine education whereas our kids tend to take their schooling for granted.  They vowed never to complain about it.

We saw some exquisite sights throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, things that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  One morning we woke the kids before the sun to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, an enthralling picture that I can still see weeks later when I close my eyes.  To think that was built in the 12th century!  Later that day, my son said that he was sorry he fussed (which he really hadn’t) about getting up because it was worth it, and he was going to tell his kids about it someday.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

“Maybe you’ll take your own kids to see it,” I suggested.

My daughter watched my son nod in agreement and smile. “Maybe,” she allowed finally, “But I hope I can give my kids what you and Daddy give me.”

I don’t think she understood my silent hug or the tears that sprang to my eyes as I surveyed both of my children.  My children are among the luckiest there are to be American and live an exciting life abroad in Japan.  They have every gadget available as well as access to the finest schools and activities in the world. I have no idea whether these lessons will stay with them even into next month, but I am sure that we planted seeds in the children that week, seeds that will hopefully bloom into beautiful tomorrows.

How Do You Want To Be When You’re Old?

My grandmother, Shirley Bernstein, bottom right, and the "girls" - her table-mates.

My grandmother, Shirley Bernstein, bottom right, and the “girls” – her table-mates.

Old, I have discovered lately, is a state of mind.  Look at these ladies here.  The one on the far right next to the empty chair is my grandmother.  She’s ninety and these are her buddies – her table-mates at the independent living establishment where they reside.  A few weeks ago I had the privilege of dining with them, and what an experience it was!  All of them are over eighty and living on their own in an apartment in the building.  They have dinner together in the building’s dining room nightly.  But it’s not just a cafeteria; this is a place where you’re required to dress for dinner.  No schlumpy jeans and t-shirt for this dining room.  Every night they dine on soup, salad, entree and desert.  And the apartments are regular apartments that anyone might live in.  My grandmother’s is a one-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom unit on the third floor.  It’s lovely and perfect for her.  She has someone in to clean, but she does most of her own laundry and gets herself meals other than dinner.  The dining room is open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch, so sometimes she lunches there, but mostly it’s just dinner.

I was visiting to give a speech that night about my experiences as an expat in Tokyo.  The place has a great auditorium and I was able to connect my laptop to the projector and give a Powerpoint presentation like at any other lecture hall I’ve attended.  The lecture was at 8pm, after dinner, and I didn’t know really what to expect, but there was a pretty good turnout – 40 or 50 people there.  But really, I learned more from these six women before the speech that evening than I could ever have presented to them.

Over dinner, these women acted just like me and my thirty and forty-something girlfriends.  They complained about men, they discussed fashion and shopping, and there were two condom jokes told, making us all roar in laughter.  I must admit that heads at other tables turned toward us to wonder why we were laughing so much and so hard!

This is just how I want to be when I get to be ninety, I decided.  All of them play either mah jong or bridge weekly.  They are active in local women’s organizations, and some of them, including my grandmother, volunteer in a local elementary school.  They care about their hair and makeup and clothing like anyone else.  They demand to be taken seriously, as well they should.  Each one of them is a formidable force in her own right with a good brain and thoughtful ideas.  So some of them, also including my grandmother, use a walker to keep them steady or take a catnap in the afternoon to refresh them.  They are all making the most of the opportunities afforded them at this time in their lives.  Of course it’s different and life is different for them now than it was twenty years ago, but truly, which one of us is the same as she was twenty years ago?

My grandmother, as I’ve mentioned before, has been my best friend for all of my forty-something years, and there are very few days that I don’t speak to her on the phone even though we live thousands and thousands of miles apart.  Somehow we both make the effort to keep our bond close and I don’t take it for granted. I know how lucky I am to have her in my life.  She’s the person who taught me to always strive to be my best self and for that, I am grateful.

I plan to be happy and forward-thinking well into my nineties, or as long as my health will allow me.  These ladies know the meaning of a life well-lived, and they continue living it with great gusto.  They’re my heroes and I love them all.

On Being Done

Tuesday was my last day as a teacher at the International Secondary School.  Last week my son finished grade 7 and my daughter finished grade 4.  My writer’s brain searches for meaning in everything, so I can’t help but wonder what it all means – starting, finishing, seasons, changes – all of it.  But now, after two days of processing,   I don’t think it means all that much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are still milestones to mark, boxes to tick off, and occasions to note and celebrate, but maybe certain things do not have to be dwelled upon ad nauseum.  There are millions of books, articles, blog posts and poems written about startings and endings, and everything in between, but maybe it’s okay to just acknowledge the change and simply move on.

I’m saying this because we, as a society, have become fixated on these ideas.  Our kindergarteners graduate, our fifth graders graduate and our eighth graders graduate.  There is pomp and presents at every turn.  Maybe sometimes we have to just relax and move through things quietly.  Maybe sometimes we can stop and reflect quietly without a ticker-tape parade.

In Tokyo the expat community is contracting severely.  Banks are moving operations to other countries, as are various large firms, so many foreigners are moving not home, but to another place in order to keep their jobs.  So this year, not only is the year ending for the international schools, but with so many people moving, things will look very different when school re-opens in the fall.  Those of us staying are mourning the loss of their friends to whom we have been close and secretly wondering if they know something we don’t know.  But I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.  I want to let it all slide by me.  There’s nothing I can do about it, so I am avoiding the bigger parties and concentrating on spending one-on-one time with my friends who are leaving.  Normally I feel pretty excited at this time of year as I ready myself and the kids to take our long summer holiday in the U.S. But this year, I just want to quietly mark and pass the time.  I want to wish my friends well in their new lives, and prepare to move forward with my own.

There is something to be said for simple, quiet reflection.  Celebration and the special marking of the passage of time are all good in their place, but this year, I’m all about it the quiet reflection.