To Pink or Not to Pink (Breast Cancer Awareness)

Our family doesn’t need a day for Breast Cancer Awareness. I’ve been aware of breast cancer since I was old enough to inquire why my mom had a dad but not a mom. My mom was 7 years old when her mother died of breast cancer in 1956. Mom’s four brothers were 16,14,12, and 5 years old. Mom was the only girl left in the house.

This death, more than anything else, shaped our family for generations.

In 1984 at age 36, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery (which she’s been willing to show off to any female acquaintance who finds herself with the same diagnosis). She has, thankfully, been cancer free ever since. She has shared her story, exposed her body, and offered hope to many women over the years who struggle with the fear this diagnosis can bring.

She has been cancer free for 30 years. *BUT* being cancer free in your body does not mean that your mind no longer goes there. I can’t speak for my mother, but I can’t go a single day and not wonder if I have it. Growing up knowing how devastating breast cancer can be, that it can cause someone to die, that it can cause kids to lose their mother, that it can affect generations by the loss of a matriarch. I grew up feeling that tangible loss even though it happened 16 years before I was even born.

Let me tell you a secret: My mom hates those pink ribbons. Occasionally she will receive gifts with pink ribbons on them. I don’t know why they do that. But, Mom will display them for the required amount of time to show her appreciation, and then they are promptly donated. I have seen her hold these pink ribbon items in her hands, stare at them as if someone has intentionally tried to hurt her, and then shake her head with sadness. That shaking of her head is the only expression of her pain she shows, and I doubt many people have seen it outside of her immediate family.

Mom’s life is not benefited by waking up every morning to fill up her pink ribbon mug with water to help wash down the handful of vitamins and meds she takes every day. I wouldn’t want one, either. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel for lumps and misinterpret every cyclical change in my breasts as a possible sign of cancer. I made my first appointment to have a lump checked when I was 19. I have inquired to doctors about reasons for breast changes so often that now I feel like I’m a hypochondriac and I’m ashamed. But I don’t worry less. I just talk about it less.

Not everyone feels this way, though.

I met my husband about five years after his sister died of breast cancer. She had been in her mid-30’s and had a 9 year old daughter whose father had died five years before. My husband’s other sister stepped in as the girl’s mother with help from their parents. Everyone in that family had their hearts broken and their lives changed.

But they are okay with the pink ribbon as far as I know. I think for them it is a way to remember the person they loved and lost. They fought so hard to save her when she was sick, and that pink ribbon is a sign that they’re still fighting for others. I completely understand that connection.

There are obviously different points of view. Perhaps the pink ribbon has different meanings for those who have lost someone else vs. those who have fought the battle and survived (so far). Maybe it depends on how profoundly lives were altered. Maybe it has to do with preexisting anxiety and susceptibility to bad memories being triggered.

Regardless of why, just know that not every cancer survivor wants a pink ribbon mug, tshirt, blanket, hat, fridge magnet, waffle iron, or earrings. If you have not actually seen the person donning other pink ribbon paraphernalia, it is probably a sign that they don’t want it.

If someone lost their mother in a car wreck, you would not gift them every year with a replica of the 1957 Cadillac she was driving at the time.

If someone had nearly died after falling off a ladder, you wouldn’t gift them every year with miniature ladders to promote ladder safety. That would actually make you an asshole.

Breast Cancer awareness is *SO MUCH MORE* than knowing it exists. If you are going to be aware, be aware of the stories of the survivors you love. Be aware of their wishes and fears. Be aware that it is a tragedy, not a celebration.

My kids’ school asked that everyone wear pink today for Breast Cancer Awareness. These kids are ages 5-12 years old. My 10 year old put on her pink shirt in the same way she put on her school spirit shirt the day before because of “Read with the Eagles” day. Does she understand the weight of the tragedy that is Breast Cancer? Will there be any effort to convey that on Breast Cancer Awareness Day? The answer is likely no, and I’m okay with that because these are kids. The entire thing is likely to do nothing more than equate pinkness with caring about Breast Cancer in these kids’ young minds. Will my mother, other survivors, and future diagnosed women benefit from kids believing pink = support?

When I dressed my son, I pulled a pink polo shirt over his head. With his face still beneath the cotton/poly blend, he said, “I hate pink!”

Last I heard, his favorite colors were blue and pink. I don’t know why today is any different. And yet, I do.

My grandmother (center), mid-1930's.

My grandmother (center), mid-1930’s.

What the Holy Ghost Knows About Uncle Pete’s Cats

My Uncle, let’s call him Pete, once said to my mom, “The Holy Ghost told me Julie was the one dropping off those stray cats at my house.” His bushy eyebrow raised as he waited for her to confess the truth.

He lives on 20 acres in a rural area off a dead end road by the river. Surprisingly, there have always been a lot of strays wondering up to his property. But Uncle Pete feeds any animal who shows up. Dogs, cats, racoons, and possums. This irritates Dad because his garden is right next door. He prefers that wildlife not be lured in with table scraps and cat food. But perhaps Uncle Pete is helping by filling up their bellies before they ever make it over to Dad’s produce. Once, a possum got into Uncle Pete’s garage and ate so  much cat food it couldn’t get out.

When Mom told me what Uncle Pete said about the Holy Ghost, I was kind of hurt. What would make the Holy Ghost lie about me like that? But that was said years ago and I have mostly let go of my bitterness. For all I know, the Holy Ghost was giving me credit for something that gave Uncle Pete secret pleasure. Caring for animals is something he has always done with his whole heart.

This past week, a stray kitten showed up to my brother’s porch. He lives in a small house with an even smaller yard which sits on a corner lot by a busy street. Inside that house there are already four very rotund cats: Lefty, Poncho, Melvis, and Harry. My brother was not about to take in another cat, no matter how cute it was.

Mom, being the problem solver she is, called Uncle Pete to ask him is he’d take the kitten. As she said, “He’s down to just one cat except for Blue and that yella cat that comes around sometimes.” (Blue is also a stray which never gets close enough to be considered a pet.)

Uncle Pete hesitantly said he’d take the kitten. But Mom says he also sounded excited.

She told me on Thursday, “I’m going to stop by your brother’s house and pick up the little thing tomorrow. Your brother has put food out on the porch so it will stay. He has even been out there holding it and petting it this afternoon.”

Well, evidently the kitten didn’t stay. Mom went to get it Friday and it was gone. My brother’s neighbors said it had been to their house the night before. Mom had to call Uncle Pete and tell him he would not be getting a new kitten.

Uncle Pete said, “You know, God probably had a plan.”

Perhaps that’s how Uncle Pete should have thought about the strays years ago. But, is it really his fault? He was just listening to what the Holy Ghost was telling him.

I’m just going to speculate that this is who really brought the cats to Uncle Pete:

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A Letter to Z

Dear Z,

We live far away from you now, so when I saw your post that you are “doing drag”, I didn’t know exactly what that meant in your life right now. But, I want to write this open letter to you anyway. What I have to say is based on the time you have spent with my family and what little I know of your past. I will admit I don’t know a lot, and I could be wrong with some things I assume. But I hope you read this and see, no matter what, I’m on your side.

My daughter met you when she was forced to switch schools at the very end of her 4th grade year. She was devastated, even though her best friend was switching schools with her. As soon as she met you, the two of you became fast friends. I know from things she has told me that many kids regularly laughed at you for looking like a girl. I know it had been going on since you started Kindergarten and your hair was long. I think you needed a friend like my daughter as much she needed a friend like you.

I met you a week after my daughter switched schools. It was Talent Show Night and you were sitting on the bleachers, waiting your turn to play piano. My first impression of you was that you exuded joy. You were polite, but willing to disregard what people thought of you in order to express your happiness. You were a rebel in the name of laughter. Not only did you have my daughter (usually analytical and reserved) laughing and acting like any other 4th grader, you had my younger daughters enthralled. When you went to play piano, I cried a little, not because of the piece you played, but because I was so happy to have someone like you in the lives of my children.

I suspected then that you would likely come out as gay or trans. You were so feminine, which I know is not always an indicator. I wanted my kids to understand the complexities of sexual and gender identity so they could be supportive if that day ever came. I discussed with my kids often that “It’s okay if people are gay. It’s okay if boys like boys. Some boys are actually girls. Some girls are actually boys. You can’t judge. Etc., etc.” And I would bring this up when my daughter would tell me how other kids were insulting you by calling you gay, or calling you a girl, and how much that hurt you. I didn’t want you to be hurt, but I also didn’t want the insults to resonate with my kids as “gay is bad” or “feminine boys are bad”. Gay is not bad. Being a feminine boy is not bad. Realizing you are really a different gender is not bad.

But my daughter saw these reminders as me saying you were gay, or saying you were a girl, which to her had already been classified as a hurtful and wrong thing to say about someone. She wanted to protect you from any words, well intended or not, which might cause you pain.

I was not surprised when you became her first boyfriend. There were certainly times the two of you bickered and did not get along, and both of you were right that the other one was being unreasonable. But, ultimately, the two of you have never disliked each other. Of all the people in her life, you are probably still the one she admires the most. Why? I don’t know what she would say, but I think it’s because you push her out of her comfort zone; not into breaking rules, but in seeking out personal bliss. For example, not every boy could convince his classroom team to call themselves the Purple Unicorns with absolute disregard for the shit you were likely going to get for it. Yes, people hurt you, but you never compromised your joy… not when your classmates tried to pull you off your cloud, nor when your own family members would try to make you be a normal boy. You were determined to be happy and that’s why we love you so much.

We moved away to Texas soon after you and my daughter began dating. That was halfway through 6th grade. Now you are in 8th grade and we only see you when we come to visit and on social media. Soon after we got here, you and my daughter decided to just be friends because of the distance between you. But when we visit, you become my 5th child. Last summer we went thrift shopping almost every day we were in town. You encouraged my girls to buy brightly colored jeans. I think you bought purple for yourself. You bought women’s clothes which could have been unisex, and even tried on a ruffled blouse. All I really thought about it was, if I had been in high school, I would have bought that ruffled blouse for myself because of Prince. I accept ruffled blouses as a unisex thing. We had a blast and my girls fought over which one would sit beside you in the van and in restaurants.

Only six months later, you have posted a photo of yourself in make-up and declared that you are “doing drag”. My daughter says a friend told her you wore a dress to school. I can not say, because I haven’t spoken to you about it, whether or not you consider yourself trans. I can not say for sure if you are identifying as female. I can not say for sure if you are straight or gay. I can say, with 100% certainty, that I do not care. We all love you the same, maybe even more for knowing you are still refusing to hide your light.

But I have concerns I want to share with you because I do see you as my 5th child. So everything I say through the rest of this letter, feel free to roll your eyes at me like my kids would.

You are beautiful, naturally. If you love to wear make-up and see it as a way of expressing yourself, you should go for it. Put on glittery purple eyeshadow and huge peacock eyelashes and we will go anywhere you want to go. There is nothing you could put on to express yourself which would ever make us see you any differently than we already do. But, I need for you to know you are beautiful without it, too. What makes you beautiful is the glow you have when you laugh. You have to know that the world can see it, and the world can love you for it, and it’s enough.

Being in the LGBT community does not mean you have to sexualize your appearance. (Roll your eyes at me, but listen). I know that for grown-ups, “doing drag” can venture into some pretty inappropriate stuff for a just-turned-teen. It may be easy for you to fall into the same trap that young girls fall into, this belief that no one will every want you unless they want you “like that”.  I don’t want you to ever think you have to dress a certain way or do certain things to be accepted by whatever gender you wish to attract. You have NEVER been the kind of kid to conform, and I hope you never do. People are going to love you, many people, because of the light you exude. It is enough. Say that with me, “The light within me is enough.”

Don’t let people take advantage of you. I worry about you, Z. I am so happy you are defining yourself and trying on different ways of being in the world. But I worry predators will see you as easy prey because you are so new in the LGBT world and you have expressed doubts about whether or not you will ever be loved. Please, please, please, know that you are loved! Don’t rush into things. Believe with all your heart that someone will want you, just to be in your presence, without you ever needing to sacrifice anything for them. The person who is going to love you for who you are with or without all the glitter is probably out there right now, but too shy to say so. Please, don’t rush into anything. Be wary of anyone who is over-complimentary, boisterous, or demanding. Be wary of anyone more than 3 years older than you. Just be wary in general because we love you and don’t want anyone to hurt you.

Even if you are stuck between identifying as a boy or girl, you are not less of a human. You aren’t an inferior boy. You aren’t an inferior girl. You never will be. You are amazing no mater what. Do not settle for less on the premise that you are flawed. You certainly are not perfect. I’ve had to call you down just like I call down my girls for little things here and there. We all make mistakes, we all have strengths and weaknesses. But none of that makes us more or less human. You can be flawed and beautiful. You can be flawed and loved. You should never be around people who try to justify hurting you based on your being “not like other boys/girls”. Get those people out of your life and make room for one of many people who will want to treat you right.

And one last thing, please keep your promise to do my girls’ make-up when we visit again in March. Show them all the tricks you have learned because I am completely ignorant about all things cosmetics. They want to learn and I think it would be fun. Maybe after you teach them, they can teach me. I will pay you by taking you thrift shopping and you can buy all the brightly colored jeans, ruffly blouses, dresses, or whatever you want.

Our lives are better with you in it. We love you.

-The Towes

About John (from Winter Seedlings/Winter Suns)

Winter Suns, the second book in the Winter Seedlings series, is written from two rotating points of view. One of those belongs to John. I’m going to tell you about him and make every effort not to include spoilers for either book.

John is a teenager living in an abuse shelter which is really a huge Victorian farm house in Nashville, Tennessee. His mother runs it through an organization she has formed with her sister. He has lived in the abuse shelter since he was six years old. The farm on which it sits was purchased by his father who lives in a ten bedroom house built on the hill. Though John’s father had been homeless and unemployed when he met John’s mother, he is now wealthy and famous, as sometimes happens in Nashville.

There are two men John refers to as “Dad”. One is really his father, the other man is his father’s partner who has been in his father’s life since John was born. John’s mother and his two fathers have built a sheltered world where they can exist as the unique family they have become.

In an effort to keep John from being teased or bullied about having such a unique family, his parents send him to a private school. But nothing can protect John from kids pretending to be his friends just to get close to his dad. John learns to value honesty and true friendship. He weeds out the people who only see him as his father’s son, which leaves him with very few friends.

At the start of Winter Suns, John is almost sixteen years old. After a decade of living in a house with constant new arrivals of abused women and their children, John has come to despise the sound of crying. He understands why his mom does what she does. He is even, deep down, proud of her. But, the constant sounds of misery has made him nearly immune to it. Not only is he tired of the crying, he also resents the women for taking so much of his mother’s time and attention.

With his father gone on tour and his mother constantly providing therapy, heading group meetings, and preparing meals for the women, John feels ignored. His father’s partner works unusual shifts as a police officer and sometimes sleeps in the day, so going to the big house isn’t always an option.

John does get enjoyment out of working with Ellis, an old man who leases the land for hay, horses, and to grow pumpkins. John views the farm work as a means to get away from all the women, as well as a way to build up his muscles. He’s not very happy about ending up with more of his mother’s genes than his father’s.

John has lived his entire life around the richest kids in Nashville as well as those in most need. He can clearly see that he wants no part of either lifestyle. He really wants, more than anything, for his family to spend more time together, laugh together, and go places together.

He doesn’t know it at the beginning of Winter Suns, but his family hasn’t only been protecting him, they have also been protecting his mother. In their efforts to protect her, they have kept secrets from John. When John discovers these secrets, he feels even more alienated.

The day a backwoods girl from Kentucky shows up at their door and knows more about his mother’s past than he does, John’s life gets turned upside down. At first he sees her as just another abused girl, another woman to take his mother’s attention. But his expertise at tuning out other people’s pain doesn’t seem to work with her. He actually feels sorry for her, and maybe something more. His reaction to her scares him; his fear makes his resentment greater.

This girl says she wants nothing, but maybe he is right to think his life will never be the same.

Get the books here: http://www.amazon.com/Julie-Roberts-Towe/e/B00O6U2N1E/

Permission Slipped

I was on the edge, my hand pushed against the wall to keep myself from falling off the bed. My son pressed his feet against my spine in his usual rhythm: toe push-push, relax, foot-push, and repeat. His legs flopped over my waist and my hand went to his calves and squeezed, hoping the pressure would help him relax. I had already compressed all of his joints, so it was only a matter of time before he finally drifted off to sleep.

In the darkness, the room was quiet except for the Angry Birds sounds my son was making. I closed my eyes and drifted inward. My mind felt the words before I saw them peeking out of the places they hide. One by one they stepped out in hopes of being examined and validated. More and more words filled the emptiness and my heart ached for the feeling of a pen in my hand.

My son’s breathing steadied with a hint of a snore. I sat up, spoiled by the time resting in his bed. Exhaustion drew my back into a slump. I pulled the blankets over him, blankets which I am not allowed to touch if he is awake. But it is okay to touch them when he sleeps, and pile them heavily on him. I tucked them in around him so he might sleep the whole night through.

When I opened the door to leave his room, the sound of Dr. Who rushed in. I quickly stepped out and closed the door to keep the noise out. But I realized it was too distracting for me to write. I would have to wait until morning. But, sleep seemed equally appealing. I imagined I would lie in my bed, as I had just been in my son’s bed, and all the words would come to me and tell me where my story needed to go. I needed that precious moment of clarity just before sleep.

So, I passed by my husband and daughter as they watched t.v., stopped to turn on the clothes dryer, and then disappeared into the darkness of my bedroom. I could still hear the Daleks, but they simply assured me that no one would interrupt my thoughts. I settled my head onto the pillow and let my mind drift to the words I had written earlier in the day. I let the story play out a number of different ways until I crossed over into dreaming.

The alarm went off at 6:17 and automatic pilot mode was activated. I brushed my teeth, feeling the mint wake me. I walked through the house with a greeting, “Oh my goodness, the sun is already peeking in the windows! Everyone get up and look out the windows at that beautiful sunrise! The sky is pink. Wake up, wake up. It is time to wake up.”

I flipped on the usual lights, opened the usual doors, gathered up clothes for each child to wear, and doled out a few instructions. I headed back down the stairs and went straight to the laundry room to look for four pairs of matching socks. While there, I started folding the clothes from the dryer. I still needed to load the washer, get dressed, and pack a snack for the kids. I had thirty minutes, plenty of time.

That’s when I heard my daughter complain because there were no cherry Poptarts left. And that’s when I heard him reply, “Well, that’s because no one goes to the store anymore.”

Me. I don’t go to the store anymore to buy cherry Poptarts because I spend my quiet time at home writing. That is what he meant. When I explained that writing is my ‘work’, it brought a grunt of objection.

I’ll spare you the details of what transpired afterward.

But, it all comes around to this: If you wait for permission to do the work you believe in, you are only waiting for something you can already give yourself. You must give that permission to yourself before anyone else will come on board. Maybe no one else ever will. But, it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter.

I, like many women, do the necessary work to keep the house in order. I, like so many others, love my family more than anything. I am many things to many people. But, I am also something to myself. I am a writer. This is my work.

Holding Together