My favorite Christmas Present? A Benign Biopsy

My new favorite word is benign.  Say it with me: benign.  It’s a little choppy and doesn’t really flow off the tongue;  there may be too many syllables for the length.  It wasn’t a word I’d given much thought before last week.  In fact, if you’d asked me before that, I would have said I liked the word malignant better.  It has a force to it, a weight, and a power that is scary as heck when it might be related to your own body.

Last Friday I was presented with that glorious word, benign.  All day I sat by the phone waiting for my biopsy results.  Before the biopsy, the mammography center had warned  that I might not hear the results until after Christmas, but the surgical center seemed certain that I’d hear on Friday.  My husband and I had discussed the uncertainty and decided that if the sample was cancerous we didn’t want to hear until after Christmas.  I rationalized that I could fake my way through the holiday not knowing, but would likely ruin everyone’s Christmas if I did know.  However, when I discussed my plan with the biopsy nurse practitioner and doctor they looked at me like I was crazy.  “I mean, I’ll have questions and I’ll need to know what the plan is if it isn’t benign.”  I told them.  They assured me that there would be a plan – nay a whole team ready – if the sample was not benign so I capitulated and agreed that they could call, which seemed to satisfy their need for procedure and protocol. (“Not benign” is such a stupid euphemism.)

My arms were deep in the sink, soaking my brother’s Christmas scarf for blocking when my daughter ran in, “Mom, your phone is ringing.”  I dripped while sprinting into the study and grabbed my phone.  Better to ruin my phone with soggy hands then miss this call.  They were going to tell me if the turtle ripped from my body was a good turtle or an evil turtle.

There is no situation that is beyond the absurd in my life.  While I was laying face down on a surgical table, my clamped and bleeding boob protruding through a hole, the doctor put up the image of the sample taken from my flesh.  It looked exactly like a turtle with a bulbous middle, a head, and four smaller blob appendages.  Of course, I shared my interpretation of this image with my medical team.  Appeasing me, they pointed out the lighter squiggles on one turtle foot.  That was the sample they wanted.  The worrying parts of the turtle were now outside of me ready to be analyzed and tested.

The call had no preamble before the nurse practitioner – the one who convinced me that I wanted to talk to her no matter what she was going to tell me – said, “I have good news for you.  Your sample is benign.”

That moment is clear in my head.  As unclear as the medical guidance given to me by my doctor during the biopsy procedure.  He was very kind, but the nurse assigned to me seemed hellbent to ensure any medical information provided was covered up by cheery banter.  She entered with the doctor and was “there for me” in some role perfectly clear to her.  At the moment the biopsy was about to happen the doctor said, “I’m going to take the sample now.  You might feel…” but whatever I might have felt was drowned out by the nurse screaming in my face, “WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?” I still don’t know what I was supposed to feel, but Nurse Rose knows I like sugar cookies the best.  Her question wasn’t a total non sequitur.  She’d drowned out the anesthetic information by asking me my plans for the day, which involved making Christmas cookies.

Sure, maybe making Christmas cookies they day you get a biopsy might seem a little strange, but that’s what happens when you get an irregular mammogram less than two weeks before Christmas.  My brother’s scarf was carried with me from waiting room to procedure room to waiting room the day of the biopsy, because I had knitting to finish before the holiday.  My potential cancer worries were all wrapped up with holiday concerns – pun intended.

The decision to have the mammogram right before Christmas was an odd one for me.  In a flash of uncharacteristic optimism I took the appointment offered because, after my first irregular mammogram in June, my doctor and I looked at the films together.  She’d assured me that the worrying spots had been on my mammogram in 2015, disappeared in 2016 and were back in 2017.  She said it was probably nothing, but cautioned me that I needed to go every 6 months, just in case.

At the time, the mammogram didn’t seem like it was “just in case,” but in hindsight the lady doing my mammogram got less and less chatty as she took more and more pictures.  Since this was my first followup appointment, I just figured she didn’t find my demeanor charming.  Or maybe she was also unsure how she was going to get everything done before Christmas.  When she asked me to sit in the waiting room I didn’t wonder, but when she asked me to come back into the bowels of the mammography center I got concerned.  She led me into a dimly lit room with faux leather chairs around a small conference table and I panicked.  The room looked exactly like the special room my vet has for euthanasia appointments.  When the radiologist arrived and didn’t bring me a warm blanket and a cocktail of life-ending drugs it was a relief, until he suggested a biopsy.

The warm blanket came right before they strapped my legs to the biopsy table and raised me into the air on the worst amusement park ride ever.  Nurse Rose did not find my amusement park ride jokes funny as the table made herkey jerks and my boob was smashed and smushed and poked.  I feel like being “there for me” should have involved laughing at my jokes.

The benign call ended awkwardly.  When asked if I had any questions I mentioned that I thought the incision was bleeding more than it should.  The nurse practitioner seemed taken aback, like the invitation for questions was rhetorical.  I was supposed to just hang up in a blaze of relief and joy.  When I told her that the bloody spot under my bandage was much bigger than a dime or nickel she said, “Well, if it’s still a problem on Tuesday give us a call” then said goodbye.  My Christmas cancer worry was replaced by a smaller bleeding-out worry.  Nothing I couldn’t fake my way through, but enough to make me drift off to sleep with images of bloody wounds dancing in my head.  (Spoiler alert, I haven’t bled out yet.)

When people ask me what I got for Christmas this year I go blank.  I got benign, but almost everyone doesn’t know I had a biopsy.  A few friends and family members along with an astute coworker who caught me at a bad time know, but I didn’t tell anyone else.   When was the right time?  During the band concert?  The school holiday party?  During our work calendar exchange?  At my friend’s dad’s funeral?  Had the ending been different I would have had to tell, but now I’m just awkwardly hugging on one side and randomly asking people to carry heavy things for me.


Along with my constant appreciation of the absurd are my rose colored glasses.  Even after my Magic 8 Ball told me I didn’t have cancer (this was before the actual diagnosis) I couldn’t help planning for the worst.  The silver lining of the cancer scare was my evaluation of the things I was afraid of losing:  my family, my friends, my book, my stories and – surprising to me – my Master’s degree.  In the week between mammogram and biopsy I planned how to transition my work role to others, write my book at chemo so my mom could read it, and make countless videos and knit objects for my kid to remember me by.  (Because a box of hand-knits is almost the same as having a mom, right?)  I also hoped I would feel well enough during treatment to go to school.  It’s interesting the things that rise to important when you are considering th….


Now when things start to get serious around here, you’ll understand why I’m screaming cookie gibberish.  My surgical pamphlet tells me that one in eight women develop breast cancer and four in five biopsies like mine end up benign.  That means many women are having these procedures and it’s all okay, but for each four of me, one other woman is dealing with all the fears I had the past two weeks.  If you find yourself in this same uncomfortable situation, my hope is that your turtles turn out benign and your warm blankets just make your uncomfortable amusement park ride a little bit more pleasant.

Embarrassingly Excessive Advent

I have a confession to make.  I have an obsession that has gone into the realm of embarrassing.  Do you have one of those?  Maybe a penchant for shoes or purses or coats beyond what is reasonable for your budget or your closet size?  Maybe this desire even contradicts your core beliefs?

My addiction is advent calendars.  Not those paper ones where you open for a new picture every day.  Not the felt ones where you stick a new ornament twenty-four times.  Not one where you get a festively shaped piece of chocolate every day.  Not even the cute ones with little drawers that can hold a Hershey Kiss.  Folks, all those enabling Advent calendars have been part of my life, but I’ve moved beyond those.  My problem is much worse.

Behold!  My daughter’s advent calendar!  Purchased from The Land of Nod several years ago it has been the instrument of my decline.  Note that every day in December, up to and including Christmas – totally Advent inappropriate, having a pocket for the 25th – my daughter gets a gift.   I’d like to say that they are just little trinkets, and there are some.  However, there are Lego sets in there, my friends.  Small Lego sets, but Legos nonetheless.  There are objects too big for the calendar, thus the “box” cards, which direct my little girl to an extra box of wrapped gifts.  For example, today she got a book, which is too big for day 1 pocket.  I confess that there are even articles of clothing in some of those numbered pockets.

If I step away from this monstrosity and look at it objectively I’d tell you that I live in a tiny house that doesn’t need more stuff.  We are a family that values experience over things.  My daughter will get tons of Christmas from our extended family, if I didn’t get her anything she’d have more gifts than the average kid.  I’m sure, in confidence, my mom would tell you that I’ve made her feel bad about buying things for her granddaughter because I’m so anti-stuff.  In fact, the commercialism of Christmas is just obscene and my favorite part of the season is our celebration of Hanukkah, where we light the candles together as a family and quietly say a prayer as the lights burn down.   I love that moment of togetherness and quiet.

(But I also REALLY love the Advent calendar.)  I love that there is a day where the cookie cutters I bought her in Minnesota will remind her of our family vacation.  I love that there are Nutcracker leggings for the day she’s going to the Nutcracker, and brass instrument leggings for the day we are going to go see a brass holiday concert.  I adore how she springs out of bed every day in December to see what I got her.  Her joy and gratitude are an amazing way to start the day.  I love the planning involved:  making sure her crafting gifts are delivered just before our annual crafting party.  It is excessive and ridiculous and I can’t stop.

I CAN’T STOP!  Last year the Advent Calendar issue took a terrible turn, because my favorite online knitting shop, Jimmy Beans Wool, started offering a knitting Craftvent calendar.  I couldn’t resist and I loved getting a knitting surprise every day last year.  So I bought it again.  Gak!  There’s not even any thoughtfulness in this one.  It’s pure unadulterated Christmas commercialism and I love it so much that the guilt just slips away.

I refuse to calculate it, but I may spend more on my daughter’s Advent calendar than on her Christmas presents.  My husband is a stabilizing force with the actual holiday gifts.  I know I spend more on my Craftvent calendar than he spends on my gift.  It’s this weird annual sickness I have: excessive advent celebration.

I cannot wait to see what we get tomorrow!  And the next day!  And….

Solstice Gift

My husband raced downstairs tonight with happy crinkles decorating his eyes.  “I have a present!” he announced.

My daughter waited in anticipation, but I didn’t even need to ask.  Only one thing could make him so happy:  our chickens laid their first egg a month before we expected it, and on the shortest day of the year no less.  A week after temperatures didn’t reach 0 Rosie decided it was time to make an egg. (Well, we think it was Rosie.  Even though she is the youngest in our flock her comb and waddle are the most developed, which is supposed to indicate egg laying readiness.)

The upside?  Well, the beginning of eggs of course.  The downside?  My chickens have trumped any hope of me being responsible for delivering the true joy of Christmas this year for my family.  I’ve been trumped by a bird.  My daughter is running around singing, “All I want for Christmas is another egg…another egg… Oh!  Another eeegggg.”  My husband semi-jokes that he’s going to sleep with the egg tonight.  There is nothing wrapped or planned that can match the miracle of the first egg this season. 

I think I have a tiny bow downstairs.  Maybe I’ll stick that on the tiny precious gift and call it good.  (Or is that what they call gilding the lily?)
Happy solstice everyone!  May your own families be as lucky as the Aftheads and have their hearts filled with whatever gives them joy this week.  

Spoiled Rotten?

My daughter is an only child.  My husband and I chose to have just one.  We made that decision for a host of reasons including:

  1. We want to be as involved as possible in her life, while still both working and maintaining our own lives.
  2. We wanted to be able to experience her life together, rather than the divide and conquer method.
  3. I am a crazy tree-hugger and know the impact each additional person has on this earth.
  4. Having kids is a crap shoot.  Heck, life is a crap shoot.  We had one healthy kid and that’s a miracle and amazing.  I don’t need to roll the dice again.

I could go on and on, but I’m not trying to convince  you or anyone else that we made the right decision.  We made the right decision for our family.  Most days I’m really happy with the size and makeup of our family.  Do I worry about our decision?  Of course.  I’m a parent.  I worry.  That’s what I do.

  1. I worry that she’s going to be some kind of social misfit because she doesn’t have the influence of another kid at home to learn from.
  2. I worry that our holidays and traditions are boring and lame because there is just one kid.  Christmas morning has to be more magical the more kids you have, provided that you have the means for those kids, right?
  3. My daughter won’t play a sport, take a class, or do much of anything without a friend.  A sibling would provide a built in other person to hang out with.  I worry that she’s missing out on opportunities because she won’t do things alone.
  4. I’m afraid she’s spoiled rotten and a spoiled brat.

Trust me.  I worry about #4.  It is the thing about only children, isn’t it?   Spoiled is the stereotype. Well that and weird, but I believe in my heart of hearts that every single human being on this earth is weird.  My kid would be weird no matter what.  She’s just a different weird then she would be if she had a sibling.

But I digress.  Only children are spoiled.  They get everything they want.  They don’t have to learn how to share.  Their parents dote endlessly on them.  Their parents helicopter them to no end because there is no other child to focus on.

Do I spoil my daughter?  I don’t have multiple kids to make life fair for.  We need a new family laptop?  I give her the old one so she has her own computer.  If I had two kids they’d have to share that computer.  She looses her gloves at school?  I gripe, but just get a new pair.  We are fiscally conservative and I can afford a new pair.  I’m more annoyed about the time it takes for me to buy her the new pair.  My husband and I coached her soccer team together.  Both of us took hours out of our week to coach our only child.  I’d say that spoiled her, but she hated it, so probably not.

My daughter is an individual though.  She is like her dad.  She doesn’t really want stuff.  Her list to Santa this year consists of the following:

  1. Tic tacs, orange.
  2. Rocks
  3. Notebook
  4. Beanie Boo
  5. Magic Set
  6. Broncos Jersey

What an amazing list.  So reasonable, especially when split between Santa, Mom, Dad, Grandma, Papa, Nanna, Grandpa and the two aunts and uncles who buy for her.  Oh but wait.  There are two other items, and that’s where the problem comes in.

  1. iPad
  2. Dash and Dot robots

My daughter wants the same setup she has in her STEM lab at school so she can program robots at home.  This, my friends, is when the “OH MY KID IS SPOILED” freakout starts.  It goes like this:

  • Mom voice: She wants to program robots.  That’s so cool.  I was a programmer, so maybe she wants to grow up and be like me.  That would be a great career for her.
  • Head voice: WHO THE HELL GETS AN IPOD FOR THEIR KID FOR CHRISTMAS?  Only the parent of a spoiled brat only child.  That’s who!
  • Mom voice: Whoa.  We don’t even have an iPad.  She uses them at school.  It could be a family present.  In this day and age it isn’t that extravagant for a family to have an iPad.
  • Mom voice: There are eight things on her list.  She doesn’t ask for that much.  She’s a good kid.  She’s generous and caring and a good friend.  Stop freaking out.

Forever some reason, my worst case parenting scenario always ends with serial killer.  As much as I know that some of this worry is self inflicted, there is also a weird societal side of this craziness.  Today, we were at Michaels buying craft supplies for our annual “kids make holiday presents party.”  My well spoken confident daughter was explaining to the checkout person that we were having a party so she and her friends could make presents for their parents and siblings.

The man asked her, “How many siblings do you have?”

She replied, “None, I’m an only child.”

“Well, I bet you are spoiled rotten.”

I yammered something about how no she wasn’t spoiled rotten that she had a cousin and some second cousins and no I’m not a bad mom and I really have good reasons for only having one child and I’m going to write a blog post about this you creep.  (Actually, I stopped after the strange cousin justification.)  He went on to tell me that he was one of fourteen kids and that his wife was an only child.  We pretended it was totally normal that he’d called my kid “spoiled rotten.”

So let me just state here my kid is not spoiled rotten.  According to Google the definition of spoil is:

harm the character of (a child) by being too lenient or indulgent.
“the last thing I want to do is spoil Thomas”
Okay.  I can be lenient.  I can be indulgent.  However, not to the extent that I am not harming my child.  (Head voice: Well, maybe I am.  I mean would I really know if she was being harmed?)
Shut up head voice!  Okay, am pretty sure I am no harming my child, and I know she is not rotten.  She is a sweet kid who, as I was blogging this, came and slipped a finger knit necklace around my neck.  She is teaching her new friend how to finger knit so she can make a necklace for her mom.  She is not rotten.
Head voice: But will she become rotten if I get her an iPad?!?  Will that be the last straw?  What if the iPad makes her a serial killer???
Sigh.  Stupid head voice.

Santa Sighting

The Afthead Christmas season begins with a trip to Main Street of my hometown.  The four blocks are lined with trees covered in tiny white lights, dark until Santa arrives.  He travels in the back of a truck waving to the kids, and when he reaches the beginning of a new block the lights magically illuminate. This year it was cold and snow flurries painted the sky.  My daughter and her friend were bundled three layers deep topped with Santa hats.  Both of them believe completely in Santa, and while they know this is not the real guy, eight years of a tradition have made him special.  

The girls call in unison as Santa passes.  

“He saw us!”

“He waved at us!”

Because they are bigger and the crowds stayed home to avoid the cold this year I ask, “Do you want to go down another block?”  They do.  This year we see Santa four times and he sees us twice, by the girls’ counting.  Only at the last block do I have to threaten, “Girls,are you really hitting each other?  He is right there!”  Their cold bodies extend for one final wave.  

They leave singing  a song they proudly made up on their own:  “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus right down Ma-ain Street.”  

Afthead Advent

I have always loved Advent calendars: the kind where you open a paper door and see inside a window or door, the felt ornaments you use to decorate a felt tree, or the glorious ones of my childhood that revealed waxy chocolates.  I love the anticipation they build for the season.  I love the little excitement every day.

Now that I am a mom, I go a bit crazy over our Advent calendar.  It goes up Thanksgiving night, which increases the anticipation quotient. Each day has a gift.  Some little, like a mini candy cane, and some big, like a 1000 piece puzzle for the first day school is out.  (We’ll spend two weeks putting that together as a family.)  Some things she won’t like, clothes, but that gives us a chance to remember and practice polite “thank yous” before we get to the in laws on Christmas Eve.  Some are tiny unexpected treasures she will love:  a Duncan yo-yo the size of a quarter.  We celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah at our house, so there is gelt and blue and silver markers on the 6th to celebrate the first night we’ll light the menorah.  

Part of me feels guilty about the fancy calendar my only child gets.  I couldn’t pull this off with two kids.  Part of me knows that Advent is a real thing and I’m insulting people who celebrate the real Advent with my tradition.  Part of me feels bad that I’m making the holidays even more materialistic.  Really, I should have each day be a bonding activity, or a charitable act.  Somehow I can’t make time to pre-plan holiday activities before Thanksgiving and I don’t have the Pinterest-patience to come up with 25 good deeds that won’t make my kid whine at me, then me yell at her, and both of us feel bad.  I can manage to pick up a little something here or there throughout the year to fill a pocket in the calendar, and the effort gives me and her so much joy that I overlook my bad Advent feelings and keep the tradition going.

Tonight I pulled out the box where I stashed Advent gifts and started wrapping.  I got to remember where I bought things and was surprised by an item or two.  A few things she had outgrown and they went in the Toys for Tots box.  Once all the gifts were wrapped and strategically placed – biggest gifts on the weekend and art supplies all in a row – I got to hang up the calendar.  Tomorrow will be filled with excitement as she shakes, pokes, and squishes presents.  Tuesday  she’ll open her first gift.  The only thing better than my Advent calendars growing up is making one for my kiddo. 

The Nutcracker Redeployment

“Well troops, today is the day where we must migrate from our dignified post across the staircase and return to our plastic storage container home.”

Several of the older more claustrophobic nutcrackers faint at the news.

A new-this-year nutcracker pipes up, “What do you mean?  Do we have to go back to our boxes?”

“No, no.” The lead nutcracker chuckles, “Your new home is this industrial grey box, but take comfort that once a year we will return to the glory of the shelf and again be organized in formation from tallest to shortest.”

Nutcrackers in a bin
As the leader of you troops, and the tallest, I’ll be residing in the green bin with the wrapping paper.

(Part of me really believes these guys are alive.  I anthropomorphize everything.  No wonder I hate those elves on shelves, huh?)

Have courage brave soldiers!  Until we meet again in December!

Christmas morning

The Magic of Christmas at Six

The holidays are over but next year, I beg you, go find a six-year-old to spend Christmas with you.  It’s the closest thing to magic I’ve experienced in my adult life.

The wonder starts from the moment elves on the shelves start their creepy spying from bookcases and shower heads and ovens.  (No elf on the shelf at our house:  too beady-eyed stalkerish for me thanks.)  The parental threats of “Santa’s watching” with every misdemeanor cannot squelch the excitement.  Santa’s watching is a mystery to be explored.  He knows if you’ve been bad or good is a rule to ponder.  Santa Claus is coming to town is a fact full of anticipation.  Rudolph’s colleagues would be sued for discrimination in this day in age – shun the different guy – is a parental minefield.

At six though, the magic isn’t just in the belief; it’s in the new-found logic ability.

“Mom, that Santa at the mall, he’s not the real Santa.  The real Santa is too busy getting ready for Christmas at the North Pole.  Why is that fake guy here?  He’s scary.”

“Why do you think he’s here honey?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you believe in him last year?”

“Yeah… oh… he’s there for the little kids.  The ones who don’t understand that Santa is real and needs to be at the North Pole with the elves.  They need to see him, even if he is scary.  I’m a big kid now, so I know better, but I won’t tell the little kids.” 

The joy of that interaction: the unquestioning belief in the real Santa and all the work he needs to do; the logic of the scary fake Santas; the pride of figuring things out; and the understanding that you don’t ruin it for the little kids.   That my friends is a Christmas present of joy wrapped in belief wrapped in magic wrapped in logic wrapped in empathy in a box of parental astonishment right there.

I was almost sad to see Christmas morning knowing that six won’t last until next year.  There were only a few pictures as I immersed myself in the moment.

“Mom!  Santa gave me coal in my stocking, but I got other stuff too.  I bet I got it because he knows I love rocks and would want to study it.”

“I’m sure you are right sweetie.”

Merry Christmas wishes from the Afthead family to you and yours.  Wishing you and us magic at the holidays for years to come.