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Practical Magic
Saturday, 23 April 2016

The year 2015 started out only slightly different from previous years. It was the year our son noticed the ball dropped in New York at 11 pm here instead of midnight and busted us for putting him to bed an hour earlier than the New Year began. He should have been miffed about all those years we duped him, but he seemed fine with it. The husband and I, however, were not getting away with going to bed early this year. (Yes, we are just that exciting.)

It was also different in that I had been asked if I might take a permanent position at an elementary school where I had been subbing. I was considering it over the holiday break. I worked as a sub for the nutrition department and loved the flexibility of working when I chose but the head of the department had offered me the job so it seemed important to find reasons to make it work. The people who worked there were fabulous, the kids were fun, and there would be a little raise. It seemed worth giving it a shot. On the other hand, it was a big, demanding, fast-paced school. No room for the weak gazelle at the back of the herd. I wasn’t sure I was up for it. Other than running a small home-based business, I had only recently gone back to work after staying home with my son for several years.

I was debating whether or not to make resolutions. I had always admired my dad, who every year optimistically wrote down his resolutions in the little notebooks he carried with him each day of his adult life. He was continually scribbling notes, doodles, chores and thoughts down in them. His mind was always at work. Sometimes I would get up in the morning and see him sitting on the couch, coffee cup in hand, with his eyes squeezed shut, deep in thought. I regret now not asking him what he was thinking.

As far as the resolutions were concerned, discipline had never been my gift and my determination usually dissolved long before the 17 days most people can keep them up. Screw it. No resolutions this year.

We were also expecting our third grandchild. My stepson’s wife Olinka was pregnant. Elijah Pavel McKibben, born March 7, 2015 was by far the shining moment of the entire year.

Still, it was a fairly ordinary New Year. Like the beginning of any year, there is no way to tell what is in store, but I had been on a pretty good streak of some good years. It seemed reasonable to think that the run would continue. On New Year’s Eve 2015 I had no idea the stretch would be broken in some terrifying and painful ways. I thought I might reflect on the year that changed my life and many other people’s lives so very much. I do not wish to dwell in a negative place, but rather to remember the people and events that transformed us. (My intent was to write about the entire year of 2015, besides remembering my experience with Augie’s illness. I was going to write about the illness and subsequent death of my mother, but I’ve decided I would prefer, when I am able, to write about my mother’s life experience rather than her heartbreaking death. I would however, like to record that 2015 was a year that fundamentally changed me and my mother’s experience was a big part of that.)

I would also like to make clear that this is my experience. I asked Augie some questions to help me clarify details but these are the thoughts and feelings I had as we made our way through the cancer treatments. Augie has his own story, though I don’t know if he will ever choose to share it in a public way.

I call my husband Augie. That’s not his real name. It’s confusing to people; sometimes and I wish I had just been introduced him as Mike. People wonder just who the hell I am sleeping with anyway (lucky me, both of them). I have to explain that he ended up with the nickname Augie Doggie at work, the result of some stupid bet all his coworkers had made years before. (He says he won the bet, but I’m not so sure.) Somewhere along the way, the Doggie got dropped. As it turns out the nickname works out nicely on my side of the family, which has approximately 800 people named Mike in it. Plus I’ve been calling him Augie for 23 years – I guess it’s going to stick. For purposes of consistency, that’s what I will call him here.

I met Augie when I was 23 at a Halloween party where he was dressed as a mad scientist. He had taken some red paint and smeared it down the front of his white doctor’s coat to look as if he’d just wiped off his bloody hands on the jacket. There was a severed foot hanging out of his pocket and he’d sprayed a white streak in his hair. (This was before his hair was naturally white.) I thought: Man, I need to talk to this guy. Smart guys had always worked for me, even bloody, creepy, costumed ones. We talked all night at the party and fortunately he was brainy in real life. It helped that he was extraordinarily nice and that I am a sucker for blue eyes; his sparkled like sunlight on water.

We dated for seven years before we married. There were stops and starts and hesitations in our relationship, all driven by me. He was steady, hardworking, level-headed and disciplined. I, on the other hand, was messy, harried, disorganized, and pretty sure I had some undiagnosed form of ADD. I really worried I would drive him crazy, and honestly, I enjoyed being single. Despite all my flaws, I was pretty good at taking care of myself. Somehow he seemed to know long before I did that we would work. We did have some common ground: we were both low-maintenance, didn’t like to argue, were conscientious about money and we were both small. (I call us The Pocket People.) I know that seems like a weird thing to have in common, but in a world full of Giants it was nice to have someone to look eye to eye with. We fit perfectly into each other’s arms, so we married in 1999; the fall of my 30th and his 39th year.

As I said earlier, we had a great run of good fortune for years. There was a house and a baby and all the treasures of marriage. He made me a step-mother to his bright 19-year-old son Christopher. He quietly listened to my wild ideas for businesses, inventions, home decoration, thoughts of going back to school for a multitude of professions and my easy loss of interest in just about all of those things. (I did start a real business in 2008 and have run it now for eight years -- my longest streak at any job.) He put up with my messiness, my flirting, my goofy stories, my dirty jokes, and my wonderful, close, sometimes loud family that finds any excuse to get together. I’m not sure what I gave to him. I told him all the time he got the short stick in this marriage but I was good at dragging him out of the house from time to time to make sure the introvert got some human contact. I also encouraged him to keep himself in shape for his yet unnamed third wife. (He had been married once and was divorced before we met.) Since I ate like a teenage boy and really loved the sofa, I was certain he would outlive me and no woman wants to marry a slouch. (I was looking out for her; we girls have to support each other.) Truthfully, he did a fine job of taking care of himself all on his own. He was quite conscious of eating a good diet and keeping his weight in check. He was always making healthy green salads for dinner. I always ate mine with a side of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

But in January 2015 it was his well-cared for body that betrayed him. There was a bump. It seems like a lot of crappy things that can happen to a body start with a bump.

I’ve told you what a sensible guy Augie is, but if he did have one, hmmm, quirk, it might be that he always thinks he’s getting sick. He’s not running to the doctor with every sniffle but he is quite aware of his body and when it’s off a little he knows it. The bump on the left side of his neck didn’t worry me too much, but he instinctively felt something was wrong right away. He went to his regular doctor, who couldn’t find any reason for the bump and  told him maybe he should go to the dentist to see if he had an abscessed tooth; nope, not that. Next was the Ear, Nose and Throat guy.

When Augie and I first bought our house years ago, I was standing at the top of the stairs looking towards the front of the house; Augie was standing in the dining room facing me, but looking behind me into the back entry way. There was a look on his face of . . . terror, shock, surprise? I had no idea what he was looking at, but simply from the look on his face I yelped and ran behind him in fear. When I peeked out from behind his back, I saw what he saw: a bat flying in circles around the ceiling fan in the entry way. (*We caught the bat together and let it loose outside. It’s kind of a funny story and it was one of the few times that Augie was wrong about something, but that’s for another time.) When he came home from the ENT that day, he had a similar look on his face. He walked in the door and I asked, “What?! What is it?” He simply shook his head “no” and fell into my perfectly sized arms and began to cry.

On January 12, 2015, the ENT doctor slipped a scope down Augie’s throat and seemed to know right away what was wrong. Something he saw was a telltale sign of tongue cancer. There would be a biopsy to confirm it, but looking back, Dr. Sphere was dead-on perfect in diagnosing what Augie had. I have to imagine this is rare in most people’s cancer experience. He was able to tell Augie in that first office visit that he most likely had cancer. It was highly treatable with excellent outcomes, but still, cripes it was cancer.

On January 27, 2015, I would meet Dr. Sphere for the first time before the biopsy. He was one of the Giants. He had a soft beard and a calm, quiet voice. After the biopsy, he called me into one of those awful little waiting rooms built for bad news -- the same type of room in which they told me when I was 20 that my father had died of a major heart attack. This was the exact same room, only a few months from Augie’s biopsy, in which a different doctor with a TV name would tell me how tangled my mother’s insides were. They had been able to untwist them to some degree and patch them the best they could. Her outcome, however, was uncertain.

Augie’s biopsy went well; they had a pathologist right there and were able to confirm what they already suspected. It was exactly what Dr. Sphere had predicted. Then his gentle voice launched into a salvo of information, which I heard and comprehended at the time, but I have very little recollection of now as I am writing this. Here are the things I do remember: Dr. Sphere told me the doctors at the cancer facility affiliated with this hospital, should we choose to go there, were very good and Augie would be in excellent hands. The other thing I remember is a little embarrassing for me to think back on. I had accepted the job I mentioned earlier and had started it on January 5. It was everything I expected. Good people to work with, young energy, exhilarating and fun, but it asked from me things that I wasn’t naturally good at: speed, organization and forethought. The job was hard for me. I selfishly asked the doctor if this would knock Augie down. (Was I going to have to take off a bunch of work from a job I’d had for barely 3 weeks?) Dr. Sphere said softly, “It’s going to be a tough year.” My stomach dropped and those thoughts evaporated and were replaced by heartbreak for him.

They had put Augie out for the biopsy, but soon he was awake and fairly alert. I tried to tell him all the things the doctor had told me, but the details were already starting to get fuzzy. Fortunately, Dr. Sphere came in and clarified things. Augie had about two weeks between that first office visit and the biopsy, so he had had a little time to come to grips with what was happening and there were no surprises. He took the news well.

Looking back now, I can see how it was a good thing the doctors weren’t in a rush to get started. It meant the cancer wasn’t raging through his body. It meant they could get the treatment all worked out just right before Augie got going on it but for me and I'm certain even more so for Augie, it was agonizing. He was diagnosed officially on January 27 and the treatments got underway on March 2. There were lots of things to do in that time, so the time went both fast and slow. I’m not sure how else to describe it. I remember sometimes daydreaming, even before his treatments began, about his last day of treatment and that would help me get through. I just kept visualizing our life on the other side. Augie went back to work and tried to go on with business as usual. Once during the waiting, he had a real, honest-to-goodness anxiety attack. After it was over and I knew he was okay, I congratulated him. He was human after all.

One of the things we had to do was sit down with our 13-year-old son Adam. He is most definitely one of us. He could be president of The Pocket People. He is brilliant like his dad and messy like me -- the perfect smoosh of the two of us. Even his eyes are a mix of Augie’s blues and my browns, with his landing in the middle as big, carmel-colored irises.

Most of our parental lectures begin with, “Can you come over here and sit down?” I piped up right away that he wasn’t in trouble. I am usually the one to start any sort of big sit-down talks, but this time I let Augie begin. He told Adam he had been diagnosed with cancer. Adam’s eyes got huge and immediately began to fill with tears and he reached over to hug his dad. Augie continued telling him how he would be very tired and sick; he would probably lose his hair; and that he would fight as hard as he could to beat it. I could tell Augie was struggling a bit as his normally organized thoughts were a bit haphazard. Adam started hyperventilating. I quickly jumped in and we both tripped over each other to explain that this cancer was very treatable and although we couldn’t promise anything for sure, chances were really good that dad was going to be just fine. I saw Adam’s shoulders relax and his breathing normalize. Then he said, “You guys should have opened with that.” We broke out into laughter. I really love that kid.

As I begin to tell you about the doctor’s appointments and treatments, I’m certain I’ve jumbled and combined some things. I wish I had been like my dad, scribbling things down in a note pad. I did start a Caring Bridge page in March that has helped me piece together some of this.

I will also tell you that I am a bit fascinated by doctors. It is amazing to me all they have invested, committed and sacrificed to be sitting there talking to me about my acne or stomach ache. They are everything I am not and my observations are like studying another species. I hope you will indulge my impressions of the doctors and nurses. I have changed the names of all the medical professionals (including Dr. Sphere) and won’t be mentioning the name of the center we went to. I have nothing but praise for them all, but I like to add my personal thoughts and, as I mentioned earlier, my details of the appointments are most likely combined and I don’t want to distribute misinformation. I am recounting in the next few paragraphs Augie’s first day of treatment. I know much of this information was explained to us before the day the treatments got underway, but this is where the information sits in my head, so this is how I tell it.  

March 2, 2015, finally came. There was a mix of fear and relief from me and I’m certain Augie felt the same way. Let’s get this show on the road so we can get it over with. We had appointments with both the radiation and the chemotherapy doctors before any of it would start. Our first meeting was with Dr. Cousins, the guy who would be administering the radiation. I don’t remember where he stood in regards to the Giants. I'm not sure why but all my memories of him sitting down. To me Dr. Cousins was the perfect image of a doctor. He’s the guy you want to see walking into your exam room. Young enough to not be tired and bored with his job: old enough to know what the hell he was doing. He was completely professional and was able to very effectively communicate what was in store for Augie. He inspired confidence in me and made me glad we had chosen this facility. He also reminded me of my cousin Joe, which I took as a good sign. (I really love Joe.) He told us how Augie would be receiving radiation on his throat five days a week for seven weeks. He drew us a picture of the tongue, throat apparatus and salivary glands and how they would protect the areas not being treated. (Visual aids!) He said that we would be able to pretty much choose the time of day we wanted to come in for treatments, which was a relief for me, that meant I would be able to drive Augie if he wanted or eventually needed me to. He stated that after three weeks or so things were going to get rough. Eating would become difficult and a feeding tube was pretty standard with this type of treatment; 80% of patients end up with them. Augie would be tired and would most likely lose weight and have to stop working. He told us the cancer was at Stage 4, but that wasn’t as terrifying as it sounded. It was Stage 4 because there were two lymph nodes involved. He explained that the outcomes of Stage 4 of this particular type of cancer aren’t much different than if it were at a lesser stage. He reassured us again that this was a highly treatable cancer and we should be optimistic. I remember thinking that getting from that chair to optimistic seemed very far away. I appreciated his Joe-like honesty, even though it was a lot to absorb. Our heads were swimming as we tooled over to the chemotherapy department.

Dr. Lehrer, the chemotherapy doc, seemed to me like he traveled with his own wind. It was as though the air around him was always trying to catch up with his fast, definite movements. The first time I met him, he walked into the exam room, politely introduced himself, walked over to the desk and set a clipboard down next to Augie and said, “This organization that I have to be a part of charges me an ass-load of money and they get pissed if you don’t sign this form.” I have no idea or recollection of what organization he was talking about but I loved the informality and tension breaking nature of his comment. I  laughed on a day I didn't expect to do any such thing. I liked him immediately. I also appreciated that we finally had a doctor who wasn’t one of the Giants. Over the course of all the appointments with him, it became apparent he had a passion for his work and that he housed a complex mind built for fighting cancer, and yet he still seemed like a real person. Whenever we would leave his office, he would pat Augie on the back and say we’re doing “strong work.” The guy had his own inspirational motto. I thought this was a man we could put our confidence in. 

He showed us the results of Augie’s PET scan. The imaging part of medicine is mesmerizing to me. Adam once swallowed a quarter and when I took him in for an x-ray, the poor tech had to shoo me out of the room after staring so long at the big white full moon sitting in the shadow of my kid’s stomach. I almost cried looking at the beautiful bone scaffolding that held my young child upright. The PET scan was even more captivating. It cut Augie’s body into slices as if you were looking down through his frame from the top of his head. Dr. Lehrer explained that the images would light up where there was cancer. He clarified that the brain always lights up -- this was normal -- then looked at me and said, “See? There really is stuff going on up there.” (Another laugh) It didn’t take long to see the problem; as the scan diced through Augie’s body, there on the screen in perfectly shaped unison with the bumped out lymph nodes on his neck was the cancerous fire. The glowing pixels were innocently doing their job, but they inspired a sinister ache in my gut.

Dr. Lehrer took us through the rest of Augie’s body, which fortunately was all dark, but you could see the outlines of lungs, organs, and even the bones in his legs. Fascinating despite the circumstances.

The doc described to us about that Augie would have three large doses of chemo, spread evenly throughout the same seven weeks as the radiation. He remarked that often times by the third round the dose is reduced because the patient is in pretty rough shape (my words, not his) Another thing he mentioned that resonated with me was that while the cancer was fairly simple to treat in comparison to other cancers, it was one of the most difficult treatment regimens for the patient and it wouldn’t be easy to get through for Augie. I was going to have a t-shirt made with that effing slogan on it. “Simple, but not Easy.” So many things seem to boil down to that.

I knew Augie was scared, considering everything Dr. Cousins had said on top of all this. It was overwhelming. I had grabbed his hand at beginning of the appointment and we kept our hands clasped throughout. I felt him squeeze my hand a little harder when the doc told him about the challenging nature of the treatment. This was the real shizzle.

Up to this point, Dr. Lehrer’s eyes had been direct and unswerving, but as he talked they began to move around us. They regarded us in key places. He looked in our eyes, at Augie’s small frame, and our fastened hands. This was not rude in any way. I think he was merely assessing if The Pocket People were up for the shit storm that was coming their way.

In the end he must have figured we were worthy. He called Augie the perfect candidate for this treatment. He was young, in otherwise good health, and he had good support. Hey, I think that meant me! I would be the strong one. I would carry him when he needed me to, new job and phantom ADD be damned. I could do this and, more importantly, Augie could do this. He was strong, if anyone could get through this, it was him.

We went back down to begin the radiation. When they called Augie’s name he was taken back to the treatment area. He walked alone through the big automatic doors and was gone. Honestly, the whole radiation part of the experience is a mystery to me. Later on, when he became too weak to drive himself to his radiation appointments, I simply waited for him in the lobby. In 10 or 15 minutes he would reappear through the doors and we would leave. I have no point of reference to tell you anything about it. I did ask Augie how it went that first time and he said fine. He didn’t feel much of anything.

After the radiation, we went over to the chemo waiting area. The nurse came out and we began our trip back to the bank of curtained rooms. As we walked, Duane introduced himself and explained he would be our nurse for the day. He was tall (another good Giant) with salt and pepper hair and a soothing voice. I felt comfortable with him. He explained how the day would break down. The treatment would be five hours long with the first two hours being fluids. He told us how they put stuff in chemo now that often makes people actually feel a bit better than they did before they came in, for a little while at least. A little chemo bump. He made a remark that people come in like wilted flowers and it’s like we water them. I loved that. There were lots of administrative questions and verifications. Then the treatment got underway. They administer the chemo in bags. The machine looked to me like an ordinary pump machine you’d see in any hospital room. For some reason I expected something more elaborate.

Somewhere I had gotten the idea that there would be a bench type of seat in the room but instead it was two ordinary waiting room type chairs. I was selfishly hoping for a nap, but that didn’t seem feasible. The room was small but not claustrophobic. It was enclosed with heavy curtains. It had a television with a big, comfortable recliner for Augie. I resisted the urge to be jealous that he was sitting in that chair. I really didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want him to be there either. I wanted to grab his hand and make a run for it, but as the day rolled on, I will tell you something odd: We sort of had a good time. At home we are running around, on our computers, or working on projects, but here there was really nothing to do but be. We talked, read, and watched a little TV. Duane told us some good places to get lunch, so I went out and got us some hamburgers. I asked Duane if that was a good idea and he wasn’t sure. It might or might not be, but if Augie enjoyed hamburgers, then go ahead. All in all, the day was not nearly as terrifying as I had expected. I think Augie would agree.

Augie was tired when we got home. If I remember right, he got a decent night’s sleep, but on the day after chemo the hiccups started. I know that sounds so benign compared to what many people go through when dealing with serious illnesses, but it was maddening. Two bouts lasted for four hours each and another for nine hours. He couldn’t rest or relax in any sort of serious way. He finally  called Dr. Lehrer, who prescribed a powerful medicine to get rid of them. I think the medicine just sort of knocked Augie out and by default the hiccups went away. We spoke to Dr. Cousins’ nurse, Liz --who I believe is the most competent human I’ve ever met; I would let her take care of me or anyone I loved anytime--. She told us that a small percentage of patients get the hiccups from chemo and it didn’t mean he would get them after the next round. That was a relief. She was right; fortunately, they never returned.

Augie stopped working a bit earlier than expected. He was very tired and couldn’t focus. I would like to say at this point how wonderful his employer was during this time. He got the mandated 12 week family leave, but they told him he could take all the time he needed. His coworker Scott Murray went around asking others if they wanted to donate vacations days to Augie. We also got gift cards and well wishes from fellow workers. Pam Shedivy gave us a big Cub gift card; Liz Baker and the sales team sent a heartfelt card. Friends and family, too, sent offerings. My friend Michelle sent Augie an Amazon gift card so he could get some books to read while he was resting. My friend Kari offered to organize a Go Fund Me and my friend Karla offered to organize a benefit for medical bills, though we told them how fortunate we were to have health insurance and would be alright. I was so touched that people would think of such generous acts. Scott Murray’s family came over with rakes, bags and treats. They spent the day doing yard work for us. They even brought us a movie to watch while they did all the work. It was very moving. My brother Brian and his wife Deb, who has had more experience with cancer than anyone should, knew Augie’s radiated skin would be raw and sent us some soft sheets for our bed. My sister Nina was my earpiece and shoulder to cry on, as well as taking care of any family events we had. My mother Sharon, who hadn’t gotten sick yet, spent the day at the hospital while Augie had his port put in. I have girl friends that I have had for life that called with offers of help. Augie’s sister Kelly sent us a big shipment of Boost when he could no longer eat solid food. People from my work sent a lovely card and told me they would let me work around Augie’s treatments. Everyone on the Caring Bridge site managed to follow my haphazard posts and sent well wishes over and over again. It was inspiring. I wish I had written down all the generous acts of which we were recipients. I’m certain I’m not listing them all here. It was such a strange paradox to feel both awful and blessed at the same time. How lucky were we to have so many magnificent people in our lives?

The next couple of weeks went smoothly. Augie did have some sickness after the initial chemo bump wore off. I was surprised how hungry he was. I encouraged this wholeheartedly and enjoyed bringing him things he was  craving. He actually gained a couple of pounds when he went to see Dr. Cousins on March 12. The doc said he thought the lymph nodes already seemed smaller.

By the second chemo treatment on March 23 Augie was still eating and had only lost a couple of pounds. He was still taking himself to his radiation treatments each day. I’m sure it helped him feel in control of his own treatment. Augie’s sister Kelly came up from St. Louis to take him to his second chemo. She was actually a cancer nurse, so she had special insight into all that was happening. I think she got to talk a little shop with the nurses and they had a good day together. I was grateful to her for all her caring and help. Dr. Lehrer said Mike’s kidneys were “pristine” and that he was doing great. This was all very encouraging.

It was after this treatment that my husband went to sleep. In the months that followed, I found myself missing him even though he was in the next room. He disappeared and our house went quiet. Adam and I would softly play on our computers or watch TV. Augie would emerge from the bedroom, looking smaller each time. He would drink his Boosts, which now had become his exclusive form of nutrition, and we would go to his daily radiation treatments. He would try to stay awake for a while but pretty soon he would find his way back to bed. It was good though, the sleep was necessary and healing.

We were scheduled to spend April 9, my 46th birthday, in surgery inserting Augie’s feeding tube. He went through the all the pre-op for it, but decided a few days before the actual procedure that he was going to put it off. (My best present!) Although his throat was seared and his mouth was full of sores, he was still able to drink the high-calorie Boosts. He promised the doctors that if he was unable to keep up 1,000 calories per day, he would have the tube put in. Star pupil that he was, he faithfully drank the vanilla liquescent chalk each day and he never did need the feeding tube. He was one of the 20% that made it through without one. Here’s a fun party trick: Ask Augie today if he wants a Boost and you can get him to gag a little bit.

Augie’s third treatment was a little unusual because he was able to get the full dose of chemo since he was in relatively good shape, even though he looked so shriveled and worn. When we arrived, they had a bit of trouble with his port and we were running behind. By the time his lab work came back, he was already set up to start in the chemo room. His white blood cell counts were slightly lower than expected and he had a low-grade fever. The nurses called Dr. Lehrer to the room to see if they should go forward. The curtains flew in his breeze when he arrived. The doc didn’t think we should let a little fever get in our way and he ran the labs again. He decided to give Augie a prophylactic antibiotic to be sure everything would be alright; it worked, the treatment went well. The motivational doctor told us at our last appointment when the chemo treatments were over since Augie got through this, he could get through anything. He could climb Mount Everest. We joked with him that was on the books for next year. A week later Augie went in for his last radiation treatment.

This had been the day I had been dreaming about. It was a wonderful feeling to know the treatments were behind Augie. I know there are people who deal with cancer and illnesses for years and I wonder how they do it. The day didn’t look as I had imagined it those long months ago,  but I didn’t care. As I drove home I considered my husband. He looked like hell. He had lost 30 pounds. He was beat up, singed, shrunken and exhausted, but he had a small smile on his face and I thought it was all going to be okay.

He never made things difficult for me. He barely complained throughout the whole ordeal. He never expressed any self-pity. He took himself as far as he could and then set it up to inconvenience me as a little as possible when he needed my help. I never did have an issue with that new job. Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at him, he had pushed through this trying regimen with flying colors.

Nurse Liz warned us that the recovery from all of this would take longer than we thought it should. She told us that sometimes people start to get depressed because they think they should be getting better but they still feel cruddy. It has been a nearly a year since Augie finished his cancer treatments and he is still dealing with aftereffects. He has some permanent hearing loss. He still can’t taste certain things. It has been a slow road back to solid food, to weight gain, to even having some color in his face. His health has very gradually begun to creep back and we anticipate more improvements are still to come. We certainly know how lucky we are that he is still standing.

People ask me if the experience changed Augie and I have to answer no. I know you often hear stories about people who go through something like this and are a changed person. It is comforting to know that he was the man he was meant to be before all of this transpired and that is who he always will be. He is strong, detail-oriented, disciplined and hardworking, and, of course, brilliant, same as he has always been.

Nothing ever hits me like a lightning bolt. Most of the major changes that happen within me come slowly without my notice. Things have to sit for a while and internalize. I do know looking back now, that I have changed a lot. Starting a new job, helping my loved one through a cancer experience, my sister and I holding my beloved mother’s hand as she took her last breath, put me through tests I had never known I could survive.  I think that one needs a degree of selfishness to get through all of that.

The year molded my outlook in an unexpected way. Strangely, I laugh more than I ever used to. I don’t know why funny things seem funnier to me. I feel just a tiny bit braver. For example I contacted the American Lung Association to take a certification course to become a smoking cessation facilitator. I never would have done that before. It’s been 17 years since I quit. (Five months before my wedding. That was brilliant.) I had always wished my mother could have quit and I have started to feel ardently that everyone who wants to quit should have all the support they can get.

I’ve always had a fortunate metabolism but I would struggle so hard to shed my junk food addictions in an attempt to get healthy. All it would take is a chocolate donut to break my resolve. Now food is a mild distraction, not an obsession. I started exercising -- me, the girl who used to say if you see me running you better run too because something is chasing me. (I stole that from Rachael Ray) Now I look forward to movement. I love the feel of my lungs filling with air and the muscles moving under my skin.

The year 2015 rekindled my love of music. I appreciate almost all types of music. (I do have a little trouble with free jazz.) I had forgotten how much I revel in a good song to make me happy or help me through a hard time. The theme song for me for 2015 was Lost Stars by Adam Levine. It should have gotten more air play on the radio. (It was nominated for an Academy Award.) It just seemed to put so many feelings I had into one poetic bundle. It truly did help me get through a difficult time. I wanted to crawl inside Levine’s voice and roll around in that song. You should listen to it if you haven’t heard it. (Not the Keira Knightley version. The Adam Levine version. You can find it for free on YouTube. The acoustic or the full version, it doesn’t matter; they are both phenomenal.)

I wonder if I will ever stop caring what others think of me. I still want people to like me, but I’m done jumping through hoops if they don’t. I want to tell people I love them without embarrassment. I want to be content but not settled. If, God willing, I make it into old age, I have a new goal: to be an epic old person. My spunky 103-year-old grandmother is my heroine and role model. As positive as all that sounds, of course if I could rewind and change things, Augie would never have had cancer and my mom would still be here.

I’m not really sure how to end this except to say I am so thankful for the incredible health professionals who did such an amazing job. Thank you to all our friends and family who had our backs, to Augie for gettin’ ‘er done. He was phenomenal. Thanks to you for indulging me by reading this all the way to the end.

*You can stop here but if you feel like reading a bit more, I can tell you the bat story…

We had just moved into our home. As I stated earlier I was facing the front of the house and Augie was looking behind me at the ceiling in our back entrance. His eyes got big and there was that look I told you about. I really did scream a little. I think that might be the first time I’d ever done that. I ran behind Augie and peeked out. A little furry black bat was flying in a circle around the running ceiling fan. We just had a couple of friends from Augie’s work over to the house and I was relieved the bat waited until they left to make its appearance.

Augie went and got the broom and asked me to find something to put the bat in. He said if you knock a bat to the ground, it can’t fly. It has to climb up something and fall a little before it can fly. Ok, great! We’ll get him on the ground and when he’s stuck we can nab him. I grabbed a pillow case. Once Augie shut the ceiling fan off the bat was on the move and the chase was on. It flew through the kitchen, living room and into one of the bedrooms. We got him into a corner and Augie swatted him with the broom so that he fell to the floor. I confidently went up to the flightless bat and snatched him into the pillow case. I handed the wriggling pillow case to Augie and we both walked outside. He said let's put it over by the fence so he can climb it for his take off.  He shook the bat out of the pillowcase onto the ground. This is where Augie was wrong. That bat had no problem flying and he launched his angry little body at me. (The second scream of my life was much bigger and better.) Remember I told you I only ran if something is chasing me? This would be an example of that. I dashed into the house with Augie close behind (laughing) When we were safely in the house, I barked at him that I thought the bat wouldn’t be able to fly?! Through his laughter, he said he was sorry, he really thought that was true. In a huff, I asked him where he heard that crap. He gave me his favorite answer -- The Learning Channel. Humph. I stomped off secretly loving that he was wrong, since it happened so rarely. It’s been 18 years and the bat has never returned. The docs tell us his particular cancer is a bit like the bat. It will give you a run for your money but once you catch it and get rid of it, it rarely comes back. So together, mostly him and a little bit me, we got rid of the cancer and the bat. I say good riddance to both.


Posted by acmckibben at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 1 June 2016 5:47 AM EDT
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Monday, 31 December 2012
Happy New Year

The second to the last week of 2012 was a rough one. I know most people or at least women juggle a hundred things at once with nary a blink of an eye. I'm not that girl. So this past week when there were multiple events happening - some good, some not so good it body slammed me. Big time. The whole works..fever, aches, snarfles, coughs.

I wish I were a multi tasker. I admire those who can deftly flip from one thing to another without crabbing, without forgetting, without stressing.  I thought about making myself a better multi tasker as my New Year's Resolution but who am I kidding. My unitasking ways are here to stay.

So I asked my family what their New Year's Resolution's were. My son said "to be better to you guys" (you guys meaning me and his dad) Enter melting heart.  This is the best one I've heard so far. No one looking for perfection here, just trying to be better to the people he loves. I like it. So much so that I'm stealing it. My New Year's Resolution is to try to be better to the people I care about. Check back with me in 17 days (the apparent average lifespan of a New Year's Resolution) But I hope it lasts longer (maybe...forever...can't hurt to give it my best shot.)

Posted by acmckibben at 7:22 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 10:41 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 15 May 2012
Blog in Your Blog

I guess if one is going to have a blog, one should blog in their blog. It doesn't really foster any type of reader loyalty to start a blog and than let your blog lay around and be lazy. 

So I decided to make an entry in my blog, even though I don't have any clay content.  I have however, been doing something new. 

I've have entered two writing contests. One for a humor website where I wrote about the Zombie Sauce. The night I tried to make sour cream turkey patties and ended up with horror movie special effects goo in my bowl. 

The other I haven't sent it in yet but it's for Real Simple Magazine. I know my entry has a snowball's chance in a frying pan but the contest was to write about regrets, a subject that I am expert. So it seemed a no-brainer to write something for it.

I wasn't going to say anything about either of the contests til I knew the outcome of one or the other but I'm trying to open up a little bit. Be riskier in my writing. I'm not sure telling people I've been scribbling some crazy scratchings to magazines on my dormant blog is any kind of risk but I've got to start somewhere. 

In the past I wouldn't told anyone about any of it until I knew there was some kind of success. If I "lost" I wouldn't have even mentioned it to anyone. But I began to think about the people I admire most and they are people who are brave enough to be vulnerable. Brave enough to take the risk even if it means failure, or embarrasment.

So, I've done those things. Big woo I know. But weirdly it feels big woo to me. Plus I really needed to post SOMETHING on this blog. 

Update: I submitted three articles to the humor site and got  honorable mentions on them. That was fun. I'm over it now. 

Posted by acmckibben at 9:55 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 2 May 2016 8:20 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
The Company of Monsters

When I asked Anjee Mai Emerson if I could write a blog post about her Monsters after finding her facebook page, her response was "Yeah, they would love that. They are hams you know." A wave of relief washed over me. I'll bet I'm not the only one talking to my clay creations and with names like Squimmy, Fivemouth Guy, Fly Swatter and Crawlee C. Wormsworth, the Monsters seem like they would be good company. 

Anjee has been working with clay for over 20 years but like most people who do unusual things for a living, her path to Monster spawning was a bit round about. She went to college to pursue a PhD. in Geography but was sidetracked by an afternoon with her niece and nephew. After procuring some polymer clay, her nephew created "The most awesome Monsters she'd ever seen." Claymate Creations was formed not long after. Anjee was surprised and delighted to find she was able to sell her work and teach others to create monsters of their own. 

Anjee teaches classes on the weekends at the Center for the Performing Arts in Minneapolis. She also sells her work on Etsy.  According to her blog she is also working on a children's book with friend and photographer Haley Stampp. 

I'd love for some of these critters to keep me company and at the risk of offending them I have to say, I think they are adorable.

You can see her work and find out her class schedule

 Her Facebook page is named Claymate Creations



Posted by acmckibben at 12:19 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 10:38 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Feats of Clay
Topic: Artist Profile

I love the internet. I know there are all sorts of crazy stuff on it. Stuff I don't want to know about -  but overall it is a wealth of information one would never have access to any other way or at least not at the tips of your fingers. If you don't know something, someone else does and they've put it out on the world wide web. The thing I love most about the net is the opportunity to get to know people you never would have otherwise. This is how I met the amazing Sarah Jane Shorter.

I met Sarah Jane through a website called Polymer Clay Central. She also makes cake toppers. We are a very small and exclusive club so I of course had to contact her. We struck up a lively conversation and she gave me some requested advice about seed beads. First of all I love listening to people from England. I've never heard her actually speak but I can hear it in her text. Like when she told me working with wire "drives her round the bend" Fantastic!

Sarah lives in Northampton, UK and is the owner of Feats of Clay. I cannot describe how happy it makes me to look at her toppers. They are humorous, beautiful, cute, meticulously detailed, and simple (and by simple I mean to look at, not to create) all rolled into one. I do not know how she does it. 

When her twins were born pre-maturely she decided to stay home and take care of all three of her kids full time. 

She started with clay by making Christmas ornaments and moved on to figures. She set up her business in 2007 and it took off immediately. She was surprised by this (however I am not) Sarah does mostly wedding related toppers, sprinkled with other occasions and has even done some work for some British celebrities. Sarah has customers all over the world, including the U.S., Australia and Dubai. You can see all of Sarah Jane's work at

She is a self taught artist picking up tricks and techniques from websites like Polymer Clay Central, Glass Attic and the International Polymer Clay Guild. Her favorite clay is FIMO Classic due to the way it handles and the fantastic colour range (colour spelled the European way)

Sarah Jane says loves what she does so much it doesn't feel like work. The loves shows...Just take a look... 















You can contact Sarah Jane at

Posted by acmckibben at 11:37 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 8:59 PM EDT
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Friday, 27 January 2012
God lives in our hands?

So I am typically not a big spiritual, zen type of gal. I sometimes wish I were. Might make life a little easier. I do, however, believe in God. I talk to Him everyday. (sometimes inadvertently like when I stub my toe) I think most believers think God lives in our hearts. I think he does too but I also think he's taken up some residence in our hands.

I don't remember the first time this happened to me, but it's happened to me since I was a small child and it happens with some frequency, I will be watching someone do something with their hands and I end up in sort of a trance like state. It relaxes me and I feel warm and fuzzy and...content. It's weird I know.  I used to work for a bank and there was a woman there who, if I watched her run her fingers through all the trays of checks, I would nearly fall asleep. During a hair cut today, if it weren't for the uncomfortable sink I would have drifted off while having my hair shampooed, right there in the middle of the salon. Rolling Stones cranked, florescent lights blazing. Why is it when someone else brushes your hair it feels so good but you can't do that to yourself? I think it's because God is in their hands and He did that on purpose so we would keep needing each other. 

So, to me anyway, it is logical to think the things we create with our hands have at least some divine sprinklings.  Food we make for our family, stories we write, cars we fix to get us to work, walls we repair, and I think we can throw in artwork as a qualifier. So begins my series of posts here on this blog, of artists who create with their hands. They may not necessarily be clay artists but they all create, they all have talent I can only dream about and I am excited to write about them here. More to come.

UPDATE: I found out there is a name for this warm, fuzzy experience. It's called ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) and there are some bizarre videos on youtube dedicated to it.(I love the internet.) There is a whole community of people who experience it. (I'm not the only weirdo.) It is considered a psuedo science at this point since no one has studied it or been able to prove it exists but those of us with it know it's real. 


Posted by acmckibben at 5:56 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 9:12 PM EDT
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Monday, 23 January 2012
Sweet Monsters

This whole crazy thing started with sugar. I wanted to be a cake decorator. I wanted to make masterpieces out flour and eggs but it turns out that I hate sticky fingers. I would also equate the staying power of powdered sugar to cock roaches. After a nuclear war there will still be powdered sugar in the crevices of my kitchen. There are also some pretty logical laws in place that prevent people from selling cakes from their home. That is when I moved onto clay. Inedible and blissfully free of any white powdery substances. (doesn't it seem like a lot of dangerous things come in the form of white and powdery?)

But every now and than I get to chance to go back to my roots.  I have a cake decorating friend and colleague that was making a cake for Icing Smiles. An organization that makes dream cakes for kids with terminal conditions. She asked me to make some sugar sculptures. The boy is 10 (just like my son) and wanted a War of the Monsters cake. 










So I dug out my tools, cutters, colors and -GASP- powdered sugar and got to work. I am rusty. Sugar work is not as forgiving as clay. It dries quickly and cracks easily but I managed to produce a couple of recognizable figures.  

Kathy (the cake decorator)who did all of the real work, said she will send me a picture when it is done. She ambitiously made 20 buildings for the monsters to destroy. 

Just want to say I am honored to have a small (tiny really) part in this young man's cake and I hope it makes him happy. 




Posted by acmckibben at 10:15 AM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 8:56 PM EDT
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Friday, 13 January 2012
Repel Gel by Van Aken for Donna Kato
Topic: Product Review

Repel Gel. I love the name, it makes me laugh.  I love the idea even better. It is a whitish, odorless, emulsion that claims you can put two pieces of polymer clay together and cure them and they won't stick to each other.  I wish there was Repel Gel for the real world. Some smelly guy on a plane keeps talking to you, just dab on a bit of Repel Gel. Wa-la.  He doesn't want anything to do with you anymore. Your kid is throwing a temper tantrum. Fling some Repel Gel on him (since he's tantruming I am assuming this would be the best way) the child and his wailing are instantly transported to his room with the door closed.  If only it could work that way. Even the great Donna Kato can't help us with all of that. 

It's also funny since us polymer clay artists are constantly trying to figure out how to make our clay stick together MORE.  Should we use liquid clay or not, glue or not, to buy the special bonder or not, etc.  So when I posted on Facebook I had bought some Repel Gel I got some questions. What do you use that for? 

In my case I wanted to use to mold clay around another piece of a previously baked item. I wanted to make a shoe for Barbie and mold it around a clay Barbie foot.  Without some sort of release the clay would stick. The gel worked pretty well. It worked best on two flat surfaces or where the clay didn't have to bend over the baked item. In this case her foot and the bottom of the shoe separated splendidly, when I tried to bake the whole shoe in one piece over the foot, I had some sticking. I also used it with bendy clay and not regular polymer clay. I do think it was worth the  5 bucks I paid. You just need a little so I think the jar will go along way. It also washed up pretty nicely.  Thanks Donna, now if you could just get to work on that gel for smelly guys on planes. Thank you. 




Posted by acmckibben at 11:26 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 8:55 PM EDT
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Monday, 9 January 2012
Breaking in the new shoes

Why? Why do I fuss, tinker, putter, figure, ponder and generally drive myself crazy with certain things. Barbie shoes have a market value of about 3 dollars on Etsy. I just bought a boat load of shoes for my mom from Hong Kong. They were a dollar and that included shipping. 

My first thousand or so shoes were a fail. I tried making a mold of her foot from clay, a mold from foil, I tried free hand. With repel gel and without. Nada!! But I get stubborn about certain things and by George I was going to get some shoes on those useless and eternally tip toed bipeds. 

Finally after lifting up my head off my desk, wiping the tears away and pulling the clay from my hair I got enough of the pieces of my mistakes to fashion them into a wearable (but not quite yet pretty) shoe.  It will do. Once I have the formula (hands rubbing, evil cackling) I can do it again...better, stronger, faster. 

I'm keeping it under wraps for now as I am contemplating a magazine article on how to make them without scratching your own eyes out.

It's good though, something new. New neurons firing. Something to take me away from my toppers so I can return to them willingly instead of bored and tired. I am even fool-heartedly designing my next pair. When we meet again let's hope I still have all my hair.  





Posted by acmckibben at 11:25 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 8:58 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 3 January 2012
I got a Barbie doll for Christmas
Topic: Musings

My mom gave me a Barbie doll for Christmas. Never mind that I am 42 years old. One is never too old for a new Barbie. I love her as much as my first one I got for Christmas a million years ago.

Ah yes Barbie, the impossible fantasy of ridiculous porportions, unattainable beauty, fantastic wealth and extraordinary accomplishments (if I read Wikipedia right she was an astronaut before Neil Armstrong.) 

My retired mom has been buying old naked Barbie's at thrift stores and making THE cutest clothes for them. She knits or crochets them (neither craft I could ever get the hang of) I came over to her house and she suddenly had a whole shelf of fashionably garbed models. Cool. 

So I couldn't help thinking how I could use clay to help enrich Barbie's wardrobe. (like she needs more right?) I tried making shoes first. This gave me the idea to use the flexible, bendy clay. The shoes were a fail, but I liked the way the bendy clay felt a lot like the plastic accessories that were made for Barbie, and of course you can make the clay so much cuter. I've made three purses (one of them with a puppy in tow) and two belts so far. I have a little bit of a fever. I had fantasties of being a fashion designer in my 

younger years (didn't we all?) and now I get to live a little bit of it and who better to design for than the fantastic, beautiful, impossible Barbie. 





Posted by acmckibben at 11:04 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 22 May 2016 8:50 PM EDT
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