Jill Of Some Trades

And Master Of At Least One


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I Know What I Know

The days go by slow, but the years go by fast…my “frousin” Margo says and it is so true. Every day feels long, but somehow the weeks slip by so quickly. I wake up, and it’s Monday, and I blink and somehow it’s Friday. Day after day, I wake up, and I get out of bed, and shower and get dressed and go on with my life, because that is what I have to do. My mother and sister didn’t fight so hard to live, so that I just lay down and die. That’s what I tell myself every single day. People say, oh you can move on with your life now – but it was never a burden before. I went from caregiver to estate gatekeeper. I went from a daughter and sister to being an orphan. People expect life to go on, and I think that is really their hope. What you are as a mourner is a window to future grief for others. And it’s scary – I know. It is part of life. I know. Sometimes, in the most profound way, moving on with your life is much harder than the high alert situation of being a caregiver.

If you ever have been a caregiver, you know what I mean by this statement. You look at your loved one’s colour. You ask, expectantly, and with a tiny bit of dread and fear, how they are feeling. You take temperatures, listen to breathing, hope that they’ll eat. You listen for coughing. You tiptoe into a room at night to make sure that they are breathing and sleeping peacefully. Sleeping becomes fitful (yours of course). You live in fear daily of what that day may bring or breathe a sigh of relief if the day was a good one.

You learn things that stay with you. Many don’t know this, but here is a sample of what I can do:

-I can give injections, both subcutaneous (yes, under the skin) or through a port

-I can hook up a portable oxygen tank

-I can inject morphine into someone’s mouth through a syringe without wasting a drop

-I can take a pulse

-I can tell you, in detail, what the difference is between HER2+ and HER2- breast cancer

-I can deal with vomit – lots and lots of vomit, get a bag to the person before they throw up and deal with cleanup after

-I can dress weeping wounds gently and carefully, keeping them clean and look out for infection

-I can turn an IV on and off

-I can lift a patient from their bed without hurting them

-I can move them in their bed by myself if I have to, but it is so much easier with help. It is a struggle though

-I can pay attention to details and advocate for a patient with a doctor or nurse if I have to

-I can tell you what a number of different chemo/immunotherapy drugs are, and what side effects my sister and mother had from them

-I can make a person’s final wishes happen and speak to doctors and nurses about what was in their living will

-The hardest thing that I can and have done is tell someone that it’s ok to go – that I’ll be ok and they will too. I’ve had to do this twice, and each time, it cost me so much more than I can explain

I’m not telling you this so that you’ll admire me or pity me. I’m telling you this so that if you are a caregiver too, that you know that there are people that understand. You will never be the person that you were before, and that’s ok. Take your time. You will still have plenty to deal with after – mentally and physically. Think about what you have had to learn to do. It’s a lot isn’t it? It’s even harder during a pandemic with less help available. But you will find a way. All I know is that taking care of the two women in the photo was the greatest thing that I will ever do in my life.


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A Day, A Year, A Decade

My mother...
My wonderful little Mommy.

I’ve watched many people post their feelings about the last decade on social media. For some, it was a delight – the best time of their lives. For others, lives were changed, in a somewhat devastating way. Others saw the best and worst in people. I would say that my life over the last ten years was a combination of the three.

I had some amazing experiences, both through travel and through relationships with people and just life in general. I had lows that were devastating in ways that I likely will never recover from. My faith in people was both rewarded and tested. People often don’t see the good, only the bad, but there were people in my life that came through for me in ways that I’ve never, ever imagined.

Grief has been the over-riding theme of the last 5 years. My father died on June 9, 2015. Grieving the loss of a parent you were estranged from is a different kind of awful. I remember feeling so alone. People thought estrangement meant that I didn’t care. If I had a dime for every time someone said, “Oh, I thought you didn’t like your father”….Estrangement and like are not comparable. I cared about my father, and estrangement was a last resort, not a first. This is the way it should always be, by the way. In a way, it is like losing your parent twice. First, when you have to say good-bye to them for yourself, and then when you have to say good-bye to them, losing forever the hope that things will ever be repaired.

My relationship with my mother wasn’t perfection, but it was close. There was no one that I more deeply admired. When she died on March 3, 2018, one year and nine months ago, I lost my anchor and purpose in life. Being her care-giver was the greatest thing that I will ever do and the greatest honour that I have ever had. Speaking for this woman, who didn’t have the energy to speak for herself, and being her voice was the most important thing that I will ever do. I don’t have any regrets, except that I wish that I could have done more.

She was the person that made me go and visit my father the last time. When he said something to me that was completely horrible, I remember telling her what a waste it was. I’ll never forget what she said to me, “Jill, I know you, you are my baby. What he said to you was awful, but you can also go to sleep at night knowing that you made the right decision. If you didn’t go, you never would have known and you always would have wondered.” All I could do was say, “Mummy, you are right.” And she was.

She was right about so many things. I miss having her as my advocate. As much as I spoke for her, she often spoke for me. She was smart, feisty and funny and nobody’s fool. She spoke her mind, and if you didn’t like it, too bad for you. She was right about that too – she was never afraid to speak up for herself and I’ve inherited that from her. I am, and will always be proud to be Judy Zelikovitz’s daughter. I often have people tell me how to grieve or that I’ve grieved for long enough, that my mother wouldn’t want this for me. I know, from her, that grief lasts a lifetime. I also know my mother would be proud that I have never let sadness prevent me from living. She told me to live my life and I have. I’ve never let the fear and despair over her loss keep me from doing anything that I have to do from work, to socializing, to anything else. I understand what is important in life, but I also know how to honour someone’s memory on my own timeline. More on that in a later post.

I was with my sister when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and as devastating as that was, I’ve tried to be there for her through her treatment, appointments, everything that I did for my mother. She is well cared for, and I don’t have to be on high-alert at all times, like I was with our mother. Michele has her attitude and her determination to live. We each have a part of our mother’s personality. Mine is in the planning and details and general Type A that made up my mother’s DNA. Michele has her grit and her ability to roll with things. She never lets her disease prevent her from living. A lot of people hear the “C” word and don’t know how to approach her. I always say that a person with cancer is just a person. We all have something, don’t we?

I’ve been shocked by people’s kindness and wounded by people’s malice. I remember when I was going through everything with my mother and sister, my dearest friend said this is the time in your life when you get a pass. I’ll also never forget the good. The joyful moments that I wrote about this time last year, what I called the beautiful awful. I’ll never forget people just being there, around my family during the worst time in our lives.

I see things very differently than I did ten years ago. I believe in keeping my word. If I make a promise, I keep it. If I say that I’m going to do something, I will do it. I’ve learned that words matter, but actions speak louder than words. I’ve learned that in life, and in business there are choices that you can make. You can take your profession and your life seriously, or you can treat it like a game of chess. Either path will get you some degree of success, and maybe even happiness, but only one will get you any type of fulfillment. Living life in the way that I was brought up to, by the person that I respected the most has made me realize there is only one choice. Do the right thing, and although in the short term, it may not pay off or work to your advantage, in the long term, if you stay the course, you will be rewarded. It was an important lesson to learn, and probably the most important thing that I learned this decade.

I hope that the next decade brings my loved ones all of the health and happiness that they deserve. I hope that there will be more joy after the sadness of the last few years. I hope that I have have told my friends and family how much their love and support has meant. I hope that I will always be able to live up to the expectations that my mother set for me. I hope that wherever she is, that she is watching, smiling, her big beautiful smile with the good, and giving her finger, as only she could, to the bad.


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What Having An MRI is Like

Photo: http://www.nmmc.org/ This was the closest photo that I could find that illustrated how I went into the MRI. My tech wasn’t smiling for the camera though.

I have had exactly one MRI (almost a year ago), but because I am part of the Ontario Breast Screening Program, I will be having them once a year for pretty much the rest of my life. It is not optional. I qualified for the program because I am at a high risk of getting breast cancer. Right now, my odds are 1 in 3, but after menopause they will increase. I don’t really worry about it, I also, as of right now, have a 2 in 3 chance of not getting the disease. Either way, being part of the program will help. I have annual mammograms and they are relatively easy, but the MRI has replaced ultrasounds for me. Click here if you want to know what they are like.

An MRI is not as easy as a mammogram or ultrasound if I am keeping it real. The first time that I attempted my breast MRI I panicked. It is not to say that you will, my situation was a little different. First of all, I had ankle surgery and had a 3 hour wait at a different hospital that very day for my final orthopedic appointment. I went to work in the afternoon, then worked out with my trainer and had dinner with a friend arriving at the next hospital, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre at 8:30pm. It was already a long day. It was also at the hospital that I used to take my mother to and that ended up causing part of the issue.

Being back at that hospital was overwhelming for me. I was sitting in the waiting room where I had taken my mother for one scan or another. I walked through the hallways that I once walked with her. It brought back a flood of memories, both good and bad. I sat in the waiting room, trying to hold back tears, not very effectively, while I waited for them to call my name. I went through a lot there, a lot of running around, fixing things, advocating for my mother, and it all came back to me in the moments that I sat in the waiting room.

When I was finally called after 10pm for my appointment, I was ok again. I figured it was maybe 45 minutes of my life. The nurse sat me down and asked me if I was afraid of needles (nope) or had any issues with claustrophobia (nope). So far, so good, right? Wrong. He then proceeded to tell me 7 times in a row (no exaggeration) that I shouldn’t move and that the contrast dye that he was setting up the IV for may make me nauseous – they administer it in the last few minutes of the MRI. I was told not to throw up in the MRI – to push through and wait to be sick until I got out. After having experienced the most extreme nausea of my life, just a couple of months before after having anesthesia, I was shaken. Yes, nausea is temporary, but knowing that most anti-nausea medication doesn’t seem to work on me, made me very nervous.

Once they put the IV in, I had another short wait until I was called. I walked into the room and saw the MRI. I still was pretty much fine. I was asked to open my gown at the front and lay face down on the table. When you lie down, there is a thin strip of metal that lies, pressing against your sternum between your girls which hang through the two spaces left for them. Your face goes into a lightly padded well (similar to what you would rest on for a massage) and you face a bucket. Once you are properly positioned, you are slowly pushed in. This is where I started having problems – I felt like I could’t breathe. It is extremely tight in the MRI and having something pushing against your chest is very uncomfortable. I told the nurse that I couldn’t do it. She asked me if I was sure, and I said yes.

I called my sister crying. I was disappointed in myself. I watched my sister and mother have to suffer through far more than me, and yet, when it was my turn, I just couldn’t go through with it. She was the one who made me realize that the upset came from being at the hospital that I had spent so many hours at, versus me being a total wimp. When the hospital called me the next day to reschedule, they explained that an MRI was more effective than an ultrasound. I rescheduled and got a prescription for Ativan (an anti-anxiety medication) which is commonly prescribed for MRIs so that I could get through it. I also was worried about having to be perfectly still for 45 minutes. On a good day, I have a really hard time staying still for 5 minutes, never mind 3/4 of an hour.

My sister reminded me to just stay calm and get through it as my second appointment neared and my dread grew. I told myself, no matter what, just get it over with. Again, I went to the hospital and sat in the waiting room that I had been in some many times in the past. I took the Ativan and reminded myself to be grateful that my doctor referred me to this program. When it was my turn, I asked the nurse (a different one this time) about the nausea issue with the IV. She reassured me that it wasn’t common and that I had nothing to worry about. She was very calm, and it made me feel a lot better (plus the drugs kicked in). I popped myself on the table and was in the MRI really quickly. It was uncomfortable having a thin metal bar pressing against my sternum, but I just kept telling myself it would be over soon. When you are face down. you can register the lights around you, but you can’t see them. It was extremely loud, with loud banging and clanging noises. I just get saying to myself that every second that went by meant that I was closer to getting out of this tube.

I heard their voices reminding me that the table was about to shake and vibrate and that was normal. It would last about 5 minutes. That meant, when it stopped, I was close to getting the IV. The IV fluid was the final step in the MRI. I felt the liquid go into my vein (it is slightly cool), and then, after another 5 minutes, I was told that they were moving me out of the MRI and that it went well, meaning that I wouldn’t have to do a repeat.

You have never seen anyone jump up more quickly to get up in your life. I was so happy that it was over and also happy that I wouldn’t have to do it again for another year. Well, that year is up on December 3. I’ll have to do this all over again in about a week. It will be at a different hospital this time, with a 6:30pm appointment. That is kind of a cushy time slot in the world of MRIs. It’s after work and not in the middle of the night. I know that I’ll get through this one too, and so will you if, and when it is your turn. Don’t be ashamed to speak with your doctor about taking something to calm you down if you need it. The important thing is getting through the test.


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2018: The Beautiful Awful

People posted their top nine moments of 2018 all over Instagram. My moments of the year are likely different than a lot of others. They are what I think of as the beautiful awful. When my mother died 321 days ago, on March 3 (yes I know how many days it has been), my life changed forever. I knew that 2018 would be the year that I would lose her and I knew that I would feel profound sadness, but I also did not realize that in that grief, there would also be moments of beauty.

My mother was an exceptional person, not just OK, not just a wonderful mother, but exceptional. She suffered with a smile on her face and even though she was in pain, in her final days she was surrounded by so much love and so much genuine affection, she had the death that she deserved. In the weeks leading up to what we knew was imminent, I saw quiet moments with her sister just holding her hand. I had my cousin, her son, come by to see her, putting a smile on her face. I remember her singing Happy Birthday to him – those are the last words that I remember her saying. I remember calling him one day, in tears, but getting his long time girlfriend instead, and she told me that what I was feeling was normal; she had lost her mother a few years before and reassured me that it was OK to feel this wave of grief. I remember my cousins in Florida asking me if we needed them there and when I said yes, they packed up everything and came and they acted like it was no big deal. I remember their daughter coming over and keeping my mother’s spirits up, knowing how bad it was. I remember my other cousins coming, surrounding my mother with love. I remember them comforting me and my sisters. There were always at least a dozen people around all day, everyday. I remember them forcing me to go out, go for a walk to get some air. I remember my friends offering to come, even though my mother was so terribly sick.

I remember the palliative doctor and nurse being so kind, and telling us how to ease her into death, not just by pain relief, but by just continuing to talk to her, even if she wasn’t conscious. The nurse hugged us and told us that she could feel the love in the room. I remember her care givers treating her so gently, and with so much love. The last night of her life, I remember we were all with her. One, by one, everyone got ready for bed. I was going to be up for a long time, and I was sleeping in bed with her at night to give her injections. When it was just me, and her caregiver (my sister literally left the room), I was holding her hand and she slipped away so quietly and so peacefully that there was even something beautiful in that moment.

There was beauty at her funeral. When she was buried, it was warm and sunny for a winter day. At the exact moment, when her casket was being lowered, it got warmer, and just a little brighter. I thought I imagined it, but when I looked at my sister and said, “Did you feel that, it just got warmer?”, she was looking at me, saying the same thing. We had so many people looking out for us the week of her shiva (the Jewish week of mourning and visitations) and in the weeks after, that it took awhile for reality to set in. I remember the first night of her shiva, my friend, who is my cousin, wanted to do something, anything, and he and his wonderful partner made all of the beds (including one on the floor and one on a chaise lounge). When I started to cry, they understood it was because it had been almost a year and a half since I had seen my mother’s bed made – she had been in it for so long. Even throughout the year, long after her death, her friends, and our family, continue to look out for us, and to remind us how much she is still loved, even if she is no longer here.

I will also remember how people have rallied around my sister while she continues to go through chemo. Our friends and family always call to check up on us. Our cousin always picks us up after her appointment and her doctor and nurses so clearly want the best for her that it warms my heart to go to her appointments. When I broke my ankle, our cousins and her friend were there to take my place at chemo. My sister continues to do as our mother did and not let this be all about her disease. She makes the most of her good days and takes it easier on the rougher ones, but she so rarely complains.

When I broke my ankle and needed surgery in the late summer, it was just one more thing in a year crowded with challenges. Even though the situation sucked, there were still moments that I will never forget. My friend staying in the ER with me, even though I tried to send her home numerous times. She was even there when they re-set my bone. There was my guardian angel of the ankles, showing up the day of my surgery and name dropping so that the doctors knew that I was not just an ordinary patient. He not only kept my sister company, but checked on me daily, reminding me that it is a marathon, not a sprint to get better. There was my dear friend who waited with my sister too and got me home. He took me out in my wheelchair a few times (and laughed at me each time). I had more than 50 visitors in the 6 weeks that I was laid up, from my food-delivering cousins to my close friends who baby sat me reminded me of their own injuries and those of their family when I was getting impatient keeping me entertained to my sweet (but feisty) British friend who has also been my life mentors and to everyone in between. I had one pity moment, but remembering my mother’s strength got me through that.

The last year left me a little bit more fragile than I have been before. Author Mary Gordon once wrote, “A fatherless girl thinks all things are possible and nothing is safe”. In my case, I would say, it’s a motherless girl. I still believe that all things are possible, but I no longer have the safety net of my biggest fan, harshest critic, comic relief and advice giver. This New Year, I decided to stop looking back at my old resolutions and try to figure out what my new ones would be. I’m going to be a little kinder to myself this year and just do as my wise mother suggested and live my life. Luckily, I have the beauty of memories of my little Mummy and her words of wisdom still with me whenever I need them.


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An Evening at Look Good Feel Better

LGFB12

Photo courtesy of GK! Thanks to PY for the special background.

In October, my sister Michele was diagnosed with breast cancer.  This was particularly difficult for my family, as my mother was fighting her own battle with the disease.  In the first few months, while my sister was adjusting to her busy appointment schedule, her chemo side effects and just the need to be available to be with our mother on days that she was feeling up to it, I didn’t want to broach going to a workshop with her.  She was handling everything like a champ, but if you knew how many appointments that she had you would be overwhelmed.

After some time passed, and we were clear on what side effects she would have from her treatment, I brought it up.  I thought it would be nice for us to go together and for my sister to have something to look forward to.  Just to be candid, Michele LOVES makeup.  She’s been wearing it since her teens and has a good idea of what looks good on her and she certainly isn’t afraid of colour.  Weirdly, no matter what she thinks, I’m always shocked at how good she looks, even without makeup.  This was surprising to me – I wasn’t sure what to expect.  She has been unbelievably accepting of losing her hair, and has a GREAT wig.  She still has some of her eyebrows too.  Anyway – she agreed to go to the workshop, so being Type A, I signed her up online and made sure that I could attend.  Each person attending can bring one guest – they won’t receive the goodies, but they are able to be there for moral support.

We went to Princess Margaret Lodge on February 27.  It’s set up in a conference room, and each attendee going through chemo or other cancer related treatment walks out with a bag full of cosmetics and skin care.  It’s laid out for the women since they use the products during the workshop. It was a pretty full class, and the volunteers take you through a presentation about Look Good Feel Better, and some of the challenges that patients have in dealing with the appearance based side effects of the disease.  Some of the patients were happy to be there and get tips on how to “Look Good”.  One person actually wasn’t emotionally ready for the workshop and left.

LGFB4

After they did the initial presentation, they wanted someone from the group to volunteer to be the makeup model.  No one volunteered so I said, in my loudest voice, “Michele?”  My sister was pretty excited to model, so she happily took her place at the front of the class, and even though I couldn’t be the centre of attention, I got to live vicariously through her.  She was already wearing makeup, so after taking a chisel, oops makeup wipe, she was ready to be made pretty all over again, while the rest of the class followed the step by step instructions from the makeup artist.  To finish things off, my sister tried on a whole bunch of wigs – some of them looked really cute on her, one made her look a little like Morticia Addams, but hey, you don’t get to pick everything.  The women got to shout out which ones they wanted her to try.

I would highly recommend Look Good Feel Better to any woman who is going through cancer treatment.  You may think that you already know a lot about how to apply make up and skincare, but things change when you are going through treatment.  You have to learn tips for complexions that may be drier and more sallow, how to pencil in eyebrows and how to fake the look of having lashes.  It’s a really nice evening or daytime workshop and gives you the chance to think about yourself.  I think my sister was more excited by the free stuff, but then again, she’s always loved a freebie – trust me it’s part of her charm.  Seriously though, cancer takes so much from patients, a little pick me up and a way to feel better about yourself is well worth the time.  The volunteers are knowledgeable, kind and compassionate and the cosmetic companies should be commended for the donations to the program.

One recommendation that I would make to any woman going through a treatment where you will lose your hair – make getting a wig a priority.  Do this before your treatment, that way you are prepared when the time comes and you are feeling well enough to try them on.  You have to make an appointment with a wig shop – you can’t just walk in and try them on.  If you have benefits, many companies cover off between $300-$500 as long as you have a doctor’s note.  We also found out that you shouldn’t shave your head – it can lead to nicks that can get infected – a big nono for someone whose immune system is going to be compromised.  Michele bought her wig in advance, and our cousin Gail went with her.  She sent me a photo and it was perfect!  They both played a joke on me telling me that Michele wasn’t going to buy the wig that day. Hardy-har har.  They were just teasing to see what kind of reaction they would get out of me.  Sigh.  I think that my sister was glad to get the wig, and it is one less thing to worry about when there is so much going on already.

For more information or to register for a workshop go to https://lgfb.ca/en/ 

If you’ve attended the workshop, and have feedback, I’d love to hear about it!