Tag Archives: reflection

Hungry Years

Today I am bringing back an old entry, written by Bruce. I love his perspective, and recent conversations with some of my very special former students has had me thinking about the time in our life that we can look back upon, knowing that we were living in our “hungry years”, but also that we were blissfully unaware of how different things would be (for the better) once we established ourselves. Please enjoy this very special entry written by my favorite guest blogger.


Recently, I was listening to an interview with an older male actor (exactly who he is doesn’t much matter to the story here, plus most readers wouldn’t even know who the hell he is anyway), and in it he referred to his “hungry years”. By this he meant the early years of his marriage, when his career had not yet taken off, and so times were lean for him and his wife. When asked if he looked upon this time negatively he responded that they were actually some of the best times of his life, as he was still so young and naive, and didn’t fully grasp the struggles he was enduring. This made me think about our own “hungry years” in the early years of our relationship, and when I mentioned it to Rennie she felt it might be an interesting topic for the blog. The catch was that since I was the one that brought it up, I’d have to write it. So here it goes…

In the summer of 1998, after dragging my feet for the first three and a half years of our relationship (not to mention the fact that we had been such close friends for over seven years), Ren and I finally moved into our very own apartment. It was a beautiful place in a brand new development in North Brunswick, one town over from Rutgers University (where we’d met), and while it might have appeared to those that saw it that we had it all together, it wasn’t really the truth. Like most couples in their 20s, we were still finding our place in the world. Both of our careers were still in their infancies, and while Ren had spent the early years of our relationship working a high-paying retail job, that lifestyle just could not be sustained. The stress it was putting on her mind and her body, as well as our relationship, was too much to bear. A few short months before we moved into our new place she’d made the move out of retail, but there was a price to be paid for the more humane lifestyle…a huge pay cut. At the same time, I was working at my first “real” job out of college, and was finding it hard to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. So while we weren’t anywhere near the poverty level, we certainly weren’t living in the lap of luxury either. But we had each other, and considering everything that had to happen just for us to end up together in the first place, I often felt like I was living in a dream that someone would be waking me up from at any moment. I had zero complaints.

This one is from the "really hungry years", before we even lived together.

This one is from the “really hungry years”, before we even lived together.

With no money to do anything all-that-exciting, we quickly stumbled upon what would become our usual weekend routine. On Friday nights, we’d start with dinner at whatever “gourmet” chain restaurant we had a coupon for that week (Applebee’s, Chili’s, Bennigan’s, etc.), and then follow that up with a leisurely stroll through Target, where we hoped we could cobble enough cash together to buy the things we actually needed for the new palatial Rankin/Leighton estate. Once done, we’d come home and watch the ever so thrilling “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and whatever else we could find on the basic cable package we were lucky enough to be able to afford. Saturdays and Sundays were much the same, but since we’d already splurged on one meal out, Ren would cook…and often with food we’d lifted from my parents’ pantry the last time we’d visited them. Crazy stuff.

The spacious kitchen from our first place. It was bigger than some of the places Ren lived in by herself before we moved in together.

The spacious kitchen from our first place. It was bigger than some of the places Ren lived in by herself before we moved in together.

There’s one memory from this period that is still so vivid to me that I almost feel as if I’m traveling back in time when I think of it. It was a Saturday night in December 1999, and we’d recently booked our wedding in Las Vegas for the following April. Christmas and Hanukkah decorations lit up our apartment, and we were spending our weekend the way we’ve always loved to…talking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and the life we’d built (or were building). As the evening got later, we both drifted off to sleep in our living room, with Ren on the couch and me in the recliner. Sometime after midnight I awoke to the sounds of Beck performing his song “Mixed Bizness” on Saturday Night Live, and I looked over to see Ren peacefully asleep. I then slowly panned around the apartment that was so unmistakably “us”, smiled and then marveled at how perfect everything was in that one moment. A moment that could have easily been innocuous and forgettable ended up perfectly capturing that exact time in our life.

Our very first Christmas tree in our very own apartment. Together.

Our very first Christmas tree in our very own apartment. Together.

The most beautiful thing about those hungry years was that we were so young and that simply placing down our roots together, on our own (except the usual raiding of my mom’s pantry) felt truly blissful. Now with hindsight being 20/20, we can look back on the years of living paycheck to paycheck and understand how much we struggled and how we always made do with what we had…because we had each other. We now recognize that even though we were struggling then, there was no preparing us for the real battle that had not yet presented itself to us: life together with Multiple Sclerosis.  

Taken on Ren's 29th birthday, just shy of two years before her MS symptoms first presented.

Taken on Ren’s 29th birthday, just shy of two years before her MS symptoms first presented.

Now, with over two decades together to look back upon, it’s easy to recognize the times that weren’t so easy…even if at the time they seemed oh-so-normal. But as with many things in our life, there’s the time before MS, and the time after MS. That line of demarcation provides all the perspective we’ll ever need to realize that even though we had good times, and we had bad times…we had times. Times together, which is all that really matters, even if you’re hungry.

This summer we ventured back to the very spot that I first saw Ren walking across campus. We'd just graduated high school, and were attending summer orientation before starting our freshman year at Rutgers.

This summer we ventured back to the very spot that I first saw Ren walking across campus. We’d just graduated high school, and were attending summer orientation before starting our freshman year at Rutgers.

Do-over

Last week, I wrote about our plans to have a wedding since we never had one. This week, I proudly present an entry written by my one and only, Bruce, relating to the same topic. I know his posts are very popular, and I am sure you will all love this one as much as I do.

Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot how exactly I’m able to handle everything that comes with Ren’s MS. Now as we’ve moved into middle-age, and breast cancer has been added to her plate, the frequency in which I hear this from someone has increased almost exponentially. Usually, my response revolves around how I just keep my head up and continue moving forward, but that doesn’t begin to adequately explain what it is to be a care partner and to struggle through everything that Ren has to put up with from day to day. And as I’ve written here before, our relationship is such that whatever one of us goes through, we go through together. So while I’m not personally suffering with the debilitating nature of MS, or struggling through radiation treatments, I’m as close to it as anyone possibly can be. As a result of all that we’ve gone through, our relationship has strengthened and brought us to a place I didn’t think was possible. It’s a place (as Ren mentioned in her entry last week), that most couples just don’t find themselves in. Thankfully, that is not us at all.

When considering exactly what it is that keeps me going through it all, it ultimately comes down to one thing: I love Ren. I don’t just love her, but I’m in love with her. And I pretty much have been in love with her since we met as 18 year olds at Rutgers University…I just was too young and stupid to completely grasp it at the time. What started as a simple crush grew and grew into this overwhelming need to have her in my life all the time, and after several years I was lucky enough to finally have that happen. Of course, as the saying goes, you have to be careful what you wish for, because once you have it it’s not always what you thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, because Ren has always made me incredibly happy, but once we were together I had a very hard time dealing with it. In our early years, I often would put her second (or third or fourth) behind my friends, and certainly could be accused of taking her for granted. Being such good friends with her before we became romantically involved made things easier for us than most new couples, but for me they might have made them too easy as I ended up treating her too much like my buddy Rennie instead of my girlfriend Rennie. Add to this my tendency to reject romance completely (Ren once stated that a rock on the ground was more romantic than I was), and think of marriage as an unnecessary business arrangement, and you can see how there were many times when Ren didn’t always believe that I was as devoted to our relationship as I insisted (and knew) I was. And as our friends started to get engaged and married, my resolve to ever be the contrarian got stronger and stronger. Basically, I was a jerk.

When Ren and I finally did decide to get married, as she’s described here, we went with a very low-key approach. This was done for several reasons (more than one of which was my reluctance to look like a hopeless romantic in front of my family and friends), but the most important of those reasons was that we just didn’t have the money for a big wedding, and neither of us thought it responsible behavior to go into mounds of debt for one day…even if it was our wedding day. I know at the time Ren would have liked a “real” wedding, but as she has often said, she’d marry me with a piece of string tied around her finger. In the end, she was just happy that I was finally committing to her in the way that she’d always dreamed I would.

This is our actual wedding picture. Nothing conventional about it.

The first couple of years of our marriage were rocky, and there were doubts at times about how long it might last, but we were finally coming out of the woods as we approached our third anniversary. Then Ren was diagnosed with MS, and our world was turned upside down. Suddenly, our issues (which in retrospect were stupid little things) meant nothing, and it was all about getting a handle on things and ensuring that she was receiving the best care she could. And as I wrote about here on the blog, my attitude suddenly began to change. Even though it might not look that way, I’d always been devoted to Ren, but a metamorphosis was starting. Slowly, my attitude began to change. I no longer took her for granted, and I found myself wanting to be more romantic and spend more time with her, and just her. I also found myself thinking about finally giving her what I should have given her years before: a real engagement. It was an idea that gestated for the better part of ten years, and which did result in a renewal of our vows for our tenth wedding anniversary in 2010. But I knew that wasn’t enough. I had to do more.

At the renewal of our vows, celebrated with about 40 people at our favorite spot in New Brunswick.

Eventually, as my career began to pick up steam, and I was finally earning a substantial enough salary (or so I thought) to be able to give Ren what she deserved, I set the plan in motion. In the fall of 2015, I realized it was time to move ahead with things, and began looking at engagement rings. Yes, we’d been engaged before, but not in any true sense, as we’d mutually agreed it was time to get hitched. There was no dropping to one knee, and certainly no romance. Young Bruce simply would not have that. I badly wanted to right that wrong, so I went out and bought an actual engagement ring, and on the campus we’d met on so many years ago, I retroactively popped the question. Thankfully, she said yes (phew!).

Taken probably 3 minutes after the proposal!

On what was one of the happiest days of her life, I finally realized how important it was to have done this for Ren. She was ecstatic. And with everything we’d been through over the years, it was inspiring to see. For that one night, Ren finally felt like the princess she should have always been, or at least like the princess I should have made her feel like when we were younger. After all, she’s simply been the most important person in my life for more than half of it…a life that she completely changed by just being a part of it.

In the months following my “retroactive proposal”, our relationship went through a RENnassaince (pun completely intended), and we realized that we were even more in love than we’d ever been. During this time the idea of actually having a real wedding on our 20th wedding anniversary came up, and when I looked ahead at the calendar and saw that it fell on a Friday I just knew we had to do it. So this past summer we booked a venue, and have started to look into all of the other details needed to plan the big day. And now we can afford to do it exactly the way we want to, and we’re old and wise enough to know exactly what we want.

But in the end, this whole thing is really about Rennie. She’s the most incredible person I’ve ever known for so many reasons, even though I too often spent some time early in our relationship taking her for granted. While I still beat myself up for my behavior back then, I know that it was short-lived, and that I’ve spent much more of our time together appreciating her for the person that she is. And I get better at it all the time. Regardless of what obstacles MS or cancer puts in our path, I know that not many guys get to date their crush, much less marry them. And on April 17th, 2020, I’ll get to marry her all over again.

Rainbow Bridge

This week, Bruce and I said goodbye to a beloved member of our family. We knew his days were numbered, yet we still were not fully prepared for how quickly he seemed to decline. In the end, we let him go peacefully in the loving arms of the best mama he ever had in his traumatic little life. We are sad and broken, but we will heal, comforted by how far he came in his 5 years with us. In honor of our Marty, I am bringing back two entries that I wrote about my spirit animal, read with tears in my eyes but a smile on my face because that little boy will always hold an extremely special place in my heart. Marty is on to the rainbow bridge, and his suffering is over. May you all experience the love and joy that a rescue pet can bring into your life… and remember please, please, please #adoptdontshop!


Marty

I have written about how therapeutic pets can be (click here), but today I’d like to write about one pet in particular. Before I continue, I feel the need to state that I love all my pets (past and present) equally, and with every fiber of my being. Even if I did love one of them more (and I’m not saying that I do!), I would never verbalize it! 

He even plays with toys sometimes, now that he is feeling well!

He even plays with toys sometimes, now that he is feeling well!

When I first saw my Marty on Petfinder, I felt drawn to his picture, and I stopped looking. This is how I had found Mookie (Marty’s now deceased older adopted brother), and I had the same exact feeling back then. I stopped looking because I knew that I had found the one. 

When I first met Marty in person, I was horrified listening as his foster mom told me the traumatic events that brought Marty to NJ. He was rescued from a high kill shelter in Texas, where he was due to be euthanized because he was just another chihuahua with heartworm. He was saved, and endured the painful, grueling process of being treated for heartworm. I’ll also add that he is an albino chihuahua with many sensitivities, just like humans with albinism. He has sensitive skin, bad allergies, and certain sounds or music affect his ears so badly that he howls. That howl of his is what caused him to be “un-adopted” twice before he found me. My husband and I are well-versed in special-needs dogs since Mookie was abused and abandoned with many traumatic memories, and he also suffered from seizure disorder. To paraphrase Bruce’s feeling on the matter, why would we adopt the ones that everyone else wants when we know we should take the ones who won’t find a home?

So Marty joined the family on July 6, 2012. I can honestly say that it took a really long time for me to connect with him. He was not an easy dog to love. He was an incredibly low-energy, temperamental dog. If we touched him in the wrong place, he snapped. If we played the wrong music (Radiohead, for example), he snapped. If we tried to clip his toenails, he snapped. If we moved him or picked him up before he was ready, he snapped. 

He is not exactly a handsome fellow, but he makes up for it in personality!

He is not exactly a handsome fellow, but he makes up for it in personality!

I wanted to love Marty and make up for all the bad years and experiences he had endured before he found us, but he made it difficult at times. A few months after he came, we said goodbye to Mookie, and Marty became an only child. Little by little, he softened up some, and some days I think I actually did love him. Certainly I couldn’t imagine my life without him, anyway. 

This was when I started to feel the love for my little boy!

This was when I started to feel the love for my little boy!

We have since added Scarlet, rescued about a year after Marty, to our little family. She is just about the sweetest, happiest little girl ever. She is definitely easy to love, and I’ve loved her since the very first time I met her. You always know what you’re getting with Scarlet, which is pure love. With Marty, not so much. 

This is Scarlet. She isn't baring her teeth here. She is one of those dogs who smiles! How could I not love her?!

This is Scarlet. She isn’t baring her teeth here. She is one of those dogs who smiles! How could I not love her?!

But about a year ago (when Marty was with us for two years and a scarlet was with us for one), Marty began having even more medical issues. After spending a small fortune at U Penn Vets, we discovered that he has a collapsing trachea, and it is probably 65% collapsed at the moment. They told us that the best thing we could do is have him lose some weight, and they put him on a combination of medications to help manage his symptoms. I finally started understanding why Marty acted the way he did. He didn’t feel well. I don’t act nice when I don’t feel well either! 

Siblings.

Siblings.

Then just a few months ago, we had yet another medical crisis. Seemingly out of the blue, his stomach was bloated, and he was lethargic. When he refused the peanut butter (that conveniently hides his medications), I knew something was up. He was admitted to the hospital for four very long nights, and he diagnosed with Diabetic Ketoacidosis. It took weeks to regulate his insulin, and slowly he started to recover. There were setbacks along the way, including a condition that requires us to put ointment in his eyes, as well as a recent tooth root infection. But he is a trooper and he keeps bouncing back. My sister even commented that he’s like a cat with nine lives!

Marty's preferred location is on top of me, whether it's on my lap (shown here), my chest, or tucked under my arm.

Marty’s preferred location is on top of me, whether it’s on my lap (shown here), my chest, or tucked under my arm.

I think now I see Marty in a whole new light. He, like me, enjoys the simple things in life: a full belly, peace and quiet, and a warm place to snuggle with his family. Even though I look ok, simple things are harder for me than they are for healthy people, and I see that with Marty, too. Both of us live a life that is incredibly happy, but also unpredictable. We both take two steps forward, and one step back. He has been attached to me like never before lately, and I think it’s because he knows that I understand him. More and more I feel like he is me in doggy form, or else I’m Marty in human form. Our struggles are so much the same. We both fight with all our strength and determination, and he is my little Warrior dog. 

Spooning against me.

Spooning against me.

Marty has been a part of our family for over three years now. There is a reason I stopped looking at available rescue dogs after I saw his little profile on Petfinder. He was meant to be with us all along because all he needed was the right family to help him thrive. He is happy, and as healthy as he can be (like me) with all of his conditions controlled medicinally, and he is more affectionate, sweeter, and happier than ever. Just like me! 

These kids complete our little family.

These kids complete our little family.

(PS. If you are looking for a furry little addition to your family, please, please, PLEASE consider rescuing an animal from a shelter!)


Marty and Me

I know I have written about my dog Marty in the past, but he is certainly worthy of another entry for so many reasons. He’s definitely my spirit animal in that he’s a true warrior dog. I mean, he was rescued from a high-kill shelter in Texas, with heart-worms, mange, and a host of other conditions. He survived all of that, found his way to NJ, and finally found me. 

I didn’t fall in love with him from day one, but there is no denying that he’s my little boy now. Amazingly, since I’ve had him (coming up on five years), we have been through many health crises together, and he has overcome every single one, most notably a collapsed trachea and the sudden onset of diabetes. 

Poor little tongue is always out now.

Most recently, on the day of my surgery, as we were rushing out of the house at 6 am, we noticed that one whole side of poor Marty’s face was swollen. Great timing! After my surgery, Bruce deposited me on the couch, ran out to get my medications, and brought Marty to the vet. This had happened in the past yet with a new vet in the practice, she was reluctant to give us any medication without seeing him. She actually wanted to admit him but Bruce insisted that this was not a good time. As it turns out, Marty had an abscess and needed an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory, and some pain management. The swelling went down pretty quickly, but it was obvious he was uncomfortable. The vet suggested we admit him immediately to have a deep cleaning done, but of course we couldn’t do that because we were dealing with human issues. In the interim, we dealt with a lot of crying (on Marty’s part and ours) as well as frustration all around. He can’t tell us what he needs and we did nothing but try everything possible to see what he needed: taking him out, giving him meds, feeding him, moving him to all of his favorite spots to rest… and the list goes on. 

Messy eater with no teeth left!

When he finally had his dental work done, the bone in his jaw was so brittle that the vet caused a hairline fracture, which then led us to a doggie oral surgeon to take on his case. Again, our lives revolved around trying to take care of our baby boy and managing his pain. For a middle-aged couple who made a conscious decision to simplify our lives by not having any children, we were living as if we had a child. Besides taking care of Marty, we also had to make sure that Scarlet was not feeling any less loved, despite the amount of attention that Marty required. Rather than simplifying our life, it was exponentially more complicated, especially when taking into account the fact that I was recovering from surgery myself plus the MS that is a constant presence in our world. 

Sibling love. Or at least tolerance.

But the truth of the matter is that when you rescue animals like we do, particularly the ones who would not be adopted otherwise, it’s a sacrifice you make. I would not give up on my little man like others did before me, even if it temporarily turns my life into something other than what I had anticipated. Happily, he is on the mend and practically back to his old self again, and we remain grateful for the life decisions that led us to create our little family without human children. It’s a choice we made early on for many reasons, and without any regrets. It was (and has been) an exhausting time for us, and I can’t imagine how we would fare if we had taken the alternate path…the one where we follow the masses and the societal norms simply because most people do. 

Sitting right on top of his sister.

The universe clearly drew me to Marty, and there is a reason I felt he was the one to rescue even though I didn’t fall in love with him right away. Our lives are parallel, though, or so it seems. He already had medical issues when we rescued him, and there always seems to be something new to deal with for the poor guy. I, too, had my own medical concerns before he came home with me, and sometimes I feel like I keep having more added to my already well-stocked plate. If it is indeed true that Marty is my spirit animal and he has been given multiple lives in his short little life, then at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have several more to go myself!

He isn’t the prettiest one out there, but there is no denying his connection to me as a fighter.

Transformation

It’s that time of year again… the summer is drawing to a close, with everyone taking their last trips down the shore, enjoying the joys that summer always brings, while preparing excitedly for a brand new school year.

At this time every year, I like to reflect upon how insanely different my life (and my attitude) is since MS made the decision for me to retire on disability in May, 2014, after already being on sick leave for all but the first four weeks of the school year.

Back then, I couldn’t imagine my life without the career that had defined me in so many ways, and that I was so passionate about. I considered myself beyond lucky to have a job that I loved, because so many people are not as fortunate. People often told me that I was one of the few people they knew who actually liked her job. And I did. Every damn second of it.

Now that I am a few years removed from the feeling of such a devastating loss for me, I have clarity that I didn’t have before, and gratitude for everything, including the painful, emotional, difficult situation that started me on this part of my journey. I never dreamed that I could ever be in this beautiful place that I currently find myself in, happier than ever, which I could not have imagined when I was still working.

The other day, a Staples commercial came on TV advertising their usual 10 cent sale, and I was brought back to the days when I used to have lists of which retail establishment had things on sale that I needed for my classroom so that I could stock up for the year. I used to get so excited about these things, and now it hardly even phases me. I love that because it shows how much I have grown during the last couple of years.

I’m not saying that I got here without my share of growing pains, but I am saying that I understand it’s all a part of the process. Once I opened myself up to the possibilities of creating a new life, it changed my perception of everything I knew.

What I know now is that regardless of how much I loved my students (and still do!), my own family always needs to come first. I often lost sight of that as a teacher, but I don’t regret it because now I have all of these amazing young adults who make up such a big part of my life, and I love that. I love watching them venture out on their own, doing the adult thing, and spreading their wings to soar.

I also know that taking care of myself is vitally important. When I was working, I overlooked my own wellness in favor of my job and my students. Again, I don’t regret it because of the amount of love and gratitude they gave back to me (and still do), but I know that I am of no good use to anyone if I am not staying on top of my own health and wellness. This includes all the things I have incorporated into my post-teacher life: meditation, yoga, hardcore exercise, acupuncture, reiki, and healthy eating, all of which force me to put myself above all others so that I can stay strong for the long haul.

I remember the days when the weekends meant nothing more than time to grade, write lesson plans, and create dynamic presentations for my classes, leaving no time to actually enjoy spending time being fully present with my loved ones. Once again, I have no regrets about how I lived my career because it’s what the kids deserved and I don’t know how to do it any other way.

But now… now life is better than I ever thought possible. My circle of friends has changed, but in a good way because I am surrounded by other people who take nothing for granted and never waste an opportunity to laugh and smile because we are grateful for the life we are living, regardless of whether we chose it or not. I am more in love with my husband than ever because we have been given this incredible gift of time together. Hell, we even booked a vacation in September, something we have never, EVER done before. Some small part of me still feels like a rebel for doing it, but no matter how much time passes, I guess old habits do, indeed, die hard. But lucky for me, I have worked very hard to help these old habits go by the wayside.

The transformation from Mrs. Rankin to Rennie has not been an easy one, but it is ongoing and I’m getting better at it all the time. I have been transforming my entire world: physically, mentally, and spiritually for the last few years, and my progress has been slow but steady, and that’s ok. I know that as human beings, one of our biggest challenges is having the ability to change according to our life circumstances, good or bad. I’m not going to lie and say that the process has been an easy one, or that I don’t have my moments of weakness, but it does get easier with time and with the determination to live my very best life possible. Rather than crying about the fact that I am not going back to work this week, I am happily wishing my former colleagues the very best of luck as they begin the new school year. Life is, after all, what we make of it, and I am making mine everything I want it to be. So who wants to join me in a glass half full of lemonade?

The sunrise over the Raritan River by Rutgers University, a very symbolic photo at a place that will always hold an extra special place in my heart.

Bad Ass

This is definitely not a term I would use to describe myself. I mean I was the chubby kid who was bullied through elementary school and spent more time crying than laughing. My dad’s job moved us from rural New Hampshire to Bergen County, NJ (a very metropolitan area just outside of New York City) at this very crucial time of my childhood. I’m a lover, not a fighter, so I viewed the bullying as something I deserved, and cried over it in the privacy of my own bedroom. That chubby little kid never would have thought that people would look at her as a bad ass for simply living her life the only way she knows how.

Yet in the past few weeks, I have been called a bad ass on numerous occasions, which definitely makes me laugh. I mean I certainly don’t feel like a bad ass. I spend most of my time smiling, laughing, hugging, and laughing. Did I mention I spend a fair share of my time smiling and laughing? I’ve never even been in a fight where I actually threw a punch, though I certainly was pushed around plenty during those early days living in Northern NJ.

Me on the first day of school, slimmed down after a summer at camp.

I’m the rule girl. When I was working, I consistently enforced the rules in my classroom, and I’m afraid that the same attitude bled into my personal life as well. I am still bound to rules more than I’d like, but not working has made it easier for me to let certain rules slide. Still, in my eyes, that makes me boring, not bad ass. Not that I find this term negative… in fact I find it quite a compliment and also very empowering although I am not sure what qualifies me as bad ass.

I mean, I have dealt with Multiple Sclerosis quite openly for over 14 years now. I used my voice as a teacher to educate my students and colleagues, raising awareness (and money) for the cause, with my only motive being a sincere hope that the next generation can live in a world free of MS. I let them see the good, the bad, and the ugly, but I always approached it as my calling to show that overcoming adversity and rising to challenges in our paths simply make us stronger, more sympathetic, and more grateful individuals. Is that bad ass?

Here I am with my “core” MS Walkers (2010), who represented the over 450 members of our team.

I have accepted the brutal cycle that MS is… one step forward and two steps back. I have worked hard to keep my body moving, even through the times of limited mobility and function, because I am determined to stay strong. I have changed my life, my body, and how I look at exercise, fitness, and nutrition, because it takes on new meaning when it’s not about how you look, but rather it’s about how it makes you feel: strong and in control of the only things that you CAN control. Is that bad ass?

A few years ago, I endured a five hour spinal fusion and laminectomy surgery, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. This was not part what I had imagined my life would be, but I accepted it and embraced it as part of my journey because there was no choice. I worked hard to rehabilitate afterwards and get back to the place where I am most comfortable with my body. I kept moving rather than using it as an excuse to stay still because I needed to take control. Is that bad ass?

My spine and the hardware that holds it together, in all its glory!

The next obstacle in my path was a curve ball, to say the least: breast cancer. I approached it the same way I approach everything in my life. I did what I had to do, never questioning why it was happening to me. I did it with a smile on my face because of the love and support I felt in my heart. In the grand scheme of things, I knew it could have been worse, and it was a huge learning experience for me. I learned about myself and what I am capable of, as well as about the people I surround myself with. Some people live an entire lifetime without having the opportunity to see their own strength and capabilities, which is a true shame since most times we don’t know these things until we are tested to prove them. As difficult as it was, and will be for the next several years, I am grateful to have learned so much. Is that bad ass?

Post-op picture after my lumpectomy and lymph node biopsy: looking blue (literally) from the radioactive dye used to highlight the lymph nodes that were removed.

Finally, and most recently, a little tumble down a flight of stairs left me with some broken toes. Compared to all I have been through, this (although totally painful and extremely limiting to my mobility) is nothing. I laughed my way through the visit to the Urgent Care, the x-rays, the doctor’s attempt at humor (I’m not so young that I’m just growing bone overnight anymore and I must not have given enough in the collection basket that week, as this little accident happened on a Sunday), and even laughed at the silly, ugly boot which will be an extension of my body for another 4-6 weeks. It’s a small setback in the bigger picture of my life, and I just have to laugh at myself because I can do so many difficult things without consequence, but apparently walking down stairs is not one of them. Is that bad ass?

These are my toes after having been re-set by the orthopedist.

My conclusion is that “bad ass”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I never thought of myself as bad ass, I’m just living my best possible life. It’s funny that I would never label myself as a bad ass, but other people do. I’m fairly certain that the chubby girl who was so often bullied never would have thought that being pushed around by some assholes would seem so small in comparison to the real obstacles that I have had to face as an adult. And even though I don’t exactly see myself as a bad ass, I can guarantee that she sure would.

Yup. My shirt says “FC” and my socks say “bad ass”. If you don’t quite get the “FC” part, let’s just say that the “C” stands for cancer.

Partner

The other day, Bruce turned to me, and asked me why I always refer to him as my partner rather than my husband.  It’s not that he was upset or angry about it, it’s just that he was curious. And looking back at the many blog posts that include him in any way, I do always refer to him as my partner.

I looked at him and I almost didn’t even know where to start explaining. I mean partner encompasses so much more than saying husband or spouse. By being partners, Bruce and I share every single aspect of our life together.

This is the exact spot where Bruce first saw me walking across campus, and last summer we went back to the scene of the crime!

By simply calling him my husband, no one would know that he is my care partner. He is the one I lean on when I’m not feeling well, and he puts everything else aside for me during those times. He supports me physically when I’m not well by picking up my share of the slack around the house while still working full time. He does this without complaint, knowing that if the roles were reversed, I would do the very same for him.

Calling him my husband doesn’t reflect the depth of our friendship, that started when we were just 18 years old. He was my best bud for years before we started dating, and the history we shared during those years made our relationship much more special when we finally did get together. That’s how I knew it was for keeps because he’s still my best friend. He’s the first one I turn to when I need love and support. He makes me laugh so hard that I cry (and maybe even pee a little bit… but that could be MS too!?), and having him beside me, even if we are just sitting in silence, provides me with the kind peace of mind that calms me to my very core.

Saying that Bruce is my husband can’t possibly do justice to the guy who loved me even when my entire life revolved around my job… and even more when I added graduate school to the mix, taking away more time together from the already limited amount we had. Even when we were spending time together, I was always thinking about school or grad school. I was seldom fully present, but he supported me anyway because that’s what partners do.

Being my partner means that he has chosen to continue on our journey together despite the many obstacles we have faced. Being my partner means sharing the burden equally, and that burden can be pretty weighty at times. But when we each take half, it’s not so bad. Bruce wears many hats in our world… best friend, care partner, husband, fiancée, soul mate, and partner.

A reenactment of one of the very first pictures of us, taken in New Hope, PA.

I can’t even remember what it’s like to not have him as my partner, or when his title evolved to partner. What I do know is that having him as my partner in life has made everything better, including MS and breast cancer. Having him as my partner means I smile wider, love harder, and give thanks every damn day that he is there.

The truest sign of our partnership is that we complement each other so that each of us is better because of the other. With all that being said, it is true that Bruce is my husband. But he is my partner in this life, and being my partner entails way more than just being my husband. Plus, he’s the captain of #TeamRankin… and as we all know, #TeamRankin never loses!

Diagnosiversary

In preparation for my blog this week, I decided to read what I had written about my diagnosiversary last year and the year before, because I just can’t let June 2 slip by without acknowledging it. I read through the entry, and I realized that on this, the 14th anniversary of my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, I would have written the same exact thing I shared last year (which I shared from the year before) on the topic. The feelings I experienced on that day, and during the weeks and months that followed, are still as raw and as powerful as they were 14 years ago. It doesn’t matter how much time passes, telling the story immediately brings me back to that moment in time, so here’s what I have shared in years past. Nothing has changed about that day, except year 14 has brought many more challenges (like breast cancer… an entirely different diagnosiversary!), but it has also brought many more rewards for which I am grateful every single day. 


This is the sign that marked my 14th radiation treatment, and I think it is a perfect representation of how I feel 14 years into my journey with MS.


June 2 is a very special day for me. It’s a random day, and it probably means nothing to anyone but me (and possibly my husband). It’s an anniversary that does not celebrate a milestone or an accomplishment, but June 2, 2003 is a date that I will never forget. On that day, I was given a diagnosis that undoubtedly has changed the course of my life.


Every year on June 2, I am brought back to that day, now [fourteen] years ago. I relive the details of the day moment by moment. I remember what I ate for breakfast (oatmeal), and I remember what I was wearing (white and blue plaid capri pants, a blue button down shirt, and white and blue sneakers). I remember stopping at Dunkin Donuts for a large iced coffee (black) on the way to school. I remember the panic attacks. All. Day. Long. I remember that I had permission to leave after my last teaching period so that I could get to my appointment on time. I remember that my appointment was at 2:30, and I remember that Bruce took a half a day so that he could go with me.


So we got in the car, not talking to each other at all. On the way to the neurologist appointment, we stopped at the radiology office to pick up a copy of the MRI results, just in case the doctor hadn’t yet received them. They kindly folded the paper and put it inside an envelope. In the elevator up to the doctor’s office, Bruce asked me if I was going to open the envelope. Without hesitation I said no way. I knew I wouldn’t understand what was written there, and why not just have these last moments together before the inevitable?


We sat in the doctor’s office, staring at each other, waiting for for him to deliver the news. We didn’t talk. I was too busy having one panic attack after another to even attempt a conversation. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally heard his footsteps approaching. We heard him pause outside the door, and we heard him pull my chart out of the bin outside the room. Then, to our complete and utter shock, we heard him let out a huge sigh, before knocking once and entering the room.


The doctor walked in, greeted us, and told us that I have Multiple Sclerosis. From that moment on, it was as if I was watching someone else’s life unfold. I only heard bits and pieces because my mind began racing. To be fair, I was not yet educated on MS, but at that moment, it felt like I was given a death sentence. We know now that MS is fatal in only the rarest, most severe of cases, yet there was a part of me that did, indeed, die that day. The road ahead of me required a complicated detour that I was not sure I could even navigate.


We left the doctor’s office in a total daze. Suddenly we were occupying space in a world that was completely different for us, yet for everyone else it was unchanged. In this drastically different world, what did we do? We went to Target. I guess we were searching for some sense of normalcy in this new, unknown world of ours. We sat in the car afterwards and called our families to share the news. It wasn’t exactly the kind of news I looked forward to delivering, but at least I finally had an answer. After months of appointments, X-rays, MRIs, blood work, evoked potentials, and cognitive and neurological tests, I was done. It’s not what I wanted or expected, but it was something. The phone calls I made on June 2, 2003 were some of the most difficult conversations I have ever had in my entire life.


Following my diagnosis, Bruce and I holed up at home, and didn’t speak to many people other than each other. Some friends called to offer support, and others dropped off the face of the earth. All the relationships in my life were tested, and certainly the dynamic within them shifted. I learned a lot about my friends, and mourned the loss of many who did not know how to deal with my diagnosis. Sadly, this happens with every relapse, but [14] years later, my coping mechanism for that kind of loss has been fine-tuned, and I have built a support system that holds up.


On this day every year, I take inventory of my life since diagnosis. It has not been an easy journey, but it has been amazingly rewarding in so many ways. Since my diagnosis, I have learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined I could be. Everyone has an inner strength, but not everyone realizes it because you don’t summon that strength until you need it. I have discovered my voice to educate and to raise awareness, and my passion for patient advocacy. These are integral parts of who I am, and without MS I don’t know who I’d be right now. One thing I know for sure is that on my diagnosiversary, I always give thanks to the powers that be for all of the parts of me that MS has made better, and for all the things I am still capable of doing despite the MonSter.


For [14] years I have acknowledged the importance of my diagnosiversary, and this year is no different. I’m still grateful for the many gifts I’ve been given, and even though my journey has not always been an easy one, I know that every bump in the road makes me a stronger, better version of myself. I don’t celebrate the anniversary that falls on this day. I celebrate all the things that I have managed to accomplish, all the things I can do, and all the things I am, MS and all.

#LifeWithMS

Wednesday, May 31, 2017 is World MS Day. On this day more than any other day of the year, I stand in solidarity with my MS brothers and sisters, each of us doing something in our own individual ways to help raise awareness of this often invisible, consequently overlooked, incurable illness. This has become a powerful movement in recent years, and the theme this year is #LifeWithMS. In honor of this theme, I am sharing my thoughts on the matter, as always,  hoping to impact as many people as possible, whether they suffer from MS, have loved ones who do, or who don’t know anything about #LifeWithMS.
First of all, Multiple Sclerosis does not discriminate. Not by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or otherwise. No one is immune or exempt from the possibility. Although most people are diagnosed between ages 20 and 40, there are no rules and it can happen way earlier or way later. Additionally, having MS does not preclude anyone from being diagnosed with other serious conditions… a fact I always knew but learned first hand having recently completed treatment for breast cancer.

My #LifeWithMS has taught me so much about myself, my friends and family, and the world in general. Because the vast majority of my symptoms are invisible, I find that I am treated very differently than the MS patient who relies upon a walker or a scooter because those are devices the whole world can see. My experience with my sisters and brothers who rely on assistive devices for ambulation is that generally other people are kind and considerate, and amazingly helpful because they can see that there is something wrong. I am generally not afforded the same consideration because looking at me, most people wouldn’t know I have anything wrong with me at all (but my therapist knows the truth!). In fact, I often get the evil eye when I pull into a handicap parking spot, and have even been questioned about it by perfect strangers. I have been dealing with this for a long time, so I no longer feel the need to engage with others or defend the fact that I am, indeed, disabled. The office of social security, the motor vehicle commission, my doctors, and the state of NJ all acknowledge it, and all these years later I don’t really give a crap if a random busy body watching me park my car does or not because I’m too busy trying to live my very best #LifeWithMS.

My point is that just because you don’t see something, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. I mean we can’t see gravity, but I assure you it’s there, and I don’t think anyone would argue that. So am I supposed to present an enumerated list of my symptoms to all who meet me so that they know that I suffer on a daily basis? And I do suffer from many difficult to manage symptoms, yet I always hear the dreaded “but you look so good!” My internal response is always the same: Damn… I am a great actress! (or else I think and you don’t look dumb, but you are!)

#LifeWithMS includes managing crippling fatigue, deep neuromuscular pain, bladder issues, “painsomnia” (self explanatory I hope), neuropathy (numbness, tingling, weakness, lack of coordination) on my entire left side plus my right foot, insatiable neuropathic itching fits that have left me raw and scarred all over my body, constant vertigo, muscle spasms in my legs and intercostal muscles often known as the “MS Hug”, and the list goes on and on. But when you see me out you won’t know it, because I am an actress and an optimist, and if you tell me I look great, I’ll gladly take the compliment, secretly so grateful that you don’t see me on the worst days when I can’t even remove myself from the couch.

Staying strong is my MO.

My #LifeWithMS revolves around taking care of me, and I am fortunate that I am in a position to do so. I exercise faithfully, eat well (but not without my cheat days), and I meditate. The only thing predictable about MS is its unpredictability and as such, the things I do are the only things that are within my control, and staying strong (both physically and mentally) is my only weapon.

Yup. My shirt says “FC” and my socks say “bad ass”. If you don’t quite get the “FC” part, let’s just say that the “C” stands for cancer.

Of course, I can’t talk about my #LifeWithMS without talking about the incredible support system that surrounds me. I have a devoted partner, a loving MS family, a handful of beautiful friends who have stayed the course with me, and some very special family members as well. Without all of these awesome members of my team, I would be a very different person.

The most important member of my support team is this guy right here… he is my everything.

The take-away for today, the thing I most want to emphasize is that #LifeWithMS is no less worth living than life without it. I still smile endlessly, laugh without abandon, and love with all my heart. But more importantly, I am infinitely more grateful for who I am and all that I have. MS or not, life is what you make of it, and as for me, I prefer to sip lemonade over sucking lemons. Don’t you?

My MS sisters. They are absolutely the best friends I could ever ask for.

Perspective

This past week I had a few rough patches. One day I found myself telling my MS family, and they all offered me comfort in the same loving way they always do. I thanked them and told them it was all good because tomorrow is a brand new day full of possibilities. Then another day, as we all checked in with each other via text, the norm on days when we don’t see each other, I found myself when asked how I was doing, responding that I could complain but I don’t. It’s not an act or something I put on in front of people, but rather absolutely the true and honest way I live my life.

(MS) Family is everything. My girls, my sisters, my angels. They saved me and showed me how to live as Rennie.

Every day when I sit with my journal and write my gratitude list, it seems to get longer and longer. Obviously I am grateful for the most amazing husband and partner, and the life we have built together. But beyond that, I’m grateful for things most  people don’t even think about… the perfect spring day photo field-tripping with my photog buddies, an awesome workout when my trainer says things like “MS? What MS?”, a body-encompassing hug from the ones I hold dear, doggy kisses (even when I’m frustrated about cleaning up another poop in the house), and even despite MS and breast cancer, I am so incredibly grateful for my health. It is precarious at times, but I have learned to slow down and nurture it, my relationships and how they have changed as a result, and the family I would never have found if I had perfect health!

My sneaky friend Marlene caught me thoroughly making the best of the photo field trip “barn tour” we took last week.

It’s so unfortunate that many people are never given this kind of eye-opening gift… one that comes from a difficult life circumstance but makes you see everything differently. I was that person until MS forced me to give up my beloved career. And even then, it has taken me years of processing and learning how to accept myself in this new light. I genuinely feel lucky for the gifts that I’ve been given through an experience that was the hardest thing I ever had to go through. I will never, ever regret the passion, energy, sleepless nights, and endless piles of work that made me Mrs. Rankin, the teacher, because I have so many beautiful people in my life because of her.

Mrs. Rankin with some of her all-time faves at their very last Walk MS before graduating.

But Rennie, the human being, has learned how to be satisfied with her best effort and she is not (quite as) obsessed with being perfect. She appreciates every moment of every day, whether she is spending time with former students, friends, and family, or spending the day cuddled on the couch with her pups. This girl knows how lucky she is that she has the opportunity to take care of herself how and when she needs without losing sight of that because she always took care of everyone and everything job-related before anything else, including her own wellness. She always sought work/life balance but she just couldn’t make it happen. Nothing could. Except MS.

Yoga has definitely been something I have leaned makes me feel better, and has also helped me get to know who Rennie is. I’m far from perfect, but it is called a practice for a reason!

Fighting a battle against MS is not easy, and certainly made harder when breast cancer was added to the mix. But again, I learned so much about who I could count on as part of my “ride or die” team, and also about myself and my own priorities. What I know for sure is that every single day is a clean slate and offers a whole new set of opportunities for each and every one of us. Instead of dwelling on what I miss about being Mrs. Rankin, I look at how much better it is to just be Rennie. I mean, my students are still growing up in front of me and doing some massively impressive stuff. And I get to experience it totally differently because I am Rennie. I don’t have to wake up at 4:45 in the morning and be within the confines of a classroom to continue my work as a teacher. I can really enjoy nights and weekends without the pressure of the job constantly weighing in the back of my mind.

New possibilities every single day…

Now I’m not saying I was miserable when I was Mrs. Rankin because that would devalue everything I did to be the teacher I was. I loved every second of it, but I just didn’t know how much more I could love life. And I do. I take nothing for granted because there are no guarantees ever.

Life with this guy since I stopped working just keeps getting better and better.

These days I’m smiling a whole lot more, laughing out loud (often boisterously and without fear of being stared at), and definitely loving those who have stayed the course with me much more deeply than ever. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a scare of epic proportions to gain the kind of perspective we all need to live a genuinely happy life. I’ve definitely had my share of these “scares” and oddly enough, I am happy that I have, because I am a better person, in a better place than I ever thought possible.

Celebration

This week Bruce and I are finally on a little getaway alone together, celebrating all the amazing things that we always celebrate in April: my birthday, his birthday, and our wedding anniversary. This year every celebration has had an extra note of euphoria with me having completed my treatment for breast cancer just three days before the start of all the usual festivities. This entry will be short and sweet because I’m enjoying every last bit of time we have together in this rare moment of complete and utter elation, feeling like we conquered the world (that sometimes feels like it’s working against us) yet again, and nothing can bring us down. Today the moral of the story is to enjoy every moment and live happily, because you never know what tomorrow will bring. Trust me…. this is something I’ve learned first-hand! See you next week!

We love taking road trips. There is always a “beginning of the trip” selfie!

There is so much about this picture that I love.

Walking around Burlington, Vermont in the rain is still making fun memories.

No comment necessary!

One of our favorite things to do when we travel is find as many local breweries as possible.

Cloudy and gloomy to some is gloriously beautiful to others.

I can’t always keep up with Bru and his beer, especially when he orders one with breakfast. I’ll stick with coffee!

This is how we roll on a road trip!