birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

A Break

Cancer is more than a six-letter word. It is a heavy weight crushing your chest, making it impossible to breathe. At least that’s how I felt when at age 53 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The surgeon told me it was in situ, meaning it hadn’t spread. The prognosis was good. Initial treatment plan included a lumpectomy, period of healing, and then radiation.
I spent my 54th birthday eating dinner at a French restaurant in the Columbus Short North, celebrating being cancer-free. But when I went back to the surgeon for my follow-up visit. I learned that he hadn’t gotten all the cancer during the first procedure, the margins were not clear, that when he’d done the first surgery lots of stuff like toothpaste came out.
This was real cancer, not stage zero in situ. More treatment options to explore, more surgeons to visit, more days off, more worry. A lot more worry. After much investigation and thought, I opted for a complete mastectomy with a tram flap reconstruction. The surgery was significantly more extensive than a re-visited lumpectomy, but I would be able to avoid chem. My initial diagnosis was in early January. And my first surgery was in early February. By the time I healed from the first and recuperated from the second, third and fourth procedures, school was nearly out. I had less than one more year of teaching before I would qualify for early retirement at 55.
My prognosis was good. No indication that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes or beyond. Still I found myself wondering that if I had only one year left to live, would I spend it teaching. As much as I loved working with the students and preparing lesson plans, the answer was a clear “no.” The next logical question was: if I wouldn’t spend one year, should I spend 3 years, or five, or ten?
I spent the next school year, rebuilding my strength and pondering that question. I still loved my students and the prep work involved in teaching. But my year with cancer had changed the way I looked at life. It had changed the way I looked at each day. Still I only need 3 more years for full retirement, a touchstone that would make a big difference in my pension and healthcare costs for the rest of my life.

Then in late May, I awoke to the news of the shootings at a high school in Columbine, Colorado, news that sent chills of terror through every faculty lounge in the country. We all knew that teenagers could be irrational, erratic even, but most days we kept the violent potential of our charges hidden from ourselves, as if by not acknowledging the possibility, it didn’t exist. I still remember a day in Pensacola, Florida early in my career when I recognized that the students significantly outnumbered me and that if they wanted to, they could overpower me and run amok. I prayed that my students never figured it out. That dark thought was tucked away, overpowered by the strong mores of our civilization and the positive force of my classroom persona.
I am not a coward. I have beaten out fires in waste baskets, waded between football players ready to a beat each other to a pulp. I have marched boys who looked twice my size to the office with the certainty that they would obey my words: “Gentlemen, follow me.”
But guns, dead teachers and students…Columbine changed forever the way I experienced my career. And it tipped the balance in my internal debate. It was time for me to step back, to minimize the risks and maximize the other opportunities my life, however long or short, offered.

Just Stop!

If Only I Counted Sheep