Monday, November 23, 2015

On Tenactity, Resiliency, and Breast Cancer; Jacque's Journey

This is the story of one of the most rewarding photo shoots I have ever done. This is not a sad story or a story about something final; it is the story of one mom's journey through the labyrinth of a second breast cancer diagnosis.

When I first met Jacque we were both clients of Project Self Sufficiency(PSS). She was a single mom new to the program with her two young sons in tow. I had one year left, as the following year I would be graduating with my degree and graduating out of the program. I was attending a PSS function when I heard somebody say, "Jacque won't be here because she just began her chemotherapy treatments." I walked around the room in a haze wondering what everyone was talking about.

How could this happen to Jacque?

What's going to happen to her babies?

What kind of cancer does she have?

What is she going to do about school?

These were all questions that were going through my head as I walked around the room. I must have been walking around in a zombie-like state because another program participant stopped me to ask what was wrong. Explaining what I had heard about Jacque and chemotherapy, it was confirmed to me that she had breast cancer and was undergoing radical measures to eradicate the cancer.

I ran into Jacque not too long after her treatments began. I began the conversation with the typical awkward questions of 'How are you doing?' and 'How are your kids?' However, I could not stop staring at the perfect roundness of her head and the scarf she was wearing. She was perfection.


adjective te·na·cious \tə-ˈnā-shəs\
: not easily stopped or pulled apart : firm or strong

Everything about Jacque and the way she handled her struggle and her journey conjured up the word tenacity for me; she was unstoppable, beat cancer, and continued living her life in the only way she knew--with pride and gusto in all that she encountered!

Then one day we were messaging each other on Facebook (something we commonly do as I check on the conditions of the property she lives on because of the pantry I help run). It was September 19th at 3:41 pm that the following message came through, "My MRI came back with abnormal lymph node issue. I have a diagnostic ultrasound scheduled on Monday. Next step will be a biopsy, if warranted."

At that moment in time I was so incredibly grateful that the conversation happened electronically because I did not want her to see the effect her words had on my body, on my face, and on my heart.

How could this happen to Jacque AGAIN?

What's going to happen to her babies AGAIN?

What kind of cancer does she have AGAIN?

What is she going to do about school AGAIN?

Turns out that I didn't need to ask those questions because Jacque was ready to tackle whatever diagnosis would come her way; days later she was advised by her medical team that the breast cancer had returned and treatments would begin immediately. To say that Jacque was handling the news with finesse is an understatement--Jacque took to social media and announced her diagnosis, promising to answer any questions that anyone may have about the recurrence and the treatment plan she and her doctors had agreed to.

Fast forward a month and a half later and I am sitting in the pantry when Jacque arrives. I get up from my chair to hug her in our customary greeting and she announces that the following Friday she would begin her treatment with chemotherapy and she would begin to lose her hair. My breath stopped and my face must have given away my sadness, because Jacque immediately jumped into educator mode and told me that she had been through this before and is prepared to handle this journey.

My mind was working on overdrive. Jacque is a dear friend; she is not just a client of Project Self Sufficiency. Our friendship over the last four years has always been truthful and transparent, and so for me to tell her that I was afraid for her was completely unnecessary--she knew I was afraid and knocked the fear down.


noun re·sil·ience \ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\
: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

 This was the first thought that came to mind. Jacque is reslient. If she was strong before the second diagnosis, she was going to be STRONGER during her second journey with breast cancer! The second thought was a way that I could use my skill set to help document parts of her journey. I asked, "Do you want to do a photo shoot with your two little ones before you begin to lose your hair?" A simple nod. Tears in our eyes. Neither one of us knew what to say at that moment and it seemed like almost an eternity before she said, "I would love that."


The wind was blowing in a manner uncharacteristic of our typical Southern California weather. The clouds loomed overhead as we arrived to the house she was currently occupying on 8th street. I had to put my emotions on hold and remind myself that this photo shoot was not about making myself feel better about being able to help her document her family in the moment, but rather, it was about a mother freezing time with her two young sons before her hair, body, and health would take on a transformation.

Bare feet.

Plaid shirts.

Coffee mugs.

Below is a sample of the moments we captured that Sunday morning when the only care in the world for these two young boys was getting the perfect shot with their mom. I am humbled to be of service to so many of our community's single parents. I am proud to call many of them my friends.

I am blessed to count Jacque as one of my SHEroes.

Jacque with her two young sons
Caden (12) and Liam (6)

Jacque with her two young sons
Caden (12) and Liam (6)

Jacque with her two young sons
Caden (12) and Liam (6)
 Jacque and Caden (12)

Jacque and Liam (6)
 Jacque reflecting on her upcoming journey

A deep breath. A hot cup of tea. Blessing from friends. 
Thank you, Jacque, for allowing me into your space and into your life to capture these moments!
For those of you who are interested in reading more about her story and of how you can help Jacque and her boys throughout her journey, please visit the following link:


Friday, October 9, 2015

On Azcal, Perfect Brown Knuckles, and the Red Balloon

She wrote dumb on her knuckles, only it wasn’t spelled correctly. D U M N was emblazoned on her brown outstretched fingers in black ink. I sat with her as she quietly did her math homework because I knew that the next page would include word problems—we hate word problems. 

My initial limited view of her hand only allowed access to the letters D and U. She hid her left hand under the table as she carefully angled her right hand so that I couldn’t see it. When it became awkward for her to write on the bottom right-hand corner of her assignment, I got the first glimpse of the letters M and N. 

My breath stopped. I felt as though my heart left my chest for a brief moment. It ached for my little 10-year-old girl who found challenge in every word on the page. The tears formed at the corner of my eyes for the desperation that she must have felt when writing out that word on her knuckles. I couldn’t let the tears escape, not because I didn’t want her to see me crying, but because they would serve to validate the pain that the words invoke. 

I had one minute to decide which course of action I would take; trying to convince her that she is not dumb would open up a world of hurt in both of us—for her in having to voice the many reasons why she might feel that the label is a fitting one, and for me in having to listen to what no mother wants to hear…that her child feels inferior and lacking in some academic regard. On the other hand, taking the approach that the word was not spelled correctly would take attention away from the reason why it was written across her perfect knuckles to begin with. 

Choosing the latter was the easiest route, or so I thought.

“Azcal, you do know that you spelled the word incorrectly on your hands, right?” I asked her in a matter-of-fact voice I would use if, for example, she had left the front door open or her shoes in the middle of the living room. I didn’t want to give the words emblazoned on her hands any power.

“No,” she answered, “It is spelled like damn but with a ‘u’ instead of an ‘a.’” Her smile beamed across her entire face, her eyebrows raising in the way one does when they are sending a “gotcha” message. 

“Well, let’s see. Give me a piece of paper and a pencil and we can look at which way it looks better,” I countered to her. 

She handed me a piece of paper, waited a minute, and after giving me a curious smile, handed me a pencil that looked as if it had been run over by a motorcade of Humvees. “Azcal, don’t you have better pencils than this? Do you really use these in class?” I asked.

“If you’re going to show me, show me, because it’s almost time for me to go to bed and I need to finish my homework,” she spit out. I could tell by the angry tone of her voice that she was not expecting her evening to end this way. I knew that her intention was to get a reaction from me that would give her the opportunity to give me a myriad of reasons why she feels she’s dumb, but I wouldn’t give her that satisfaction. 

I slowly wrote out the word D U M B, paying close attention to purse and release my lips at the end of the word. “Repeat after me, Azcal, DUMB.” I had her watch my mouth as I went between pronouncing DAMN and DUMB. I watched her face change as she unwillingly grasped the subtle difference that indicated she was indeed incorrect in the spelling of her badge of inadequacy. 

“Mom, is there a book that you have read more than once in the last twenty years that really means a lot to you?” she asked as she diverts the attention away from the fact that she is starting to rub the N off of her ring finger. 

“There are a lot of books that I have read more than once, and most of them mean a lot to me, but I have one book that may speak to you in ways that you would like,” I responded to her. I got up from the kitchen table and walked over to the bookshelf. I took my time walking over and nonchalantly wiped the tears that stubbornly escaped their resting place. Hidden between textbooks of schooling Latin@ children and the killing of women in the border town in Chihuahua, I found my light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, go-to, safe haven, coming-of-age book that I have read over and over and over and over and have worn the pages thin from reading, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. 

I explained to Azcal that the book had saved me from anger, from sadness, from loneliness, from desperation, from ___________, and that I believed it would do the same for her. I also let her know that it was something that she should let me read to her so that she could absorb the words and listen to the story told in the way it was supposed to be told.

What I didn’t want to tell her, and what she undoubtedly knows every time she picks up a book, is that we both knew that her reading ability would prevent her from having the patience to fully absorb the imagery, symbolism, and messages that these pages would require. And so we walked into her bedroom and began the process of discussing expectations. Azcal, as many of you do not know, is in fourth grade and reads at a first grade level. Those of you who have met her and have interacted with her will more than likely find this extremely difficult to believe; as her mother and as her fierce advocate, difficult doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel. 

I told her that I would allow her to keep the words on her knuckles for as long as she felt that she needed to see them. I told her that if she feels dumb and wants the whole world to know how she feels, that she has agency over both her feelings and her choice of expressing those feelings, but at no time…at no time was she allowed to feel sorry for herself. I do not allow that in my house—ever!
I opened up the book and showed her that almost every single page had notes on it. She asked me why I wrote in my books and I explained to her that every time I pick up a book I am in a different state of mind. All the words on the pages could change meaning depending on what was happening in my life. I wouldn’t allow her to stall me any longer, after all, reading this book aloud was as much for me as it was for her. 

Chapter one; done. Chapter two; done. (these are extremely short two-to-three page chapters) Chapter three was the shortest of them all, titled Boys & Girls. It briefly describes how the main character, whose name is not revealed in the first three chapters, feels tied to her familial responsibilities of being an older sister. She talks about her dream of being able to float about the world freely without being responsible, but in the end says, “Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.”

When I finished reading this line I looked at Azcal in a way to check her level of engagement with my voice, and to visibly measure whether or not I had lost her somewhere along the way.
“I get it, mom. Her anchor is her family. Her anchor is her little sister and she just wants to be free like a bright red balloon floating wherever it wants to float. I understand how she feels and I hope to never feel anchored.” she eloquently described her interpretation of the chapter. I quickly looked down at the notes in my book and realized that the last time I read it, my notes were almost identical to what she had described. I had to stop. I didn’t quite understand what kept me from continuing to discuss it, but I knew that I couldn’t go on reading until I fully processed that my daughter understood what is said to her 100% of the time and only understands what she reads 10% of the time. 

Azcal asked me if we could read a little bit of the book every night. She also asked if she could use a picture of my daddy, her papi, as a bookmark because he would be proud of the way she was able to understand the book. I walked back into the kitchen to grab a picture of my daddy and took a few extra seconds to breathe deeply and again wipe the tears from my eyes. My heart was both broken and healed in that moment. 

My daughter isn’t dumb. If it takes Sandra Cisneros to convince her of this because I feel powerless in combatting her self-doubting behaviors, then Sandra Cisneros it will be.
This morning when I walked into her room after she left for school I noticed that she had moved the book from where I had left it last night. My little girl is curious to what lies ahead in the next chapter, titled My Name; if only she knew that this chapter is one that could have been written by her, about her.

Until next time…do you have a book that you have read more than once in the last twenty years?

Move over, Dr. Seuss.