Author Archives: Katherine

About Katherine

Hi I’m Katherine; I’m a competitive sailor with a gap between my front teeth and especially good plaque-reducing saliva (not a single cavity). I’m the author of a book titled “Who in this Room,” but don’t even try to buy it because you can’t. I’m the Norwegian-American mother of an Africa-American two-year-old who loves Curious George, brushing her teeth and washing her hands. I’m married to Paul, an extremely likeable software engineer with a fondness for roadside furniture and a habit of whistling in his sleep. We have a sweet dog named Norah who has rocks in her head. In 2005, at the age of 31, I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer. Statistically, I was given a 10% chance of living five years. Over the next six months I received 154 shots, ingested 510 pills, and spent 140 hours sitting in the green vinyl recliner receiving nearly two gallons of intravenous medicine/poison. I followed chemo with a bi-lateral mastectomy chaser and washed it all down with six weeks of radiation. Nearly a year after I started, I was declared cancer free and kicked from the sanitized nest of the oncology ward into the blaring sun of life. On May 20, 2010 I will have lived five years past my diagnosis. These days I am what my sister calls self-sustaining high-maintenance. It’s hard work keeping this complicated piece of machinery running. I take a handful of vitamins twice a day; I adhere to a special diet devoid of gluten and soy. I drink tea, distilled water, almond milk and sake (exclusively but never together). I used to be the person who would roll her eyes at the person I have become. In spite of how all this sounds, this blog is not about cancer. Here’s what it IS about.


We stayed in town for the holidays and on the Monday after New Years I took Josie skiing in the morning while Paul and Little K had some errand-running guy time. Josie and I had a good morning. Paul and Little K had fun too. Everyone was happy, except for Little K, who gets mad when I’m gone and clings to his dad on my return.

After dinner that night Paul left to play tennis. Little K was standing on a chair near the counter. He’s in that phase. You know, the one where he pushes the furniture around and climbs up on the chair or the table to open drawers and get out sharp knives or topple greasy bowls of fresh warm, but thankfully not hot, chicken stock. Anyway, he’s standing on the chair as he always does and he somehow manages to fall off and land on his face. It’s not pretty and as quickly as I can, I pick him up, hold him close, and tell him that I am here and that everything will be alright while he screams his head off. He’s yelling Mama! Mama! Mama! and twisting around, reaching out his arms, as if he’s trying to find someone else.

I’d met his birthmother a week earlier. Before that, I had very little information about his birth family and I imagined a faceless, bodiless, life of neglect and loneliness. I knew he must have missed people and places from that time, but it was easy for me to gloss over the past with the promise of the future.

Little K seemed so happy with us from the beginning. He started calling me Mama right away.

So right after his fall, he’s sobbing and stretching out his hands as if he’s looking for someone else, I suspect his dad, but for the first time another thought occurs to me. His birthmother is now, for me, a living, breathing person who, at times, had been a loving parent. He could be looking for her. He could have been looking for her all along.

Maybe in the early days he wasn’t saying Mama to me to get my attention or state a fact. Maybe he was really saying Mama? as in, where is she? What happened to my Mama? Where are you Mama?

I knew, even in the thick of his crying, that all I could do was keep rocking and holding and repeating that I am here and that everything will be alright and hope eventually he believes me.

Are You Enjoying Yourself?

Last week I was house-bound with two sick kids while Paul was out of town. Both kids had nasty colds, and for Josie that means asthma. The inhalers stopped working and for six days she was on steroids. Go ahead and form a mental picture of Josie on steroids.

One afternoon, I think it was Thursday, I spent 90 minutes in a very small doctor’s office with both kids. K is 18 months old, into everything including the doctor’s cabinets and drawers that were not locked or baby proofed, and he was completely uninterested in the television shows I had on my i-phone for this exact situation.

After the doctor’s office, we went to the pharmacy to get more steroids. The prescription did not have the proper dosage so after much back-and-forth and fussing and delay, we finally got the prescription filled and left 45 minutes after we arrived. By then the kids were tired and hungry and sick. Did I mention they were sick? Sure, sure I did.

I went right to a kid-friendly restaurant to get them fed as quickly as possible. Of course, Josie insisted on filling her own glass at the water fountain and filled it right to the top. Back at the table, she dumped it all down the front of her shirt. As I reached into the diaper bag to get her spare shirt I remembered that I didn’t have a spare for her because I had used that shirt to clean up the vomit she projected all over the inside of my car that morning while I was sprinting to the store in a desperate attempt to acquire more supplies. We didn’t make it to the store that morning and I hadn’t replaced the shirt. So, right there, in the middle of the restaurant, I changed Josie into an old pair of her leggings and her brother’s too-small shirt. Fine. Good enough. Moving on.

We made it home a half-hour after bedtime. I took K right into his room to put him to bed as Josie stood outside his door and sobbed. I’d given K his bottle and was bouncing all 35 lbs of him to sleep when he cough-burped and vomited all over my back and the floor. Did all that really just happen?

The next day when I was talking to my mom, she was expressing her sympathy and said how awful that sounded and by then I was like, yeah, it was really no big deal. I was putting one foot in front of the other, making it happen.

This week we are house-bound again this time due to the snow. Paul is working from the basement office while I sled, build snowmen, shovel the driveway, make kale rice, roasted parsnips and steak for dinner and do the laundry. It’s satisfying and exhausting. I am at my maximum parenting speed. I can do no more and no better. By the end of the day, my parenting skills are completely used up. And, I know these are days I will remember fondly and miss when they are grown and gone. But, I have to say that I have not exactly enjoyed every moment of the last two weeks and I feel guilty about that. I do.

When I read “Don’t Carpe Diem” this last night, the timing was perfect. This is my favorite part:

I think parenting young children (and old ones, I’ve heard) is a little like climbing Mount Everest. Brave, adventurous souls try it because they’ve heard there’s magic in the climb. They try because they believe that finishing, or even attempting the climb are impressive accomplishments. They try because during the climb, if they allow themselves to pause and lift their eyes and minds from the pain and drudgery, the views are breathtaking. They try because even though it hurts and it’s hard, there are moments that make it worth the hard. These moments are so intense and unique that many people who reach the top start planning, almost immediately, to climb again. Even though any climber will tell you that most of the climb is treacherous, exhausting, killer. That they literally cried most of the way up.

And so I think that if there were people stationed, say, every thirty feet along Mount Everest yelling to the climbers — “ARE YOU ENJOYING YOURSELF!? IF NOT, YOU SHOULD BE! ONE DAY YOU’LL BE SORRY YOU DIDN’T!” TRUST US!! IT’LL BE OVER TOO SOON! CARPE DIEM!” — those well-meaning, nostalgic cheerleaders might be physically thrown from the mountain.

Now, if you’re one of those well-meaning cheerleaders feeling guilty for trying to be friendly, don’t. This isn’t about you. I know someday I will be thinking the same thing and the next time my 90 year old grandmother comes over and says exactly what is written in all caps above, I will grit my teeth and smile and say that I do, that I am enjoying every minute. This is about giving myself a break and not feeling guilty that some days, okay, most days, I’m dreaming fondly of a time when K will watch television, telling the teenage neighbor that I will pay her ANY amount she requires if she will come and play with my kids, and counting the minutes until bedtime.

Paradise Lost

I came up with all kinds of delightful and exciting plans for my solo trip to Texas to finalize K’s adoption, but the one thing – the moment I was really fantasizing about was Tuesday morning. With all the important stuff out of the way, on my last morning there, I would sleep in. Then I’d have a big breakfast in the hotel restaurant. There would be a white tablecloth at this breakfast, a scrambled egg, a big bowl of fruit, a slice of bacon, a pot of green tea and a newspaper. I would read the whole newspaper without interruption or the anticipation of dishes. Then I would check out of the hotel and leisurely make my way to the airport for my 2:00 flight.

As planned, I fly to Texas Sunday afternoon and arrive just after dark. Dallas freeways are nasty, a handful of spaghetti thrown on the floor. There are interchanges and spurs and every highway has two names. As an out of towner, it’s hard not to take their interstates as a personal insult – an attack on your intelligence. Finally I arrive at the hotel.

The next morning I need to be at court at 9:00 am for a 9:30 appointment. I decide to take surface streets. Construction. One way’s going the wrong way. Bad neighborhoods of run-down houses and mean dogs. I follow a car in which the driver is pushing a woman out the door while the car is still moving. Finally, I arrive at the courthouse and wait in the specified location. Nothing. At 9:25 I try to call the lawyer but my phone is not working. I start talking to strangers. I find my missing lawyer. At 9:30 K is finalized. Yay!

I step out of court to find a text from the social worker that says K’s birth mother has cancelled our evening get-together. She has to work. Guess what that means? Nooooooooo.

Perhaps I’m losing sight of what is important here. Perhaps I should be focusing on the finalized adoption. Perhaps I should be focusing on the fact that I would get to meet the woman who gave birth to my son. But, all I know is that I’M MISSING THE SLEEP, THE WHITE TABLECLOTH, THE EGG, THE FRUIT, THE BACON, THE POT OF GREEN TEA AND THE NEWSPAPER.

I fall asleep early on Monday night and wake at 4:00 am after a terrible nightmare. At 6:00 am I’m in the car for the two hour drive though the dark and the fog on the crazy Dallas highways to Nowhere Texas. To stay awake, I drink too much black tea and without THE EGG, I’m all jittery and amped on English Breakfast by the time I arrive. I’m 20 minutes early and I fully expect her not to show up, but she is there. We have an intense two hour conversation. I know this is huge and what you really want to hear about and I will tell you about some of it another day, but that’s not what I want to talk about today, so you’re just going to have to wait while I talk about breakfast.

Then I have just enough time to use the restroom before hitting the road again for the two hour drive back to Dallas for my 2:00 flight. I spend the next 3+ hours uncomfortably dozing, all gaping mouthed and drooling and unable to get comfortable, and get home just in time for dinner, more exhausted than I started.

Someday, I hope to meet my Tuesday morning breakfast, but for now, today, I think I’ll have to settle for reading the Styles section of the Sunday New York Times while I eat tunafish and grapes and stare down the pile of breakfast dishes. Maybe I’ll linger a minute longer than normal. Maybe I’ll make myself an extra cup of tea or eat a few extra grapes. Maybe I’ll read over the notes from my conversation with K’s birth mother and think of how awesome this little egg will be someday.

Protein in Every Pocket

Ski trip #1 – I pick Josie up from school. We stop twice to use the bathroom. We’re about 20 minutes from the summit and she starts screaming that her mouth hurts. I pull off the highway and identify it is, in fact, her ears that hurt. At first I think, she must have an ear infection. Then I realize it’s the altitude and pressure on her ears. We’ve never had a problem with her ears releasing before and after much yawning and water drinking, I realize that she must have fluid in her ears from her cold and this isn’t going to work. We turn around and head for home – J screaming her head off in disappointment – and we hit Seattle at exactly 5:00 pm. All together we spend 3 hours in the car and don’t even see snow. Super!

Ski trip #2 – We make it to the mountain. The first few runs are tough. I use the word “runs” loosely. There’s a very gradual slope that frequently requires pushing or scooting and is really only about 40 feet long. Nonetheless, she’s a pile of arms and legs pointing in different directions, skis crossed, screaming that she just can’t do it. There is much crying and frustration. There is some talking about how hard it is to learn something new — that it takes time and patience and practice.

I tell her we can go in at any time but that only makes her scream more. She does not want to go in.

Finally at the top of the run I tell her we will wait until she is ready to try again. She needs to think that she can do this. I tell her to take as much time as she needs. Then I bring out the bag of almonds.

Now, I come from a long line of hypoglycemics and J’s different biological history has not altered the family line in that respect. When my sister first started dating her husband they went to Paris. I didn’t know Steve well at the time but I wanted to call him and tell him that he needed to carry a block of cheese in his pocket and force her to eat some every hour. Oh, here we are at the Eiffel Tower, would you like some cheese? Notre Dame! Cheese? Louve! Cheese! This is what we must do and I was applying the same principle to J that day. We ate rice cheese in the car on the way up. We ate ham in the lodge before started and we ate almonds on the slope.

As we eat our almonds, she is uncharacteristically quiet. It’s strange. I want to video tape her to show Paul because I didn’t think he’ll believe me but it’s pretty uninteresting to watch a video tape of a quiet child. At one point I ask her what she’s thinking about. She says nothing.

Then she says: I like your braids, Mama.

Me: Thank you.

J: I like them so much I want to cut them off and eat them.

Me: Oh. That’s nice, dear, I say, wondering if hair contains any protein.

J: OK, I’m ready.

I help her up, we put on her skis. I give her a push and she is perfect.


Josie has reached the magic age of four – the age of drop-off activities. I’ve dreamed about this day since she became a constantly running and climbing two-year-old, and I so desperately wanted a few quiet minutes to sit and read a magazine.

A few weeks ago we were prioritizing her activities/interests – do you want gymnastics or swimming? Ballet or soccer? – when she said, but mom, I want to do something with you.

Oh. Suddenly drop-off activities weren’t so appealing. Isn’t that just the way parenting works?

So that got me thinking about what activities we could do together. She’s too young for sailing and I’m not much of a ballerina. Can you picture me in a tutu? Eventually I landed on skiing. She went a few times last year and loved it. I love it. We could love skiing together! What could be more perfect?

I talked to Josie about skiing and she was enthusiastic. We watched a few videos of kids snowplowing, and after much thought and discussion I decided to go for it. Since I’m not one to do things part way, I bought us both season passes. Now we’re committed.

We’ve been talking a lot about skiing, mostly about how to make a piece of pizza with her skis to stop. Stop is not a word my child understands very well so it warrants extra conversation. I have a harness for her and helmets for both of us and warm gloves and everything I can imagine she’ll need.

Then, last weekend, Josie and I went to the park. She was well dressed but chose not to wear her boots or bring her hat. Fine. I dragged the wagon full of two kids for what seemed like miles, over hundreds of curbs without wheelchair ramps. It was tedious. We finally got there and Josie played for 5 minutes. Then… the crying. A complete melt-down. I gave her a snack. She told me that her hands were cold. I gave her my gloves. I held her on my lap. She was wrecked. She wanted to go home.

Paul thinks skiing with her will be an exercise in torture. I’m not sure he is wrong.

To be continued…

Morning Warfare

I’m not a morning person. It takes me a little while to wake up. My husband and ex-roommates can verify that, before kids, I had a guideline. No, it was more of a rule that it was safest not talk to me before I left for work in the morning. You could call me the minute I was out the door; that was best.

Josie is a morning person. She is 100%, in your face, loud, starting at about 6:00 am every day.

Sometimes we struggle. Some mornings there is sobbing, sibling slap fighting and resulting time out(s). On these mornings there is usually some maternal yelling and I spend the rest of the day being mad at myself and trying for forgive myself for losing my business.

As a result, I do my best to streamline our morning routine, to put out her clothes the night before, to make sure she puts socks on before she leaves her room so we don’t have to go back for them. I plan a menu of breakfast options so she has multiple sources of protein, but not so many that I have to make every breakfast food in existence.

As Josie gets older, we can talk more about mommy’s dislike of loud noises in the morning and the appropriate and inappropriate times for loudness. Paul and I try to make mornings fun by talking like pirates, challenging each other to races, and giving lots of rewards. Sometimes these tactics work. Sometimes they don’t.

The other day we had a super-great morning. Josie and I were both so chipper. I think she skipped to the car and actually got in right away and then I thanked her. There was no yelling, no crying, no children slap-fighting. If a neighbor had heard us, I don’t think they would have even thought about calling CPS. Not once.

Later that day, I found myself thinking about what we did right – a mental de-brief of the morning. What made this morning different? Then I remembered the email. Before I went into the kitchen I checked the email on my phone and discovered that The Huffington Post would be publishing my essay the next day. Interesting. Perhaps I need to work less on Josie and more on myself. Perhaps I need to be less of a pirate and more of an empathetic mother. Or, perhaps I just need to make sure I get an email that is just that happy, every morning.

The Strangest Things Happen on Book Tour

A few weeks ago, I found myself carrying two cases of Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish and Demolition, about 60 pounds of books, into Nordstrom’s Bellevue store. They were having one of their Nordstrom Fits America Events, where they fit women with bras and raise money for breast cancer research and asked me to read at the event. It was a different idea – a way to take a breast cancer-related event away from the pink weirdness and back to the individual story, to what breast cancer is really about. It was experimental, a little different, and I was pleased and flattered to be invited.

When I arrived, there was a table in the center of the store where we displayed the books, a director’s seat for me and a handful of chairs that were quickly filled. A small crowd gathered to listen. It was relaxed, intimate and cozy.

I’d asked the department manager for a microphone because I still had laryngitis and couldn’t project my voice. They delivered. Perfect. Lovely. I was set.

“Thank you for the mic,” I said.

“Sure,” the department manager said. “It’s hooked up to the sound system so everyone will be able to listen, even people in the dressing rooms.”

Oh, isn’t that awesome?! Um, I’m sorry, have you read this book? May not be appropriate to for all audiences. Includes adult topics and profanity. May not be appropriate for children, men and casual shoppers. Perhaps I should have put that on the back cover.

It was too late now, my introduction was underway and then, oh, here I am, microphone in hand.

Because it was a breast cancer event I chose to read from the first chapter about my decision to have a mastectomy and before I knew it, I was saying: You wonder if you will have enough skin to cover the hole (where your breasts used to be) and your husband says, “Don’t worry babe, I’ve always been more of an ass man myself.” Over the intercom. In Nordstrom. Lingerie. While innocent women shop for bras.

The Huffington Post Adoption Essay

(c) La Luz Photography

Too Many Real Moms

A few months ago I heard an interview on NPR with Nancy L Segal, the author of “Someone Else’s twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth.” The book told the tale of three babies and what happened when one singleton newborn was accidently switched with an identical twin. The “twins” were raised as fraternal and no one knew about the mix-up until they were adults.

It’s a complicated story and in the interview there was a lot of discussion of the various parents of these three girls and how they felt. The interviewer, I presume in an effort to simplify things, used the term “real” mother or “real” parents on several occasions to indicate the biological parent of the child.

If the biological parent is the “real” parent then what is the term for the parent who raised the child? The parent-in-practice? Parent-in-life? Bed-sheet-changer? At some point, it seems like 18+ years of lunch-packing should earn a parent the title of “real,” no?

Click here to read the rest of the essay in The Huffington Post.

A Different Vaccination Question

This isn’t a post about vaccinating babies; I’ve already covered that. And it isn’t a post about vaccinating teenage girls against the HPV virus to prevent cervical cancer. Speaking of… Have you seen this Saturday Night Live skit, Lil’ Poundcake, the doll that administers HPV injections.

Ah, good times.

This post is about vaccinating me.

For many years (12?), the University of Washington Tumor Vaccine Group has been working on a vaccination to prevent Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2-positive (HER2+) Breast Cancer. My cancer was HER2+. I am at risk for recurrence, and a candidate for the trial.

Now, here comes my terribly un-technical understanding of the trial. HER2+ cancer cells have more receptor sites that enable them to grow and divide faster. The folks at UW have isolated the bits of the HER2+ part of the cancer cell and are mixing them with an agent in an effort to get the immune system to recognize and kill these cells.

The purpose of this trial is to find out how much of the agent makes it most effective. Everyone enrolled will get three injections of the vaccination and varying amounts of the agent, 28 days apart.

My oncologist suggested I look into the trial, but participation is up to me. I’ve had the paperwork on my desk for 6 weeks and I can’t decide. Here are the issues I’m thinking about:

  • At 6.5 years past my diagnosis, I am fairly low risk for a recurrence. Do I really need the vaccine?
  • Will I cause myself harm? Will long-term side effects appear later?
  • When I was on Herceptin, a miracle drug for patients with HER 2+ cancer my heart showed a rapid and alarming drop in ejection fraction, pumping capacity, which caused my oncologist to discontinue the drug immediately. My heart recovered but no one knows if we did any long-term damage.
  • If I don’t get the vaccine and have a recurrence then it’s too late. No second chances.

What would you do?