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I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.

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Seductive Musings

Monday, July 14, 2014

A life well lived, a hard farewell


Preben Hoch, 1981

I first met Preben Hoch in the summer of 1981 when I went as a Rotary Club exchange student to Denmark. My Rotary Club liaison, Niels Henriksen, drove me from the little town of Sorø, where I would soon be going to school, out to the Hoch home in Bromme Forest. I was nervous, of course, only 17 and on the other side of the world.

My first impression of Preben was that he was very tall, a big, big man. He didn’t speak a word of English, really, but he flashed me the bright smile that would eventually become dear to me. I didn’t speak Danish, but Inga Hoch, his wife, was an English teacher. Thanks to her interpretation skills, we had our first conversation.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Preben and Inga would become two of the most important people in my life. I was to have three host families during my year in Denmark, and they were my second. But they were far more than a host family in the end. They were family, plain and simple.

I moved into their home on Nov. 20, 1981, a day that is important to me because nine years later it would become my younger son Benjamin’s birthday. I wrote in my journal about how I immediately felt at home both with the family and with my bedroom, which I described in detail. I put my stuff in the room, then had tea with the family, joined them in watching an old World War II movie on TV, and then headed to bed.

Preben and Inga in Bromme, 1982


By November, I spoke adequate Danish, and we quickly fell into a pattern. Preben, who worked as the manager of Bromme Forest, a big stretch of beech and pine that belonged to my school, loved to tell jokes. He would start supper by telling a joke or sharing some kind of Danish saying — especially ones that had double entendres. This would earn him a rebuke from Inga, and usually I didn’t understand anyway. He would explain, and I would laugh.

Bromme Forest

Laughter. That’s what I remember so much about my time with the Hoch family. I remember, too, how Preben used to tease me. But this wasn’t unkind teasing or bullying. Everything he said was geared toward making me feel good about myself. One night as we were walking into a restaurant, he slipped my arm through his and said, “Quick! Hold onto my arm! Everyone will think I’m here with a beautiful young woman.”

Many years later, I met with Preben and Inga in 1997 when they traveled to Arizona on vacation. I told them things they didn’t know about me. I shared the fact that I’d been sexually assaulted as a child and that my coming to Denmark had been a means of escaping a small town where I had been bullied.

Dinner with Inga and Preben in 1997

They weren’t surprised.

“We knew something had happened to you, but we didn’t know what," Inga said. “We felt we could help you by giving you as normal a life as possible during the short time you were with us.”

Those three months helped me to change my life. They were part of the saving of me. Their sincere effort to help a strange girl from far away was an act of compassion that made all the difference in my small world.

I spent my first Danish Christmas with Preben and Inga. I turned 18 beneath their roof, while Preben turned 50. (So old!!!) I watched my first lunar eclipse and found myself shaken by the realization that time passes and cannot be reclaimed. I realized that, just as the the lunar eclipse had passed with time marking itself in the slow disappearance and reappearance of the moon, my days in Denmark would pass, too. And so would my life.

It was pretty heavy thinking for my 18-year-old brain and left me with a melancholy ache in my heart. I remember that night to this day, but I’m sure the feeling passed quickly. When one is 18, life beckons so strongly. There isn’t time to think about much else.

Dinner with Preben and Inga in Bromme, 1999
I went back to visit in 1999 and spent a good few weeks beneath their roof. It felt like old times with leisurely breakfasts together, walks in the forest, lots of jokes and laughter. I felt like I had come home. I even slept in my old room.




But now time has passed, so much time. That restaurant where we had dinner now belongs to a classmate of mine and has been transformed into a residence. He lives there with his wife and kids. The house in Bromme still stands. A thatched-roof cottage from a couple of centuries back, it is now occupied by someone else. 


Paying respect to the past, 2014

My Danish sister, Christina, took me there for a visit the day before my 50th birthday, the two of us strolling through a shared past. In addition to other changes, a tree had been planted in Preben’s honor. Marked with a sign that reads “Hoch’s Oak,”  it commemorates his many decades of service to the forest. Standing beside it, I couldn’t help but get teary eyed.


Standing near Hoch’s Oak, 2014

I spent part of that day and the next with Preben and Inga. Preben was confined to a wheel chair, and Inga, too, had limited mobility, both of them having been stricken with Parkinson’s. I will always cherish the handful of hours I spent with them. 

“Do you remember your 18th birthday?” Preben asked, struggling to speak.

“Of course, I do.” 

I repeated the embarrassing story about having been drunk under the table by my Danish brother, Tomas, and having to be helped to bed. And then there was something about them trying to convince me that the forest was full of wild pigs... Or something...

Though he didn’t have much mobility in his facial muscles, Preben smiled and gave a little laugh. 

Benjamin, my younger son, was with me that day. He doesn’t speak Danish, so he and Preben had no direct way to communicate. But Preben found his way beyond that, taking Benjamin’s hand and holding it in silence. 

Tea with Benjamin, Preben and Inga on my 50th birthday
Before we left, I hugged both Preben and Inga tight and told them I love them. It’s not the first time I’ve said those words to them, but I wanted to let them know, as if they already didn’t, how very much they mean to me. When the time came for us to say farewell, I wasn’t the only one in tears. Benjamin had been deeply touched by meeting the two people who had played such an important role in his mother’s life. Preben wept, as well.

I returned from that trip to Europe to get the news that I had breast cancer. I sent word to my Danish family, certain that Preben and Inga would want to know. I went through my double mastectomy and am now almost six weeks post-op. 

My brother David and I were in South Dakota on our madcap, spontaneous road trip to Mount Rushmore, when I got word from Christina that Preben had passed away. I couldn’t read most of the message because my eyes instantly filled with tears.

“Do you want to go home now?” asked David.

We had just driven for six hours, so I was blown away that he could be that selfless. He’d come up with the idea of making the drive as a way of cheering me up and giving me something else to think about besides cancer and chemo and survival rates.

“Are you kidding?” I said, laughing and crying at the same time. “Preben loved life. He would want us to see the fuck out of this.”

And so we did. 

One of the first places Preben and Inga took me on my tour of the countryside near their home was Bromme Kirke, a 1,000-year-old church that sits on a hill looking down on the area where Hoch’s Oak now stands. They told me a bit about the church’s history and told me that they were going to be buried there when they died. My 17-year-old self found it rather macabre that anyone would find peace in knowing where they were going to be buried one day.

Bromme Kirke
Today — July 16 — Preben will at last be laid to rest at Bromme Kirke. He’ll rest above the forest he spent his adult life tending in a cemetery that overlooks the tree that was planted in his honor.  

I am heartbroken that I will never see that 100-watt smile again, that I’ll never listen to another one of his semi-dirty jokes, that I’ll never be able to hug him again. But I rejoice in knowing that I had those last hours with him on my birthday. He met Benjamin, and I was able to say those three precious words again: “I love you.”

 I am relieved for his sake to know he is beyond suffering now. In the end, he was ready to leave this life. 

My thoughts now are with Inga and the rest of the family — daughters, sons, step-daughters, grandchildren. I hope they know how very much I care about them.  I had always planned to be there, but there is no way I could manage a trip to Denmark now. 

So I sit on my sofa, surrounded by mementos of the part of my life that intersected so blessedly with Preben’s and Inga’s — photos, journals, the table cloth they gave me as a wedding present, the set of silverware they sent me when they moved out of the house in Bromme to a smaller residence in Sorø.

Can a life pass so quickly? All our lives are rushing by, it seems.

I find myself thinking of the lessons I learned from him, lessons about living fully and keeping a sense of humor. As I continue my fight against breast cancer — a fight I plan to win — I think of how gracefully he dealt with Parkinson’s Disease. Even when he could no longer care for himself, he wasn’t bitter. 

I am so lucky to have met him, and I’m so grateful.

But my heart hurts, and I will miss him.

Sov godt, Preben. Vi ses igen én dag. Og næste gang vil vi ikke være nød til at sige farvel. 








Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Healing



It’s been three weeks since I posted on this blog. Since then I’ve been focused on one thing: healing.

I’ve slept a LOT. The drains have come out. I’ve moved back to my own home and am sleeping in my own bed and not the recliner I bought for my parents’ house. I’ve gotten some of my energy back.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had good days and bad ones. The drains have been replaced by a new problem — seromas. Fluid keeps filling in the space where my breasts used to be, and it’s not comfortable. Still, it’s so much less painful than having tubes running beneath and out of my skin. Ouch!

I’ve tried to go for walks and get some excercise. It seems amazing to me that just two weeks ago, I barely had the energy to walk for 30 minutes. Yesterday, I spent three hours strolling at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I think I’m turning a corner here now that I’m five weeks post-op.

There’s an emotional element to recovering, as well. Cancer is scary as hell. Ultimately, facing cancer is about facing one’s own death. Sure, we all die. It’s pretty easy to be philosophical about it, especially when you’re NOT the one with the cancer. Until the real possibility of death is staring you in the face, you can’t grasp what if feels like.

The 45 days of waiting before my surgery drained me emotionally more than anything I’ve had to go through. In the midst of it, I told my sister that I didn’t think I’d ever feel happy or light-hearted again. That much stress has to be resolved somehow. The impact of it is real. So I’ve been trying to be very easy on myself, making no big demands and approaching each day with no expectations of what I should do and focusing on things I enjoy — music, flowers, conversations with my mother, talking with my sister via Skype, slowing organizing all the cards you’ve sent me.

It’s funny how my perspective has changed since April 21, the terrible day I was diagnosed.

I initially told the surgeon that I would not be able to survive — I would not be able to SURVIVE!!! — without breasts for any lengthy period of time. Reconstruction had to be a priority, I said, along with obliterating the cancer.

Now that I’ve been living without breasts for more than a month, I’ve begun to wonder whether I want reconstruction at all. Yes, I miss having breasts, but do I really want to subject myself to the long surgery that a DIEP flap entails? It’s microsurgery with four to five hours of anesthesia and a few days of hospitalization. I’d have chest incisions and drains, as well as a major belly incision. I’d be risking all the pain and hazards of surgery, including infection, just so that I could have sculpted blobs of fat designed to look like breasts beneath my clothing?

I’m not offended by the sight of my chest with its healing scars, so why should I subject myself to that? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself. What a shift!

I initially told the doctor that I would not even consider breast prostheses. No! No! Not me. I imagined they would be big pillow bullet bras or something. And what was I supposed to think when what they gave me in the hospital were two hand-stitched felt pillows? These were made by volunteers — God bless them! — but I’ve never worn mine. They’re not even the same shape. As I said on Facebook, I have no idea which clan they represent, but I call them my Argyle boobs.

A pair o’ wee titties for ye, lass?

Then the referral for a prosthetics came in, and I decided to approach it all with an open mind. The fitting at Nordstrom was interesting. The first pair of breasts prosthetics were so much like my real breasts that I got choked up for a moment. That was tough. Then I decided to go bigger.

Why not?

I ended up with two bras that look like grandma bras and two high-tech breasts made of whipped silicone. The prosthetics are inserted into the bra and can be adjusted so that the little nipples point the same way and such. They look real even when I’m just wearing the bra. When I’m dressed, you wouldn’t be able to tell they weren’t real unless you grabbed them, and even then...

They’re so convincing that one of my cross-dressing gay friends has offered to buy them from me if/when I have reconstruction.

High-tech boobage

I was amazed at how good they looked — and how much seeing myself with breasts again lifted my spirits. No, breasts don’t make me who I am, but they were a part of what I cherished about being a woman. They’re a part of what makes a woman feel feminine. Looking in that mirror, I felt more like myself than I had in weeks.

Some days I wear the prosthetics, and some days I go flat. I feel comfortable both ways. Whether I’ll stick with prosthetics or go under the knife again remains to be seen.

July 3 was a big day. I woke up, took a shower with my iPod blasting, and found myself dancing around afterward while straightening up my bedroom. I said to myself, “I might not have boobs, but I still have the moves.”

Then I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror because it was the first day since my diagnosis that I’d woken up feeling happy.

What a precious thing it is to feel light-hearted! What a beautiful gift it is to open your eyes in the morning and not immediately feel pressed by worries! I don’t think I’ll ever take feeling carefree for granted again, and I am actively cultivating happiness. Yes, Project Happiness is still active.

Last summer, Benjamin and I decided we had to put a concerted effort toward having more fun. If left to ourselves, we’ll work all day every day. So we regularly planned little getaways, even if they were just quick drives to favorite spots in the mountains. We had a spectacular summer.

We learned from that. If you don’t TAKE time to MAKE memories, you won’t end up with any, and time will pass you by anyway. As a result, I’m doing that again, working to make certain that I include activities that soothe my spirit and lift me up. It’s more important now than ever.

Yesterday, we went to the Denver Botanic Gardens to see the flora and the Chihuly exhibit. I wasn’t sure when we made this plan that I would be able to handle three hours of walking around in the hot sun. Fortunately, it wasn’t as hot as it has been lately, and the beauty of the art and the flowers lifted my spirits so much that I felt as if I were being carried through the gardens. It was bliss.

Blue glass reflecting off the water


Beauty is so intensely healing for me. It soothes and inspires. It lifts not just my heart, but my mind and my spirt, too. Creating beauty is a God-like act, as all creation comes from that original Divine spark. Soaking up other people’s creations is such a joy on every level.

Still, I have a lot of physical and mental adjustments to make. The seromas need to heal. The incisions need to heal completely, a process that will take another three weeks or so. I still have to face treatment — whatever it turns out to be — and then recover from that. But there’s more.

I need to learn to cope with the fear that cancer brings so that stress won’t hurt me. I also need to change my lifestyle from the sedentary one of a writer to the active lifestyle I had before my climbing accident. I already eat organic, but I also eat a lot of sugar. The sugar has to go. These are big changes, and they’re tough. How many people want to live more healthful lives and never get past joining the gym? But this is my agenda for the year.

I plan to enlist the folks at the Integrative Care Center at BCH in Boulder to help me with some of this, through oncology massage, Reiki, acupuncture, counseling. It’s expensive, but I’ll go as many times as I can afford to go — whatever it takes to rebuild my health and my life brick by brick. That’s really what this is about.

The other elements that I hope to rebuild is my community involvement and my spiritual life. As a journalist, I was always involved in something. As a writer, I’ve been primarily focused on my books. I want to shift that. My church community has a program that helps women who are homeless after leaving jail or prison. Can you think of a cause more suited to my particular and very odd life experience and skill set? I think not. The cause of incarcerated women has always been dear to me, so I hope to become involved in that when my health permits.

As for my church, the community there has been very supportive of me. I gave up going to church for years, in part because I was going to sweat lodge and enjoyed that more. But in January after my mother-in-law’s death, I felt the desire to return to St. John’s, the liberal Episcopal congregation where I was baptized. I haven’t been to services since my surgery, but I hope to return this Sunday. Prayer helped me get through my dark days — with support from the beautiful and loving Marliss Melton — and I want to keep this change as a permanent part of my life.

When it comes to writing, I hope to work my way back to Holly’s story as soon as possible. If I don’t write, I don’t publish. If I don’t publish, I don’t have income. If I have no income...

Well, we all know what happens then.

I have some big decisions to make in the days ahead about treatment — decisions that have the potential to impact how long I live. My cancer is low risk and not aggressive, but there was 1mm of cancer in a lymph node. This puts me in an awkward position in terms of whether or not I should have chemo. Statistically speaking, I don’t stand to benefit from chemo because the specific biology of the tumor makes it highly unlikely that it will recur. The odds of recurrence are almost identical without chemo as they are with it — a 0 to 1 percent difference. Because chemo entails some real risks, including permanent organ damage and death, it may be riskier than going without. Statistically speaking.

But statistics aren't science or biology, and there are no certainties when it comes to breast cancer. Even my oncologist says this is a tough call. We’ve gotten a second opinion, and it concurs with the first. Both recommend Tamoxifen for five years and no chemo. But ultimately the choice is mine.

If you pray, then please pray for clarity for me on the next step.

In the meantime, please know how touched I am by your gifts and cards. Your kindness and your prayers carried me through this difficult time. I am truly grateful.




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Favorite Writing Quotes


"I am an artist. I am here to live out loud."
—Emile Zola

"I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day."
—James Joyce

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery."
—Jane Austen

"Writers are those for whom writing is more difficult that it is for others."
—Ernest Hemingway

"When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth."
—Kurt Vonnegut

"The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar is the test of their power."
—Toni Morrison

"No tears in the author, no tears in the reader."
—Robert Frost.

"I'm a writer. I give the truth scope."
—the character of Chaucer in
A Knight's Tale