Discover more from The Isolation Journals with Suleika Jaouad
Prompt 258. The Most Epic Foster Fail
& an essay on unfinished journeys by Mariah Zebrowski Leach
It’s with great excitement that I’d like to introduce you to Sunshine—also known as Sunscreen, or Sunburn when she’s being bad—the latest tiny edition to my wolf pack.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I woke up one morning in early August, saw a post from True North Rescue Mission about a twelve-week-old puppy in need of foster care, and picked her up from the “Lucky Tails Express” transport truck only a few hours later.
That first weekend I had her, so many friends paid a visit—partly because I’d just gotten out of the hospital and also because who doesn’t want to meet a new puppy? I asked each and every one, “Should I adopt this adorable creature?” Of course, it wasn’t so simple. The prospect of adopting a second dog brought up concerns that had nothing to do with a puppy at all, but the question that haunts the perimeter of every major life decision, every future plan, every dream: my health and the possibility of relapse.
Yet it’s been nearly a decade since I entered the kingdom of the sick, and nearly two years since a second cancer diagnosis. And by now, I know in my bones that to be cowed by the specter of relapse is no way to live. To make every decision with that fear as my focal point would make it very hard for me to get out of bed each day. It would be impossible to make any plans, be it booking a non-refundable trip with friends for this winter or starting a massive, long-term undertaking like a new book project, without worrying that my body will thwart everything. I know I cannot wait to check off certain boxes, because at this point, I don’t even know what those boxes would be. The usual markers, like the five-year milestone where you’re considered cured, no longer apply to me. The standard metrics for how to make decisions and on what timeline have been completely overturned.
What to do in the wake of that—when time feels like a waiting room? The conventional wisdom here is very carpe diem. It’s that you should live every day as if it’s your last. But as I’ve written before, I’ve left that adage behind, not only because it has such a doomsday cast to it, but also because, when we think in those terms, the focus is on what we can take—from a moment, from the people around us. It’s “What can I wrench out of life?” as opposed to “What can I give?” (I often think about how we’d actually behave if we all lived every day as if it’s our last. We’d be cheating on our spouses, emptying our bank accounts, just burning everything down.)
Instead, my guiding principle is to meet every day as if it’s my first—to welcome each new morning with the wonder and curiosity of a newborn. Rather than what I can get out of this life or what I can seize from it, I’ve reoriented my gaze to what feels life-giving—both to my own sense of well-being and to the other humans and creatures around me.
So in the end, I decided to officially adopt Sunshine, and I did so for two very simple reasons: One is that she brings immense joy to Jon and me. Everything is new to her. The excitement she exhibited at seeing her first ant was unparalleled. She was thrilled and freaked out and prancing all around. I had to get low to the ground just to see what all the hullabaloo was about. It was delightful; how I love seeing the splendor and strangeness of the world through her eyes.
The second reason we decided to adopt her is that she brings immense joy to River. Sunshine’s enthusiasm is contagious, and she has brought out a playful side of River that I’ve never seen before. It’s also enhanced her maternal streak. River has always been so tender, hauling her stuffed lamb to bed every night, doting on it. She treats Sunshine the same way, like her little baby. Truly, they’re the perfect yin and yang.
When I was in the transplant unit last year, only days after my beloved road dog Oscar died, I wrote on the foamboard I was using as an easel that the name of my next dog would be Sunrise. It turns out the pain meds I was on may have scrambled the message from the universe just slightly, because when I got River, she was so clearly a River, so it stayed. As for this little pup, she’s more of a Sunshine than a Sunrise—so I took some artistic license.
In the last two weeks, Jon and I have been listening to “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb on repeat, and I’ve been feeling so grateful that as my caregiver, and someone who has to live with these dogs, he was the first person to say, “We should keep her.” When I brought up all the reasons why it might be a lot for us to handle, his response was, “We’ll figure it out.”
And Jon is right. We are figuring it out, whether it’s our contingencies for if I get sick, or how to keep my fragile immune system safe while dealing with house-training mishaps, or sneaking in afternoon naps while my six-year-old neighbor Marlow babysits her for an hour or two each day, with her mom’s help of course. As Sunshine grows, I grow. We’re even on the same vaccination schedule (a patient’s old childhood immunizations are lost in the bone marrow transplant process). With each day, rather than looking too far out onto the horizon, I find myself delighting in the here and now.
And with that, I’ll move on to today’s guest essay and prompt, “Not There But Here.” By the writer and Isolation Journals community member Mariah Zebrowski Leach, it tells a timely story, one that reminds us to appreciate where we are and to embrace the unfinished journey and all its uncertainties.
Sending love and requesting puppy training tips,
Some Items of Note—
If you missed last week’s meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour, we’ve posted a recap. Our beloved community manager Holly talked about the dizzying wonder of collapsing time, and the community shared countless resonant stories reflecting on then and now. Find it here!
Last week, I wrote about my dear pal, the novelist Jonny Miles, and many of you wrote in, asking, “Where can I find his books?” Well, he writes under his full name, Jonathan Miles, and his novels Dear American Airlines and The Anatomy of a Miracle—both of which are New York Times Notable Books—can be found here.
Every Friday in the Isolation Journals Chat, we each share a joy from the week that we want to hold onto. This week I shared about meeting Isolation Journalers in the wild and my never-ending gratitude for this community. I’d love to hear yours—click here to add your joy to the chorus!
Prompt 258. Not There, But Here by Mariah Zebrowski Leach
On December 30, 2021, the Marshall Fire burned our neighborhood near Boulder, Colorado, completely to the ground. While I was full of gratitude that my family and neighbors were safe, it wasn’t easy to look at the ashes of the only home my three children had ever known. To realize that every object we had ever treasured—everyone’s first Christmas ornaments, hand-sewn baby quilts, wedding rings, family photos—had all been reduced to nothing was devastating. It was raw. I felt a twist of pain in my belly. I could actually taste it in my throat.
Yet it was also somehow vaguely familiar, this feeling that everything was forever changed. Fifteen years earlier, illness had interrupted the trajectory of my life. Though it began in college, I made it almost all the way through my first year of law school before I got too sick to ignore, and at the age of 25, I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. I can’t tell you how many times someone told me I was “too young” to have arthritis—meanwhile I was spending the second half of my twenties tethered to IV poles, learning how to stab myself with needles, dealing with chemo side effects (albeit at a much lower dosage than for cancer), and searching for a treatment that would help me “get my life back.”
My life since the fire is sort of a blur, but flashes of memory are clear. Telling my small kids that absolutely everything was gone. (My seven-year-old cried about his stuffies, my nine-year-old cried about his books, my three-year-old couldn’t understand why we never went home.) Desperately searching for nearby temporary housing with 1,000 other devastated families. Visiting donation centers and leaning on our community for basic necessities like clothes, shoes, and toothpaste. Evaluating all our options and eventually making the heart-wrenching decision to relocate instead of rebuild.
But, when all the ashes of our old life settled and we were able to begin anew, it occurred to me that we had weathered this storm and come out the other side more or less whole. Part of that, I realized, was that I had already been practicing resilience in the face of chronic illness for over a decade.
After my own struggles as a new mom with rheumatoid arthritis, I always wanted to write a book about pregnancy and parenting with chronic illness, but I think I was waiting for some sort of conclusion to my own story—as if I would magically hit some special point where my own life experiences would culminate into some resonant ending. But since the fire, I’m beginning to think that maybe the important thing isn’t a “conclusion” at all. Maybe what I need to do is write about the journey, and the inevitable ups and downs I have faced along the way. Maybe I will never get there; likely there doesn’t even exist. But perhaps I can figure out how to thrive here.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about an unfinished journey—where you started, where you find yourself now, what you expected it to be like when you reached there, and how you can thrive here.
Mariah Zebrowski Leach is a writer, patient advocate, and mom of three living with rheumatoid arthritis. After learning firsthand how challenging and lonely it can be to face pregnancy and motherhood with chronic illness, she founded Mamas Facing Forward, a website and support group for women with chronic illness who are or want to become mothers.
Besides reminding me to approach each day as if it’s my first, Sunshine has also brought back another forever lesson: When you’re stuck in the sink sands of your own suffering, extending a hand to others can pull you out of it. With that in mind, I wanted to share resources and information for donating to the families affected by the recent wildfire in Maui, which has caused upward of $4 billion in damages, and worse yet, has so far claimed the lives of over 100 people, with hundreds more still missing.
ʻĀina Momona, a Native 501(c)(3), is maintaining a list of verified families who need assistance. “Money going directly to individuals allows people to get whatever they truly need at that moment,” Mariah says. “People want to help with clothes and toys, but there are a lot of boring necessities that these families will need too.” Donating funds directly also allows people to save their receipts to submit to insurance.
ʻĀina Momona also recommends a community fund, in case that’s of interest. You can donate to either below.