From the Front Lines

When the Unthinkable Happens to You: 7 Things That Helped Me


Discovering Claire’s cancer was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. I had so many thoughts, one of which was, “Things like this don’t happen to me.” I’m sure others have had this thought when faced with an insurmountable challenge. If you are one of those people, or if you will be someday, here are a few things that I’ve learned:   

1.     Find gratitude for whatever makes it ‘enough’:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” - Melodie Beattie

Throughout Claire’s treatment, when I was feeling grateful, everything seemed to be better than it actually was. Instead of feeling angry about Claire’s disease, I felt grateful that we only lived 3 miles from one of the best children’s hospitals in the nation. Instead of feeling cramped when my mother-in-law, then sister, lived with us in 1200 square feet of space for a combined 12 weeks during those first 6 months, I felt grateful that they were both willing and able to serve us. Instead of being angry with God, I felt grateful that He trusted that I could endure the trial and become better. Gratitude made whatever I had at the time enough.

What can you find to be grateful for? Cling to it with all that you are, and ask in prayer for help to see any good thing.

2.     Let it go:

The idea that you have a normal life is over. At one point during the most intense parts of Claire’s treatment, I looked down at the kitchen floor. I was flabbergasted at what I saw. LAYERS of food caked the linoleum under the table. With a toddler and a baby, it was probably only 3 or 4 days worth (okay, maybe a week), but it was disgusting. Despite the gross factor, it had to be okay. I had been at the hospital everyday with Claire that week for rounds of chemo. I had to let go of any embarrassment I felt that the babysitter saw my house like that because . . . it didn’t matter. Not that week. I give you permission to stop cleaning your house, or whatever it is that falls to the bottom of your priority list.

3.     Ask for help:

If something really overwhelming has appeared in your life, then something else will have to give. It might be your normally clean house as was my case. It might be yard care, or car maintenance, or bill paying. When we initially came home with Claire from the hospital, Dustin and I both panicked that some germ lurking somewhere would make her sick enough to be hospitalized. This was a real concern. Claire’s immune system was completely gone. I worked up the courage to ask my visiting teachers to organize a cleaning group to come to my house to sanitize every single surface – door knobs, window tracks that might have harmful mold, every wall and ceiling, furniture, cabinets inside and out, etc. It was a big job that would have felt too overwhelming for me to tackle on my own in those front line days. A group of 6 or 7 women came and took the house by storm. It was amazing. Ask.

4.     Take Control:

I heard the words, “Let me know what I can do” many, many times in those first weeks and months. I usually didn’t have an answer for them. I knew that the offer was sincere, but I didn’t know how to ask for help. Dustin on the other hand was an expert. If someone said that to him, he always gave them an assignment right away. He asked for yard care, babysitting, dinners on clinic days, etc. If you asked, Dustin had something for you. Most often, I was the benefactor of his requests. I learned a great lesson from that. Although it doesn’t feel that helpful when someone says, “Let me know if I can help,” it can be, if you decide it is.

Make a list of things that someone else could do. Keep the list in your pocket. When someone asks what they can do to help, and they will because they don’t know what you need, pull out your list and give them an assignment.

5.     Accept your circumstances:

Denial helps no one, especially not you. One time, when Claire was hospitalized for neutropenia, we roomed with two teenage boys. One had a cancer that was requiring severe rounds of chemo and radiation to shrink the tumor. The other had an ongoing blood issue since childhood. He’d been hospitalized repeatedly since he was a toddler. It was easy to think we were more fortunate than they were – to downplay our own difficult circumstances. DO NOT DO THIS. Comparing gets you nowhere. Recognize your own difficulties and do what you can to make them better. Just because someone else seems to have it worse off than you, that doesn’t mean you don’t also feel overwhelmed, frustrated, pained, sad, angry, etc. Your feelings are legitimate. Be honest about them.

6.     Shrink Your To-do List:

Make your list like you normally would. Then read it once. Then throw it away. You don’t have to do any of those things. Maybe everyone knows of your difficulties so it’s easy to do this. Like when I would apologize to someone for not calling them back in a timely manner. Their response was almost always, “No worries. You’ve got a good reason.” They were of course referring to Claire’s Leukemia. In many ways, this made it easy for me to have lower expectations for myself. But, what if your difficulty is private, but just as consuming? You still need to learn to say, “No.” You can’t do the fundraiser. You can’t help with the wedding. You can’t volunteer for the Christmas play. No one needs to know why.

7.     Confide in a Friend:

For me, this was most often the Caring Bridge blog we wrote to keep friends and family informed. Just writing the words helped me to gauge where I was and how we were doing, but a thousand times better were the comments and emails that would come after we had posted an update. It was proof that someone cared. Someone was listening. Someone else was hoping and praying for us to succeed. Other times, it was confiding privately to a good friend. If your difficulty is not something you can share publicly, I encourage you to find one friend who can keep a secret. A friend who can listen and not judge. A friend who loves you.

Hint: If you are not currently ‘on the front lines,’ I encourage you to BE the friend for someone who is. Believe me, it will come back to bless you tenfold.

What has helped you when you are hunkered down in the midst of challenges? I’d love to know. 

See this post for advice for those of you who want to help someone who is currently on the front lines.


Dinner . . . Again?

      Photo taken on a day that I let Red Robin make dinner for our family. It was amazing.

My mom used to tell this story about me. In the story she was making dinner for our family. I, being the self-centered three-year-old that I was, wanted her attention and stood whining at her side. I’m sure the conversation went something like this:

“Mo-Uhm! Mo-Uhm!”

“Yes, Sally. What do you need?”

“What are you doooo-hing?”

“Making dinner.”

Stunned into silence for a moment, I came up with the following:

“Diiiin-nyer? I don’t want dinner. We ate dinner yesterday!”

My mom thought this story was hilarious. That is until many years later into my teens when I still didn’t like dinner. Then she worried. She worried about eating disorders. She worried about my health. She was probably a little more than annoyed that I disdained the food she cooked for our family, but most of all she worried that I wouldn’t cook dinner for my future family.

This is a true story.

So, one evening as she was preparing dinner and I was hoping to just snag a snack instead of sit down to a meal, she confronted me:

“What are you going to do when you have your own family, Sally?” My mom asked with worry and annoyance thick in her voice and manner.

I rolled my eyes and breathed in patiently as only a teenager can and took the bait, “What do you mean, Mom?”

“About dinner. I hope you’ll make dinner for your own family,” she said with such importance that I felt defensive.

“MOM! Of course I’ll make dinner when I’m in charge. I’ll make dinner every night,” I said this with assurance like ‘Why in the world would you think that I won't make dinner for my family? Why do you even think about things like that?’

I’m sure she didn’t believe me, but the thing is, I do make dinner for my family pretty much every night even when I don’t want to eat it. And, really, I think it’s because I told my mom I would.

Thanks, Mom.

P.S. Claire seems surprised every night that I’m making dinner again. She complains, “I don’t want dinner, Mom! I don’t want healthy food! I want a snack.” Like mother, like daughter, I guess. :) Also, thank you for all your comments about this baby-on-the-way. I have nausea and fatigue, but I'm happy. We are due June 4.


An Announcement

I've been working on the next From the Front Lines column. It isn't quite ready, but I think I have a good reason. Check out our little family of pumpkins and see if you can see why I've been a little slow with my writing:



On Floors and Squinkies

                                                     source: pinterest

My ultimate dream in life is to have someone else clean my house. I’m sure this desire isn’t unique to me, and it wasn’t even important to me until I had two small, wonderfully messy and imaginative girls in my life. Now it is at the top of my list. Before they were here, I declared that I enjoyed cleaning. It was ‘therapeutic’ I said. I’m sure I thought this because I only had to sweep the floors once a week and maybe mop once a month. Adults don’t tend to drop cheerios, toast crusts, syrupy waffle pieces, and cups full of milk on the floor during breakfast. J

Because I feed children in my house on average five times a day, I also sweep several times a day. No matter how recently I’ve swept, I will always find Squinkies, jewelry, fairy wings, and beads in the dustpan with all the other crumbs when I’m finished. Sweeping becomes monotonous. On top of that, my dustpan recently broke. It’s particularly annoying to use a piece of paper as a dustpan, which means that I sweep less often. This increases my wish for a house cleaner tenfold, if you know what I mean.

We moved into our new house two weeks ago. I have spent most of that time unpacking and arranging all our stuff. Until this morning, I had yet to clean this new house. It’s always that way with me. We’ve moved enough times that I know what I’ll do. We move in a flurry and unpack for a couple of weeks, but I don’t clean. I think it’s because I don’t feel like it’s my job yet. Because it doesn’t feel like it’s my house yet. 

Today it was time. To clean the house.

I started with the tile floors. I swept up bits and pieces of our day’s meals. While sweeping, I mostly watched the massive amount of dirt, food, and toys accumulating in a pile, but when I started mopping that tile floor stretching to forever, I finally saw my kitchen floor. I settled into a rhythm with my mop brushing back and forth over the brown and gray pattern. I covered every inch of that beautiful tile floor for the first time with my mop, and do you know what? Suddenly, the kitchen floor was mine. By cleaning the floor myself, I felt ownership over it, a connection to it, and care for it.

My new house didn’t feel like my house until I cleaned it. Myself.

So, today, while I sway to the rhythm of the mop and Train, I am the steward of this house. I will clean it. I will care for it. I will love this house into a home.

Would a cleaning lady do that I wonder?

Disclaimer: If you have a house cleaner, I’m really just jealous of you. J


Joy Triumphs Over Pain

Claire July 2011: Our first amazing month for over a year.

“We decided that divorce would never be an option,” President Tucker confided to the Marriage class.

In the front row, his wife Pat, nodded her agreement. It was evident to all in attendance that Paul and 
Pat Tucker had not only fallen in love more than 40 years ago, they had chosen to love every day since. Without knowing their romantic ‘how we met’ story, without hearing the trials they had inevitably encountered and overcome, I felt the power in their marriage and in their words. Marriage was a choice and they had chosen well.

I admired the Tuckers immediately upon meeting them at church five years ago. President Tucker, in particular, made me feel at home our first week there. He taught Sunday School, and amazingly, he learned the names of all the new couples. All twenty-five of them. I soon realized he did this every year with each new batch of graduate students. During our first class, Dustin whispered in my ear, “If I closed my eyes, I would think your Dad was teaching the class.” I agreed completely. He sounded just like my dad – mannerisms and doctrine both. Even if I didn’t sound or feel like either of President Tucker’s two daughters, President Tucker was A father, much like my own.

And Pat. I loved Pat as only a kindred spirit can. When I bought the chocolate chip cookies that she sold at a service auction, I insisted that it come with a baking lesson. I wanted to be her friend. I soon discovered that Pat had kept a daily journal for decades without fail. I also have stacks of journals. So Pat, like me, was a writer whether she knew it or not.

When Claire was diagnosed with Leukemia in the summer of 2010, Dustin called President Tucker to assist him in giving Claire a priesthood blessing. Pat came with him. Upon their arrival, Pat gave me a motherly squeeze and President Tucker shook my hand gravely. The tears collecting in my eyes dripped out onto my cheeks like a slow leak, my throat too tight to speak. With understanding that can only come through personal suffering, the Tuckers expected no explanation and simply listened to the beautiful blessing. Afterword, President Tucker said that he had felt the truth of the words “You will be healed” given in Claire’s blessing. My strained faith felt immeasurable comfort knowing that this Man of God had been given a witness to Claire’s healing blessing.

On Saturday March 10, 2012, I learned that my beloved Tucker family was to face one of life’s most difficult trials. The trial of the unknown. Pat was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer.

I discovered the news amidst a gathering of women, busy with service. I was sure that my ears had deceived me and that Janet, the bearer of the news, had either meant a less intimidating disease or a different person altogether. 

I shook my head as if to disagree with her. Then, questioning the validity of her report, I said, “You said Pat Tucker, right? Pat. Tucker.”  I emphasized both names with a nod of my head just to be sure Janet understood the weight of putting the name ‘Pat Tucker’ with the diagnosis ‘Ovarian Cancer.’ 

Although Janet is no stranger to grief herself, I think my visible mourning at the news overwhelmed her. She hugged me and moved on. I walked the ten steps to my post at the ironing board where several women were gathered. One of them glanced my way to say hello. She easily saw the emotion on my face.

“Are you okay?” she asked with great concern.

I brushed my tears away. Taking a deep breath, I was about to answer that I was fine, but the deep breath brought no relief.

“No. I’m not okay. You’re not going to be okay either once you hear this news.”

I went on to share the crushing information about the Tucker family and searched the faces of the other women for the emotion I was feeling so strongly. But, I didn’t find it. These women were not as deeply affected as I was. One reached out to give me a hug to comfort me.  One reassured me that ‘if anyone can do it, the Tuckers can.” And still a third asked me, “Are you guys close to the Tuckers?”

For several days, I felt devastated at the news. I was not sure why I was so profoundly affected other than that I know something of what her family might have been feeling - shock, fear, incredibly overwhelmed, full of grief, and many other emotions that are so powerful even on their own that together, they are just that: devastating.

Later I pondered this experience. Admittedly, since our own traumatic experience with Claire’s diagnosis, I am much more sensitive to bad news. I now know firsthand what it means to say, ‘my soul weeps.’ No other description is full enough in moments like these, and I have found that my soul weeps for other people who are handed some of life’s more difficult situations. Maybe my acute reaction has something to do with the love and admiration I feel for the Tucker family. Maybe it’s that it was a cancer diagnosis, just like Claire’s. Or, perhaps, I was simply feeling their pain.  Whatever the reason, I hope that I am one step closer to understanding what it is to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.

I’m happy to report that my dear Pat Tucker finished her cancer treatment the same week Claire finished hers. Her cancer is now in remission. In March, my heart was overcome with sorrow, and today it sings with a joy that surpasses the pain of yesterday.


A Little Report

Hi. So, I got a little ahead of myself for the post I promised you on Friday. It turns out that Claire had her first off-therapy check-up on Friday, and . . . I completely forgot about it.

After visiting doctors monthly and following a strict schedule of medicine for two years, I guess I just signed out. We did get to the appointment on time. Me, Claire, and Avery. The playroom was closed so the kids were pretty disappointed from the beginning. It went downhill from there since we had to wait for quite awhile and I wasn’t prepared with crayons and snacks. But, the cherry on top was the flu shots. All three of us had to get flu shots. I decided, wrongly, not to tell the girls it was coming.

“Can I hold them both on my lap?” I asked the nurse covertly.

“Yep. That’s fine,” she reassured me.

“And, can you do them at the same time?” Obviously, if the girls received the shots at the same time, they wouldn’t have to endure the anticipation of their turn.

The moment before the nurses were ready, little Aves with her sweet voice asked, “Mommy, am I getting a poke?”

She’s been watching Claire get ‘pokes’ for quite awhile now, so the girl knows the signs. Claire on the other hand was oblivious even though I had pulled down her pants for the obligatory shot in the leg. She was busy asking for snacks.

“Yes, Aves. You are going to get a poke,” I whispered hoping Claire didn’t hear. Even if I am sneaky, I don’t lie to my children. Yet.

The nurses counted, “1. 2. 3.”

Simultaneously, they went for it. Avery watched in fascination. She didn’t cry. She didn’t flinch. She just watched.

Claire, on the other hand, panicked and started sobbing while swatting the nurse’s hand. She now has scratches on her leg where the needle scraped her leg THREE times before I got a hold of her hand and the nurse got the needle into Claire’s leg. Claire continued sobbing and shaking until she got to watch me get a flu shot. Misery loves company.

Afterward, Avery was proud to wear her Elmo bandaid and wanted to show it to everyone. It was her badge of courage. She was just as brave as Claire and now she knew! Claire told me that she couldn’t walk to the car because her leg was hurt from the shot.

They both walked to the car just fine.

Once home, I didn’t want to give a poor report of Claire’s behavior, so I told Dustin that Claire was a little more ‘surprised’ by the shot. She continued to repeat this to me throughout the day, “I was just surprised by the shot, huh, Mom?” The girl who has had more than one hundred ‘pokes’ in her short life FREAKED out over a flu shot. I got one, too, remember. It wasn’t that bad. It hurt more an hour later than it did during the actual injection. I told the receptionist about the weirdness of it all – my two-year-old who has no memory of a shot was completely composed while my child who has just kicked cancer to the curb seemed to hit her breaking point over a flu shot. The receptionist laughed and said they have tons of stories of these little cancer kids revolting against unexpected treatments. One 7-year-old boy grabbed his mom’s cell phone, dove under the table, and started dialing 911. He was crying, “They’re trying to kill me!”

I’m not sure what to make of it. Claire also had a poke in her arm for a blood draw. She was pretty mad about that, too. Part of me wanted to defend her. “Can we just be done?! I think she’s had enough!” The other part of me wanted to shake Claire a little bit. “Claire! You’ve done so many things that were SO much harder than this! Why can’t you just . . . grow up?” I didn’t say either. I reminded Claire that she is brave and strong and that she can DO this. She did.

Claire has been chemo-free for 23 days. In those 23 days, we’ve packed up and moved our little family for the tenth time in as many years. I don’t think I’ve really had the chance to savor the lack of medicine yet.  I have had the chance to forget that we should visit the doctor once a month, though. I did that quite well.


Who I Am

Avery and Dustin at Discovery Park, Seattle June 2011. Proof that Dustin does actually 
encourage us. Also, proof that Dustin looks good in five-finger shoes.

“You should start a blog called “BE the mom,” Dustin tells me as we drive to REI.

“I should,” I say feeling flattered that Dustin might actually think I could write a blog after all. This could be my big idea, my passion, and my purpose in life. I could be a blogger that writes about taking charge of your home and your child. Be the mom. What a great idea!

“And, then don’t write anything,” and for once, Dustin snickers before he even finishes his punch line.

He’s probably a bit nervous I’m sure. It’s definitely a risky move - encouraging me to quit before I begin. Probably so I can avoid yet another “quitting” story. I should be offended, but the truth is so funny my laughter spills out. My laughter is loud and easy. Relief floods through me, and I can tell by the increased volume of Dustin’s laugh, that he, too, is relieved that I’m laughing. So I laugh some more. It feels so good. Here I am with the person I love most in the world, who loves me most in the world, and we both know who I am.

Hi. I’m Sally Bluhm, and I’m a quitter.

P.S. Join me tomorrow for a new column, Lessons from a Quitter. See you then! (If my blog’s still around, that is. J)


On the Front Lines

                               source: wikipedia

 “What should we talk about today?” Dustin asked. He edged the car around the crowded parking lot until he found a space.

I shrugged. My heart hurt. My head hurt. I was tired. So tired. My insomnia persisted despite Claire being home from the hospital. Even so, Dustin liked having a plan when we talked with Nicki, our grief counselor.

“Hmmm . . . .” I pretended to be thinking. “What do you want to talk about?”

“What about your sleep issues?”

“Sure,” then as an afterthought, I added, “Maybe our social ineptness?”

“Right,” Dustin’s fist tightened around the steering wheel.

Neither of us knew what we should say during the session. At each visit, we completed a survey on our emotional well-being before we began. Then Nicki read through it, glancing up at us when she saw questionable answers on our surveys. We squirmed uncomfortably in our chairs while we waited.

“Sally, you’re still having a hard time falling asleep?” Nicki prodded, concerned, but professional.


“And staying asleep?”


“Have you been to the doctor? Like we talked about?”



“Well, they’re just going to tell me to take Ambien. I can’t take Ambien. I have to be alert at night. In case Claire needs me.”

She nodded. She knew Claire needed me at night. Often. She shifted her attention to Dustin.

“Dustin, how is work? How is your motivation?”

Dustin was caught. Work was terrible. Each morning, he had to climb up a fire escape ladder to the little hole in the attic that he called an office. He then had to spend the day alone reading difficult, sometimes boring, research papers. The purpose of this was to fuel his own research, but his concentration skills were suffering, just like my sleep. It was a wonder if he understood anything he was reading let alone writing something new.

I intervened on his behalf, “Wait.”

Nicki and Dustin both turned toward me.

“We want to talk about why the end of the day is so hard.”

I peeked at Dustin. He looked surprised, but willing.

Nicki was listening intently now.


“Well, I expect the day hours to be draining,” I began. I wondered how to narrow the list of reasons for this. Forcing 15 medicines down Claire’s throat, the leg pain that left her trembling, the mood swings that made me feel like she’s wasn’t even my little Claire, the short, interrupted nights. I decided to jump to my point instead.

 “But, I also expect the evenings to be better. After the kids are asleep, I mean. Only it doesn’t feel better.”

Nicki waited.

“Whether it’s just Dustin and me at home, or if I’m with others, it’s like I just ‘check out.’ I can’t hold a normal conversation or enjoy a bowl of ice cream with Dustin. Why? Why is it hard when I finally get a break?”

Nicki, being professional, took over. “Do you feel this way as well, Dustin? Like you’re not enjoying your evenings with one another? They’re difficult instead of restful?”

“Yeah. I guess I do.”

With a clear perspective on our dilemma, Nicki gently pressed forward:

“This is not surprising actually. While you are caring for your daughter, you simply act. Much like a soldier in battle, you are on the front lines. However, like soldiers who come home from battle and end up with post-traumatic stress disorder, when you are finally ‘off-duty,’ it would be very typical to shut down. The stress of Claire’s care can overwhelm your ability to cope in a normal way with your down time.”

“The front lines? Like war?” I questioned.

“Think about it. During the day, you don’t stew about whether this is hard or not, or whether you would rather not give Claire her medicine. You just do what needs to be done. Just like a soldier fights when faced with battle. It’s not what he would choose, but he does it. Then he has to deal with his actions later. Just like you.”

I stared at her, the words sinking in.

We were at war.

With cancer.

On the front lines.

If my days were really like being on the front lines fighting for Claire’s life then maybe it was okay that I had a little post traumatic stress disorder at the end of the day. Maybe it was okay that I had nothing left to offer.

“That’s exactly what it feels like,” I whispered aloud.

But, to myself I thought, To the front lines, then, because we’re not going to lose. Not this time.

If you missed Fridays post on advice from the front lines, check it out here. This will be a recurring column where I will discuss both how to help those on the front lines and how to help yourself if you are the one currently in battle. Look it for it monthly. Your suggestions are appreciated. Thanks!