Barb's Imagination


One Woman’s Journey

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

There. I said it. Breast. Cancer.

Even though it’s getting easier to say those words, the diagnosis still seems very surreal. Even though I’ve gone through several tests: mammogram, ultrasound, needle biopsy, genetic testing, and an MRI, the diagnosis still seems very surreal.

In order to wrap my head around this, I came up with this statement: I’m very sick, but I don’t feel sick at all. But, I’m going to get very sick in order to get well.

Front Doors

OMH ProHealth Care Cancer Center Doors

So far, the hardest step of this journey has been to walk through the doors of the Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital ProHealth Care Cancer Center by myself. My husband wanted to come with me to my first appointment with my nurse care coordinator, but I said thanks, but no thanks. I really needed to do this one thing by myself. I needed to overcome my fear of entering this building because it was the first step of my new journey.

On a beautiful, sunny, Wednesday morning, I cowered before the cancer center’s entrance with a dark, ominous cloud circling above me. How I longed to escape the coming storm, to just turn around, get in my car, and drive down a quiet country road where I could be surrounded by sunshine and the green growth of life.

But I didn’t give in to that temptation. Rather, with my chest pounding louder and faster than the Amtrak when it plows it’s way through town, I opened the center’s door and entered the building.

I ascended the stairs to my right and then did a u-turn to the left to walk down the hall to the reception desk. I was quaking internally, experiencing a never ending earthquake that was stealing my breath to fuel it’s shaking and rolling. I was so tense and uptight during this short walk. You would have thought I was walking blinded in front of a firing squad whose rifles were focused intently on me. (Hmmm, a firing squad. That might be a good description of cancer!)

But I wasn’t walking to my death. I was walking to hope, to life, to healing.

I croaked my name out to the receptionist and was directed to sit in the waiting room. While sitting, I continued praying for God’s peace, the peace that passes all understanding, to flood my mind and my heart.

And He gave me that peace. Not instantaneously, because my fear had locked the gates and wouldn’t allow that peace to enter my mind. But within five minutes of sitting and talking with my nurse care coordinator, I began to feel my shoulders relaxing. I could finally take a deep breath.. And I could finally speak without croaking.

I imagined that Jesus was standing behind me, massaging my shoulders, reminding me that He will be with me every step of the way in this unexpected journey.

So here we go. I invite you to walk with me and Jesus on my journey. I hope you will share your encouraging thoughts because it’s easier to walk up a steep mountain path when you have people pushing you up it with their support.

Either way, welcome to one woman’s journey.



Please Don’t Squeeze the Charmin

I met a very special woman today whom I expect I will get to know better during the six rounds of chemo I am about to begin. She is my medical oncologist’s nurse and she has a gift she shares freely, the gift of laughter. I find her humorous attitude very refreshing. It’s like jumping into Lake Michigan on a humid August day. Refreshing.

Because she is a breast cancer survivor, she was able to relate to my concerns and my choices. For example, we talked about my choice to not undergo reconstruction surgery. Instead, I will be flat and fabulous.

Our discussion led her to share her experience in a women’s locker room after swimming with her prosthetics in. While in the pool, her “girls” absorbed water and after changing out of her swim suit, they threatened to leak through her dry t-shirt. So in front of her 3-year-old son and other young children and their mothers, she removed her fake boobs, rolled them up tightly in a towel, and squeezed all of the water out of them. Then with a wry smile on her face in response to the open mouths of many around her, she slipped the “girls” into her bra and left the pool, dry and comfortable.

She squeezed the water out of her boobs! What would Mr. Whipple have said to her? “Please, don’t squeeze the Charmin.” But she did. She squeezed the Charmin dry! And that’s something I will get to do, too! Wow!

I can only imagine what other new experiences await me on my journey. But I plan to be like my nurse and find the humor in many of those situations. And because laughter is so healing, it will be a good companion on my journey.





So, Your Last Name is Kolb?

“So, your last name is Kolb?”
“Are you related to Josh?”
“Um, yeah. He’s my son.”
“I know Josh. I played football with him in high school.”

“Cool” may have slid out of my mouth at that moment, but it wasn’t what I was thinking.

Instead, panic was immediately throwing a spontaneous and boisterous party with embarrassment and my mind was screaming, “Oh, shit.” “No way.” “This can’t be happening.” “I don’t want to be here anymore.”

You see, I had made an unscheduled stop in the ER that night because I was having chest pain. And as I lay on a gurney inside a curtained room, this young, blonde, muscular male nurse was running an EKG on my not-so-young body while my husband was watching.

And just so you know, modesty is not practiced in the ER. Not when you are complaining of chest pain. No, your gown is unsnapped, the pads are adhered to your chest, the leads are attached, and the EKG run before you can change your mind and escape.

So I found myself chained on this narrow bed by the EKG leads with the upper half of my gown pooled around my waist while the twins danced in all of their delight in front of this young, blonde, muscular male nurse who had just confessed he knew my son, and my husband was watching.

Not a Kodak moment. Not even close to one.

So the next time a young, blonde, muscular male nurse asks me, “So, your last name is Kolb?”, I think I’ll answer, “No, it’s Smith.”

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I’m Finally Ready to Talk About It

I’m finally ready to talk about it — my bad experience that fueled nightmares for weeks.

In August, I figuratively failed to navigate an unmarked curve and skidded off of a steep cliff. Plunging end-over-end in a downward spiral, my unexpected fall ended only when I crashed face first onto the cold, lifeless, stone ledge of reality.

There I lay. Lifeless. Breathless. Hopeless.

And in pain. It hurt — a lot.

But thank God, I’ve recovered. I’ve been discharged from the hospital, having regained my strength and momentum, and have once again rejoined the ranks of the active job seekers.

What happened, in reality, was that I applied for a graphic design job at the technical college I graduated from and where I continue to work seasonally in the bookstore. But I didn’t even make it through the first round for a position that I felt I was qualified for and wanted so very much.

Being rejected, being unwanted, so quickly was the unexpected curve that led to my plummet over the edge.

Rejection sucks. Literally and figuratively. It sucks the live-giving breath of hope right out of you.

But God/faith/life has a way of bandaging our wounds of rejection in ways that make us stronger.

I’m stronger because of this experience. I’m sending in my resumé again. I’m ready to work.

So to all of the companies looking to hire a graphic designer/writer — I’m back in the running, and I’m hoping that you pick me soon!!!

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Hello, Sunday Afternoon


This is the beautiful meadow I see from the window over my desk. I frequently see turkey crossing it. It’s a nice, relaxing view!

As I take a break on this stressful Sunday afternoon and gaze out over the small, tree-lined meadow I see from my desk, I contemplate what Sunday afternoons will be like after I graduate.

It’s not anxiety over the job hunt, fear of how long that job hunt might take or dismay that I might not like my future job that captures my thoughts today.

Instead, it’s a question I ponder: “Will my life return to some semblance of normalcy after graduation?”

I asked my friend Helle this same question while we were planning the graphic design work for the Starving Artists’ Show. Because Helle graduated from Mount Mary College last May and has been working full-time since August, she is my authority on what it will be like to transition from college to work.

Helle assured me that life does return to a more normal routine… sort of.

As I sit here and consider her answer, hope begins to bloom in my mind (unlike southern Wisconsin’s taunting daffodils, which refuse to bloom). Soon I, too, will transition to a normal, post-college Sunday afternoon routine.

So what will the Sunday afternoon after graduation be like, since all of my papers will have been written, presentations given and readings completed?

I will be sad to have graduated from college because I have enjoyed my academic journey very much.

But, I will also be excited because I will be free to choose how to spend my afternoon. Choose. That’s my favorite word in that whole sentence. My afternoon won’t be dictated by homework assignments. I will be free to do as I please.

I might go for a walk around Fowler lake in Oconomowoc; play fetch with Chowder, my black Lab, until he’s too tired to run; read an enjoyable novel; talk to my sister on the phone without setting a time limit for our conversation; scrapbook a couple of pages; or play in the dirt in either the vegetable garden or flower bed.

I look forward to enjoying these normal Sunday afternoon activities once again.

Life after graduation is an unknown entity in many ways. But thankfully, Sunday afternoons after graduation will be a renewal of a friendship with an old pal, free time.



Let’s Talk About Graduation Caps

D.J. and I

My friend D.J. and I were all smiles after our graduation ceremony. We both received associate degrees in graphic design from Waukesha County Technical College.
Notice how D.J. is wearing her graduation cap correctly while I skewed
the placement of my cap in a vain effort to accommodate my hair!

Can anything more ugly perch on a woman’s head than a thin, black square of cardboard sewn to a beanie?

I think not.

I’ve had the “pleasure” of wearing this cap twice — once for my graduation from Crawfordsville High School and once for my graduation from Waukesha County Technical College. And while I am so looking forward to my May graduation from Mount Mary College, I am not looking forward to wearing that cap a third time.

Why? Because I know it’s going to ruin my hair. (Those of you in my 8 a.m. Brit Lit class won’t believe this, but I am usually pretty picky about how my hair looks.)

As I was discussing my hair dilemma with my friends Helle and Jen, I was reminded of the distinct tradition attached to the graduation cap. So I did a bit of online reading about the graduation cap.

In summary, I learned the graduation cap is called a “mortarboard” because its design is similar to the cap masons and bricklayers wore with pride during the Middle Ages. The cap had a twofold purpose: practical and social.

Practically, the men would pile mortar on top of the hat because the mortar could easily be scooped off and applied to the stone or brick they were working on.

Socially, the cap indicated that the wearer had successfully completed his studies and internship and was now considered a professional in his chosen field.

Those are good reasons for wearing a really ugly cap.

Then I read this line written by Janet Beal, an eHow contributor, in her article titled “How to Wear a Graduation Cap.” “You’re part of an important celebration, and, no matter what it does to your hair, your cap is an important part of that celebration,” Beal said.

As I read her comment, I felt like my mother had just pinned me to the wall with one of her searing looks of silent reprimand, which clearly communicated to me: “Quit complaining. Your hair will survive the cap.”

Yes, Mom. My attitude has now been chastised and corrected.

Graduation will be an emotionally high day for me as I celebrate the achievement of a life-long dream. However, it will be a physically flat day for my hair that will be captured and pinned underneath this really ugly, but eminently honorable cap.

I think my hair will survive the cap.


Degrees of Change

2010 Graduate of Waukesha County Technical College

My degree has changed me, but not completely!

“If you had a degree, would it change you?”

This question was posed by a child actor in an online pop-up ad distributed by Ashford University.

My answer to that question? “Most definitely. Earning a degree has changed me.”

Five years ago my quest for a college degree began with an interview with Dean Flowers. He was the associate dean for Waukesha County Technical College’s graphic design department. In order to be accepted into the program, I had to present a portfolio to him that highlighted my artistic talent. With a modicum of embarrassment because I had no formal art training, I took a deep breath and revealed to him the scrapbook I had created for my family’s Caribbean cruise memories. I sighed with relief when he said he was impressed by it. Subsequently, I enrolled in the program in the fall of 2008.

Today, I have a professional portfolio showcasing real-world graphic design from my work on Arches, the Elm Grove Times-Independent newspaper, Habitat for Humanity, BMA Young Professionals and other classroom projects. My pilgrimage towards this coveted degree has transformed a fun, creative hobby into a fun, viable career.

But more importantly, the earning of my about-to-be-real degree has also changed how I view myself. I’m still me — a 51-year-old, somewhat confident, overweight woman with a slightly lead foot who gets a kick out of a good laugh with a good friend and likes to stick her tongue out at the camera. But I’m also a professional graphic designer and writer. And even more than that, I’m a persistent woman who did not give up on her 30-year-old dream to graduate from college.

My academic sojourn has birthed an inner confidence that radiates joy and peace from my very core. And I guarantee my inner joy will break out in a dance when I cross the stage and receive my diploma on May 18.

Fortunately, I’m not the only person on campus who will be dancing across that graduation stage in celebration of earning a degree. We each have personal stories that highlight the walking, running, crawling, slipping or sliding we’ve experienced on this winding academic road to complete our degrees.

So what is your answer: “If you had a degree, would it change you?”