How a photo can save a child’s life.

How a photo can save a child's life | Modern Mrs Darcy

From the archives. Please read and share and check your photos!

7 years ago, our baby boy was diagnosed with eye cancer because of a Christmas photo. He was almost two at the time.

That baby boy is nearly 9 now, and the story is becoming more and more his and not just mine—so I’m growing reluctant to go into the details with people now that he’s getting older.

But I have to share this, because we nearly didn’t find out there was a problem. The photographer knew that there was something wrong with our son’s red eye reflex, but he didn’t want to scare us or be the bearer of bad news. His wife, however, insisted, because she had read an article about an actress whose child had a very similar presentation (that’s what doctors call it).

We’re so thankful she did.

Our son was quickly diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of childhood eye cancer that affects 1 child in 20,000. That’s only 300 cases per year in the U.S. In 2005, we were one of those 300.

Now that it’s been 7 years and he’s healthy, we don’t talk about it much. But this Christmas I didn’t want to not speak up for fear of spooking someone or being the bearer of bad news.

But here it is: when you’re looking through your Christmas photos this year, pay attention to the red-eye in your flash photography. The red-eye appears when the retina reflects light. Pediatricians check for it every time they see you, and many cases of retinoblastoma are diagnosed at routine well-checks (though our pediatrician didn’t catch it because of the unusual way the tumor presented).

In that Christmas photo our son had red-eye in one eye and white eye in the other. A white or milky-looking pupil in a flash photograph is a classic indicator of retinoblastoma.  The pupil appears white because light can’t reach the retina at the back of the eye.

Note the white eye on the right: a classic sign of retinoblastoma.

Our son’s tumor was growing dead in the bottom of his eye, which meant that the vast majority of the time, his red-eye reflex wasn’t impaired.  We have dozens of photos from that Christmas that look absolutely perfect—even though he had late stage cancer. But my uncle snapped one photo when the tumor seeds were up and dancing around, blocking the retina and causing a white eye.

A white eye in a photo doesn’t necessarily mean the child has eye cancer, and it’s not the only sign. (Other signs can be strabismus, a drifting eye, or a red and irritated eye.) But we discovered our son’s cancer because of a Christmas photograph. 

I have no medical experience.  I’m just a mom whose baby had eye cancer.

If you have any concerns at all, ask your doctor. If you ever see a white eye reflex in a child, have it checked out with a dilated eye exam—it’s not a big deal and it’s not expensive. But it could save a child’s life.

And please, don’t be afraid to speak up.

I’m so thankful someone spoke up to me.

Friends, check your Christmas photos! If you have a child who's 5 or under you need to check your Christmas photos for one simple thing. It could save a life, literally.

photo credit: J Morley-Smith

“The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions…”

The biggest thing separating people from their ambitions ... | Modern Mrs Darcy

” … is not a lack of talent. It’s the lack of a deadline. Give someone an enormous task, a supportive community, and a friendly-yet-firm due date, and miracles will happen.”

So says Chris Baty, in his book No Plot?, No Problem!, also known as the NaNoWriMo handbook.

(NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, which happens each November. Participants commit to writing a 50,000 word rough draft between November 1 and November 30.)

I’m inclined to agree.

NaNoWriMo calls itself a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to writing a novel, so it seems appropriate that I decided at the very last minute to go for it.

In the kitchen Saturday morning, after I’d done my first 1,667 word session, Will asked me what the point was. Why write a novel in a month?

Many people do it for fun; many do it for the community aspect. Many more people seize the opportunity to move another bucket list item from “someday” to “now.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know exactly why I want to do it, and it has everything to do with personality.

I’m an INFP, heavy on the “P.” I’m terrific at endlessly generating ideas (or characters, themes, and plot points) but terrible at committing to one course of action and following through. (As the authors of Creative You put it: “I’m an endless lightning storm of ideas, but the bolts don’t often strike the ground.”)

Trying to commit to a single course of action (or, in this case, a single story arc) brings out all my worst perfectionistic tendencies. I get paralyzed with indecision thinking about the infinite possibilities for a first line, an opening scene, an inciting incident.

This is where deadlines come in.

I need deadlines. I love deadlines, because they help me follow through.

The goal of NaNoWriMo isn’t to write a good novel, it’s to write a 50,000 word rough draft in a very short—probably too short—window. My goal isn’t to write something good, it’s to write 50,000 more-or-less coherent words. Most of it will be crap. Knowing that frees me to actually begin.

(I’d be very curious to hear more about why other NaNoWriMo writers’ personalities and why they choose to participate.)

By the way, I read No Plot?, No Problem! in preparation for NaNoWriMo (if you can call skimming it the night before “preparation,” and while it’s known as the NaNo handbook and has some good tips, there are other books on writing I’d recommend with a lot more confidence.

I love Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k (65 pages, Kindle only, $0.99), which is aimed at fiction writers but is equally applicable to nonfiction, and Marion Roach’s The Memoir Project, which addresses creative nonfiction but is equally applicable to fiction.

I keep coming back to The Getaway Car, Bird by Bird, and Stephen Pressfield (especially Do the Work). I’d like to be able to recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser, but I haven’t read it yet. (Don’t worry: I have a deadline for that, and I’ll have it read before the year is out.)

I’d love to hear about your relationship with deadlines, your experience with NaNoWriMo, and your favorite books on writing in comments. 

Halloween: love it or hate it?

This post originally ran on October 28, 2011, but it still perfectly captures my thoughts about this season.

Halloween: love it or hate it?

Nobody I know is lukewarm about Halloween:  they either love it or they hate it.

There is a lot about Halloween that I don’t like.  Its got a shady past, for starters.  And all the scary decorations my neighbors have in their front yards—which have been on sale at Target since August 1—have me driving home with my kids in a weird, fuel-inefficient, zigzaggy pattern so I can bypass the seriously scary yards in favor of the relatively innocuous ghost trees and giant inflatable black cats.

Costumes for kids are generally cute and fun. But costumes for adults range from the objectionable to the awkward (I am shocked at the number of people coming to my site searching “matching girl and dog Kate Middleton costumes.” What does that even mean?)  Top choices for women this year include “sexy queen bee,” “sexy pirate,” and “Jersey Shore.”

And the candy! My kids have a fair number of food sensitivities, and I’ve spent hours answering questions like “Why can’t we have twinkies? Why can’t we eat skittles?” Am I really going to send my kids out to canvas the neighborhood for smarties and laffy taffy by the bucketful?

Well, yes. Yes I am.

Because Halloween is the one day of the year where our neighbors come to our doorstep, and we visit theirs. And I love that about Halloween.

We don’t live in a real tight-knit neighborhood. We know all (well, most) of our neighbor’s first names, but not their last.  I only have a few phone numbers.

But on Halloween, the kids love to don their costumes. They’ve been planning for months—this year we’ve got a football player, Little Red Riding Hood, a princess of some sort, and a puppy dog. We’ll ring the doorbells and take it slowly and chat with the neighbors, and we will make sure we visit the families who’ve only recently moved in. It’s tricky—because we try to avoid the super-scary decorations—but we’ll do our best.

And at my house, we’ll be ready and waiting with our porch lights on and good candy (or glowsticks) in our bucket.

Because there’s only one day a year when the neighborhood comes to our doorstep, and it’s Halloween.  I love that about Halloween and I don’t want to miss it.

Where do you stand on Halloween?  Love it or hate it?

photo by Halloween Haunt

Pets, personality, and the faces we deserve.


Last week we took our dog to church.

The Episcopal church follows the lectionary, and the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost belongs to St. Francis of Assisi. Though best known for his solidarity with the poor, legend has it that Francis could also talk to animals. In honor of St. Francis, everyone got to bring their dogs and cats, bunnies and hamsters, turtles and guinea pigs to church last week.

We’d been to this particular service, held annually, once before. Oddly, it was the first service we attended at what was to become our church: we showed up on a Sunday morning to find the service was in the gym, and everyone had their pets with them. It was unexpected and a little nuts and a very fun and unthreatening way to ease in to a new community.

Now that we knew what to expect from this special service, we were looking forward to it. What I didn’t expect, now that we know people a little better, was how interesting it would be to see everyone with their pets.

Do you remember that scene in 101 Dalmations when Pongo stares out the window and watches the dog-walkers go by, all of whom bear an eery resemblance to their owners?

That’s exactly what it felt like at church. The Great Dane owners looked like they belonged with their noble, elegant Great Danes. The collie owners looked like they belonged with their fluffy, loyal collies. The Scotty dog owners looked like they had the Scotty dog personality, even if I hadn’t recognized it before I’d seen them with their dogs.

We have a chocolate lab named Harriet. she’s placid, companionable, and loves retrieving tennis balls more than life itself. Now, of course, I’m now wondering what our choice of Harriet says about our family. Did we choose a pet that reflects our own selves back to us?

George Orwell said that by age 50, everyone has the face he deserves. Our faces are the windows to our souls, and with every day we live, we choose—with every thought we think, every decision we make—what they reveal about our innermost selves.

(For years, I inadvertently attributed this quote to Oscar Wilde—it seems like the sort of thing he would say, doesn’t it?—and pegged the year as 40. I thought about this quote a lot as I edged closer to the imagined milestone. Now I’m relieved to discover I’m not so close after all.)

In a decade and a half or so, I’ll have the face I deserve, and my personality will ostensibly be on display for all to see. In the meantime, my chocolate lab is doing the job for me.

Does your pet reflect your personality? Have you noticed that other people’s pets accurately reflect THEIR personalities?

P.S. Musings on personality, from the archives.