I Felt the Breeze

What can be learned from the sick and the suffering?

That was the gospel question at the mass I attended tonight which included the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  Father Gary opened it up to those in attendance to answer that question.  I just listened, and reflected.

He said there is a place in this life for suffering.  There is a place for it, there is space for it.  It fits.  Right in between throwing your hands up in the air on a roller-coaster, and sticking your toes at the edge of sand and water — right in between all of that joy is suffering.  It has a place. It fits.

Kind of messes with your head a a little . . . right? Suffering belongs with us.  There is even a sacrament for the sick.  He said we are sacred.  We are in tune.

The mass was held outside in the garden of the church.  Father Gary said it was a beautiful day, and that in the garden we could witness the promise of spring.  The signs of spring.  You know that spoke to me.  The earth is bursting at the seams with new life . . . with reminders that winter always fades.

He called up all of those who were seriously sick or facing surgery.  I thought for a split second it would just be me standing up there.  But then the others came.  There was a young woman who has been battling diabetes, an elderly woman facing serious health issues, a middle-aged woman facing a complicated surgery, a college student who needs eight muscles and two ribs removed, another girl who has had unexplained mono for 14 months,  a woman to my right who told us she has stage 4 breast cancer, and lastly a beautiful college student who admitted that she is fighting serious depression.  There we were.  The walking wounded.  The sick.  The suffering.  Tucked beside the brick and mortar of the church in the flowering garden.  Suffering in the middle of spring.

The sun was shining on our faces as Father Gary anointed our heads and hands with oil.  I looked at each woman and my heart swelled for them.  It wasn’t a feeling of sadness, so much as a feeling of hope.  My heart hurt most for the girl struggling with depression.  She was beautiful with bright eyes.  I hurt for her because I know that people walk right past her and are unaware of her suffering.  When you have cancer, when you lose your hair, or have to rest in hospital beds — people know you are sick.  They make your dinner, and clean your fridge.  Depression is harder to see, harder to heal.  I was humbled by her strength and her honesty.

What have I learned from being sick? Could I sum it up in a sound bite?  Could I make it a bumper sticker?

I was reading Glennon Doyle’s blog on Momastery the other day, and she said something that really stayed with me.  She said:  “Pain is just a traveling professor. When pain knocks on the door—wise ones breathe deep and say: ‘Come in. Sit down with me. And don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.’”

What have I learned?  What can I share with you?

Getting breast cancer has always been one of my biggest fears.  It took my husband’s mother from him when he was only six-years-old.  It felt very real to me.  I felt like I could go back in time and look out at life through her eyes.  How would I ever survive being so seriously sick while being a mom?  That possibility terrified me.  I thought to myself, I would NEVER be able to handle that.

And then I found that lump, and got that call, and my suffering began.

So here is what I have learned:

That ocean of pain you feel when you first learn the news.  That anxiety, and stomach twisting.  That gasping for breath and tossing and turning at night.  That anger and breath-stealing sadness.  It doesn’t last.  It fades.  One foot in front of the other, and pretty soon you are out of the storm.  It is still raining, but it’s not a storm.  It’s not so turbulent, so fierce.  The noise gets muted.  Pretty soon, what starts to settle into your bones – isn’t fear, but calm.  You can do it.  People will call you brave, but that’s not what it is.  You will say, “what choice do I have”?  The river currents are moving, and you will learn to stop clinging to the rock and to let go.  You will be slammed up against the shore, you will slip underwater, you will be scraped by branches, but you will move forward.  You will float on your back and gaze up at the blue sky and white clouds, and you will feel sunshine on your face.

All that worry that I had before cancer, all the what-ifs that kept me up at night — they didn’t serve me.  They didn’t prepare me.  Fear didn’t keep me from suffering.

Love.  Love is the buffer between utter despair, and quiet suffering.

If you are a worrier, pluck out those bits of fear, and spend your time planting seeds of love.

I haven’t mastered this art quite yet, I am still learning.  And that professor of pain isn’t quite done with me yet either.  I’m still listening.  I’m still suffering.  But today in the garden, I didn’t feel fear.  I felt peace.  I felt whole.  I felt love for those women at my sides.  I felt the breeze of what cannot be seen.  I felt love.

Waiting & Gowns & Love

Isn’t waiting the worst? Cancer makes you do a lot of waiting. Waiting for test results. Waiting to see the doctor. Waiting for the chemo coma to end.  Waiting for your prescriptions. Waiting for your white blood cells to rebound.  Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Usually when I visit my oncologist (still can’t believe I have one of those), we get moved through the stations pretty fast. 1. to the lab for a blood draw.  2. to the scale for a weigh in 3. into the waiting room to see doctor. 4. to the pods for treatment.  Today it felt like 1- wait an hour- 2 wait an hour – 3 wait an hour – and 4 – get hooked up to a herceptin drip for an hour.

My leg was bouncing, Joel was telling stories, I was trying to be patient, phone kept buzzing “so . . how are your white blood cells?” More leg bouncing. More stories.  God, I hate waiting.

They always ask me to change into a “gown” before the doctor sees me. (By-the-way why is it called a gown? A gown is something Cinderella wears.  This is like a weird scratchy apron shirt.)  Anyway, today when the nurse got it out I told her I didn’t want to put it on.  She seemed to understand, and said, “just leave it on the table, maybe they won’t make you undress”.  This made me uncomfortable.  That would be like not following a rule.  But I’m wild, so wild and crazy, that I didn’t put the gown on.  Nope. Just sat there in my shirt.

Nurse practioner came in and asked me how I was doing.  Really, for the most part I am doing okay.  She asked me to hop up onto the table for an exam.  I just unsnapped my bra and lifted up my shirt.  Huh? I could have refused that “gown” this whole time!  Who knew!  She asked me how the breast was doing.  I told her what I tell them every single time, “I don’t know.  I don’t touch it.  I don’t even wash it.”  She laughed and said, “yes you do.”  I said, “No. Really, I don’t.”  (That breast has betrayed me.  Plus I am super afraid of feeling another bump).  Another exam.  Another sliver of green: they still can’t feel the tumor.

Enough about my boob.  How are my blood counts? “Well, it looks like you are still in the recovery phase.  Not as high as last time, but higher than March. They should be where we need them to be in three weeks for your surgery.”

Okay. Not great news. But not bad news.  I’ll take it.

So my blood cells are S-L-O-W-L-Y on the rise.  More waiting. But I know they will go up.

And guess what else is on the rise?  My spirits.  And that is because of you.  You.  All of you.  Today I felt your prayers.  They wrap around me like sunshine on a breezy day.  I can close my eyes and feel them.  All of your thoughts and well wishes, and acts of kindness bind together to create this cocoon of love.  I am safe here.  I can heal here.

I will never be able to repay you.  It would be impossible.  But I will give all of this love back.  I will hold doors for strangers, pick up trash at the park, sing a little louder at church, squeeze my boys even tighter than I do, and love each and every student that sits down in my classroom just as they are.  This love will never be lost on me.  I can promise you this.  I am absorbing it now.  But I promise to push it out to the world in every way possible, even on my weakest days.  I promise to love, and love, and love.

Triathlon

My last chemo was over two weeks ago.  I thought finishing it would feel like the end of a race.  Like running over the finish line through the balloon arches, into the cheering crowds.

But it feels more like limping over the line, only to realize this isn’t just a running race.  Joel says it is a triathlon. And he is right.  I just finished the first leg of a three part journey.  Chemo was probably the biking part.  I’m not a very good biker and have never been in a bike race.  I’m glad it is over, but it was just part one.  I’m getting water, eating a banana, and changing into my swimsuit.

And you. You’ve been cheering me along.  You’ve been screaming and waving signs– and your arms are sore and your voice is hoarse.  You are tired, too.  And I hate this part.  The realizing that you are tired too, and I still have two more legs of the journey to go.  I’m sorry.  I wish I didn’t need you still.  But I do.  You’ve made me meals, taken my kids to swim lessons, sent me cards and gifts, left me voicemails, bought me dinner, shoveled my walk, done my laundry, cleaned my house, rubbed my feet, taken me on walks, listened to me cry, and been my hope when I couldn’t find mine.  You’ve loved me close up, and from a far.  You’ve carried me when I couldn’t even crawl.  And I hate that this isn’t over for you either.  I know you are tired, too.

I guess surgery is the swim.  I’ve swam in races before.  I was never great, but I was good.  I know a little about the needles, the pain meds, the beeping of hospital machines.  I have some experience with surgery.  I will need to hear your voices when I come up for air.  I will need you to dry me off and help me put on my shoes while I wait to hear if my lymph nodes are benign or tainted with cancerous tissue.  The swim could end with news of needing radiation.  I will want to quit.  Don’t let me.

And next: the run.  This part involves ovarian suppression shots and hormone blockers for the next five years of my life.  This is a long run.  But I am a runner.  I know how to push myself when all I want to do is stop.  I know the thrill of finishing the race.  And I pray that this will be my finish. I will be 41-years-old in five years.  And I pray that I am cancer-free and remain that way for the rest of my life.  I need to believe that this is how the triathlon will end.  I need to picture myself crossing that finish line, and running through the balloon arches.  Maybe I’ll even have enough hair for a ponytail.

Will you be there still? Can you cheer that long?

I find out on Wednesday if my white blood cells are moving in the right direction.  Please pray that they are.

Cancer has humbled me.  This would be an impossible journey without you, and without my faith.  I am grateful beyond words. I am so lucky to have you.  Please know your gentle words of kindness, have lifted me up in ways I can’t explain.  No small act has gone unnoticed.  Each stone ripples the water reminding me that I am not alone.

Today I had to shave my armpits.  A cruel irony that my armpit hair is growing faster than the hair on my head.  But this is progress.  Armpit hair, blossoming flowers — both signs of spring.

Time

Joel and I took 10 weeks of natural child birthing classes before we had Alex.  I knew I wanted to have him naturally.  We read everything we could, and I mentally prepared for what I believed would be the most physically challenging experience of my life.  At 36 weeks I went to the hospital because I could no longer take the pain in my left leg.  It was swollen and discolored, and the pain was beyond description.  They diagnosed me with a DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis).  It was serious.  Very serious. The doctor told me that they could wait one week, but then they would need to induce me.  “We need to get that baby out.  The clot could move and kill you.” I won’t ever forget that.

So our natural childbirth was out the window.  Just like that.  All that preparation and planning — for nothing.  I was devastated. I was no longer in control.  I was hooked up to IV poles, a prisoner to the hospital bed.  But I did what I needed to do, and pushed out my beautiful Alex.

I have a picture of Joel holding him for the first time.  Joel is crying, so is Alex.  I cry every time I look at that picture.  He was perfect.

After two days they sent me home and scheduled a surgery ten days later for the clot to be removed. I went home in a wheelchair with our baby boy, a blood clot, and a broken dream.

It was supposed to be the best time of my life.  There were balloons, and new baby clothes, but my heart was so heavy.  I was terrified.  I had a clot inside of my body.  A time bomb.  What if moved to my lung, or my heart?

I am not sure how Joel and I got through that stretch.  I was waking up every couple of hours to nurse Alex, and was on so many pain meds –everything seemed to be a blur.

I was so angry. And so scared.

When I went back to the hospital before surgery they did an ultrasound of my leg and found that the clot extended from my belly button to my knee.  The surgery was going to be longer and more complicated than expected, and my body was still weak from giving birth.

Joel and my dad paced in the waiting room, and my mom tenderly cared for our new baby.

When I woke up I was expecting good news.  I needed them to tell me that the clot was gone, that the surgery was successful, that I could go home to my nursing son.  Instead they told me that there was still a big section of the clot inside of my leg.  They would need to keep me lying flat for 24 hours while a clot busting medicine ran through me.  I remember asking them to bring me a breast pump.  The nurse held my hand and told me that it was okay if I gave up on breastfeeding.  She said I had a long road ahead of me and that it might be easier just to use formula.  I again asked for the pump. Pumping while lying completely flat proved quite interesting, but I would not have that taken from me, too.

After another procedure, they sent me home with a remaining piece of the clot in my leg.  I was to do two blood thinner shots in my stomach everyday for the next 10 months, and wear compression stockings on both of my legs for the next two years.

They said I might have the clot forever.  They said I might have pain in my leg forever.  They said I might never be able to have another baby.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night gripped in panic and fear.  Would I die? Would I leave my husband alone with a newborn? Would I ever be happy again?

I hated the deep ache in my leg that kept me from running. I hated the shots that bruised my stomach.  I hated the compression stockings.  But mostly I hated the fear.

Time passed and then at a check-up they could no longer see the clot.  It was gone. Dissolved. Just. Like. That.

And guess what? I started running again.  I bought long dresses and skirts that covered the stockings, but still made me feel pretty, I finished the grueling shots, and I found a doctor that said it would be safe to have another baby.

And I did.

I hired a doula, practiced yoga, changed out my desk chair for a huge bouncy ball, and mentally prepared for the honor of laboring without medications.  I experienced an ocean of pain.  I let my body rip open and I pushed out Andy.

It is hard to remember the pain and anguish of that blood clot.  Time has faded it, made it foggy.

The pain of this cancer is crisp. Present. Real.

But it calms me to know the truth about time.

I know what time can do.  I still wear the stocking on my left leg, and sometimes it aches before a storm. But it is part of my past.  Something I have overcome.

And now I must be patient.  I must remember that this too will pass.  I will have a few forever reminders, but one day I will look back on these days with the wisdom of knowing that when we are open to it – life will heal us in the most unexpected ways.

If there is something woven here, if there is an invisible thread that pulls it all together, if you must study it closely with a microscope- you would have to close your eyes to see it.