Her funeral was magic.

kathy and melissaKathy Cramer.  She was one of my mom’s first friends in St. Louis, and because we had no other family in the area, she became our chosen family.  She was often at our table on holidays- stopping by my parent’s house for a drink, or just dropping off the perfect present to my boys for no reason at all.  She always smelled great, looked beautiful, and hugged me fiercely.  I always liked Kathy.  She was kind, and good, and made me feel special. She brought with her delicious food, engaging conversation, and a contagious, positive energy.

Breast cancer made us closer.  I had it.  She had it.  Different stages.  Different treatment plans.  But the same cancer.  We shared text messages, conversations, and the hope that both of us would be well again.

Last week as I drove to the ICU.  I knew I would be saying goodbye.

And all that energy, and sparkle that she had always radiated, was gone.  She was dying.  I have never seen someone dying before.  It is not like the movies.  It is not peaceful, and pretty.  It is raw, and hard to look at, and scary . . . and real.  I watched my mom and her friends whisper their goodbyes.  I watched her nephew stroke her face. I watched her husband hold her hand, and kiss her head.  I watched her chest rise and fall, each breath was a battle.

She died later that night.

And it all feels like it happened in a blink of an eye.  She was just here.  She was this force, this fire, this light.  How is that possible that she is gone?

How is it possible that we are all here, and then in a blink, we’re not?

It feels impossible to digest.  And yet, it is the only thing we know to be true about life: it ends.  We are all going to die.  It is a truth, a reality.  And yet, it shocks us, surprises us, knocks us down, and leaves us shaking our heads and hands.  How can she be gone?

Today was her funeral.  And to say that it was magic, might sound strange, but it was: it was magic.  It was inspiring, and devastating, and joyful.  It was beautiful and full of such a sweet sorrow.  It was, as her husband named it:  a “celebration of impact”.

Kathy spent her life’s work as writer, a motivational speaker, an innovator, and a risk-taker who developed a organization that focused on the impact of being positive.  I watched her TED Talk recently, and she tells the audience not to stay in the negative for too long, to move it aside and say, “besides from all of that, I can solve this anyway.”  And somehow even though her closest family members, friends, and husband were beyond devastated with the loss of Kathy’s life, they focused on the positive.

They focused on their memories, on their gratitude for knowing her.  On their ability to see the extensive reach of her wisdom.  Instead of focusing on her death, they focused on her life.

Is it possible to be lifted up at funeral? To be inspired, and motivated, and to leave feeling grateful?  Is it possible for her husband to stand up – on what will probably be the saddest day of his life – and so gracefully speak of his love?  Yes.  Her funeral was magic.

It is true that we will all die.

But it is also true that Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.

And it has to be true that Kathy was there today, in the music that left us with chills, in the magic that left us hopeful and motivated to walk out into the summer air, and in the moments that left us feeling the weight of death, and the hope of love. 

As the lines of a Mary Oliver poem read at her funeral say “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It is a blessing, and a burden to remember these truths.  We are blessed with this “one wild and precious life,”  and we are burdened with the question: “what is it you plan to do?”

Kathy and I spoke about how cancer brings you a certain clarity.  A new lens to look through.  How the depth of the small stuff sticks with you.  How your ability to notice and recognize beauty intensifies.

And Kathy lived all the way up until she died.  She recognized her one “wild and precious life” and she did great things.

Today I left her funeral wondering what risks I will be willing to take?  What leaps of faith will I be willing to make?  What will I do with my one “wild and precious life”?  The teacher in me thought about working backwards with the end in mind.

I too, want a funeral, that’s magic.

 

 

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I did it!

 

Last summer I wrote this about my cancer experience: “I described this journey as a triathlon: bike (chemo), swim (surgery), and run (five years of ovarian suppression and hormone blockers).  I guess I am here finishing up the swim.  Tomorrow will be three weeks since surgery.  Every day the pain lessens, and my boobs look more like body parts, and less like Frankenstein’s head.  But as I end this leg of the race, I am feeling that familiar dread of the unknown.  What will the run be like?  Is my body strong enough to keep going?  What does forced menopause look like for a 36-year-old body? What will the side effects be of these new meds? When will I get my full energy back? How long until my hair doesn’t scream “cancer patient”?”

Today, (about 14 months post double-mastectomy), I completed my first triathlon.  I used the triathlon metaphor as a way for me to visualize my breast cancer journey.  I said the swim was like the surgery because I was a swimmer when I was young and had a lot of experience with it, and after Alex was born I had a pretty intense surgery to remove a blood clot- so surgery was not new to me either.

I said chemo was like the bike ride, because I had no experience riding for long distances, and it was the part that scared me the most.

And I said the five years of pills and ovarian suppression were like the run.  Because it seemed the most doable and familiar stretch of the journey– I completed three half-marathons before having kids.

I wanted to do a real triathlon so that I could prove to myself that my body was back.  To prove that it belonged to me, that it wasn’t a prisoner to my port, the heaviness of chemo, or the slow movements after surgery.  I wanted to feel strong again.

Last night it was hard to sleep.

I was scared and excited.

I felt ready, and unsure.

I felt like a chapter was closing, and another was opening.

This morning there was a lot of waiting (there always is with unknown and scary things), and then before I knew it I was in the water, swimming, and breathing.

If I concentrated on the full distance, I felt overwhelmed.  But if I focused on Joel walking along the shore of the lake taking pictures of me, I felt okay.  I kept moving forward.

I wore a swimsuit, not a tri-suit, so I am sure a few people got a good laugh at me trying to squeeze myself into some spandex biker shorts with wet legs.  And then I was on the bike.  At first it was nice.  I didn’t feel too hot, I felt my breathing starting to regulate, and the sun and wind were at my back.  Then people started zooming by me, and I started to slow.  I kept thinking, how many miles has it been?  Can I really bike 15 miles? But I forced myself to remember chemo.  Chemo was the bike.  I can do this.  I focused on keeping my legs moving.  Just keep moving forward.

The bike was finished, now the run.  My legs felt like dead weight, I really wanted to sit down.  Just rest for a few minutes.  But I pushed on.  I focused on my breathing, one foot in front of the other.  Just keep moving forward. And then I saw it.  The finish line.  I couldn’t help but smile.  I did it.

My body is back.  It belongs to me.  I wore a swimsuit and biker shorts to run –I didn’t even need a sports bra (implants don’t bounce!).  My hair no longer screams “cancer patient”, in fact I don’t think anyone except my few friends and family members there knew I had cancer.  My cancer journey isn’t defining me in the way it once was.  I am someone new.  I am strong, and experienced at focusing on the small moments, movements, and emotions that make the long game possible.

No matter what comes my way, I know that I can concentrate on my breathing, put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving forward.

run

 

 

 

 

Another Type of Cancer

There are some things that you can’t “un-see” . . . even though you wish you could. I just watched the video of police killing Alton Sterling. I wish I could un-see it.

I got goose-bumps. My throat felt tight. Tears squeezed out.

Seeing it makes me responsible. It holds me accountable. There will be part of my brain that will want to listen to the voices that will probably eventually say things like: “He had a gun. He was a threat. He was a thug. He had a criminal record. “ Part of my brain will want to find refuge here. Here in this place that helps this not feel so awful. Maybe if I can separate myself and my husband, and sons from him, it won’t be as bad. Maybe if I desensitize myself just a little more, it won’t seem like we have a crisis on our hands. And this part of my brain is not evil, it is not bad, but it is wrong. It is dead wrong.

We cannot find comfort in making Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Tarika Wilson, and the countless of other people who have suffered this same tragic fate – seem less than ourselves. If we go there, we are missing the point, we are failing each other.

I am a white woman. I cannot, even for a second, know what if feels like to be black. But we don’t need to be black to be devastated by this. We cannot let our brothers and sisters suffer alone.

Please. Please. Please. Do not allow yourself to rationalize these deaths. If you find your brain clinging to words and phrases that make this violence seem justified: thug, threat, criminal, dangerous — watch the video. And ask yourself: even if it is all true, even if he was a bad man, with a bad past – what happened to the part where he is arrested, read his rights, and taken to jail? What happened to that part? Watch the video.

You will not be able to un-see it. You will wish you could. But human suffering should stir something inside of us.

I have written my blog about my journey with breast cancer. But this is a different type of cancer. One that makes us all sick. It is easy for some of us to pretend it is not there, silently racing through our veins. But these episodes of senseless brutality and violence, they are symptoms of this disease. We cannot heal until we admit that we are sick.

Cancer made me sick, but it also taught me how to heal.  I couldn’t get well until I knew what was causing the symptoms. We have to know what we are up against.  We have to call this what it is: racism. We have to be vulnerable, and weak, and admit that we need help.  We have to be good to ourselves, to our souls.  We have to feed them with truths, and empathy.  We have to be willing to lose something: our comforts, our artificial harmony, our quiet meetings.

When I was sick, those who loved me suffered alongside of me.  They were uncomfortable at night, they begged and pleaded with God.  They sacrificed their time, and their energy and sat with me and made me soup.  They suffered alongside of me.  And they did it so gracefully, that I never once had to yell: “you wouldn’t understand, you don’t have cancer! You don’t know what it is like.”  They were graceful, and sorrowful, and even though they didn’t have cancer, they felt my pain, too. This made me feel like I wasn’t alone, like I was still connected, like my fight, was their fight too.

I want to stand up for my black brothers and sisters. For my friends who will have to teach their sons of color about keeping their hands visible, their heads down, and their voices soft. I want to suffer with them because I know, and believe that “No one is free until we are all free” – Martin Luther King.

I am healing from my own cancer, but sickened by this one.  Watching the video is like seeing the pathology report.

But what? What can we do? The truth: I don’t really know. I truly don’t. When problems feel THIS big, I feel this small. I raise my hands up, and shake my head. And feel like one drop in the ocean.

And then last night I attended a performance by Show Me Art’s Academy as part of their “Spreading the Love Youth Tour”. As I was waiting for the show to begin I read the back of the program: “SMAA, was established by Marty K. Casey, a little more than a year ago, due to the civil unrest in Ferguson, which highlighted very serious concerns for the overall welfare of youth in the St. Louis area.” Marty got on stage before the performance and told us that she wanted to be part of the solution, and she had this idea that she could use music to heal. She called her friends, she rolled up her sleeves, and took a risk.

And there I was watching a group of 20 students, both white and black from all different zip codes sing their hearts out. The final song was “Glory”. The lead vocalist was young girl. She came out on stage with crutches and sat on a stool. The song began to build as the Hazelwood Drumline circled around the audience. The volume grew, and their powerful voices rang out:

“The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful
We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through
Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually…”

The crowd was on their feet. I watched young singer’s face change as she saw us: white and black, young and old rise to our feet. I looked around and saw everyone begin to join hands. My eight-year-old son set his program down and grabbed the black man’s hand next to him, I reached for the woman’s hand to my right. And we lifted our arms together. The music poured into our souls. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and the girl on the stage could see this, the kids singing on stage could see this, they were healing us. Their words, their voices, their passion, it ignited the room. This is what healing looks like.

When I was falling asleep last night I kept hearing the words, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Watch the video. And turn off the voices inside your brain that attempt to make Alton the “other”.

There is no other. There is only us.

As my one of my favorite bloggers, Glennon Doyle Melton, always says: “we belong to each other.”   This is a crisis. This is a cancer. How many more lives will be lost before we open our eyes?