It’s been a while since I’ve been able to find a block of time to sit down and write. These writing sessions take me hours. And last time I wrote was in early December. Between then and now I’ve had to accomplish all the Christmas decorating, shopping, wrapping, and all that holiday stuff, have had multiple blood tests and physical exams, and have two more chemotherapy treatments under my belt. That makes a total of five now. The very minimum I have to accomplish is six, and that’s providing there’s no more evidence of cancer in my body. I am scheduled for a PET scan later this month, so that will tell us a lot about where I stand with treatment. Of course, as I always try to do, I am hoping for the best, but am working on my willingness to accept the worst. Like I have shared so many times before, accepting the reality of cancer requires a delicate balance between acknowledging the gravity of the prognosis, but not dwelling on the discouragement that may come with it, but also not being so optimistic that I’m unrealistic- cautiously hopeful. In the words of a clinical oncologist, my charted prognosis would be described as “guarded”. And that basically means uncertain, cautiously hopeful.
Remaining cautiously hopeful is a lot like riding a bike. Balance. During some fellowship time with my Pastor recently, God spoke to me: it’s a lot harder to balance on a bicycle when you’re sitting still on it. I knew that was a message I was supposed to do something with, but I didn’t know what. So I came home and wrote it down. That was two weeks ago. And since then I’ve thought a lot about what that really means in my life. I’ve found it peculiar that when I went through treatment the first time I wrote a lot about the metaphors in nature: the drowning in the sea, the swirling eddies stirring up sediment, the climbing of mountains, and the long journeys in the valleys. And now God is speaking to me through childhood activities: riding merry-go-rounds, running races, and riding bikes. So I’ve reminisced a lot about my own childhood experience lately, trying to relate it to my process of healing. I had a bike. I rode it around the neighborhood and down to the store to buy candy. And I fell off of it a few times too. And yes, the falling was either when I was not moving at all, or moving too slowly. It is harder to balance a bicycle in those circumstances. And it really wasn’t until this past week that I’ve been able to put this all together- riding fast with total concentration isn’t running away from something, and it isn’t a diversion to fully living life; it’s keeping a balance so that fear doesn’t completely immobilize me and cause me to fall off. Both times around with this cancer I’ve struggled, wondering if my self-absorption in the daily monotony of life was some insidious form of denial that was causing me to not embrace life as fully as I should given the fact I may be dying. It’s because of one of those bad ideas I’ve been sold- that to live fully I have to go skydive and climb the Rocky Mountains. But now I can see myself as a little tom-boyish girl, tongue peeping out the side of my mouth, my brow all scrunched up, giving those peddles all I have in the dogged determination to keep momentum so I can maintain balance. I don’t even really know what street I’m on sometimes because I’m so pre-occupied with just keeping the peddles turning. The only thing I’m really sure of is where this bike ride will eventually take me. And although my ride’s not glamorous, it’s not extraordinary, there actually is some Zen going on there, because embracing the monotony of life is embracing all the moments in our lives, and therefore the total of life itself. I don’t have to peak a mountain to live like today is my last day. My intensity has always made it hard for me to see the forest through the trees. But this merry-go-round, followed by this bicycle ride, has been God’s way of allowing me to glimpse it, and to find some deep and healing peace.
Each day that goes by I realize even more fully what is important. And it isn’t Rocky Mountain climbing, or sky diving, or even eating chocolate, or smelling roses. I turned 34 years old in December, and I’m still growing up. I’m still having to let go of expectations of what my life was supposed to look like at 34 years old, and am still learning how to settle into myself and appreciate life in a deeper way. That furiously determined bicycle ride down the road this past month has taken me to some interesting places. My last chemotherapy treatment (December 26th) will have been two weeks ago this coming Tuesday, and I have not had one day, or even one hour, to rest since then. It’s as if I was trying to slow down a little, but through a metaphor of a bicycle God was prophetically warning me to hold on tight and start peddling faster. As soon as I got finished putting all the Christmas decorations up, it was Christmas, and then time to take them all down again. This Christmas went by so fast I almost feel like I missed it. But it was also more sentimental than previous years, because the reality that this would be our last Christmas together as a family was heavy on my heart. Justin still has plans to join the Marine Corp. And although his longing for independence and defiance against parental authority causes him to swear he’ll never come home for Christmas, we know better. But coming home to visit is just not the same. I don’t know if it’s Justin’s impending absence or my progress in processing my cancer recurrence, but connections seem deeper now than they ever have been. The monotonous moments themselves are more “Zen-like”. In reading through some things I had written to Al in previous months, I came across this, dated more than six months ago: “…anyway, I miss you madly. Life is so short, so temporary, so fragile, so unpredictable. I wish we could all enjoy one another more, love deeper. It seems like it’s those closest to us, who mean the most, who we would miss the most, are those we most take for granted, who we most trespass against. I’m really praying about that this week- that we’ll cherish more, protect more, grace more. All of us. ……….I know you’ll join me in that prayer”. And so it is. Several months and a cancer recurrence later and my prayers are being answered.
This past week Justin was hospitalized for a staph infection that took over his forehead and moved into his eye lid and lower eye socket. He most likely picked it up from the wrestling mat at school. The infection was quite aggressive and resistant to treatment, but because of the location it posed some very dangerous potential complications and he really needed to be in the hospital. That kept me going all week, as I went from spending all night in the emergency room, to bringing him home, taking him back to the doctor again, and then to the hospital. I got about 10 hours of sleep in more than 72 hours of adrenaline-driven peddling, and waited around in numerous waiting rooms full of vomiting and coughing people. It’s a miracle I was able to hold up and have not ended up in the hospital myself, because my white blood cell count remains lower than normal, as does my red blood cell count. But, by the grace of God the peddling took me past the point of no return. After a traumatic ten hour overnight emergency room visit, Justin and I made it to my car in half a daze. The sun was barely coming up, and it was about 32 degrees outside, so I let my car warm us up before I started off to the pharmacy to get his prescriptions. In those few minutes Justin had time to consider all that he had been through the previous night- the torturously long wait, the vending machine stealing the remaining change I had to buy him some water, his ever-swelling eyelid, the morphine, and the doctor lancing his forehead and attempting to drain out the infectious fluid. He has never been through anything like that before. And feeling so suddenly helpless over his health, flooded by fear and frustration, he had a glimpse into what I have been going through for over three years now. So he comments about his ordeal, and I remind him that what he had just gone through is about a tenth of what I have been through with more than 8 surgeries, 14 chemotherapy treatments, 7 weeks of radiation, and probably over a hundred needle sticks. I went through a nasty infection too- a complication of my mastectomy. I often feel not only lonely, but frustrated that my family is so close to me, and God has provided me such strength, that they can’t really see the magnitude of what I do go through in my cancer treatment. So many times before when I have had to remind them of my limitations because I am in treatment, Justin has told me, “that’s nothing”, as if chemotherapy is a walk in the park. But now, after spending a night in the ER with him, knocking down doors to get him some help, and holding his hand all the way through it, he was an answer to my prayer. In response to my reminding him of all that I had been through, he reached out his hand, laid it on my arm, and said, “I know. Man, you’re one strong momma”. I was feeling the nirvana that comes when you’ve peddled up to the speed you need to be at and can take a brief moment to just enjoy the ride. Take a deep breath. But it’s more than nirvana. It cuts deep. It was like feeling my head in the clouds and my feet firmly on the ground at the same time. The emotion overwhelmed me. But I only allowed myself a few wandering tears. Without words, I knew Justin acknowledged the tears when our eyes briefly locked. There’s a certain look- that one where the soul is laid bare, and in some speechless moment we know it’s happened only because we have seen it, experienced it. Connection. But I quickly diverted, wiping my eyes and changing the subject. My spontaneous high-wire juggling act was necessary. It wasn’t because I was in fear of being vulnerable or perceived as somehow being weak. To the contrary- it was a monumental moment to be treasured. But my consciousness was seized by the subconscious reminder that too many tears can rob the moment of its’ sentimentality. This moment, this perfect moment, so full of grace, could not be overtaken by a drowning flood of emotion. It just had to be left in silence, a moment in time when we saw into one another and connected. Back to peddling.
But there has to even be a balance in the speed you ride that bike. Going too slow can cause instability, but if you go too fast you can become unstable too. And I’m definitely at breaking point. I don’t like starting my week out so exhausted and with too many unfinished tasks that got pushed over because of the crisis last week. Tomorrow the kids all go back to school after their two week break. You’d think that means a break for me, but actually, they all three go different directions and at overlapping times in the mornings and afternoons, so at least twice a day I get to be the taxi. I have another full week ahead of me. I have to make an effort this week to get to work to box up the stuff in my office so someone else can move in. I have blood tests I have to go to the lab for, follow-up appointments to take Justin to, bills to pay and the checkbook to balance, thank you notes to write, and phone calls and e-mails I need to return. It reminds me of that Robert Frost poem- miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening). But I just keep peddling. This is a significant month because a lot will happen this month for me in terms of my cancer treatment and prognosis. It’s also the start of a new year, by our calendar. I’ve never been one to make resolutions. But I am struggling towards a better diet. I have to cut out sugar and lower carbs. The Decadron, which is a steroid, I get with the chemotherapy is causing me to have diabetes. I don’t have to inject insulin yet, but I do have to take it very seriously. I always gain weight when I’m in treatment too, because of the Decadron. But I will know within the next couple weeks whether treatment will continue indefinitely, or if I am getting closer to some sort of finish line (this time around). Either way, a break is much needed. I’d like to just coast downhill, not having to peddle so hard to keep the pace. I see Dr. Patel this month too. Maybe he’ll point me to the downhill part of the track so I can take a little rest. Either way, I’m sure I’ll have a lot to share by the end of the month, and I hope my knees and elbows aren’t too bruised and scabbed by then. I hope I can just keep a steady pace and balance. And I hope I have even more of those moments that remind me I am living fully amidst the monotony.
Always in His Grace,
Growing up is not an absence of dreaming
It’s being able to understand the difference between the ones you can hold
And the ones that you’ve been sold
And Dreaming is a good thing cause it brings new things to life
But pretending is an ending that perpetuates a lie
Forgetting what you are
Seeing for what you’ve been told
Ohh truth is stranger than fiction
This is my chance to get it right
And life is much better without all of those pretty lies
Ohh So Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
And you can keep your yellow brick road
There is a difference between dreaming and pretending
These are not tears in my eyes
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
I found what’s missing in my life
(Jewel- Goodbye Alice in Wonderland)