Library

I was passing through the school library when I heard a small voice.

“Are you Mrs. Heidi Jones?”

“Yep!”

“Did you used to have cancer?”

I had to think for a minute on how to answer that.  Did I USED TO HAVE cancer?  Do I still technically have cancer?  Am I a survivor?  A patient?  When you are undergoing the first rounds of radiation treatments, it is difficult to feel FINISHED.  SOMETHING is being treated.

There is nothing inherently frightening about a radiation treatment.  It doesn’t take long, and everyone is LOVELY.  The only necessary skills are holding still and breathing on command.  Nailed it round one.

I HATE going.

All of the logical self-talk in the world can’t talk me into seeing this process solely as the opportunity to heal and stay well.  I know this, because I have literally used up all of the self-talk in the world.  I put on a happy face – except for treatment two – when unruly tears persisted in traitorously spilling down my cheeks (positive note – it did not devolve into the ugly cry).  I protested, “I don’t even know why I am crying.”

But, I did.

Every day, I have to confront the cancer.  I have to look at a chest marked with angry scars and radiation paint markings covered with tape.  I look like a map.  The kind you see on the wall of a METRO train – a hundred possible stops.  I remind myself –  just keep going until you reach YOUR station.  I’m ready to hear that it is time to exit the cancer train.

Which brings me back to my little friend in the library.

“Did you used to have cancer?”

“Well, they cut it out, so I guess you could say that I USED TO HAVE cancer.”

“You don’t have it no more?”

“I think maybe I don’t…”

“YOU BEAT CANCER????”

“I think maybe I did!”

“CONGRATULATIONS!!!”

Leave it to a child.  A child who I do not know, as she is in a lower grade and has not come through my hands yet.  Her small voice – walking me through the positive declaration that I USED TO HAVE cancer.  Celebrating LIFE in a chance meeting in the school library.  Today, my radiation treatment didn’t bother me a bit.

 

 

Now

When I posted on Facebook that I had breast cancer, the outpouring of love was overwhelming.  Everything from prayers – to meals – to hand holding – to house cleaning (yes…I am serious) was offered without hesitation.  A friend from childhood posted “I’ll be praying for you.”  I knew she would.

I was living in a state of uncertainty as I waited for the total picture of my cancer diagnosis.  Staging sounds so fun – on a home improvement show.  Grade indicates worth – in a diamond.  In the world of cancer, staging and grade reflect how difficult life is about to become.  In the face of the unknown, I pondered all possibilities.

What would I do if I had THIS much time?  How would I change my life if I knew it would last THIS long?  Which begs the question – WHY would possible impending death  lead me to live differently?  Would I savor the precious quality of life more?  Would I take more risks?  Love better?  Walk in gratitude for every breath?  Why wasn’t I doing all of that already?

The truth is, possible impending death is a significant part of the human story – from birth.  One day will be the day.  My childhood friend who committed to pray for me died completely unexpectedly a week after I had my mastectomy.  Her worries had been for my run in with the big C – not knowing what was just around her corner.

The adage to live like you are dying is not new.  What it is is WISE.

You have NOW – what will you do with it?

Reaction Time

We were walking home from school together when Gina’s older sister called out from across the street.  Gina just ran.  No looking.  No caution.  All go.

Seven years old.  That is the age I was when I saw my friend get hit by a car.  Only, it didn’t just hit her.  It ran right over the top of her, leaving her trapped underneath the back left tire.  I can picture it in my mind’s eye like it happened earlier today.  The panicked look on the driver’s face as she jumped out, saw the pinned child, and rushed to move the car off of her crumpled body.  I distinctly remember that she was confused about whether she needed to pull forwards or back up.

I took this all in.  A seven year old pillar of stone.  No ability to help.  No idea what to do next.  Adults poured out of surrounding houses.  In light of the horrifying scene in the street, it is understandable that no one noticed a child panic-rooted to the sidewalk.

Eventually, I just walked the rest of the way home.  I let myself in.  Didn’t say a word about what I had just witnessed.  It was an hour before I told my mother what happened.  It took 24 hours to find out whether or not Gina survived.  She did.

Looking back, I am pretty sure that I was in shock.  Looking forward from that point until now, I am pretty sure that I have a significantly delayed reaction time to stressful events.  I don’t know if I was born this way – or if I learned it that day on Santa Clara Avenue.

So…

When the doctor said “cancer,” I didn’t cry.

When the plastic surgeon said “disfigurement,” I assured him that it wouldn’t bother me.

When the cardiologist said “more surgery,” I said, “Good thing – I need new wires!”

When people said “I’m so sorry,” I said, “No worries!”

I’m pretty good at stuffing and plowing ahead.  But, cancer IS scary.  Being disfigured DOES bother me (not enough for implants, but a little).  I DON’T want more surgery to relocate my pacemaker (even if I need new wires).  I’m SORRY about the cancer too.

True to form, about four weeks after surgery, I was able to really look at where I am and what has happened.  It is overwhelming from every angle.  The love has been like an ocean that just keeps crashing on the shore.  If you have ever been to the beach in Northern California – you know exactly what I am talking about.   Think Goat Rock.

“No worries” is just a foolish thing for someone like me to say.  I DO worry.  In fact, I think I say “No worries” because I am worried about appearing worried.

Beat that.

I like to think that I am so unaffected by expectations of physical beauty or norms that my recent resemblance to Flat Stanley is unimportant and of minimal consequence.  While it is true – I am not completely undone – I am just the tiniest bit unraveled around the edges.  Like a frayed hem.  I know this because when my husband asked me if I would like for him to dump my bra drawer to make room for other items that I “will use” – I said “NO” – and I said it with a THE VERY IDEA!!! tone.

More surgery.  Does anyone vote for that?

As I endeavor to be brave – to lean in to the lesson – to unleash the inner warrior – I am reminded that IGNORING what is happening is not the best strategy to rise above.  It might look brave – but it is actually that old panic-rooted to the sidewalk mode.  I think that true bravery comes in the same moments when you are trembling and tearful – but resolved to face what is actually happening.

After a season in a full body cast, Gina went on to live and thrive.  So.  Will.  I.

 

 

 

Ride

Tck…tck…tck…tck…cha-CHUNK.  A roller coaster climbs.  Just the thought of that sound makes my entire body clench.  It is really the worst kind of anticipation.  Dread…dread…dread…dread…DOOM.  My favorite part of a roller coaster is exiting the ride.  Even if it is on Jello legs.

“The Beast” is located at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio.  It is the longest wooden roller coaster in the world.  It is also the site of one of the most phenomenal errors in judgment that I have ever made.  From the line, all the way to the point of boarding, you can see what you (naively) believe is the entire ride.  The actual truth is that the ride covers more than 35 acres.  What you are looking at is only the first half.  While the average coaster ride is completed in just under two minutes, “The Beast” takes over four.  Isn’t that nice?The reason that it goes for so long is the most diabolical feature of all.  It has a second chain lift hill, LARGER than the first.  At the exact moment when the ride begins to slow, and you think that you have survived to see another day, you find that you are actually beginning a SECOND tck…tck…tck… up a monstrous incline.  NOW you can see what you were blithely unaware of as you boarded this death machine, and each “tck” reinforces the fact that you have zero options to save yourself.

That second chain lift hill made me irrationally angry.  I had already paid my dues.  I did NOT sign up for this.  The people who designed this were EVIL.  How could they expect MORE out of me?  My body went rigid. Preemptive rigor mortis.  The g-force inside of me far surpassed anything that was happening on the outside.  I resisted every drop, twist, and turn.

The next day, I felt like I had been in a car wreck.  Like I was driving a Mini-Cooper and I was T-boned by a semi.

I can’t help but compare this experience to life.  You think you know what you signed up for at the beginning.  You calculate the risks from what you can see.  You put yourself in the seat, acknowledging that there will be difficulties.  You power your way through.  Finally, you begin to relax, as you believe that you have made it through the hard parts.

Then along comes that second chain lift hill.  Bigger, scarier, completely unfamiliar.

You can rage at the machine.  You can resist with every molecule in your body.  You can become as rigid as cement.

You will feel like you have been in a car wreck.

OR,

You can acknowledge that you are afraid, and guess what – that is perfectly OK.  You can embrace the unknown as simply that – not previously known – not pending apocalyptic doom.  You can attempt to enjoy what is decidedly out of your comfort zone. Raise your arms, let out that half scream/half laugh.  Unclench.  Remind yourself that you are not strapped to a runaway boxcar – even if it feels that way.  There is a track supporting and directing your every move.  Which, by the way, it has been doing since the beginning.  Just because you felt like you were making an informed choice to participate in part A – and part B came as a shock – doesn’t mean that you were ever in charge of the ride.  You aren’t driving.  They don’t call it a “drive.”  They call it a “ride.”  It feels out of control because you don’t have a steering wheel and brakes.  Guess what – you never did.

Relax.  Ride.  Look around you.  You are not riding alone.

 

 

Work in Progress

Recently, I came across an article titled “My Name is Cancer”  or “Call me Cancer” or something like that.  Truth is, I was so appalled by the idea I scrolled past as fast as my index finger could go.  I can’t speak to the article – clearly – as I read nothing but the title (and even that is up for debate).  So, no offense if you wrote it.

Why was I appalled then?  My identity is not, and will never be, cancer.

It will never be cardiac block or Graves’ Disease or the common cold either.

This experience is real, and it is tough.  But, it is not me.

I believe that the defining moments in a life should be the things that resonate with your soul.   The times when you feel most authentically you.  When they placed my children in my arms?  THOSE were defining moments.  I can tell you another good one.  I was a sophomore in high school, and I spent my spring break working with underprivileged children in downtown Oakland.  THAT was a defining moment.  I can identify these experiences as defining moments because they were instances of clear recognition of the divine calling on my life.  I was obviously wired to be a mother to many.  These  were great AH-HA moments.

Getting cancer is not an AH- HA moment – it is an Oh-Crap moment.

I think that perhaps this is what happens to some folks.  The Oh-Crap moments overshadow the awareness of  divine calling.  The tragedies become the defining moments.  Life was never meant to be a tragedy.  In life you WILL have troubles.  Jesus said this – immediately followed by – BUT FEAR NOT.  Bad things happen.  Don’t lose sight of the divine calling on your life.  You were born to fill a hole that only you can fill.

I prefer to think of getting cancer as a REFINING moment.  Refining gets rid of unwanted elements and makes improvements.  It is never a bad time to get rid of the things that creep in to hold you back.  It is always a good day to make improvements.

Call me a work in progress.  Always progress.  I’m OK with that.

 

 

 

Scars

I went to nursing school when I was 18.  I was an excellent student.  Until clinicals.  I once had dry heaves when a patient handed me a used Kleenex.  This is not hyperbole.  It happened.  I fainted with astounding consistency.  Usually the only warning I had was the carpet pattern mysteriously growing larger and larger as it rushed towards my face.

I did not become a nurse.  It is fair to say that I am a medical lightweight.  If someone vomits.  If someone appears as though they might vomit.   No point looking for my lunch, it is lost.

Now that I am a teacher, if a student approaches me with a hand suspiciously over the mouth, I become an auctioneer  – barking, “Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go!!!!!” as I wildly point towards the restrooms.

So, I currently find myself with a bit of a conundrum.  The scar on my chest makes me feel both faint and nauseous.  Oh sure, I  joke about it.  I say, “I look like I was in ‘The Revenant’.”  But looking at it?  Taking a shower?  I have to do some serious self talk.  To be clear, this is not necessarily linked to the emotional journey of losing a body part or parts.  This is a straight up BLECCCCCCCCCCCCCHHHHHHH reaction.  I had the same response when I had my thyroid removed.  Initially, the scar made it look a lot like I was the recipient of a head transplant.

I have a lot of scars.  There is one on my ankle from an ill-fated bike ride that my brother attempted when I was a toddler.  I have no memory of it.  He wells up whenever he sees the scar.  There is something validating when someone sees your scar and feels your pain.  Unseen scars seem a little more difficult to handle.

We all have unseen scars.  The internal wounds usually cause the most damage.  Abuse.  Betrayal.  Disappointment.  Injustice.  So often, we emotionally limp around without ever feeling seen.  The seeing is important to feeling OK.  I have no plans to pull a Mardi Gras, but if I am completely honest, there is a part of me that thinks – if you could see this.  If you could feel what is happening up under here.  It is NOT pretty.

The more rational part of me remembers that scars are like road signs.  They only mark the names of roads.  They are not the journey.  You may have to look at the sign to verify where you are currently, but to focus on the road sign would be to miss the ever changing scenery.  The journey is so much bigger than one road.

Seasons

When you are standing at bus duty, in August, in Georgia, mentally willing hundreds of students to GET ON THE BUS, as sweat pools in every crease and dimple – it can be difficult to remember that in only a matter of months you will require 15 layers and an electric blanket to stand in the exact same spot.  Isn’t it strange that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, it is so easy to think that every uncomfortable circumstance is permanent?

One year, I had a particularly difficult group of students.  Not difficult like too chatty.  Difficult like, and I quote: “Why you always messing with me?  You best leave me alone. You hear me?  Do you hear me???”  This was one student’s daily response when asked to pick up a pencil and get to work.  DAILY.  When the morning announcements stated that it was the EIGHTH day of school – I was so stunned that I just cried.  I thought it was at least the EIGHTIETH day.  It was the year that would not end.

Time is not as straightforward as it seems on paper.

I have never been a good patient.  I am, however, an excellent impatient.

It has been 23 days since I had surgery.  A bilateral mastectomy.  Miles of stitches.  A virtual train track across my entire chest.  Uncomfortable?  Yes, indeed.  I have been mentally willing the healing process to GET ON THE BUS!  It seems like there is NO WAY that it has been 23 days – more like 230.  I wonder if there will ever be a day when I have no pain, and I can go back to work and have my life back.

Then I remember several things.

This is a season.  Seasons change.  Not overnight.  In due time.

I don’t want my life BACK.  I want my life FORWARD.  I want to learn everything that I can from this experience.  I want to remember that in the midst of difficult circumstances beautiful and wonderful things happen.  The year that I had such a difficult class ultimately included some of my most favorite students.  It wasn’t an all or nothing proposition.  And August in Georgia – which is unbearable for anyone who doesn’t enjoy feeling like a marinated shrimp on the barbie – eventually gives way to a spectacularly beautiful fall.

These hard days are not permanent.  They are also not solely difficult.  They are filled with love and support – hope and courage – faith and joy.  Additionally, August – even in Georgia – is filled with expectation of new beginnings.  The school year rolls out from there.  If you can remember (while you are sweating profusely) what all lies ahead, it can be exciting to anticipate.

In the midst of this somewhat uncomfortable season, I am more than excited to know that I have a whole life ahead of me.