Out of the Darkness

“Only after you are broken, can you know what you are made of”

How did the Thailand Wild Boars soccer team survive for 17 long days in a damp, dark cave.  They had no idea whether they would be saved.  They had no idea how long it would be until someone noticed they were even missing.  How is it that they did not just throw in the towel?

Grit?

Resilience?

Faith?

Team spirit?

It would seem that many are attributing their survival before their rescue to their coach.  A former monk, he taught the boys how to meditate.  Not only did this help to lower their need for oxygen – in an atmosphere that was oxygen deprived, but it also helped them to remain mentally calm.  Reports suggest they were meditating when the British scuba diver(s) found the boys.

The boys could not swim, they could not dive.  The path in front of them was down-right perilous.  The cave was pitch black.  The waters were turbulent and resembled coffee with cream.  The team was weak from lack of food, water, and potential infections.  If that doesn’t constitute a break, I’m not sure what does.

“Stacey, do you relate to this story at all?” asked my friend Sandra of me this morning?  “Did you feel like you were in a cave when you were first diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian cancer?” Now, there was an interested parallel in which I could sink my teeth.

That was a good question.  But I had a pretty quick answer.  “Yes. yes, I do relate.”  My diagnosis threw me into a cave of sorts.  I was lost, in the dark.   I didn’t know when or where help would arrive.  I was cold, numb.  I did almost everything I wasn’t supposed to do:  panic, read about my illness on the internet…. you know the story.  I couldn’t believe the world slept while I was wide awake in the middle of the night.  I was dying.  How could people sleep?  I felt almost trapped in my own body – all I wanted was for someone to cut the cancer out of me!  I had to learn patience.  I had to learn to not panic.  I had to learn to accept my reality without losing hope.  Yes – I could related to those boys.

My oncologist, my surgeon, my family and friends taught me how to meditate per se.  I received medical care swiftly and, although, there were no guarantees, I felt that I had partners in my health care and that these partners were much more capable of saving me at that moment than I was of saving myself.  I had no choice but to turn my life over to them.  Like the cave divers, however, my doctors were sort of navigating in an arena where there were no clear answers.  They could not guarantee they could save me – and time was ticking.  I went through chemo – surgery – more chemo.  Then more chemo.  I lost my hair three times.  When it seemed the chemo could no longer shrink my tumors, I met with doctors from Toronto General who told me about two more options:  immunotherapy and a freshly approved drug:  Lynparza (Olaparib).  Either choice was risky as neither one was really clear in terms of whether it would “save” me/ prolong my life.  Both were “shot in the dark” solutions.

I chose.  My family and I chose.  My doctors and I chose.  We chose to go the Lynparza route.

Like the boys being extracted out of the cave, my treatment too was perilous.  It was scary.  I counted on the advice and expertise of others.  I gave myself to medicine.

I was “rescued”.  To date, I have been in a drug-induced remission.  I have my doctors, the medical community, and my family and friends to thank for that.  They are my heroes.  They may not have made it to the international news – but they most certainly have made the same impact to me as the divers made to the Wild Boars Soccer Team.  I am alive today because of them – and because I believed in a solution.  I had faith in the process.  And there was some mighty Divine Intervention that had to have happened.  In my opinion.

I have lived for nearly four years now with a previously “fatal” form of cancer.  I am at peace with it.  I have not resigned myself to it – but I have become stronger because of it.  It took a lot of counselling and therapy to help me deal with my “new” reality, with the fears associated with having cancer, and with the memories of the trauma.  The mental healing was, quite truthfully, more challenging than the physical healing.  And I would anticipate the soccer team may require the same course of therapy to help them to emotionally deal with their ordeal as well.  Their journey of recovery has only just begun.

Yes.  I can relate.

I cannot presume to compare our journeys, but I feel I can walk a mile – have walked a mile – in their shoes.  I am confident that, with the proper help, with prayer, and with patience and support from others, they will see they are made of tough stuff.  I can only imagine what they will go on to achieve for themselves and, perhaps, for others.

Thank God for this very happy ending for the team – that in truth – is their beginning.

And I thank God for mine.

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Posted in cancer, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

In The Whispers of the Wind

(Thanks for the inspiration, Colleen Brown (https://bikecolleenbrown.wordpress.com/2018/07/09/i-listen-for-the-whisper/)

If I sit still enough
If I sit long enough and
If I am quiet enough –
I hear the voices…

They are whispers of the past.  They are promises of today and dreams for the future.

In the calm. In the quiet.  In the moment.  I rest my mind to focus on the here and now.

The doctor speaks.  Her words are unclear.  My immediate future is about to set its course through her words, “You are good for another three weeks, Stacey”, or “You need further treatment”.

My mind races.  My nerves fray.  I wait.  One more hour.  For the verdict on my immediate future.

It never changes.  I’m always walking on eggshells.  What will my blood work reveal?  Will I be able to manage?

The wind sends whispers.
I need to listen.
Feel them on my face.
Inhale the ethereal message.

Have hope.  Have courage.  All in due time, Stacey, all in due time.

So

I sit still
I prepare
I wait
And listen for the message.

Posted in acceptance, appreciation, cancer, fear, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

First Steps

I remember my first steps.  I was afraid.  I wasn’t sure how far I would be able to walk, whether my stitches would hold up under the weight of my body, whether I would trip and fall… Kevin was beside me all the way.  And that made all the difference.

Having cancer takes its toll on the body.  Everyone knows that.  Over the past few years, I have learned when I can and cannot do.  I have learned what aches and pains are normal.  I have learned what lumps and bumps are scar tissue and non-threatening and which bumps need to be addressed.  Anyone who has had cancer, and likely any other life-threatening disease or injury, must learn their own body.   I get tired and weary.  I find it difficult / challenging/ impossible at times, to travel long distances.  The flight to Abu Dhabi nearly did me in!  (Worth it though) Sometimes simply lying down helps.  Sometimes I need to sleep.  Sometimes sleeping helps and other times it hinders.  The weight gain simply pisses me off.  My waist will never recover.  I have to accept that.  I need to accept that.  I need to put every physical consequence into perspective.  In spite of the fact that my body has changed, aged, sagged, and sometimes now drags – I remember I am alive.  One step at a time.

The other challenge – which I knew I would face but didn’t realize would take precedence over physical healing – was the emotional and mental healing.  I have grieved the loss of friends, family, both of my parents.  I am no stranger to the grieving process.  I never imagined, however, that I would grieve the loss of my health.  Additionally, I didn’t realize that PTSD would kick in.  While the physical healing (thank God I was able to heal) was difficult – the emotional was, and continues to be at times, nearly insurmountable.  I could not heal emotionally on my own.  I sought professional help.  And I found it.  I did not want to burden my friends and my family with my darkest thoughts – which were pretty dark in the beginning.  But, somehow, paying someone to listen to me was okay.  This someone became pretty special to me – my therapist, Kelly, was amazing.  She helped me walk my “first steps” towards emotional recovery – one step at a time.

Once I had managed to walk down the hallway at Toronto General Hospital, I was encouraged to walk more.  The painkillers helped me.  The nurses, I remember, kept telling me, “Don’t be a hero, Stacey!  Use the pain meds when you need them.  You will heal better because you will do more when you don’t have pain.” I was leery.  I did not want drugs to interfere with my healing.  The nurses were right.  It seemed as time went on – the nurses were more and more right.  Of course, I had to be convinced of this – honestly, what did I know?  Nothing.  They had seen hundreds, thousands of patients healing and knew far better.  I used the pain killers.  I made it around the nursing stations several laps.  Then more laps.  And then more.

My discharge to home scared the hell out of me.  How would I even manage the seat belt?  What if my stitches ripped open?  I had, if I remember correctly, over 50 stitches.  But – I made it.  Kevin reclined the seat for me and buckled me up – he was careful to not hit too many bumps on the way home.  Step by step – we made it!

Hitting the bed at home was amazing.  There is nothing like returning to your own bed to heal.  The difference was, I couldn’t use my stomach muscles to help me.  The nurses had taught me to swing my legs over the edge of the bed and use my arms to push myself up.  “But keep working at it!” they advised me.  Of course, it was the reverse when I came to lie back down.  Kinda tricky – I remember laughing.  I guess a nervous response.  I was a back-sleeper for a while.  A long while.  Of course.  But eventually, my muscles recovered.  I did sit ups very carefully.  Since my diaphragm had been cut and stitched as well, I had to stretch it through breathing exercises too.  The devise was a tube into which I had to blow and try to float the little ping-pong balls to the top.  Tough at first.  But just like walking and sitting up, breathing became easier – one step at a time.

Recovery was all about baby steps.  I was a child, all over again, taking my first steps.  I was nervous, hesitant, and curious all at once.  I needed help.  I didn’t want help.  I took help.  I craved my independence.  I embraced the challenge.  I rejoiced at my success.  I was impatient with my successes.  I took support.  I yearned for the praise and encouragement of others.  They supported me.  They continue to support me.  In so many ways, I feel I am still taking my first steps.  Helping others to take their first steps towards recovery – are my first steps too.  Helping others to navigate their disease and their new lives – feels like I am navigating a new life too.  My baby steps continue.  I am still recovering.

I suppose we all take first steps every day.  Every day is a new beginning.  There are new challenges, new opportunities, new conquests.  New firsts.  Having cancer opened my eyes to seeing the newness of life, the fresh starts… the joy of walking.  Although I will continue to walk the rest of my days with ovarian cancer, it no longer scares me as a partner.  I have developed a healthier (kinda of an oxymoron) relationship with my cancer.  There will be ups and downs, of this I am certain.  But – we will take it one day at a time.

One step at a time is the best way to take our first steps.  And never alone.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Yes, I Am Alive

“Stacey?” I heard the woman call out to me.  “You are still alive?!” she exclaimed.

I glanced to the right, over the kale and strawberry plants sitting on the check-out counter of the Zhers outdoor garden centre, and landed my gaze on a woman who looked vaguely unfamiliar.  I stared.  I didn’t mean to stare.  But I had no clue who this woman was – who clearly knew me – and knew my cancer story.

“Yes I am!” I replied – not knowing really what to say.  “I am so sorry – I have no memory – who are you?”

The woman identified herself.  She was a former student whom I had taught.  I had also taught her daughter.

“My daughter was devastated when she heard you had cancer.  She told me you had a year to live.  She was so upset.  I told her to have faith and that if anyone could beat cancer, it would be you.  And look!  I was right!”

I wish I had had that woman’s faith three and a half years ago.

It was a most unusual setting for an unusual encounter – which triggered a flood of memories and a wave a self-reflection which has lead me to this particular morning.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything.  I guess it is because I haven’t felt that I had anything new to say.  I’ve had no great revelations.  No insights.  No real struggles – no real accomplishments.  But the truth of the matter is – I’ve been living.  And living has meant being out there.  Not here.  And life has been flying by.

This revelation came to me yesterday during my walk with Jazz, my dog.  I had just entered into the Bear Creek Wetland when I was gleefully awakened by the sights and smells of summer.  I came out of my head and into the “now”.  I became present in the day – in my life – in that moment.  The green of the fresh growth along the path was crisp and fresh.  The heat of the summer sun warmed the unripened raspberry bushes enough that their scent drifted only slightly away from the plant and permitted me to inhale it’s fragrant promise of fruit-to-come.  There were promises everywhere:  in the sun streaked woods, the shadowed nooks and crannies, and in the morning breeze.  I felt alive.  I touched the morning at the same time I touched the noon.  I lived in the memories of my childhood as I walked in today’s shoes.  Everything was complete and I was a part of it.

I am still alive.  I am.  I can hardly believe it sometimes.  It has been a long journey through these past three and a half years living through, then with, then through, and once again and forever – with cancer.  To think I knew I would die – to now when I think I will live – is a thought that never once occurred to me to be possible.  Life is funny.  It really has no story until it is lived.  And then, if it is not enjoyed, then it has no purpose.  And my life – if nothing else – I believe has had great purpose.

A bucket list? Someone asked me recently if I had a bucket list.  I do.  All my adult life I was busy giving myself to others.  I was happy to do so.  My teaching gave me great meaning and purpose.  It was my way of helping others who, I believed, had no one to offer them a hand “up” and out of their circumstances.  I gave and gave and gave.  And I wanted to give more.  I still do.  But funny how Mother Nature/ Life/ God/ Whatever force it is – simply has a different plan.  Thank God.  Thank God because here I am with the ability to give now to my family.  My life as a teacher in a school is over, but my life as a wife and a Mom is just beginning.  My bucket list:  my family.  I want to “be here” for them.  And I can be – as long as I continue to take my pills (my oral chemo-therapy), I take care of my health, and I have faith that I am where I most need to be.

I have my limitations.  I am not as young as I once was.  I am not as nimble, fit, or sound as I once was.  I am stretching.  I spend time stretching my soul, my mind, and sometimes even my body.  Unlike being stretched thin before I was taken from my work as a teacher, I am now simply doing more of a reach.  There is a big difference.

I have learned to live.  I have slowed down and paused.  I have so much more insight on people, what motivates them, what motivates me.  I know when to back down from a fight.  I know when to step up to fight.  For the most part, at least.  Life is too short to spend time in conflict.  A life well lived is a life that is loved.

When I was first diagnosed, I thought there was no room in the world for me anymore.  I lay awake at night wondering how the world could simply go on – sleep – wake – while I was dying.  I was mad.  I was scared.  I was so very scared.  What would it be like to die ?  What would my death look like?  All of these thoughts ran through my head – while the world outside my window slept.

As the days, months, and years have passed, I still remark on that feeling right after my diagnosis.  I look from the same vantage point in my room – at the same tree outside my window, at the same dresser in my room, through the same eyes.  Now, my lens has changed.  I have a more focused vision – I have a different perspective.  My experiences have given me more of a life net that I would never have developed without a cancer diagnosis.

Fighting cancer is a battle that is not understood until one is in the ring.

It is not a battle that ought to be fought alone – so many individuals lives are impacted by the fight.  They are not always willing participants. Some are dragged in by circumstance/ geography.  Some volunteer to get dirt on themselves and are forever changed by the experience.

Yes.  I am alive.  And so are my kale and strawberry plants!

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My New Paradigm

“You are stronger than you think.”

These are the words I read in a post this morning.  I remember how I used to be able to push myself harder to achieve more.  I remember doing sit-ups and push-ups and step-ups and more.  And when I thought I could do no more, Vandie would encourage me with the words, “you are strong”,  or even, “you can do another 8, right?”.

And I was strong.  And I did another 8 more.

Yet, today, the phrase, “You are stronger than you think” has taken on an entirely different meaning for me today.  I know I am stronger – but it is not in a way I can predict or expect.  Endurance is not about another “8 more”.  Strength comes in so many different packages and they change day by day.

Today – I need strength to get out of bed.

Today – I need strength to face taking my son, Ben, back to school and trusting that he will be okay until I see him again.

Today – I need strength to trust that my daughter, Katya, is safe as she travels in a foreign country far, far away from home.

I need strength to take my chemo pills.  They are saving my life – but holy smokes, I gag every time I take them.

Today – I need strength to think positively about life.  I need to see the blessings I have.  I will actively encourage myself to move forward – to engage in the day – to … simply get out of bed.

I AM stronger than I think.  I WILL accomplish these goals.  Of this, I am certain.

My paradigm has shifted.

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The North-West Winds

The wind blows in from north-west today
A wind of grit and grime
And what do you suppose will bring that wind
Which gusts from time to time?

The trees, they quiver then stand quite still
Not sure which way to go
One thing for certain, one thing to expect
While moving to and fro –

A test of time, a test of faith
A test of courage, want, and strength
A gust to freeze their very core
Their distance, width, and length

Those winds are fierce, they have no end
Their touch turns life to dust
They menace us, they break our hearts
Yet trust in them – we must

We cannot control the winds which blow
We cannot stop their fate
We pick up pieces once they pass
And try to mitigate –

Our losses, trauma, tears, and breaks
For many do they seem
Yet, over time we realize
Into the wind  – we lean

We cannot fight, we cannot win
Yet, graceful can we be
As the trees which bow before its will
The wind will set us free

The dawn will break tomorrow morn
To illuminate our night
The wind will shift north-west to south
A reprieve from every fight

Rest gentle now for the south wind blows
Warm winds do soothe and calm
The sap of life runs rivers deep
“This” is Nature’s song

 

Posted in acceptance, inspiration, life, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Wind Beneath Her Wings

Remember that song by Bette Midler?  “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?”  I still cry when I hear those words.  My mother gave me a figurine once – a mother cuddling her daughter.  On the bottom was a wind-up crank which, when loaded, played that song.  “You are the wind beneath my wings.”  My mother always said I was the wind beneath her wings – I knew it was the other way around.  She was the wind beneath mine.  She lifted me up.  She encouraged me.  She helped me soar.  When she died,  I fell.  She had been my hero, my advocate, my defender.  And when I lost her – I lost myself.  I haven’t turned that crank for seven years…

Linda was the wind beneath Angela’s wings.  I taught Angela in grade 8.  I think I may have even fought to teach her.  We all did.  Angela was an inspiration.  And it was her mother, Linda, who was Angela’s inspiration.   Linda was Angela’s advocate, her defender, her provider.  She had taken Angela into her home when Angela was a wee girl.  It was Linda’s choice to raise Angela as her own – and she had make the right choice.  Angela grew into a fine, young woman.  She was always bright, daring, and ambitious.  And those qualities only became more apparent as Angela grew.

I am sad to have missed out on their lives once I moved away from Collingwood.  I often think about them and how they would have faced the challenges of moving through the high school years, university years, the dating… and so on.  I know there would have been rebellion.  There is always rebellion – it’s part of growing up.  I know there would have been defiance.  Always teen defiance.  There would have been heart-break, tears, and fear.  And more than anything – there would have been love.  Fierce love.  There would have been forgiveness, confidence, and joy.  Of these things I am as sure as rain.

How lucky for all of us who knew Linda and Angela, to have witnessed such a bond between mother and daughter.  It is a bond that one would read about in books, watch grow in the movies, and pine for in our own relationships.  It is one to which we could all aspire.  It wasn’t perfect – but it was real.  I will always remember how Linda would look at Angela – when nothing in particular was happening.  Although Angela may not have “caught” that glance, I know in my heart that she felt it.  It was a look that transcended time and space.  It was something molecular that vibrated to Angela’s very core.  Her smile was proof.  Angela had the most wonderful smile when she was with Linda.

Words needed no place in their relationship.  There were no words.

There are no words now.  How can I describe the sadness I feel when I think of what Angela has lost?  I am broken hearted.  “We” are broken hearted.  It is the end of a chapter in Angela’s life and she must continue to write her book – with one less pen. I feel the loss.  We feel her loss.

We, the Mountain View community, admired her.  We looked up to her.  We admired her.  We wondered how she had the courage, the tenacity, the energy to raise Angela.  We were happy she did.  We were elated to see Angela evolve through the years into a wonderful young woman.  We, the Mountain View community supported them.  We did not always use words.  I think Angela could feel our smiles for her, our silent congratulations, and our admiration.  One doesn’t not need words to communicate.   A life-time of encouragement and support lingers in the air as an invisible cloak which can wrap itself around an individual in times of grief.   A life-time of admiration can sustain the soul to feed to hungry void.  We, the Mountain View community will step in to walk beside Angela as she finds her footing once again.

It takes a community to raise a child.  It takes a loving parent to let a miracle evolve.  And the miracle lay in that very relationship Linda had built with Angela.

Loss can be raw and ragged.  But, overtime, it will heal.  Mother Time will dress the wound and stitch the gap.  The scar will never leave and we are forever changed.  Time marches on.  Sometimes, we hear the drum and our hearts beat in time.  Sometimes, the drum marches us forward and we are not even aware that we have moved.  This time – this moment – I am in step.  My heart beats.  My heart beats so hard that it hurts.  It aches.  The loss is raw.  The pounding is real.  I am at a loss for words.

Let us, the Mountain View community, linger with Linda’s memory a while.  Let us rejoice in the glory of the moments Linda and Angela shared together.  These moments are the fabric of their lives which, when stitched together, form the most magnificent quilt of life well lived – together.  Mother and daughter – a relationship to stand  the test of time.  Linda was, and will continue to be, the wind beneath Angela’s wings.

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What’s in Your DNA?

“Not to worry, Stacey.  I know you are not a criminal.”

Well, I knew I wasn’t too.  But it still made me review my life with a fine tooth comb and really think hard about whether I should have “released my DNA” to the world.  I questioned whether I should have spit into that tube for Ancestry.ca.  I questioned whether I should have released my organs for cancer research.  I questioned… well really anything I could.

As it turns out – my fingerprints did voice my innocence.  Well.  No dah.

I was invited to be a member of the “Family and Patient Advisory Committee” for the Cancer Unit with Royal Victoria Hospital.  Well, this invitation was given after a series of interviews and screening.  I was so honoured. I studied and I researched the position to determine if I felt that I was going to be able to contribute in a meaningful way.  This position matters.  And it matters a lot to me.  I have a sense of worth, once again.  I have a sense that what I do will count, once again.  And I have been given an opportunity to make a difference, once again.  To be a volunteer with Royal Victoria Hospital, one must do a Criminal Record Check and Vulnerable Sector Screening.  No biggie. Makes sense.  I went and did my paperwork.  I submitted it and then waited.  It takes a while.  A few weeks later my results were in.  And I was asked to come in to do fingerprints.

What?

Yes.

Holy smokes.  It was like being called to the Principal’s Office.  You know you haven’t done anything wrong – but you search your memory banks anyhow.  And you stress.  Because you can’t think of anything you did wrong.  So – you create odd scenarios in which someone may have stolen your identity – or someone had a hate on for you and wanted to “burn” you.  ETC.  Yes.  It’s like being called to the Principal’s Office – only worse because the end result would be you being taken away in hand cuffs.

I think it is obvious that I was cleared.  But what happened?

I understand now, that if a person is convicted of a crime, serves their time, and then is released, he/she often changes his/her name.  Makes sense.  Everyone deserves a fresh start.  A new name gives that fresh start.  But no matter what the name – no one can change their birth date. And it was this detail that scored me a hit on the RCMP’s watch list.  Someone with my same date of birth had committed a crime.  Well – I’m sure there are many people born on my same birth date.  And it turns out – many people born outside of Canada with my same birth date.

Thank goodness for finger prints.  Honestly.  My prints spoke for me.  They spoke of my innocence.  They spoke of my hard and honest work as a teacher.  Their reputation as a good person proceeded me.  Thank goodness.

I don’t think I’m the only one that doesn’t like getting called to the Principal’s Office.  I highly doubt I’m the only one who automatically thinks the worst.  At least – I hope I’m not.  Cuz that would suck.  That would mean I’m abnormally paranoid.  Which I don’t think I am – right?  No.  No I’m not.

In any case – this clearance allows me to begin my volunteer position at RVH.

I am thrilled.

I am finally healthy enough to use my brain once again.

I miss teaching.  I miss everything about it.  I was so very fortunate to have had such a rewarding career.  Yet, I know I cannot return to it.  I just don’t have the energy or ability anymore.  I like to pretend it is not cancer that has prevented me from teaching, rather, that I have “retired”.  And when one is retired, one is able to volunteer.  And that is what I am going to do.  I have closed the chapter on teaching – at least in the way I had taught for 28ish years – and am about to open a new chapter on ‘advising”. I have a new chapter to write. I have more to give.  I have more to contribute.  I am excited.  And I need to pace myself.

I know that I will somehow leave my mark at RVH.  It’s the least I can do to give back for the life they have given back to me. And to my family.  I am so grateful.  I am filled with appreciation.  I will do my very best to make a difference and help others to have the same quality of life that I currently enjoy.  Why not?  Indeed why not?  After all – it’s in my DNA!

 

Posted in acceptance, cancer, Cancer Journey, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

My Mother Would Have Been Pleased

“Want to stay for a coffee,” asked my friend Vandie this morning after she had lead my through a long-overdue workout in her basement studio.

“I won’t have a coffee, Vandie,” I stated, “but I would love a visit.”

Little did I know that one thing would lead to another and I would be receiving some good old-fashioned pampering that morning.  Not only does Vandie take care of my fitness, but she also takes care of my skin!  Vandie is a registered esthetician.  As such, she encourages me to use good face creams, good cleansing routines, and to make time for myself.  Yet another reason my mother loved Vandie.  No matter how hard my mother tried to encourage me to take care of myself, I did not listen.  I was way too stubborn, proud, and busy to give her advise a second thought.

My mother sold Beauty Councellor beauty products for as long as I can remember.  She did well with them – no wonder, as she was one of the most beautiful women I remember.  She was a true “Russian Beauty”.  Everyone commented on her appearance, always so well put together, always had on her make-up (or at least her lipstick and eyebrows), always her pearls.  Honestly, in her 80’s my mother was stunning with her white, white hair and gorgeous high cheek bones.  She had her hair “done” once a week by a hair-dresser and a permanent at least once every two months.  It was her routine.  She made her appearance count.

She had tried, desperately, to pass that attention to self to me.  I had all my make-up, creams, and lotions I needed at my disposal for my whole life.  I thought all the make-up in the world would not make me look like my mother.  What was the point.  In fact, not only did I not look like her – I looked much more similar to my father.  And even more so when I lost my hair from chemo.  I was his spitting image.  He was a handsome man too – but, well, what girl wants to look like her father?  “Stacey,” people would say to me.  “Your mother is so beautiful.”  And without skipping a beat, they would add, “And you look just like your Dad!”  No make-up for this gal.  No skin cream.  I was destined to live my life without my mother’s cheek-bones.

It wasn’t until Vandie instructed me to sink my hands into the warm paraffin wax bath (after a good cleansing) that I really began to appreciate having stuck around for a chat.  The chats with Vandie are always good.  There are never any false pretenses to our dialogues.  We know who we are and there is no place to hide in our conversations anyhow.  After all, how much sweat have we shared  while we pushed ourselves to achieve good physical fitness.  But, man – that paraffin!  Sinking my hands into that warm, waxy bath was like being transported someone ethereal.  I had no body.  I had was all hands.  And all my focus was on the warmth and softness which enveloped them.

Vandie was giving a facial to another friend at the time of my out of body experience, so eventually, I paid attention once again to my surroundings.  The feeling came back to my brain and I simply sat watching Vandie perform her magic on the “other woman”.  I was a spectator.  I didn’t feel the need to participate in any dialogue.  I focused on my hands.  While they were chatting, I was healing.  I was healing from the inside out.  I was pampered.  Oh – what a delight.  Oh – what a joy. I sat.  I didn’t have a schedule.  I didn’t think about dinner.  I didn’t … well… I didn’t know even why I didn’t just stay there forever?  It was warm.  It was calm.  There was an aura in the room which glowed self-care.  The words I watched being exchanged were kind, gentle. There were bouts of laughter, but healing laughter.  Vandie’s hands soothed the “other woman’s” skin.  I melted just watching.  It was as though what was happening was also happening to me.  We were one.  I wondered what else was in that paraffin?  But it had simply been paraffin.  So – what was it that was causing my euphoria?  Vandie was caring for us.  It was like a mother’s care.  It was what my mother would have offered me.  I was swept away to my youth when my mother cared for me.  She cared for my well-being.  She cooked for me, she cleaned for me, she advocated for me.  She was my paraffin.  She enveloped me in warmth and offered herself as the salve to my soul.  Her words, her actions, her love was with me – in that room – while I sat on the sofa – watching Vandie and the “other woman” – with my hands wrapped in gauze – healing – from the outside in.

When my hands came out of that gauze, they were perfect.  At least, in my eyes.  My dry-cracked skin was soft.  The wrinkled old knuckles were smooth and the colour was a healthy pink.  Winter’s curse had been, at least temporarily, reversed.  It was there and then that I made a commitment to myself that I would, finally, take care of my skin.

“Here is some face cream, Stacey.  Use it!” instructed Vandie/ Mom.

And for the first time, I think in my entire life, I listened.  I took the cream.  I filed it where I knew I would find it and as soon as I got home, I applied it.  “Mom would have been so proud,” I thought.  Beauty is more than skin deep – but to have someone pamper that same skin is almost as good as the sorting out you get by seeing a therapist.  It is restorative, it is healing, it is re-juvenating.

I won’t soon forget this morning, or the feeling I had walking away from Vandie’s house.  “Maybe I should have tried this sooner?” I thought to myself as I drove away placing my hands smack dab in the middle of the steering wheel where I could admire them glisten in the sun.   “Maybe I should use gloves when I clean.”

Yes.  My mother would have been pleased.

 

Posted in advice, aging, appreciation, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Dig Deep, Stretch Far

It was a long fall.  Or so I think I remember it being that way.  I recall the trees were hesitant to give colour to their leaves and, once they had, the colour was rather, well, lack-lustre.  At least that’s what I think I remember.  There were a few exceptions to the rule, of course.  There were a few spectacular trees who refused to go down quietly.  It was as though fall was their time in the spotlight and they had an “I’ll be damned” kind of attitude which carried them to their glorious seasonal climax:  They were crimson red.

I’ve always wondered how it is that some trees – same species – can “finish” with such glory?  Why are they able to pull through while others simply droop, drool, and drop?  What is the difference?  Is it that some simply dig deeper into the ground to find that pool of minerals that they need to carry on?  Is it that the angle of the sun’s rays hits them at exactly the right time of the day when they are all primed and ready to draw in the sun’s energy and make the most of it?  I don’t know.  I wonder.  Maybe I spend too much time wondering.  But – I do wonder about it.

I suppose the same can be said about people.

Resilience.

I’ve seen it.  And I see it a lot in the cancer centre.  I see people digging down deep into the roots of their being to draw the strength they need to do what they need to do to finish the task at hand.  Maybe that task it taking a round of chemo.  Maybe it’s taking herceptin – a post-treatment drug used for breast cancer survivors.  Maybe it’s taking magnesium, blood, or Lynparza.  I watched a parade of courageous warriors enter and exit the post-treatment pod at Royal Victoria Hospital on Monday.  Some were ashen grey, some wore wigs, some were hair-challenged but hopeful.  The war-wounded.  The heroes.  The fighters.  They dug deep and reached high.  Their moment of glory was not at hand yet.  They were not willing to give up without a vibrant display of colour, courage, conviction.  Cancer be damned.

They were resilient.

Yet.  Mother Nature can sometimes throw some pretty messed up curve balls.  The best laid plans of mice and men can oft’ go awry.  Robert Burns saw it.  The wee mousie saw it.  I saw it.  While waiting to be called in for my magnesium treatment on Monday, I had the good fortune to meet a wonderful couple whose tan told tales of warmer weather.  There was not much time for uncertainty in terms of who it was receiving treatment, for as soon as the wife entered the waiting room with a hand-knit cap on her head – I knew it was she.  “She” who had been ill.  “She” who had been given the bad news. “She” who had been treated.  “She” who was digging down deep looking for the elements of recovery in her soil.

“We flew in from our trailer in Florida last night and will be leaving for there once again in the morning after my wife’s Herceptin treatment.”  He was matter-of-fact in his statement.  I had heard of people like that.  People who flew home every few months for treatment and then flew away once again to warmer climates.  Why not?  The sun has got to be more healing than the snow.  Oh, how I would love to walk along the beach in the morning with  my feet wet from the warm ocean current instead of having wet feet from melted snow which escaped down the top of my boots after trudging over snow banks.  Yes.  Why not Florida?  And good on them.  I wondered how she would feel, though, on the plane and if the altitude would impact her in a different way.  I don’t know.  Again, I wonder.

Several hours had passed when “She” and her tanned husband were seated in the chair beside me.  I kept quiet.  I wasn’t sure if they wanted to be recognized.  One can never be too careful with guarding the privacy of those seated in the chairs.  I gave several awkward glances towards them in the hopes of catching their attention.  I was bored.   I had already been sitting in my chair for 4 hours.  I had already seen several scores of people receive their treatment and leave – from that same chair.  Finally – contact!  We exchanged a few words and then we snuggled back down into our own routines to focus on getting the full benefit from our treatment.  It is always as if focusing on the reception can sweeten the wine.  I tried to imagine my magnesium course through my blood to feed my cells as fertilizer would ignite the growth of plant roots.  My energy would soon “flower” and I would be the quintessential image of good health and boundless energy.

It was routine.  The nurses were calm.  The warriors were fighting.  The tone was casual.

“She” unhooked herself for a pee break.  This is always quite a feat as there are several plugs and one is never too certain if you pull the wrong one if you are cutting off your supply of the “goods” being delivered in the bag hanging from your IV pole.  But – the visit was routine and she was soon hunkered down for her treatment once again.

There has been a lot of flu going around lately so, when, she started shivering I thought that maybe she was starting to get the flu.  THIS would be a nightmare as so many warriors in the room were still rather “raw” from treatment which wiped out their immune system.  The flu could take you down just as quickly as cancer.  I watched as she and her husband tried to settle her “chill”.  Nada.  He rubbed her legs.  Nada.  I looked directly at him and said, I think you need to call a nurse.  Nada.  I looked at her and said, “I think you need a nurse”.  Nada.  She got worse.  Her lips quivered.  She was doing a full body shake now.  I called my nurse.  The time for pleasantries was over.  The time had come to throw privacy to the dogs.  This woman was in crisis.  She was reacting to her Herceptin.  And that’s not good.

The nurse was calm.  They are always calm.  Soon – a dose of Benadryl was administered – followed by some other sedative.  Warm blankets followed.  Encouraging words.  Doctors.  Everyone calm.  This was not a life-threatening moment.  At least – it wasn’t to them.  My Florida friends, however, were visibly shaken.  “This” was not a day in the life for them.  “This” was a crisis.  And it was – emotionally to many warriors in the room.  Some knew what was happening.  Some did not.  Some were attentive.  Some were not.  Me?  I wondered what was happening?  I remembered my reaction to Paclitaxol.  I remembered the panic, the Benedryl, the warm blankets, the doctors… You don’t forget those kinds of traumas in short order.  That day – the leaves on my tree were shaken, just as they were shaken on my Florida friends.  It wasn’t long before her body was calm.  She was doped up.  He was watching. I was watching.

Then.  The beep.

It was the beep of my pump to indicate I was finished my treatment.

It was the alarm sounding that my life was about to take a turn out of here.

I looked over to my friends.  I call them friends because when you share these kinds of moments with strangers, it rips away the cloak of show to reveal the soul of humanity.  We were united in our fight for life.  We were united in solidarity – to overcome.  We didn’t even know each others’ names, yet, we were to never forget each other.

I was unhooked, unplugged, and swabbed and bandaged.  My chair was prepped for the next cancer warrior.  This post-treatment dance was about to begin from the beginning once again and my Florida partner was about to waltz with someone else.

We exchanged a glance, “she” and I.  It’s all “she” could muster through her sedation.  “Thank-you”, she blinked.  I smiled, “your welcome”.  And then I glanced a “I wish you both well” to both of them, turned, and left.

I didn’t cry until I was in the shower of my own home.  I’m not sure why.  I guess I can chalk it up to PTSD.  That trauma had been hard on all of us.  “She” and I had shared her trauma.  “We” the warriors – had shared it.  And collectively, I think “we” lost a bit of our footing that day.  It would take more sun, more dirt, more time for us to regain our strength.  But we would.  We do. We dig deeper.  We spread our leaves higher to stretch and reach for the sun.  We breathe more deeply.  We root more vigorously.  We prepare ourselves for the fall.  We know it’s coming.  We know it happens to everyone.  But we will be damned if we won’t go out in a blaze of glory – full colours glowing – to the oohs and awes of those with whom we have shared our life journey.

Posted in autumn, cancer, Uncategorized | 7 Comments