Chemo Day

“While an impulse toward wholeness is natural and exists in everyone, each of us heals in our own way. Some people heal because they have work to do. Others heal because they have been released from their work and the pressures and expectations that others place on them. Some people need music, others need silence, some need people around them, others heal alone. Many different things can activate and strengthen the life force in us. For each of us there are conditions of healing that are as unique as a fingerprint.”

–Rachel Naomi Remen, MD.

 

It felt timely for On Being to recirculate Krista Tippet’s conversation with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen this past week. I first read her most popular book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal, a decade ago. Originally published in 1994, Dr. Remen shares the wisdom she gathered from coming alongside and listening to stories from those grappling with illness and pain, mostly cancer patients. They are folks who are journeying along the edges of life, where uncertainty and mystery most often reside. Stumbling upon Remen’s wisdom during my morning commute the day prior to Brian’s first (and hopefully last) chemo appointment felt like more than a coincidence. At one point in the interview, Dr. Remen reflected on the importance of pausing to acknowledge loss and even more so to pause and take note of what has sustained them in the midst of their suffering.

It was this invitation to reflect that primed my heart and mind to see beauty and strength in the midst of the long and challenging days that would follow. Over the last six years we have encountered a significant amount of loss – we’ve lost jobs, a home and our sense of rootedness, we’ve each lost body parts and our health (even if temporarily), my grandmother passed away almost a year ago, and we lost our beloved chocolate lab this past spring. There is undeniable grief still unfolding in the face of these compounding losses. AND as I sat in the cancer center waiting room this past Wednesday, allowing curiosity around what has sustained and strengthened us to take over the driver’s seat of my mind, I was overcome with a gratitude that did not feel contrived.

I am thankful for good and soul healing music, for strangers who donated blood and plasma and time from their lives, for meals and groceries from dear friends, for fellow cancer patients and their loved ones greeting us with knowing smiles, for understanding teachers and coaches who’ve held space for our kids, for financial gifts from my brother, dad and family friends who knew we were being buried by medical debt, for hospital leg massages from my sister, for coworkers and friends who have offered care baskets, Grubhub and Uber Eats gift certificates, for a mother who fiercely advocated for quality medical care, for so much laughter and play in our snapchat feeds, for a mother-in-law who cleaned and offered care for our newborn baby, for the discovery of  Granny’s many wigs the day after her passing, for an especially empathetic and kind veterinarian clinic staff, for sunshine and the many rainy days – yes even for them, for spending so much time in hospitals where we’ve been reminded that we are not the only humans encountering suffering, for glimpses of the Colorado Rockies, the Cascades and the Olympic Mountains, for each of our girls and the unique ways they invite us to be present, to tend to grief and awaken to life, for puppies who dug under fences and into our hearts, for all of the lessons and wisdom we’ve gained and carried forth from our stories of trauma and recovery, heartache and healing, for all of the doctors and nurses and medical professionals who’ve offered us care along the way.

This is just a snapshot of my stream of consciousness that I decided to jot down as I sat there waiting for Brian to finish his treatment. The infusion room was full that day so there wasn’t an extra chair for me to sit with him. Did you catch that? The infusion room was full. My hunch is that it is often (always?) full. And on that particular day, all of Brian’s chemo chair neighbors were walking far closer to the edge of life than Brian and several of them had been walking along that edge for far longer than either of us. Darren, Arden, Ingrid, Fred and others were complete strangers before that morning, yet they welcomed Brian into their community of sufferers and sustainability teachers and offered him gifts of insight, natural anti-nausea remedies, books about cannabis, and they filled the room for those three hours with all of their sacred stories. And so I’m beginning to understand Dr. Remen’s invitation to reflect on the suffering and the sustenance and strength – that’s where the mystery is found. It’s where the Divine resides.

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The dreaded “c” word

Two months before our 20th anniversary, we learned that Brian had a testicular tumor and that he needed to undergo a radical orchiectomy. Two days later, I spent the day in the surgery waiting area once again reminded of how quickly life can twist and turn, leap and dive, but this time I wasn’t the one on the table. Seven days after that, testicular cancer was confirmed and we drove home to process our next steps with our four girls.

“If you have to get cancer, it’s the best type to get.” We chuckled together on the ride home. What an odd thing to say, we both thought. Despite our capacity to laugh at the irony and awkward social interaction with Brian’s physician, and despite learning all about the phenomenal cure rate of this particular type of cancer, the air between us and within us during that car ride home still felt thick with uncertainty and undeniable heartache. Here we were, facing the reality of mortality again. Death was in our midst. One could argue that death is always in our midst. It’s one of the most reliable aspects of being human – we are all inching closer to death with every breath we take. But there are times in life when death presses through our psychological defenses and sometimes taunts us, or nudges us, or simply reminds us that it’s here with us, whether we want it to be or not.

Photo by: Talitha Bullock Photography

Death was there with us in the car that day. And more than anything, it left us both feeling tired and asking all the hard yet appropriate existential questions. What is it all for and how do we know and does it matter? We were anticipating heading out of town for a long weekend the next day and thought we might save those easy conversation starting questions for a later time. At that moment, we simply needed to get home, share what we knew with the girls, pack up and get the heck out of town.

Only when we pulled into our garage, at least two blond-haired and bright-eyed girls threw open the door and squealed with pure delight, “WE HAVE PUPPIES!” Brian and I made our way to the backyard and discovered that four fluffy and ridiculously cute pups had dug under two sets of fences and crawled their way right into all of our tender hearts. We all soaked up the puppy therapy for a couple of hours as we sorted out and located the owners and reluctantly returned them to their concerned mama pooch but not without first inquiring if any of them were still looking for forever homes. And as luck (or something more perhaps) would have it, there were several puppies in need of a home. I can’t make this stuff up. On the very day we were conversing with death again, life literally dug it’s way back to us, as one friend text us that afternoon. And since there is only so much life (and dog poo) one family can handle, we made room for two additions. Meet Flynnigan Rider and Chandler Bing.

The likelihood of this particular type of cancer leading to actual death is thankfully minuscule. All the more reason for us to learn how to dance better with death now. The steps may be easier to learn when we’re not traumatized by the terror of it all. To deny that death is with us, within us and all around us is to deny one of our greatest teachers. On the other hand, to be so consumed by the presence (or fear) of death that we can no longer see the surge of life pumping through us and digging its way toward us is where utter despair reigns supreme. These pups are the daily reminder to our family of a life energy and force as we continue to navigate the reality of having bodies that are vulnerable to illness, bodies that will one day wear out entirely. But until that day – puppy therapy – it’s fur real folks. Yep. I just did that.

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Seeking and feeling. Feeling and seeking.

It’s been nearly a month since electionpocalypse. I am still searching for understanding, for words, for dialogue and for insight in this post-election season. The search feels like a massive and daunting expedition. But this is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. I lurch toward meaning and understanding wherever I can as a means to anchor myself loosely enough to survive in a chaotic world that is always in flux.

So I am still searching for new understanding. I am unpacking the theories related to the rust belt region of this country. I am attempting to move through my anger at the 81% of the evangelical vote, the white male vote, and the white female vote so that I can try to understand the why and how this came to be. Attempting is the operative word at the moment.  I am weighing the insights offered by psychologists, historians, political analysts, sociologists and others. I am trying to gain understanding from 35,000 feet while also sitting with the impact on the ground in the stories I read and hear from friends and colleagues and friends of friends. I am committed to this work not simply because I’m desperate for some anchoring in this new political reality, but because I feel more compelled than ever before to be a part of a movement and force of love in this deeply fragmented world.

These are the big thoughts. The lofty hopes of eventual understanding and being a part of a movement. And these big thoughts matter- they orient, they organize and at their best, they can inform and inspire action. These thoughts and insights matter. But there is still a significant chasm between my lofty hopes and my current emotional experience. So I am allowing space for both the searching and the feelings. Because if my experience in therapy (both on the couch and in the chair) has taught me anything it’s that feelings must be felt. There’s no other way through them.

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