Toolbox

When people ask me about my darkest moment during the last year and through treatment, I know exactly when it was. It was a week night and Kevin was relaxing in the living room playing his basketball game. Shiloh was fast asleep in the crib, which at the time was in the corner of our bedroom, and it was one of those rare nights when I was feeling well enough for my mom to go home. It was only the three of us.

I opened my white laptop and with only the light of the screen and a small lamp, I researched, for the first time, stage IV epithelial clear cell ovarian cancer. I settled my still healing body on our bed, which had been my home since coming back after surgery, and clicked away. After finding the specialist doctor who checked up on my every morning at 7:30AM when I was admitted, I played his ovarian cancer research video on YouTube which he presented at a cancer conference. I desperately wanted answers.

I watched as the video progressed from large to small explaining how rare clear cell ovarian cancer was, how much rarer it was to have a successful complete cytoreduction (removing all visible signs of cancer in surgery), and how even rarer it was to occur in someone under 65. I was a percentage of a percentage of a percentage. The tears began to flow and fear clawed at my faith, trying to dig its nails deep and embed itself. Then the 5 year survival rate statistic flashed on the screen, and I paused the video.

17%

According to research, I had only a 17% chance of making it to my son’s 5th birthday. My husband walked in as I broke out into an agonizing hysterical sob – wailing as the screen kept telling me my life was forfeit. Kevin rocked me back and forth and I asked him over and over if I was going to die in five years – If I wasn’t going to be able to celebrate our son’s fifth birthday and instead they would be observing my funeral.

That was the lowest point.

I realized in that moment that I was desperately trying to cling to something to get me through the situation – blog posts, research, medical reports – but none of them were filling that space uniquely made for God – His peace that surpasses all understanding – His reassurance – His report.

I believe our faith is very much like a toolbox. When everything is seemingly okay, we need to continue to fill our toolbox with scripture from the Bible so when we need those tools we can reach in and hold onto them white knuckled. It’s so important to continue to fill our box – our Spirit – when everything is okay. We don’t know when hard times will hit us and as people when desperation or hurt or tragedy or heartache come, we will desperately reach for something. If there is nothing to pull out of our toolbox, we will try to hold onto something else – people (who are fallible), blog posts, medical research, opinions of others, and some will reach for a bottle or other substance to help endure the storm. Some of us will try to flip through the over 1000 pages of the Bible to find something, anything, or Google scriptures on depression or hurt on Bible Gateway (I’m so guilty of this) because we haven’t committed scriptures to our memory. We need something to help us weather the hurricane that hit our life and laid everything to waste.

So at my lowest point, I pulled Psalm 118:17 out of my toolbox, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done“. I will continue to grip this scripture harder than I grip research, the opinions of others, my own fears, or a doctor’s report. I will not die. I will proclaim what the Lord has done – Healed Me.

I will not die.

**Blog Post Dedicated to my Good Friend Danielle** ❤

 

Kindness

It was my fault. I quickly turned on my right blinker to turn on the next exit to make a loop to go back on the highway since I missed the exit for Willard rd for church. We were already behind and service started a minute and a half ago. As we rolled into the parking lot, I thanked the Lord because a parking spot closer to Kid Builders opened up, and I quickly zoomed between the parallel lines.

Like a rehearsed dance, Kevin got out of the car and grabbed Shiloh from the back, and I slid the pink flamingo purse on my shoulder and snatched up the diaper bag. Beep beep. The car was locked, and we tried to make it quickly to check Shiloh in. On the way I heard my name called and our friends from small group were also waltzing to the late orchestra. We held doors open for each other as we carried and herded our offspring to kid’s church.

As I was walking past the greeter she remarked, “Nice haircut”. Sliding into the church I smiled and answered that I had cancer and it was growing out. The woman smiled back and said my hair looked great. It wasn’t until after trying to sign Shiloh into the nursery (which was unsuccessful because they were full) that it really hit me how much I needed that encouragement.

Just two days before as I was sitting in my oncologist’s office waiting for an appointment time to address my joint pain from chemotherapy, a woman softly placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “I just wanted to tell you you’re really pretty”. I still had the gauze taped onto my chest from my Mediport being flushed at the infusion center and smelled like alcohol wipes, but I thanked her with a smile. I needed that too.

Last week, a parent emailed me via my cancer survivor website and gave me encouraging words. She said how much I’ve positively impacted her daughter. Her daughter, my student, saw me in pain in the fall before surgery, come to school in pain, and come back to work seven months later even stronger though my body was chemoridden. I needed this the most.

Sometimes what keeps us going is the kindness of others. All three of these women were people who have never met me, and yet they spoke life into me this past week. If they didn’t dare to go out of their comfort zone and speak what they were thinking, I wouldn’t be as encouraged to push forward.

Thank you ladies.

I aspire to love others the way you’ve loved me, even in a moment. I want to have the boldness to speak life into people, strangers, and get out of my comfort zone because a moment’s encouragement can lead to a lifetime of strength.

Focus

In the middle of the night, I curled up with my sleeping son in the bed. I needed the comfort of his miracle to ease what I felt I lost. His breathing made soft echos in our room, and I was in awe that he was alive – we were alive.

On Friday afternoon, I found out through research that having cancer, even being in remission, is a disqualifier for international adoption in multiple countries. Kevin and I have always wanted to adopt: before marriage, before cancer, before the doctors took my womb to save my life. I felt crushed as the news was just the culmination of a bad week. When I got home, I escaped the house for an hour and a half to go pick out a dress for our family pictures on Sunday and left Shiloh with Kevin.

As I stood in the dressing room with all my surgery scars reflecting back at me, all I wanted to do was cry. It took all my energy to try on more dresses – each one looking awkward on my post surgery frame. Then I tried on a teal dress, the color of the Ovarian Cancer ribbon, and with swollen eyes and smeared makeup I felt pretty for the first time in months. I needed that moment because I needed to make a decision – whether to let depression drag me under and smother me, or to choose to find the beauty in the ashes and to be more grateful than sad.

I think it’s easy to sink into sadness, but I also think we have a choice. We have to pick ourselves up and choose to be more grateful than sad. I choose to be more grateful for my son’s life, my life, than upset about a situation out of my control. I know God gave me a heart for adoption on purpose, and He’s the same God who saved both me and my son when in our medical files it shouldn’t have been possible to survive. God makes the physical, even laws, come into accordance with His will – not the other way around.

So as I curled up with my son that night, his tiny warm body pressed against mine, petite feet on my thigh, and precious fingers on my cheek, I chose to rise out of the ashes.

 

Baby Clothes

I cried again yesterday.

After having a great day at work and getting some writing done, I settled on the couch in our living room. Shiloh was already in bed, and I was beginning to put together a shadowbox together for him – an idea I got from a friend on Facebook. I laid out the shadowbox and opened the container of pearl tipped pins. When everything was set, I went to rummage through our filing cabinet for his first diaper and his hospital bracelet. Afterward, I snuck into his room to get his first shoes and outfit he came home wearing from the hospital NICU. They were nowhere to be found. Panic swept over me and I flipped the entire apartment upside down. I pulled bags and boxes out of our closet and emptied out all six of his dresser drawers. After calling my mom and texting my cousin, I realized I mistakenly sent them in a bag of some of Shiloh’s clothes that he’s grown out of.

I felt like a bad mom. How could I have sent them in a bag? I knew how important they were. I felt irresponsible and even if I was going through chemo – I was still disappointed in myself as a mother. On my next trip to see family, I’ll be able to get his first baby shoes and outfit from my cousin. My mom was on the phone with me and told me not to be too upset about it and how she too struggled with thinking back on how hard everything was during that time – that we all did the best we could and I was the best mom I could be.

I cried.

In the middle of the night, I rolled over to Kevin to see if he was awake. His arm encircled me as I asked him a question that has been in my mind for days, “Will you take care of Shiloh if I die?”

“Of course, but you won’t die,” he said.

“You’re right. I’m going to live and grow old with you,” I said.

This is the lowest I’ve felt.

**My dad just texted me out of the blue as I was writing this: “Peace..think Happy THOUGHTS”** How did he know?

 

 

Unfinished Business

Most of the time I try not to think that I could’ve died a few months ago – that cancer could’ve drug and drowned me six feet under. I have too much and too many people to live for – my son, husband, mom – and all my other family and friends. One of my 11th grade students told me yesterday that she wished I was with her all year because it’s been a tough one. When I jokingly said, “Sorry kid, but I had cancer and had to take care of business,” another girl in the class asked how I could say it so casually because she would’ve sobbed. I explained to her that it was how I survived through my owns cells trying to kill me – by not wallowing in the condition and setting my determined gaze toward the future.

But once in a while, I think of the unfinished things of my life I would’ve left behind. My husband and I have hundreds of photos we’ve printed in stacks that have never made it to a photo album. I have five chapters of a YA novel written but my protagonist sits idle since I have not made time to go back and write her next steps. There are spools of yarn that haven’t been twisted and looped into hats or blankets somewhere in our bedroom closet. In the closet in our son’s room, we have countless wedding souvenirs which never found a place in our house. There is a white plastic crate of my favorite novelty coffee cups (still dirty) sitting in our dining room that have not made it to my classroom. Six graduate level English credits sit on my transcript from the local university toward a doctorate degree. I have a document with a budget breakdown for a trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to enjoy the beach in my files.

This list, however, is not a reminder of what I would’ve left behind but, instead, is a road map of where to go from here. I’m going to pull out the stacks of pictures and place them in leather bound photo albums. My protagonist in the novel will shake off cobwebs as I write her next steps word by word. When the leaves change color again, I will twist and loop teal yarn into a baby blanket for a friend. Today, I will buy a shadowbox to hang in our hallway as a place to display our wedding souvenirs. In the fall, all the coffee cups with cats and old coffee stains will make their way to my classroom. My hope is that in the next few years that I will take more classes to teach community college English and make use of my post master’s degree credits. In July, my son and I will sink our toes into the warm North Carolina sand by the sea and watch my husband setup our sun umbrella and beach towels.

I have so much more to life to live. This is just the beginning.

The Uncontrollables

Last night, I wrestled with a 32 pound cardboard box to pull the pieces of my new hammock stand out. It was around 8:30PM and as the sun dipped below the horizon, I was determined to sit my happy butt in my new hammock before bed. I pulled the black painted metal poles, screws, and the multicolored hammock out of the box and onto our second story apartment porch. Sweat moistened my back and neck in the 85 degree humid weather as I roughly assembled the stand and hooked the ends of the rainbow human sack on each end. I called my two closest friends on the phone and talked about life as I crawled my way into the finished setup and dangled my feet on the sides.

As we talked about life, I noticed the empty delivery boxes to my right that had piled up in the corner of our porch: One box of size 3 Pampers, three Arm & Hammer cat litter refills, varying shapes of Amazon Prime boxes – too many to count, and one Green Chef box which came in yesterday. “These were the things we could control,” I thought as the three of us continued to talk on the phone. We could’ve and still should take a trip to the recycling area in the apartment complex to clean the clutter.

Then to my left were two piles of Miracle Gro soil with a toppled plastic plant starter that had tumbled off the stand and onto the wooden planks during the last rainstorm. I had high hopes for my little sprouting plants, but after they died from heat and negligence, I planned to replant. The wind and rain had pushed the soil in all 50 small compartments off the stand and out of the safety of the plastic lid – making rich earthy smear marks on the floor. This act of nature, I couldn’t control.

In life, there are messes and situations that happen because of something we did and others are out of our control. On first look, it all just looks like a hot mess that needs to be fixed or cleaned or completely put away. I’m not sure it matters whether or not we can control it or how it got there – but what matters is how we react to the mess and who is by our side as we try to clean it up.

Today, my husband will help me clean up the porch – sweeping up the spilled soil and picking up the boxes off the floor and taking them to where they belong, just like the many times he and my mom picked me up off the bathroom floor during chemo.

Tonight after our son is put to bed, we will swing together with the setting sun on a neat porch without regard for the mess that will probably rear its head tomorrow. Today will be over and all we need to do is enjoy our now, in the scant moments when there aren’t any messes to clean.

Reset

Two weeks ago I sat in the dark on the floor in my son’s room with my back against his crib. My knees were curled up to my chest as the screen on my phone made figures on the ceiling. My husband’s supporting shoulder was next to mine but all I could feel was the weakness in my own figure. Tears smeared my face and neck while the air was filled with my sobs and our son’s sleepy breathing. I just wanted to feel normal again.

I went back to work about three weeks ago after resting at home for a month after chemotherapy to get my strength back. When the first week of work came, I was prepared to see my high school students and to have something to keep myself busy during the day. Teaching is my passion and I was ready to feel the buzz of busyness again. During the days at work, I pushed through with three cups of coffee and adrenaline, but at night my body crashed against the rocks of reality. My body was not strong enough yet and the strain of walking around like I used to made every muscle in my body scream at night.

After two weeks of working, my parents, especially my mom, noticed I was crashing and couldn’t stand to see my hurt myself. That’s what we were talking about on the phone as I sat on our son’s floor and I cried. I cried because I wanted to feel and be what I felt was normal. I didn’t want to monitor everything that I ate and spend the extra money on organic food. I didn’t want to feel exhausted when doing the minimum amount of moving and work. I wanted my hair to grow back so I didn’t look like a cancer patient anymore. I wanted everything I felt I had lost the last seven months during treatment.

“What is ‘normal'”? my mom asked over the phone. I’m starting to realize this is my normal – my and our new normal. Instead of feeling like I’ve been robbed of my old life – I have to think of it as I’m gaining a new one – a life that I almost lost.

I haven’t written much on this blog during treatment and since. It’s not because I didn’t have anything to say but because I felt I wasn’t being true to the reason why I started this blog – to chronicle marriage – and instead I was talking about recovery more than anything else; however, I think that is my new normal. This is the life I’m living today.

So here’s to a new blog – my reset. The chronicle of a recovering ovarian cancer survivor, wife, mother, and friend.

Ovarian Cancer is Nothing

 

Sucking It Up and Driving On – Surviving Cancer

**I always write an essay with my students every year when they write their “I Believe” essays. This is mine for this year. 

I believe in sucking it up and driving on.

My father was a military man. Each morning before the sun peeked into the world and boomed its anthem, he laced up polished boots and donned an ebony barrett. He marched to the beat of Uncle Sam’s throatal yawp as I bursted to undulating life. The Army plucked us from the earth every moment our toes would begin to feel the sweet warmth of steady soil. Constantly. Our feet drove on.

When I was young, scraped knees would tattoo my skinny legs with a fresh coat of gravel and crimson shades. Striding to my aid, Daddy would look down as I reached up and out beckoning a response. With an outstretched arm, he motioned for me to grab hold and would remind me to, “suck it up and drive on”. The phrase I heard all my life which seemed to be laced with impassivity was instead carefully cradled: a life line.  

My life line. There was a steady high pitched beep on the screen to my right. The plastic clock on the wall stared back at me as my eyes fluttered open six hours early. A tube jutted out of my throat making it impossible to speak or ask while my eyes roamed around the room. Cables extended from my bruised veins to deliver saline and nutrients to my limp body. Something had gone wrong.

Cancer. 

It loomed over my body like vultures waiting for a dead corpse. Stage IV ovarian was etched into my body with scars down my stomach as the perpetual reminder. The chemotherapy cascaded through my veins crashing over organs and seeking the last remnants of disease. For six months, every moment my cheek kissed the cold bathroom floor and my body writhed I spoke strength into my body.

“Suck it up and drive on”. 

Now my hair prickles back making shadows on my scalp. My muscles triumphantly ache and proclaim vitality in every stride during the day. My own arms, once reaching up to my father in a plea for help, reach down to my child’s extended hands who is learning to stand on his own. 

I will drive on.

Easing Back In

Today marks one week since the official CT scan declared I am cancer free, and tomorrow will be three weeks since my last round of chemotherapy.  My hair is slowly prickling back as I inspect the stubble every night hoping for faster progress toward a full head of hair. I think I’m just hoping for faster progress toward everything: strength – normalcy.

If I think of my life as a clock, the cogs have been frozen for the last six months. Cobwebs have made their residences between all the stationary gears as I fought through chemo and cancer. Now, slower than I would like, the gears are snapping the cobwebs and screeching as they once again begin to move.

As I step farther way from March 14th, my body is trying to remember what it felt like to be healthy, and my mind is trying to rewire itself from survival to thriving. My first day back in my classroom is Friday, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to step forward into the new normal. I’m enjoying spending time with my husband and just enjoying each other’s company without him constantly worrying about my health and me pushing my chemo filled body to function properly. Our son is almost six months old, however, I feel he can also sense the change in the last few weeks in my energy and interaction with him.

For the rest of my life, there will always be another blood test and CT scan waiting for me over the horizon. I will be battling my human fear of reoccurrence with my faith and scripture, but I can’t think of that now.  Right now, I need to remain in a place of gratefulness and healing. I need to look toward our future as a family and my future as a cancer-free faith filled wife/mother/daughter/sister/friend/teacher.

Wearing a Hat

It’s 43 degrees outside with a big chance of a snowstorm tomorrow, so when I went out to get my last pre-chemo blood work done, I slipped on the floppy gray hat I’ve been wearing for five months.Tomorrow will be my last day of chemotherapy – infusion #16. That’s 16 times I’ve sat in a chair or hospital bed and willingly let the kind nurses push cell destroying drugs into my body. Usually, I wear my hat during the infusions as well, but it’s not because I’m ashamed to be bald. In many ways, losing my hair and donning a shiny scalp has come to represent my battle – my temporary and most noticeable battle scar.

Yes, people stare, but it’s mostly because of those other people that I wear a hat.

I am completely comfortable, now at least, with being bald, but I don’t want to make others feel bad. While at church, our little family sits in a row of chairs – my son in my arms and supportive husband by my side. I want to tell the people around me that I’m wearing a hat so that they won’t feel bad – so that they won’t look at me with pity and like I’m dying – because I’m not.

I’m not dying. I’m not pitiful. I am thriving. I am stronger than I ever knew I could or would have to be.

I am too grateful to be alive with my son and family to feel upset about an outward appearance.  My hair will grow back. It’s already started to stretch slowly outward. As I get closer to going back into my classroom, I’ll have to make decisions on how often to wear a hat. I may teach bald. Not for sympathy but to teach my students something greater than information in a textbook – Life is so much greater that we thought, so much more precious, and so much more to fight for than we ever imagined or could. The absence of my hair, if only temporary, does not represent a void but the thick presence of a strength that was required of me.