Cancerversary – I’ve learned

The chalk slides against the board as I finish the warm up writing prompt: “If you died today, what would you leave in the world as proof you existed?”

Usually, I go for the whimsical or mundane journaling, but today the seniors asked for a more serious topic. I obliged, and it doesn’t help that I’m already thinking in this direction. My chemo (last day of chemo March 14th) and cancer-versary (date of clear CT scan – March 27th) is coming up this month, and I’m struggling to pinpoint the emotions coursing through me.

Every scar has healed and becomes more faded with each day. “The Infusion Clinic” is no longer on my favorites for speed dial. Snow days are joyous occasions for cancelled school and making pancakes with my son instead of nerve racking as it may delay treatment. The strands on my head are pulled back by a thin gold glittered band instead of an over-washed lace gray cap covering my once smooth head.

Most everything has become a new “normal” except one; my eyes will not revert.

I cannot see the world the same way I did before the death word “cancer” fell off of lips and parasitically attached to my name – the name my parents chose with my first breath. But, as all things, I try to use this as a learning experience in hopes that one day, this period of my life holds no more power than an anecdote. So here it is:

I’ve learned…

     to love outwardly as much as possible – so people don’t need to guess my intentions           when I’m gone

          to say “thank you” – and mean it with every healthy and unhealthy cell

     to jump in with both feet into the evaporating puddle of life

to embrace the parts of myself I locked away and claimed adolescent

to apologize and forgive quickly

to not apologize when I don’t mean it

to do the things I said I would do “someday” today

to grab the bull of cancer by its sharp horns and, with faith, look into its irises and             triumphantly shout

You will NOT take me

You will not TAKE me

You will not take ME

                                                                    . 

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Claiming Mine – Evicting Pepé

He plopped on the bed jerking me awake and continued gagging. A smidgen of irritation welled up in me because I thought my husband stayed up too late cramming for another certification exam and became nauseous- but then I smelled it.

The skunk’s sprays seeped into our house from the space between our town home’s concrete stairs and our basement insulation then wafted up to the bedrooms in powerful waves. Kevin doubled over, gagged, then crawled his way to find relief in a porcelain bowl. Checking my phone, it was 4 AM and there was no way we could stay at home and no way I’d be able to go to work with skunk stench soiled clothes. Running down the hall, I closed Shiloh’s bedroom door to block the smell until I could quickly swipe at my grogginess and figure out what we needed to do to leave.

Kevin grabbed Luna-bug’s leash and settled into the car after pulling it around. I threw only the absolute essentials into bags, settled the two cats in a shut off bedroom in the house with an open window, and carried our sleepy little boy to the car.  The rest of the morning was a blur at Kevin’s parents’ home, ten minutes away, of calling my sub plans into work, taking Luna-bug to doggy daycare, showers, and catching up on stolen sleep.

It would’ve been easy to stay away – to avoid – to hope without any effort or conflict with the stench that the house would all air out.

I couldn’t reason with the skunk, whom we have now named Pepé after Pepé le Pew. I couldn’t have a nice cup of coffee and biscuits and kindly explain what this house meant to me – how this is the place where I’ve never been sick – how I envision my new lease on life every moment I want through the door – or how I’m finally living the life I thought I’d have before cancer ever stomped its way into our lives. I also can’t do that with people. I can’t always use my recovery as an excuse for compassion or expect others to be kind in all situations. Sometimes, instead of running away, you have to reclaim what’s yours.

So, I entered our house last Friday afternoon and drove out the smell of skunk with boiled vinegar and lemons. I opened every window, released the cats, and we closed the holes allowing Pepé to come into our house as he pleased.

I needed to get brave, find courage, and stand my ground in house and life to evict all the Pepés and reclaim my what belongs to me – the peace in my house and heart.

Thank you and au revoir Pepé.

Teacher in America

Tomorrow, I will walk into my classroom and turn the lights on. I will greet students as they enter. I will ask students to put away cell phones. I will take attendance. I will request missing homework assignments. I will teach vocabulary and discuss the complexities of “MacBeth”. I will read silently with my students. I will make a mental checklist of the closest exists. I will contemplate if in an emergency I could break the window with a chair next to my classroom library to get my students out. I will repress tears and the urge to vomit when I hear whispers from students about the videos taken of another school shooting. I will answer the same question I am asked every year in every period: “Mrs. A, would you protect us? Would you get shot for us?” I will respond: “Yes”. I will divert the conversation and continue with the lesson. Sadly, I will wait until the next time innocent children are targeted in a building where they should be safe to answer the question again, hopefully not in the same school year. I will turn off the lights after the dismissal bell and close my classroom door.

I am a teacher in America.

On the Other Side

I’ve walked through those doors dozens of times but there was something about today that made me all nerves and apprehension. It wasn’t a fear of rejection but teetered more toward belonging too much – as if – if I entered the doors of my own volition – that I would have to stay.

After meeting with a friend in the lobby of the infusion clinic building, I insisted on carrying the box full of encouragement bags on my own. They were heavy, full of small gifts to make chemotherapy easier and lined with prayers of the women who filled them. My arm was sore from lifting furniture at work, but I didn’t want help carrying the box – not in this building – not where I’ve needed help to stand and keep my head up.

Punch the elevator to the third floor.

Wait.

Turn right.

It’s the last door on the right.

The receptionist knows me.

I waft in the sterile bite of alcohol wipes and non-latex gloves.

I dropped the box on the floor next to the nurses’ station and grabbed the purple bag on the top with white printed words: “But the LORD is with me like a mighty warrior,” Jeremiah 20:11. A fragile woman with cotton wisps of hair and whose smile illuminated the room looked my way. I didn’t know what to say. I fumbled through words and gave the gift bag to the woman with her. The only way I felt I could communicate was to pull my tank collar to reveal my MediPort scar.

“See?” I said, “I’ve also been here.” She was in talks with her oncologist about getting a port like mine to administer chemo.

After she left, the clinic was empty and the only people left were my oncology nurses. They hugged me with smiles as if we were at a 4th of July family reunion barbecue and they haven’t seen me in a while. I told them more about what I wanted to do with Teal45 and how I brought the bags to give back in my own way.  I tugged on the strands of hair dyed red with growing brown roots from my scalp and showed pictures of my son whom they remembered as a small preemie.

Then the tears flowed.

I thought I locked mine up before I walked in – safely turning the key – but it was my nurse who began crying. Her relief spilled as she smiled. I was finally on the other side. The cables didn’t call my name and the monitors didn’t demand my vitals. There was no appointment keeping me locked into my seat and no slick band around my wrist to scan.

Then I walked out.

I still don’t know what it means to be on this side of treatment – or how I can force myself to hold back tears when I smell alcohol wipes. To be able to walk in and out the sliding doors of my own free will is a tremendous and terrifying feeling.

Who am I supposed to be if not a patient?

There were many nights during treatment when people looked at me and wondered if I was going to die, but now after treatment, the people I want to love, thrivers still undergoing chemo and surgery, I pray for them to live too.

On this emerald grass of post-treatment, I’m still trying to learn how to live.

Inhale. Exhale. Amen.

It’s the moment we all hope to have once in a while.

I sat in the middle of a beige winter field on a canvas director’s chair. Closing my eyes and turning my face to the warmth of the sun, the January breeze wisps surrounded me.  Most of the time, I try not to let myself sit and love to keep moving toward something  – anything. There’s something about ruminating about cancer too long that makes me want to curl back into a hospital bed strung up like a puppet to machines, but last Saturday I did the opposite.

My friend D is incredibly sentimental, but more than that she’s empathetic. Before knowing me, she prayed for me as I was going through treatment. She cried a sister’s tears when I came to her house for the first time and peeled off my gray chemo hat, unveiling a naked scalp. Like a family member, she never complains when I find her good snacks in the refrigerator and chomp on her precooked bacon during small group. But more than anything, God’s gifted her with the precious gift of seeing truth.

Whether it’s through her camera lens or in person, she can tell you if you’re trying to fake it until you make it. So when I needed new pictures for Teal45 and post chemo, D was more than an obvious choice. We were both thrilled for the shoot, and D kept calling and texting and Pintresting and Facebooking what ideas she had for the shoot and how excited she was to do it.

On Saturday morning, D and I were both on a husband and children time clock, knowing that sooner or later they would need us. I got dressed to take a few in casual clothes instead and a few formal on D’s tailored teal couch. We chatted between takes and finally headed back outside for some more. Winding behind the houses, there was a field of tall grasses, a great grey tree on its side, and the city’s power lines stretching into the background.

I loved being outside, and the position of my body or the symbolism of the open sky or how well the pictures turned out were in false compare to how I felt. D kept telling me to remember how free I was from cancer, how I was God’s daughter, and to soak up all His goodness in the rays of the sun. Receiving encouragement and having someone remind me of God’s faithfulness was immeasurable. I felt it. I remembered it.  I embraced it.

This was the moment we all hope to have once in a while.

I inhaled all the freedom and let the glory rest on my face. I exhaled thankfulness for being able to see another sun come up. I closed my eyes in reverence because I cannot even pretend to see what God still has in store.

Thank you, D.

Amen.

Finding my Voice

My mom says I sound like I’ve swallowed two frogs, and to my students I’ve told them I was punched in the throat during an underground cage fight – I won, of course. But really, the weather change and the end of first semester for my classes took my voice. I keep attempting to communicate with everyone but only shrill sounds barely resembling words are coming out of my mouth. As someone who LOVES to talk, just look at all my grade school report cards, it’s frustrating not to be able to say what I want to say.

On Wednesday, I went to my first cancer support group. Surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous at all. My husband was running late from work and it was already 6PM, so I resolved not to go until the next meeting in two weeks. As the disappointment set in, Kevin reminded me of how I committed to “showing up” this year and said even if I was late, then at least I was there. Thrilled, I threw on some jeans and a jacket and made my way to a building I usually see only on Sundays: church.

As I was led to the room by a young lady from the information desk, I tried to memorize the turns in the hallway so next time I wouldn’t look lost.  When the door opened, three bright smiles greeted me as if they were waiting just for me. As we talked together for an hour, we shared how we conquered with faith: cancer, chemotherapy, some had radiation, hair loss, and re-occurrence for others. Though we just met, we all understood and nodded to each other as if to say, “Amen. Amen. Thank God. Amen.”

We weaved our stories, intertwining our pink and teal strings with the common thread of our faith.

Each one of us explained the kinks in our strands and told tales of how we picked up a dropped stitch of our life from cancer. This was the most powerful moment and our most hope giving gift.

Our stories. Our voices.

I hope I never forget to tell my story, every piece of it, and never lose my true voice.

Yoga Mats and Tears

I was nervous. Wringing my hands in the car, I was trying to convince myself it was a good idea to come here. I’ve signed up online and flaked on more events than I want to admit.

I grabbed the green yoga mat with tiny raised marks from where my cats used it as a scratching post before I got married two years ago. I didn’t need directions – I knew exactly where I was going. The big sign for “Cancer Center” illuminated the sign for the hospital as I went into the same building where my hematologist is housed and their infusion center. Finally, I arrived to the Life with Cancer suite with another first timer who looked as confused and apprehensive as I did.

We chatted casually about when we finished chemotherapy and who was wearing a convincing wig as a few others came for the class. As we filed in and got settled, I grabbed the medical waiver for PiYo. Filling out my name, diagnosis date, and date of last treatment, I peeked at someone else’s sheet and saw their date of diagnosis: “2008” – the same year I graduated high school.

I knew this class would be hard on my body, and as we stretched upward and then into downward dog, I realized this was my first real exercise I’ve done since cancer. The assumption I made that the instructor, a pretty, kind, and flexible soul, was going to be easy on us because we all had cancer, was terribly wrong – but I appreciated her for treating us like we were all “normal”.

As the music thumped, my muscles ached and wanted to collapse. I wanted to stay in child’s pose forever, hugging my emerald mat, but I found the strength to push on from the other women around me. At one moment, the room was silent between the transition of the songs in the playlist, and the only sound was the labored breathing of us all. It was that moment which seemed suspended – stretching longer and more vivid as I remember it. The room did not smell of alcohol wipes but with sweat, our jagged thriving breaths echoed off the mirror instead of incessant IV pole beeps.

Never have I been in a room with so many like me, survivors. And that’s what we were all doing. Surviving with every breath – and all trying to live though we know that our bodies may once again try to kill us.

When we finished and packed up, I pushed myself to say hello and gave my name. Then I cried. I told them that this was the first time I’d been in a room full of people who survived cancer like me. The lady next to me said it’s okay to cry, and another, Murry, chimed in, “we all do it”.

Then I told the truth, I’d been avoiding going to anything that supported cancer survivors because I felt if I did, it would mean all of it was real and that I’d be admitting that it all happened. 

The woman to my left showed me her MediPort scar on her chest as if it were a perfect faded beauty mark. “This is a sisterhood,” she said, and she was right. And I cried more.

My heart kept saying, “This was hard. This IS hard!” and my survivor sister said, “I know” by showing me her scar.

Sometimes, I think God shows up in the places we are most hesitant to go – especially when we must realize and accept painful past experiences. When I’m at my lowest and want to bury that cancer was hard or ever happened or is still hard, I feel Christ showing me his pierced hands and saying, “I know”.

I’m glad I went to PiYo because I was able to see a glimpse of myself and a glimpse of God. I was also able to finally meet my sisters.

Thank you for accepting me.

Thank you for letting me know I’m not and never was alone.

Vlog #6: Rest and Resolutions

After a very restful Christmas and New Year’s, it’s time to set those forgiveness resolutions and “showing up” for those most important.