Back at the Cancer Rodeo: Everyday Magic, Day 972

Self-Portrait With Rainbow & New Cancer Diagnosis

When I had breast cancer 17 years ago, I learned some things about resilience, the ability to bounce back. There’s nothing like being thrown off a bucking bronco to discover that yes, you can hit the ground, hard, and yes, you can hobble back to your feet and strength. There’s also nothing like community and all the love that made me upright again, then fed me homemade soup at regular intervals.

In 2002, I discovered I had breast cancer, lymph node involvement, and also the BRCA 1 genetic mutation — which increases the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other cancers (even melanomas, like what I now have). There were three big surgeries, akin to holding onto a mechanical bull in the middle of a tornado,  surrendering to the anesthesia, and waking up to nausea and clear skies. There were also months of chemo, mounting one unbroken pony  after another with the certainty that I would be thrown off and I would throw up, and my white cells and mojo would plummet. I’d be overtaken by a numbing white sleeve of sleep at any moment interspersed with steroid-induced  closet re-organization at 3 a.m.  Ken, my family, friends, and big community love got me through, filled our refrigerator with blintzes and chocolate pudding for the six months of chemo, drove kids to and from piano lessons and hospital visits, brought me a TV and VCR (we had neither beforehand) so I could zone out on Steve Martin movies, and talked me through fear storms.

In the years since, I’ve understood that the cancer rodeo grabs hold of many of us as patients and just about all of us as people who love people with cancer. Having facilitated writing workshops for people with cancer and other serious illnesses at Turning Point in Kansas City for the last 17 years, I’ve also seen miraculous displays of grace: people who find the strength to open their hearts to life and make new meaning. From all of this, I’ve learned a few rodeo tricks and tips from the pros:

  • Generally, the hardest part is the excruciating limbo between “you have what sure seems like cancer” to a precise diagnosis and treatment plan.
  • New and mind-blowingly innovative medical treatments are coming to fruition all the time.
  • Energy healing and other forms of healing (whatever works for you) — acupuncture, massage, yoga, nutrition, walking with friends, laughing our asses off together — at best can spark startling revelations, and at worse, can dissolve incapacitating fear.
  • Denial is not a dirty word: it’s a necessary coping mechanism along with dimming the harsh lights of what’s likely ahead for us. We can’t live fully while carrying a backpack full of big rocks all the time.
  • Statistics are somewhat meaningless in the intimate space of being alive as a singular person connected to other people in the here and now. I’ve seen people with stage 4 cancers kvetching and sharing jokes 15 years out, and I’ve seen the opposite, too.
  • Cancer doesn’t change who we are; nor does treatment. I feared I wouldn’t still be myself on heavy doses of chemo, and yet I was totally still me, maybe even more so. Big dances with mortality reveal to us more of who we innately are, and that is a priceless gift of perspective.
  • There’s incredible good company at the cancer rodeo: people with the best senses of humor and get-up-and-go gumption because of close encounters with the life force. These are the best people you’ll ever meet or even be.
  • No one is immune to mortality.

Which leads me to now: some fuzzy vision in my right eye and a lot of blinking since March led me to an excellent ophthalmologist, Dr. Brown,  who, after two hours of shining lights into my eyes while having me look right or left and taking various images, had to tell me there was definitely cancer there. My stomach plummeted, and I felt the floor fall away. The rest of the day included talking with my wonderful integrative physician, Dr. Sandal, and my fantastic oncologist, Dr. Soule, in between a lot of phone calls, numbness, loss of appetite (a rare thing for me), occasional freak-outs at what wild animals I would have to ride and fear over if I would get to the other side intact. I also petted my cat a lot.

Yesterday, Ken, my soul brother Ravi, and I went on an inner space mission to Dr. Desai, a superb ocular oncologist at St. Luke’s Hospital. Did you know they can do an ultrasound of your eyeball? I know that along with how contrast dye of the eye produces clear images and that if you subtract the shortest man in the world from the tallest, you get Shaq O’Neal (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was booming in the waiting room). The extreme possibilities were extremely dire, and while I won’t know for completely sure if the rest of my body is clear until after the PET scan and brain MRI, when Dr. Desai said it was a treatable melanoma, I burst out crying in relief.

What’s next is a tiny gold button full of radioactive pellets planted behind my eye before being removed five days later. Then, aside from potential and probable long-term side-effects and vigilant monitoring for the spread of micro-melanomas, I’m done with this rodeo, and maybe with the cancer rodeo circuit for good…..or not, which is a big reason all this can be so scary.

The view from here

Now it’s time to ready myself for the rodeo and other metaphoric renderings of what’s ahead, knowing I will find a way through thanks to dedicated medical professionals, gifted healers, and especially my best-beloveds, particularly Ken, who gets to go with me yet again through a mess of tests and challenges. While I don’t own a pair of red cowgirl boots, I can barely ride a horse, and I can’t yodel to save my life, I can be brave enough to let all these people and procedures save my life. Then, probably sometime this summer, l’ll be on the other side with a more resilient spirit,  more grateful heart, and maybe a cowboy hat too.

Thank you for reading this and being with me at the start of all this.

 

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There But for Grace: Everyday Magic, Day 963

Forest a few months ago with his Aunt Linda

Eighteen years ago, we almost lost our youngest son Forest in a car accident involving black ice, three kids and me in a van, and the only spot on the road that led to a deep ditch. Our van plunged, flipped and spun around, ejecting five-year-old Forest through the broken window to land about ten feet away. He was unconscious, his jaw  broken in multiple place, and his brain bleeding in three spots. But through superb and swift medical care (including being life-flighted to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City), the love and prayers of an immense community, the healing work of our friend Ursula, and pure luck or grace (depending on how you see it), he made it through with only the need for a new permanent front tooth. Forest’s survival was the greatest miracle of my life.

While I’ve written about the accident in this blog post (you can click on), today I’m drawn toward the number 18, anniversaries, and grace.  In Judaism, C’hai means 18, the letter C’hai, luck, and life. I’ve worn a C’hai around my neck since my mother gave it to me 17 years ago during my cancer treatment (another “there but for grace” experience), reminding me to remember how much I love this life. Anniversaries can be similar talismans, circling us back to the same position of the sun however many years have passed. All these talismans can fortify us for the moments that feel like the opposite of miraculous, tapping us on the shoulder to tell us how little we know about what is possible, even against all odds.

Which leads me back to grace and the end of a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, “There But For the Grace,” in which she writes:

So you’re here? Straight from a moment still ajar?

The net had one eyehole, and you got through it?

There’s no end to my wonder, my silence.

Listen

how fast your heart beats in me.

Whatever eyehole we get through, whatever accident disease or heartbreak, can surely feel like a moment of grace, a shining and shaky moment as if we were just spit out by the whale (like Jonah in that biblical story) on the shore, our hearts beating as fast as the life force. There’s no rhyme or reason for why some survive such close calls and others don’t. Being in pediatric I.C.U. with Forest 18 years ago put us in the middle of families rejoicing and families grieving — I will always remember how the teenage parents of a toddler who died were suddenly wrapped in the arms of two dozen teenage friends, plus ample family members, all holding each other and crying in the waiting room. I’m eternally grateful that a week after we arrived at the hospital, we got to pull a red wagon out of the hospital, packed with gifts, balloons, and our laughing five-year-old, ready to go home.  Yet I know there’s something I can never explain about why grace lands one place and not another.

What remains, 18 lucky years of life later, is a funny, compassionate, smart, and very happy 23-year-old man quick with his phone to show me quirky cat videos when I’m down and to call us regularly just to ask how we are. I think of him and all the grace that continues to unfold because he’s here, and there’ s no end to my wonder.

Surprises From 2018: Everyday Magic, Day 960

“So instead of New Year’s resolutions, I drew up a list for 2019 of experiences that had already passed: a record not of self-mastery but of genuine surprise. 1. My oncology nurse became a dear friend. 2. Even in the hospital I felt the love of God. 3. Zach is under the impression that I never get tired. These are my small miracles scattered like bread crumbs, the way forward dotting the path behind me.” — Kate Bolwer

Surprises around the bend

In reading Kate Bowler’s evocative essay, “How Cancer Changes Hope” and revising poems for my next book, How Times Moves, I’ve been making a U-turn from manifestations for the future back towards surprises from the past. What delights me most in life — and maybe you too — is exactly that: how something far better and more amazing happened than what we pined for, depended on, or planned, like right now when, in middle of writing this, Bruce Springsteen’s “Surprise, Surprise” starts playing on KCMG (my large itunes collection).

My moments of genuine surprise include these which all happen to be moments of education too:

  • I realized, while in the bathtub on Memorial Day, that I was going on leave from teaching after measuring my life in semesters for 33 years without a break in the pattern. Further thickening the plot, about a month into my leave, I caught myself up on how my soul had actually decided not just to take off a semester but a full year. A corollary surprise was that I had organized enough extra work and income to take such an unpaid leave.
  • One-on-one coaching is so much akin to holding someone’s hand as we step into the wild landscape of their creative callings. It’s also something I love doing.
  • I’ve fallen more deeply in love with Lake Superior, my husband’s laughter, what a crockpot can do, all three of my kids, walks along the curving perimeters of cedars on shining days, yoga, the pink shimmering ring around the full moon, making art (parfait dyeing, sculpey, watercolor pen play, etc.), homemade butter, reading, long lunches with dear friends, mackerel clouds, Call the Midwife, Shay the Dog and Miyako and Sidney Iowa, the cats, and music I hear, witness, and make.
  • The death of a very central being in our family — my mother-in-law — isn’t at all what I dreaded it would be, but instead a panoramic immersion in fierce and tender emotional states, all lit from within by love.
  • Each of the 25+ reading and workshop I did for my novel Miriam’s Well felt completely new and alive.
  • Ecstasy, or at least some dose of contentment and satisfaction, is readily available to me when I embrace the seasonal tilts here and now, whether driving up autumnal mountains in Vermont rich with goldening maples or looking up into the snow dazzling down in Kansas or walking to the edge of a peninsula on a cold day in Madison or sitting on a sweltering porch on a too-still summer day full of birdsong and cicada roar. It’s even available right now on a blank-sky day while the rain bounces off the deck outside and the cats sleep inside.
  • Sometimes a new friend is so obviously a life-long old friend that it’s a puzzlement to answer the question, “so how long have you two been friends?” (thinking of you, Laura), and sometimes an old friend chimes back for new discoveries (yup, you, Ravi). Related to this, the friends who hold my stories are godsends when it comes to reminding me where I came from, what I got through, and what freedom I inhabit right now to follow what calls.
  • Health and maintaining it is just about more everything that I imagined. Likewise, certain things (I’m looking at you, chocolate mega dessert) that used to embody great mouth joy can quickly trigger a Rube Goldberg-like chain of pain.
  • It’s an old adage to be careful with or lower our expectations, but I expect we can keep expecting gratitude and surprise, which leads me to share this poem from my new collection-in-the-works:

No One Tells You What to Expect

A downpour as you’re running down Massachusetts Street

in sandals that keep falling off in unexpected puddles.

Ice on power lines. The dying who won’t die,

then a single bluebird dead in your driveway.

The deadline or lost check spilling the orderly papers.

The part that isn’t made anymore for the carburetor,

or the sudden end of chronic sinus infections while lost

in a parking lot looking for where you parked the car.

Your best thinking won’t be enough to save your daughter

from a bad romance or your friend from leaving the man

she’ll regret leaving. Across town, in a quiet gathering

of maples, someone drops to her knees in such sadness

that even the hummingbirds buzz through unnoticed.

The dog you thought gone returns wet and hungry,

the phone call reports the CT scan is negative,

and your husband brings you a tiny strawberry,

the first or the last, growing in your backyard.

Life will right itself on the water when the right rocks come along,

so put down your paddle and let the bend tilt you

toward what comes next: the bottoms that fall out,

the shoes that drop, the wrong email sent while

a cousin you lost touch with decades ago calls,

his voice as familiar as the smell of pot roast

while that song you forgot returns like an old cat.

Expect to be startled.

Lightening Up for the Solstice: Everyday Magic, Day 959

Tomorrow the world turns over: our shortening days stop in their tracks, and the light begins lengthening those days for months to come. Even the dreaded month of February, out there on the near horizon, will be far brighter light-wise as our long nights tuck into themselves.

At the same time, this is a year I’ve been lightening up, not so much weight-wise (although certainly warranted by all those height-weight charts). I’ve taken a year-long unpaid leave from Goddard College, a place I love immensely but after 64 consecutive semesters of teaching there or elsewhere, I was ready for a break. I’ve just completed over 25 gigs — readings, talks, and workshops — to promote Miriam’s Well, my new-ish novel in many states (KS, MO, OK, WI, VT, NE, MN) and states of being. In further evaluating the many ways I make a living — “What do you do, Caryn?” “Do you have an hour?” — I’ve edited out work that’s too weighty in proportion to how it fits my callings, health, sanity, and need to make some moolah. Although our family is still grieving and will be for some time, the death of my beloved  mother-in-law also brings a little more mercy and light. And through two years of healing (still in progress) with my integrative physician, Dr. Neela Sandal, puzzling through anxiety issues with a great therapist, and guidance from other supportive humans and forces of nature, I’ve leapt into considerably better health which, as we well know, informs all else in a life.

So I have a lot of reason and reality to sense so much more light, both that bright blur, like right now in the sky emerging, and the easier to lift and carry kind of lightness. The sky we live in and the sky that lives in us will keep bringing us many manner of weather, change, surprise, and mystery, and of course, there is great beauty and discovery for us to traverse in the rich darkness and weightiness of life too. But for now, as the darkness and heaviness lifts some, I’m swimming in gratitude which itself is another kind of lightness.