What is Strength?

I have wondered what consistutes a “strong person.”  What characteristics do they have? Do they have some sort of intestinal fortitude that others don’t?  Just sitting here, I can think of at least 7 people right off the top of my head that I consider or have considered strong that have made a significant impact on my life.

My dad was, and still is, my hero.  Anyone who knows me will say I was the ultimate Daddy’s Girl.  My dad worked two jobs when I was young so my mom could stay home.  He went to school at night on the GI Bill.  He worked is way into upper management without a Bachelor’s Degree.  He was funny, smart, charismatic, selfless and the most loving man I’ve ever known.  He always put my mom and me first.  He even introduced me to my husband (after he tried to sell me to him, but that’s an entirely different story for another blog post).  He was devoted to my oldest son and my youngest son grieves over the Paw-paw he never got to meet.  My dad fought diabetes and congestive heart failure with a sense of strength and humor I find myself desperately trying to emulate.  He fought the battles on his terms, not the diseases.  I’ve often asked myself if my dad would approve of how I’m handling cancer and my mom always tells me yes.  Daddy always told me that while we need to pick out battles, sometimes they pick us.  When they do, you need to face them with all the ferocity you can muster.  Actually that’s a paraphrase.  Anyone who knew my dad knows he would never, ever use the word ferocity.  He’d just say “Kick in the ass.”

My mom and great-grandma are like twins from separate generations.  My great-grandma ruled the roost even from her room in a nursing home until shortly before she died.  When she said jump, we’d just do it.  She was a single mom, after the death of her first husband.  She worked as a baker for Lunkenheimer in their employee cafeteria.  Decades later, I was able to benefit from her gifts as a baker.  She was never afraid of hard work.  Well into her 70’s and possibly 80’s, she would sit on a window sill and wash windows – 2 or 3 stories off the ground.  She was tenacious, stubborn, and fiercely devoted to her family.  I know that’s where my mom learned it.

Mom is stubborn too, but in a good way.  No matter how old I am, she’s still my mom and that was never more clear to me than when I underwent my hysterectomy in October. As many of you know, my mom spent every night with me in the hospital being a second set of ears, a sounding board and momma tiger when 2 stupid residents came in and made pronouncements about my health status without reading my chart first. This is where I’ve learned that there is nothing deeper than the strength of a mother protecting her child. I have had my fair share of advocating for my children and I am willing to do whatever it takes to keep them happy, healthy and safe. I  make sacrifices in my own life to homeschool them. My mom is an incredible example of the strength of a mom.

My friends Cathy and Lisa are two of the strongest women I know for a single reason – they beat the Beast. Cathy is a 5 year survivor of breast cancer and Lisa is a 2 year survivor of stage 3 ovarian cancer. Both women refuse to allow me to wallow in self-pity. They give me a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen and arms to hold me, but they refuse to allow me to believe that I will do anything but beat cancer and be a survivor. Even when I get news that’s not what I want to hear (like needing a 7th chemo treatment, just to be sure), they dig in their heels and send fighting strength my way. Cathy texts me after every doctor’s appointment, nearly every lab and never misses sending me positive thoughts the day before chemo and during my chemo treatment. Lisa always e-mails me after chemo to check in on me and does so periodically in the intervening time. She also posts the best things on my Facebook wall. We IM when we can. She is the only person I know who really gets ovarian cancer since she’s had it, along with the multitude of side effects. Both of these incredible women have taught me that I have to have a single minded focus “Kick Cancer’s butt and don’t look back!”

I have a profound respect for my mother-in-law, Elsa Giess. I embrace her as my “second mom” and am blessed to have her. Her family spent much of World War II staying ahead of the Nazi’s and then worked as tentant farmers after the war. She came to the US with her two older sisters and left everything she knew behind. She married my father-in-law, who was also an immigrant, and became and Army wife for several years. When they settled in Mansfield, she raised my sister-in-law and husband while doing the books for my father-in-law’s construction business. She returned to school and worked for years at School Specialty Products. In fact, she worked until she was 70! She lost her sister, Erika, to breast cancer in the 80’s. While I know she worries, she keeps on living life to the fullest. When I had my hysterectomy, she had scheduled a trip to New York with my sister-in-law and her nephews who were visiting from Germany. The day after she returned, she came to Cincinnati to welcome me home and help John take care of me. She has lived through so much and still faces life with an optimism and faith I wish I could match. While God knew what I needed in a husband, he also gave me another wonderful woman to call “Mom.”

I rarely mention my dad’s mom and she certainly wasn’t what I’d call strong, but my Grandma Streckfuss had a profound impact on my life. Married to an abusive spouse, she endured a great deal of physical, psychological and emotional pain as did my dad. My grandma and dad handled it in two different ways. My dad turned into a strong man who didn’t need to use violence, a fist, or evil words to make his point. My grandma was a loving woman who would do anything for me. Her only daughter died when my dad was young and since I was the first grandchild and a girl we shared a special bond. No matter how she felt, she would play with me. I loved her and knew she loved me. When she was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was 7. I didn’t get it. She died right after I turned 9. There is still a empty place in my heart for her. However, I do know that she is that small voice that keeps me fighting. She chose not to fight since it got her away from her abusive husband. I will always remember one of the last things she said to me on the phone, “Don’t let anyone keep you from being you.” Cancer, while it will always be a part of me know, will never define my identity.

Strength is many things. It is courage, emotional fortitude, a caring spirit, tenderness, a hug and an enduring legacy. When I think of strength, I think of these people who have modeled it for me. I only hope I can model it as well for others.

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The Fog Descends

I love the images fog invokes. It can be romantic, like the fog that lightly swirls around the Golden Gate Bridge. It can be mysterious, like the fog that descends upon the ocean. Fog is dangerous when you can’t see two feet in front of your headlights, like on the stretch of I-71 between Louisville and Carrollton. But my favorite kind is morning fog. The kind that envelopes my house like a blanket and lulls me into feeling that the world is my very own cocoon, with two noisy boys, but my own, nonetheless.

There is definitely a fog that surrounds chemo and it’s appropriately named “chemo fog.” It descends without warning and never at an appropriate time. As a writer, this is disconcerting. Often, while writing articles, I need to find a synonym to a word. Despite having a thesaurus at my disposal in Word, it helps to realize that you actually need one. It’s also helpful to know the meaning of the word. Or to be able to actually come up with a word in the first place. It happens in conversation all the time. A few weeks ago, John and I were on our way to chemotherapy. He said the roads were better than he thought and we might even be early. I told him not to . Then I went blank. Absolutely blank, just like a new painter’s canvas. And I stayed that way. The longer I stayed that way, the more frustrated I became. The more frustrated I became, the more the fog descended. Eventually, I let it go. Not surprisingly, about two in the afternoon, I yelled “jinx it!” After the obvious strange stare, I told my hubby that those were the words I couldn’t think of in the morning. He smiled and nodded. This was not his first encounter with my chemo fog, but for right now it’s the only one I can remember.

I realized earlier this week that I would LOVE to be stuck in an actual fog. In a way, I am. I can’t really travel anywhere. My big adventures this week were to get my taxes done (thanks for the refund Mom), driving Kyle to guitar (in which I stayed in the car after driving Braeden through Dunkin’ Donuts for a treat since he has a cold), and, my personal favorite, having labs drawn at Good Sam (you know what they say, a week without driving to Good Sam is like a day without sunshine). Next week looks even more exciting. I get to drop the boys off at co-op and make two trips to Good Sam: one to the oncologist and one for chemo. It just doesn’t get better than that!

Seriously, I would love to be stuck with my computer, my Bible and a fridge full of food for about a week in a cabin alone surrounded by fog. It would keep me from seeing what I’m missing. Being stuck inside while everyone else is playing outside stinks. Missing co-op every week stinks. Having to keep my kids home because Mom can’t leave the house stinks. Now, if my house was actually clean it might be better, but I’m too tired to clean most of the time. Well, too tired to do a decent job at it. My house has a perpetual cyclone (actually two) that doesn’t understand what “pick up your toys” means (yes, cyclones play with toys). If I was in a cabin, it would be clean. No cyclones, no mess. And I would probably get one that had housekeeping service a couple of times during my stay. With my luck, housekeeping wouldn’t be able to find the cabin because of the fog. But that’s okay, I wouldn’t need to be pleasant. I could live blissfully in my fog.

That’s what I really want – to be alone. Alone with my thoughts and to work out my feelings. I have found that I really have a lot to work through and I don’t have a great deal of time to actually do it. Being with people is exhausting. I am also trying to figure out exactly how I am going to incorporate dietary and lifestyle changes that will need to be made within the next several weeks. The thing I reflect most on is the one that will no doubt make the least amount of sense to anyone who hasn’t experienced cancer. What am I going to do when treatment is over and I go into maintenance mode?

My life has been dictated to me since August 22nd, the day my tumor was found. I have been scanned, operated on, infused, stuck, probed, medicated and a whole host of other things that politeness prevents me from mentioning here. Doctors and nurses have told me where to go, what to eat, how to dress, when to sleep and kept me medicated throughout the whole thing. It’s actually like being enveloped by a fog of medicine. Eventually, like fog, this too will dissipate and my life will be mine again – or so I hear. And when I can decide what I will or won’t do, what I will eat or not eat, and toss the support hose and blood thinner shots, it will be a shock. I know my life will never be totally mine again. The Beast will always be there lurking in the background and I will have a few days each year dictated by my oncologist for scans, labs and check-ups, but for the most part, it will, once again, be my life.

Now once you’ve been limited, having freedom can be intoxicating. For me it’s just scary. I will scrutinize every move I make because the Beast lives in the fog. You see the fog, but not what lies beyond. While the fog will lift, I cannot afford to be complacent and let the Beast take control physically or mentally. While the chemo may eradicate the cancer, my emotional and mental wellbeing is forever altered. Every doctor’s appointment will have me on pins and needles wondering if the Beast has returned. And if it doesn’t return physically, it will have invaded my psyche and I will have to work to push it back into the fog so it’s not a constant figure in my life.

So while the fog envelopes me now, I need to realize it won’t be around forever. The sun will eventually return and burn it off. And while it’s gone, I need to embrace the warmth and allow the fear and doubt to disappear with it.