The Present

First, I must give credit where credit is due.  I am liberally borrowing from our pastor, Brian Law.  I am convinced that Brian was brought to our church to minister just to me considering the conviction and love with which he delivers his sermons.  Since this will be the first time I am forwarding this to him, I am acknowledging his contribution up front.

Brian’s sermon had a phrase I’ve not heard in years; “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is the present.”  Wow!  I can’t change what I did yesterday, and I don’t have much control over tomorrow, but today is the present.  A gift to be opened and savored and cherished.  It’s amazing how quickly I’ve forgotten how special today is.

I have no idea what I was doing last year at this time.  I was in a chemo induced haze.  I have absolutely no recollection of Christmas, 2012 except that the heating element in my oven went out, I somehow managed to make a ham in my crockpot and that I no doubt wanted to be in bed.  I have no idea what gifts I got with the exception of the “Baby Blues” calendar because the 2013 one is sitting in its usual spot.  I can’t even tell you what the kids got.  I have a vague recollection of them opening gifts.  I must have shopped online, but don’t remember doing that either.  I did find a picture of Braeden and I making cookies.  I looked like hell (sorry Pastor Brian).

As I’ve said before, cancer doesn’t end when chemo does.  Even if you end up being one of the lucky ones who has few side effects during treatment and emerges from the experience in one piece with no permanent damage, cancer still lingers.  It lurks in the shadows.  I’ve said over and over that I’m convinced that Satan cooked up cancer in his filthy lab in the Underworld.  It’s something that only pure evil can create given that cancer doesn’t follow the rules – ever.  Mine didn’t.  It took three full treatments and my doctor reaching the end of his rope before the chemo started to work.  Theoretically, I should have had improvement after the first round and no later than the second.  In retrospect, my oncologist realized that my body was still healing from the massive surgery and just didn’t want to pay attention to the “present” it was receiving.  Like the Christmas fruitcake, my body finally accepted the gift, albeit grudgingly.  Not all presents are good ones.  And don’t even get me started on the financial part of cancer.  Let’s just say I’m an expert at begging hospitals for financial aid and can write a tear jerker letter to a physician’s practice to go on payment plans like no one’s business.  Maybe to make some extra funds to pay off my expenses, I should write sob story letters for other cancer patients.

I’ve come to realize that the best presents are small ones.  My youngest son reading to me.  My oldest finally getting double digit multiplication.  A walk around the Vineyard campus on Monday with my good friend Kelley.  A sob session with Cathy.  Finally getting a baseline for my CA-125 (that was a HUGE one).  Getting my INR meter so I can test my blood clotting factors at home.  A clean CT scan is always a present (but that’s a bigger one).  Being able to enjoy a clean house for more than 5 minutes.  Cooking dinner for my family without the nausea.  Walking the entire Power is Teal 5K, despite not being able to walk for the rest of the day and having to ice my tired feet off and on for the next two days.  Writing this blog and having so many people respond is a wonderful present.  Getting my online tutor job is a present, with a huge learning curve.  Paying off debt is a wonderful present.

Strangely enough, I don’t consider my remission a gift.  While God carried me throughout the entire process, the battle is still raging on.  Some of it lies with why I developed stage 1c and others aren’t found until stage 3 or 4 when it’s so difficult to even survive.  Call it survivor guilt or inquisitive nature, but it lingers in the recesses of my mind.  Some tell me it’s my persistent nature or that I was determined to find out why I felt so lousy.  Some call it luck.  Some say it’s God’s will.  I don’t know which one it was.  My guess is that it’s a combination of all of these things.  But let’s get one thing straight right now, cancer is NOT a gift, a blessing or any other positive thing. It’s an ugly disease that eats you from the inside out and wants nothing more than to grow and continue to munch on your remaining healthy cells.  Not to be depressing or anything.  It is what it is – no more, no less.

The present comes from what you do with what you’ve got.  My perspective has changed the further I get from treatment.  I expect the best, but plan for the worst.  I all ready have a chemo plan in place in my head for a recurrence.  This isn’t morbid or dark.  It’s reality.  I’ve always said that while 85% is a great 5-10 year survival rate, someone’s got to be in the 15%.  I don’t expect to be there, but hey, nothing’s promised here.  The promises lie beyond this life.

My current present is working on losing the 50+ pounds that need to come off my frame.  Now I don’t know anyone who considers fat a gift.  But it is.  It’s a constant reminder of what I haven’t done.  It’s a reminder that I’ve turned to food for comfort rather than thinking things through (big picture people tend to do that).  I’ve learned that while writing is my passion in life, moving your fingers doesn’t count as exercise (neither does walking from the counter to the stove while cooking dinner).  I’m becoming reacquainted with my exercise DVDs.  I’d forgotten how good it feels to challenge my body.  Despite the achy feet and legs (and it is a lot more painful), I get a distinct sense of accomplishment from finishing a 2 mile walk.  That’s a gift!  The gift I’m most looking forward to is to be able to finally shop somewhere other than the “women’s” section of the store where the clothes tend to look like they were all designed by Omar the Tentmaker or the 3 Stooges.

I’ve learned that most gifts require a mental awareness of the situation.  I’m sure I’ve missed many gifts because I was too wrapped up in something else.  Last night I really listened to my sons at dinner.  It was a great time.  We laughed and talked on a deeper level.  Yes, we all argue and nitpick, but it was one of those “Wow” moments that I cherish.  My boys are growing up.  As I look at the manger, I want to be more like Mary who after experiencing the miracle of birth and visits by shepherds and angels, pondered all those things in her heart (thanks again, Pastor Brian).

Tomorrow is history, tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is the present.  Open it and hold it close.  There are only so many in life and I don’t want to miss any of them.


Ten Years of Life

It’s ironic that the snow is falling and it’s cold today.  I hesitate to use the term “bitterly” because I’ve been where it’s bitter cold and this, I’m afraid to tell you, isn’t.  Bitter cold is taking a breath in through your scarf and the cold still burns your lungs and freezes the mucous inside your nose.  It’s spitting and having it freeze before it hits the ground.  THAT is bitter cold.  This is just chilly.

It was in bitter cold that John and I made the trek 10 years ago today to a military style courthouse in Chita.  We sat in a cold hallway waiting for the translator to tell us it was time for our hearing.  The courtroom was even colder since it had tall windows along one wall that were thick with ice on the outside.  The judge strode in along with everyone else and began barking out the proceedings in Russian.

Now, when we landed in Moscow the first thing that struck me was that the Cold War was still going on.  The airport was painted in a cheery military gray and there were armed guards EVERYWHERE.  In the midst of this, VH1 was on and there stood Mick Jagger on an 8 foot high screen belting out “Brown Sugar.”  I still get a headache from the paradox.

Traveling to a foreign country is a unique experience.  Now imagine doing it with $20,000 in cash strapped to your body.  John and I had managed to split it up so we didn’t have to declare it coming into the country.  We still panicked through customs, especially since we were the last Americans off our plane, the last to have our passports and visas stamped and the last to figure out where the heck we had to go.  Finally we found our translator and she helped us get our luggage and explained the ground rules for the rest of our time in Moscow.

From Moscow to Chita, we were treated to an Aeroflot flight. Now, if you’ve never had the opportunity to fly on a post-Soviet era Aeroflot jet, DON’T.  Seriously, run away!  While standing on the runway with the couple we were traveling with to the region, the maintenance crew started tapping on the front landing gear with a screwdriver.  Now, I am in no way a mechanical person, but it seems counterintuitive to tap on metal and rubber in the cold with a sharp instrument.  My expertise is limited to watching Delta at the gate.  I never saw them do it, so I’m assuming it’s an Aeroflot thing.

We were assured our crew spoke English.  Yep, “Meat or Chicken?” “Water, no gas?” (Sparkling water is the drink of choice in Russia.  This is flat water like what comes from the tap) and “You okay?” were the sole words we heard.  Children were given potty chairs to use.  The little girl in front of me used hers twice during the 6 hour flight.  That was fun, especially since it was stored under her seat by my feet.  I dropped my chicken on the floor.  The plane’s bathroom was an experience.  I quit drinking immediately after I used it an hour into our six hour flight and began about an hour before we would land knowing I could probably hold it until I got to the terminal.  As I waited an man who obviously flew with a flask of vodka let me have it in Russian.  He had tried to ask me a question and my response was, “Sorry, English speaker.”  What a tirade.  Of course, I am one of the few people I know who can say they’ve been cussed out in Russian.

The landing was fun – if you like ceiling tiles falling out on your head connected only by shoestrings.  Yes, shoestrings.  The look on John’s face is etched permanently in my mind.  Normally, we are patient and will wait to exit the plane.  I have never seen my husband move so quickly to get our things and shove us off a plane.

Exiting the plane, that was an adventure.  Imagine walking onto another planet.  That’s what we did.  It was cold (-20F) and everyone is bundled up to their eyeballs.  You walk down the steps and onto the tarmac.  It’s 7AM but pitch black.  Only the lights of the terminal and the runway are visible.  There’s ice fog in the distance.  You are searching in vain for the one person you know speaks English.  Fortunately I am married to a very tall man and Katia (our host and translator) was able to spot John right away.  She led us inside and to a clean bathroom.  After waiting for over an hour for our luggage (yep, it happens in small airports too).

At this point, I am ready to chuck the entire trip.  When I landed in Moscow, which was my first time out of the country, I sobbed – for hours.  I wanted my Dad.  I wanted my bed.  I didn’t care why I had made the trip, I just wanted to go home.  Even though the staff at the hotel spoke English, I couldn’t read anything.  It was in Cyrillic. I had never felt so utterly alone.

Our arrival at Baby House #1 was surreal.  The outside of the orphanage looked like a gingerbread crazed designer had taken over the playground.  The playground was decorated in lollipops, gingerbread houses, sugar plums and anything else you can imagine, encased in a half foot of snow with a thick layer of ice on top.  My glasses were fogged up from the change in temperature. When we entered the building the blast of steam heat caused my glasses to steam up more then defrost.

As we were lead through the Soviet era building to the music room, we met the 3 year olds who had been practicing for their New Years concert.  Despite being cold, their little faces thawed all of us out.  Then the wait began.  This was why we had traveled half way around the world.  After 20 minutes, it was all worth it.  A baby boy with the most beautiful gray eyes and charming smile was placed in my arms.  Despite John’s comment that he had a big, pale head, I was in love.  This was the son God had promised me.  I felt like Sarah holding Isaac for the first time.  This was my child.

As I look over the last ten years, it’s been quite a ride.  Kyle has faced his fair share of struggles.  He has chronic gastritis caused by an antibiotic resistant ulcer as well as some other challenges that are a result of spending the first 5-1/2 months of his life in an institution with only his most basic needs being met (he remained in the baby hospital until there was room for him in the orphanage).  When he was transferred to Baby House #1 the head caretaker, Ludmila, made sure he was cuddled, sung to and loved until John and I got there.  I firmly believe that his intense love of music is a direct result of Ludmila singing to him every day.

Kyle has had to deal with more loss in his young life than most twenty-somethings have ever had to face.  He lost his family of origin and his caretakers before he was 8 months old.  He lost his beloved Papaw shortly before his 3rd birthday.  His Opi died before his 6th birthday.  Our family dog, who fiercely protected Kyle from the moment she met him, died in 2010.  Last year, he had to face the very real possibility that his mom might die.

My son is amazingly resilient.  I know he still fears losing me as much as I fear leaving him and his brother.  Next week, I see my oncologist for my quarterly appointment.  While he never says anything, you can see the subtle change in his eyes.  He is more willing to hug me.  He will actually sit by me on the couch.  He never talks about how scared he is, because he is trying to be strong for me.

This child, who I would willingly give my life for, has put himself in front of me being my anchor to this world.  In the little bit he has said, he firmly believes that we can beat cancer.  Not me, not my oncologist, but we.  He pushes me to be my best.  He reads labels for soy and artificial sweeteners.  He looks for opportunities to lay a teal ribbon.  He sends “hellos” to my chemo nurse, even though he’s never met her.  I always ask the boys if they have a message for my oncologist when I go to see him.  Kyle’s is always “Please keep my mom safe.”  Not cure my mom, not keep the cancer away necessarily.  Just keep her safe.  It’s as if he knows that someday I won’t be here, but for as long as he needs me, do your best to keep her here since I’m not ready to let her go yet.

So with tears streaming (yes, I do cry when I write these), I can hear my son flipping the pages of his beloved Sports Illustrated Kids. Occasionally he will spout off a statistic, but mostly I am hearing the sound of pages turning. While he can drive me nuts, as all kids can, I am so thankful that I have yet another year to celebrate the Forever Family that God blessed me with.  Please God, keep me healthy so I can see him and his amazing baby brother, grow into the strong young men you want them to be.

Happy Forever Family Day, Dma.  Know what whatever happens, your Momma loves you more than you will ever know.