Standing Strong


I love this picture.  It’s my favorite one from my vacation.  Usually my favorite pictures are those of my kids or me and the hubby.  But I LOVE this picture.  It was taken on a very windy day atop the Silver Lake Sand Dunes in Michigan.  The tree in the picture is a poplar tree.  It is at least 70 feet tall and has roots that stretch out beneath the dunes in search of nourishment.  It gets beaten by winds and sand and yet is full and green and provides the only shade available for miles (I know, I stood there when I was hot one day). 

I’ve been thinking about this tree, so much so that I’ve decided to frame a print of this picture and hang it above my desk.  I’ve decided that in life you are either the tree or the sand.  You make the choice. 

One thing I love about the dunes is that they are never the same.  They change day to day, hour to hour and sometimes even minute to minute depending on the wind and other factors.  Every time someone places a footprint on the dunes, they change.  What I did notice is that from just about anywhere I walked, I could find my tree.

To get to the dunes you have to climb and incredibly steep hill.  It’s nearly straight up.  My hubby and sons scampered up the hill while I hauled my body up using ropes that protected a portion of the dunes (I wasn’t the only one.  Lots of people did this).  I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath.  I found myself more than once thinking, “This is nuts!  I will NEVER make it up this hill.”  And yet, I put one hand over the other and hauled myself up that dune.  The view from the top is spectacular.  You can see all of Silver Lake.  When you walk to the other side, you get a panoramic view of Lake Michigan.  Two beautiful views separated by one square mile of sand, populated with dune wood (it’s like drift wood, only a LOT sharper from the constant bombardment of the sand).  It’s surreal, alien and beautiful all at the same time.

Cancer is a lot like the dunes. One side is the life you had before cancer – I call this Silver Lake.  It’s peaceful and relatively calm.  You are in your own little lake and can quietly live your life protected from the majority of the storms.

Then cancer hits.  Suddenly you are faced with the steepest climb of your life.  Surgery, debulking, and chemotherapy leave you reeling.  You keep climbing in hopes of reaching the top, but when you do you can’t get solid footing.  Just when you think you’ve found someplace solid to walk, the sand dissipates beneath your feet and you sink down, stumble and, perhaps, fall down.  Unfortunately, no one is going to rescue you so you have to get back up and keep walking. 

Off in the distance you hear the ORVs (Off Road Vehicles) racing the dunes.  I can’t decide if the sound is annoying or down right obnoxious (guess it depends on your mood).  We did two tours of the dunes, one in a large group and the other in a Jeep tour.  Both were fun and I can certainly see the attraction of not having a speed limit while driving on huge mountains of sand, but the ORV area reminded me of the people who buzz by you when you have cancer.  They are on the edges, but refuse to actually engage with you.

While you might think Lake Michigan is remission, I tend to disagree.  Lake Michigan is beautiful when it’s calm.  When it storms it’s not much different than the ocean and many ships have been lost.  At it’s deepest point, it’s over 900 feet deep.  So while it looks calm and the sounds of the waves lapping can lull you to sleep, don’t be fooled. 

Nope, I’m still on the dunes trying to navigate my way.  My feet keep sliding because of the neuropathy.  I’m slowly developing lymphedema in my legs from the lack of lymph nodes in my groin so my feet get fat and walking doesn’t help.  Osteopenia and bone pain throw me for a loop.  Sometimes I’m on top of a large dune looking down.  At other times, I find myself in the valley between the dunes trying to figure out how to climb the next one. 

Finding your path on the dunes is really tough.  First you have to decide if you’re going barefoot or wearing shoes.  I found going barefoot to be a bit easier, mostly because I could feel where my feet were when I was barefoot (I lose the ability to find my feet when I walk a lot due to the neuropathy).  Trust me, you have to know where your feet are at all times and knowing they are at the end of your shins isn’t enough.

Once you have the whole footwear issue (or lack thereof) decided, you just start walking.  Some are easy to climb.  I liken these to weekly labs during chemo.  They aren’t hard, but necessary.  Some are more difficult and are like those semi-annual CT scans.  You have to do them and waiting for the results is tough, but in the end you come out on top.  Then there are the monsters.  They’re steep no matter how you try to approach them.  That’s chemo and life after chemo.

Let’s call a spade a spade and say “Chemo sucks,” because it does.  But life after cancer isn’t exactly a walk on the beach.  You have to keep climbing all these small and medium size dunes, then suddenly a big dune is right in front of you.  You can’t really walk around it and, depending where you are or where you want to go, going back isn’t an option.  So you start to plan a route and start walking.  The sand shifts, the wind blows, your feet sink and you wonder if you chose the right path.  You might even have to change course a couple of times.  Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. 

The path you chose is probably not the path your companion chooses, no matter how close you are.  You see, we all walk our own path.  While others may walk on our path for a while, only you walk your path for the entire journey. 

Wherever I walked, I always looked for my tree. It was my focal point.  If I could find that tree, I could get out.  Jesus is the tree and I am the sand.  I blow helter skelter while He stands strong.  If I find the tree, I find life.

Walking on the dunes is a challenge, just like walking through life.  We all have our own challenges.  The walk isn’t easy and some will quit.  Others will walk in circles.  The idea is to stand strong like the tree so you can make your way through the shifting sand.  Remember it’s how you walk your journey, not how quickly you reach your destination that’s important.

Life Lessons Learned

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks.  I’ve found myself in the position to be able to finally begin paying it forward.  Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but it’s always a learning experience.  The lessons we learn in life aren’t always easy or pleasant, but I’ve found that they are always necessary and, by and large, come in handy in the future.

I’m a stubborn, strong-willed and independent woman who learned to do a lot by myself.  I married at 29 and my husband worked all the time before we had our kids.  We had a house affectionately dubbed “The Money Pit” that my dad used as a DIY teaching tool.  I learned to wall paper, paint, lay tile, pull up carpet, compare estimates, put together furniture, sand, stain and a whole host of other skills that have served me well in “The Money Pit II.”  I like being independent and figure things out for myself.  Cancer really screwed that up for me.  Suddenly Miss Independent had to ask for help.  It was easy enough when I was in the hospital after the surgery, but as the chemo dragged on I began feeling guilty for needing help. 

Enter my friend Kelley, who became our caterer, chauffer, baby sitter and substitute teacher.  My boys have grown to love her as another mom.  They walk into her house and make themselves at home.  They don’t even treat her as a substitute teacher any longer (meaning they choose to whine, moan and complain about schoolwork, just like they do with me).  I would try to refuse help, but she wouldn’t let me.  Hospitality is one of her spiritual gifts and God certainly has blessed her in that area.  She graciously kept the boys from 7am – 9pm during my chemo days, feeding them 3 meals, going over school work and taking them with her on errands.  I told her over and over that I would never be able to repay her.

Unfortunately, I now find myself in the position of having to reciprocate.  I say that not because I don’t want to, I do.  I just wish I didn’t have to.  No one wants to have to reciprocate this kind of kindness.  Fortunately, Kelley doesn’t have cancer, but she does have a serious orthopedic injury.  My boys remember her in their prayers each night, just like they did me.  I find myself both thanking God for our friendship, while praying that He would grant her wisdom to manage what comes.  I offer what help I can, from buying groceries, to transportation, to keeping her company (she plays a mean game of Bananagrams).  She doesn’t want to impose on me.  I get it.  It’s tough to ask for help.  You don’t want to wear people out.

Another friend, Renie, just finished up chemo and radiation for breast cancer.  We rejoiced on the phone.  It was tough for me when she was diagnosed.  Not only do I love and respect her like a second mom, but she was the first person I’m close to who was diagnosed after me.  It hurt, not only because she had to face the Beast, but because I knew what she was going through.  While no two people walk the identical path, chemo is poison and at some point you will feel like crap.  I hated when she felt that way, knowing that there’s not much you can do about it.

Renie babysat for the boys when I would to see the oncologist, every 3 weeks.  She drove me to appointments.  She sat with me while I got fluids.  She hugged me, cried with me and prayed for me.  When I asked what I could do, she said, “Just be there for me when the time comes.”  And I was with my own hugs, prayers and tears.  No one wants a friend to join your battle with the Beast.  Especially someone you love so very much.

Renie wanted to know what to do now.  She’s done and the oncologist relinquished control.  That feeling that your life is yours again is unsettling.  We talked a bit, but I felt like I needed to offer her more; like I needed to dig deep for some profound insight that would help.  Instead, I offered to meet her for lunch and a glass of wine.  Not feeling the depth here.

I’ve learned that I can’t keep pain away from my friends.  I want to, I really do.  I want them to avoid the helplessness and frustration that comes when your spirit is willing, but your body isn’t.  You want to move, but it’s just not in the cards.  Planning your life around doctor’s visits and therapies, along with all the adjustments you have to make to accommodate your injury or illness is difficult on so many levels.  People see the physical. You have to decide if you’ll share the emotional/psychological side.  God sees it all, but we have a tendency to think we can hide it from Him as well.  If you play the game well enough, people believe you don’t need help and you can be Miss Independent again.  It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

I’ve learned that I’m blessed with a few people who really love me and my family.  Those are the people I want to keep close.  These are the people who I want around my children.  I turn to these people when I’m scared or happy or need a hand.  And I turn to them when they’re scared, happy or need a hand.  It’s called being family.  It’s called loving each other. 

Will there be times when I don’t want to help?  I’m sure.  There’s days when I threaten to change my name from Mom to something my sons can’t pronounce.  There are days when I want to run away screaming at the top of my lungs hoping the men in white coats will catch me with their net and straight jacket.  I don’t though.  The Beast taught me that even on the worst days at home, those are better than my best days with cancer. 

I hope Renie sees that life becomes a new normal.  You are healed, but still different.  You have two lives; the one before cancer and the one after (I don’t think you actually have a life during treatment because you just feel too lousy to have one).  It’s how you choose to deal with what life throws at you that matters.  There’s no road map, you just sort of blaze your own trail.

As for Kelley, I hope she learns to extend herself some of the grace and hospitality that she so blessedly extends to others.  I hope she realizes that people help out of love, not obligation (well, most people).  But more than that, I hope she learns that times like these are when God works on us the most.  When you are at a point when you depend on others, it’s those times that you most clearly hear God.  And yes, He does have a sense of humor about these things.

My mom says I have to learn the hard way and I do.  I’ve learned the hard way that some people don’t want to deal with me as person in remission.  They don’t want to hear about my residual issues or my fatigue or frustration.  I’ve also learned there are people like Cathy and Lisa who do.  I’ve learned Sue will always be my sister.  I’ve learned that homeschool keeps you sane when your sick.  I’ve learned that Renie and Kelley are incredible friends.  I’ve learned that Kyle uses the tangible to show he cares (by making mom sandwiches and keeping water bottles filled) and Braeden uses humor to deal with stress (mine and his).  The fact that I married an incredible man has been reinforced beyond what I could have ever imagined (any man who willingly sits through a pelvic exam with his wife is amazing and John’s done it more times than any man should have to). 

Some of us are a quicker study than others.  Some of us never learn.  I hope that I’m able to both learn and share what I’ve learned the same way people have shared with me.  That would be the best lesson learned.