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.



The Spring of My Discontent

While I’ve never understood Shakespeare, he did have some awesome quotes.  Unfortunately, I just tend to paraphrase them to suit my own selfish needs which is probably why I got a “D” in Shakespeare in college (and why I changed majors, but that’s for another blog).  While spring typically brings a sense of new purpose and revival, I find myself wondering if I lost the memo telling me what I’m supposed to do next.

Last year I was blissfully awaiting those first tiny spikes of hair to sprout from my head like little blades of grass ready to burst forth from the sod left dormant by winter’s cold.  I was ready to actually go someplace and not have to be afraid of getting sick or needing my nausea meds. I felt like I was reawakening, just like the world after its winter sleep.

Well, I’m still waiting to wake up.  Apparently this is normal.  No wait, it’s the “new normal.  These are two words that should never, ever be put together to make a reasonable phrase.  Normal is normal so how can it be new?  I didn’t order a new normal.  I want my old normal.  My old normal, while maybe not the most exciting, was good.  I could walk for a reasonable period of time, keep up with my children and lose weight without too much trouble.  I remembered things, tackled new projects with gusto and was one ambitious woman.

Now, not so much.  Numb feet and hands, electric shocks jolting me, achy body, chemo brain, and a whole host of other things that are just too boring to list now bog me down.  I want to be able to walk more than 3/4 mile without needing to ice my feet and live on Motrin for 48 hours.  I want to play with my kids.  I want to not be afraid of tackling a new writing project.  I’d like to sleep well more than a single night each week (sometimes I’m lucky and get two- whoo hoo!).  Let’s not talk about the weight.  Apparently, the trauma of chemotherapy makes your body actually want to keep extra weight just in case you decide to indulge in the toxic cocktail again.  Yea, like that’s on my list.  I just can’t seem to convince those chubby little cells that it’s okay to let go.  I’ve threatened them, screamed at them, pleaded with them, begged them, bribed them (which was, no doubt, counterproductive) and sweet-talked them; all to no avail.  Nothing budges and neither do I.

I have come to realize that I’m tired.  Not physically so much, although I just don’t have the stamina I used to.  Before my treatment, I felt like I was in my early 30’s.  Now, I have no trouble believing I will be 50 in just 4 short months.  Now I just feel old, worn out and beaten down.  I remember neighbors hanging rugs out when I was a kid and beating them.  Sometimes, you could see where people walked on them because they had thin spots.  I’m that rug.  I keep getting beaten and the dust is gone.  There’s some bare spots and I just don’t cover as well as I used to.  Humor is cutting it less and less.  My well is beyond tapped, it’s bone dry and digging deeper won’t help.  Things that used to bring me joy just don’t any longer.  I’m tired, so tired and just want to rest.

I find myself pleading with God to do something – anything – to help me get myself together.  I journal, I blog, I work, I homeschool, I cook, I run a soccer shuttle and try to be present for my sons and husband.  And while I can generally put on the face, it’s becoming more apparent that what I’m doing just isn’t cutting it.  When my husband continues to ask “What’s wrong with you?” it’s apparent that life is coming apart at the seams.

We are vacationing in July, something we all need.  It will be good to get away even if it means renting a cabin and I still have to keep up with the cooking and straightening up.  Truth be told, I’d love a week by myself but I’m fully aware that after 48 hours my ears would be missing the sweet sounds of “I didn’t do it” and my arms would miss prying one child off another.  During chemo, I found that what most found mundane was what kept me sane.  Ironically, it’s the mundane that might be driving me toward some insanity at this point.

I’m not sure which is worse – being discontented and not knowing it or being discontented and not knowing what to do about it.  If you don’t know your discontented, then you can point fingers everywhere else.  If you do know, the process of becoming undiscontented (?) becomes your responsibility.  Trouble is you don’t know how to wrestle with it so it eventually overtakes you until you just want to either make yourself so busy that you don’t have to deal with it or crawl under a rock until it goes away.

Life after cancer becomes a new normal.  I HATE the new normal.  I want my old normal.  The one that doesn’t involve being discontented, quarterly pelvic exams and lying on a CT table twice a year.  I want one that involves continuing to be blissfully unaware of the damage cancer does to a person on a physical, mental and emotional level.  Sometimes I hate being the one who “gets it,”  and  I want to be happily ignorant again.  But I wasn’t given that choice.  This is it and I need to deal with it.

Maybe the “new” normal involves a time of discontent and introspection.  Maybe it means redefining myself beyond my disease.  While I am very proud that I beat OVCA, it’s not who I am any more than I am only a wife or only a mom.  Maybe it means extending myself some of that grace I tell others to extend to themselves.  Maybe it means being selfish sometimes and going off on my own to recharge.  Working at home and homeschooling tend to keep me tied to a single place.  While it’s grounding, it’s also very confining.

I’m thinking it means taking a lesson from the butterfly.  The caterpillar only knows one normal, chowing on leaves.  Then suddenly it gets the urge to curl up in its own custom made sleep sac and take a much needed rest.  When it wakes up, it’s a new normal.  It used to crawl and chomp on leaves.  Now it has to fly and slurp up nectar.  Seriously, how much more radical can you get?

I hate adapting when it’s not on my terms.  So I live in my own spring of discontent.  Hopefully, the summer will be one of enlightenment.