Loss– another four-letter word

Some times it’s all a little too much for me. Tonight’s thoughts in poetic form…

After the apples have ripened,
been harvested or fallen
to the cold earth to turn rotten,
and after the November
winds have stripped her of her leaves,
leaving her bare, exposed, empty–

does the apple tree remember
who she is?
Do I?

Things too hard to say outloud

Crafting poems is for me a way to process thoughts and feelings that are sometimes too difficult to speak of. Massaging words to create form and meaning is one of the ways I best process the joy and the agony of life.

And then the words sit there, having done their work in me, and waiting to perchance do their work in someone else.

To all those who love or have loved someone with a cancer diagnosis, these are for you.

Always

You know that

we cannot always be together.

One of us (sometimes I think

it should be you, and

some days I hope it’s me)

Yes, one of us will leave first.

It is bound to feel

like the greatest betrayal.

When we made our vows we were too young

to understand that death is real.

Then, forever meant forever.

Yet we cannot always live

together. One of us

will leave behind the flesh

that holds our hearts,

and the other will hurt in our chest

with every inhale thereafter.

But you know that

we will always be together,

anyway.

Company

Keep me company in my grief.

Let your eyes mirror my unshed tears

and your hands shake with the earthquake of my fears.

Don’t try to stop the tremble in your voice.

Let your words be an echo of the crying out

stuck in my throat.

Sit with me in my shadow,

in the darkness where hope has fled

leaving a hollow cave where

unseeing eyes can see the dead, the dying.

And when the sun rises again

(because it always does)

do not shake your head and say

my terror was all for nothing.

Because terror is never all for nothing.

Just Because

Just because I haven’t said so

doesn’t mean I am not terrified 

of life right now.

Just because you haven’t seen me cry

doesn’t mean my brain is not awash in invisible tears.

Just because I keep on going

doesn’t mean that part of me

hasn’t died, and dies again.

The Opposite of Me is Me

Contradictions. They make it difficult for me to feel settled. I try to make things permanent — feelings, truths, character traits— but as soon as I place the nail and lift my hammer, the whole thing shifts and I have to admit that life is a bunch of contradictions.

Here are the hardest to accept:

I am both

Confident AND fearful

Kind AND vindictive

Patient AND inpatient

Forgiving AND spiteful

Quiet AND raucous

Reflective AND unseeing

Productive AND unproductive

Generous AND greedy

Peaceful AND volatile

Gentle AND harsh

Strong AND vulnerable

I try so hard to be all the “good”stuff, but when the “bad” stuff emerges, I feel despair. It’s that way with my relationship with the world, too. I have trouble accepting the pain and the loss while embracing the growth and the joy– the pleasure and the gifts alongside the death and the sorrow. 

Somehow my mind must expand, my hands must open to take it all in. ALL.

I do see that if I learn to accept all this in myself, I will be able to accept it all in others. And that would be a level of peace that appeals to me at my core.

Laying down the burden of control

We teach our children to control themselves, that actions have consequences and our behavior affects the outcome of most situations. We live with the idea that life is what WE make of it. This sense of personal responsibility, however, can become an overwhelming burden when things fly apart (as they often do) into what seems like chaos. In my recent reading about suffering I’ve begun to learn how important it is to accept life as it is, rather than in the shadow of an ideal I have imagined. Loss, pain, frustration, grief hurt me far deeper when I fail to remember that these things are part of a real human life and not some kind of cosmic failure.

Three years out from that original diagnosis and surgery and I was more nervous than usual about my follow up with the oncologist. Because I’ve had ongoing discomfort on the side I had my partial mastectomy, I’ve been doing self exams more regularly. However, breast tissue can be pretty irregular and I’ve been having a difficult time being able to tell if any of these bumps and lumps I’m feeling are anything out of  the ordinary.  So I requested some additional instruction about the self-exam.

The doctor’s advice— get to know your body. Note where things tend to be more smooth, where the tissue is usually more fibrous. And then pay attention when there is a change.

I took in that information, hoping fervently that I would even remember month to month what was normal in my breast. What if I missed it? The tiny sign that cancer was back? It would be my fault.

Then she said it. The thing I most needed to hear:

“It’s not YOUR job to determine if your cancer has recurred. That’s OUR job. That’s why you come back every six months and why you pay US to do exams. We who have done thousands of these exams and know exactly what we are looking for. I can feel a tumor that is as small as a grain of rice. This is why you have mammograms. Your responsibility is just to tell us if you are noticing symptoms. That’s all.”

Tears filled my eyes and my heart steadied its beat. I’m certain that the high blood pressure the technician had noted at the beginning of the appointment eased down to a more normal level. I felt safe. Protected. Relieved. 

I am not alone in this.

Sometimes I wake up

Sometimes I wake up at inconvenient hours, with inconvenient thoughts, and an inconvenient ache to reach out.

So near the three year anniversary of my diagnosis, a dear friend has received her own news and her life is shaken to its core. I feel it too. There is a deep resonance in my being when someone else’s news is cancer. It doesn’t matter that the particulars are different. That the battle and then the healing will be different. My heart trembles with hers.

And tonight instead of tossing and turning, I got out of bed, wrapped up in a blanket, and wrote this, for R.

Our Cup of Midnight Tea

You cannot see me

sitting here in the dark with you,

the dark of the night when

you cannot sleep.

Tomorrow woke you and

will not let you close your eyes 

again. It’s no surprise

your heart cannot rest when

each star in the sky is

a question without an answer

and every creak of the walls is

a tumbling down of your dreams.

It seems you are alone

but here I am, 

sitting in my own night,

with just a splash of lamplight,

holding you, holding out to you,

drinking with you

this cup of midnight tea.

What doesn’t meet the eye

It had been too long since I vacuumed the tv room. I am not going to admit just how long, because it is a bit shameful. Let’s just say, a while. But it really didn’t look bad. If it had looked bad, chances are I would have gotten to the task before this morning.

What triggered my attention to the need was a worsening of our allergies and the way we would get stuffy when we watched tv. (Again, I KNOW it had been too long.) So I grabbed the Dyson and went at it. The carpet is old enough that the nap doesn’t really puff up when I vacuum and I could not see a visible difference. 

But the reality of my neglect was apparent when I emptied the canister. Holy moly, there was a LOT of dog hair. 

We all know that our individual perception is limited, and yet that is what we have to go on in this world. What we see, what we hear, all the input there is in a day gets filtered through our brains, our biases, our needs, and when it results in our view of reality, we can either feel satisfaction or fear, hope or panic.

Next week I have another follow up appointment with my surgeon (approaching 3 years out!). Will she note something that I have not seen? Something I have not felt? I don’t know. But I do know that even if she does, any “bad” news she might give me is only part of the story. 

When I feel overwhelmed, I’m going to try to remember that reality is more than what I see.  There is more happening than meets the eye. And also, it helps to vacuum even if you don’t think it needs it.

The Beauty of Impermanence

I realized a few inches into the knitting of the hat that I had made a mistake. Did I cast on too many stitches? Were my needles too large? Was my yarn too bulky?  If I kept knitting, this would end up being a hat for a giant. So I pulled out all the stitches and wound the yarn back into the ball of yarn I started with. For some reason I did not feel upset, angry or frustrated. Instead, I remembered the igloo.

Last week when the sky had dumped a significant amount of snow and we were all out clearing driveways and walkways, I watched my young neighbors build a totally impressive two-room igloo. They spent many hours and a lot of energy creating a structure that on the outside looked like your standard wintertime igloo, but the inside was real magic. Christmas lights, lava lamps, ambient aquarium music turned the inside (large enough to hold six adults!) into an inner sanctum. It had the feel of a holy place.

Just a few days later the temperatures rose and the rain fell, and the whole thing collapsed. But I heard no complaints or wailings of despair, witnessed no wringing of hands or gnashing of teeth. They knew from the start their project would not be permanent. They knew that, and yet they built with obvious joy and fierce commitment. They met their goal, and even though the igloo’s existence was brief, it was spectacular. 

In my search for meaning, often I pin my hopes on creating something lasting, permanent, something that will exist long after I am gone from this planet. In doing so, I often lose the opportunity to abandon myself to things that could fill me with joy in the present moment. 

I knitted for hours before I tore apart the hat. Was it for nothing? Those hours were times of internal calm centering in the midst of ongoing confusion in the world around me. Those hours of knitting, though they did not result in anything lasting to show for my efforts, provided a holy place of rest and contentment. I have decided to call that worthwhile work.

Photo credit (and construction credit) Jordan and Jared Diethrich, 2020

Life Boats

Two weeks ago I was in my oncologist’s office for my regular checkup. While I waited in the waiting room (and this was no more than 10 minutes!) I witnessed two young women patients enter the office (they were not together).

The first appeared healthy, but there she was, showing up at the cancer center for some reason. I felt concern for her, but also felt relieved that she appeared energetic and bright.

The second young woman was a different story.  She was with her mother. She was clearly in pain (you really pay attention to a person’s eyes when the rest of their face is covered in a mask). She was inching along, and sitting down was agonizing for her.  She had had an ovary removed the day before and was here to see the oncologist.

As I tried not to stare or ask questions, I felt a wave of emotion. She was so young. And it seemed so very wrong to me that she was living this experience. I felt sick to my stomach. By the time I got into the exam room my blood pressure had risen and I suspect that the doctor was thinking I was worried about myself. But I wasn’t.

Some things take a long time to shake, and my brief encounter with these two young people stayed with me all day.  The world felt so brutal and life so unjust. I was struggling to make sense of the meaning of it all.

Then I had a thought. And that thought led to this poem:

 

Life Boats

I felt an entire universe

inside my heart

pushing, straining, ready to explode

the biggest bang—

blood and tears 

creating a new world,

a new way.

 

Because, after all,

if God is not compelled

to make everything alright,

why should I be?

 

If God does not mind death,

and pain and disease,

why do they bother me?

 

 

If God does not stop

the river of suffering,

I do not stand a chance

of doing so.

 

 

Instead, God sends little life boats—

a hummingbird,

a cloud, a lightning bolt,

the rain—

to cheer, to ease, to empathize.

 

 

And so I shall add

a song, a poem,

a painting, a pie.

A kiss. A smile. 

A word.

Hollow Bones

There’s a game called “Would you Rather?” Sometimes the choices are difficult because we really want both things. “Would you rather eat a big piece or chocolate cake or a piece of pumpkin pie?” Usually though the questioner asks crazy questions posing two really awful options. “Would you rather jump into a rose bush naked or run naked through a crowd of your friends?”

These choices don’t always come in the form of a game. Sometimes it’s just Life asking, “Would you rather stop taking the hormone therapy that reduces your chance of recurrence or continue taking it while your bones head toward osteoporosis?”

I spoke with the nurse at my oncologist’s office while driving toward the grocery store. She was very patient and had good answers for me. Near the end of the conversation I said, “Well, I guess I’d rather break a bone than have metastasized breast cancer.”

“Yes,” she said. “I would too.”

***

Hollow Bones– a poem

Inside the bird
dwells and emptiness: hollow bones
with no weight to measure.
Form with a void
enabling flight.
Flights of fancy or not fancy,
maybe just a nestling in.
Tucking wings, mustering courage,
singing in the sunlight, singing in the rain.
Empty bones make this bird soar.

Laying on the table I think
I know what will be revealed.
My bones are lightening.
It could be frightening or
it could signify more.

I can lightly nestle into this nest,
this best life,
knowing that hollow bones mean
some day I’ll fly.

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When this is past

Two years ago at this time I was immersed in a private, limited health crisis facing surgery to remove the insidious cancer discovered in my breast. The agony was real, but oh so limited. Today the world is immersed in concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic that is not at all private and feels absolutely unlimited.

On the personal level, I feel far less threatened now than I did two years ago. Cancer isn’t contagious and so my struggle was mostly internal and related to my own mortality.  But there is no escape from the heavy blanket of worry that vaguely now sits over everyone I love, everyone I like, and even those people I wouldn’t want to spend an evening in the same room with. 

Two years ago news would come over the phone or straight from the doctor’s mouth. Now news comes from all directions and I am on edge even as I breath deeply and try to stay present.

And yet, are our lives any more tentative than they have ever been? With accidents and disease and mental illness… as they say, none of us leaves this world alive. I want this experience of social distancing to change me. I want to become even more of a hugger (watch out world!) More of a giver. More grateful. Just more.

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