I am Not the Buddha

The following quote by poet Tyler Knott Gregson came up on my Facebook memories this week…

“To begin again, sometimes you have to take life down to the studs, knock down all the walls, and pull out the insulation that kept you from the world. You must get dirty and feel the ache in the muscles you used to pull the house down around you. You must stare wide eyed and grinning at the mess you have made, seeing through the rubble to the clean floor that will emerge when the work is through.

Now, now is the time to destroy the foundations of fear and apprehension, the walls of waiting and wishing; now is the time to begin again. Laugh at the piles of the past you stand in, knee deep and smiling.”

I so loved it at the time I posted it. Reading it again brought me back to that moment in time. It was two and a half years after I had split with my husband and moved out of our home. I had – we had – torn it all down. It was not working. We were not happy, though we had tried and tried. I had already gone through the grieving, much of it while we were still together. I was, at that point in time, ready “to laugh at the piles of the past in which I stood, knee deep and smiling.”

The date was February 2016.

About a month later, my ex-husband (and the father of my two girls) came out as transgender. Nine months after that, my beloved father died suddenly. Nine months after that, my mother was diagnosed with BRCA and stage 3 cancer.

Let me be clear – I am not comparing my ex being trans with death nor with cancer, but I list it here because…well because when the person with whom you were in a relationship for twelve years reveals this kind of secret – when you realize you didn’t know, percieve, understand…have an inkling of something so fundamental about your spouse as his gender – it has the power to shake one’s foundation. As is, for my girls and me, navigating the outward changes of our loved one. When you think about it – what is more fundamentally true to a child, than that Dad is a man? (Or to a woman, that an ex-Husband is a man, for that matter?) Love is love…and what is revealed within that can still be a wall rattler; a soul shaker.

Once again I found myself standing in the rubble that was once my life. However, THIS time – I hadn’t asked for it. I had not held the sledgehammer in my own two hands and swung wildly, hungry to tear it all down. I had simply woken up one day to find a big hole in the roof, and then I watched helplessly as the foundation cracked, and the walls buckled, and everything seemed to crumble all around me.

The question I find myself asking is – Is it possible to approach the rubble we’ve willfully created in the same way that we greet the rubble we did not? The rubble we never asked for? The rubble we never saw coming?

The Buddhist answer would be yes – simply greet what is. Embrace it.
I can assure you, I am not the Buddha.

As I have stood in the piles of the past, I have grieved. Heavily. I have cut myself on the jagged pieces of the past as I tried to fix what was there. I have tripped and fallen as I tried to hold up the pieces that were still hanging on by a few desperate nails. When you never wanted the destruction, it is hard to accept the fact that nothing can be put back exactly as it was, in its imperfect perfection.

Whether the rubble was intended or not, Gregson was right about looking THROUGH it all, “to the clean floor that will emerge.”

Because it will. It is there, beneath it all. It is always there. Whether we brought on the demolition ourselves, or we helplessly watched as everything fell apart. Either way, we must rebuild.

We have no choice, as we stand there in the rubble, but to get to work cleaning up the mess and to begin again…and again, and again.

Such is life – learning to push up our sleeves and do the work…

The work we asked for, and the work we didn’t.

I still may not be able to greet both with a smile – to greet them equally with gratitude as bits of the house that once sheltered me cling to my hair and dust my eyelashes – but I do understand that it’s the building and rebuilding of my house that will teach me the most about myself.

Above all I must remind myself that I am not the house.
Its destruction never has to equal mine.

Day 322/365 This Wild and Precious Life

As many of you know, my family has been taking the same spring trip together for over twenty years.

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If you have been an avid reader of this blog, you may have, in a sense, taken the trip with us last year. Coming just five months after my father’s death, it was hard. I tearfully joked that I felt we should have purchased an extra seat on the plane, for the grief we carried with us surely was too big to fit in the overhead compartment.

I shied away from family photos that year. It was as if I didn’t want to remember it. Not as if, actually. I didn’t. I just wanted to get through it, because he would want us to keep going there…and to keep toasting to him with each sunset.

Fast forward a year, and for months prior to the trip there was an unspoken worry –

Will Mom be well enough to go? Would we go without her?

Could we?

She would insist. It would be awful.

As the trip approached, we learned not only would she be able to come, but she would also be completely done with treatments. We were elated. I was on a high for about a week…until suddenly the pain of not having my dad there resurfaced for me.  In talking to my mom, the same thing had happened to her.

Elation…then, grief.

Perhaps, she said, we never had enough time to grieve him. Suddenly we were thrown into dealing with The Big C. Our grieving was interrupted. Now that that storm has passed, the grief returns…not yet through with us.

I found this thought incredibly frustrating. I know I’ll mourn my dad forever, but I so desperately wanted to feel light again. Life has been so heavy.

I wanted to stand on the beach with my toes in the warm sand, and to fully feel the sun on my face…literally and metaphorically.

Off we went to Boca Grande…

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In the end, aside from a few tearful moments, the predominant feelings I had throughout the trip were those of gratitude and joy.

Dad wasn’t there – but Mom was…and she had fought like hell to be there.

There we were – my big, beautiful family, in the most beautiful place.

There’s something I’ve noticed about the beach at Boca Grande. Every year it is the same familiar place, but there is always something slightly different about it, too. All of the storms throughout the year, and even the day to day currents and tides…they alter the landscape.

They expose new things, they erode coastline, they create sand bars.

Things never stay the same, and yet, it is always beautiful.

It is always Boca. 

In our lives we have day to day currents and tides that ever so slowly and subtly alter us. Sometimes there are big storms that ravage us, and we must rebuild. Sometimes the devastation is so vast, we aren’t sure where to begin…but we do.

We always do.

Life creates and exposes, erodes and rebuilds.

What remains, through it all, is fundamentally beautiful –

It is Life…or as Mary Oliver wrote…”your wild and precious life.”

And she asks…

What do you plan to do with it?

 

 

 

Day 294/365 (You Don’t Have To) Do It Yourself (This Time)

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she was caught completely by surprise. She had not felt the least bit ill.

It was odd explaining to my daughters that their Nana is sick.

She certainly didn’t look sick.

As time went on, the chemo treatments did what the cancer had not – they made her feel incredibly ill. It’s surreal, watching the nurses don smocks and gloves to protect themselves from accidental contact with the very concoction that will soon course through my mother’s veins (and believe me I don’t blame them one bit).

“We aren’t supposed to come into direct contact with it,” the nurse explains without a touch of irony as she hooks the bag of poison up to my mother’s chest.

I’ve had to explain to my girls that it is the medicine that is making Nana sick….but it is going to make her better. I’ve reassured them that when she stops getting the medicine, she will feel well again.

It’s a bizarre concept, one that I can’t really expect my 8 and 11 year old daughters to understand. Even I have been worried that it isn’t just the chemo.

Mom got really sick last week, so sick that they had to give her a blood transfusion and suspend the chemo protocol for an extra week.

We were all scared by how sick she got, and we felt a mixture of relief and disappointed that her treatments would have to extend a week further into February.

We knew she needed a break, but we all just want it to be over…especially my mother.

In the end, the week “off” ended up being a real gift. She actually had the opportunity to feel well. This is a woman who is accustomed to being in perpetual motion; who never ceases to amaze me with her style, and her passion for do-it-yourself home improvement projects of all sizes.

Lately she has felt winded simply by walking from one room to another. So you can imagine what a wonderful surprise it was when, one morning this week, I walked into her house to find that she had been repainting her living room….changing the wall color and adding an accent color on the fireplace mantle. “I have never liked this wall color – it’s too green….and the fireplace is supposed to be a focal point…and I’m finally going to put in a gas insert,” she announced, pleased with herself.

In that moment I could have cried from relief and joy.  To see that it was actually true, what I’d told my girls. It really was the chemo that was making her feel so sick, and she will feel better when it’s over (and the tests show it’s working, too).

Yesterday she started back up again with the chemo. Two more treatments spread over four weeks. We know what to expect this time. We know it will take all of her strength to get to the other side of this.  It’ll be an all-hands-on-deck kind of month – or at least a one-hand-on-deck at all times kind of month.

She will not have to do this particular “improvement” project herself. 

I have no doubt she will get back to her (no doubt, serious) DIY backlog when all of this is behind her.

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Cheers to that.

 

Day 287/365 F*ck That

I knew she was feeling better when she sweetly suggested I put a sign outside her door telling the priest making rounds to Fuck Off.

I howled laughing.

You have to understand, this is a woman who didn’t give herself permission to curse in front of me until I was about 40 years old. I still find her use of the word “fuck” entirely surprising and therefore absolutely hilarious.

She doesn’t have anything against priests, per se. After all, one of her favorite people was her cousin, Shawn, a Catholic priest. I think it’s just that…well, sometimes grief brings people closer to God, their faith, their church…and sometimes it simply makes people say, “WTF?! Screw you for letting this happen.”

At the moment, Mom finds herself in the latter camp.

Within eight months she lost the man she’d loved since she was fifteen years old, and found out she has stage 3 breast cancer.

Personally, I think WTF is a perfectly justified reaction.

So when the priest was lurking in the hall outside her hospital room, where she had ended up after some complications of chemotherapy, it really was in his best interest to steer him clear of room 223. (I told him she was resting, because…well, I like to keep my options open, I guess).

This is where I tell you Mom is fine. Well, she’s okay – as good as can be expected. She will be discharged today.

It was scary seeing her so sick….sick enough for a drive to the ER at 4am.

Seeing her looking so small and vulnerable in the hospital bed, I was thinking about the time I spiked a high fever…the highest fever I can remember. My first daughter was only a month old. I didn’t know what to do. My husband was out of town. I felt too sick to care for my own baby. I was worried that the very milk she needed to sustain her would make her sick.

I called my mother at 5am.

I need you.

Mom rushed over, and she took care of Beau, and she took care of me.

All day.

There was no discussion about it.

It just was.

These past few days I felt a flipping of roles as mother became daughter, daughter became mother….

She took care of me, I’ll take care of her.

There is no discussion about it.

It just is.

She is such a fighter. I feel a bit in awe of her.  This morning when I arrived with coffee, she was up, showered, dressed and ready to go…

Unfortunately they decided she needed to have a blood transfusion before they would release her. “Well Mom,” I said, “I think you’re going to have to put the Johnny back on.”

“Fuck that.”

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(She really didn’t do it, you guys.)

Day 280/365 The Wind (A Flashback)

Early morning, September 22, 2017…

Standing on my front porch with a warm cup of coffee between my palms, I assess the damage. Strong winds from a tropical storm off the coast have been lingering for days. The street is littered with small branches, and leaves torn prematurely from the trees. Trash cans are overturned in the street.

“Distress is the wind spirit of transformation” he’d said, when I had told him how I was feeling the day before.

As the wind whips the hair around my face, his words seem eerily prophetic.

I brace myself for the day (…weeks…months) ahead.

I have known of her diagnosis for less than two weeks. She kept it from us all, wanting to soak up the rest of the summer without being weighed down by sad and pitying expressions on the faces of her children and grandchildren. She still insists on keeping it from the kids. She doesn’t want them to worry.

“Mom, where are you?” I hear a small voice call from inside the house. Ruby peeks out the door and then steps out onto the porch. “Is it going to clear up today?” she asks.

Not today,” I reply.

“Are you okay?” she asks, searching my face.

I force a smile, “Of course I am! We’d better go, or we’ll be late.”

Moments later we arrive at the bus stop. I hug the girls, and watch as they climb onto the bus and find their seats. I smile and wave as the bus pulls away, suddenly aware I’d been holding my breath.

I exhale loudly.

I stand there in the parking lot, feeling raw and exposed to both the howling wind and the fearful anticipation of what lay ahead. I would be driving Mom to her first chemo treatment this morning.

I turn and see him standing there beside his truck, watching me…waiting to offer a hug or a few words of support. He’s one of the few people who knows of my mother’s diagnosis.

As I walk toward him he asks, “How are you?”

“Fidgety.” I say, looking down at my shaking hands.

We lean into each other. He wraps his arms around me. I try to relax into him, but it seems an impossible task. I step back to look him in the eye. “This is going to be hard,” I say. He nods, “I know.”

I notice we are holding hands. I realize don’t know if I grabbed his hand or he grabbed mine, but it doesn’t matter…neither lets go. I am grateful for this moment of comfort. I lean into him again, and he wraps his arms around me once more. I want to hide here, sheltered from the wind…and from what lay ahead.

Hours later I find myself sitting beside Mom in the infusion center…another loved one hooked up to hanging bags, tubes and wires. I startle every time the IV peeps…flashing back to January in the ICU with Dad.

In some ways it’s harder to sit beside someone who is conscious. I didn’t have to pretend to be brave or strong or optimistic while sitting beside my dad. He couldn’t read the fear and sadness on my face, nor hear it in my shaky voice.

I know I need to dig deeply for my inner strength…for her and for myself.

“I’m tired of feeling like a perpetual damsel in distress…”

That’s what I’d said, as I was telling him about my mother’s cancer diagnosis, right on the heels of grieving the loss of my father a few months prior.

“Distress is the wind spirit of transformation…” he’d said.

And so it is.

Day 279/365 Recline, then Bloom

Maybe it’s because she’s always hated reclining chairs.

My mother has impeccable taste, both in her home and on her person. Owning a reclining chair was, for many years, tantamount to wearing sweatpants…

It’s just something she would never do.

I’m not really sure how the (very tasteful) recliner ended up in my parents’ den, but I imagine it had something to do with my mother having loved my father enough to agree to own it…as long as it was to remain in the back room, where no one else would see it.

When I went to visit her yesterday and found her in it, wrapped in a blanket like a small child, the image threw me. She seemed so small. My mother is only about 5’2″, so to be fair, she is small – but her presence, a walking contradiction of grace and will – to me, is large.

It struck me how far she appeared to be from herself…from the strong, non-sweatpant wearing, ever-moving, recliner-loathing woman that she is.

She’s had a cold this week, on top off some ass-kicking (hopefully cancer-kicking) chemo. This path to wellness is not an easy one…and I can’t help but think how hard it has been for her, having had only eight months to adjust to being a widow, before having to adjust to being a widow with cancer.

Life can be fucking cruel.

Still she’ll smile and say, “We had a great run,” as if all of those years of happiness were the result of a bargain she’d made with the devil, and now she’s just paying her dues.

There are bound to be many more days in the recliner (and maybe even some days in sweatpants…you never know) before she rids herself of these tumors – these very rude and unwelcome new roommates…but she will prevail.

I know she will.

Today when I walked into the house just before 8am she was up and ready to cross some things off of her to-do list before she gets whacked with chemo again tomorrow. I am not sure whether she got to those things, but I was encouraged that she was thinking about it.

Mom has always hated winter, and I imagine she would prefer to just sleep through these next couple of months – to hibernate for the winter and wake up in the Spring like one of her daffodil bulbs. She can’t do that, of course, and so she is fighting…and sometimes that looks like being curled up in a recliner, and that is okay.

We might even give her a pass on the sweatpants, too.

She is going to get to the other side of this…and when that garden that she has so lovingly planted and carefully tended for all these years comes back into bloom,

So will she.

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Day 256/365 How We Got Here

Mom and I are having our weekly date at the infusion center. I thought today I would write about how we ended up here.

Maybe it’ll impact someone.

In the summer of 2016 I had a mammogram. Shortly afterward I received a letter from Newport Hospital, stating that while nothing had come up on the images, because of my “dense breasts” they could not guarantee that the screening was effective. They suggested I contact Women & Infants Breast Health Center for more screening options.

I had received this same letter after previous mammograms. Ironically, I remember having mentioned it to my mother on one occasion, and she had said with the dismissive brush of a hand, “Oh yeah, I get that letter every time too. I think it’s pretty standard.”

So, I never took this suggestion for a follow up seriously, even though my mother had had breast cancer at age 52. Foolishness! I don’t know whether I was afraid, or I had just convinced myself it would never happen to me.

This time, for whatever reason, I followed up. I went to W&I and after talking to the doctor there, and filling out a questionnaire (Did anyone in your family have cancer? How old were you when you had your first child? How long did you breast feed? At what age did you begin menstruating? – Yes, all of these things are relevant, apparently) she informed me that I had a higher than average risk of developing breast cancer. That coupled with my “hard to read” breasts (the nerve) meant they wanted to alternate screenings – MRI and Mammogram – every six months.

It was almost an afterthought to mention that my mother’s cousin’s daughters had all tested positive for the BRCA mutation, an anomality which correlates with a high rate of breast and ovarian cancer.  One of them had passed away in her twenties. Two others had opted for dual prophylactic mastectomies.

I’d never met any of these women. This was just a story my mother had told me in passing.

As soon as I said BRCA, the doctor’s demeanor changed. She strongly encouraged me to bring my mother in for genetic testing. I made an appointment a couple of months out, because they were so booked up. I decided that I would wait until it got closer to tell my mother about it. I didn’t want her to worry.

In the meantime some very stressful things happened involving my children and their dad, and my parents were really worried. Not wanting to add more stress, I rescheduled the appointment for January (never having told her about it to begin with).

Then, dad died.

I rescheduled again, this time for April. I knew we had to go, no matter what was going on. We went, and my mother had the genetic screening done. It is just a simple blood test. They tested her (and not me yet) because if I had it, I would have gotten it from her. Therefore, if she was negative, I wouldn’t need the test. We waited three long weeks for the results, and sure enough she was positive. She had the mutation.

They immediately started talking about more aggressive screenings and other preventative measures…and then they tested me.

Three weeks I waited for my own test results, and I vacillated daily (hourly?) between being sure that the Universe didn’t hate me that much, and planning for the certain removal of my ovaries and breasts. I wasn’t going to mess around with a positive finding.  72% chance of developing breast cancer (as opposed to 12% in the general population), and 47% percent chance of ovarian cancer?

No, thank you. Lop those things off.

In the end, my test came back negative. To say I was relieved is an understatement. Now to support my mother through her recommended preemptive measures. They highly recommended the removal of her ovaries, because obviously she didn’t need them anymore, and there is no effective screening for ovarian cancer. That is why the outcomes are often so poor – by the time a woman feels sick, it is often too late. We were ready to nip this in the bud.

It never occurred to me that my mother was already sick.

The MRI showed three tumors. The largest one was hidden under scar tissue from her breast cancer surgery twenty years ago. Two others were too small to be detected by mammogram.

I’ll be honest, I was really angry about a few things –

Why was she never tested before for BRCA? I understand they didn’t know about this 20 years ago, but in the years since? No one had suggested this to her as a breast cancer survivor?

Why had I rescheduled this genetic appointment – twice? How much better would her prognosis be, had we discovered this a year ago?

What the fuck? Was this seriously happening…NOW?

I know we can’t go down the rabbit hole of what if’s. It is an absolute blessing that I followed up on my damn “dense breasts” when I did. Otherwise, she never would have been tested. She never would have had the MRI that caught the tumor. By the time she felt sick, it may have been too late.

I can’t beat myself up for not following through sooner (although I wish to God I had, and I know it’ll haunt me forever if she doesn’t survive this).

I guess I wanted to share all of this today, because I know how busy life gets, and I know it is scary to think about our own mortality. It is certainly easier in the moment to say that we don’t have time to make the appointment; the time to follow through and actually show up to it.

We often don’t want to listen to our gut, telling us something is wrong.

I urge you, though…follow through, take the time, ask the questions. You could save your life, or at least give yourself the best possible chance.

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Mom and me, summer 1992. I was twenty, she was 46 (almost exactly the age I am now).