If You Don’t Like Where You Are, Move. You are Not a Tree.

My parents raised me to believe that I should expect to be happy. Always. And that if the life around me didn’t make me feel happy, then I should do something different. It was a basic belief system of sorts. “If you don’t like where you are, you should move.” I mean, we are people. We can move whenever we need to. We are not trees planted so deeply into the soil that we need a crane to help us out.

My family gripped onto that premise when mom was diagnosed. The doctors gave us information on a need to know basis, completing each carefully crafted statement with: everyone is different. At times we found comfort in that statement, and yet at other times, it seemed to mean nothing at all.

One thing we knew for sure was that she had Pancreatic Cancer. The other thing we learned quickly, thanks to famous Googling-research was that her best chance of survival was surgery to remove the tumor. We were excited about the notion actually, in a way that seemed unnatural, but we needed something to believe in. And if that something was living vicariously through the fight of Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze, then so be it. That is, until they titled it stage 4 Pancreatic and Liver Cancer. Once that happened, there was no more talk of surgery. But there would not be silence. After all, we were not trees.

Mom began talking to everyone she met. Strangers, friends, parking lot attendants, and secretaries…She wasn’t complaining, just sharing.

“Hi, how are you today?” the grocery clerk asked

“Not too good,” mom answered. “I have cancer. Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer.”

I can’t tell you how that must have been for the people who weren’t expecting much more than a “good, thanks,” but it didn’t matter. She had a story to tell and she was about to tell everyone. More than that, each time the words passed her lips; she prayed she would better understand it herself. She claimed she couldn’t stop herself.

“It just comes out of me,” she would say. And so it went, until a few days before her appointment at Sloan Kettering Hospital. We had heard rumors that they might tell her to get her affairs in order…that she didn’t have much time. That they might be able to start treatments to simply keep her comfortable, but not much more. We didn’t know if the rumors were true or not, but we heard them and could hear their whispers all day long. We kept moving anyway. After all, we weren’t trees dug deep below the earth.

It was a chilly Saturday morning at Long Beach Island as she stood along the water silently praying that this would not be her last visit to the summer home she had come to love. Our summer home: ‘our island in time.’ It was then that she noticed another woman near the water, who naturally said hello and asked: “Hi, how are you?”

Mom could not have known in the depths of her prayers, that they were about to be answered by this complete stranger. A stranger who took the time to simply ask the question: How are you?

Mom told her story again. Yet this time, the woman reached into her bag and gave her the phone number of a doctor that she insisted she call.

“Today,” she said.

It was Saturday and even as I retell the story now, I am not clear if this woman was really a woman at all.

Mom called the doctor that afternoon, and as the woman had said, he answered, promised to see her Monday and also said he could help.

“Tell my secretary that if my schedule is filled, I will see you at lunch or after hours, but that I need to see you.”

This doctor was about to save her life. We surely didn’t know it then, but I would be lying if I told you that we didn’t have an immediate sense of hopefulness. I mean, no matter how skeptical of a person you are, this scenario would give you hope simply because it couldn’t be explained. Mom couldn’t explain it. Nor could we. But we could see that her ability to keep sharing, hoping…and moving, ultimately lead her to the one last woman beside the water, with one last hope.

blog - treeIf you don’t like where you are, move. You. Are. Not. A. Tree.

This Life…with Hope and a Band-Aid

If only life came with a box of Band-Aids, suitable for every life event.

Band-Aid:
a makeshift, limited, or temporary aid or solution that does not satisfy the basic or
long-range need.

I thought that was an interesting description, but one that did make sense. When you have a cut, you put a Band-Aid on it and while it may not heal it, temporarily it surely helps. It keeps it from bleeding, promises some protection from the world around you and gives you the sense that it is good enough…for now.

If the universe cracks, though, even slightly, there is not a lot you can do. Like when there’s an earthquake. There are suggestions of safety, like standing in the doorway of your house, taking cover under a mattress, or heading for an underground basement…but it’s certainly not the same as a Band-Aid. You don’t lie under the mattress and think, ok, we’re good here, let’s call a friend and make plans for the weekend. You don’t head for the basement and think, great, this is the perfect time to start organizing this place. No. You just can’t cover this kind of thing up and then go about your day. For sure, your day will begin again when the world stabilizes, but not until then. And even then, there may be some serious clean up to deal with at that time.

When cancer rings your doorbell though, you don’t event think to reach for a Band-Aid. Actually, you freeze. I don’t know if for a minute, or an hour, but for some period of time there is a sense of being frozen, unable to process the information that stands in front of you. This, was clearly not the kind of frozen-in-time thing I was searching for when I asked the world to freeze my life on that sunny August day.

Technically, cancer was not at MY door. It was at my mom’s door. But as far as I was concerned, her door was my door and if cancer had found her, than cancer had found me. I knew rationally that wasn’t true, but it was how it felt. There were no Band-Aids that would temporarily cover this one. There were no doorways to stand in, nor basements to run and hide in until the storm blew over. There was literally nothing we could do to protect us from this even if just for a few minutes. It was here and about to get worse.

In fact, it wasn’t just cancer. After several weeks of doctor visits, we found out it was Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer, as well as cancer in her liver.  This diagnosis was the opposite of freeze…it was hurry up and start living.

How could that be? It seemed like a cruel joke. A ridiculous mistake. This was the healthiest woman you would ever meet. She didn’t eat sugar, processed foods, red meat, didn’t smoke or drink and worked out every day. This, could NOT be.

However, in spite of feeling certain that we had received someone else’s test results, we stayed in constant motion with doctors and Google searches and did a whole lot of praying. But inside, I felt frozen. I mean, to others I may have looked to be in motion, but I wasn’t. I felt as if the earth beneath me had become soft pillowy cushions. Each unbalanced step I took was more wobbly than the one before. I needed a Band-Aid. I needed something to stop the bleeding. But I kept moving. I went to work and came home. I cried and would sleep soundly as if my brain would deliberately shut itself down. I moved through my days wondering when the fog would get too thick to pass through. When my night-time shut down might blend with the daylight. I cried some more. I searched every minute for strength.

My only moments of clarity where when mom would call. Some mornings crying, some just trying to get a grip on our reality. Her reality. It was only in those moments where I felt strong, muscles appearing in my body that I didn’t know I had, the feeling that I could carry my mom around for a while if need be. It was only in those moments when I stood tall and solid, telling my mom the words I needed to hear. I reminded her to be present in this moment. To not look ahead in the midst of the unknown, but to just feel this moment. To not engage in thoughts of worry and fear, as if calling it our way, but instead to call out only what we truly wanted and needed: A Band-Aid. We just needed a Band-Aid for now, so we could figure out how to get real healing.

After all, we didn’t need a whole box of Band-Aids, we just needed one: something temporary would do.  A sign that help was on the way. And then, in the place we call Paradise, with grains of sand beneath her feet, the sweet sounds of salty water out in front..hope and a Band-Aid arrived.

signs of hope - pic

 

 

 

 

 

This Life…When the Universe Cracks

You can figure out how you fit into the puzzle of life, of you can just live your life and assume that your piece already fits in. My mom had both.

mom - universe cracks

When mom retired, as far as I could see, she was able to lift her own puzzle piece from its’ spot and move it deliberately into the spot it was meant to be in. It wasn’t squeezed into the space that the universe had chosen, but instead, placed in her life with perfectly balanced happiness. I listened to her stories about going to the gym, like she used to listen to my high school days. Quietly engaging, without saying much, yet finding gratification in my simple pleasures. I felt simple joy in hearing her talk about all the friends she had made and how she stayed on the elliptical for extended periods of time, just so she could connect with all of her new friends. It was so sweet.

She had no problem switching off her working gears, and in fact, seemed relieved to never again be faced with a quota or a cold-call. She despised having to forecast monthly numbers and shared that often.

“Why do I need to make up numbers that don’t even exist yet? How can I know for sure?”

I remember trying to coach her into believing it was just a game. Make it up and then try to make it come true, I would preach. I didn’t care for that part of sales either, but I did try to live my life-like that, so it seemed like a good motto for work too. But it hardly mattered that cold-calling made her feel sick to her stomach and forecasting felt like lying, because she didn’t really need either of those to be successful. She could light up a room in a way that would make some wonder how it was lit before she even came in. Perhaps that isn’t how it felt to her, but that was certainly how it looked to those around.

The gym wasn’t her only entertainment though as she also became an exquisite mosaic artist in her basement. In addition to that she became an entrepreneur and as she created a Culture Club group and recruited all of her new gym friends to join in. She was a mover and a shaker and retirement was going to simply be a more fun version of her previous life.

Until we heard…that crack.

It was a brilliant sunny August day. My son had forgotten his lunch and was at work, so I agreed happily to whip him up something and drop it off. I felt grateful to have the summer schedule of a teacher and the desire to be ‘mommy’ for my college teen that clearly didn’t need caring for. H greeted me with his usual style of over the top gratitude, and a some PDA and I walked leisurely back to my car. The deep green color of the trees called to me and I inhaled. The blue sky managed to whisper to me as well as I began to open the car door and I thought, freeze. If only I could freeze this moment.

Determined to keep the snail pace I had begun, I found my way to my patio lounge chair, breathing deeply and intentionally. Minutes of stillness were interrupted at the sound of my cell. Tempted not to answer it, I glanced at it slightly and saw my mom’s name. With one last inhale I remembered she had been going to see a doctor about her stomach pains and I picked it up.

There was a crack.

I heard my mom’s slight voice and then a cracking sound of sorts. Her universe. Our universe. And suddenly this life puzzle, the one seemingly so complete, was about to be scattered all around the floor…pieces everywhere.

They think it’s a tumor on my pancreas, her little voice creaked. Cancer. And just like that, we were forced to wonder if her piece was ever going to be a perfect fit again.

This Life…And Being Kind-Hearted

I always knew my mom was something special, but I think I thought it had something to do with her being so beautiful. She sure was, and still is to this day, SO beautiful. Even in the midst of working a lot, seeming distracted at times by her own worries and thoughts, her beauty would radiate through, with that sweet, comforting voice and kind way of being.

mom and I - 2

For anyone that truly knows me, you know that my memory is not good. I don’t mean, like right now, while in the midst of menopause, I mean…always. I retell stories from the depths of my black hole, which is appropriately named since there are holes all over each and every one of them. I can’t give directions, can’t get anywhere without GPS and have no idea what I was wearing yesterday. I have learned that the power of the written word has saved my life literally in a million ways. I realized early on that if I wrote everything down I wouldn’t have to struggle to remember and that if I wrote about my life, the good and the bad, I could choose to recall whatever I really wanted.

I don’t think my lack of memory is a technical issue, but perhaps a hard-wiring one. I actually believe that I choose my memory, or there lack of, by consciously sifting through the information that comes to me in the appropriate places of my mind. I am not positive if research will support my beliefs, nor my Cornell-going son, but I am telling you the truth that as I hear new information, I can hear my inner voice ask, “is this something important? How important? Is it something I may need to recall later today or not ever again?”

If I don’t know how important the information is, I don’t store it at all as my little voice murmurs, set that one free. If it seems to have value, but I am not sure how much, I can almost hear the memory files flip forward so I can toss it way in the back. I organize my memories like my life…important things up front!

The memories of my childhood that seemed to stay up front, though, weigh heavy on my mind, especially as a parent myself. If I soul search, without opening one of the hundreds of diaries I journaled in, I remember there being many times that my mom was late picking me up from after school events. No cell phones and an on the road sales job meant pick up was not perfect. I remember wishing that sometimes she was home right after school when I was home, but mostly because I recall being so hungry for dinner and not sure how or what to cook. But even those memories are blended with the comfort of coming home to an empty house with time to be alone, regroup, watch the TV shows I wanted and the knowledge that I was trusted to be on my own.

That is where my memory of what was missing, ends as far as my relationship with my mom. She didn’t have stuff you could hold against her. Stuff you could store for later when she was yelling at you. It wasn’t like that. She was busy for sure, and I wished I could spend more time with her, but other than that, what stood out for me was how kind hearted she was. Simply kind. Authentically kind. Willing to listen to my silly dramatic love stories without fail, sitting on the corner of my bed as I cried, never trying to fix my love or upsets, just empathizing. I don’t even recall any of the reassuring words she shared as my love stories would unfold, but just remember how loved and important I felt in her presence.

It is not easy to live a life that is authentically kind, especially while living a stressful life yourself, but she managed and that remains in the forefront of my memory.

We are not perfect. We all leak, she would say to me as I nod in agreement. But the truth was that while I knew how often I leaked, I often wondered when she leaked and how it was that I never saw it?

Oh…to live a kind-hearted life…truly a life worth living.