In the Face of the Unknown.

We think that life is all about what we know. Where we have been and where we are now. Who we have been with and who are with now. But really, life’s true meaning comes from the unknown and can be found in the depths of the silence.

Sound simple? No, it isn’t simple at all. As a matter of fact, if you have been a specialist in analyzing your life like I have, it is very hard to even get to that space of quiet. The kind of quiet where you own head isn’t filling you with opinions on nearly everything. The kind of quiet that allows you to simply hear the sound of your own heart beating.

Some people can get there by learning how to meditate, or perhaps reading many books on the topic, but sometimes you are able to get there after the storm in your life has been so great, so overwhelming, that the only thing left to do…is be silent.

That place, is my most favorite place of all. This, is where I sit today.

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Today I chose not to rush out to the gym like I usually do on Sundays. Instead, I chose to start this beautiful Sunday in the quiet. I took the dog for his usual long walk, leaving my phone at home to silence the calls and music, made a cup of coffee and grabbed my laptop. I opened my blog folder trying to recall when the last blog rolled off my fingertips and my shoulders began to release, settling deeply into my new couch.

 

With the cool breeze gently blowing in my window, and the scent of a candle sweetly filling the air, I began to breathe deeply, open to the possibility of new thoughts. I begin to create a space separate from the people, places, and things in my past and instead, fill the space with thoughts about this moment.

As the sun shines in the window and I feel gifted in a way that cannot be explained. I am acutely aware of the stillness of this moment, even with my fingers antsy to move on the keys and am overwhelmed with the wholeness deep within my body.

I do a slow and steady internal scan of my body and notice for the first time in months, how complete I feel. How settled I even feel on the couch, without my mind and body yearning to get to get up and go.

In this moment, as the sun shines in on my stillness, warming me from the outside in, I know I have arrived. Yet I also know that it is in only in the space of all the things that I did not know would occur in my life, that I have actually been given my life. And that actually being open to the unexpected parts of life is where the real work begins.

In the space of the unknown I could see clearly that losing my mother and nearly losing my son, did not break me, but instead rebuilt a fiery strength within me that cannot be taken. And with that strength, I had the courage to walk away from relationships not meant for me. It was only in the space of the unknown, that I could see that leaving painful relationships did not create a feeling of more loss, but instead a gratefulness of life. It was only in the space of the unknown that I was able to see that I am worthy of kindness and love and cannot tolerate anything less than that.

It is in this sun-filled moment, that I am given the gift of life in a way that I did not know was possible. But do now.

Order a copy of my book: Own your Now. 

Crossing the 2016 Finish Line

With just 9 hours before the new year, I head out to my favorite thinking spot.  I sit perched at the window seat, inhaling the fumes of the many Starbucks aromas, with my laptop keeping the tips of my fingertips warm and the confidence that I am exactly where I should be.

The original plan was that we would spend New Years in Boston with my husband’s family, yet an unexpected pain in one of my ribs lead to a doctor appointment that didn’t quite fit the traveling schedule and I gave them the go ahead to leave without me. In hindsight it was divine intervention; the work of my mom in heaven perhaps, knowing how badly I needed this marathon to end.

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I call it a marathon while I sit feeling rested and grounded, but am clear that 26.2 miles of pavement would be easy compared to this…this whatever it is I have been doing. This running to nowhere without the proper running attire.

New sneakers. Yea, maybe that was what I needed. New sneakers. Maybe then my shins wouldn’t be aching, my feet would feel less blistered and maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t feel like lead weights have been placed in the soles of my shoes. Maybe.

February 23rd, just 10 short months ago, I let my moms hand fall from mine, taking a picture of our hands together so I would never forget the sensation of being held by her. I kissed her cheek slowly, inhaling the scent of her soft, sweet skin and told her the words I uttered every day I was beside her for 3 weeks: “I love you mom. I will see you tomorrow…”

I left the hospital that night and knew that tomorrow was not going to look like today. I walked slowly to my car, savoring the life she had given me. Tomorrow was not going to be like today. Not for her. Not for us. Which was when I began to run.

Though not clear about my destination, I ran anyway. I ran from my fears, my sorrow, my questions about life and death. I ran from worry about my own mortality, my children’s life…my own life. I just ran. Sometimes I felt I was running in hopes of finding her. Other times I felt I was running from myself. But I just kept running. I felt winded, bruised, tired, beaten…and while I could not seem to find the mile markers anywhere, I was sure I had been stuck at mile 20, the Wall, for quite some time. While not sure just how much time I had been stuck there, it was long enough to know that the more paralyzed I felt, the more exhaustion I felt as well.

You know that reoccurring dream about being literally stuck somewhere and while you scream as loud as possible, no sound comes out?

That has been my year of 2016. An exhausted silent screaming for help for a solid 10 months. A journey that teeters between feeling desperately lonely and somehow empowering, often in the same breathe. A journey that has felt like a lifetime, yet when I glance over my shoulder it appears I have not moved at all.

And so, accidentally being sidelined for the weekend without my family, has left me feeling lonely in a way that actually feels healing. Not at all like a lifetime loss, but instead simply the kind of temporary lonely that provides just the quiet needed to see that I don’t have to run at all. That there is no finish line to cross. That in fact, in the depths of all this quiet, I feel nourished. That in the depths of the quiet I also feel empowered to have survived such a challenging year and feel grateful for the many people in my life that have helped me on my darkest and brightest days as well.

It is in this temporary state of alone that I welcome 2017 with an open heart, an open mind and a stillness in my soul.  Because after all, being still is actually the one place in our life that we can hear our own heartbeat; where we know for sure we are alive.

On Finding Courage.

If my life were the Wizard of Oz, my sister would be Dorothy and I would be the Cowardly Lion. I resonate with his path, the journey he took with Dorothy, the fears that made him cry out loud, even when it made him feel vulnerable. I relate to his irrational fears about noises, the darkness in the sky, the unknown. I know what it feels like to be paralyzed with fear. I have been there. I have walked the line between irrational and reasonable most of my life and wonder how much of my life I spent searching for courage. I wonder too, if it will continue to be something I choose to strap on each morning, or if it will one day become part of who I am.

When I was 5 years old my mom made a beautiful Cowardly Lion costume for me. It actually made it into the local newspaper that year. I can’t remember how I felt wearing the costume, but I sure do look frightened. Maybe she made it because it was an adorable costume, or maybe because I was in need of some courage as well.

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I had ridiculous fears growing up but as I grew older, I became a well-spoken woman who wasn’t afraid to share her opinion, a single mother of 2 boys, an established teacher, a successful small business owner, and I fought my way through fears I couldn’t make sense of. Things like being afraid of the dark or of being left.

It became clear that my practice as a Life/Business Coach gave me just what I needed to walk straight into my fears. Flipping them into triumphs rather than tragedies as I transformed into a Triathlete. The more I helped others gain perspectives on their fears, the more mine began to slip away.

But had I actually found courage?

Some fears weren’t as easy though, like when my son left for college with his own bag of worries on his back. It was then that I realized you could feel fears that weren’t even your own. That the silence in the night, texts not returned, calls unanswered…could signal all different kinds of fears and helplessness as a mother.

I feared cancer and death but had to face them head on as my mother fought and lost her battle to Pancreatic Cancer. Was it courage when I told her it was alright for her to stop fighting? To let go and be free from her pain? Or was it just that holding onto my fear of her dying seemed too selfish?

I felt fear when I found out that she had the BRCA (breast cancer) gene, and that it meant her children had a 50% chance of having it as well. I feared for my life. I feared for my children losing me to cancer before it was my time. I wallowed in my fear and said I didn’t want to know if I had it. And then tested positive. I wallowed in my fear again demanding I was not going to undergo surgeries just to prevent cancers they didn’t know for sure I would get. I read articles, books, changed my diet, starting meditating. I felt in charge of my life. I felt in control of my destiny. But I still felt afraid. Very afraid.

A 40% chance of having ovarian cancer is high. It made me more fearful than any fear I had ever felt, but I knew having the surgery to remove my ovaries was a simple one and could squelch my fears. I felt courageous again after that. In control of my destiny.

But deep inside, even as my little voice croaked and wallowed like the Cowardly Lion’s did, I wept that I would not destroy the rest of my body, just because I ‘might’ get cancer. I wanted to believe I was brave for taking that stand, but when we found out that my sister’s healthy breast tissue was tested after her preventative bilateral mastectomy and revealed precancerous cells, I felt nothing but fear. Just fear. They said she would have gotten breast cancer in the next 5 years.

I didn’t want my children to suffer like I did watching my mom. I didn’t want my kids to lose me to cancer because I believed I could outsmart my destiny.

I thought I had done a great job after the first surgery, taking my odds of getting breast cancer from 85% down to 40%. That is, until my son heard it.

“Forty percent?” he asked. “

“Yeah,” I replied, feeling good about that new statistic.

“That’s pretty high mom. That’s almost a 50/50 chance.”

His words stung as they floated ins the air. 50/50. Like the possibility of me having the BRCA gene in the first place.

“Fifty/Fifty” he said again. “Unless of course you get it. Then it’s 100%.”

The fear in his voice echoed in my head and I could hear the Cowardly Lion sobbing underneath my coat of armor. It was then that I was ready to strap on my badge of courage even as the Lion yelled from down below…because some fears needed coddling and others, well…needed the kind of courage you could simply step into and zip all the way up. This was the courage I found. And for today, it was going to have to be enough to get me through this surgery.

Surely there would be some rainbows on the other side.

Survival Mode.

I have never had cancer. I have not been tortured through radiation, suffered the exhaustion and breakdown of chemo, nor has death knocked at my door. Not technically, anyway.

Yet I can’t seem to shake the odd feeling that I am a survivor before anyone has even told me I have anything to survive.

My mom, who should have lived to the age of about 98, given her healthy history of a 74-year-old with the internal and external body of a 60-year-old, was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. PC. PC does not care how healthy you are. It does not care that you haven’t eaten a piece of candy in 40 years, that you didn’t smoke, drink, eat red meat or that you had a diet written by a nutritionist for over 30 years. It does not care that your ancestors had lived healthy lives into their 90’s. It does not care that you are a long distance runner and have the face and heart of an angel.

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Instead, it will offer you a few months of life. Which my mother did not take lying down, but instead through aggressive treatments, hours on the elliptical and a pocket filled with optimism.

She was my best friend. Even on the days when I was consumed with my own world and questioned this. I still knew it. There was no one in my world remotely like her.

She lived with this disease for 2.5 years. Not just staying afloat, but really living until she could no longer take another day. She was a survivor. She might not have beaten PC, but she sure did thrive in the life she lived.

But cancer is affects the whole family. Every single one of us. And I feel like I have been in survivor mode since the minute she was diagnosed. I spent the first 5 months in denial about the power of PC and believed that she would beat the heck out of it and land an interview with Dr. Oz.  I then moved into my eternal optimist state for the next 2 years with an acute awareness of each present moment. As a family I think we all did an amazing job at that, pulling together as only our home team could, yet it was the aftermath of discoveries once my mom passed away that had kept me stuck in survival mode.

With my mom gone, we were not technically fighting the fight any longer, yet I began my own battle as I found out that my mom wasn’t the only one with the BRCA (breast cancer gene)…as I had it as well.

I began to turn the corner of almost age 50, healthy as can be, training for triathlons in the summer, preparing to marry an incredible man, celebrating life with 4 amazing children…and then this.

BRCA. So basically, my odds were stacked against me with an 85% chance of breast cancer, 40% chance of ovarian and 7% chance of pancreatic cancer and changes would have to be made. More than changes actually, I was going to have to be proactive and make harsh decisions based on the fact that I might get cancer. In fact, the probability was so high that some might say, yea, you probably will.

I now see doctors every 3 months, while just 3 years ago I had one primary O.B. I have had my ovaries removed, am scheduled for a bi-lateral mastectomy and have a yearly abdominal MRI since there is no way to be protected from Pancreatic Cancer. Hormone replacements are not an option due to the estrogen adding to my cancer risk, and am on my 3rd round of MOH’S surgery for Basel cell spots, since apparently the BRCA gene makes you more susceptible to that as well.

So yes, that is why I am still in survival mode. I mean, I am trying to survive cancer…before I get it. I awake with that thought each morning, not as a resentment, but as my truth and remain grateful. Grateful that I know about the demons just beneath my skin allowing me to be proactive and make decisions that might protect me from cancer in the future. Decisions that might prevent my beautiful children from becoming a survivor as well.

So I do as my mom did. Carry on. Live. Manage each week around the hassle of doctor appointments, the aftermath of surgeries, some time off from the gym…and the heartache of losing my mom. But I am clear that some things cannot be taken away. They can cut away at Basel cells, keep my ovaries, and man-handle my hormonal balance, but they can’t take away my spirit and they can’t take away her spirit that lives deep within me.

So actually,  I am lucky to be living in survival mode. Lucky to be surrounded by the most supportive and loving family a woman could ask for and lucky, that for today, I do not have Cancer.

 

Labor Day. Missing the Sun…and Her.

Labor Day weekend has always been a big deal in our family. I suppose it is in most families, signifying the end of summer fun, a reminder of school bells waiting as the leaves begin to fall, and the end of several months where families make time to be together.  Not sure why we don’t make time for each other like that all year long, but perhaps the warmth of the sun really does bring out the best in us.

Since we are blessed with the use of my parents’ beach house, the joy of summer beginnings and the pangs of its’ ending somehow seem even greater. My mom especially felt it once she retired at age 70 and began to spend her summers there. It was her passion, with her mosaic art studio set up in the basement, her oasis of peace tucked under a large hat as she sat by the water and her place of strength to fight, upon being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer.

She was exceptional. At everything. Even fighting cancer.

Once diagnosed though, the start of summer was not just the warmth on her skin, but a sign that she had made it another year. Signs of life.   Yet as good as the beginnings were, the endings were harder, as she would stare into the water, praying for just one more beginning.

The first end of summer seemed impossible, as she would talk about articles of clothing that she might never wear again. Clothes she had grown to associate with the beach. There were tears over everything that went in a suitcase and remorse over the things that didn’t. But by the 2nd summer, knowing she had surpassed the survival odds by 2 years, it was a little different. Perhaps we got comfortable in this place of ‘living’, or confident or maybe just more understanding of what we could and could not control.

I am not sure. But what I know for sure is that when I took this picture of her and my dad on the bench he gifted her for their anniversary last year, I did not think this would be the first and last time I would take this picture. Not because I was in denial about this heart wrenching disease, but because I had stopped allowing myself to think that way.

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After all, ‘Life was for the living’, as my dad would say…and that was what we were doing.

This year though, every step we took had an entirely different meaning, gingerly landing onto the souls of our feet, praying the earth would not swallow us alive. Praying that our knees were strong enough to hold us up. Praying that whatever she had left us with, was enough to keep us moving forward. This summer, we simply prayed for strength to carry on. With merely the presence of her spirit and the belief that she was here, we delicately put one foot in front of the other.

I think my dad and I pulled it off, by forcing ourselves to live in her place of paradise, taking care of the flowers and the garden…keeping things in the house just the way she would have wanted it. While many visits felt impossible, being surrounded by her space felt peaceful, with the sweet slight smell of gardenia in the air making me feel certain she was still here. Somewhere.

I took pictures of her beautiful mosaics, as if seeing them for the first time and dad created new beautiful art as well helping us stretch into the beauty of the unknown. And as we rounded the corner of her 6-month anniversary of passing…we began to find new ways to laugh and talk about her with half smiles on our faces. And though we didn’t mention it as much, the loss of a human like my mom was a loss we would not completely recover from. Ever. Instead, we would simply learn to carry on the way she said she wanted us to, with each of us caring for each other and living to the fullest potential we could.

It’s not that we don’t cry now. It’s just that now we find more healing in each other’s company and cry more in the depths of the silence of the night, rather than we are together.

This Labor Day happened to call for very bad weather. Hurricane weather no less. But we went anyway because that is what mom would have done. I crossed the bridge in record-breaking time and was relieved to once again collapse into my dad’s arms, knowing we had once again…made it.

By Saturday morning though, the only talk in the town was about leaving. How and when people would get out of town. Get out before the storm hits or wait it out and head home after. Dad was certain he would leave before hand, as was most of the beach goers, and while I knew I wasn’t equipped to stand the storm alone, I also knew I couldn’t leave before heading to the beach.

I could hear mom’s voice in the distance say, “We are going to leave without even going to the beach?”

No, I wasn’t. And so I bundled up my puppy and we headed to the stormy beach just to sit and think.

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It occurred to me then what Labor Day was all about: Strength, prosperity and well-being. It suddenly made sense to honor my mom on this Labor Day, knowing that while her contributions may not have been to the country, she sure did quite a job contributing to a different type of home-land. The one that offers a base to our Home Team, our family.

 

I Race. Because I Can.

This has been an emotionally challenging year so far. Transforming my endless optimism on life into moments of endless questions. Questioning what was next, how and if we could pull this off. How we would redesign our Home Team without my mom? I even questioned the presence of my faith  after losing my mom to cancer when she should have had another 20 years.

Every few hours though, I can hear her sweet soft voice as she whispers, ‘it’s gonna be alright’ and it is just enough to help me carry on.

Which is how I have arrived here at the completion of my 8th year of training for a triathlon.

In case you don’t know, triathlons are races in which you first swim, then bike and then in case you are not tired enough, you change clothes one more time and run. I think you are supposed to sprint to the finish at that point, but the truth is that by the time I hit the pavement, even if my brain is sure that I am in full stride, I will not be sprinting the 3.1 miles to the finish line. But I will get there.

I race because I can. Because I learned from my parents long ago that crossing a finish line of any sort is a simple reminder that no matter how difficult things are, no matter how many road blocks come our way, no matter how our head tries to sabotage our efforts…we finish and feel fully alive.

The other day a random cyclist came up from behind me and said he could tell I was a ‘real’ cyclist, due to my perfectly sculpted calves.

‘Don’t believe everything you see,’ I wanted to say.

It’s funny actually. Funny because I was always the scared one in the family. Afraid of the dark,  the water, heights, things that went too fast…you name it. I was afraid. Yet for some reason, triathlon training was the one thing I stuck with even though every single training day was hard. Relearning to swim at age 42, balance myself on a bike with my feet clipped in and mostly, learning to accept being hot. Very. Hot. My home team knows that is the hardest one for me. Give me any obstacle; I will jump it, climb it or get a line and pull myself over it. But don’t give me heat. I may lie down and cry.

That was then. This. Is now.

Tomorrow’s finish line, perfectly aligned with the 5th month anniversary of my mom passing away, I will throw my hands into the air. I will not feel defeated by the threats of hundred degree heat, the pain in my legs, nor the constant ache in my heart. Instead, I will know I have created a life of intention; one by design, not by accident; one that will have my home team waiting for me at the finish, helping me celebrate my connection with my mom…and our urge to cross the line.

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I race. Because I can. And that will perfectly celebrate the 50th year of life she has given me .

Filling the Empty Space.

I have experienced writers block like some kind of disease, stunting my thoughts, keeping me from my keyboard, making my head feel dizzy at the mere thought of stringing together some meaningful words. It came on slowly as my mom began to lose her 2 ½ year battle with Pancreatic Cancer and secured itself to my being once she passed away.

An empty space…perhaps one I am fearful of filling.

There are so many devastations when you lose your mother. No matter how prepared you are, how grateful you are for the time you had time to say goodbye, to share all the love you have in your heart for her, no matter how long she had suffered. And no matter how certain you were that moment you held her hand and said, “You can go Mom. I promise we will be alright.” Devastation still comes.

At first there is a shallow wave you ride that whispers she is free of pain, feeling whole and grateful for who she was when she was here. But then the emptiness fills you up again. If you are an optimist like myself, there is a constant wavering from ‘I’m ok’ to ‘No I’m not’, from ‘I can make it,’ to ‘I don’t know if I can survive this loss.’

Actually, it isn’t really a voice that says I’m not okay…it’s a voice that yells constantly in the back of my head screaming, ‘Where is my mama??!!

It yells so loudly that sometimes it I don’t recognize it as a sudden scream at all from the back of my mind, but a constant straining to hear my rational self explaining that she won’t be back soon, begging me to accept what is so. In between that, I can hear my children call for me, my husband wanting to share his own stories and my world needing me to be focused. Yet all the while, there is this constant crying in the background, a little voice pleading for a little more time.

Sometimes it is almost unbearable. The loud shrieking that only I can hear, yearning to touch her hand, hear her voice; smell the sweet scent of her skin. It is so loud that often I see people speaking to me yet barely hear their words at all. Hearing whispers of comfort…yet hardly feeling comforted at all.

And yet, there are many other moments I am able to function just fine. Attending to my life, my powerful work as a Life/Business Coach, being a mother of 4 amazing children, standing as a loving and devoted wife. It is in those moments I am clear that what my dad says is true, “life is for the living” and that is the only option we have. It makes sense while I say it out loud, and even when I repeat it quietly to myself as I try to sleep. In fact, it is what I often share with others.

We go on…because we have to. We need to. Because it is what life is truly about.

I feel so strongly about what I believe; my optimism and way of living. It is, after all, what I have learned from my mother. It is who I have become because of who she was to me. It is one thing that remains true to me even on the 5th month anniversary of her passing.

Yet some nights, when things get tough, when people in my world have their own demons and seem to be yelling in my direction, when my body feels just to heavy to carry on…I cry. I sob actually. I find a dark room, a space where I can be alone, curl myself in a ball, and sob. I am not interested in imposing my darkness on others during this time. I am not yearning for someone to fix this. To help me gently back into the light, to tell me that it will be all right. I simply want to be alone. To drown out the yelling in my head, long enough for me to cry. Long enough to feel the pain of her loss and be with the emptiness.

To just be.

That is what happens. I get to just be. I plead, beg and sob. And simply practice being. And when I can’t stand to hear myself beg for what is not available any longer, I open my phone. I find the video when I interviewed her just 2 weeks before my wedding. She looked perfect and poised as always. Her hair growing back just in time for the event, with her tiny curls and most convincing smile. She was already a Pancreatic year survivor at that point and living on created time. Time they told us we would not have. But we did. I watch and listen to her and pretend she is here. I feel in that moment, that she is. I believe. With all my optimism…I believe.

When it stops, I open the next ritual video: My two oldest boys at the beach…15 years ago. Their sweet voices, caring for each other, trusting each other, wanting desperately to show me their little hermit crabs they had found. I inhale deeply memorizing the sound of these babies I have created. I allow myself to dry my eyes. Unroll from the tiny ball I have curled into…and embrace who I have become.

This is the space I need to fill. The space she has left deep in my heart that fills a little more each day with all that she has given me. Essentially, I am her. I live and breathe her passion and spirit, her finish line desires, her ability to love. I stretch myself a little further and acknowledge the strength she has given me and know exactly what to do with that empty space. Fill it. For her. For my family. For me. And even for all of those that don’t even know me yet.

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I step into her clothes again as I do most mornings and am amazed at how they fit. I see her face and can hear the song playing in the background now as it drowns out my demons: I am Woman Hear me Roar…