Rain, New Life

new growth 2I saw it in her face the second I saw her today—heartbreak. I remember a day exactly a month ago when she’d been on my mind all day. I remember staring out my sixth floor window that day, past the large building that obstructs much of my view of the street below, through the space between buildings, at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre below.

We were one day away from May then, and it was snowing. I was warm and comfortable in my little cave, but imagining those lying in the beds across the street, those in need of palliative or hospice care, those whose bodies have in some way betrayed them, I was uncomfortable too—my friend was at another hospital that morning, the Cross Cancer Institute, for yet another follow-up scan. I’d offered to accompany her, but like me, she mostly prefers to make these trips alone.

Images of my sojourn at the Cross two years ago made their inevitable march through my mind: Beautiful young women with full heads of hair just beginning their foray into the terrifying world of treatment. Young children with not a strand left on their heads. Pale and frail and thin men, women and children who had been all but defeated, and who looked resigned to feeling betrayed.

The mere thought of the place lands in my consciousness like a meteor, always. We are, in part as a result of modern medicine’s promise to keep death at bay indefinitely, a death-phobic culture, true. But it is more than that. Wanting to live is a fact of being human. Wanting to remain present in the body to those we love is powerful. So is the desire to live well. But the amazing new interventions that we gratefully chase in our desperation to buy some grace and time, can, little by little over time, should our cancers return, take from us our autonomy, vitality, comfort, dignity.

These are the things we think about sometimes, those of us who have been inducted into the world of cancer. We work, and we play, and we eat and laugh and dance with gratitude, but we are also very aware that sweetness is ephemeral.

We know that it is more important to live well than to live forever, but we fear we may not always be able to live well, and that we may be nowhere near ready to say good-bye when our bodies determine we must. We notice life everywhere, babies and vibrantly bright green poking through where months and months of snow and ice have finally melted. And this heightened awareness of life’s sweetness comes with a heightened awareness of the grim reaper hiding in the shadows.

We think about these things not because we’re guilty of choosing negative thinking over positive, but because we must, because the scare we got was enormous, because our cancer or chemo-rattled mitochondria remind us as often as our inboxes alert us to new email that we have been altered. This can be a very deep hole to climb out of, and it can leave us a little vulnerable in other areas of our lives.

This is what I saw in my friend’s face today—her vulnerability, but with some kind of new crushing blow clearly added to it. When she was diagnosed they’d told her it was too late for chemo, it was metastatic and too far gone, to which she responded by taking matters into her own hands, which is another story for another day.

But two weeks ago when the results of her scan returned, she learned she has no active cancer sites left in her body. All’s well that ends well, right? Not always as quickly as that, not from what I’ve observed and experienced. For my friend, the emotional punch of being told it was hopeless remains active, and the million receptors for hormones that once empowered and energized her remain hungry. And now, a new layer of grief: her engagement has ended. She knows it was probably inevitable, but still—saying good-bye to a best friend from this vulnerable place is almost impossible for me to imagine.

We walked out into a spring downpour after our visit, no jackets, our bare feet in bare little summer shoes, but the sound and smell of the rain was beautiful and soothing to me somehow, and carried a little hope that it might, with a little time, wash away some of what has died in my friend and feed new life again. I’m not sure she felt it just yet, but she will, I know she will. There are many ways to be loved, and many ways to regain strength.

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Mother and Child

me momIn the hours before coming back to consciousness, I was aware of one thing only: the warm and bright glow of love that belonged to a world in that moment removed from me. It came in the image of plump, small-child arms around my neck, those of my babies, all three of them in this moment babies again, their smooth and perfect faces burrowed in my neck. My husband was present too, his beautiful warm hands in mine. It was the most vivid and powerful sweetness—love, love that called me back to consciousness.

It was an anesthesia and morphine-induced trip, and exactly two years later, during the deepest of winters, it has come back to help me.

Winter this year brought with it a psychic winter for me, a slowing far beyond my normal northern-climate hibernation tendencies. I was fully aware that I was mourning the losses that accompanied my cancer treatment, but I slowly became aware that it was more than that. There was of course the abrupt withdrawal of estrogen and all hormones once gloriously energizing. There was the aching and wasting of muscles that once carried me easily, the passing of my youth, the passing of an acceptable quality of hair on my head, an empty nest, and underemployment. It was a feeling of having been tossed into a scrap-yard of sorts, one filled with elderly people lacking the vitality admired by society, the stamina required by employers.

But it was more than that, as my restless insomniac nights and the therapist I’d found slowly taught me. At her suggestion, I added to my toolkit the practice of meditation. What came to me as I stopped for a short time each day to focus on bringing warmth to the sore pocket within was a variation of the vision that had come to me in my post-surgical morphine-induced high two years earlier.

Now, my babies were on my shoulders again, their arms around my neck, but, as is possible only in these deeply relaxed altered states, I was at the same time present on my own mother’s shoulder, my arms around her neck, as was she on the shoulders of her mother, and she in turn on the shoulder of hers, as far back as the eye could see.

We inherit our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers, always, I’ve now learned, and much strength and healing lies in that long, long line of mothers that has gone before us.

My mother’s pain originated in large part with the tanks that rolled through her long-ago home in Germany. These tanks mercilessly scattered the family, leaving a bright-eyed, beautiful, playful young child without the safety and warmth of her mother and her large and safe family, and instead, on the run with one older sibling.

For months they slept in barns and begged a little food, and watched as soldiers poked their rifles into the hay, looking for beautiful young women. In the end, there was simply nothing for them to do with their trauma—they were mere children. So they stored it deep within, in order to survive. And much later, when they’d finally been reunited with their parents and siblings, they left it packed away, and boarded a ship to a far-away country, where they knew nobody and no way to communicate, and for a long time, only years of hard, hard work.

This is what my mother and I, without understanding it, were for so long afraid to see when we looked at each other, this was the substance of a veil that has at times obscured clear sight. What she survived had left a potent biochemical imprint, and the veil through which we looked at each other was a protective one, born of love.

Hope is, as we all know, resilient. My mother married, and her traumatized self gave birth to me, and then to four more children. She and my father made a new life for themselves in sunny and windy southern Alberta. They loved and cared for us and for each other with every ounce of energy human beings can possibly have. They worked endlessly to make ends meet. They built a home with their own hands, quite literally, and grew everything that could possibly be grown in the backyard, and then canned or froze enough to feed us all through the winter months.

We picnicked and went to church and sang and camped and spent long-weekends hiking in Waterton National Park. My mother baked and cooked and hosted guests and learned the language and ways of the new country. She let us make play-tents in the living room, and nursed us through chicken pox and measles and other nameless fevers. And after years and years of babies and growing bodies and hungry mouths, happy times and frightening times and sad times, and finally faced with an empty nest, my parents rallied once again and threw themselves into making blankets for those with none, sending food to the hungry, visiting those in prison. They volunteered at the second hand store, and took care of the babies in the church nursery.

The cold heartless machines that stole childhood from my mother took from my grandmother almost everything too. She came to the new country, but was too tired to learn the new language, and too tired to know where to begin with her vastly altered psyche, and so it, to a large extent, remained raw and sore.

A number of years ago I heard the term epigenetics, and learned that our genes reflect the pain our parents and grandparents lived. And then, in this dark winter that ironically followed a full eighteen months after going into remission from my cancer, I became ever more conscious of how desperately I loved my mother and my own children, how much the protective veil between us has at times blurred our vision, how much I missed looking into their eyes.

What these images were about—the one of the veil, and the one of my babies and my mother and all those many, many mothers and daughters and sons before us—was hope. Hope that on the shoulders of those who came before us, breathing in the divine essence of creation we become able to bear anything and heal those sore spots within.

My mother’s blue eyes have always held nothing but pure love.