Bereaved

I’ve been silent. Unable to get the crumbs to cohere into a ball that might yield a shell.

What has silenced me: Chemical injury to my normally serotonin-producing abdomen. Oncologist-powered words carrying grave threat. Bereavement.

The word bereavement comes from Old English bereaflan, meaning “to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ It happens to everyone, but when you’re in it, you feel alone.

How I miss you, my once-strong body and mind. How I miss you, my vision of a happy pain-free future.

How I miss you, Jo. And you, dear friends, all of you I haven’t been able to see all these weeks lying around waiting to feel better.

Vulnerability is strength, they say. We must be a pretty strong little tribe around here now then. It’s been a shivery wind. Tonight, I stood calmly near a gorgeous old vase I own, and told my husband I could easily fling it through the TV screen and not bat an eye. I could’ve. Clonazepam to the rescue.

But the scan news I’ve been waiting on is good, or at least not terrible. I’m living with my cancer. It’s no worse than it’s been for the past two years, for all my oncologists terrifying words last week. So now, to focus on patience. I’m a terrible patient. The thing to remember is that when you want something very badly, you need to be willing to wait. The other night I read about reindeer moss. It can survive almost anything the world throws at it. Helen Macdonald, in H is for Hawk, says it is ”patience made manifest”. You can freeze it, dry it, it won’t die. It goes dormant and waits for things to improve. I may need to get my hands on some.

The other night, I reached out to scratch my husband’s back, and felt an sudden warm wash of light and music, and for a moment, just from the touch, I felt as though I’d become the grand piano and the light. And another time, he kissed me, and I became, for a split second, an exquisite, strong bolt of pure light and love.

Little trips of hope and life?

Hovering

hard, loud, early morning rain outside my open window
a long, crashing rumble of thunder;
be warm and dry and safe out there, dear child

and you, you heart-broken one,
frightened by the intensity of the grief,
the endless dark tunnel,
try to remember you will emerge
to see the sun again
and learn to live in the space between dark and light

the blue skies of childhood may not return
but blue skies will
the bounce in your hamstrings may sleep a long night
but what returns will be enough

the body remembers

it remembers both the joy and the horror
and it doesn’t know the difference
between the quiet imagined story
and the louder, more apparently real one;
it will respond to both

so tell yourself a story

and remember the hot summer sun,
being mesmerized by the iridescence of the dragonfly

poised and elegant, she hovers,
forward and backward,
upward and downward,
side to side
hovering, she sees past illusions
to the depths

What We Want

What we want is to feel alive. To have an appetite. To have muscle. To move. To feel things, smell them, touch them, see them, taste them, hear them. To know safety and comfort. To have clarity and purpose. To know love, beauty. To feel empowered. To have hope.

There is, by the way, no such thing as false hope. Hope always goes against odds, and is exactly that—believing in and focussing on possibility.

My chemo this week threw me for more of a loop than I’d planned on, so — unbearably self-pitying and bored with the living room this morning — I ventured out. The melting snow and bright sun felt mocking, not soothing. This is the part we’re loathe to admit, or write about when we find ourselves in the crucibles of life: we despair. We do our yoga and our meditation to maintain resilience and optimism, and tap into an unexpected well of rage instead.

So out I went, into the bright sun, not knowing where to, thinking perhaps I might capture some beauty with my camera, or take a peek at January sales. Strike, and strike.

I drove by the long line-up at Edmonton’s Bissell Centre and was reminded of this fundamental truth: no matter what our station in life, we want to improve it. Mittens, a hot drink, a jacket.

My fatigue won out. I turned the car into the local grocery store and picked up some sushi, fresh raspberries, and the carrot muffins I’d been craving. (Yes, I still have an appetite, sort of at least, thankfully.) I looked at the fresh flowers and toyed with indulging myself, but they turned out to be too much to carry.

It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, my outing, but neither was it in vain. I remembered that I’m not alone, that bad times pass. I remembered the angels that minister to my physical and emotional health. I remembered to tell them thank you. I remembered my friend, in her own current hell, and sent her my love via the wavelengths of life that connect us all. I remembered the love of my parents, my husband, my children. And as I left the parking lot, I received a text from one of them. Medicine for my spirit. Their love and joy are baptismal waters for me, always.

connie child 5

(Yup, that’s me, back in the age of innocence. There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead…. I’m trying to remember the feeling.)

Antidote to the Night

Night. Or early morning. Brain chatter. All that must be done, all that begs to be resolved, all that has been taken in, all that must be faced, all that is yet unknown. Heaviness. The strong current of fear.

Sometimes though, this: Deep connection with the self—mind, body, soul, breath. Deep connection with another. Deep connection with a fictional character, a story, a poem. Laughter. The bright light of another’s love or gratitude. Her honest naked truth, her grief, her joy. His. Yours. Understanding. Feeling heard. Acceptance. Taking a step or two out of the jungle you’ve been lost in. Turning your face toward the bright, bright light of the sun.

Nights that follow just might begin to feel different, legs once again melting into sheets, ears once again tuned in to the thrumming of the universe. Sleep, longer and deeper, strength and balance and gratitude restored.

 

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.

Spring

spring 3I’ve been reminded, not just cerebrally, but in the shape of deeper knowing and experience, that spring is a most glorious gift. And that it often comes on the heels of deep, deep sleep.

And sleep, another of those most glorious of gifts, comes on the heels of a decreased stress response, on the heels of the hard, hard work that facilitates how we respond to injury. It comes on the heels of acceptance and peace, and a rise in anti-stress hormones.

To wake in the morning deliciously and deeply relaxed, to feel at one with your bed, to stir with gratitude and gentle anticipation of the new day, these are not things to be taken for granted. They’re truly not, though we tend to, until they’ve become elusive for one reason or another.

What just may have the potential to bring spring, that return to the budding of new life, can be many things, but it often involves persevering through something that is utterly exhausting. It involves a stanching of the bleeding or weeping that has long been sapping our energy, leaving us depleted and anxious and paralyzed.

There are many levels to this, in my experience: Insight into the origin of the wound beneath the weeping, yes, but insight that must finally translate into wisdom, a deeper knowing, right down to the DNA of our cells.

How this takes place is a little mysterious to me, but I do know there are many avenues to this transformation, and many key ingredients.

Key ingredients include courage, patience, resolve. The willingness to take risks. Investigation into the reasons we have lost our resilience, or voice, or ability to take action. It involves refusing defeat. It involves accepting that which cannot be changed at this particular moment, but determinedly pursuing happiness nonetheless. It involves knowing our essence is indestructible, no matter how injured or fatigued our body and psyche may at times become.

Change of this sort ends up changing us chemically also, at the level of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones, and physically, in the new paths our neurons forge. And I believe the reverse is also true—the raw materials of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones must be present to work synergistically with the psychic ingredients to facilitate the process of healing and deep change.

Once we’ve persevered through this process, and not given in to fatigue or the temptation to take the easier path, we begin to see more clearly. We become less vulnerable to further injury. We become less naïve, stronger, more creative and resilient. We remember again how to nurture and affirm ourselves. We counter negative messages with messages that though we are imperfect, we’ve been devoted and given our best. We take back much of what has been lost. We are no longer caught off-guard by the thieves within our own psyches, nor by those events and people around us bent on putting our lights out. We begin to register their presence early enough to take a different path, one bordered by tiny buds of promising new growth.

I’m so honored and happy to have been given much love through the winter, and to welcome spring again, and to be on this path with a small but brilliantly shining tribe of human beings.

Knocked Down, But Not For Long

beach 2You, my friend, have been knocked down by a giant wave, a hard and cold one that stole much, but you can start moving again. I know this, even if it’s only a crawl for now, and the second you begin, you will feel stronger and more optimistic. You’ve only temporarily forgotten that it’s okay to take risks, but you have, deep within, a healer that remembers. Moving and tasting new experiences aren’t things we ever forget how to do, not fully. Trying and failing is in our genes; it’s how we learn everything.

And while sitting on the shoreline taking stock and getting your bearings for a while serves a purpose, there is no point in thinking too long and hard about which single action will be safest and most sure to fix that something you desperately want fixed. We find our way and strength again by roving, tasting, trying, and failing. There is no other way to make it to the burial ground we need to find, no other way to gather the ingredients we’ll need to nourish a new plot of soil in which to grow new dreams.

What we sometimes temporarily forget is this: trying new things doesn’t have to translate into a permanent new hobby. Creative work doesn’t have to be marketable to be therapeutic. Work doesn’t have to come with a big paycheck to be meaningful and valuable. Courses don’t have to lead to certification to be beneficial. Meeting new people doesn’t have to replace old friends. Movement doesn’t have to be pain-free to bring strength. All of these however, enrich and expand life. There is joy and strength to be found in a million things, even in the face of great loss.

There’s a reason they get us out of bed quickly after surgery: despite the accompanying pain, it gets blood and energy flowing again. Neither psychic nor physical muscle can develop the strength it needs to withstand the next wave while we lie there with the old injury.

So cry, yes, but don’t forget to keep moving. Swim in some really great music. Sing along or dance if you can. Create something. Hold a baby. Cook, write, paint, plant some seeds. Play a game. Watch things that make you laugh. Meditate. Go for a walk or to a yoga class. Love somebody. Lose yourself in a great story. Volunteer to help someone. Try something completely new. Take the first step toward something, anything. Feel your pain, but don’t spend too much thinking about the how and why, just embrace it, and begin moving. All of these actions have at various times in the past effectively brought me back to health and balance. They will work for you too.

Anything and everything that can bring us out of our heads—out of the past and regret, out of the future and magical thinking—and rather into the present, is of inestimable value. Being present to the moment involves seeing, noticing, listening, paying close attention to things outside our heads. The color of another’s eyes, the fatigue in her voice, the changes in the room, the air, the crowd, what tastes good right now, what gives us energy, all of it. It involves paying close attention to what is, both that for which we’re grateful, and that which we need to mourn. Gratitude and mourning are not, by the way, mutually exclusive. Both are the antidote to fear.

We have, since the advent of pharmaceutical medicine, been conditioned to believe in magic bullet fixes for all that ails us, but there are no quick fixes for real healing, only the hard work of acceptance and remaining present to all of life. Nor are healing and strength and joy something we arrive at permanently. There’s always another wave, and balance is fluid, and requires muscle.

So stay at the shoreline for a short while, yes, but begin to ask yourself what small thing you can do today that will nurture and fortify you right now for the tasks of laying to rest dreams that have died, and of cultivating soil that will grow new ones. And then move, even if it’s only a couple of inches. It is, after all, spring.