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

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Patron Saint of the Plague

Had I known St. Valentine encompassed anything but Hallmark love, I may not have chosen February 15 as our wedding day. Not only did it land at the end of reading week (I was a student at the time, writing mid-terms and papers), but I expected proximity to be a good thing: St. Valentine was the Patron Saint of love, after all. Had someone informed me thirteen years ago he was also the Patron Saint of fainting and the plague, I might’ve moved our wedding plans to June.

Fainting and the plague have been ours for much of the past five years. We have become raw and bruised, but also humble and tender. We have become more honest and thick-skinned, and sometimes impatient, but also more gentle and understanding, and infinitely more patient.

We know our run may not last the expected decades most of us get, and so we hold hands in the night, and wrap arms, and share our tears, our nightmares, our grief. We also make a point of finding humour daily, of laughing together. We have fallen and felt shamed, but we have also got up again, and felt profound gratitude. We have been in the crucible and had our lesser selves exposed, and we have emerged, and reflected the light. We are in the crucible now, but we’ll emerge again. We’ll do all these again, hopefully many times.

The crucible is unbearably hot at times, utterly capable of destroying love. It is intense, creating chemical reactions that threaten destruction. It tests resiliency, and if we don’t bend, we’ve learned, we’ll break. It is terrifying, as we’ve both experienced the death of love in our first marriages.

Still, before all this, and perhaps primarily during all this, our love has grown. I hope the future holds easier and happier Valentine’s Days for us, but either way, through thick and thin, in the fire or not, I believe we’ll be in it together.

 

Serendipity

It was a morning for feeling needy and pathetic and nearly too proud to permit any kind of love directed my way. I’m still not used to operating at half-battery, and it can make me bristly. Feeling half-productive, half-fun, half-useful, half-decent, half-human can make me decide I’m utterly unworthy. Ahead of me was an afternoon of chemo, which of course was the reason for the bristles, but it also offered up an unlikely and happy little coincidence.

Before the serendipitous conversation could happen though, the one that generated the first genuine smile of the day, I tried befriending my misery by stepping into the role of observer, standing back from my emotions a little, trying simply to see them without judgment, and perhaps even switch the energy driving me to a more neutral and advanced part of my brain. Beneath the surface layer of self-reliance that was telling my husband I didn’t need him to accompany me to chemo, I soon saw several layers of anxiety—fear of being viewed as needy and weak, fear of the impact my being sick has had on what I have to offer as a partner in my marriage, and fear of things not going well on this day, fear of pain, fear of the future.

I’d gone out for a bit to return a poorly chosen bathmat and had a little time before my appointment, so I stopped for a cup of tea and watched this internal landscape of anxiety for a while. I didn’t judge it (anxiety is, under these circumstances, they tell me, completely normal), but I did give it the boot. Nothing personal, just tired of it for the moment. We’ll have tea again soon enough. Not judging is important, but so is perspective, and perspective only comes with sitting back, watching, listening, and deciding what is most necessary for the moment.

Watching the chatty anxious thoughts retreat, I began to envision being assigned the best nurse and having the smoothest infusion ever. (Not that envisioning it is any guarantee, but it is calming, which is never a bad thing.) I began to remind my body to accept and welcome the drugs that kill rogue cells, remind it to let them do their job before kicking them out, and remind it that it has an almost tireless ability to repair essential innocent cells caught in the crossfire.

So an hour later, when my husband told me on the phone he really didn’t want me going to chemo alone, I agreed to swing by for him on my way to the hospital.

We arrive, and my nurse introduces herself. I miss her name the first time around (memories of painful phlebitis distracting me again), but I like her face; it is warm and exotic and open. In response to her “how are you today?” I return a half-smile, and a half-hearted “fine”. A C-plus, maybe, if I’m going to be generous. She’s warm and attentive though, and wonderfully skilled—no retries on getting into my vein today—so I try to salvage that C-plus. I manage a better smile, and tell her a deeply felt thank you. She’s humble, and shrugs it off as luck of the draw, that on another day that same vein may not have been as receptive. I ask her if she enjoys nursing. She does, though she was terrified of needles and blood and starting IVs when she began her career. Now, just a few years into it, she does nearly a dozen a day in the chemo daycare unit.

I tell her she’s good, and she makes me do the requisite name spelling and birth-date recitation.

“You have the exact birthday my mom does!” she responds, smiling widely. “Same date, same year. And mine is three days before hers, on the 16th.” Why she told me that I don’t know, but it’s funny, because not only do I share her mother’s birthday, my daughter share’s hers.

It’s just a couple of dates, but it’s more than that. The gentleness with which she handles my chemotherapy makes it feel like my daughter is sending me her love, which she probably was.

Another patient on the other side of the room was surrounded at that moment by almost the entire remaining nursing staff in the unit, having a serious reaction to the same drug that had caused mine last winter. Feeling a powerful wave of compassion and empathy, I remember the practice of Tonglen, which others have done for me, and for my daughter, and so, as the nurses do their job with the Benadryl and other tools at their disposal, I begin inhaling this woman’s distress, exhaling relief and compassion and empathy her way. It’s an active, physical, non-desperate form of prayer that I love.

The nurses, from where I was watching, were care and compassion personified, professionals in every way, but human beings too, who understood that it is the little kindnesses that matter as much as anything during a crisis like this. The patient stabilized, and my session, with a few adjustments, went well and ended. On our way home, we stopped for coffee and a muffin on a tree-lined street patio, and though I knew that the effects of my treatment would gather momentum as the afternoon unfolded, it was a lovely moment.

In the days leading up to this one, I’d felt a deep fatigue, an effect of my chemo-depressed blood counts alongside an intense week of extended family gathered from all over to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. So much stimulation and emotion packed into a single week. Cousins and aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen since the last funeral I was able to attend, siblings and nieces and nephews I hadn’t seen in even longer.

In the two weeks before the event—before the mixed-bag verdict this week that my treatment is working but that I’m definitely in for another three months of it—it was a happy time of planning and anticipation for this reunion. It was a time of large and lumpy inflamed veins calming down and receding into the background thanks to some wonderful medicine. It was a time of late-summer outdoor lunches and suppers, of new harvest potatoes and peach cobbler, of desperately sad refugee images on our TV screen, of bike rides and sunflowers, of warm, warm winds turning to crisp mornings, of hot showers, of crumbled frozen oatmeal squares, of laundry, dust bunnies, recycling and all other things quite ordinary, and one evening, sitting in the backyard of some friends, an astoundingly full super-moon.

Full, that’s what keeps us going. It’s been a long haul. Nothing compared to the long difficult paths many of you are on, but still—nine months now, and it’s the love that keeps me going.

I plan to settle in for a few days of recovery after this week’s treatment. Sleep is the perfect escape, but always elusive during those first few days. I wake shortly before 4AM. My husband is awake also. We toss and turn for a little while; I read. Then we talk. About our reflexive protections, how we try too hard, or cling, or shut down when we’re terrified. At 6, I’m hungry, and get us both some yogurt. I’m still hoping it might buy me another hour or two of sleep. I read some more, which is usually foolproof. I doze a little after 7:30, wake at 8:30 with a start. My feet hurt, it’s time for my medication. A new day. The mirror tells me my cheeks are flushed, a side-effect, but Day Two is always infinitely better than Day One. Later in the day, I get on my bike and visit the queen of energy medicine. She looks at my labs, and tells me I’m rocking this. It’s a good day.

Winter Solstice Words

candleWe made beautiful babies together, you and I, and that is—despite how everything has been altered—something to celebrate as we approach this winter solstice, this season of long nights, fear, candles, and hope.

The babies we made were miracles. They had enthusiasm to die for, and possessed charm and beauty and brains and creativity. The first knew he would someday be a doctor, even then. The second loved her many babies almost as much as we loved ours, and I knew she, too, would someday be a healer. The third made us all laugh, and thought doing math over lunch as a four-year-old was fun. We knew he too would find his place in the world and grace all who cross his path.

We worked hard, you and I, as parents tend to, to pay the bills, feed and clothe them, and offer an enriched childhood. They grew, and they inspired us, and made us proud. We listened to their stories and dreams, we played hockey and dolls, and we jumped on the trampoline; we walked the dog and read books and watched movies and made things; we took ski trips and camping trips, we ate and laughed and loved.

There were dissonant sounds. There always are; without them there is no music, and for a long time, it was beautiful music, even with the dissonance. But with time, the faults in the score ripped wide open. The dissonance dominated completely, and the pain between us took a steep toll.

It bent our backs, and finally our knees, and one day we had to lay it all down. I turned away, you turned away, and we all wept, and for a very long time felt nothing but sorrow.  You needed to stop running though, and I needed to stop crying, and so we bid each other farewell.

It got messier then in many ways, for all of us. But for all the dissonance, this remains in sharp focus: We made three amazing and beautiful human beings together.

Also in sharp focus for me is this: Three years ago, just before the winter solstice, I heard the bell that will someday toll for me. It echoes in my ear still, especially at this time of year, and it demands extravagance. It demands I speak of the beauty and mystery and contradiction of it all. It demands truth, it demands love, it demands openness.

What we had was real and good, but it was not the whole story, and not enough to sustain us for life. We aimed for the moon, and it was rich and fun, but too painful.

I see the little faces of our children when they were very young, and sometimes, for a fleeting moment, I miss their innocence with every bone in my body. I see the old dreams, and know I must find new ones. I know the shortest day of the year is just ahead, but that longer ones follow in its wake. I know that morning always follows night.

The season clearly brings heightened nostalgia for me; there is something about anniversaries of major events. Every winter now, my body remembers. It shouts its memory, makes it impossible to ignore. But I’m lucky. Not just to be here, but to have come close, because even though I have hated it intensely, this coming close, it has brought gifts too. I’m lucky to be here to see our children find their way to adulthood and learn to navigate this nutty world. I’m lucky to have so much love in my life, others who don’t mind me putting words to all this crazy messy beautiful and painful business of loving and living and letting go.

I’ve filled our home with greens, and have begun my December habit of lighting the candles. I’ve set an intention, several actually: breathe love and words and peace into all the dark and dusty and silent spaces of my life. Seize the day. Watch the dying light of the season and remember that it eventually comes to all of us one final time, and that until then, it is my task to make space for what I know, to articulate it, to live it and reject the lenses of denial and pretense that flatten and soothe and dull. It is my task to let awareness infuse my days with texture.

Our lives, yours and mine and that of the babies we created, unfolded as they did because there was no other way for them to unfold. The future will unfold as it will also, and I intend to embrace it. I intend to remember that my heart is big enough for the beauty and the pain. I intend to embrace the love that was, the love that is, the losses and changes, the joys and disappointments, the new gifts along the path, all of it.

Let It Be

The good thing about the frigid winds this week, I decided last night, is that they make you walk quickly, and then the walk is lovely in the end, bracing and invigorating, even though the initial temptation was to stay by the fire. And there’s nothing like an invigorating walk to help keep things in focus. Well, actually, now that I think of it, there are many things that help bring things into focus, and Paul McCartney the other night was another.

The walk truly was though, as many thankfully are, a lovely moment. Other moments are nothing short of divine, others still utterly horrid. But most, I find, are a bit of a potpourri, the delectable and unpalatable, the delightful and agonizing, the lovely and unlovely, all present side by side in a split second.

“Let it be,” sang Paul McCartney as I wept. Words of wisdom, yes, words I do my best to heed every day of my life, but sometimes fail miserably at. I don’t want to let some things be, I don’t, I don’t, not the big huge frightening things, nor the completely trivial but annoying ones. I want to be in control of my life.

But we’re not in control, I just keep forgetting, and life is a little random and unpredictable, quite the ride at times.  And though I loved roller coasters when I was a little younger, I no longer do, not since they have a few times unmercifully dumped me out into a terrifying freefall followed by a hard, hard landing.

I don’t want to visit my oncologist next week again, nor do I want to fight not to think about it every second of every day between now and then.

Infinitely more trivial, but surprisingly powerful in its own weird way, I didn’t want to get a party dress this Christmas either, because I have trouble letting things be. I have not, I realize, accepted my post-ovarian, post-chemo depletion and lumpiness, and shopping for underwear to go under pretty dresses is my new definition of misery.

But Let it Be inspired me. First thing next morning, I went out, walked into a store, and told the clerk to help me find a dress that did not require a waistline to look good in. (I’ve truthfully never had much of one for much of my life, but now, well now it’s even worse, and menopause seems like a good thing to blame it on.) I asked the lovely young woman helping me to do it quickly too, before I changed my mind and opted for the couch and a movie instead of the party.

These young and beautiful fashion experts may often just be filling in time, but sometimes they are saints. She found me a dress, and I’m going to the party. And that, as trivial as it may sound, is not at all trivial. It represents the power of music, and kind and generous spirits, and another small victory in letting it be.

Hugo, and Acceptance

In a dark empty theatre yesterday afternoon with our grand-daughter, we watched Hugo. On my mind at first consciousness this morning: Hugo. And more thoughts on acceptance.

First, her favorite line from the movie: “Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot. I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.” (Hugo)

She, our grand-daughter, will chase many possibilities and dreams and know many purposes, of that I’m pretty certain.

My favourite line: “I’m sorry, it’s broken.” (Hugo) “No it’s not. It worked perfectly!” (Georges Méliès)

Most things work imperfectly from the start, and nothing works perfectly forever, but that may not mean their value is diminished.

Acceptance is sitting down with it, whatever it is, holding its new shape in your lap, feeling its weight. It’s the quiet that comes when you stop railing against it, saying it isn’t so, trying to make deals. It is letting go of magical thinking, knowing that the universe is random, both wonderful and at times seemingly cruel.

Acceptance is sleeping well again, and having your new reality break through into consciousness every morning as surely as that sore shoulder does, or that clock radio, or the morning news. Acceptance is putting words to the truth that is the new normal: I will have to learn to walk again. Or: The shape of our family has changed forever. She will never run, or know romantic love, or bear children, or live without pain. I have failed. He’s gone from us, all of us, forever. We’ll never understand each other on this. She has been clear: I am not good for her. I will always be a source of sadness to her, him, them.

Whatever it is, the possible variations of changes that demand adjustment and acceptance are endless. In the end though, they all involve new muscle, new strength, and knowing that for the time being at least, the new normal may come with seemingly endless tears. But our desire for joy and laughter and beauty, if nourished, can float to the surface too, and sustain us through our tears, and help us know that something no longer functioning the way we expected may not in fact mean its value is diminished in any way.

Happiness

In the middle of being stuck in sadness earlier this week, as is normal for me with loss of almost any kind—rotating through the first four stages of grief and unable or unwilling to reach acceptance—came potent cheer and healing in the form the loveliest 11-year-old I know.

“I missed you so much!” she grinned widely, hugging us both. And then, falling into step with me, she echoed her mom: “Your hair is so pretty, short like that,” and then “I’m so glad your treatment worked!” And “I love it here, I wish we could stay longer.”

She travels regularly with her father to world destinations infinitely more exciting than Alberta, and I’m honored.

At home, we get all caught up, and later, making plans for the morning and the shopping trip I’d promised, she announces that she has, via iPod app, acquainted herself with West Edmonton Mall and has her shopping list ready to go.

At the mall, we visit Abercrombie and Fitch, where she is strongly drawn to a number of overpriced items. She pulls out her iPod, calculates the sale price, and agrees to look elsewhere, somewhere where we might be able to buy several items for the price of one.

We shop, she has a giant Marble Slab ice cream, and we shop some more, until the rest of us are tired. She has settled on a number of sale items over the over-priced Abercrombie and Fitch ones she’d initially eyed, but still not found the red jeans she’s after. I offer to walk with her to one more store to check, but she tells me it’s okay; she can tell from the look on her mom’s face that she’s had enough; we can always try another time.

She is far beyond eleven years of age—thoughtful, socially skilled, caring, sensitive, unafraid and funny—but also in every way simply an utterly delightful child. Her mom, carrying the bulk of the job of ordinary everyday parenting, as single mothers do, must feel both lucky and proud; she has done well.

We had fun, and I think I may have reached acceptance in those other pockets of my life again, for now at least.