Dispatch from the Face-Plant Queen

Time for an update. First though, an anecdote, another nurse-lined hallway one. Waiting to see my oncologist yesterday after nearly five weeks in bed, numb clubs where I once had feet, a vacuum where I once had quads, and morphine and general mud where I once had brain tissue and balance, I decide to visit the washroom. Knees hit the floor first, then forehead. Nurses appear in an instant. “I didn’t pass out,” I reassure them. It takes a while, but I convince them.

“Nice goose egg,” they tell me. I make my way to the washroom; they’re right; it’s a goose egg. But it’s nothing, not in the greater scheme of things.

In the five weeks leading up to yesterday, I’ve travelled nowhere, and everywhere. From a first-round chemo reaction that felt like I’d been poisoned and charred from my skin to my bone marrow, to medication-induced oblivion, I’ve graduated to wobbly first steps down the hallways of our condo, the parking lot, once even to the mall in a wheelchair.

The excellent news is that my oncologist takes all this in without missing a beat. “It’s the Taxol,” she says, “We’ll remove it from rounds two and three,” she offers. I can’t believe my good fortune. Another two rounds of chemo, yes, but they ought not to be anything like that first one was. And then, icing: “We can postpone tomorrow’s treatment for another week if you’d like, yes, allow you to gain a little strength back.” I’ve almost won a lottery. Still, I’m frightened.

Back home though, I’m elated, hopeful, eager, and for a moment think my life might resume tomorrow. I swing back to fear. And back to eagerness. I speak to my family doctor about reducing medication dosages. My life apparently won’t resume tomorrow, and medications will be necessary for some time yet, doses titrated down slowly. “This will take months,” she says, but it will get much, much better, and it will pass. But it’s so nice to hear your voice!” I’m deflated. But how nice is that, a doctor who returns a call and changes a prescription without insisting on an office visit?

Patience has never been my forte. I will have to practice.

I love all of you. The young adults forever tied to my DNA and my soul, whose voices and eyes and bodies, even through the oblivion and across the miles were such potent medicine. The mother-daughter familiarity lying on the bed next to me when I surfaced from my oblivion states, whose smiles and tears made me remember all I needed to know in that moment. The man whose love has so often carried me over the years, and who is now completing an intensive course in patience, and in finding new TV series and bites of food just the right flavour for me, and in patience, and in domestic and kitchen literacy, and in patience, and in worry and sleepless nights, and in patience. The man and woman who gave me life, whose tears I felt across town, the sister who kept offering to drop anything on a dime to come meet my needs.

I love those of you who sent their magic from across the oceans, those who sent their love from the pews of their places of worship and got their friends on board to do the same. Those who, a short time ago, I knew only in a service-provider capacity who stepped beyond those bounds to offer their amazing healing skills, their empathy, their acute intuitions and minds and just the right metaphors and insights to get the frontal lobe of my brain crackling in ways that—science journals now tell us— literally and in measurable ways alter the biology of our cells. Those who breathed the endless human capacity to be selfless for an hour or two and from distances large and small simply channeled the divine. Those who offered to dance despite hardly knowing me, those who transmitted their energy through their hands on mine, their eyes locked into mine, those who refused to take offence at my family-only visitation request. Those who supported via healing circle ceremonies, bone broth, foot massages, wheelchair outings, fuzzy socks and pretty things in general, via stew and kabobs and open-eyed conversation for my tired newly-graduated nurse-husband.

They’ve been endless days and nights, and may be for some time yet, though hopefully not to the same degree. But the memory will fade, the injuries and fear will heal, the cancer will give way. And I hope that what will remain is the awareness of wealth, of divine holy goodness.

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.

Women Who Run With the Wolves

I saw you on the street today, and you looked absent, weary, buried, compressed, tense, angry. Take your cue from Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Yes, I am still reading Women Who Run With the Wolves, and it has perfect lessons for those of us who have looked in the mirror to see a face we hardly recognize.

Women, it turns out, women in touch with their souls, their original, natural, untamed true selves, share much with the wild nature of wolves, I’m learning from her—both have strong senses, both are playful, both are very devoted, both are inquisitive, relational, strong, intuitive, adaptive, protective of their young, brave, inventive, robust, life-giving, creative, aware. Both know how to persevere. And both can become aggressive and reckless when starved for too long.

Wolves, when they have for whatever reason, stopped thriving, carry on until they can thrive again. No matter how sick or injured a wolf, how afraid, how alone, how lost, how weak, she will carry on. She will lope with the deepest of wounds. She will outwit, outrun and outlast whatever is tormenting her. She will take breath after breath, drag herself from place to place until she finds a place she can heal. She will seek protection of the pack. She will run about gathering information, tasting a little of this, a little of that. She may look a little crazy for a period of time, as she tries to regain her bearings. Once she has processed the information she has gathered, she will begin moving in a more recognizably rational manner again.

I’ve discovered that I have in fact been doing this for some time now, and that it is okay to be doing this. It is far worse to stay where one does not belong, than to wander about lost for a while, looking for what it is one needs.

I saw it in your face because I now know what it looks like. I have finally begun to accept that a number of my dreams have died, even the new and recent Plan B and C and D ones, the ones I thought would be easy to realize. I am accepting that the soil in which new dreams might grow is not fertile at the moment, and that until I properly bury the old ones, and allow them to decompose and nourish the soil, it will not give rise to, or adequately nourish, new ones.

So if you don’t always understand my bahaviour in the coming months, if I appear scattered, or if you hear me howling—or you know someone else who is behaving in these ways, or you yourself are—remember that the feminine soul shares much with the instinctual nature of wolves, and that we can heal by taking our cues from them.

Estés says that those who have been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, unruly, or rebellious are on the right track, that their true and wild soul is nearby. This is quite hopeful for you and I, don’t you think? May we both soon be running with the wolves once again, strong and clear-eyed.