“Here!”

When I was in school, I used to get anxious when the teacher took attendance and I would have to raise my hand and call out “Here!”.  I absolutely hated that.  I was painfully shy and waiting for the teacher to call my name filled me with dread.  The last thing I wanted to do was call attention to myself.  I felt uncomfortable announcing my presence, I guess. Back then, I would have preferred crawling under a desk to talking in front of the class. It is funny how some things change and some things stay the same.

On Monday night, my daughter had a “Shoot Out” for her basketball league.  The girls had one minute to get as many baskets as they could.  My daughter, Kalea, was very nervous.  She told me that she didn’t care if she won but she wanted to get at least one basket so she wasn’t embarrassed.  Kalea is a pretty good shot so I didn’t think one would be a problem but I could tell that her stomach was in knots and she was unsure of herself.  During practice before the event, Kalea did really well.  She was making most of her baskets but she still was not feeling confident.  Finally, it was her turn.  Kalea got up and waited for the bell.  She shot the first basket from the “2 point line” and it went right in.  She stumbled a few times but once she caught her rhythm, she ended up with 11 points!  When she was done, she wore a very ‘quiet smile’.  I could tell though if you could turn that smile inside out and see what was going on inside of her, it would have been a very ‘loud smile’. She kept her cool though. She ended up placing third in her grade for the most baskets and got an extra medal for placing in the competition. She was beaming (quietly, of course).  When we got in the car, we had just shut the doors and that smile erupted into squeals and screams of, “Mom, I got third. I got third. I got third”. I was so happy for her and I was grateful I was there.

The next day was Tuesday and it was also St. Patrick’s Day. I planned a scavenger hunt for the kids.  They had 8 clues that led them around the house until they found their ‘pot of gold’ which was some green cupcakes, gold chocolate coins and some other holiday trinkets and treats. The kids enjoyed it.  They liked finding the clues and discovering their ‘treasure’ but most of all, they enjoyed the tradition we started a few years back.  I typically planned activities like these around all the holidays, even the silly ones. After I took pictures of the kids wearing their leprechaun beards and holding some of their ‘loot’, it was time to get my son ready for karate. Today was the day that he was going to get his yellow belt. My son, Kade, was very shy, a lot like me when I was younger.  He didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself. My husband signed him up for karate in an effort to boost that confidence. So far, it had been working.

In class, he was a bundle of nerves waiting to get his yellow belt and certificate. As part of the ceremony, Kade was told to turn around and take off his white belt and fold it properly.  This was something that he did without a problem every day when he came home from class.  Today, though, he fumbled with the belt and he couldn’t seem to get it just right. A perfectionist like his mother, he worked at it until he did what he was supposed to do.  He turned around and when his turn came, Kade stepped in front of his teacher. The yellow belt was placed around his waist, the certificate was passed off with a handshake and Kade’s smile slowly crept across his face. He had that very same smile that Kalea wore the night before, the one that if you turned it inside out, it would have lit up the room. He was glowing from the inside out. I was so happy for him and I was so grateful I was there.

As I took my seat to watch the rest of the class, I was overcome with emotion. It was a happy moment but it took me back to a difficult time.  When I was sick, I used to sit on the side of the kids’ beds, watching them sleep and praying to God that He would allow me to be their mother for a while longer. They were only 5 and 6 years old. They shouldn’t have to grow up without a mother.  They needed me to be there for them. They needed me to wrap my arms around them and tell them I loved them. They needed me to kiss away their boo boos. They needed me to make everything better, like only a Mom can do. I remember staring at them, stroking their hair and regretting every moment that I missed, every moment that I rushed through, every milestone I couldn’t wait for them to reach. I was bargaining with God.  I would do anything, give anything…if He would just spare me for now, give me a little more time. I wanted nothing more than to have the honor of raising my little boy and my little girl. I wasn’t scared of dying but I was terrified of leaving my children.

As I sat along the wall after the ceremony, watching my son finish his class, wearing his new yellow belt and his deceptively ‘quiet’ smile and hearing echoes of Kalea’s excited squeals from the night before, my heart was bursting with love for my children and gratitude for all of life’s blessings. I promised myself and God that if I was going to be okay, I would not take one moment for granted. See, these are the moments I was afraid I would miss. I had the privilege of watching my baby girl shoot hoops all season and then earn a medal at the “Shoot Out” at the end of the year.  I had the privilege of watching my little man work on forms and kicks and then earn a yellow belt after all his hard work. I had the privilege to plan a fun surprise for my children after school on St. Patrick’s Day.  I had the privilege of making memories. I had the privilege of being their Mom.  I had the privilege of being present, right here, right now.  I used to be one of those people, one of those Moms, who rushed through life, who didn’t always take the time to celebrate all the little moments that make up that life. When I was sick and my life was uncertain, those little moments were all I wanted. I wasn’t going to take any of those moments for granted anymore, not when they could have so easily been taken away.

Celebrating special days (and ordinary days) with my children and family was now a priority.  Back then, I sat at my children’s  bedside, tears running down my face as I pictured my children at school functions and sporting events, looking out into the crowd… and seeing an empty seat. These days, I sat in the crowd, tears running down my face, watching my children do amazing things, thanking God for allowing me to be present.  Watching Kalea walk up to receive her medal, watching Kade accept his yellow belt and certificate, watching them both run through the house to find the next clue for our scavenger hunt…I was there for all of those moments. We made a lot of memories, just in the last few days.  Imagine the memories we can make in a lifetime.

It brings me back to my school days. Back then, I sat at my desk and nervously answered the teacher, afraid to announce my presence, preferring to stay quiet and remain unnoticed. Today, I excitedly raise my hand up to God, say a prayer of gratitude and shout to the heavens, “Here!”.

Kalea medals2015-03-18 22 24 00

Lessons Learned

I like to think that when bad stuff happens, we come out of it with a few scars and a lot of lessons.

.

Being a cancer survivor, I walk a fine line between feeling invincible because I kicked cancer’s butt…and knowing all too well just how fragile I really am, how life can change in an instant – for the good and for the bad.  Lately, I’ve heard from friends about people who had cancer and died.  I’ve heard stories about survivors who were living their lives, free from cancer and then boom…it comes back.  A dear childhood friend is currently watching her Mom fight cancer for the second time.  Surprised by the news, I mentioned to her that I thought she had been doing so well.  She simply said, “She was doing great…until she wasn’t”.  See, just as I didn’t get a warning that I would soon be diagnosed with cancer, I won’t get a warning if it ever came back. None of us do. So, I can sit and wait around for that to happen or I can live my life. I choose to do the latter.

I like to think that when the bad stuff happens in our lives, we come out of it with a few scars and a lot of lessons.  God gives us challenges in life because He is working on us. He is shaping and molding us and teaching us things we need to learn.  I think that every cancer survivor questions God’s motives at some point but in the end, we learn to accept the hardship and embrace the lessons. Everyone’s experience is different.  Everyone’s lessons are different.  We all change between the day we are diagnosed with cancer and the day we trade in the title of “patient” for “survivor”. We just need to remember what we learned along the way.

I learned many lessons but I highlighted some of the more important ones. I can’t speak for all survivors but I think that most people who have faced cancer head on and lived to tell about it probably feel the same way. I am writing them down both to share with others and to remind myself of what I have learned along the way. In the beginning, it was surreal stepping back into real life and then before you know it, you (almost) forget about all that you have gone through and start living life (almost) like before. That’s when I need a reality check. That’s when I have to remember the lessons God wanted me to learn so that I don’t forget.

I focus on the important people in my life.  Before cancer, I loved my family.  That is a given; however, I often spent way more hours at work than I should have.  That old saying about how you won’t wish you spent more time at work at the end of your days is so true. Many nights while I was going through treatment, unsure of the outcome, I cried at the edge of my children’s beds, watching them sleep and regretting every moment I spent away from them. I focus on my children, my husband, my Mom and my true friends. The important people in my life are my priority.

I’m selfish with my time.  I used to join committees and attend functions for which I didn’t have the time or a real interest. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity that might help me advance my business or open a new door. I used to accept invitations from acquaintances to home parties and silly outings. I don’t do that anymore. It takes a lot for me to give up a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon with my children.  I don’t mean to be rude. I just know that if I say ‘yes’ to something, it better be important enough to give up that amount of time with my children.

I’ve changed my priorities. Before cancer, I wanted a lot more professionally. I wanted more personally.  I wanted to get another degree. I wanted to grow my business much bigger. Now, I just don’t.  I am content with what I have, with what I am, right now.  I don’t need any more badges or notches on my belt. I’m doing just fine.  I am putting my efforts into enjoying my life and enjoying my family.

I appreciate the beautiful things. I am ashamed of all the beauty I missed before I got sick, the beauty I took for granted.  I notice everything now – the beautiful sunset, the fall leaves cascading down when the wind blows, the first daffodil popping up in spring. I see all those beautiful things. I take notice … and I take lots of pictures.

I look for the good.
I used to be easily annoyed with people. I used to pick out their flaws.  I don’t do that anymore. I look for the good in people, even when it is hard to find. If I don’t see it right away, then I really look for it. If I still don’t find it, I pray for them. Their lives must be very difficult if they make it so difficult for others.

I forgive more easily.  I used to hold grudges. I held on to grudges dating back to elementary school. I don’t do that anymore.  People have hurt me deeply.  I forgave them.  I did it because that is what God asks of me and because it brings peace to my soul.  Forgive…and move on.

I’ve made my circle smaller…and tighter. I used to have a lot of acquaintances and I considered them friends. I used to ‘collect’ contacts. I don’t do that anymore. I cling to the people I love the most.  I hold on tight to my family and am fiercely loyal to my friends. I am still an open person. I am just more selective of who I let into my circle and how far I let them in.

I have an intense need to give back. I was always doing charitable things. I always looked for ways to give.  Now, I need to give. I’ve heard that is part of ‘survivor’s guilt’, those thoughts about why I was spared when so many others weren’t so lucky. Maybe that is part of it but I like to think that God opened my heart up a little more.

Material things don’t matter. I don’t care about how big someone’s house is, how much money they make, what kind of car they drive. I don’t care about things. They may be beautiful but they have no relevance to the kind of person someone is.  I am more impressed by how people treat others.

Superficial has no place in my life. I don’t care about appearances. I know better now how little that has to do with the person you are.  I worried so much about losing my hair during chemotherapy. When I was bald, I wore a wig but I didn’t wear makeup.  Before cancer, I wouldn’t have left the house for work without makeup. I don’t worry about things like that any more. Don’t get me wrong. I am so happy to have hair that will go up into a ponytail again. I just don’t spend hours making sure every hair is in place. I have better things to do with my time. The people who matter don’t care whether my hair, clothes or outfit is perfect.

I have more compassion. I feel for people. I always have but now, I feel so much for people that it hurts sometimes. I want to help people. I want to make them feel better.

I’ve developed a strong aversion to negativity. I don’t like to hear negative things. People who are constantly complaining, constantly miserable turn me off right away. I avoid people like that. We should embrace the positive. If you can’t do that, I can’t embrace you…even if I want to.

I don’t care about your drama. I don’t have time to listen to it. I avoid that at all costs. I keep things simple. I say what I mean and mean what I say. I treat others the way I want to be treated. It takes too much precious energy to get involved in all that nonsense.

I am grateful.
I am thankful for every day that I wake up in the morning. I am thankful for the chaos that sometimes creeps into my life. As crazy as it sounds, I am even thankful for my cancer diagnosis. The road was difficult but I learned so much that I will carry with me through the rest of this life that I was blessed to live (and keep living).

I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth.  No one does.  When I found out I had cancer, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  When I beat cancer, I felt a responsibility to live the time I have left in a good way.  I will always remember the lessons that I learned as I went through my “journey” and will live this life the way God intended me to do so.

Boyhood Dreams Come True

Pirates Camp 

To say that my husband is a baseball fan is a bit of an understatement.  You know that seasonal affective disorder where people get depressed during the winter months? I believe my husband has a touch of baseball affective disorder.  He looks forward to opening day the way a child looks forward to Christmas morning.  He watches our local Pittsburgh Pirates and is a season ticket holder.  He has coached our children’s baseball and softball teams.  He plays on two adult baseball leagues.  When I first met him, he played up to four nights a week in local softball leagues.  He reads the Major League Baseball rule book every year ‘for fun’.  Even with all these details, I still find it hard to convey just how much he truly loves baseball in a few sentences. He eats, sleeps and breathes baseball.

Last year, I surprised my husband by signing him up for the Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp. He was an amazing husband and he was particularly wonderful while I was battling cancer.  This is a gift I wanted to give him.  The year before the camp had filled up so there were no spots available.  This year, I was determined to get him on that roster.  I contacted the man in charge and found out that there was one spot available.  I know God held that spot open for him. After all the details were finalized, I sent him on a scavenger hunt around our local area with clues that ended up here in our home where he was presented with the welcome letter for fantasy camp.

He couldn’t sleep the night before.  He was too excited.  He arrived at PNC Park and found a uniform hanging in the locker room with his name on the back along with his number, #9.  He sent me a picture from his phone.  The kids and I drove down to see him play his first game. He was suited up in a major league uniform, out on the field, ready to play the game he loved since he was a little boy.  I don’t think the smile ever left his face.

He was living his dream.  He played second. He played third. He played short stop.  He even had a chance to pitch from the pitcher’s mound at PNC Park. He had good hits. He made good plays.  He dove. He got his uniform dirty. He had an injury badge of honor. He was so happy.  I was so happy for him.

He had so much fun, he went again this year.  Although the second time around may not have been quite as ‘magical’, he still had an amazing time.  I got to watch him play again but this time, I was able to focus on the big picture. The year before, I don’t think I took my eyes off of him.  This year, I could watch the game, watch all the players and take in the whole experience.

These were all grown men. They had all lived a lot of ‘life’. They had families – wives, children, some had grandchildren. They had careers. They were strong.  They were heads of households, heads of departments, heads of companies. That following Monday, they would all go back to their mountain of responsibilities but until then, they could live out their childhood dreams. They were a million things but tonight, they were all just little boys playing the game of baseball. Like special effects in a movie, I could easily imagine the little boy inside each of those grown men, standing out there in a uniform way too big for them. I felt so blessed being able to sit there and watch those men, especially my husband, out on that field. We were all part of something very special. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Borrowed Time

I gave my son a hug last night before bed.  He always tried to extend the nighttime ritual and he knew asking for extra hugs was a good way to do it.  I always told my children that I would never say ‘no’ to a hug.  I heard one time that you should hug your children, really hug them, and hold onto them until they let go.  You never knew how much hugging your child needed so you should hold onto them until they were ready to let go.  I tried to always remember that. So, as I was hugging my son, his head in the crook of my neck like he did when he was a baby; I just held on.  I felt his breath on my neck and smelled the scent of shampoo in his hair.  I rubbed his back gently and soaked in every last drop of him.  I didn’t want him to let go.  I wanted to hold him like that forever.

It had been a stressful day.  After work, I managed to get through our evening activities and then was thankful that it was bedtime.  I couldn’t wait to get the kids to bed and just take a moment. All I wanted to do was sit on the couch or have a cup of tea or maybe go to bed.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I just wanted a break.  Then, in the middle of that long nighttime hug, I started to cry.  The tears fell from my eyes but I wiped them before they hit my cheeks so my son didn’t know.  Those tears were full of the hits I took in stride all day, the words I held inside, the feelings of not measuring up. I held on tighter to my seven year old son and hoped that he didn’t let go.  It wasn’t just him who needed that hug. 

Whenever I got stressed out, overwhelmed or felt inadequate; I remembered one thing. I was still here. These moments, simple ones,  these were the ones I was afraid I was going to miss. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I used to wonder if I would be there to tuck in the kids at bedtime. See, I look at things differently. I am now living on what I call “borrowed time”.

Everything was different now.  I felt like each day was a bonus, a gift from God to work on living this life the way I wanted. When I was diagnosed, things changed instantaneously. As soon as I found out I had cancer, all I wanted was to be with my children and my family. So many things that were important on August 30th weren’t so important any more on August 31st. I used to have big plans for my business. I had just opened a second child care center but I wanted more, maybe 4 of them. If that went well, why not open more? Now, work was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t want to spend my time and my energy on work. I wanted to spend my time and energy on life.

Not that I didn’t still love what I did. I just realized that what I had … was enough. All that I had was enough. I didn’t need a bigger business. I didn’t need more things. I didn’t need anything but my family and the people who rallied around me in my time of need. When I finished my treatment and I had a second chance at this life, I vowed to do it right this time. I was going to live a simpler life. I was going to stop worrying about the wrong things and start focusing on the right ones.

But that night… as I hugged my son…I knew that I had to make a change. As life was slowly returning to normal, I seemed to have forgotten all those lessons I had learned during my fight with cancer. I was getting caught up in the every day, the hustle and bustle and forgetting to enjoy the here and now and let the little things go. God gives us moments and if we are open to them, we can learn from them. I believe that hug from my son was a moment, a lesson and a gift from God. It was a reminder that even when I had a bad day, life was full of blessings. As I hugged my little boy, I let go of all of those things that clutter my mind and I let love and peace fill my heart.