Look Up

Look Up

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Colossians 3:2

My Mom and I were on our way home from running some errands.  As we drove down the hill, I looked at my surroundings.  A recent windstorm had stripped the beautiful fall foliage from the trees.  There were no crimson reds, pumpkin oranges or golden yellows peppering the tops of the trees anymore.  All that remained was the muddy browns of twisted branches left behind.  I made a comment about how sad it was that all the color was gone.  My Mom simply said, “Look up!”.  At first, I didn’t know what she meant.  Then, she said it again, “Look up!  Look at those blue skies!”.  How right she was!  Just above the brownscape created by the leafless trees was the brightest, most beautiful cerulean blue sky filled with white puffy clouds. It was breathtaking. It was there the whole time but I was so focused on the brown trees on the earth that I failed to see the beautiful blue sky just above it. When I focused on that pristine blue sky, I didn’t even notice those brown, lifeless trees anymore. My eyes were focused upward, as they should have been all along.

My Mom is a smart woman and I have learned so very much from her.  Looking at the ‘bright side’, staying positive, and always expecting a miracle to happen are just a few of the important life lessons I have learned from her.  I was just commenting on the leaves being gone. I wasn’t depressed or sad, just making an observation.  Still, she was right.  It is always in the little things that we find the most pleasure and it is what we focus on that determines our outlook. It can be as simple as that. With a shift of focus, our outlook can change instantly.

It reminded me of how sometimes life gets hard.  We get lost.  We miss the beauty around us because all we see is the dark.  We can’t feel that peace because we feel strangled by the chaos of the everyday.  It is during those times that we need to ‘look up’.  We need to focus our eyes on Him, knowing the He will take care of us.  We walk around, eyes cast downward, drenched in worry, so caught up in earthly things that we almost can’t breathe.  We forget sometimes that all we have to do is look up and remember that when we have faith, we don’t need to worry.

I had been going through some difficult times.  After almost 3 years of living ‘cancer free’, I found out that the breast cancer I was diagnosed with in 2012 had metastasized in my bone and my lungs.  It was unexpected and devastating. I had been through scares before that prompted scans but I always received the “all clear”. This time, I didn’t get the news I expected.  When I first heard, “the bone biopsy was positive for cancer”, all sorts of thoughts went through my mind. What about my kids? My husband? My family? What does “stage 4” mean?  All the same thoughts and fears that flooded my mind when I was diagnosed before resurfaced; but this time, it was ten-fold. When I read information posted online, I found scary statistics like “prognosis of only 2 years”, “no cure”, “terminal”.  What? This can’t be happening. Not again.

In the beginning, it was a whirlwind of emotions and a flood of doctor appointments.  I was bombarded with information but at the same time, I was left with so many unanswered questions.  A cancer diagnosis isn’t textbook.  Every case is different.  What do we do?  What is the best course of treatment?  What are the side effects? Will it work?  If so, how long will it work?  How much time do I have?  I found there are no real answers to any of those questions.  There is no way to know if my cancer will respond to a certain treatment, if the treatment will continue to work for a length of time, if the side effects will be so harsh that I won’t be able to continue a successful treatment, if I will still be here next year this time. So many unknowns.  So many worries.  So many ups and downs.  The only way to get through something like that is to give it to God. That’s what I did.

There is that saying about how there is always someone that has it worse off than you so you should be grateful for all you have.  That is a hard pill to swallow sometimes, especially when life gets turned upside down; but it is absolutely true.  Even at your worst of times, there is someone else suffering even more.  I had just found out I had end stage 4 cancer.  I had just found out that, according to some statistics, I only had a 15% chance of surviving for another 5 years. Still, one particular visit to my doctor put that all into perspective.   I arrived at my appointment and was told by the nurse that my doctor was running about an hour behind. She asked if I wanted to reschedule.  I chose to stay because I was going to find out some important results of my scans.  When I finally saw the doctor, he apologized for the wait. He discussed my scans and although they weren’t good, I had options and he was going to develop a treatment plan.  At the end of the appointment, he explained that he was behind because he had to deliver some terrible news to another patient.  There was another woman who went through cancer treatment at the same time as me.  She also had developed symptoms that prompted scans at the same time as me.  I received my scans showing a small lesion on my shoulder bone and some suspicious spots on my lungs.  My previous cancer treatment was unsuccessful and it returned; however, I would start radiation treatment right away and then begin medication to keep my cancer at bay for as long as possible.  The other woman got her results from her scans earlier that day and found out that her cancer had returned as well but it was everywhere and there was little they could do for her.  They had to have ‘the talk’ about enjoying the time she had left. My heart sank.  Two patients.  Two scans. Two different results.  We were like contestants on a game show and we were each going to be given the prize behind door number one or door number two.  Suddenly, even with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.  I still do. See, it’s all about perspective.

With all that was going on, it would have been easy to curl up on the couch and cry all day long; but what would that have done for me?  I needed to stop myself from getting swallowed whole by my diagnosis.  Yes, my life had become a dizzying swirl of doctor appointments, medical tests, and waiting around for results that could change everything, again… but I still had a life.  I was still here. In fact, my doctor told me to ignore all those statistics. He said he fully expects me to be here in 5 years and even more. Instead of looking at my diagnosis as “terminal”, I should look at it as “chronic”. No doctor or researcher can give me an expiration date. Those people don’t decide. God decides. God has plans for me. I have things to do. I love my family too much to leave them. I chose to stay positive.  I chose to ‘look up’.  I chose to see the blue sky, even when there were ugly brown trees all around me.  I chose to live my life, enjoy my family, and most importantly, put my faith in God.

Although God placed me on this difficult path, I knew that He was there with me.  I knew I was going to be okay.  Cancer treatment is no joke.  The medications and injections used to kill the cancer cells can cause some serious side effects.  I fought my way through them during my first battle so I was prepared to fight even harder this time.  I took my injections and braced for the worst, …yet the side effects didn’t come.  The doctors were amazed and probably looked at it as a medical mystery.  I knew better.  I looked at it as a miracle, as God’s grace.  I believe that with all of my heart.  God chose me to walk this path but He is going to love me and help me through it. I can’t be full of faith and worry at the same time.  I have to trust with all my heart that God is going to take care of me.  That’s what I plan to do.

There will be hard times.  I will eventually experience those harsh side effects.  I will have good days and bad days.  Scratch that — I will have amazing days and a few okay days. (Perspective, remember?) In the meantime, I will treat each day like the gift from God it is.  I will love my family, hug my children, and surround myself with my wonderful friends. I will celebrate birthdays and holidays and I will celebrate the ordinary days too for it is in the everyday that we find the most joy. I will always look for the ‘good’ in every situation. I will always count my blessings.  On those days when those brown trees seems to be closing in on me, I will always, ALWAYS, remember to “LOOK UP!”.

 

 

 

Love Never Ends

“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” – Mark 10:9

it never ends

On our first Christmas, my husband gave me a piece of jewelry.  We had only been dating for about 6 months but I already knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. Of course, I wasn’t expecting an engagement ring but I wasn’t quite sure if he knew me well enough to pick out a piece of jewelry for me.  Although I had a box full of it, I wore the same jewelry every day and mostly, only the handmade silver pieces my Dad made for me. I really wanted to like whatever was inside that box. As I opened it slowly, I was pleasantly surprised to see a simple piece of sterling silver jewelry.  My family was Irish and he bought it from an Irish store. It was a simple trinity knot with a heart intertwined in it.  I absolutely loved it. It was totally me, totally my style. It wasn’t gold. It wasn’t flashy. It didn’t have diamonds or gemstones on it. It was a simple piece of silver jewelry and it was perfect for me.

As I took it out of the box, Mike explained that it had a special meaning. Being a man of few words, he said, “It is a knot with a heart weaved in it and the knot never ends”. I knew what he meant.  I knew that the necklace was a symbol of love and that he was telling me, in his way, that our love would never end.  I wore that necklace every day (and for the most part, I still do!). I was a sentimental person and would rather have a piece of jewelry that meant something than a big diamond necklace picked out at a jewelry store at the mall.  I had many friends who appreciated fine jewelry and it was sparkly and beautiful…but I thought spending a small fortune on a piece of jewelry was silly. Sometimes, aside from its monetary value, a gift of jewelry was meaningless. This necklace meant the world to me.  Love never ends.

Mike and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in September.  That necklace was now 17 years old. As I removed that necklace the other day, I took extra notice of it. I looked at the trinity, the interwoven heart and thought about all we lived through since that first Christmas. When we first met, we were young and crazy in love.  He told me about the necklace and my heart went pitter-pat…like it was when you first get together.  We were lucky.  That feeling faded as it does but it evolved into a deeper, more meaningful love for each other. It evolved into the kind of love that happened when two people endured the good times and the bad times, maybe not always so gracefully, but always together.   That necklace was around my neck when we planned our wedding, when we moved into our apartment, when we moved into our home, had our babies, started businesses — and it was also around my neck when we struggled with fertility, when we lost my father, when we battled cancer. We met those challenges head on, hand in hand, our hearts interwoven – just like that necklace. Love never ends.

When we were married, there was no crystal ball.  We said our vows before God and before our family … to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish ’til death do us part.  We heard those vows all the time – at the movies and on television, at family weddings.  We watched the ceremony — the dress, the cake, the first dance – and we assumed the ‘happily ever after’.  We never saw how that couple maneuvered real life, beyond the white dress and tiered wedding cake. Real marriage was hard. It was messy, complicated and exhausting.  It wasn’t easy.  It wasn’t the fairy tale we played in our heads. There were bumps and detours and derailments. There were times when the road crumbled beneath us.  Looking back, though, those were the times we held on to each other even tighter.  Those were the times that our love grew stronger, deeper and more real. Love never ends.

Although we faced a lot of obstacles in our marriage, mostly over the last few years, I feel that our story is still a fairy tale. I was blessed with a husband who will stand by my side, no matter what.  One time, my car was hit by a bus in downtown Washington, DC.  It was the middle of the work day.  I was distraught.  New to the area and unsure of what to do, I called Mike who talked me down, told me to call the police and report what happened.  I did and then sat in my car, crying, as I waited for the police to arrive.  Within 15 minutes, I looked up and there he was, my knight in shining armor had left his job site and drove in from neighboring Virginia to make sure I was alright.  He was always taking care of things.  He was always taking care of me.  There was no greater example of him taking care of me than when I battled cancer the first time.  That man went with me to every appointment, listened to every word my oncologist said.  He sat with me through every four-hour chemo treatment, even though I slept through most of it. He walked me up the stairs and helped me into bed when I went through the very painful surgery and reconstruction process.  He was there for all the big steps but more importantly, he was there for all those moments when I just needed to cry.  He was there to tell me that I was going to be alright.  He was there to tell me that he was always, always going to be by my side.  Love never ends.

Now, as we face another challenge, I am reminded again just how truly blessed I am.  “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:9).  This was so true. Nothing can tear us apart – no one, no thing. Those vows we took on our wedding day were more than just words, more than just ceremony.  We meant those vows.  We lived   those  vows.  I learned that when you do that, God protects you, your spouse, and your marriage.  My husband was a gift from God.  Every single day, I get to open it.  Every single day, I get the gift of love, true unwavering love.  The love that God has for us has no limits.  He loves us more than we can even comprehend.  That loves shines down on us from Heaven. God blessed us with our spouses so a little bit of that love can shine on us from here on earth.  I thank the Lord every single day for my husband, my gift from God. We are about to go down another rough road. I still trust we will be alright. We will just hold on tight, take each other’s hand, trust in God and keep going.  I will remember the meaning behind that necklace that Mike gave me that first Christmas together.  I will remember that heart interwoven in the trinity knot. That necklace represents our relationship, all we have been through, and that we have the strength to get through anything that comes our way. That necklace represents the love we have for each other. We can boldly walk this difficult path together because we both know – Love never ends.

christmas necklace

This picture was taken on New Year’s Eve in 1998. Mike had just given me the necklace that Christmas.

Cancer … and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Note:

This was a post I wrote after my first diagnosis.  I never shared it before but I needed to go back to it.  I needed to remind myself of that fight that I found deep inside.  A cancer diagnosis is never easy but as a mother of young children, it is even more devastating. You are not only fighting for your life but you are fighting for your children to grow up with their mother, so your children won’t have to suffer that unspeakable loss, so your children won’t be robbed of their innocence and security.  When you hear those words, “you have cancer”, your children are the first thing on your mind. This post is very personal and tells the story of the first day I found out that I had breast cancer. It also tells the story of my decision to fight for my life and my decision to live my life as though I was going to lose it.  Now, three years later, I still have that same fight inside of me. I still have that desire to live my life with purpose.  I still have that same love for my children. I will never stop fighting.

choc chip cookie 2

Friday, August 31, 2012

I checked off the ingredients in my head. I had them all, even the chocolate chips. We didn’t have to stop at the store on the way home. I had everything I needed and enough time to bake cookies for the kids before they got home from school.  I wanted, no, I “needed” to make chocolate chip cookies. I set the butter out on the counter so it could soften and then I looked at the clock.  I had time to go lie down for a little while before I started baking.

I walked upstairs to the bedroom. I didn’t say a word but Mike followed me.  Silently, we lay down on the bed and I buried my head in Mike’s shoulder. Then, I cried.  Again. I had been crying all morning.  My head was still processing everything.  I just kept thinking that this couldn’t be real. This wasn’t happening…but it was. I had just found out I had cancer.

I scheduled the mammogram after I found the lump. Mike took the morning off to go with me.  I was scared but still hopeful that it was going to be nothing. I wasn’t even 40 yet.  I was young and healthy. I felt good. I couldn’t be sick.  I was a wife, a mother, friend and a small business owner.  I had things to do. I barely had time for this mammogram appointment.

We sat in the waiting room and looked at magazines until they called my name. The nurse was very friendly. She chatted as she took me back to the locker room to change into a gown.  When I was ready, she took me to the room for the mammogram. She asked for my prescription.  It was actually given to me the previous December, the last time I went to my gynecologist.  She told me to go and get a baseline mammogram but not because there was any reason to worry. The prescription hung from a clip on my refrigerator for the last 8 months. If I didn’t find the lump, that prescription would have still been hanging on my refrigerator. Again, I was busy and I didn’t make my own health a priority.  She asked me a number of questions as though it was just a routine mammogram.  When she realized that I had found a lump, she explained that I would need a different prescription since it was a diagnostic mammogram.  She said she would take care of it and not to worry about it but she seemed worried.  She asked to take a look at me.  I studied her face as she examined the lump. Her bright eyes and cheery attitude suddenly dimmed.  She became more professional as she asked me to step up to the machine.  Something in my heart knew that something was most definitely wrong. That is when I started to cry for the first time that day.

The nurse instructed me how to position myself for the exam. I had never had a mammogram before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The nurse stepped back behind the counter and took the first picture.  I could see an image on the computer screen.  When the nurse saw me looking at it, she quickly tilted the screen so I couldn’t see it.  From that point on, the friendly nurse wouldn’t make eye contact with me.  She positioned me on the machine so she could finish taking the pictures she needed.  I kept asking her questions like “Can you see anything?” and “Is everything okay?” but she ignored me. I knew her silence meant bad news. I continued to cry.  She took me back to a waiting area and told me the doctor was going to take a look at the images.  I sat there, feeling numb and sick to my stomach. I was freezing in the air-conditioned room as I pulled that gown tight around me. Ellen DeGeneres was on the television.  A few moments later, the nurse returned and said that they wanted me to stay for a sonogram so that they could get additional pictures.  She brought me a box of tissues and I cried some more.  She told me she was going to get my husband.

I sat there and pretended to watch Ellen DeGeneres as another woman walked into the waiting area. I continued to watch the television as though nothing was wrong, like if I stared at the television, the woman may not notice my tears.  I was relieved when she left the room.  I saw the door open again and Mike appeared.  I remember his face as he came through the door.  I saw him before he saw me.  He was relaxed and looked as though the nurse just called him back to wait in another waiting room, unaware that there was a problem.  His face changed when he saw me crying.  He knew something was wrong.  The nurse explained that I was waiting for an additional test.  Mike held my hand and questioned me about what was going on but I didn’t answer him.  I couldn’t talk.  He just continued to hold my hand while I continued to cry.

A few minutes later, a technician came to get me and took me back to the sonogram room. The technician was very nice but she didn’t say much either.  I got on the table and she started the procedure. As she moved the wand around, I tried to look at the computer screen again.  I could see it but I didn’t know what the pictures meant.  I remember hearing the ‘clicking’ noise and she told me she was ‘taking measurements’.  I will never forget that sound. Then, another technician came into the room carrying a file folder with small images on it.  They spoke quietly in a code that I didn’t really understand but I assumed they were looking for something in particular.  They moved the wand.  More clicking.  They made a comment about how they weren’t seeing anything.  That gave me a small glimmer of hope.  Maybe it was nothing after all.  Maybe I was okay.  The second technician left.  I asked the first technician about what was going on.  She didn’t answer me.

A minute later, the doctor came into the room. She seemed angry and annoyed. She didn’t address me or look at me. She grabbed the wand and started moving it around as she stared intently at the screen.  She muttered to herself, “I don’t see anything here”.  That little glimmer of hope I felt earlier briefly grew a little bigger.  Then, she finally made eye contact as she simply stated, without emotion, “You have a suspicious mass.  Most likely cancer.  Will have to be removed.  You will have to call breast surgeon.” I stared at her, trying to process what she just said but within a second of blurting out a statement that changed my life forever, she put down the wand and left the room.  The two technicians looked at each other, horrified by the way the information was shared with me.  They awkwardly told me again that I would have to call a breast surgeon to make an appointment and gave me pamphlets and other information.  They asked me if I had anyone with me and then went to get my husband.

Mike came into the room and I didn’t want to look at him. He had no idea what had just happened.  The technicians gave me a towel to wipe off the gel and said I was finished.  We walked to the waiting room and I changed back into my clothes.  My head was spinning.  I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that I was just told I had the cancer.  I went out to meet Mike in the waiting room.  The nurse came out, gave me more information and told me that they had wonderful doctors that were going to take care of me.  I took the information but couldn’t speak.  She gave me a hug and I held onto her tightly for a moment.  Then, we left.

Mike held my hand as we walked out to the car. It was a sunny August day.  I wished it was raining.  It seemed unfair that such a bad thing could happen on such a beautiful day. Somehow I choked out the words, “I have cancer”.  He squeezed my hand and said, “They didn’t say that”.  I realized he hadn’t been in the room when the doctor told me.  I looked at him and said, “Yes, they did. I have to call and make an appointment with a breast surgeon.  I have cancer.”   We sat in silence in the car.  We had already decided we were going to grab lunch after the appointment so Mike drove to the restaurant.  I held back tears in the booth as we pretended to eat. We didn’t say much during lunch but I remembered Mike saying that I was going to beat this thing and that everything was going to be okay. There wasn’t a bit of doubt in his voice.

As I lay crying on Mike’s shoulder, all sorts of things ran through my head. When someone says that you have cancer, everything changes.  Was I going to die?  Who would take care of my children?  How much time did I have?  I pictured myself lying in bed, wasting away to nothing, wearing a scarf on my head.  I remembered thinking of the movie “Stepmom” with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon.  In the end, Susan Sarandon’s character was dying of cancer and she gave her children special gifts so they would remember her.  I thought about what kind of gifts I could give to my children.  I thought about how I would write letters to them for their birthdays, their graduations, their weddings, all those big moments that I was going to miss.  I thought about my Mom.  She lost my father, the love of her life.  How was she going to handle losing her daughter too?  I thought of my husband.  How was he going to raise the kids on his own?

The thought of my children growing up without a mother was the most terrifying. I felt cheated. I felt robbed. Mike and I tried for years to have children before we finally got pregnant with Kalea. Then, we were blessed to get pregnant again so quickly with Kade.  They were only 5 and 6 years old!  Was that all I was going to get?  Was this all the time I was going to get to spend with the children that I prayed for and waited so long to have?  Why would God finally bless me with children and then call me home?  I made a promise to myself that I was going to treasure every moment, give them all the love I could give while I was still here. I couldn’t go down the dark road.  I needed to stay positive and make the best of whatever time I had left. I wanted to hug them and kiss them and never let them go.  I wanted to create lasting memories. I wanted them to remember me after I was gone. I wanted to be the best Mom I could be.  I wanted to bake them chocolate chip cookies.

They would be off the bus soon. I dried my tears and wiped my face.  I went downstairs and started baking. I poured every ounce of my love for them into that special batch of cookies.  With every scoop of flour, with every beaten egg; I was reliving all the special moments I had enjoyed with my children. I remembered the days they were born, the holiday celebrations, vacations, every day moments.  My mind was overflowing with flashes of happy memories.  As the cookies baked, the house filled with that scent of chocolate, childhood and a mother’s love.  As I lifted each warm, gooey, delicious cookie off the pan; I made promises to myself about how things were going to be different.  I was going to fight this thing with all I had.  I was never going to give up.  I was going to show my kids that I was strong and that I would do anything to be there for them.  I would not take one single moment for granted. I was going to enjoy life, no matter how much I had left. I was going to create experiences and make memories for my children.  I was going to make sure that my children were going to know, without any doubt, how very much I loved them.  I was going to wrap them with so much love that they would feel it long after my days here on earth.  I was going to focus on the things that matter. I was going to look for the good in every situation, even when it was difficult to find.  I was going to smile, even when it was hard.

As I washed the cookie sheets and the cookies cooled, I promised myself that I was going to start the rest of my life on this very day. This day was not an easy one but this day was a day I made the decision to survive. I made a decision to live my life as though each day could very well be my last. I made a decision to turn lemons into lemonade….and a cancer diagnosis into a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

A Little Rain Must Fall

It was a warm spring day.  The sun was shining and the sky was blue. I had just picked up my kids from school and we were walking to the car.  All of a sudden, the sun disappeared and dark grey clouds pushed their way across the sky.  We barely got in the car before it started pouring. The raindrops were beating down from all sides. Even with the windshield wipers on high, it was difficult to see.  The water gushed down the hillsides and pooled along the edge of the country roads.  It was the middle of the afternoon but it seemed like dusk.  The dark clouds, the pounding rain, the splash from the passing cars all made for rough travel and I had to slow down and hold onto the wheel as I managed the wet, slippery roads. Then, as quickly as it started, just as we were almost home; the rain slowed down and the water on the roads dissipated.  The sun started to peek through the dark clouds. The specks of sunlight bounced off the leaves of the trees and the road which was still glistening from the downpour.  The trees, the grass and the roadway looked like it was coated in glitter.  Although I could loosen my grip on the wheel, I continued at a slow pace and took in the magnificent sight. It was springtime. The brown, twisted trees of winter had once again been painted about a thousand shades of green.  There were dark greens and light greens and bright greens. The earth was glowing – from the leaves on the trees to the grass carpeting the ground – everything was saturated with color; pure, beautiful color…. it was God’s masterpiece, right there before my eyes.  To me, it seemed as though the trees were never greener than they were after it rained.

As I drove the rest of the way home, I realized that the same beautiful scenery was there when I took the kids to school that morning. We traveled that same road to and from school every day. I drove along those same roads, with the lush, green grass and the trees that looked like they were decorated with green sprinkles of all different shades. It was there … but I didn’t see it. That morning, my eyes only saw the road. My heart was beating fast, nervous that we were going to be late.  My mind was racing, thinking of all the things that I had to do at work once I got there. I didn’t notice any of that beauty that was all around me because I wasn’t looking.  I was just going through the motions, getting from Point A to Point B. It wasn’t until those pounding rains erupted from above and the sun pushed its way through the dark clouds that I noticed, really noticed, that spectacular view.

I thought back to all those times when I had to weather the storms in my own life.  I remember the day I found out I had cancer. I remember that feeling of being taken by surprise by a storm that I never saw coming. When I heard that doctor say the words “you have cancer”, it was just like when the clouds darkened and the rains poured down that day. I couldn’t see the road in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to do.  Should I stop?  Should I pull over?  Should I keep going?  My visibility was affected. My path was unclear. My faith in my ability to maneuver the slick road was wavering. How was I going to push my way through those stormy conditions, not knowing if the road ahead was manageable or if it had been washed away?

Just as my fears and doubts were about to swallow me whole; just like the rain started to slow down and the sun started to peek through those dark clouds, I started to see all the beauty around me.  God cast that same glow down on all of my blessings so that I finally took notice of them. They were there all along but maybe I was too busy, too focused on the road ahead, too intent on getting to my next destination, or just too caught up in the ‘everyday’ to notice that I had everything I needed and more to make it through that storm.  At first, I was angry with God and questioned His plan, His timing, His everything. I didn’t have time for a storm in my life. I didn’t know if I could make it through a storm like that. Then, before long, I realized that even though I was diagnosed with a deadly disease and I was facing the fight of and for my life; I knew I was going to be alright.  Yes, I had cancer and I didn’t know what the future held … but I still felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I had an amazing husband who was there to hold my hand, who told me in no uncertain terms that we were going to beat this thing.  I had the best Mom in the world who was there for me and helped me with anything I needed. I had two of the most beautiful, kind-hearted, compassionate children who would lift my spirits and give me inspiration to keep going, even when it was hard.  I had friends who stepped up to support me and to fight right along with me. People came out of the woodwork to help. I had neighbors who organized and cooked meals for my family while I was going through treatment. I had people offering words of encouragement, prayers of healing and hugs of comfort. I was not alone. I saw God’s hand working in my favor in so many ways – He worked in the smallest details and He provided me with a support system that would see me through the most difficult time in my life. There was rain but after the storm, the sun was brighter than ever.

We all know our days are numbered. We all know that we aren’t going to be on this earth forever. It wasn’t until I learned I had cancer that I really thought about it. No one wanted to think about dying. I was no different. I never really thought about it … until I had no choice.  I didn’t know if I would be here to see my children grow up or if I would be here to grow old with my husband. It may seem clichéd but it wasn’t until my life became uncertain that I really started living and not just going through the motions. I became more grateful for all of life’s blessings. I became more aware of all the little things – the sun on my face, the blue sky, my daughter’s giggle, my son’s incredible hugs. I looked at each day as a gift and enjoyed every moment because I knew more than ever that tomorrow is not promised. Still, although I consider myself much more aware of all the good in my life than I used to be; I still needed a reminder once in a while.  I feel like that storm the other day, with the colorful show afterward, was God’s way of making sure I hadn’t forgotten.  I became too focused on my routine, too worried about the wrong things – this rain was a wake up call for me. I truly believed that.  God sent that rain down on me so that I would slow down and pay attention to the beauty around me again. I think all of the storms in our lives serve a purpose.  My life changed for the better after I had cancer.  It really did. I was happier. I was more grateful. I was a better person.  God surrounded me with love, restored my faith, and showed me that even in the darkest times; there is always beauty and there is always hope.  We just have to look up from the road to see it.

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All Of Your Pieces

My parents used to have a card table set up in the corner of our basement.  The table often had pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered across it and the empty box propped up so we could see the picture. We would work to put all those pieces together to make a beautiful masterpiece.  Usually, the puzzles were nature pictures- a babbling brook in the middle of the woods or a magnificent waterfall. Although I wasn’t a big fan of puzzles, I often found myself sifting through the countless pieces searching for the ‘all blue one’ or the one that had a bit of the sky and a bit of the trees. There was something therapeutic about turning all those ‘pieces’ into a ‘whole’.  When you picked up a single piece, it didn’t look like much; however, when you fit all those pieces perfectly together, you could see the whole picture and all those individual pieces made sense.

Everyone has a different strategy. Some are very methodical and find all the corner and edge pieces first. Some take a different approach and find all the pieces that seem to match, like the blue ones that made the ocean, and build from the inside out. Some seem to have no strategy at all and pick up random pieces to see if they fit.  Although one may find that a certain strategy works better or gets the job done faster; in the end, they all work. The puzzle is complete and the picture is clear.

At the cancer center where I had treatment, there was a card table with a puzzle on it in the waiting room. Instead of sitting in a chair while waiting to be called for chemo, some patients sat at the table and worked on the puzzle. One time, the room was pretty full so I sat down at that puzzle table and contributed a few pieces to the cause. It was a pretty picture – a bunch of colorful sailboats floating on the water. My name was called and I went to my appointment. When I came back the next time, I glanced over at the table hoping to see the finished sailboat puzzle but it was a picture of two baby deer in a grassy meadow. An older woman wearing a scarf to cover her head left smooth from treatment was concentrating on finding the brown pieces that made the baby deer. When she got called back, an older gentleman with an oxygen tank rolled up to the table in his wheelchair and started working on the blue sky. I wondered how many patients worked together on those puzzles, not knowing who was responsible for which pieces, picking up where another left off and with only a few ever seeing the end result of their work. Still, every time I was in that office, someone was always working at that puzzle table. I think that we, as patients, found putting those pieces back into place was a reminder that although we were broken at the moment, we were doing what we could to put ourselves back together again.

We are all like those jigsaw puzzles. We just don’t get to see the picture on the box  while we build our puzzles. Only God knows what that picture looks like and how our pieces fit together. He has a master plan. All those little pieces may not make sense to us now but one day, those pieces will come together and it will all become clear and it will be amazing. Nothing is an accident. No event is unplanned. Even the bad stuff is part of our puzzles. Those dark pieces blend in with the light ones to make one beautiful picture. We just don’t understand that until the puzzle starts to come together.

We go through life assembling our pieces. Some of us try to build a foundation, plan things out… like the person who finds all the corners and edges first. Some of us jump in with both feet and figure it out once we get there… like the person who starts in the middle and works their way out. Some of us go through life without direction and somehow muddle through… like the person who tries random pieces to see if they fit. Our lives don’t come with directions. We have to find our own way. It may be difficult at times but we have to trust that our box came with the right number of pieces. We have to have faith that the picture on our box is beautiful, even when we can’t see it. We have to know that God will always be there to help us put all our pieces together, even when they don’t seem to fit.

Just like the puzzles at the cancer center, our pieces are put together by many different people. Some will form your edges. Some will fill up your insides. Some will add a piece and walk away. Some will still be there when your puzzle is complete. Some will tear a few pieces away but there will always be someone else who will put those pieces back together again. We can only be “whole” if we have all our “pieces”, the good and the bad. Our pieces tell our story and our experiences paint our picture.  Whether good or bad, the experiences we share with others become a part of their puzzles and affect their pictures. Our actions serve to build up or to break apart puzzles too. We really do have the power to add beauty to the picture on their box or to strip away a few pieces so that their picture may never be complete. Unkind words, selfish actions and lack of caring can forever change someone’s picture. Think about how easily a small puzzle piece can be lost and how frustrating it is to work on a 1000 piece puzzle only to find there are only 997 pieces in the box. We should do our best to remember that we are all brothers and sisters and God wants us to take care of each other.  God wants us to walk through this life, gathering our pieces and fitting them together while helping to complete the puzzles of others… with caring, with compassion and with love. When we help others to gather their pieces, we also help the pictures on our puzzle boxes become even more beautiful.  My wish for everyone reading this is that your box is full of all the right pieces and you are blessed with many who will help you fit them together.  May God bless all the ‘puzzle builders’ in this world.

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Through My Daughter’s Eyes

It had been a really long day.  After a few hectic weeks at work and weekends full of activities, I was grateful for an unusual  evening at home, just hanging out with the kids and watching television.  It was nearing bedtime so everyone was winding down. My nine-year old daughter, Kalea, asked me if she could look something up on my phone. At first, I told her, “No”.  She was always on my phone and it drove me crazy. She said that she wanted to look something up that I was “really going to like”.  I figured it was going to be another one of those videos of kids doing silly things on YouTube but I reluctantly handed over my phone. She played around on the phone and handed it back to me.  It was a video of the music and lyrics to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”.  (Watch video below)   I was confused and then she said, “Mom, it reminds me of you because you had cancer”.  I didn’t understand.  Then, she said, “Mom, it’s called Fight Song” and you fought cancer. It reminds me of you.” Her words took my breath away. I think my heart stopped for a second too. My mind was trying to wrap around what she just said to me. Tears poured out of my eyes as I hugged my daughter and we watched the rest of the lyrics play on the video.

I gave her an extra hug at bedtime and then went in my room so I could process what she just said.  It seemed so simple.  I did fight cancer. That was true but it was so much more than that. When I got sick, my kids were my first concern. Once I accepted that I had cancer and had a battle ahead of me, I was really worried about how it was going to affect them. I didn’t want them to know. Kalea was going into first grade and Kade was starting kindergarten. They were too young. I wanted to protect them from all of it.

When I had what seemed like 100’s of medical appointments and tests after my initial diagnosis, I scheduled them during the school day. The kids weren’t even aware of what was happening at first.  When a treatment plan was in place and chemotherapy drew near, we told the kids that I was “sick” but the doctor was going to make me better. I was going to have to take medicine that might make me tired or make my stomach hurt. My kids didn’t know a lot about cancer but they knew it was bad. We never used the word ‘cancer’ when we talked to them. I didn’t like saying that word out loud yet either.

I wasn’t sure how the kids were going to deal with my hair falling out. I had a wig before my treatment started because I didn’t want the kids to see me bald or see my hair coming out in clumps. The day I picked it up, I didn’t have time to hide it well.  Kalea happened to find it in my closet. Because Halloween was approaching, she assumed it was for a costume and asked me about it. I took the opportunity to tell her that the medicine I had to take was going to make me lose my hair. I saw the fear in her eyes and tried to lighten the mood by telling her it would grow back but it would take a while and that I was embarrassed about it so I got a wig. She was excited about that and felt like we had a special secret. We took turns trying it on. We were giggling and making silly faces in the mirror.

I remember being really tired after a chemo treatment one weekend. Two days after my treatment, I had to get a shot that boosted my white blood cell count.  Every time I got the shot, like clockwork, about 5 hours later, the effects would hit me. I guess my body was so busy making white blood cells that it robbed me of the energy to do anything else. I used to feel like my limbs were soaking in cement.  I seriously couldn’t move. Those effects lasted a few hours and then for days, I had a cycle of symptoms. I was feeling particularly awful but my kids were missing me and wanted my attention.  They wanted me to play a game, sit on the floor with them, do all the things that I used to do with them…but I simply couldn’t.  I knew they were disappointed and I felt horrible.  I had to come up with something quick so I asked them to put on a show for me.  The kids loved that idea and they quickly went to work.  It was one of the best afternoons as the kids sang and danced and performed skits for me and I was able to be entertained and engaged with them all from the comfort of my couch. It is one of my fondest memories.

I was looking forward to Valentine’s Day. I bought all the fixings for a chocolate fondue night with my husband and the kids to celebrate. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of the reconstruction process and the way the calendar fell, I had to have an appointment that morning. The reconstruction process was extremely painful.  After each treatment, I would often be bedridden, forced to stay completely still, flat on my back for about 8 or 9 hours before I could breathe without being in tremendous pain. It was the worst part of my treatment. I remember lying there with tears running down the side of my face but I was unable to wipe them because that would require me to move and that would simply be too painful. My kids came home from school, excited about their valentines and looking forward to our family fun night. My wonderful husband salvaged the night for the kids as he muddled through the chocolate fondue, without me. They had a blast. I could hear them from upstairs. I so desperately wanted to be a part of it. I remember feeling so separated from my normal life at that time. The kids came upstairs to give me hugs (careful hugs) and kisses at bedtime. My kids had fun but they were upset that I wasn’t a part of it. I always resented the time cancer took away from my family.

The end of my radiation treatments was the official end of my treatment or in medical jargon, my EOT. I got to ring the celebration bell at the treatment center when I finished that 28th treatment. When I walked outside, my friends had placed balloons on my car.  When I came home, my Mom had put pink balloons everywhere — they were on the mailbox outside and she filled the house with 28 pink balloons to celebrate the end of the 28 radiation treatments I endured. My kids were a part of the celebration. After dinner that night, we went outside and we released those balloons…and released all the pain, fear and everything else we went through right along with them. It was such a wonderful feeling.

I tried my best to protect my children from the harsh realities of a cancer diagnosis. I kept things as normal as possible for them even when I felt like my world was upside down. For 406 days, I battled cancer. For 406 days, we still functioned as a family.  I fought for my life without surrendering my life to my illness.  The lyrics in this video will forever stay in my heart. My daughter put them there.  What an amazing gift she gave me. Although I like to think I shielded my kids from what I went through, the truth is that they lived it right along with me. My hope was that they wouldn’t remember much about those days. Then, tonight, Kalea showed me that she knew way more than I thought she did.  I realize now that they were watching me.  I realize now that Kalea knows I fought hard to beat cancer. I realize now that she is proud of me. I realize now that my daughter thinks I am strong. I realize now… just how strong she is too.

My Armor of Sunshine

My Mom surprised me with a bright yellow raincoat the other day. I had a blue one that had a rip in the shoulder. As a busy Mom, I typically put function over fashion and continued to wear the coat with the rip in it. Over time, the rip got bigger and bigger until a bit of fabric on the shoulder flopped over allowing water and cold air to go right through it. Like a hole in a roof, the ripped coat no longer protected me from the rain. My Mom knew that I was constantly on the go, in and out of the car, with the kids and for work. My Mom pointed out the rip in the coat but I was always too busy to go buy a new one. Springtime brought with it lots of rain showers and stormy afternoons. My Mom wasn’t having it anymore. She bought me the coat because she was my Mom and she wanted to make sure I was protected.
When she gave it to me, she was concerned that I wouldn’t like it. She was afraid I wouldn’t like the color. It was the brightest, most cheery shade of yellow. It was the color of the crayon a child chose to draw the sun on their picture. It was the color  those “lemon drops” would be that you sang about in the childhood song. It was the color of the first daffodil that popped up in the springtime. It was the color of happy. My Mom had nothing to worry about because I thought the color was absolutely perfect!
This coat made a statement. Imagine the most dreary day full of gray clouds and pouring rain. I loved the thought of putting on that bright yellow coat, zipping it up and pulling up the hood on a day like that. I could go out into the cold, the wind, and the rain wearing my own little piece of sunshine. The waterproof material was seamless. Not a single raindrop was going to seep through to the inside. The water rolled right off. The oversized hood covered my head and offered an extra bit of fabric that shielded my face. The super soft yellow-and-white checkered lining kept me warm inside. Like a mother’s love, the bright yellow coat hugged and protected me from the elements. When I took off the coat, I found that my armor of sunshine kept me warm, dry and unscathed by the outside world.
Even when I wasn’t wearing that coat, I walked through this world with an armor of sunshine. In my lifetime, I weathered many storms just like everyone did. We all had our own stories. I was betrayed by people I trusted. I suffered great losses. I battled a deadly disease. Still, just as that yellow coat allowed the rain to bounce off of me, my own personal armor of sunshine left my soul untouched. I remained positive through the most dire of circumstances. I could have allowed myself to become bitter and jaded and mad at the world but instead, I chose to put on my bright yellow raincoat, splash a smile across my face and say “Take that, world! You won’t break me”.
Daily, I struggled with the negativity in this world. It was often difficult to watch the news or to read a local paper.  The stories were heartbreaking. A simple trip to the grocery store or local restaurant included example after example of how horribly people treated each other. Rude customers shouted at cashiers over coupons or humiliated a waitress over a lunch order. Aggressive drivers honked their horns and yelled out the window in parking lots . I never watched scary movies. There was enough scary stuff in the everyday.  I tried to avoid people and places where bad things might happen. I made my social circle smaller and smaller.  I surrounded myself with people who were pure of heart.  Still, I had to interact with the outside world which could be a very cold, dark place.

Some people were just plain miserable. Some people looked for problems. Some people were hateful towards each other. Some people took pleasure in tearing others apart. Some people that I trusted disappointed me. I saw it every day but I tried to stay positive and to be that little bit of sunshine peeking out from behind the rain clouds. It wasn’t always easy but I chose to look for the sunshine even when everyone around me chose to walk around with dark clouds over their heads. I never understood why people chose to live their lives that way.  It really was a choice.
When bad weather approached, I wrapped up tightly to protect myself from the winds of negativity and the showers brought on by unsettled circumstances. I never wanted that misery to permeate into my soul and to dampen my spirit. I never wanted other people’s darkened views to cast a shadow over mine. I never wanted that … so I simply never let it happen.
The thoughtful gift of the perfectly yellow raincoat warmed my heart and soul. It was particularly fitting that my Mom was the one who gave it to me. When I was little, she always made it better. When I was growing up, she was always there to pick me up when I was down. When I became an adult, she became my best friend and my biggest cheerleader. When I was sick, my Mom fought right along with me. She helped me with the kids and the house when I was too exhausted from chemotherapy. She took care of me after I had surgery or wasn’t feeling well. She wrapped me up in the armor of a mother’s love. She prayed and she willed me back to health. Only now that I am a Mom did I truly understand just how difficult it was for her to watch me suffer during those hard times. She was my sunshine during my storm. She was that hopeful ray of sunlight peeking out from behind the clouds during my darkest hours. She was the one who taught me how to weather life’s storms with grace, with hope and with dignity. I thanked her for the gift that day but it was so much more than just a thoughtful gesture. That bright yellow coat protects me from the rain, wind and cold but my Mom was and always will be my true armor of sunshine.
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