One Foot in Front of the Other

Before cancer, I never went to the doctor. In the past four months, I’ve been there 10 times plus 3 tests at the hospital because of a coronary issue that has developed, presumably from my cancer treatment. I deserve a frequent-user punch card. But my body, which is betraying me, decided that wasn’t enough. An auto-immune disease I struggle with flared 3 weeks ago. I’ve been in denial, refusing to call my doctor because I’m thoroughly sick of being poked, prodded and medicated. However, this weekend the pain level hit an extreme point and my husband and father “encouraged” me to be wise and let my doctor know.

So today, I called. It felt like such an admission of defeat. I’m trying to keep my chin up, but all I can manage to do is cry. The voice inside my head says, “Quit being such a baby!” but I’m just amazingly beaten down. I’m not in a good place. So, here with you, Dear Reader, I’m going to make a massive effort to find my joy, buck up, and walk the path set before me with grace and dignity.

These things I can be thankful for:

1. I have an amazing husband, family and friends who support me, encourage me, pray for me, love me, help me and gently pat my back in sympathy when all I can do is blubber.

2. Physical suffering has bred within me a fierce compassion for those whose struggle is a daily one and who need my love and prayers. Because of God’s love for me and involvement in my life, my heart has become more tender instead of becoming hardened with bitterness.

3. My children see the effort I’m making to keep up with all my “Mommy Duties” and express genuine caring and concern for me. I’ve been blessed with two tender-hearted, creative, loving daughters.

4. God speaks to me in quiet, simple ways, and because of that I can fully believe that He has a good and loving purpose in this. I am assured that I will get to the other side of this struggle and when I do, it will be amazing. I will have a testimony that will reach down to those who are broken and lift them up.

5. Amidst it all, I can still smile.

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Echos ~ Scars ~ Tracks in New-fallen Snow

My right shoulder muscles have been abused by the circumstances of life. I had breast cancer on the right side, resulting in the removal of thirteen axillary lymph nodes. This caused scar tissue and tightness under my right arm. Then radiation therapy (don’t gross out here) melted the underside of my skin, causing it to fuse to the bone where it is permanently stuck. This causes some tightness across my chest. Then, I had reconstructive surgery where a large portion of muscle in my back was dissected and tunneled forward under my arm to my chest. In fact, the procedure is called an LD Flap – LD for latissimus dorsi and it’s a flap because the section of muscle is left attached to its blood supply. This means that if you press in the exact right spot on my back, I feel it in front. It also means that when everything comes together wrong and I have pain, it’s a shooting pain across my chest and an agonizing ache around my shoulder blade. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I can barely function.

This is where I was last night. As my husband massaged the shoulder to try and relieve some of the tension so I could sleep, I reminded him that four years ago I was in the hospital. Four years ago, on July 2nd, I spent six hours on the operating table having a bilateral LD-Flap. We talked briefly about everything that led up to that point, and then everything that has resulted from it, and I found tears pricking my eyes as I said, “Stupid, stupid cancer.” But then I told my husband that it is what it is and there’s no point in feeling sorry for myself, that it serves no purpose. I need to buck up and get over it. But my husband, very gently, said, “LaRae – I don’t think you’re feeling sorry for yourself. I think you’re feeling human.”

We turned out the light and I lay there thinking about those tears. Was it “human” to cry four years after the fact or was there something wrong with me? I thought about my story, the one I didn’t write but was faced with living.

I thought about the fact that I had immediate reconstruction after my mastectomies. I had tissue expanders put in that were meant to gradually stretch the skin, eventually being replaced with silicone implants. As far as I got with that procedure, I remember being very happy with how I looked and how I felt. But then I developed a life-threatening staph infection. By the time I was admitted to the hospital I was feverish, my skin was so sensitive I felt like I was being pricked all over by a million needles, my joints ached, I was nauseated and I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. I was becoming septic. One expander had become infected and the other was surrounded by fluid that was likely to become infected, so they had to come out. It was only after the fact that my nurse told me I had scared the living daylights out of everyone. But the real blow came when I thought the hard part was behind me. My surgeon informed me that the antibiotic hadn’t really “killed” the staph. The staph had colonized right above my heart and for the rest of my life my immune system would engage in a freakish dance with the bacteria, maintaining a delicate balance of health in my body. But we could do absolutely nothing to disrupt that balance. It meant he wouldn’t reopen the wound. It meant that I couldn’t try expanders again. That ship had sailed. I had done my research beforehand, so I knew my only other options for reconstruction involved cutting muscles in my belly or my back, both of which seemed utterly barbaric. I was devastated.

I thought about the day 14 months later when I finally went in for the LD-Flap, and the ambivalence I felt. I didn’t want the surgery. I was dreading it. But I didn’t want to continue living as I had for the past year, either. The two times I attempted clothes shopping had ended with me crying in the fitting room because nothing fit right. I had an abrasion, a permanent bruise really, from the seatbelt in my car constantly rubbing across my sternum. I had to wear a T-shirt over my swimsuit to go to the pool with my girls because my suit gaped in a shocking fashion. And one time my little one, two years old at the time, walked in on me as I dressed after a shower. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of my scarred chest and she said, “Oh, Mommy. How did that happen?” I had no answer. All I could think is, “How, indeed?”

I thought about waking up in the operating room, with everyone frantically running around, hearing words like “pooling blood” and “venous congestion.” I heard the anesthesiologist ask, “Should I re-intubate her?” as I was jerked around and bandages were ripped off. I grabbed the hand of the O.R. nurse and asked what was wrong. I remember his classic deer-in-the-headlights look as he realized I was awake and talking when they weren’t finished yet.

I thought about that first night in the hospital. The pain was tremendous, and something I learned much later is that I metabolize drugs extremely quickly. This is why with five surgeries requiring general anesthesia, I woke up clear-headed and completely aware while still in the O.R. three times. This hyper-metabolism impacts the way my body responds to narcotic pain meds. So, although I had dilaudid in a pain pump, it was having virtually no effect. My nurse that night was a heavily-muscled, dark-skinned, bald-headed man named Kendall, who looked more like a bouncer than a nurse. He didn’t smile at me one time. But he was God’s angel to me that night. He knew pain and he knew I wasn’t faking it. He gave me six “rescue doses” during the night while he tracked down a physician who would change my orders, ultimately doubling the amount of dilaudid in each dose. When I got that first doubled dose, I felt the blessed, merciful effects as the medicine hit my bloodstream. I smiled at Kendall and said, “It’s finally working.” He told me he’d given me enough medicine to knock a man twice my size flat. He said that people receiving a normal dose of dilaudid hallucinate and try to climb out the window – yet, I wasn’t even slurring my words. All I could do was thank him for advocating for me, then thank God for giving me the bouncer-nurse instead of some shrinking violet who wouldn’t have fought for what I needed.

I thought about coming home, and how I cried multiple times every day for two weeks. I think my husband actually began to worry that I was having some kind of breakdown. The sanitized literature they gave me describing the surgery said, “Most mastectomy patients find deep emotional satisfaction from their reconstruction.” But I felt one emotion and one emotion only ~ regret. The pain was out of this world; I couldn’t lift my arms over my head; I had to sleep propped up; I couldn’t dress myself; I couldn’t wash my hair. I absolutely hated how everything looked. I thought I might never feel like my joyful, even-keeled self again.

But last night I wasn’t crying over any of these things. It took three more surgeries but I did achieve results I can live with. And all these events, difficult though they were, were simply moments in time and they have passed. It’s over. They’re just distant memories. No, my tears were caused by something real that still lives in my heart. It’s like an echo. It’s like a scarred-over wound that still occasionally feels tender and gives pain. It’s like tracks through new-fallen snow – the landscape is marred; it will never be the same. As a Christ-follower, I have had some very well meaning Christians tell me, “Give it all to Jesus. Just lay it at His feet.” But I don’t know how to do this. Seriously, how do I unburden myself when my very being is inextricably tangled up in the whole mess? I don’t know how to give it away. So instead, I seek to trust Him. I look to Him and His Word for strength. I strive to live in my joy. And I keep my perspective.

You see, I could fill an entire page (maybe the back, too) with problems and challenges I still face because of my cancer. Yet, put on a great balance, all these things will never outweigh what is on the other side of the scale. I am alive. Sometimes my days flow easily. And sometimes I struggle to live the life I want to live, to be the mom, wife and friend I think I should be. Some days it’s hard to joyfully face life with these echoes reverberating, sometimes manifesting as physical pain. But each and every day, I am thankful for the opportunity to try.

The Plague

simplicityI’ve been avoiding this blog like the title. But I shouldn’t have been. Since school let out for the summer, we’ve had a lot of unstructured, relaxing, recovering from the stress kind of time. And so I haven’t written because I haven’t “done” anything interesting. I’ve been sorting, sifting, throwing – how boring is that?

Foregoing the writing, however, is a mistake. I think back to the reasons I started writing this blog. The main reason wasn’t so I could “wow” any of my readers. It was so I could have a place to journal my thoughts and feelings as I strive to achieve a life that is more simple and satisfying. So today I’m simply recording some self-analysis.

  • Every day I’m faced with dozens of choices about how to spend my time. If I don’t accomplish what I want to, it’s because of the choices I make.
  • My action item list changes the way I spend my day. Even if it feels silly to write “laundry” on the list each day, writing it actually helps it get done.
  • I’ve perfected the art of avoidance. I can avoid a project I don’t want to do for days – by doing other “good” things that “need to get done.”

Which brings me back to the first thing – every day I’m faced with dozens of choices. Even when I’m faced with challenges (like headache pain which I’ve been struggling with for about 12 weeks) – still I can choose to do something every day which brings me closer to my goals. And so I choose to:

  • keep up my action item list
  • keep eating for my health and getting daily physical exercise
  • start putting my hands on an unwanted, despised project every day – even if it’s only for ten minutes.

And so, dear reader, I start in the right direction yet again. As long as I don’t quit, I won’t fail.

To Sort or Not To Sort

I always say that I’m unstructured. But over the last week I’ve realized this isn’t an entirely true statement. I don’t do well creating structure, but I like to have routine. Last Thursday, my older daughter finished school for the summer and with the lack of an imposed schedule I’ve been drifting.

So, today I got up at 6:15 like I do during the school year. I accomplished so much by 8:00 that I was amazed. I need to become more disciplined about structuring my day because it makes a huge difference. I guess I should say that I’m not internally structured but I thrive with structure around me.

Today’s post is super short. But I’m encouraged that I’m writing anything at all. I’m also encouraged by the things I seem to have mastered – my table stays cleared off, my dishes stay done, and I’m getting exercise several times a week. I also got my garden planted – something that’s been on my wish list for well over a year. My tomatoes and red peppers are blooming, everything else has new growth, and my herbs are thriving outside. It’s a small garden, but it’s a start and it’s given me a true sense of accomplishment to scratch “plant a garden” off my list. Unfortunately, I’m also discouraged by the huge projects still looming before me which will require lots of sorting (my least favorite thing) ~ this is mostly closets and toys. I don’t feel up to the task which is a mental hurdle I need to get over. So I’ll keep writing and rewriting my action items. Maybe the 800th time I write “sort through toys,” I’ll actually do it. The key with this, as with everything in life, is to keep going. Quitting can’t be an option.

Day 108 ~ A Sticker Chart

I have totally fallen off the wagon. It’s not that I have an addiction and I’m suddenly back at it. It’s that I have a terrible habit, and if I’m not consciously fighting it, I slip back into it and am firmly entrenched before I even recognize it. That habit is flying by the seat of my pants.

simplicity

maybe this isn't the wagon they mean...

I have dutifully been carrying my life-changing notebook with me everywhere. Yet, yesterday when I went to make an action item list, I realized the last notation I had made was on March 31. Are you kidding me? I actually went 3+ weeks without writing anything down and it never once occurred to me, “Wow – I should be updating my action item list.” Yesterday was obviously my day to come back to reality, because when I went to do my “daily” hard-surface clean in the bathrooms, the spots on the mirror told the sad story that this little job certainly hasn’t been done in … well, we’ll just say it hasn’t been daily at all. Yesterday was a catch-up day for laundry, too, because I’ve missed that train as well.

What happened, you may ask. Well, that last week of March we went on vacation and I apparently never came back. Now, it hasn’t totally been wasted time. I’ve been focusing on spiritual things, reading “Flunking Sainthood” and “The Only Necessary Thing,” a compilation of writings of Henri Nouwen. I’ve been practicing Centering Prayer and meditating on God’s Word. I guess you could say I’ve been cleaning up internal clutter. But good grief. I’ve dropped the ball with my home. (The blessed and beautiful thing here is that I can pick it back up). It’s not like I’ve lost all the progress that has been made – I haven’t, and it will only take a couple of days to get back on track. But I’ve learned something about myself. I’m no different than my children – if I’m not constantly reminded, oh, how quickly I forget. And the only person to remind me is, well – me. Maybe I need a sticker chart.

Day 103 ~ Lost Identity

simple livingYesterday I spent the morning with a mentor, and she taught me the finer points of truffle making. I learned why and how we temper chocolate, and how to make wonderfully flavored ganache. We had two white chocolate ganaches – one with jalapeƱo jelly and one with orange and ginger. Then we “enrobed” the ganache in the tempered chocolate. Afterward, because I was without my kids, I took a sandwich and a book to Standley Lake (a local reservoir) and sat on a bench on a high hill overlooking the water. I ate, and read, and enjoyed myself. Then, since my little one was with her daddy, I picked up my older child (she’ll be fourteen in a couple of weeks) and we sat outdoors at Starbucks drinking coffee and chatting like old friends. I’m very blessed in the fact that my teen-aged daughter likes to spend time with me.

Why do I tell you all this, you may ask? I almost always live my life for someone else. I rarely do exactly what I want to do, and it was such a refreshing experience to do just that. I usually put someone else’s needs before my own, and I assume this is true for others as well. I know it’s true for moms in general – we always eat the burnt piece of toast, let our kiddo pick the movie, go to McDonald’s when what we really want is a sit down restaurant with real food where someone actually waits on us. For homeschooling moms it’s an even bigger issue because we’re almost never alone. Throw my personality into the mix, with a love language of Acts of Service (if you don’t know about the 5 Love Languages – check here), and I end up showing love to my family by completely ignoring my own wants and needs. I’ve done this for so long that I don’t even know what I really want anymore. And this is how I’ve lost myself in being a mother.

I have friends who always wanted to be a wife and mother. That was their dream – their passion. And so when they became a wife and mother, they felt immensely satisfied. This was not true for me. In fact, as a young adult, I thought I’d possibly never get married, and certainly not before I was 30. But then I met my dear husband, and it was so obvious that we were meant to walk through life together that I said “I Will” and never looked back. I have two beautiful daughters whom I love with everything in me, and I wouldn’t trade my life with anybody for any reason. However… there’s still this identity I seem to have lost, and in my 40’s I’m still searching for who I really am. I know there are other mothers out there who relate, because I see them. You know who I’m talking about. You see that mom walking through the parking lot with a couple of gorgeous children. Your eye is drawn to them because they’re such cute kiddos. Then you look at mom. She’s got two inches of roots grown out from her last hair color or perm. Her shirt has a big stain on it. There are shadows under her eyes. And you just know that she’s set her own life aside to care for her family.

As I search for true missional living, I know it involves finding those things I’m passionate about and doing them … well… passionately. I feel this way about being my husband’s wife. I feel this way about my daughters. I absolutely do NOT feel this way about being a housewife, or home manager, or domestic diva – it really doesn’t matter what you call it. I could name it Queen of All Things, and still I wouldn’t love it. But I know I can find pockets of true satisfaction within the life I’ve chosen, I simply need to act, not just talk about it. I need to spend more time in the kitchen, where I’m really, truly happy. I need to be more creative. I used to sew, for heaven’s sake – one of my first blog posts was about how I. Used. To. Sew. And I think I need more Mommy-Girl time with my children. I need to just carve it out every couple of weeks, because it was incredibly satisfying to connect with my child with absolutely nothing else demanding my attention.

And so I search. I pray. I listen. And I continue striving to live an authentic life where I don’t always present a perfect picture and I honestly try to share my journey. A couple of my readers have commented that sharing my life could be part of my mission. Maybe so. This is why I continue the work of removing internal clutter. I love my family, I give to my friends, I analyze myself and I write this journal. As I do, I am confident I will find more and more things I’m truly passionate about, a bit like panning for gold. I have to shake out all the detritus and remove all the pebbles, but every once in a while during the work I discover a little nugget. And so I look for those pockets of joy and I wait for those nuggets of gold, and in the process I find my way.

Day 96 ~ Dispassionate Homemaking

I truly love spring. I love the newness of life. And I love lilacs, which I’ve brought into the house, along with their delicious fragrance. As an aside, some people don’t realize that because of their woody nature, you have to pound the cut end of the lilac branch with a hammer, splitting the wood and creating more surface area for the branch to draw water. Otherwise, these beauties will wilt within a few hours.

simplicity

Lilacs from the garden

Today has been a “day in the life.” Nothing spectacular has happened. We put grass seed on bare patches in our front yard (and by we I mean my husband). Normal household chores are being done. And I am facing projects that involve sorting – sorting and organizing, my least favorite things to do. I wish I could be passionate about homemaking. It would make my whole life happier, because that’s what I find myself spending the most time on. My problem is that I don’t feel passionate about these things I do. I feel that my whole existence requires me to operate in my area of greatest weakness and so I’m constantly falling short. (If this sounds like a familiar theme – it is. I continue to struggle with this same issue).

There is a blog written by a young woman called -of all things – Passionate Homemaking. She has hundreds, maybe thousands of readers, so she clearly resonates with people. But when I read her stuff, I find myself feeling like we are living in two absolutely different spheres. I can’t even try to run my home like she does. I wish I could – she says she’s loving simple, natural, intentional living. Who wouldn’t want that? I am a dispassionate homemaker (I guess). Of course, I have to run my home, I just don’t have it in me to be Martha Stewart. I suppose it’s not my mission. The question I have about missional living is this: how do you find your mission when you feel like you’ve been sidetracked and you’re not even sure exactly what you’re looking for?

Fleshing out this question this week, I’ve been reading “Flunking Sainthood” by Jana Riess. This is more my speed (compared to the aforementioned blog) because this woman is far from perfect. Each month she attempts a different spiritual practice, and in falling far short of her goals, learns some valuable life lessons. During one month in a chapter she calls, “Meeting Jesus in the Kitchen … or Not,” she studies Brother Lawrence (some monk from days gone by who did all of his monkly work in the kitchen) and works on mindfulness – being fully present in what she’s doing and thereby finding her creator in those daily tasks. Brother Lawrence was never made a saint by the Catholic church, and the author at one point says, “It suddenly strikes me why I’m so sensitive about Brother Lawrence’s lack of official saintly creds: He’s an underappreciated housewife, the one everyone takes for granted. He’s … a bit like me, and like a whole lot of people I know.” This is a work in process for me – finding my creator in tasks I despise. I simply have to say to myself – I work so hard, and I’m making change, and it’s possible the only one who sees it at all is God. And that must be enough.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m doing it for me, too. I’m doing for my family. And I’m hoping along the way that I trip over my mission in all the clutter.