The Burning Bush

Monday, September 28, 2009

For a time during my battle with breast cancer, I felt like God had forgotten me. I saw my future laid out before me – unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy – and could not imagine that this was His plan for me. “Really?” I wanted to say; “Really? This is the plan?”

Personally, I think of God the way you think of a parent; I imagine Him making some decisions for me, and letting me make the rest. Watching with a benevolent eye and hating to see me screw up, but understanding that sometimes, I need to in order to learn a hard lesson. It’s hard to watch someone you love fall down, but sometimes you have to stand back so they can learn how to pick themselves up. The hardest part of being the parent, I imagine, is making your kid do something they don’t want to do, because you know it’ll be good for them. I can’t count the number of times my own father forced me to buckle down on my schoolwork, and truth be told, it took me 15 years to see that all the good times I had in college were the direct result of both of us working together to make that future possible for me. If I wasn’t blessed with a diligent dad and faith in his plan for me, I might have walked a different path in life.

Faith is so hard to have, especially in things you can’t see, hear, or touch. I mean, Moses at least had a burning bush! All I have is the feeling when I walk into the building I work in – that I’m in the right place – and two pieces of Scripture: Jeremiah 29:11 and Job 8:21, to reassure me that the future ahead of me is worth living for. So often, I feel like I’m blindfolded, walking by faith, not by sight. It’s terrifying to love a job that can’t pay your bills, to wake up every morning not knowing if something is growing inside your body that could kill you. But what else can you do if you want to maintain your sanity? You tell yourself, “God knows the plans He has for me; plans to prosper me and not to harm me. Plans for a hope and a future.” You say, “He will yet fill my mouth with laughter, and my lips with shouts of joy.” You remind yourself of other times in your life when you thought disaster was imminent, and you survived. You survived. You take comfort in knowing that you can’t take anything with you when you leave this earth – not your riches, not your debt. We come in with nothing and we leave with nothing, and no one knows when their number will be up. Not even people with millions of dollars or perfect health. All we can do is be thankful for each day, and the blessings in it. Wake up each morning and be glad for one more day – one more chance to breathe and live and love.

What gives me faith is not only gratitude for the blessings in my life, but giving God credit for those blessings. I keep a journal, and every evening before bed, I fill a page with things I’m thankful for – a light that stayed green long enough for me to get through it, a penny I found on the street, a kid who made me laugh at work. Little things, big things, it doesn’t matter – the important part is giving God credit by thanking Him for bringing them into my life. The distinction is important because it helps strengthen my belief in a benevolent, caring Creator who watches out for me. It’s hard to hate or fault someone you’ve been thanking night after night for all the good things in your life. I’ve found that, after months of keeping this very specific kind of gratitude journal, I’m more likely to ask God for strength to get through something than ask Him why it’s happening, or be angry with Him for bringing it into my life. Since I started crediting God with all the good things in my life, I trust Him more, and question Him less. You may say it’s just a psychological trick or religious hoo-doo voodoo, but if it gives me peace of mind, does it matter?

Yesterday, I sat in a sunlit meadow after hiking 11.5 miles with two of my best friends, catching up with the first boy I ever slow-danced with, who just happened to run into us on the trail. We were eating a delicious lunch and listening to great music, and I suddenly teared up, counting my blessings. How many survivors, three months after chemo, could hike Mt. Tamalpais, and enjoy the company of two friends (one who came all the way from Catalina Island!) who raised nearly $800 to hike with them? Who else but the Creator of the Universe could negotiate such a logistical miracle? To ensure that we all came to the right place, at the right time, in the right frame of mind, so that all our needs could be met in one sunlit moment? Breathing the sweet air of the Marin Headlands, all I could think was, He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy. It wasn’t a burning bush, but that moment, I knew that God counted me, that He has a plan for me, and that it IS a plan to prosper, and not to harm me.

It is the hardest thing, especially for us Type As, to entrust our future to something intangible, unprovable. It is the biggest gamble, to believe in a Higher Power that is greater than ourselves, and the scariest part is the possibility that His plan might be different than our plan. What helps me is reminding myself that I don’t know everything, and cataloging those moments when things work out so beautifully that no amount of human planning could have produced the same result. That, to me, is proof of Divinity, and its role in my own journey.

Recovery and The Pre-Disease State

Friday, September 18, 2009

I’ve been thinking lately about the word recovery. In medical terminology, recovery is “a return to the pre-disease state.” A return to the pre-disease state.

We have, in our culture, an erroneous idea that we can somehow avoid change. That, should disaster strike, we can rebuild, take medicine, start over, and miraculously return to our previous (“pre-disease”) state. But we can’t, can we? We can’t ever return to the pre-disease, pre-divorce, pre-disaster state. The truth is, we can’t ever get back what we’ve lost, and that is what breaks our hearts in the aftermath of a tragedy.

I did the Avon 2-Day Walk this weekend (I’m still fundraising, if you’d like to donate) – the first event in my 40-by-40 series – and I guess I thought that completing it would represent my “return to normal life,” the first step on the road to being my old, active self again. I thought, if I do the things I used to do, I will get back to being the me I used to be. Before we even started to walk, though, I felt like a Vietnam vet at a Peace March. And for two days, everyone around me was walking to support or remember someone who had gone through what I went through, but I felt utterly disconnected from all of them. Only the survivors who cheered from the sidelines reached me – the women without eyelashes wearing baseball caps. Walking past them, I wondered if this is what concentration camp survivors felt like post-World War II, if they saw other skinny people with short hair, if they reacted to wrist tattoos the way I react to port scars, their heart sinking in the knowledge that their pain is not a solitary one.* On the walk, I would see a woman on the route, sometimes with her friends and family, sometimes alone, and think, I’ve been there. Every time I recognized someone clearly still in chemo, I would leave the walk to hug her hard and say, it comes back; it all comes back.

What I realize now is, I was wrong. It doesn’t come back. Your hair regrows and your scars heal, but you will never, ever get to be the you you were again, after cancer. The idea that you can take medicine and be the person you were before is a terrible illusion, one we maintain for the sole purpose of just getting through it. That is the tragedy of surviving something – you come out the other side of it different, unable to return to the life you had before.

The Hero’s Journey is the story of all survivors. It doesn’t ring true unless the Hero is changed by his experience. What happens, though, when the you that you are after cancer is not a person you ever wanted to be? I remember being in an ACS office earlier this year, staring at a poster for the Relay for Life, when someone said, “You can walk in the Survivor lap.” She meant it as a compliment, I’m sure, as an affirmation of my victory against a potentially terminal illness, but I started to cry, thinking, I never wanted to be in that lap. I wanted to be the one walking in support of the people in that lap, but I never wanted to be in that lap.

Women like my sister, who never imagined themselves as divorcees, fumble in their newfound singledom. My Aunt Audrey, who survived Katrina, sounded detached and confused when I talked to her after the storm, saying, “They said we would only be away a day, two at the most, and when we went back to the house, there was nothing left but a wall and the front porch. All my jewelry was in my bathroom drawer, and I don’t even know where that is anymore.” We tell divorced women to start dating and hurricane victims to rebuild and cancer survivors to wear pink ribbons, and it all feeds into this idea that we can somehow get back what we’ve lost, but the truth is, WE are the Orpheus in the story, NOT the Eurydice. We think that we can go into Hell and bring our old selves back with us to Earth, but we can’t. Try to look back, and we lose her forever.

In the opening remarks of the Walk, the announcer said that every three minutes, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Moments later, she said that there are two million survivors in the U.S. alone. I thought, Jesus, that’s not very many. Dr. Bernie Siegel, in his books, talks about cancer being a manifestation of unrealized potential. The idea is that, if you deny your sense of purpose, your true path in life, all that energy manifests in your body as cancer cells that refuse to die. Cancer gives many people a new start: an excuse to be the person they never gave themselves permission to be. For others, though, the fallout is unsettling, disorienting, and discouraging. All they want, despite their very existence being threatened, is to go back to the way they used to be. When they realize they can’t, they have one of two choices: build a new life, with a new future, or give up. To be or not to be, Hamlet said. I wonder, though: who is the coward – the one who sleeps, or the one who chooses not to?

My grandfather said to me once, regarding his bypass surgery, “I sometimes wonder if it was worth it.” He struggled in his last months with horrible edema in his legs, which got so bad he couldn’t walk or drive a car. This man, who was the captain of a Navy ship, could not even go to the bathroom by himself. Realizing he could never be what he was before, that his future could never be the future the old him saw for himself, he took his own life. I often wonder if my mother felt the same disillusionment; if her suicide was the result of her life ending up in a corner she could not see how to paint herself out of. She was 39, divorced, without custody of her children, unemployed and mourning the loss of her own mother, with two failed careers behind her. To justify her decision, I tell myself that she was simply incapable of imagining her recovery from what must have been the hardest year of her life. Many women can’t, after disaster. They simply cannot see how life can get better, cannot summon the strength for another climb up the ladder. I have been there myself. Perhaps what has saved me is the other half of my genepool – my father, who was such a wonderful example of resilience. Twice divorced, laid off at 53 from a company he had worked with 24 years, he died from an enlarged heart the weekend before he was to open his first small business, six months before his first child graduated from a 4-year college. He died because his heart was too big. This was the same man who always told me, “Look 20 miles ahead,” perhaps to remind me that the solution to one’s problems may be far away, but if you can at least imagine it, you can get there one step at a time.

I play a game on my iPhone sometimes called BPop. There are five levels, each with the potential for scoring 10,000 points. I have gotten such a high score on it (29,000) that now, if I do not get 7,000 points by the first level, I reset the game and start over. Why play through four more levels if I cannot beat my highest score? Some people see a reset as a step backwards – a starting over at square one – and some see it as a second chance, to best your highest score. Your resilience after tragedy depends on your perspective, always.

This is what post-cancer looks like: resetting. Resetting everything. Building a ladder and climbing it one step at a time. You make lists of things to get through, things to check off, and those things are your rungs. Each time you reach a hiccup (an unforeseen infection, a claim rejection from your insurance), you start over, but you keep climbing. Two steps forward, two steps back (sometimes three steps back!). The progress from diagnosis to remission is mind-numbingly slow, and sometimes all you can do is count the days that pass, the days that mark the distance between treatment and non-treatment. You cannot say “between illness and health,” because you never feel healthy when you have had cancer. You are always acutely aware that it is something that can come back, despite your efforts, but the necessity of feeling safe in the world forces you to at least note the distance between the meat of your illness and this post-illness state where you are at least not being treated for it. As the distance increases, so does your security. At moments, you can even forget, during this post-treatment life, that you were ever sick. Time inevitably marches on, and I tell myself, I will have a day in my future when I do not have a doctor’s appointment next week, when I am not taking a pill to treat something that threatens my life. Perhaps on that day, I will feel, not like my old self, but like a person who has reached the other side of some deep lake I had to swim across.

Will I ever recover? I ask myself. No, I realize, but I can survive, as someone else. I can swim for the other side, where a new me awaits.

The Big Bang

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A few days before I left Kaua’i to move back to California, I went to Borders to pick out a journal. It was going to be my “new chapter” journal – the one that I would start when I closed the book on what was probably the hardest 9 months of my life. The one in which I would write a new story, with a happier ending.

At the time, I was hanging on by a thread. I was in one of those places where you feel like God has forgotten about you. Not in a mean way; more like He’s been really busy with getting Obama into the White House and keeping Palestinians from fighting with Israelis and making sure one less human rights activist is being arrested in Myanmar (in considering time-space arguments that explain how Santa is able to get into billions of chimneys in a single night, I often think that God’s ability to evaluate a trillion prayers a day, and still have time tolisten to mine, must have something to do with an as-yet undefined unified field theory). In any case, when I walked into Borders, I said a tiny prayer that He would help me fine a journal that would, perhaps with its cover or pages or binding, give me a sense of hope about the year ahead of me, which I so desperately needed to be better than the year behind me.

As I walked towards the giant wall of journals, I immediately spotted a pale pink/peachy-colored one, nearly in the center of the wall, covered in iridescent butterflies. For numerous reasons that I will have to explain in a future journal entry, butterflies have been a kind of lietmotif running throughout my life, and as I closed in on the journal, I relaxed just a teeny bit. On its cover was a quote from the Bible, a quote I had read just a few days earlier in a card from a Christian friend and 3-time breast cancer survivor: “For I know the PLANS I have for YOU (Jeremiah 29:11).” And wouldn’t you know, I nearly burst into tears right there in Borders. I took the journal off the shelf, my hands (yes) shaking a little, and opened it, only to find another quote inside from the Book of Job: “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy.” How does He do it? I wondered. How does God hear you, and let you know He hears you, when you need it most, despite all the other things on His plate? Perhaps Stephen Hawking, a man who shares my birthday, knows.

In any case, tonight, as I open the journal to write in it, the quote at the top of today’s page makes me smile. It is (of course) from theoretical physicist Edward Teller, and is another one of my favorites: “When you come to the end of all the light you know, and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or your will be taught to fly.” The quote is particularly appropriate, considering I just registered for my first 40-by-40 event: the Avon 2-Day Walk in Los Angeles September 12-13. Which means, I have about 33 days to raise $1800 and be able to walk 40 miles in 48 hours. This is the part that feels like the top of the roller coaster.

All yesterday, I kep thinking, “Oh my God…. Oh my God….” It’s starting. My 40-by-40. My next five years. My journey to survivorship. Considering this, the first chapter in Part II of my story, I can’t help but hear the faint crack of a starting gun, somewhere in an alternate universe where I am becoming everything I want to be.

Missing My Father

Friday, July 3, 2009

Reading an excerpt from Bliss Broyard’s book, One Drop, I suddenly tear up. The book is about her father, literary critic Anatole Broyard, who, on his deathbed, confessed his greatest secret: he was part black. My own father was Filipino, and reading about Anatole watching Bliss’ brother run a 5K, I suddenly felt sad, wishing he was still here with me.

In the book excerpt, Bliss says that her father once wrote, of the “critically ill, ‘it may not be dying we fear so much, but the diminished self.’ He reasoned that by developing a style for their illness, a stance that incorporated it into the ongoing narrative of their lives, sick people could ‘go on being themselves, perhaps even more so than before.’

Is that what I am trying to do, by repeating a challenge I met five years ago? Recapture a me I used to be, that, it feels like, cancer has tried to “diminish”? Perhaps… perhaps my 40-by-40 is a kind of reincarnation, this effort, this journey I am embarking on. I am also willing to explore the idea that it may be this exact effort that heals my illness, moreso even than the drugs I’ve been given. Medicine comes in all forms.

My father was a runner. He ran every day, rain or shine, and when I was 12 and got a D in Pre-Algebra, he sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “Do you want to work at McDonald’s?” I shook my head, holding back tears (oh! the wrath of a disappointed father!). “I mean,” he said, “I don’t mind you working at McDonald’s; it’s an honest job, but at 18, you are out of my house, and it’s hard to pay the rent on minimum wage.” I told him I didn’t want to work at McDonald’s. “Okay then. Go upstairs and get your sneakers on. You’re coming running with me.” I was suddenly confused. “What?” He stood up, looking down at me. “You need some discipline, so you are coming running with me until these grades get back up.”

At 12, you are still in that vague area of adolescence where you do what your parents say. At least, that’s the way it was when I was 12. In the 80s. So I put on my sneakers, and I ran with my dad. Every day, rain or shine, until I was 16 and, of course, occupied with Drama Club and Track and various other afterschool distractions. I never ran with my father again, sadly. I Rollerbladed with him once, but his pace was much, much faster by the time I was in college, so I always ran on my own after that. Later, he took up cycling, but he died of runner’s heart, ironically, when I was 21 and about to graduate. I think now, he would have gotten into triathlons eventually (he was a swimmer in the Army), and probably surprised himself.

It’s not the present that I think we miss when we lose someone we love, but the future – the future they were supposed to be a part of. I miss my father most, not when I look at old pictures, but when I think of something I wish he could be there to see: my first solo marathon, my wedding, my first child. I’ll miss him at every one of my 40 finish lines, I know, because without him, I think, I would not even be a runner.

My favorite quote from the excerpt? “[A] person’s identity [is] an act of will and style.” I totally agree. 🙂

 

My 40-By-40 List

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cancer, like any threat to one’s survival, can really mind-screw you. When you’re diagnosed, you might find yourself thinking that life after treatment will never be as sweet as it could be, or that there will be things in your life that are suddenly unreachable or unimaginable, just because you’ve had cancer.

I’m here to tell you, that is simply not true.

When I was 27 years old, I did my first triathlon and first marathon in the same year. All my friends were turning 30, bemoaning the end of their 20s, and, what they thought, were the “best years” of their lives. Looking ahead to my own 30th birthday, I decided I wasn’t going to hit 30 like that. I decided to do 28 more athletic events over the next two years, committing to “30-by-30”. I finished 7 triathlons, 3 bike rides, numerous 5Ks and 10Ks, and 3 Providian Relays. My 30th birthday ROCKED, because I was celebrating life every minute up to it!

One of the the lowest points in my battle with cancer was when I Googled “5-year Survival Rates for Stage 3 Breast Cancer.” The number came back: 67%. I have a 67% chance of being alive by my 40th birthday, I thought to myself.

With one number, cancer tried to take my hope for the future away. With another, I’m trying to take it back. That number? 40. How many women do you know who are looking forward to their 40th birthday? Count me among them.

For most breast cancer survivors, if you can make it to the 5-year survival mark, your long-term survival odds increase significantly. So I’m going to make these next 5 years count with another goal: 40-by-40. Part “bucket list,” part personal challenge (and, part Fear Factor), my 40-by-40 is a celebration of who I am, what drives me, and what I have to live for.

I’m not going to let cancer take away my hope for the future.

Are you with me?

Here’s the list:

1. Do a Susan G. Komen Walk
2. Do an Avon Walk
3. Do the Mt. Tam Peak Hike
4. Run the NYC Marathon
5. Do the Napa Tri with Kristy Seltzer
6. Do an Olympic triathlon with Misha McPherson
7. Run the Disney Princess Half Marathon at WDW
8. Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro
9. Innertube the Russian River
10. Take a Road Trip across the USA
11. Go Skydiving with Ian Fuller
12. See an Oprah show with Loren Madden
13. Go on a Chocolate Tour of Paris with Anne Barrow
14. Go to Graceland on my birthday (I have Elvis’ birthday)
15. Swim with my friend Ian’s dolphins (he is a dolphin trainer)
16. Go to an Oktoberfest Celebration
17. Bring my goddaughter out to where I live for a visit
18. Learn how to figure skate
19. Kayak a river with First Descents
20. Go to a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater
21. Build a Rube Goldberg machine
22. Rock-climb in Moab, Utah
23. Visit 20 breweries in Colorado
24. Ski in Vail with my sister
25. Live in Boulder, Colorado
26. Have a job where I can ride my bike to work
27. Have my own place again
28. Go all out for Halloween
29. Sell my house in Kaua’i
30. Go back to Kaua’i to empty out my storage unit
31. Perfect my chocolate chip cookie recipe
32. Reconnect with Katie Birkholz
33. Play on a community sports team
34. Host a monthly movie night with a theme
35. Have an amazing 40th birthday party
36. Make it to 5 years cancer-free
37. Go to Tamika Felder’s wedding
38. Speak at a survivor conference
39. Get a great job with awesome benefits
40. Write & publish a book