Follow-up (FU) appointments at my oncologist’s office are horrible. It seems fitting that FU stands for both “follow-up,” and “fuck you.” I’m not going to haul my ass all the way to the oncologist just to be told don’t have cancer! Or, I’m not going to haul my ass to that office just to be told I DO have cancer again.
Okay, can you tell it all gets me a little angry? A little anxious? It’s horrible.
Maybe I’m a little grateful for having an esteemed hematologist heading up my team. I suppose having access to blood tests, PET scans, and invasive exams is a good thing. That nurse from Barbados, Nadine, is kind. Her eyes carry joy and peace, and her aged skin is the most inviting, beautiful color I have ever seen.
And the receptionist, Karen, who’s been there forever, she always asks how my brood is behaving. Always shocked when I tell her we had another one, because they said I couldn’t make babies anymore. She genuinely cares about my heart.
Before Nadine called me back to the exam room on that fateful day five years ago, Karen and I spent a few minutes chatting about motherhood. My first baby, Lucy, was only five weeks old and I beamed as I flipped through the photos of my newborn on my phone. Karen was the first one to see my tears as I walked out into the reception area after the gut punch of a positive PET scan and diagnosis; thank God she hugged me. I regretted telling people I didn’t need them to attend the appointment with me, because cancer wasn’t in my cards again. There was nobody there to touch me, to help absorb some of that energy, to help. I can still see her gentle, teary nod.
In the months that followed many people cried many sad, angry tears with me.
She JUST had a baby, God!? FUCK YOU!
She’s only twenty-three?! Cancer, again?! FUCK YOU!
She needs a bone marrow transplant?! FUCK YOU!
Today as I walked out of my appointment, CANCER FREE, a middle-aged woman with long blonde hair wept by her car. Earlier, while in line to schedule my yearly FU appointment, I overheard her scheduling a port installation and first chemo treatment, which means she was recently diagnosed. Lord, I pray peace for this woman.Please hold her tightly on her drive home. Her blue SUV sat right next to my gray SUV in the hot parking lot.
“Can I hug you?” I asked, car keys in hand. She was alone and needed someone to absorb some of that energy. Someone to help and hold her. She walked right into my big open arms and we cried. I asked how she felt, what type of cancer had just ruined her life as she knew it, and if she needed anything. She had many questions for me, and in the course of our conversation I got to say, “Cancer is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
So “Fool for Love” by Lord Huron starts playing. Immediately I’m taken back to the sandy-toed drives of my youth, up and down PCH (the Pacific Coast Highway) and through Malibu Canyon and Hidden Valley. Drives with windows down and hair blowing and best friends laughing and sisters holding hands and citrus and sea salt in the air. Music blasting at volumes that would hurt the ears of babies I tow around now. It was perfect. Back then, and right now—in this moment—it’s perfection still.
I catch myself thinking, “Man, those were the dayssss” while staring out the tiny old side door into the side yard, where three littles blitz by. It stings, not existing there, as that Claire, in that place. It stings that my life isn’t that life anymore, that I’m not sixteen anymore, that my best friend isn’t my best friend anymore. That I drive a Honda Pilot instead of that Honda Element, so perfect for wet dogs and wet suits.
…I drift into the great unknown, but I really don’t know where I’m goin’…
At my huge, cracked, soil-stained feet an infant paddles around on the floor. The blanket she’s on was stitched with love by the grandma of a dear dear friend (sister, really). The little lilac shoots coming up outside the door are from my mother-in-law’s garden, she and dad dug them up for us and now they find new life in our side yard with perfectly filtered light #legacy.
…I stare into the endless sky…
Earlier we planted half of the veggies and herbs and pollinating plants in the southwestern corner of the back yard, where the close Colorado sun makes out with my soil ALL DAY LONG. Get a room guys. We were joined by another dear friend, and the same sun gently kissed the shoulders of all our kiddos while we swung under apple trees and sipped on Nespresso and dug and squirmed at the sight of giant earthworms.
…just tell me when you’ve had enough, I’m dangerous cuz I’m a fool for love…”
All the open windows beg the breeze through, bringing me back to here. To now.
Lord Huron’s still singing my jam, the jam of windows down and hair blowing. The jam of sweet scents and good family/friends. And then I think, “Man, these are the dayssss.” I spent the first half of the song escaping to a reality and scene that I thought meant more than the scene in front of me. I missed listening to good music in my car on PCH, instead of enjoying listening to the good music in the haven, the home, I have now. Right here.
What about those wonderful monsters who all blasted past the view out the side door? The MIRACLES?! What about the fourth little miracle at my feet? What about my feet?! Thanks God, for feet! Thanks for pedicures, too. And the soil, the fertile, ripe, ready soil? Soil harboring a world of roots, worms, water, and LIFE—yes, thanks for that, too. Thank You for a life that gets to harbor the love and company and laughter of good friends with good kids. Thanks for work to keep my hands busy so I don’t escape too deeply into the abyss of my brain bits. The lilac!? The in-laws, who love me as their own. The blanket and the hands that love my children and me enough to make it (thanks Grandma Hoksbergen, for the blanket and for your grand daughter). The Sun, so close and warm.
It’d be a lie if I let you believe that every day is good around here lately. In fact, the past two weeks have brought deep sadness, head-hanging sadness. Sadness over more loss of self (when Lord, will I have died enough?) Sadness at suspended purpose. Sadness at being tethered to a home I deeply love, but also deeply need TO GET THE HELL OUT OF SOMETIMES. Sadness laced with pride at the saggy body staring me in the mirror. Sadness (and joy) over changing energies and dynamics between my husband and me.
But the good music? The melodies that spark Life and Love? It still plays.
The poppies also decided to burst open this week. (Guys, God is an artist among many other things.) And when florists see poppies, they feel things. Deep deep things. This is a picture of the arrangement I made with the garden goodies this week. Sometimes I feel like the poppy gazing up, embracing all its poppy-ness. Letting the Love fall gracefully on her orangey-red goodness. Sometimes I feel like the one with head-hanging sadness. The cool thing is—they’re both poppies, and they’re both Good and Beautiful. (Actually, low-hanging blooms are all the rage right now.) Neither one is more of a poppy; they both contribute equally to this arrangement.
…I’m humming like a revved up truck, never mind the odds I’m gonna try my luck..
If your head is hanging today, it’s okay. It’s beautiful, like PCH, dirty feet, and poppies are beautiful. If you’re resting in the goodness and able to look up, staring at it all in the face, that’s beautiful too—like old friends, lilacs, and poppies. Yesterday could’ve been a shit day, and maybe you wanted another reality, another self. Or no, maybe that’s today? Maybe that’s the last four years?
The music’s been playing, even if you can’t hear it right now. I will pray for a moment’s respite from the darkness. I will pray for the close Son to meet you, burning away the fog so you catch a glimpse of the purpose and the Love surrounding and pulsing through you. The song is beautiful now, just like it was back then. Your life is Good and Beautiful NOW, just like it was back then. YOU ARE GOOD AND BEAUTIFUL NOW. It’s all so gut-wrenchingly Good and Beautiful…
1. Cancer teaches me how to parent. The five weeks I had with my daughter before my second diagnosis were bliss, I was a natural. I had it down. My big, fat, happy baby complimented my beautiful life so nicely. Thank God all of that was obliterated. I thought I had control over my child!? I thought I was the #1 in her life, and always would be. I believed my presence, correction, and watchful eye were all absolutely necessary for her to grow up into a good human. How grossly misinformed… I was parenting from fear and shame. It wasn’t until rehab and months of therapy afterwards that I was actually able to put all of it into practice, everything changed. You guys, our children are not ours. It’s not our job to make them better, good, tough, creative, healthy. It’s our job to love them the way Jesus and the Love Juices first loved us.
It’s taken almost five years to get there, but I can honestly say that if I ever get cancer again (which would probably mean death for me), I know they would be okay, all four of them. Because He loves them more and better than I ever have or ever could hope to; He wastes nothing. If my hardships and pains have been the defining factors of my life-saving/giving faith, then how dare I wish that my children be spared from hardships and pains? Cancer taught David and me how to love our children wildly, in a way that makes no sense.
We want to let them fall, fight, and feel. We aren’t saving for their college experiences, by choice, because it’s something we feel called not to do. We have fully given them over, given them back (or as close to fully as a parent can without actually losing them). We wake each morning & try to listen for that day’s instruction manual. Today Lord, we want what You want. Planning out their lives wasn’t working. Planning days barely works around here anymore. Cancer made me release everything I had planned for my children, and forced me to beg for His parenting plan instead.
2. Cancer teaches us to LIVE with thankful hearts. And what a gift! There is such a horribly vivid memory I have of the weeks following my discharge from the bone marrow transplant (BMT). It was late August, and for some reason every other baby in Denver was born on the same day as Lucy. Some wive’s tale about blizzards… So the streets of Denver ran white with breastmilk. We lived in an active neighborhood buzzing around with new mamas pushing around their new babies, and new mamas wearing their new babies. Through the big front window I could only watch these beaming, complete women and men. A cocktail of shame, hatred, rage, and heartbreak pulsed through my bruised veins.
Thankfully, we had lots of help and my new daughter also bounced around the block, just not with me. Instead of a stroller I pushed around my fluids. Wearing her was out of the question because three IV lines hung out of a hole in my chest. I wish I could tell you that I jump to my feet every time one of the kiddos asks for a walk now—I don’t. The difference is in how thankful I am for the walks we do take.
Truthfully, even when fluids were flushed my system, I was still capable & effective. Really, unless you are dead you are able to do something. Limitations (physical, financial, locational, etc.) may force endeavors out differently, but we are all still blessed with LIFE! No, I couldn’t shower and get the cords and wires and IVs wet, but I could take baths! No, I couldn’t walk my baby girl down South Pearl Street, but I was well enough to sit with her on the front porch!
I call them New Normals. What are the New Normals that you’ve spent so much manpower avoiding and resenting? Parenthood and all its joys (aka less sleep, death to self, less money, more problems)? Unemployment? Miscarriage? Depression? Sober Living? Loss? I will pray that even when we feel incapable, bad, and broken we still find a bit of bravery deep down. Bravery that rumbles our spirits, rises strong, and miraculously exits us by punching a smile from the insides of our mouths. Smiling is probably 75% of the Battle of Thankful Living. Smiling is a MIRACLE sometimes.
And Praise the Lord if you are one of the mamas, daddies, humans out taking your walks on sidewalks under shady trees! Sing and shout to everything holy if you woke up and your body worked!
I wrote this little journal entry the month after I completed treatment for my first bout with Lymphoma. I think it pretty much sums up my thoughts on Life post cancer/cancer treatment…
3. Cancer teaches us to laugh.Or rather, cancer teaches us to laugh through the tears. Isn’t that just so beautiful? That may be one of the most beautiful images I can conjure up: crying deep, sad, pained tears —laughing. I think cancer at a young age was a gift too, because it’s just so ironic. Young and dying? I shared the diaper dance a few weeks ago. Wigs were the source of several humorous encounters btwn my friends and me. I’m also reminded of the times I offended the older chemo recipients because of my youthful exuberance.
If we can laugh at cancer, laugh at death, then we’ve won. For those short belly-jiggling moments, sin has no power over us, death has no power over us. And if tears are rolling down? That just means it’s even more real… Every feeling and fear and joy receiving equal, important face-time. Honor it all.
4. Cancer teaches us to LOVE. And it let’s others Love. David and I could weather any storm, I swear it. After a husband flushes a wife’s three IV ports every night, after a husband fights the night nurse for waking me up for the 20th time, after a husband releases you to death, after a husband receives you back to life again, after a husband does all of these things (and hundreds more) he’s in too deep. After he bestows all of that upon his wife, she is also in too deep. He did it all without ever making me feel embarrassed or broken of indebted. I did feel those things because of my own ego, but his servant’s heart only ever Loved. I’m sure more stories will emerge later about the really specific ways he died to my cancer and the care it required; but for now all you need to know is that cancer (along with rehab and recovery) was the best thing for our love and our marriage.
Here’s another story about how cancer lets others love: For the 30+ days I spent in the hospital for the BMT we had to board our beautiful Great Dane, Winnie. We chose Mile High Mutts for her extended stay. Occasionally we would sign onto their site and watch her bouncing around with all the other pooches—we knew she was happy. Technically, having animals around after a BMT is discouraged because they make a home less-than-sterile, and germs are a transplant patient’s own personal Voldemort. I didn’t care, I wanted my dog back. So David goes to pick her up, expecting to pay hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Dollars that we would’ve loved to see pay off medical bills, or prescriptions, or house-cleaning. They brought her out, tired and excited. As he walks up to the cash register pulling out his wallet they tell him that her entire stay was a gift—they didn’t want a single cent… How beautifully human is that? How Loving.
In America we don’t get to partake of the kind of suffering that the majority of the world experiences. Yes we have illness and Lord knows our hearts are hurting (more so than many, I believe). If most of the world (read ALL OF THE WORLD) hurts, and it’s our duty to Love, then cancer/illness/pain makes us more connected to the entire world—to humanity. A broken person prays for broken people. We are better able to love, serve, and intercede when we have been shattered, physically and/or emotionally. My physical pain, the remnants of the poison? It helps me pray for the pained! When I hurt, I get to put that pain to good use by partnering with the hurting in India and China and Africa and hospitals and slums everywhere. Instantly, I’m momentarily removed from my status as the white, upper-class, American girl. As I weep for my pain, the throbbing, the stabbing, the tingling, the torture, tears also trickle for my sisters everywhere who just need help. Relief. A break. I get a fraction of it. And so I can pray for it. It’s a way I can love humanity, all because of cancer.
What story have you been given? What pain helps you identify with the rich, the poor, the pained, the marginalized, the Democrat or Republican, the homosexual, the black, the white, the brown, the Muslim, the Other? Jesus came into the world to save the world, and He did that through Love. He dramatically shattered every boundary, every wall, choosing LOVE as His sledgehammer. We are all in this together, and we are all so lost. We all just need a hug, lots of hugs. Cancer taught me how to really hug. To hug through prayer, to hug through service to those who want and need it, to hug in any form, (most) any time.
So what’s the point? Why did I feel all this needed to be written? You’re asking the wrong person; I have no clue… Maybe cancer (aka death) is the scariest thing we Westerners face, and so by using cancer as the end-all, the worst case, it allows you all to substitute any struggle, hardship, pain, etc? Because if it’s true of cancer then surely it applies to anything: debt, divorce, betrayal, loneliness, addiction, any darkness. Maybe if you see that it’s possible to make peace with the worst of house guests, it’s also possible to make peace with really crappy, unthankful, abusive houseguests?
Often people ask me if I would do it all again to get where I am now. Without hesitation the answer is yes. Cancer got my family to church, Ellen woke up in the middle in the night and declared that “we have to go to church!” Cancer solidified my faith in a mighty, real, healing, wild God. Cancer made me a better mom, wife, friend, and human. Cancer, the trauma, and pain meds helped seal my fate as an addict, which later got me to recovery, which has given me Resurrection, Wholeness, and Life…finally! This visitor, the one I knew wanted to kill and destroy me and everything I love, actually saved me. And if that’s not “all things working for the good” I don’t know what is…