Pondering Abstractions

The certainty of yesterday
has slipped our grasp
light deflecting truth
tossing us into the abstract

I ponder process
and outcomes,
will my mind to carry me
gliding between thermals
dissolving into vapours

Some realities too hard to bear –
dislodged, we tread the indeterminate.

(I submit these images and poem to the challenges of Lens-Artists and Ragtag Community. While we try to stay focused on the upcoming holiday celebrations, our hearts are heavy with recent loss and the news of cancer striking close to home. I am reminded that Christmas can amplify tragedy. Be extra kind to one another.)

The ‘C’ Word

“I sat in the waiting room, naked from the waist up save for the hospital green awkwardly tied in front.  This was a call back: not the kind you pray for after an audition.

“In nine out of ten times, it’s nothing,” the voice had said over the phone.  She added they wanted to do a spot check and an ultrasound.

The first was really just another mammogram, only focused on one area.  I had been in and out quickly for that one, but now I watched the hours tick by, and other women come and go.

“I think they might have forgotten about me,” I flagged down the first technician I could find.

She asked my name, disappeared, and a short time later another woman appeared with what looked like a clipboard.

“Let’s find a private space,” she said leading me into an empty examination room.  She handed me a booklet.

imagesThe only words I caught before my heart started to race were:  Breast Cancer. 

“We found something,” she started to say.  “We are still going to do the ultrasound, but only to make sure it hasn’t spread to both breasts.”

The rest of my appointment was a blur.  The second breast appeared clear, I do remember, and there was something about a biopsy.  I sat in the car and shook before pulling myself together enough to drive home.

Two days later, I was called for the biopsy.

“Your doctor will have the results within ten days,” I was advised.  This waiting was killing me – too much time for the imagination to run wild.

“I just went through the same thing,” a friend told me later.  “Had the biopsy and everything, but they are just keeping an eye on it.  No cancer.”

That sounded good to me.  I could live with that.

The doctor called me in.  “I’m sending you to a surgeon. You have abnormal cells and that is worth checking out.”

“We’ll perform a lumpectomy to remove the area, possibly followed by radiation.”

“Can’t we just watch it and wait?”  I asked, thinking of my friend.

“No!” the doctor and her resident said in unison.  “This is far too aggressive.  We are scheduling you for the first available surgery.”

Christmas was approaching, and as a teacher, I had a lot to do before sending the students on holiday.

“Can we at least wait till the summer break.”

th-3“Six months will be too late,” the doctor said kindly, then: “December 13th will be your date.”

I had a few weeks to prepare a substitute, finalize my Christmas shopping, and get the house decorated.  Thank God for distractions.

The downside was that once I had the surgery it would be five weeks before I’d know the results, due to the holidays.  Five weeks of waking up in the middle of the night, terror gripping me.  Five weeks of trying to convince myself and others that all would be well.

“You should have told them to remove both breasts while they were in there,”  a co-worker had told me.  Her cancer had recently come back and she’d had to have a second breast removed.  “Better to do it all at once, then bit by bit like me.”

“There is no breast cancer in our family,” I discussed with my cousin’s wife.  She too had been battling breast cancer for many years.

“There wasn’t in mine either,” she said.

Once the ‘C’ word presents itself the anxiety becomes a permanent cloud.  It’s been six years since that Christmas of fear.  The lumpectomy was successful – I didn’t require any radiation.  I receive yearly checks now – so far, so good.  And yet, every once in a while, a sudden pain or twinge will catch me wondering.

Does the fear ever go away?



Dancing In Heaven

“I’m in trouble!”  My sister’s voice was weak but charged with panic.  “Help me!”

“What have you done?”

She’d locked us all out of her apartment that weekend; said she was tired of being sick, tired of people hovering over her.  She wanted to be independent.

Reluctantly, we gave her space.  I’d held my breath the whole time, anticipating this call.

“I stopped taking the meds,”  she began, and before I could express my disbelief, she continued:  “I just wanted to go dancing one more time.  I thought it was the morphine that was making me so sick.  I thought if I stopped…..oh, V.J., I can’t bear the pain.”

“Call 9-1-1,”  I told her.  “I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

She didn’t want to go to the hospital.  People die in the hospital, she’d said.  I reminded her that they would also be able to get her pain under control.

She did die in the hospital, two days later.  Her white blood count was off the charts, and she’d spiked a high temperature before slipping into a coma.  I was by her side.

“Did you get some of my birthday cake?  They’re serving it in the hall.”

Those were the last words she spoke to me.  It was the night before Valentine’s; we’d celebrated her forty-third birthday in November.

I stayed and watched as death crept in, enveloped her and carried her off.  Her eyes flew open in that last moment and met mine, her mouth made a large ‘O’, as if she wanted to exclaim, but no words came out, just one final exhalation of air.

We’d known her death was imminent; she’d been at war with cancer for fourteen years, and the last year had been a continual decline.

She was feisty, my sister.  Loved a good argument, never content with the way things were, always wanting more.  And she loved to dance.

“There wasn’t a table that Jo didn’t dance on,”  a cousin said of her at the funeral.  “She was a live wire.”

I’d had a love/hate relationship with my sister; we didn’t see eye to eye on many things.  She was the consummate center of attention, thriving on drama.  I was the pragmatic younger sister, trying to keep a level head.  I found her ideas off the wall and, well often infuriating.

“It’s as easy to love a rich man as it is a poor one,”  she advised me once.

Infuriated, I retaliated:  “That has nothing to do with love!”

Thing is, she never had luck with relationships.  She’d thrust herself with passion into any man’s arms, and with equal violence, leave him.  Trust was not her strong suit, nor was patience.

“She’s like an eight-year-old in a woman’s body,” one beau once described her to me.  I believed him.

Despite our differences, it was me she turned to when the diagnosis came.

“Promise you’ll be there with me till the end,” she pleaded.

Of course, I said yes.

In the end, it was mostly Mom and I who cared for her.  Stubborn as she was, she wouldn’t let the home care nurse bathe her, or change her bedding, and Mom had a bad back, so I landed the honour.  Joanne had withered away to nothing, her velvet brown eyes now hidden between drooping lids, her lips constantly cracked, her long limbs sharp.  Although she was fifteen years my senior, I felt as if I was caring for a fragile child.

We fought in those last months, and we laughed, and we cried.  Some days, so exhausted from my responsibilities outside of her care, I would just lie on the bed beside her and hold her hand, both of us dozing off.

When she died, I quite honestly felt relief.  At the time of her diagnosis, the doctor said she had only months to live.  She had survived for thirteen more years.  Some good, some bad, but she’d kept on going.

“We don’t know what’s keeping her alive,”  one of the oncologists told me.  “Whatever she’s doing, it obviously works.”

“I can’t explain how I feel,” my mother said while we were arranging the funeral.  “She consumed so much of our lives for so long, and now she is gone.  It feels like there is a huge whole, and no closure.”

The night before the funeral, I had a dream.  Joanne was on a stage, dancing with a chorus line before a large audience.  She looked radiantly happy.

During the reception following the burial, four others shared that they’d had the same dream.

Joanne had found her paradise, dancing in Heaven.

(Today’s post is in response to The Daily Post prompt: dancing.  Image: www.shutterstock.com)

“When Breath Becomes air” Review

Just as Paul Kalanithi’s future looked bright, cancer struck.  As a doctor (neurosurgeon) he knew all too well what he was about to face, and guided by his oncologist, had to make difficult life choices.  Kalanithi bravely decided to commit his journey to paper, offering an inside glimpse of illness from the eyes of a physician turned patient.  th-1

When Breath Becomes air is eloquently written: more a philosophy book than a memoir.  Kalanithi’s passion for literature is evident throughout his writing.

As is my practice, I listened to the audiobook version which featured the narration of Sunil Malhotra and Cassandra Campbell, both effective voices for the context.

There is so much more to this story that just the narrative of a dying man:  Kalanithi dares to ask the big questions, and strives to find the answers.  As a sufferer of chronic illness, listening to Kalanithi’s story felt like an intimate discussion with a close personal friend.

An Argument for Wholistic Healthcare

A week after my husband completed thirty-five rounds of radiation for Stage III Prostate cancer, and a year to the date that I learned surgery to remove cancerous tissues from my breast was successful, Ric fell down a flight of steps rupturing his quad tendon.  Ten weeks after surgery, he would fall again, causing further damage and requiring a second surgery.  This time infection would set in and a series of operations would follow until he was finally cleared.  In the meantime, my health was failing, the final blow a bout of pneumonia that seemed to wipe out my system, from which I never really recovered:  diagnosis, ME/CFS. th-2

The result has been that our marriage, formerly defined by intimacy, and mutual love of golf, fine dining, dancing and travel, has been overridden by the need to play caregiver for one another.  Ric’s recent heart attack and subsequent surgery    has plunged us into dependence on outside care for the time being.  Both of us struggle with keeping depression at bay – he describes a rage for which there is no outlet, and together we feel like we are walking on eggshells.

Throughout all of this, no one in the medical field has talked about the aftermath of life-altering medical issues.  Each of us has consulted a psychologist in recognition of the challenge, but I feel that somehow the medical professionals dropped the ball.  It seems that there might have been some strategies put in place to help us with this shift in quality of life (more like loss of).

When my routine mammogram showed something amiss, the doctor told me action was imperative, right away.  I am thankful for her quick actions and that she follows up with routine exams regularly.  Ric receives the same kind of care at the Cancer Center, where every six months they ask him to rate his pain and if he has any change in symptoms.  For ME/CFS there is no traditional follow-up, although my doctor checks in when the disability forms are due.

Only as a result of Ric’s heart condition is a program in place to address lifestyle changes and counselling.

I feel like we are swimming in waters over our head and I am tired of trying to keep afloat.  th-4

I remember going to a walk-in clinic at the time of Ric’s cancer diagnosis and mentioning to the doctor there about what we were facing.  He shook his head and said:  “You do realize that your quality of life will change immensely?”  I didn’t know how to respond.  I could not have defined what was meant by quality of life at the time.

Now I know all too well.

Like many our age, we spent lots of time imagining what we would do once the kids left home, writing out our bucket list; we even talked frequently about what we would do if we won the lottery.  Neither of us foresaw the twists that life has taken.

I am pretty sure that we are not alone.  There must be thousands like us, who within the confines of their closed-door existence, are struggling to survive – while their dreams are smashed, one after another.

I give thanks daily for the fact that I am married to a man of character, and that despite the hardships we have the blessing of family and friends.  th-5

I still wish there was some sort of manual that would help us navigate these choppy waters – of course, I said that about child rearing too.  I guess, as in many things in life, we just have to trust that we are made of the right stuff to see it through.

A little warning might have been nice.  Even a few questions to take home and ponder:  What will you do when one or neither of you can no longer do the simplest of tasks?  How will you care for each other’s needs?  Are you prepared to rewrite your dreams?  Knowing that you are about to lose many aspects of your life, what are the things that you will try to hold onto?  How will you grieve?  th-2

We are much more than just physical bodies that have broken down.  Is it asking too much to have that acknowledged during the medical process.?

(top image from:  http://www.shapes.se, bottom image from wherewegonow.com)