2016: Oh the Wonder

I am always baffled by the contradictions of life. The opposing forces. The yin and the yang. The pull between work and play. Calm and chaos. Laughter and sorrow. I wonder how can there be joy in the midst of sadness? How we can experience hope in the midst of fear? And yet so very often, we do. When I look back on the past year it amazes me that it was one of my best years on this earth in so many ways. And in others, it was one of my most difficult years on this earth. How can that be? How can two contradicting statements both be true? It feels like magic. I’m starting to think that living is little more than a lot of magic.  

Tonight the clock will work more magic as it passes us all over into 2016. What a gift. A brand new year that is fresh and open and waiting. Waiting for each of us to find the wonder.

On the eve of Jackson’s last birthday he stood at the sink brushing his teeth. His jaw opened wide like a fierce crocodile as I took a turn scrubbing away at tiny teeth. With fresh mint breath, he passed inspection. As we were getting ready to leave the bathroom Jackson looked up at me. A full smile radiated up into his eyes as they arched into crescent moons. He exclaimed, “I can’t believe I’m going to be four in the morning! I wonder what it feels like to be four years old…It might feel different, Mommy!” I smiled back and admired his curiosity. The magic of his expectant heart. The way he anticipated the wonder of a new day. A day that could hold anything, anything at all. Oh the wonder. Oh the joy. Oh the life.    

In the days that followed, he made many declarations that implied he was changed magically as the clock ticked him over into four-year-old territory. According to him, he became a faster runner, he liked salmon and lasagna (unlike his 3-year-old counterpart) and he noticed that four-year-olds can even jump higher on the bed. He proudly demonstrated this notion while I fervently prayed for no broken bones.

This all got me thinking about the truths we create for ourselves. The images we project onto our abilities. My rational self knows that it is impossible to wake up a faster runner on your birthday. In time, there is only a second that separates the crossover between being 3 and being 4. And yet, that second has made all the difference for him. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter if any of his declarations are true. The very act of believing them to be true, is enough. 

What if we could all hold promises for ourselves that we believed to be true for the next year, or the next week, or even the next day? What if we believed things about ourselves that inspired joy within us. Or hope or promise. What if that second between 11:59:59 and midnight held a bit of magic for each of us? I know when I turned 33 earlier this year, I felt much the same as I opened my eyes that morning. My hair, with its graying highlights, was piled into an angry ball, I was half blind, and my teeth were in terrible need of a good scrub. I was quite exhausted, a little dull, and feeling worn by time. This echoed how I felt at turning 32 and 31 and 30, though I probably had a few less gray hairs. The wonder was fading. I was missing out on the magic.

In truth, I often find myself floundering and exhausted at day’s end. Sometimes I feel like I barely survived. I spend excessive amounts of time herding children into their beds, I have unidentifiable substances covering my clothing (peanut butter? toothpaste? yesterday’s breakfast? I don’t know?) and all I feel like doing is collapsing onto the sofa and listening to absolute silence. Some nights I relive horrible episodes from the day, such as carrying two flailing bodies that scream fiercely out of the YMCA as I juggle and spill coffee along the sidewalk with each embarrassing step. Sometimes all I can think about are all moments I messed up, wasn’t good enough, or failed completely at multiple endeavors. Sometimes all the wonder feels far and away.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. What if tomorrow, I woke up knowing a different truth. Feeling the wonder and awe of all that was in store for the coming year. What if I believed this was going to be my best year yet. This was the year I would qualify for the Boston Marathon, the year I’d pour myself into yoga – feeling mindful, peaceful, strong – the year I would make a friend, learn a language, write a book, the year I would find myself becoming more like the girl I hope to be. 

This all excites me to no end. Because even though the day is ending, tomorrow has not yet started. All the wonder of a new day awaits. There is so much left to live and love and think and become. And all because of one four-year-old, I can’t help but wonder if I, too, will be a little bit faster in the morning. After all, 2016 might just feel a little different!  

Oh the wonder. Oh the joy. Oh the life. 

 It is magic. 

 

Soaring Through Our Scars

The hero of this story is my dentist, Dr. Matt Stephens. The next time I see him, I’ll be giving him a much deserved hug. Because without him, I’d still not know that cancer was in my body. That it was silently dividing on the surface of my thyroid. Without him, my story may have had a different ending. And so, I am thankful for my dental appointment on that day back in September. It was my regular checkup to get my teeth cleaned and during the examine he noticed some asymmetry along my neck. Because of his excellent skill and good judgment, the wheels were set in motion. I was referred to an ENT. There were initial consults, ultrasounds, results, a biopsy, and more results over the course of several months. During this time, the waiting bothered me on some days, but I felt pretty certain it would all turn out to be nothing. Statistically, ninety five percent of nodules are benign, so the odds were in my favor.   And so I named my nodule, Ned. Jamie and I laughed about how he’d been hanging around with us and we didn’t even know it. It eased some of the tension to name this little mass I was carrying around in the tissue of my neck. We coped with the unknown by finding some humor. And then one day, I found out Ned was up to no good. He fell into the dreaded five percent. He was malignant. And so a whole new wave of appointments began to line up my surgery.  I wanted Ned dead. 

We arrived at the hospital early to get checked in for my total thyroidectomy. I navigated all the hoops that one must go through on the morning of surgery: insurance information, ID bracelets, cups of urine, a general loss of dignity. Finally, it was almost time. I laid on the stretcher clothed in a paper robe. Dr. Conlee leaned over me holding a blue marker in hand. Carefully, he traced a gentle line along the curve of my neck. He leaned back and considered the line. While I couldn’t see any of the markings he made that day, I knew I’d end up looking at his drawing for the rest of my life. Every time I glanced in the mirror, I’d see where his scalpel had broken my skin to remove the invading cancer. 

I prayed the morning after my initial diagnosis for hope and love and peace as I watched the sunrise. Each of these has been extended to me along this journey. For that, I am thankful. The surgery went well overall. The 3.5 cm mass had wrapped itself around a vocal chord nerve. Two surgeons worked meticulously to shave and feather the tumor away from the nerve ending. They removed my thyroid as well as many lymph nodes that looked suspicious. When they were finished, they spoke with my family in the waiting room. They explained they were concerned about how my voice would fare. The strength and tone could be affected because of the placement of the tumor. We’d know some information after I woke up from the anesthesia, but it would take time to tell the whole story. We’d find out about the nodes in a few days after the pathology report came back.  

Waking up, my throat felt horrible. The intubation had scraped it raw and I couldn’t swallow anything without pain. Medication, food, water, air, you name it. Each swallow was agony. This healed a little bit with each passing day. My voice was weak, but the doctors were pleasantly surprised by the initial tone and strength. This brought hope. The pathology came back days later and while I talked to the doctor on the phone I braced myself for words I didn’t want to hear. But more relief came my way. None of the nodes they removed had cancer in them. Hallelujah! Along marched a measure of peace. 

When I came home, the boys were careful and curious about my incision. They looked at it closely. Jackson’s eyes narrowed. He stretched his pointer finger out toward my neck and asked, “Mommy, why do you have that boo-boo there?” A million answers raced through my mind and I searched for one that was appropriate for a four-year-old. At last I settled on, “There was something yucky that was making me sick inside my neck. The doctor took it out so that I will be healthy and strong.” It stung a little to say these words aloud. To try to explain an exhausting truth to your baby. To know that I often wonder about the very same question. Why me? Why must I carry this mark, this boo-boo, along my neck?

The first time I read aloud to the boys I could hardly get through a children’s book. My voice was flat and I was exhausted from the stamina it required to speak at length. I was overcome with worry. I wondered how I would ever be able to teach again? How would I talk on the phone and laugh with friends and family? But each day brings more relief, more peace. My speaking voice is nearly back to normal, though I still cannot yell at all. I tried just the other day and sounded like a screeching mouse as I hollered at the children to not climb on top of the dining room table. I heard Jamie chuckle in the kitchen at the high pitched, weak discipline that I was trying to administer. In loud places and large gatherings, I struggle to be heard at all. I can’t project my voice to a level that is loud enough to be clearly understood. I worry. Hopefully it will be restored. And in another plot twist, it seems my laugh was stolen on the operating table. When I laugh out loud, it sounds like a stranger to me. I have no idea who this new girl is, but Jamie finds her laugh quite obnoxious, which makes me laugh her laugh even harder. If you’re reading this and happen to also be missing your laugh, message me and perhaps we can swap back? My marriage depends on it. 

My dear friend Callie sent me a message in the days following the surgery. She’d heard ‘Patience’ by Guns and Roses as she pulled up to work and passed it along to me as a sign that all would be well. I think it was indeed a sign. The lyric, “Said woman take it slow and it will work itself out fine. All we need is just a little patience,” has brought me much comfort as I recover. When I carried laundry baskets up the stairs and was out of breath from a simple task, I reminded myself to be patient. With me. When I read aloud to the kids and heard my exhausted voice, I reminded myself to be patient. With me. When there were a million household chores that needed to be taken care of, but all I felt like doing was crawling into bed for an afternoon nap, I reminded myself to be patient. With me.  

I need this reminder because I can’t wait to get back in my old routines, to find my old rhythms. And I want to push and push myself back to the girl I was before. I’m learning that it will take time and patience. So I’m taking it slow. I’m putting the part of me that is fiercely independent on the shelf for awhile and trying to learn that it’s okay to accept help. It’s okay to need help. Jamie stayed home for a week after my surgery and was an excellent mama while I couldn’t be. He carried us along. When he went back to work I felt a measure of panic as I thought about how I was going to survive the day with a 2 and 4-year-old. They are exhausting when I’m healthy. How would I ever do everything that needs to be done? The answer is that I wouldn’t. Grandparents and friends would help with kids and dinners would appear like magic from the most amazing people. I needed help to run errands, to get the rest I needed so that I could recover, to feed my family, to keep the laundry and the dishes moving along. And that is okay. Sometimes you’re the helper. Sometimes you’re the helped.  

There is nothing like surgery to help you gain perspective. In the first few days at home you notice how thankful you are for all the things you never noticed you could do before. Your first shower feels divine. You scrub blue ink off your weak body. You peel off monitor stickers that rip hairs from your still sore skin and you wash the oil and grime from your hair. The warm water and fresh scent renew your spirit. You are thankful to be clean. After days of grimacing with every swallow, you rejoice the first time you swallow water and instead of feeling pain, there is just discomfort. You eat an entire slice of quiche and it didn’t take you an hour. You are thankful that you can eat again. You sit outside in the warm sunshine and throw a frisbee with Jackson. You are worn out and exhausted but you make yourself because you love him. You feel thankful for time to love others. You’re muscles start to relax and instead of stacking mountains of pillows under your head at night, you sleep soundly, with your same two regular pillows. The tension slowly leaves your body. You feel thankful for life.  

One morning, I woke up and met Parker in the hallway. My hair was disheveled and I’d been wearing the same shirt for three days straight. It hung loose across my shoulders and left my incision with open space to heal. Parker grinned at me and said in his baby voice, “You’re be-uu-ful, Mommy!” It warmed my heart and made me cry all at once because I knew he was speaking from his be-uu-ful heart. His sweet words reminded me there is still beauty in the scars we carry with us. I struggled the first few days as I headed back out into public with how to deal with my incision. Instinctively, I wanted to cover it. To hide. I felt exposed. What armor should I wear? A scarf? My coat zipped high under my chin? A turtle neck? It’s difficult to lay down this armor, this protection, and face the world as yourself. In the raw. With scars and flaws exposed. You walk along feeling like you stand out. You notice the glances that are just a second too long. You feel unprepared for this heartache. You face the dilemma of hiding yourself or exposing yourself with each outing. It’s a difficult choice. One with no right answer.  Right now, when I look in the mirror, I see a line of purple skin healing under the cover of a thick strip of glue. I am maimed and saved all at once by this eternal necklace that I will wear each morning, noon and night.

With time, the incision will heal and fade to a thin white line across my neck. A scar will form. I hope each time I look in the mirror I remember that my scar is be-uu-ful.  I hope I remember that I am now part warrior. That worlds can change forever with one spoken word. I hope I remember that I’m fortunate. So very fortunate. I hope I remember that we each have an army of helpers around us ready and waiting to jump in and bring love to our door in the midst of darkness. I hope I remember it’s okay to need help. To even seek help. I hope I remember that overwhelming love always trumps overwhelming fear. I hope I remember to stay patient with myself. To extend this same patience to others. I hope I remember to keep a thankful heart for all the simple joys in my life. That offerings of hope and love often bring peace. 

There are a few more hoops ahead in the coming weeks. The last of my treatment involves taking a radioactive iodine pill that will destroy any remnant thyroid tissue and hopefully decrease the chance of recurrence. This requires a three day period of isolation which will be strange and unusual as I’m used to much chaos and incessant demands during the hours of my days. While it’s necessary, it still scares me.  I suspect this process will shift my course in some unknown way, yet again. Some days I wonder if I will ever feel at ease in my body again, will I ever stop worrying about a lurking cancer, and in truth, I just don’t know. Daily medication and periodic scans will follow me throughout my lifetime. But I have a feeling that one can soar through medication, through scans, through scars and all. It starts in our hearts. In our outlook. And as I navigate these remaining obstacles before me, I imagine that there will be beauty. There will be joy. There will be hope and love and peace. All along the way. Even in the hardest parts. 

Sometimes, I pause just a second and wonder if I got it all wrong. When I started this journey, I thought I was falling from grace, that my flight would cease for a while. That soaring would find me again only after I picked my broken self up off the ground. But now, I wonder if perhaps I’ve been soaring all along, right through the branches, right through this struggle. Maybe my feet never even touched the ground. Maybe my wings still feel the rush of air above and below them. Maybe, I’ve been carried along by the hope and love of all the precious souls around me. Maybe this hope and love is a bit of God that is resting in each of our hearts. Namaste, the divine light in me honors the divine light in you. 

Isn’t our view mighty grand? Thank you, thank you for helping me soar through. 

 

All in the Name of Venice

I love to be unconventional. To go against the grain. To find another way to do a standard procedure. It gives me some kind of strange thrill. It’s the reason we have been without cable television since 2007. That’s 8 years without access to all the glory of HGTV: House Hunters, Property Brothers, or Love It or List It. It’s the reason we have gone without internet in our home for the same period of time. It’s the reason I refused to buy a commuter pass at Virginia Tech and opted to ride the bus from my apartment to classes each day. Going without sometimes inspires a creative resourcefulness that I enjoy. It suites me. Then again, maybe I’m just cheap. It’s also the reason I drink milk well past the expiration date as long as it passes the sniff test. I like to test the limits of the date that experts proclaim my milk will sour. Sadly, I’ve been missing out on this adventure as of late because with two young kids chugging a gallon every four days we don’t come close to approaching the expiration date anymore. Some call me crazy. I prefer unconventional. 

So when we decided to go overseas to visit my cousin this past summer, I knew immediately this was a matter of heart, not a matter of convention. It made very little sense for us to go. We have young children, we have a limited income. But I also knew that there would never be a perfect time to take a few weeks to see another part of the world. And so we took a leap and we fell in love.  

Back in college, I discovered the brand-new-to-me world of Target. As I ambled along pushing my red cart down aisles full of trendy home goods and stylish outfits at generally low prices, I knew that I would be back again and again. One day while roaming I stumbled upon this fine beauty:

 That long ago day I fell in love with the idea of Venice. With seeing it with my own eyes. With wandering the narrow pedestrian streets and bridges. With watching gondolas glide down the canals. I couldn’t leave Venice on the shelf that fateful day, and so it came to live with me. I’ve looked at it nearly every day since I first drove it home in the back of my Civic. It hung on the dingy wall of my apartment while I finished up school. After graduating, I moved a few times and along came Venice. Jamie and I got married and bought our hilltop house and the picture hung there in my kitchen for seven years. Now in Salem, it hangs in the living room where I can admire it while drinking coffee or lounging on the sofa. I’ve been having a long time love affair with Venice.

So as we began to plan our trip to see my cousin in Germany, I started looking into the possibility of seeing part of Italy as a side trip. I looked at flights to Venice and discovered it was only a little more than an hour from Frankfurt! And super cheap! Win, win! How could I come so close and not go there? So with help from my amazing cousin, we settled on flying into Venice for a three night stay.  

The morning we were to fly out, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. Our plan was to carry sleeping boys out to the car where they would continue sleeping for the hour car ride to the airport. This did not happen. Parker, still exhausted from the time change from a trans-Atlantic trip, was buckled into his car seat and screamed for exactly 54 minutes of the 60 minute drive. This may have been stressful. We realized we were running a little late as we got closer to the airport and began to panic. My cousin dropped us off and went to park the car. She raced inside the airport and we got started checking in for the flight and going through security. We hustled out onto the tarmac, climbed the stairs up onto the plane and the door closed right behind us. We were the very last passengers to board and had made it with only few seconds to spare.

Exhausted, we collapsed in our seats for the hour long flight. The flight attendants walked the aisles trying to sell us Lotto tickets and jewelry. I was amused, but declined. When the plane landed in Treviso (a town just outside of Venice) we bounced so fiercely that I thought for a second we might be crashing. As soon as we knew all was well, the passengers all began to clap and cheer in a passionate I’m-so-glad-I’m-alive kind of way. It was a celebration of life. Our lives to be exact. I wondered if this was the reason our tickets were so darn cheap. 

Next up, came the bus ride. We bought tickets and climbed aboard a shuttle bus heading toward the 117 islands that make up Venice. By now I was realizing that my plan may have been a little teeny tiny bit overzealous. It seemed that maybe Venice was a bit more than an hour away. Math has never been a strength of mine. Back in the middle school years when I struggled with math homework, I had always gone to my Dad, the engineer, for help. Though I’m certain he explained things quite logically, with diagrams and arrows and examples, the session always ended in frustration by both of us. Clearly, my math skills haven’t progressed much since those early days. We had been traveling for almost 4 hours and there were still two more modes of transportation we’d have to take before we got to our final destination: a vaporetto (shuttle boat) and our feet. This was the longest hour long trip I had ever planned. In my mind, it had seemed much more reasonable than it was turning out to be.

We wandered in search of the right vaporetto line. After finding it, we climbed on board the boat and glided around the outside of Venice. We made friends with two old Italian women sitting in front of us. One of them dug through her purse and pulled out a piece of gum. Without thinking twice I let Jackson take and chew gum from strangers. He gnawed on it for a few minutes and the two women doted on him in Italian, smiling the whole time. Then one of them noticed that Jackson had swallowed the gum and became alarmed. She pointed to her stomach, gesturing that the gum had gone into forbidden territory. I turned to Jackson and asked him if he had swallowed it and he nodded proudly. Both women buckled over laughing, “EYEYEYE!”

Finally we arrived at our stop. We climbed off the boat to meet the host of our apartment and followed him through the streets trying to commit each turn to memory so that we could remember exactly where we were staying in Castello. It was useless. I’d read before we arrived that Venice is meant to be wandered mostly while feeling a little bit lost. This is very true. Eventually we arrived at a lovely courtyard in front of the apartment we would be renting. By now, we’d taken a car, a plane, a bus, a boat, and walked to arrive in Venice. The hour long trip in my mind had taken about 6 hours. But we had made it!

Had I known exactly how tedious the journey was going to be, I’m not sure I would have had the guts to do it. Fear and anxiety would have probably stopped me in my tracks. That’s the beauty of a little bit of ignorance combined with optimism. You just keep going. Putting one foot in front of the other, ever hopeful that the good stuff is out there waiting for you.  

Because, here’s the thing. I’m learning that sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Our dreams seem so BIG and daunting. Sometimes we put them on hold because we are waiting for all the forces of the earth to converge in a rainbow of fireworks above our house that declares in the smoky aftermath, “Go now and do that BIG thing you’ve been dreaming about!” Lacking this sign from above, we wait and wait and wait for the right time. The right time to travel. The right time to settle down. The right time to live creatively. The right time to switch careers. The right time to commit to family or friendship or adventure. The right time to live a healthier lifestyle. The right time to love. The right time to forgive. I’m learning that the right time is now. It’s today. Sometimes, all that’s holding us back is ourselves. We worry that if our pursuits aren’t just right, perfect, or Facebook pretty, then they aren’t worth it. But nothing is farther than the truth. There is beauty in the flaws and in the struggle of our journeys. It’s how we learn just what we are made of. After surviving this monumental transportation marathon, I felt like I should run out to the store and buy a real super hero cape and mask to wear for the rest of the trip. I realized that I can do hard things. I found a new confidence in my ability. And it all started from the seam of one little unconventional idea.    

Was our trip to Venice perfect? Absolutely not. It was better and worse than I ever expected, all at once. Just like life. Would I do it all again? Absolutely yes. Because at any single moment in my day, I can pause and see the arched windows stacked high on palace walls that line the water’s edge as I cruise along the Grand Canal. I see my boys grinning at the waiter who teases them while we dine al fresco. I see the ornate golden mosaics that decorate the ceiling of St. Mark’s Basilica. I see the grand scale of St. Mark’s square. The way an endless parade of columns stretch along the crowded piazza. I hear the laughter of people from every corner of the world coming together to see and feel an ancient city built on water. I remember walking just around the corner each morning to the bakery for pastries and doughnuts. I see petite cups of espresso emptied in one swig by aging Venetian hands just before their owner heads off to work. I see Parker running after pigeons and Jackson’s excitement at having finally been fast enough to touch the feather of one before it flew up and away. I would do it all again in a heart beat. Everything doesn’t have to make sense, to go smoothly, to end perfectly, in order for it to be well with your soul. Matters of the heart are so much more complex.  

As I walk through the rooms of our house these days, there is more artwork on the walls of more beautiful places from around the world that I have never seen. I look at the pictures and dream. I feel my heart calling. And I wonder how hard can it possibly be to get to Coppenhagen? Cinque Terre? I promise you this: I’ll be sure to let you know just as soon as I find out.  

  
  
 

Have You Noticed

Have you ever noticed the way that kids notice the world?  

Last week, Jackson and I were walking hand in hand down the brick sidewalk in front of the library. He carried his canvas bag from preschool over one shoulder and his lean body bounced up and down beside me with each step he took. 

Christmas decorations were being set up along Main Street just in time for the evening parade. The walkway before us was lined with a row of lamp posts that had been wrapped like candy canes with a ribbon of red. Suddenly, Jackson stopped in his tracks as his eyes took in the new look of a familiar location. He pointed and galloped over to one of the recently transformed lamp posts. “Look at that, Mommy!” he exclaimed. As his fingers traced the ribbon he explained, “It goes round and round like a twirly slide! And it feels so soft, like velvet!” He grinned and the gap between his two front teeth was revealed. I knelt down beside him and traced the edge of the ribbon with my own fingers. “It does feel soft!” I agreed. I sensed that he was offering me a gift.

We walked across the street making our way toward the parking lot behind the coffee shop where I had parked the van. When we came around the corner, the town’s Christmas tree came into view. “Wow!” Jackson sighed. We ran together straight for the tree. He climbed up the stone wall and shimmied carefully around the top of the stone ledge, making a complete circle around the tree. He stopped now and then and craned his neck upward, absorbing the height of this towering green giant. He paused to look at all the ornaments along the way – a shimmery snowflake, a large red globe with stripes of golden glitter, sequined candy canes, twinkling stars, red bows. 

His fingers brushed against the pine needles that marched along the branches like hundreds of soldiers. “Feel this, Mommy! It’s so prickly!” I reached out and ran my fingers slowly along the rows of green needles and realized that Jackson had indeed been giving me gifts the whole morning, the gift of noticing. He was showing me the world. As I was learning to open his fine gifts, I remembered that often the best gifts aren’t wrapped in shiny paper at all.  

I helped Jackson jump down from the stone wall. His feet landed hard on the pavement in one swift thud. Then he looked at me and said, “Let’s step back and see the whole tree!”  

And so we did. We stepped back, farther and farther, until we had a sweeping view of the proud Christmas tree in front of us. I crouched down beside him while our eyes took it all in – the mighty star perched at the very top, the mountain of green branches stacked from the base to the highest peak, the ornaments clinging tightly to strong limbs. We noticed the endless strands of cascading lights and wondered what it would look like at night with each bulb aglow, twinkling in merriment. 

I’m learning that the gift of noticing is a never ending present. The world is always fresh and waiting for us to find and appreciate something new. We just have to pay attention, to watch closely. With much ease, Jackson often reminds me to notice the small wonders in life. He reminds me that the tiniest of details can be worthy of pause, worthy of acknowledgement. And lest I forget, he reminds me of the beauty in noticing the bigger picture. In taking a step back to look at how all the details merge together to form the larger, grander view. 

Motherhood is chock-full of lessons I never learned in all my 17 years of sitting in a desk at school. Sometimes we get so caught up with the details of life, that we forget to step back and see the big picture and what really matters. Other times we find ourselves working so hard at the grand scheme that we forget to spend the minutes of our days engaging with the small moments of life. I’m learning that both are essential. These opposing forces are each worthy of our precious, precious time.

Betty Smith wrote, “Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or the last time. Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.” As I watched Jackson on that warm December afternoon, I realized that this is the song of his heart. 

He finds wonder in all the simple joys. He notices the world and all its beauty. He marvels at it. And guess what? His days are filled with glory. I think Betty is on to something. There is much beauty in the small wonders. There is much beauty in the bigger picture. May we remember to pause and notice all the big and all the small, that is all around us. Imagine the glory that’s waiting for each of us in all of these gifts, yet unopened. 

 

Malignant

We were waiting in the exam room. The floor was speckled with shades of blue, grey, and white that reminded me of one of those Magic Eye 3D pictures from the 90’s. The ones where you unfocused your eyes and a picture was revealed: elephants walking, an airplane in flight, a tractor plowing fields. I focused and unfocused my eyes as Jamie and I waited. It gave the illusion that the floor around me was moving. Eventually, I heard two quick knocks on the door and the doctor came in.  

After a quick greeting and handshake, he came right out with everything. He didn’t have good news for me. The biopsy results showed that the cells growing on my thyroid were malignant. He passed a piece of paper over to me and as I scanned it I saw the word MALIGNANT written about half way down. Now it seemed that the floor below me really was moving and I was struggling to process the words that came from his mouth. He spoke at length. I heard: Blah blah blah blah cancer blah blah blah blah surgery blah blah blah blah risk blah blah blah blah decisions blah blah blah blah cancer.  

I nodded a lot. I tried to listen. But I couldn’t get the words he spoke to converge with my reality. It was like trying to push two solid objects into the same space at the same time. Impossible. At the end, he talked about the next steps. We’d need to decide on a surgeon and make an appointment so that the details could all be worked out. I was shocked. My mind was slow. Confused. Foggy. There is cancer. In my body. I tried to make the two phrases converge in my mind. Impossible.  

After leaving the doctor’s office, Jamie and I ran through what we knew from the bits and pieces we had absorbed. I had a common form of thyroid cancer. The mass was about 3.5 cm. Treatment involved surgery to remove my thyroid. This form of cancer generally grows slowly and there is a low chance that it has spread. The prognosis was good. But I felt completely broken in body, mind and spirit.  

My path was shifting down a road I hadn’t anticipated. One I didn’t feel prepared for. One I wanted no part of. And even as I heard that in all likelihood, I’d be fine, I couldn’t help but worry. What ifs creeped along in my mind. What if it had spread to other locations? What if there were complications during the surgery? What if I was going to miss out on raising my kids? The weight of it all was enormous. Jamie and I drove to our beer pub of choice, just as we had after all the appointments previous to this one. Except this time, I had a few extra drinks. I may have cried at the bar, just a little. Wiped quiet tears away, avoided eye contact with the bartenders, looked excessively at the drink menu when I felt my eyes filling with tears. I was drowning my sorrow with an amazing beer called Houblin Chouffe. It worked wonders. At least for an hour or two.

That night was a sleepless one. I googled things I shouldn’t have. I thought about horrible outcomes. I cried. The next morning, my eyes were red and swollen and I was exhausted from the miles my mind had traveled that long night. Parker woke up early and climbed into bed and under the warm covers with me. He never does this. I think he knew that I needed some more time to lay and rest. That my heart was heavy. I held him close and rubbed his bare feet. I smelled his baby soft hair as our heads rested together on the pillow. I took in his round face, the way his fair brows hover over blue eyes, his tiny pink lips and it reminded me of the last time we went camping when he’d awaken too early in the morning. I’d scoop him up and tuck him right into my sleeping bag. His little round body fit like a puzzle piece as I curled around him. He’d fall right back to sleep within minutes, but I couldn’t will myself back to dreamland, so I reconciled with my sleeplessness by watching him doze peacefully. 

Before I was really ready to face a new day, I got out of bed. I walked downstairs and looked out the back storm door. The sun was rising between two towering cypress trees in our neighbor’s yard, just the way it does every single morning. The sky was still blue. Mountains bathed in morning light still framed the horizon. White clouds still dotted the distant sky. It felt soothing to know that some truths remained the same. All was not broken. I blinked through tears. I prayed for hope. For love. For peace.

Today, when I look at myself in the mirror, I can hardly tell there is a lump in my neck. But if I tilt my head upwards, I can trace the rise and fall of a hard knot on the right side of my neck just under the surface of my skin. I find myself running my fingers over it periodically throughout the day, double checking that it is still there. That this is all real. My vocabulary has undergone a bit of an expansion in the last few weeks. Words like papillary carcinoma, fine needle aspiration, metastasis, and nodule are becoming a little too familiar to me. Sometimes the whole right side of my neck feels achey or I notice a tightness that fills the muscles in my neck. I notice that it is somewhat difficult to swallow. I can’t decide how much of it all is imagined, and how much is reality. I go back and forth each day between being certain that something HUGE is wrong inside my body and thinking that this is absolutely nothing to be worried about. My mind seeks a logical explanation for the circumstance. I want to be able to pinpoint a reason that this happened to me. Did I stand excessively in front of a microwave while zapping Lean Cuisines at work? Is it the 25 slices of bacon I’d eat at the Shoney’s breakfast buffet as a kid? My addiction to sugar? Or is it all by chance, a completely random gene mutation? I guess I will never know. What I do know is that this is exhausting. The worry, the waiting, the fear, the mind going in a million different directions, and the day to day business of life all combine to make for some additional knots in my chest from mounting anxiety.  

It’s no mistake that yoga found its way into my life not long ago. I needed all that I’ve learned from it to keep breathing during the days that followed that appointment. When I’m stopped at a red light on Main Street or I’m snuggled under warm blankets tucking little boys into bed, worry and fear creep into the shadows of my mind. Tears surface as I walk back through all the what ifs and it feels like my world is crumbling. In these moments, I breath deeply and then I think about standing tall in mountain pose and how my arms reach out and rise high above my head, moving air as they go. For some reason, it’s soothing to know that I can still move air. I can still control this tiny piece of my world. I, can move air. Sometimes I think about warrior pose. My right leg bending in front of me, my left leg lunging backward. Feeling strong and courageous as my arms reach toward the heavens. I remember that all anyone has is the right now. The today. The present. This very second. That we should soak in all the small moments of life. Then I look around me and count my blessings.

It’s no mistake that I recently found my way back to writing. It helps me sort things out. It helps me think about and accept all that’s stirring in my heart. It’s my chosen form of therapy. And it’s no mistake that we are all connected. That we are each other’s keepers. In the days following that doctor’s appointment there were text messages and phone calls, beautiful flowers and offers for dinner delivered, stories of hope, and words that inspired comfort and peace. On one sad evening, two little boys carried every stuffed animal and blanket that we own down the steps and piled it all on top of me. In their sweet world, all can be made right by holding a stuffed monkey and blanket tightly, and so they offered me all they had to give, all of their love in this small gesture. It has been overwhelming to feel the love and generosity of so many.

The other day I went for another one of those strolls along the stone path I wander. I looked up to see a nearly full moon and just below it, a black bird was soaring through the sky, fairly low to the ground. I watched as he glided along. He seemed to pause just above me and plead like my kids do, “Watch me! Watch me!” He tilted and turned toward the west heading for a distant tree with nary a leaf left on its branches. As he approached the tree, he didn’t swoop in for a landing like I suspected he would. Instead, he maneuvered himself meticulously through the empty branches and flew directly through the tree, just to the right of the trunk. He exited on the other side and kept soaring. It was a fancy trick of sorts. I knew as I watched that the universe and God and my heart were all speaking to me. I thought back to one of my favorite children’s books, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”. For each obstacle the kids encounter along the way they conclude, “You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You’ve got to go through it.” That swift black bird was reminding me of this. He didn’t go over the tree, he couldn’t go under it. He went right through the branches. Now it’s my turn. I’m finding my brave. I’m scared. I’m hopeful. I’m embracing that I can’t go over this obstacle before me. I can’t go under it. I’ve got to go through it. And so, I will. And once I’m on the other side of this adventure, I hope to spread my wings again and just like that black bird, get back to the very very important business of soaring.