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.