Parker sat on the kitchen countertop in his diaper while I cracked open pistachios. His tiny fingers reached down and picked them up one at a time and popped them into his mouth. In between two mouthfuls he casually mentioned, “I’m going to miss you, Mama.” My heart sank and soared as heartache stirred with love. I gave him a big hug while tears filled my eyes, and I told him I would miss him so much but that I would be back very soon. It was nearly time for me to go. I wrapped my arms around Jackson’s tiny frame and grabbed a bundle of Kroger bags filled with a few clean clothes, books, and my iPad. I walked out the back door, climbed into the truck and drove to the hospital. I tried not to think about what I was getting ready to do.
After my thyroidectomy in December, I knew there would be a second phase of treatment that involved taking a dose of radioactive iodine (RAI). Because iodine is absorbed by thyroid cells, RAI allows doctors to target and destroy any remaining thyroid cells, both cancerous and not, to decrease the chance of recurrence. To start this process, I had to stop taking my daily thyroid medication. This causes my body to enter a hypothyroid state which can cause any of the following fun symptoms: cold sensitivity, depression, dry skin, irritability, mental confusion, sleepiness, swelling, and weight gain.
For several weeks, I found myself extremely irritated with, well, everyone. I was quick to snap at my family and highly annoyed with common sounds such as clicks and shrieks and thumps and thuds. The sound of my kids whining and fussing drove me through the roof even more than it normally would. I was edgy. I did ridiculous things like trying to flush the toilet by flipping a light switch and attempting to get out of the van before I unbuckled my seat belt. When a Kroger employee asked me how I was doing, I responded, “Thank you,” and kept walking. To clarify, I consider myself crazy on any regular day. My kids add an extra level of crazy; let’s call it double crazy. Remove my thyroid and take away the medication I need to function and watch a triple threat crazy unfold.
At the same time as I was stopping medication and losing my sanity, I also had to start a low iodine diet (LID). The goal of LID is to starve my body of iodine so that I get the best possible results from my treatment of RAI. On this diet I could eat no dairy, no seafood, and very little iodized salt. Thankfully, I discovered a great community on Facebook that provided LID support and resources. For nearly 21 days my breakfast was alternating between blueberry banana oatmeal and toast with a fruit. Lunch was alternating between a pear salad and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Dinner was good at first, but declined as fatigue took over my body. We started with tacos, black bean and corn salad, and chili and declined toward, “Order a damn pizza for the family and I’ll just drink a beer for dinner.”
Waiting and Waiting and Waiting
Days passed slowly. I sat waiting for a call from the hospital that would tell me my official RAI date. I was hopeful that it would be sooner rather than later so that I could resume some kind of quasi-normal life style. I turned the ringer up to its loudest setting so that I would not miss the call. I waited and waited and waited. I needed more coffee and went downstairs to refill my cup only to return and discover that I’d missed a phone call – the call I had been waiting for. I sighed heavily and what happened next surprised me very little. Parker, who sat on his bedroom floor looking at books, sighed as well and then in the sweetest baby voice said, “Oh damn it. Oh damn it. Oh damn it.” Pavlov’s famous experiment came to mind except we’d replaced bells for sighs and salivating dogs for children uttering curse words. After a moment of mommy shaming, I thought to myself, “Oh damn it! The joys of parenting are unending.” I was starting to feel like a raging, exhausted, hypothyroid lunatic of a mother who swears and is OCD about her low iodine diet while she waits to ingest a little pill that will make her radioactive. And the worst part – it was true. All of it was true.
I had a dream months before that I kept coming back to time and time again. In it, I was struggling in the current of a swift river. Submerged and panicked, I flailed and fought making little progress toward the surface for that breath of air that I so desperately needed. Then I recalled that sometimes it is helpful to surrender, to simply go with the flow. And so I stopped fighting and focused on letting the water carry me along as it wished. I became one with the water. I glided effortlessly along with the current and found myself carried to a pebbled embankment where I could lie down and rest and breathe.
This dream has resonated with me because I often find myself grappling with control. Once upon a time, I believed I was completely in control of my life. I could clearly see how my choices affected the outcome of different events. Cause and effect ruled. Then along marched motherhood to shatter my tidy interpretation of the world. Control began to feel like an illusion. I quickly discovered that there is no cut and dry way to handle a raging two-year-old boy and that a day can crumble in a matter of seconds because
a.) the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was cut in half.
b.) the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was NOT cut in half.
c.) Mom says, “No,” to the 16th snack request before 9:30 a.m.
d.) clothing must be worn in public.
In the last few months, as a health scare landed at my doorstep, I’ve felt control slipping even further away. More than ever, I was no longer in charge of the outcome, and there was nothing I could do to alter that truth. I’m slowly learning that we can’t control everything even if we really, really want to. And for all that is not ours to decide, it is best to simply let go and have faith in the current. To embrace the ride we are on and hope for the best. My current just so happened to be carrying me toward a little radioactive pill.
The nurse walked me down the hallway and into a laboratory. I saw a small lead canister that had carried the RAI overnight from Kansas to Roanoke Memorial Hospital. In front of it, a clear shield stood as a barrier. The nurse put on latex gloves and approached the RAI. She explained that I would need to take the pill inside the canister with a sip of water. Once I was certain that it was swallowed and not coming back up, I would need to leave the hospital immediately, keeping a distance of six feet between myself and anyone I encountered along the way. This was considered the minimally safe distance to protect others from the invisible gamma rays I would emit from the RAI. I felt like I was in a science fiction film.
I thought about how much fun it would be to have a megaphone to announce my position in the hospital. I could walk the hallway proclaiming, “RADIOACTIVE HUMAN COMING THROUGH. I. AM. A BIOHAZARD. STEP BACK SIX FEET TO AVOID EXPOSURE. FOR FIVE DOLLARS, I WON’T HUG YOU.” I’d wear a lovely yellow dress with the radioactive symbol stamped across it. People would stare at me with wide eyes, then scatter out of the way as I approached, much like the parting of the Red Sea. Others would consider reporting me to the police for suspicious behavior. Others would lay five dollar bills on the floor and run for cover.
There was an exhausting list of precautions that would be taken over the course of the next four days. I would need a separate space to sleep and my own bathroom. I’d need to keep my dishes, trash, and clothing separate as well. Strangely, there seems to be no standard amount of isolation time based on the dose administered. I have heard of isolation times ranging from three days to over a week for patients given the same 100 millicurie dose as me. This added an extra level of stress as I didn’t want to risk exposing the boys to radiation by coming home too soon. I took up worrying in my spare time. I worried about how it would affect me in the hours after I swallowed the pill. I worried about long term effects to my body. I worried about inadvertently exposing the kids. Ultimately, there was no way of knowing what would happen. I had to let go.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the nurse said. I walked toward the table and picked up the small plastic interior case. I poured out a single gray pill into the palm of my hand. One little gray radioactive pill. I knew better than to think too much about what I was getting ready to do. I took a sip of water, placed the pill in the back of my mouth and swallowed it. There was no going back.
My exit was quiet. I hopped on an empty elevator and slowly descended down to the lobby. I made my way to the truck, walking wide around a few folks along the way. Each of them had no idea they strolled past a living biohazard. I retreated to my in-laws for the duration of my isolation and, surprisingly, felt mostly normal. My neck was a little tight and I slept more than usual, but on the whole, I felt just fine. I spent four days mostly napping, writing, watching HGTV, texting, talking on the phone, thinking about my boys, and hoping that a little pill was hard at work destroying any remaining cancer cells.
Back to the River
As a mother of young children, the best part of isolation was the fact that I could sleep uninterrupted and late into the morning – till nearly 9 a.m. WOW! It was nothing short of glorious. The second best part was a stroll I took along the Roanoke River. I set out slowly with just sights and sounds and my own thoughts for company. I ambled along watching the tremendous flow of green water down the wide riverbed. I watched the swift current move with powerful precision. In some places, the water pooled quietly by the river’s edge, taking a break from all the action. The water curved downward over rocks worn smooth by the passage of time. Small rapids boasted white crests. In one section, I noticed gentle rapids span the entire width of the river, leaving the water no choice but to humbly cascade downward.
Watching the river, I thought about how our lives are filled with calm, quiet moments where the current carries us along with predictable ease. There are moments where we steer into the rapids seeking change and adventure and discovery. Moments where we choose to be brave. Then, there are moments where we blink just an instant and find ourselves in the middle of a rapid that is unavoidable. Moments where there no choice involved. We quite simply have to be brave as we navigate the uncertain waters. I’d experienced both kinds of rapids in the last few months. I had sought out bravery as we traveled abroad and then came back home and, unexpectedly, found bravery in a doctor’s office.
I have decided that bravery is ever-shifting, much like the light of day. It can unfold slowly and quietly like the sunrise or look fierce and strong like the blazing light of a summer afternoon. It can hide behind shadows and appear suddenly or gently soften with acceptance as the last fading rays descend below the horizon. For me, this journey has been one where I learned about bravely letting go. Where I learned how to accept and trust the current that enveloped me. And through all the chaos and worry and exhaustion, I stumbled upon one last truth: Our struggles are quite beautiful because in the hardest parts, we find out just what we are made of. We find grit and resilience and strength and hope. We find parts of ourselves that we didn’t even know existed. We find our brave.
Eventually, four days had passed me by. I was free to rejoin the real world. As I drove back home, I turned the radio up and felt the music pulse as I cruised down Riverside Drive. I sang loudly and horribly, right along with my favorite Vandaveer song. I remembered doing the same thing as a twenty-something in my Honda Civic as I rode down the interstate with all the windows down, my hair twisting itself into knots in the wind as I sang along to Old Crow Medicine Show without a care in the world. I suddenly felt the very same as that college girl from long ago. Free. Unbridled. Spirited. I savored that moment and tucked it away in my heart. For years I’d been missing that girl, the one I was before life got so serious and heavy and sometimes overwhelming. What a gift to know she was indeed alive and well. I suddenly realized I AM still that girl. And I am so much more, depending on the day or the hour or the moment. I am brave and scared. I am strong and weak. I am young and old. I am tired and rested. I am humorous and serious. I am open and closed. I am certain and unsure. I am careful and careless. I am alone and connected. I am joyful and saddened. I am beautiful and haggard. I am calm and chaotic. I am brilliant and dull. I am light and heavy. I am falling and rising. I am the same and different.
i am. I am. I Am. I AM.
Undoubtedly, I am. I get a single, beautiful, exhausting chance to be. And so, I will. I walked back into my house and a grinning four-year-old bounded down the hallway and leaped into my arms. I cradled his weight while two scraggly arms reached around my neck and offered a fierce hug. I breathed him in. His hands grabbed my shoulders as he leaned backward and exclaimed, “You’re home, Mommy!” His legs seemed longer, his smile seemed brighter. I looked in his blue eyes and felt thankfulness wash over me. “I am, Jackson. I AM.”
What could be better than that?
For more on my journey visit:
Soaring Through Our Scars: Post Surgery