Tag Archives: breast cancer

the blessing of being alive

DSC_0043Sometimes, I feel as if nothing I do matters.  I have struggled and fought and I have failed.  Oh, have I failed, in a million small ways, and in a few pretty large ways too.  Some days I feel weak and worthless.  But yesterday helped me see a bit clearer.

Yesterday, I attended a memorial service for a patient.  Her name was Angie, and she died at 45 from breast cancer.  The ceremony was held in a garden space, where a stand of trees stood proudly in the middle of barren desert.  In this oasis we were sheltered us from the Arizona sun, still so unrelenting even in late September. Native voices and drumming sliced through the air, carrying our prayers of healing and sobs of grief high in to the heavens.  We honored the four directions, the circle of life and all its infinite passages.  We held hands, a rainbow of humans from all walks of life, touched by this one woman. Years of addiction had scarred the hearts of some, yet there, under the shade trees, there was healing and love and hope for all of us. We were united in grief, united in being alive.

In this sacred space, I received kind words of gratitude for the care I gave to this woman while she was alive. I felt her community honor me as a healer to the sick and a friend to their loved one. Her case worker and strongest supporter during the last year of her life presented me with a print of a dragonfly, a symbol not only of the community where she lived but as symbol of transformation, of rebirth. It was how Angie wanted to be remembered.  She is now in the spirit of the dragonflies. She is liberated and omnipresent and I believe she is still here.  In a way, her illness gave her the medicine to be everywhere and everything, to transform from a homeless crack addict to an inspiration, a visionary, a healer.

I felt some apprehension about attending the service, as it promised to crack open my own barely contained well of grief (which it did). And sometimes it is hard to accept gratitude. I want to cast aside the humble thanks of others and say “its only my job.”  But it’s not “only my job.” It is a blessing and an honor and a calling. I couldn’t save Angie from cancer, nobody could. At times I couldn’t even lessen the pain.  But I walked beside her, I was at the door of her final passage.  I was a part of humanity’s best side, the wide embrace, the soothing words that call forth light in the darkness.  I was part of an easing of her burden, part of her finding wholeness even while she was dying. I was part of a miracle.

We all know about the shadow side of our civilization.  We slaughter, we rape, we decimate, we wreak havoc on the earth. Sometimes, I can’t bear being a human, can’t face being a tiny limb of the global curse. But yesterday, I felt honored to be alive, to be a person, to be a part of a community wider than my own mangled thoughts, my own voice pleading in the darkness.

A single wave is meaningless, yet the collective tide can carve canyons and move mountains.

I am honored to be part of this mysterious force.

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sorrows weave a web of joy

I spend my days caring for people who are living with loss. Sometimes its the loss of an identity as a healthy person.  Sometimes its the loss of a long life expectancy.  Sometimes its the loss of a breast.  The loss of estrogen. The loss of energy, vitality. The loss of long, sexy hair that trails to the small of a back. The loss of trust, the loss of a belief that everything will be okay.

I don’t know what it feels like to have breast cancer, and I didn’t know how it feels to be a mother to a dying child when I worked in pediatric bone marrow transplant, and I didn’t know how it feels to be a homeless, chemically dependent and mentally ill AIDS patient when I was a med-surg nurse in a county hospital. But life has a funny way making us let go, and let go, and let go some more, and after all this letting go we turn to other humans, who murmur yes, I understand what its like to see the most precious dreams fly away, I have felt the texture of the walls and the weight of the thick black air of a world of darkness, and I have come out on the other side. I have always enjoyed my patients, but I’m a different kind of nurse now.  Its subtle, probably not noticeable. But there is a slight shift in the air, a longer gaze in which I say without words I can better understand you. 

Sadly, loss breaks a few of us and there are casualties along the way, but more often than not, it simply destroys that which no longer fits. We need the heartbreak in order to open up more fully. And with this miracle of the human spirit we can then weave together the threads of our sorrows with those of others. We bond. We make a web of connection, and it captures the joy and blessings of this bizarre, difficult, beautiful world.  The details of our individual suffering is always unique, but in the collective experience of loss, we turn to each other with a soft and courageous stare and say I may not know, but I understand. 

all we have

Some days, being a nurse in oncology exhausts me to the core.

No, I don’t know if you will puke, if you will have diarrhea, if you’ll get an infection. I don’t know if your cancer will come back, if your tumor is bigger, if the chemo is working, if the cancer is in your liver, your bones, your brain. I don’t know if you’ll live to get married, or to see the ocean again, if you’ll be able to have a baby, if you’ll see your grandchild graduate high school.  If you’ll bury your spouse, or if your spouse will bury you. I don’t know if you’ll die in 6 months, 12 months, 12 years.  

Clearly, I don’t know much.

But in this tiring day in clinic, I had the blessing of caring for a patient who has been through every permutation of chemotherapy known to (wo)man for breast cancer, who looked me straight in the eye and said:

I know I’m going to die.  But I’m going to enjoy the life that I have, however long that is.  

She meant it.  She’s ready for the inevitable, but she’s grounded in the present.

We are so busy making plans for a future that may or may not come.  We grind away at jobs in order to get rewards down the road, we delay the telephone calls, the new dress, the vacation. I’m not saying that planning ahead is a bad thing, but it must be tempered with a grounding energy and a dedication to this very moment:

Take a breath. Feel your chair beneath your body, the ridges on your keyboard.  This is all there is, right now.

So own it.