Quilting Cancer Update

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Kelly with the quilt she made for her daughter Sheridan.

This morning, I made the first contribution from the royalties Quilting Cancer has earned–$250–to the St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland Respite House. From the St. Luke’s website: “Many of our patients and their caregivers travel long distances for cancer treatment… The Respite House will provide a safe and comfortable home away from home, helping ease some of the burdens of travel and allowing families to stay together.” Thank you all for purchasing the book and spreading the word! Also, Quilting Cancer will be featured in the April issue of Idaho Magazine. I was honored when the editor contacted me, and I’m so glad that Kelly’s inspirational message will reach a wider audience.

 

Gratitude and Reviews: Quilting Cancer Touches Many

My family and I have been overwhelmed by the response to Quilting Cancerthank you for the kind words, support, and enthusiasm. Kelly’s optimism, courage, and perseverance continues to thread people together and will have an impact for years to come. QuiltingCancer

But now I have a favor to ask… Everyone who has been touched by Quilting Cancer, the blog or the book, please take a few minutes to write a review–it only needs to be a sentence or two–on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews will help Quilting Cancer reach a wider audience and make it available to a variety of promotional websites.

And, for those of you who purchased the Kindle edition, a new version is available on Amazon, with a Kindle table-of-contents, as well as other updates. If you sync your device, the updated version should automatically download.

Quilting Cancer: Sharing a courageous voice

QuiltingCancer
(The quilts on the cover were made by Kelly for her daughters Shaelyn, Sierra, and Sheridan.)

Sometimes in life we become witnesses to incredible acts of bravery, only partially aware at the time, but later able to appreciate the full magnitude of what we experienced. During the aftermath, there is a sense, almost an obligation, of wanting to share these everyday stories of inspiration.

I know I’m not alone. Many of us brush shoulders with unforgettable acts of courage, people who possess an unlimited well of resilience. They will themselves forward, accepting their circumstances yet never giving up.

Their stories are often quiet, unfolding without fanfare, but they encompass the backbone of humanity. A silent strength that weaves us all together, and, the more we know about these people, the stronger we become as a society.

So I decided to record my sister Kelly’s journey with adversity, her eight-year battle with cancer, by publishing her blog, Quilting Cancer (available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle), along with essays reflecting on Kelly’s bravery and the lessons she taught me.

My intention is not to turn Kelly into a saint or deify her. Like all of us, Kelly had faults, yet at the end of her life, she revealed a core strength and selflessness. She learned how to fully live while also preparing to die.

Her message transcends time and location. It is the universal call to embrace life despite one’s circumstances. It speaks of selflessness—Kelly was constantly concerned with others, always thankful for even the smallest assistance—and finding joy in the simplest everyday occurrences.

To borrow from Proverbs 3:3—a verse I return to again and again—Kelly’s lessons will never leave me. They are bound around my neck, written on the tablet of my heart.

(All profit from the book will be donated to St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland.)

Grace Notes: A Letter of Gratitude

On October 10, 2016, thirteen helium balloons—carrying hand-written birthday greetings across their colorful surfaces—were released into a clear, Idaho sky. pinkball

Breezes tugged them across the pasture, where Indy, an elderly quarter horse, nodded his white head and swatted his tail, as if wanting to hurry them along, understanding their significance. They drifted, stretching across a wide horizon, their strings shimmying with the wind. Climbing higher, the balloons joined with clouds etched in pink and red, reflecting the setting sun.

The thirteen of us, family and friends, sang the Birthday Song, our voices at first faint but eventually gathering strength. Then we all stood there in silence, watching the floating greeting cards until they disappeared from sight

And even though the intended recipient, my sister Kelly, was no longer with us, having left us only two days prior, I felt her presence, as I’m sure everyone did. Perhaps she was the feathery breeze brushing across our cheeks, the burst of wind chimes singing out into the dusky night, or the shadows darting around Indy.

Our simple gesture of remembrance had altered an evening ripe with anguish and sorrow into a night full of grace. And it was an eight-year-old girl, Lexie, who we had to thank for the transformative gift, a reflection of the love that my sister had generated throughout her life.

Lexie had wanted to give Kelly a birthday present, telling her mother Mandy that she knew exactly how to deliver it, and Mandy made it possible, gathering all the supplies. Because of their initiative, it was easy to imagine the balloons, as they grew smaller, mere pinpricks against the vast sky, leaving this earth for a heavenly embrace.

It was one of many moments of grace over the past several years, during Kelly’s long battle with cancer, in which generosity and selflessness fused together to defeat pain and fear, allowing us to transcend our grief and recognize how extraordinary and giving people can be.

heartThese grace notes lived within Kelly and continue to envelop my family, filling our hearts with gratitude even as we mourn. And so this letter of thankfulness begins with a little girl, who understood that birthday celebrations never need to end, and continues with an almost endless list of people* who helped my sister carry her burden, trying to slip it off her shoulders, if only for a few seconds at a time…

Family

~ My nieces Shaelyn, Sierra, and Sheridan, whose maturity belies their years, filled Kelly with unwavering pride. They never faltered in their support and care for their mother, and their strength and character reflected off the people around them, making us all braver because of them.

~My mother Sherry and stepfather Pete wove a circle of love around Kelly and unconditionally supported her from traveling to Bethesda, MD to driving to doctor’s appointments to simply holding her hand.

~My husband Keith offered endless optimism and humor—even when his heart was aching—without which our lives would have been much darker and bleaker places.

~Visits, calls, and cards from aunts, uncles, and cousins proved that the love of family stretches across any distance. Aunt Janean and cousins Ashley, Kendell, Jon, and Bella met Kelly and Sheridan at Washington swim meets. Uncle Jim, Aunt Kathy, Uncle John, and cousins Ian and Brad joined us at a Corvallis swim meet for a long weekend of sharing family memories. Uncle Alan sent books and cards, and Cousin Liz and family visited Kelly from Arizona, renewing their relationship and strengthening their love for each other. All of this meant so much to Kelly, and she often reflected on how grateful she was to be part of the Fanning-Walsh families.

St. Luke’s MSTI

~Jonathon, Tonya, Karen, and all the nurses and staff at MSTI never stopped fighting, despite the prognosis, and generated a sense of hope and courage through truthful optimism. Their compassion and kindness touched Kelly and my family and will continue to affect us for many years to come, perhaps forever, as I’m sure many families who have dealt with cancer can say. And, Patty, whose willingness to listen, always be available for guidance and comfort, has meant much more than I’m sure she realizes.

Friends from across the years and world

~Encouragement, love, and prayers arrived almost daily from friends across the world in the form of cards, online messages/texts, voice mails, visits, and flowers, often accompanied with a much-needed dose of humor. The names of these friends, from schools, organizations, and work, have run across my mind often over the past several years in a soothing litany: Sam, Beverly, Melody, Marilyn, Ben, Cristina, Bob, Xavier, Ann, Lanette, Rachel, Kristine, Pete, Gina, Lori, Tony, Kathy, Bruce, Carol, Peggy, Don, Hilary, Lucy, Susie, Rachael, Arlene, Willard… there are too many to name and some of whose actions were only known by Kelly. But please know that everything you did from lighting candles and donating to Aquathons to hospital visits brightened Kelly’s journey during a very dark time and has had a lasting effect, engraved on the hearts of all who witnessed your deeds.

~And, of course, as in everyone’s lives, there are friends who never quite fit into that category, who are more than that… Shane, Kelly’s dear companion over the past few years and lifelong friend, became a partner in care, traveling to doctor’s appointments across the United States and making himself available at all times (and continues to do so). And Twyla, more sister than friend, lifted Kelly with her humor and love.

Parma

~The support of the Parma community defies words. I’m at a loss to express how much this town and the people in it meant to Kelly. Cards arrived weekly from PEO sisters, and friends like Val, Jay, Kathy, Dana, Kristy, and many others frequently made themselves available to help or for a kind word. The teachers and staff of the Parma School District—Shelly, Toby, Madelyn, Monique, Patricia, Cory, Mick… everyone—wrapped my nieces in a supportive embrace and held them up during a difficult time. And Pastor Mark of Sterry Church spent hours and hours with Kelly, discussing Christ’s message and guiding her on a spiritual path of hope and renewal.

Neighbors

~From weeding and snowplowing to providing dinners and taking care of animals or simply providing a hug, Kelly’s neighbors—the Timmons, Jeffers, Parkers, Pascales, Mcleans, and Morrels—selflessly gave of their time. Mandy Pascale and her family offered tireless help, support, and friendship with Mandy recently completing three quilts that Kelly never had the chance to finish.

Kappa Kappa Gamma

~Thank you, Karena, for a friendship that transcends the meaning of that word and for teaching me that there is always time for the people we love, despite distance and schedules. And Nola, for walking next to Kelly (and me) over the past forty years from swim team to cross country and track to the University of Idaho, as well as all my Kappa sisters for your letters, messages, and visits over the past several years, along with the glorious anniversary weekend last April, which meant so much to Kelly and will be etched in my memory forever.

Swim Teams

~Boise YMCA Swim Team parents and swimmers became cheerleaders, not only for my nieces but also for Kelly. This outstanding organization provided much more than just an outlet for exercise and competition but grew into a much-loved activity and diversion, especially Coach Linda Conger, who texted Kelly daily with jokes and supplied us all with some of the best tamales in the Boise Valley.

~The reintroduction of a swim team in Parma began as Kelly’s dream and will hopefully continue in the years to come as part of her legacy. All the swim team parents and swimmers were loving and supportive, but Coach Andres, in particular, became a dear friend, always in contact, whether visiting Kelly in the hospital or joining us for Thanksgiving and other family celebrations.

4-H

~Like the Boise Y Swim Team, 4-H took on a larger meaning through the leaders and members’ support for Kelly and her daughters, particularly Mandy and Myrn, whose phone calls and cards continue today.

heartsAll these people and their love flowed through Kelly and continue to bolster us up as we navigate through our grief, extending peace like a river (to borrow from Isiah 66:12). The kindness Kelly received and gave during her life will have a chain reaction, touching everyone who witnessed it, linking us together in an endless loop and making us more aware of other people in need. Which, in the end, would have been exactly what Kelly would have wanted.

Her life was, in a sense, one of service—nursing—tending to people in the broadest meaning of that word. She believed our purpose on earth was to help other people, and if that was the lesson she left, then I know she would have been proud.

And, as Lexie proved, Kelly continues to inspire, setting an example of bravery and optimism that pushes us all upward, beyond the edge of the horizon where magical balloons proclaim their love for a person whose birthday celebration will never end.

 

 

 

*If I’ve forgotten someone, please forgive me but know that everything you did was remembered and greatly appreciated by Kelly.

Guilt Is My Frequent Companion, Hitchhiking Through My Life

Although I’ve not written for a while, my blog is frequently on my mind with ideas, experiences, and observations dancing through my head. Having become a silent but comforting confidante, I am unable to abandon my blog… As I drive through the countryside or lie awake in bed, I write in my head, creating descriptions and passages, explanations and scenarios. But for some reason, for the past few months, I’ve been unable to put it all together. It’s not at all a lack of desire. Rather it has been a lack of focus and perhaps even energy. I have to carefully choose where and when to use my focus and energy, knowing that each are limited, and that I have to prioritize. But today I recognized, with the help of an insightful friend, that writing and blogging are actually a great source of inspiration for me and that without it I’m feeling lost and disoriented within my own cancer journey… I feel as though I’ve gone astray. And to have lost my way just serves to compound this overwhelming and frightening experience. So today I’m back, intending to remain so, and ready to explore a subject that has been haunting me since I was diagnosed with cancer more than eight years ago… Guilt.

Guilt is my frequent companion, unexpected and uninvited. It pops up from time to time, hitchhiking through my life, an ugly visitor on an already difficult journey. I feel guilty for having cancer, for being terminally ill, for losing my ability to participate in life the way I once did. I feel guilty that people have to take care of me, clean up after me, and rearrange their own lives in order to accommodate my needs and my desires. I even feel guilty for the envy that I sometimes feel when I watch seemingly healthy people going about the daily activities of life–activities that are no longer a part of my repertoire—excitedly dashing up a flight of stairs to retrieve a forgotten item, energetically jogging down the road in pursuit of fitness, effortlessly maneuvering through the chores and tasks of the day. But most of all I feel guilty because I am a mother with cancer and the lives of my children are forever and irreversibly changed by that ugly six letter word.

My feelings of guilt have led me to apologize to my loved ones, my family and friends, on many occasions. I apologize when I have a particularly bad day, when my pain is out of control, and when I’m unable to participate in the simplest of activities–an evening meal, a short walk with the dogs, gathering eggs from the chicken coop. I apologize when my family has to carry me, doing the things I can no longer do because I’m too tired, too weak, or too slow. I apologize when I break down and become tearful, expressing my fears and anxieties, because I know that their love for me forces them along that ugly path of dread and angst right beside me. At the very least I am aware that it is painful to watch me suffer, and for that I am, of course, sorry. And I apologize to my children for missing their special events, for asking them to take on even more responsibilities, and for worrying them on the days that I am too sad or too sick to properly mother them.

Of course they all ask me why I apologize and tell me that I don’t need to do so. I try to explain, to put into words this burdened state of mind and the sense that I am somehow responsible, at least in part, for the emotional well-being of those that care for me. But these feelings of guilt are complicated—my need to apologize, to express my regret, to clear my conscious, and to protect my loved ones from the ugly truth and far reaching depth of this cancer—not fully understood even by me.

On a cognitive, conscious, and rational level I do know that I’ve done nothing wrong and that my feelings of guilt are unfounded. I didn’t earn this cancer. No one, absolutely no one, deserves this. Nevertheless, I’ve made tremendous personal and financial sacrifice to pursue the best of cancer care. I’ve pushed my body and my sanity in search of treatment options and opportunities. I’ve learned firsthand the details, the good and the bad, of chemo, radiation, and surgery, clinical trials, nutritional options, and even acupuncture. I take better care of myself than ever before, realizing the benefits of light exercise, soothing naps, and pampering massage for cancer patients. And even as I pray, sometimes begging God to allow me more time, to make the pain stop, to help me find the strength I need to fight, and to heal my body, I am aware that I don’t deserve this cancer or the myriad of burdens it has placed on my life. Neither do my loved ones. But for some reason, not completely appreciated by me, I do feel guilty.

Perhaps I sense that as these ugly little cellular mutations were taking place in my body, my own defense mechanisms were asleep at the wheel. When my body should have kicked into high gear to destroy the mutant cells, I might have been stressed or sleep deprived, causing my defenses to be otherwise occupied. Whatever the case, my body wasn’t paying attention and it let me down. It left me in the lurch, deserted me in my hour of need, and it smacks of failure. And although I’ve made some impressive mistakes in my life, serious errors in judgment, I’ve never seen myself as a failure. I’ve generally accomplished what I set out to do, learning from my mistakes and growing within my limitations. I’ve experienced success—as a mother, as a student, as a professional, as an athlete, as a woman. Until now. Now, as a mother with cancer, I feel as though I’m failing.

I once told a cancer psychiatrist about my feelings of guilt. I caught her off guard and she was surprised by that revelation. I don’t think she had considered that a victim of cancer might feel guilty. To her credit, she recovered well, and then gave me much to think about. Ultimately I have discovered that I’m not alone in these feelings of guilt. I’ve asked around. I’ve read up on it. Although none of us should, other cancer patients feel guilty, too.

Those of us in the cancer club find a multitude of reasons to blame ourselves for our predicament. We think we should have noticed our symptoms earlier, brought about an earlier diagnosis, and possibly more effective treatment. We are concerned that we are burdening our families and friends. And we worry about the welfare of those we might leave behind—especially the welfare of our children, their emotional health and physical comfort, a future for which we may not be present, and all of the life events that a mother can’t bear to miss. We worry that lifestyle choices may have caused the cancer. Maybe we ate too much red meat, chugged too much milk, and slept too little. Maybe we didn’t exercise enough, had one too many glasses of wine, or gave in to a sweet tooth too often. Maybe we lived in an exotic location where carcinogens traveled the water pipes, floated through the polluted air, or began as a parasitic virus. Maybe… If only… What if…

Bottom line, regardless of lifestyle, nutrition, sleeping habits, or living environment, no one deserves cancer. No one deserves the malignant mistakes made by our happy, little, normal cells as they copy DNA while they are growing and dividing. Heck, lots of people will live crazy, unhealthy, metamorphosis inviting lifestyles and never have so much as a hint of a mutation. And although I’ve learned that I’m not alone in the I’ve-Got-Cancer-So-I-Feel-Guilty-Club, I’ve also learned that it’s not healthy to dwell on guilt or on the past. Dwelling leads to anxiety and depression and we wrangle with that enough as it is. Cancer is not our fault.

So as I try to ditch my uninvited companion, I’m working hard to let go of the maybes, if onlys, and what ifs. I focus on now. I focus on pleasure—whatever that may be—music, art, writing, companionship of family and friends, time spent with my daughters, and, of course, quilting. I focus on communion with God through prayer and scripture, conversations with my pastor, and spiritual readings. I focus on shared feelings, support from loved ones, and on the many positive aspects of my life for which I am thankful. And if the guilt continues, amid the apologies and regret, I must, we must, forgive ourselves.

 

 

A Loving Tribute to a Source of Inspiration

God knew I would need a sister and so He gave me one. Today, although she is two thousand and forty five point six miles away, I honor my sister and celebrate her birthday.

My “little” sister was born when I was just 18 months old. The day my parents brought her home from the hospital I announced that she was “my baby”. And we have been close companions, comrades, and confidantes ever since.

Baby Erin

We have shared bedrooms, toys, and friends. We have shared adventures and misadventures, joy and grief, success and failure. We have traveled the world together, been the new kids at school together, and got caught up in mischief together. We have protected one another from teasing and tattling and comforted one another when protection wasn’t enough.

As children we played board games for hours; Clue, Sorry, and Monopoly marathons occupied our time on rainy Sunday afternoons. We created intricate scenarios for our Barbie dolls, and watched Saturday morning cartoons, sharing Pop Tarts and Cap’n Crunch.

We danced in the living roomKelly and Erin to Simon and Garfunkel and later to Foreigner and Motown. Together we learned to swim, our years on the swim team favorite memories that began lessons in strength and endurance and forged lifetime friendships. Together we learned to play the piano, sharing duets, suffering through one another’s wrong notes and missed chords, and practicing the increasingly complicated sonatas, concertos, and occasional jazz. Together we galloped bareback through the orchards, clinging to each other, and giggling as we pulled one another from our horse’s broad back, the tall grasses softening our fall and muffling our laughter. In our head-to-toe matching outfits, together we learned to navigate the ski slopes, a skill that she took to an even greater level, never shying away from the challenge of a mogul field or backcountry skiing. As we grew older we joined the high school track and cross country teams, our much admired coach inspiring further strength and endurance that we believe serve in my cancer fight today. We tossed rifles, spun flags, and danced on the drill team together, attracted by the sequined outfits, way-cool white boots, and the cute drummers in the marching band. Later still we lived together in college, joining the same sorority, sharing our secret handshake, songs, and rituals, as well as a larger band of sisterhood that would someday also be a source of inspiration. We spent summers together in the humidity of the Deep South and the midnight sun of the Alaskan Interior, working, exploring, and maturing those many miles from home.Erin and Kelly

We have shared secrets and jokes, laughing until we cried over silly things that only sisters could understand. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, she gave me an incredible brother-in-law who understands and supports our sister bond.

She proposed that I compete in my first triathlon—and then joined me and led the way. She has scouted quilting shops for me, encouraging my new found hobby. She shares her writing with me, often before an editor sees her work for the first time. She rocked my first baby so that I could sleep. She stood beside me when I married and was beside me when my marriage failed. She provided a name for my second daughter, her namesake. She is the godmother of my three daughters. She is the executor of my estate. I miss her when we are apart. She is the person I trust most in the world.

I can’t imagine my life without my sister, my constant companion, my greatest cheerleader. And for the past 8 years, as I’ve faced my life’s biggest challenge, it is largely my sister that keeps me going. She has traveled this country with me in search of treatment, she has celebrated treatment success and grieved treatment failure. She has spent long days at hospital bedsides, driven me to and from chemo and radiation, waited for a surgeon’s news, and attended appointments so that I need not face the unknown alone. She has turned her life upside down to be with my children when I couldn’t be. She has stayed with me so that my household could function even when I could not. When I am down and feeling hopeless, she encourages me, logically and calmly reminding me that my fight is not finished. She has put her own needs and desires on hold. All for me.

I would like to think that all siblings enjoy this degree of love and commitment from one another. But I realize how very blessed I am. Heck, with all of those gifts you would think it’s my birthday, rather than hers, that I celebrate today. Luckily for me, and for the many people who know and love my sister, it is her birthday. I hope that as a sister I provide to her even a small amount of what she does for me and every day I thank God for giving me the sister He knew I would need. And now I really should finish the quilt I’ve started for her! Happy birthday, Erin!

~Love, Kelly~

It’s Complicated

Not so long ago I unexpectedly found myself in the emergency room of our local hospital. I guess that’s a silly statement–nearly all visits to the emergency room are unexpected. For several days I hadn’t been feeling well, exhibiting symptoms that I was sure were pneumonia–fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, and sometimes a fever accompanied by night sweats. None of that was so out of the ordinary for a cancer patient and it wasn’t enough to coax this veteran of healthcare into the ER. Oh no, instead I waited until my heart suddenly felt like it was jumping out of my chest, reaching an unsustainable rate of 225 beats per minute. Only then was I ready to admit that I needed medical attention.

Luckily, when my heart began misbehaving I was already in town, having just dropped my daughter off at swim team practice. Riding along in my pickup truck I quietly tried to valsalva my heart back to a normal sinus rhythm. That didn’t work. So then I found a still packaged drinking straw from a long forgotten fast food meal, and tried to breathe through that. But it was to no avail and my heart remained in what I had by then self-diagnosed as atrial fibrillation. Never having experienced such a thing before, I was mildly curious as to why and much more curious as to how long this chest pounding discomfort would continue.

Once in the ER I received a myriad of tests–blood work, ECG, constant vital signs, and a chest x-ray that I assured the ER staff would be ugly, because, after all that is where the cancer now resides. Checking on me frequently, the very kind, competent, and concerned ER physician finally informed me that along with the atrial fibrillation that I had accurately self-diagnosed, I also had some sort of pneumonia, as well as dehydration, and severe anemia. In fact, periodic tests revealed that the anemia continued to worsen, perhaps indicating a grave and often fatal condition. As if that wasn’t enough, he also told me that my potassium level was much too low and that I appeared to be having what could be a thyroid storm. I would need to be admitted to the hospital for IV antibiotics, a hefty blood transfusion, continuous oxygen, re-hydration, more tests, and consults with specialists. And perhaps to me the most disturbing of all, I would need to be transferred by ambulance to a bigger hospital in a bigger city because I was just “too complicated”.

TOO COMPLICATED?!?!?!?! I cracked the physician’s carefully composed demeanor a little when I blurted out that “I never wanted to be one of THOSE patients”.

But I had become one of THOSE patients and I found myself waiting for the ambulance and for my critical care bed to be readied at the big city hospital.

It was only then that I acknowledged that I was facing a crisis and that I would need to draw from my sources of inspiration. With desperation seeping into my mind, I searched for every truth I’ve known, everything I’ve written about, every source of strength I’ve experienced, every point of hope, every lingering connection I have to this earth. I prayed, begging God to wrap his arms around me and to fill my heart with His love and courage. I focused on my three daughters, my desire to continue is to be their mother, and how much I don’t want to let them down. By then my family had begun to gather in the ER and I looked into my own mother’s face as she leaned over my hospital gurney to whisper to me. I found myself hanging on the loving, encouraging words of the woman who brought me into this world, nurtured me, and who I know has prayed to take my place as a cancer patient.

While I waited for the ambulance, I watched the anxious, loving family members who had gathered to rally around me, to protect me, and to comfort one another in the wake of yet another cancer-induced moment of truth. My three beautiful daughters and my charming son-in-law were there. My amazing sister and loyal brother-in-law were there along with my loving mom and step-dad. And my boyfriend, who was doing his best to keep me calm, holding my hand and practically tap dancing in an attempt to ease the tension, was there. And as I watched them–talking to one another, occasionally laughing at a private joke, or covertly watching my heart monitor, I realized that I was looking at my world. All that matters to me. Everything. And that is not complicated at all.

It’s really very simple. With everything stripped away, facing my own mortality and an uncertain immediate future, I realize (and have for quite some time) that these relationships are really all that matters. When all else is gone or taken, we still have love.

Later, during the ambulance ride to Boise, my heart rate spontaneously converted back to a normal sinus rhythm. Perhaps it was the gentle bouncing of the ambulance, perhaps it was the lively conversation that the paramedic and I had about our presidential candidates, or perhaps it was thoughts of the unfinished quilt that awaited on my sewing machine, expecting me home to align the seams and add the remaining few blocks. Whatever the case, it felt really good and I was able to relax a little.

Although I remained in the hospital for a few days, I quickly improved. The pneumonia and anemia were treated, blood tests leveled out, and my heart continued to behave itself. The possibly fatal condition detected in the ER did not progress. And most importantly, I learned that what really matters is not complicated at all.

~Kelly~

 

Bald Is Beautiful

I told myself that it doesn’t matter, that I don’t care, and that I won’t cry. But I guess it does matter and I do care because I did cry as I watched handfuls of hair swirling around my ankles and plugging the shower drain.

This is the fifth time that I’ve lost my hair to chemotherapy and really I’m used to it. I’ve learned that my bald head has a pretty good shape to it and that having no hair is surprisingly liberating. Although it helps to wear bold earrings and eye enhancing makeup, for a woman to be bald is so honest and open. I have acquired a beautiful stash of scarves and head-wraps and thanks to YouTube, I’ve learned to tie them in fashionable styles. In some ways having no hair simplifies my life. Tying a scarf or scrunching a soft head-wrap onto my noggin is much easier and faster than drying and curling or sitting in a salon chair. Of course there is the issue of having just the right color to go with whatever outfit I have planned. But just today a fellow chemo patient complimented the head-wrap I’m wearing, a silky black number with swirls of bright blue throughout. I promised her I would make one for her.

So I don’t think I’m vain about my hair loss. I think instead that the hair loss and ensuing sadness and tears symbolize something else for me. They symbolize the multiple losses that cancer has created in my life. Because of cancer I’ve lost freedom. Instead my life is governed by the appointments that are necessary for blood tests, CT scans, MRIs, chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and visits with my oncologist. Before I can plan anything I have to consider where I will be in my chemo cycle and whether or not I will feel well enough to attend an event, go on a trip, or participate in an activity. Because of cancer I’ve lost strength and endurance and therefore many of the activities that I once enjoyed, like distance swimming, mountain biking, and long days of gardening. Because of cancer I’ve lost much of the career that I worked so hard to build and that I loved so much. With that I have lost stimulating and challenging interactions with colleagues and students and I have lost rewarding, tender moments with patients. And because of cancer I have lost some of my independence, which spans from financial freedom to the day-to-day functioning of my household. But most of all, and the loss that I mourn the most, is my innocence.

I believe that there are aspects of life to which we are, and will hopefully remain, innocent. I have a sense that the human spirit can rise, prevail, and remain optimistic, at least in part, because we can be innocent to the trials, crises, and pain that await us. We begin our stint in this world with complete innocence and although life events strip it away over time, it is a gift worth nurturing for as long as possible. But cancer has robbed me of my innocence. It left me, quickly and without ceremony, but gone nevertheless.

When I hear that a friend or relative or someone in my close-knit community has received a new diagnosis of cancer, I mourn the loss of innocence that I know awaits them. As my own innocence left me, it was replaced with an uninvited insight. I learned to bravely shoulder bad news, saving my grief for the privacy of a parking lot. I became familiar with physical and emotional pain at a level that I had not known before. I learned to navigate hospitals and clinics intimately and to aggressively advocate for myself. I know what chemotherapy and radiation really feel like and how far I’m willing to go to survive. I know what it is to forego all dignity and travel thousands of miles to beg a cancer researcher to not give up on me, to not forget me, to consider me a candidate for his next clinical trial because the previous one failed. I know what it’s like to discuss a future that doesn’t include me, to literally plan my funeral so that no one else will have to, and most painful of all, to prepare my children for a life without me. Uninvited insight has shown me what’s it’s like to watch life from the sidelines–like a movie preview–getting a taste of what I won’t be around to witness.

But it doesn’t stop there. Although I have paid with my innocence, I also recognize that uninvited insight has given me a depth of knowledge and a better understanding than I had in my life before cancer. I have unwittingly received life altering lessons of grace and love and courage. I have learned that I am stronger than I ever realized, willing to withstand just about anything to lengthen my time on this earth. I have learned that I am a good mother and that even at their tender ages, I have raised daughters that are resilient and brave, kind and loving. I have learned that whether I am living or not, they will look out for one another, they will have good lives, and they will be alright. I have learned that there is indeed power in prayer and that spiritual growth is abundant during times of fear and suffering and deepest desire. I have learned to be the humble recipient of the kindness of strangers, meeting their open arms and appreciating every encouraging word and comforting deed. I have learned how truly blessed I am to have family and friends willing to drop everything to come to my rescue, to prod me along when I become doubtful, providing a kinship that defies description. I have learned to slow down, to recognize my priorities, to perfect the art of living in the moment, and to find the beauty, even for fleeting moments, in each and every day that is given to me.

Perhaps these are lessons that I should have learned earlier in life and at a lower price. I knew I was loved, that God does great things, and that the kinships I enjoy run deep. But I think that my innocence allowed me to take it all for granted, to know but not know, to lull myself into false security, and to assume it would last forever. It was the loss of innocence and the arrival of uninvited insight that taught me to whittle away at the superfluous and to focus instead on what is most important to me–God, motherhood, family and friends. It taught me to narrow my focus and to take advantage of opportunities that might enrich the lives of those I care about as well as my own. That is not to say that I have given up on frivolity. Goodness no! Frivolity is a part of my adventures, woven into my daily life, soothing my soul, and entertaining my mind. Frivolity induces hysterical laughter with my daughters over jokes that only we can understand. It encourages my mind to creatively wander, planning flower beds, decorating for holidays, and playing the piano as if for an audience. Frivolity seduces me into creating quilts beyond my ability level, exploring methods and styles as if I’ve quilted for decades.

And so, as I mourn the loss of my innocence while drying tears over lost hair and find solace in yet another quilt block, one might wonder, if I could be cured, would I give up cancer? In a heartbeat. But would I reclaim my innocence in trade for what cancer has given me? Never.

~Kelly~     IMG_0062

The All-True Adventures of Kelly on Chemo

Ugh. Yuck. Puke. After a six month hiatus I am back on chemotherapy. I hate chemo—it addles my brain and sickens my body. And then there are the side effects of the drugs used to control the chemo side effects. My daughters joke that I am familiar with every public restroom within a 100 mile radius. I have strange (and probably disgusting) food cravings while on chemo. And I can vomit on command. I am about to be bald for the fifth time in eight years—this time hoping to keep my eyebrows and eyelashes because I’m just not very good at applying the fake ones. I recall a lunch date with two dear friends during which I’m quite sure one set of eyelashes was in danger of dropping into my pasta salad. They were both too kind to comment.

At the same time I must be grateful. I am aware that chemotherapy has kept me alive. I have joked that I am a chemo addict, showing up at the clinic praying that my blood counts would be high enough to allow another infusion, practically begging my dear doctor not to lower my dose, and outright lying about the severity of side effects. Hearing loss? Ringing in my ears? Not a problem. Numbness in my feet? Hardly. Diarrhea? Not to speak of. Nausea and vomiting? Minor issue. Fatigue? Shortness of breath? Only when I run. I’m quite sure he’s on to me.

In truth, cancer and its’ myriad of treatments have trapped me in a body that I no longer recognize. That’s a bold statement and I have friends and acquaintances that certainly have a greater claim to that sentiment than I do. I suppose some of it may mimic the aging process. If so, it’s in fast forward and I wasn’t prepared to give it up so soon. I was once an athlete. Heck, in my mind I still am. I ran and swam and biked and skied. I rode my horse with abandon and I was strong. I carried three pregnancies and delivered each one naturally. With the third I drove myself to the hospital, blowing between contractions, reassuring my three year old daughter bouncing along in the pickup with me, and delivering 11 minutes after arriving. I had the strength to stack hay bales and the endurance to swim and bike a half ironman. But the body that did all of that no longer exists. And with that loss my sense of adventure has changed.

There was a time when I thought of adventure as riding a horse through the Swiss Alps, dancing in the streets of Paris on Bastille Day, and skiing the ungroomed slopes of Alaska. With friends I ventured into Mexican border towns for evenings of dance, laughter and late night swims in the Colorado River. And for years, along with a group of equally thrill seeking cowgirls, I fed my adrenaline addiction by riding my steel gray quarter horse at breakneck speeds through rodeo arenas.

I suppose in all fairness my idea of adventure changed somewhat when I became a mother. As a mother I found adventure through the eyes of my children and the wonder with which they viewed every day happenings. As they grew, teaching them to do the things I have loved so much—swim, bike, ski, ride—became an opportunity to relive the excitement. I learned that adventure is much, much more than exotic places, thrill seeking, and adrenaline. Motherhood taught me that adventure takes place without ever leaving home. And although given the opportunity I would still gladly zip line through a South American jungle, snorkel off the coast of Mexico, and parasail over an aqua-colored ocean, I’ve also learned to find adventure every day and all around me.

More than ever I appreciate the adventure found in the kinship of family and friends. Together we share the challenges, celebrate the triumphs, and measure the milestones. We embrace one another through laughter and tears. We encourage, congratulate, and console. With each new day offering unchartered territory, we are life’s explorers, sightseeing, searching, and discovering.

I still ride my beloved horse. Of course he is much older now, too, so we both prefer to just mosey down the trail. His gentle cadence rises through my saddle, easing tension from my back and shoulders, allowing me to reflect on the many miles we have covered together. Although I require frequent hot chocolate breaks, I still ski the mountains of Idaho. I am stimulated by the majestic views from the chair lift and the sound of my skis on fresh snow. And I can still swim and bike now and then but the real adventure for me is in watching my daughters at a swim meet or completing their first triathlon.

Last fall, when my future appeared to be especially bleak, and I was feeling like I just hadn’t experienced enough adventures on this earth, I decided to try something new. It had all the makings of adventure… new skills, new knowledge, some excitement, and maybe even a little risk. I decided I would create a quilt for each of my daughters. Hoping to live long enough to meet my goal, I immersed myself in this new adventure. I learned the pleasure to be gained from the camaraderie of fellow quilters, the excitement of expressing my creativity, and the challenge of acquiring new skills. And of course I learned the self-satisfaction of having met my goal and presenting each of my daughters with a beautiful finished product, complete with errors that made it uniquely my creation. On the back of each quilt I added a secret pocket into which I slipped hand written notes. My notes told the girls why I had chosen their particular quilt pattern and fabrics and what the experience had meant for me. Since then I have made several more quilts. Each is unique and although I do plenty of seam ripping, with each I have found solace.

I believe that the strength and endurance that were mine in a life before cancer have served me well. I believe they have helped me, perhaps even inspired me, to withstand the rigors of cancer treatment. I know that they have allowed me to be inspired by my new found form of adventure. And I am so very grateful for all of it.

Adventure on! ~Kelly~

My Daughter is a Grappler

My teenage daughter is a grappler. She wrestles. And in Idaho that means that during the high school season she wrestles both boys and girls–very few girls and lots of boys well on their way to manhood. During the freestyle season she wrestles more girls and we travel to all-girl tournaments, where the competition is both serious and fierce.

When my daughter was in the eighth grade she informed me that she would like to start wrestling. Being unfamiliar with the sport, my immediate response was an emphatic no. I explained that I didn’t want her to compete in a “boys’ sport”. I told her that I saw no value in it. But after the initial surprise and upon further reflection—I suppose influenced, at least in part, by a life altered by cancer—I decided that she, rather than I, should determine the experiences she would have in life. And so I relented and told her that she could wrestle… I warned her it would be difficult, would require a great deal of self-discipline… and courage. And she would be required to agree to my rules.

Rule 1: No quitting. If you start the season you must finish the season. No matter how difficult it is and whether you find success or failure, you will not quit.

Rule 2: Never cry on the mat. I have seen boys cry on the mat. Leave that for them. You may need to find a quiet corner later, after your match, but do not be a girl that cries on the mat.

Rule 3: Do not expect preferential treatment because you are a girl. Just because you have chosen a sport dominated by boys does not mean that you should expect to be treated differently because you are a girl. In fact, if anything, you will need to work harder to demonstrate that you are serious and a true competitor.

Rule 4: Above all, you must maintain your femininity. Just because you have chosen to participate in a male dominated sport does not mean that you should compromise yourself or try to be something that you’re not.

My daughter agreed to my rules and next month she will begin her third season of wrestling. It’s safe to say that she has learned a great deal about self-discipline, strength, courage, and fitness. She has learned the self-satisfying excitement of winning as well as the humbling disappointment of losing. She now knows the strength gained from the support of her teammates and the thrill of a sport in which two competitors, alone on the mat, face off. She has even become competitive on the national level. At the end of her first high school season, as her coach was making remarks about each wrestler at the season banquet, he described her, the only girl on the team, as brave. I could not have been more proud.

Nearly a month ago I was forced to grapple as well. I was faced with shocking and frightening news and had to wrestle with the knowledge that cancer had metastasized to my brain. Once the initial shock wore off I realized that I had to face my challenge. I could even say I performed a mental take down and today I completed the match–I finished a course of radiation designed to annihilate those lesions. As I lay on the radiation table, my head bolted in place so that I could not move, so that the radiation beams would be accurate within a millimeter, my mind wandered and I found myself thinking about my daughter, the wrestler.

I thought about the stoic manner in which she has approached her self-induced challenge and I thought about the four rules that I had imposed upon her. As I lay there with invisible beams penetrating my skull, it occurred to me that those four simple rules apply to life. A life well lived does not allow for quitting, for crying on the mat, for expecting preferential treatment, or for forgetting who we are. A life well lived requires strength, courage, faith, and desire.

As we prepare for another season of wrestling—nine months in all—another season of bouts and take downs, throws and pins, wins and losses, I do not need to remind my daughter of my four rules. She knows them well. She lives them.

~Kelly~