Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Book, a Mystery, and Some Revelations

Someone sent me a book. It arrived weeks and weeks ago, and it came with no card, no return address except for the address of the supplier, which was not Amazon.com; so I have no way of discovering who purchased it. At first, since the book deals with spiritual things, I thought that it had come from my friend and spiritual booster, Frank McNair. But a call to Frank revealed that it was not from him. Another friend, Trish Hall, had told me that her sister in Arizona was planning to send me a book, so I called Trish to find out if this book was from Gracie. Nope. So, I have a mystery on my hands.

The book is An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, a reknowned preacher and teacher. I heard this woman speak here in Winston-Salem last year and knew right away that I would like to read some of her books; but, I had not gotten around to it. Well, now I HAVE read this one, and I presently am reading it a second time....this time with pencil in hand for underlining. (I know that I own this book and can underline in pen, but there is something of the librarian's daughter in me that keeps me from doing that. Strange.) I am sure this second read through will NOT be the last. This book has a lot of meat clinging to the bones of the twelve chapters.

I assume that the sender of this book has read it and thought it would be well suited to the state of mind of someone facing cancer. He/she was right. Barbara Taylor Brown "gets it." Several of the chapters directly address subjects like getting lost and finding things one would never have found on the familiar path; and feeling pain, which is always provocative, and leads to jumps in personal growth. Each chapter holds nuggets of wisdom....truisms, I guess, but expressed in such delicious, even poetic, language that there is nothing trite about them.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is "pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy." This is so true. Of course, we all have heard the one about there being "no atheists in foxholes." I really wonder if this is true. For me, the experience of facing the reality of my mortality has made my questions about God, faith, and the spiritual life more potent and more present on a daily basis; but I am not yet ready to close my eyes and jump into God's arms with no questions. So what I tend to do is jump in and then out, then in and then out. On the other hand, I have taken great comfort in an observation in the book that "faith is sometimes just a blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence." Brown was referring to Job and his conversations with God, which were decidedly one-sided. Job had big questions for God, which God just didn't answer very clearly, if at all; but Job kept on engaging with God, which was the faithful thing. I find myself praying, in spite of my frequent questions...which, by the way, existed long before I knew I had cancer.

One thing I have not done, is question "why me?" To me, this has always seemed a strange place to go mentally, once you have been diagnosed with a bad illness. I mean, I did question "why did I get cancer, specifically." But I have never thought that I should be immune to the problems that are human problems. As a child I actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I would behave if I came down with polio, which was the great threat to children in the my age group. Even then I understood that there was no reason that I was somehow "special" enough to avoid that illness. I did picture myself as a heroic little girl who would be tough and bear her fate bravely. Maybe all that role-playing as a child has stood me in good stead for this challenge.

So, now that I have completed my quasi-review of An Altar in the World, and exposed some of the weak spots in my spiritual life, let's get on to the next question: WHO SENT ME THAT BOOK???? I really want to know.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I'm the Lucky One

Today I had a long phone visit with my good friend Betty Cloutier, whose sister-in-law is going through chemo for the same kind of breast cancer that I have. Hearing about her experience with treatment brings me to my knees. She has been hospitalized at least once, I think for terribly low blood counts. Nausea has been a constant problem, so she has lost quite a bit of weight. And now she has severe edema.

I, on the other hand, feel absolutely normal. I have plenty of energy, my blood counts have stayed within normal ranges, I am eating everything in sight, exercising every day, and sleeping well. There is no accounting for this difference in response, but I am SO grateful that my body...for some unknown reason...is responding so well. Also, I am trying to avoid a mind game that I have been warned about. Apparently, some cancer patients begin to think that the worse they feel during chemo, the better the chemo must be working. On the flip side of that magical thinking, I have sometimes wondered if the drugs can be working at all, since my side effects have been so mild. From now on I am just going to concentrate on being grateful for the miracles that come my way.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


All week I have been contemplating a fairly serious entry: a quasi-review of a wonderful book I am reading. But, everything changed at lunchtime. Since then, all I have been able to think about is watermelon - how it sounds when you cut it open, how it looks, how it sparkles in your mouth with cool sweet crispness, how it satisfies hunger and thirst. What a fruit! I have been thinking about the poor cancer patients who are suffering through chemotherapy in the winter, when there are no watermelons to be found. I am telling you, my tender tongue has found the perfect ending for any meal.

Watermelons figure pretty large in my weird subconscious. First of all, I associate them with bobcats, because my Grandfather McLeod always kept a prime watermelon cooling on his backporch in the summertime. This back porch, however, was not - to me - a particularly friendly place, because it was open to a wild overgrown woodsy thicket, and at night in my bed on that side of the house, I could hear bobcats screaming. In my childish mind, the back porch was just too darned close to the things which might be waiting to pounce on an innocent child eating watermelon. I always made sure to wait for my grandfather to be with me before venturing to the porch.

This same grandfather grew these wonderful watermelons....the rattlesnake variety with the wavy dark green stripes on the lighter green background....so I have happy memories of going to the field to select a perfect one, and also eating it...and, of course, spitting seeds. He would be amazed, I think, at the pristine way I eat my SEEDLESS watermelon these days, sitting at a table with a knife (and maybe even some salt). He also would be amazed at the idea of a seedless watermelon. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for buying these genetically engineered fruits, but for city dwellers with no good place to sit and spit seeds, they are the perfect solution.

One more thing: I wish I knew how to video myself singing and how to post it on this blog...because if I did, you could enjoy the following little ditty which I think I learned at Camp Longwood, a Presbyterian Church camp. At least, you might enjoy it at first; but it is the kind of tune that really gets stuck in ones head, so maybe it's better just to have the words.

Plant a watermelon vine at the head of my grave
And let the juice....ssssllllrrrpppp.....drip through.
Plant a watermelon vine at the head of my grave
That's all I ask of you.
Now the chicken and the possum,
They say are mighty fine;
But there ain't nothin' sweeter than a watermelon vine.
So plant a watermelon vine at the head of my grave
And let the juice...ssssllllrrrpppp....drip through.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Another Boring Day with Breast Cancer

No dreams to report, no angry rants about sunscreen, no big news. I guess this is just going to be a boring-days-with-cancer post. I continue to find a terrific community among women and men who have experienced cancer and who want to tell their stories as a way of encouraging me. This suits my personality really well, because I have always believed that if you tell your story, you will get a story back....and I love stories. I met a woman in the grocery store several weeks ago, who saw my bare head under my Salem College baseball cap, and she introduced herself by telling me that when she was a 24 year old newly-wed, she was told it was either her "leg or her life." So she had her leg amputated above the knee, moved on, and that previous weekend had attended the marriage of her youngest child.

On another note, I have really good news on the "tolerating chemo" front. Yesterday the nurses who quiz me every week about how I am feeling, told me that they literally have no words on their chart to match how I am feeling. They finally had to put down "fatigued" for one day, when actually I told them I was really grumpy and sleepy (sounds like I am living with the Seven Dwarfs) on the Saturday following my last treatment. That day I sent Gordon away from the house (to play golf, which suited him just fine) so I wouldn't continue to bite his head off about things like how he put dishes in the sink to soak. Anyway, I seem to be the poster child for feeling weirdly wonderful while taking on poisonous cocktails. I attended my water aerobics class today with no noticable lack of energy, and since it is an outdoor program, I decided to go hatless, with sunscreen on my head of course, so that my face and my bald head will be somewhat the same color. Great feeling, that cool water splashing on my bare scalp.

I hope to learn to post photos on this blog. When I do, I will put up some showing off my new look.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Acts of Kindness

As I have mentioned in a previous post, cancer seems to bring nice people out of the woodwork, and they want to do things for ME. For instance, take a look at the wonderfully expressive new heading for this blog. Jenny Lawrence Viars, who sings alto in the church choir with me, noted the barren and forlorn nature of my page and offered to come up with a design for me. Jenny is someone I know from church, but we really do not KNOW one another, and I wonder...had I not had cancer....would she have felt she could offer to help me with the blog design. (Maybe it looked so pitiful that she would have offered anyway, but I doubt it.) I have been experiencing so many acts of kindness, large and small, that I have started thinking about the dynamics of giving and receiving.

Unquestionably, some kind of vulnerability makes one more approachable. I am thinking of how a dog will roll on its back to show that it is NOT the boss. As humans we don't have a good way of showing our willingness to accept a "belly rub," so an illness or a family catastrophe is the most frequent way we get to experience this flow of generosity. Also, it is clear that being generous, helpful, loving, kind, or attentive brings a lot of pleasure and satisfaction to the giver as well as to the receiver. Practicing random acts of kindness will certainly boost ones spirit, and maybe even release some of those endorphins we all covet. Being on the receiving end brings a feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket or being lifted on a rolling wave.

The most delightful part of receiving for me has been getting to know more about the people who have blessed me with attention. Of course, I now know that Jenny is a whiz at the computer and is a regular blogger herself. I discovered that another friend knows quite a bit about foods, supplements, and healthy living, and she sent me a magnificent book on the subject. Another is a wonderful rose gardener, but I learned more about how and why he began the hobby. One of my cousins, who was "into" alternative medicine long before it became more mainstream, keeps me supplied with information and good reference material, and we have made a connection beyond our common ancestor. The list goes on and on, and the delight for me is that through these acts of kindness I am able to know these people more deeply and completely.

These thoughts are neither earthshaking nor original, but I am glad to have a chance to write them down and appreciate anew the gift that one human being can be for another.