Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Two Month Challenge

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Every two months I walk up to the edge of the cliff. Will I live another two months of uninterrupted life? Meandering walks with Zach. A deep pour of wine on a patio somewhere. Everything begins to feel like it is made of glass.

It started when I joined the clinical trial at Emory, and a good scan meant I would get to continue treatment on my million-dollar miracle drug. A bad scan meant that I would not. And now it’s almost the same thing, but with a little less drama. I get a scan every two months with a ton of fanfare but without the scare of immediately being put out to pasture. If it’s bad, it’s still really, really bad, but maybe there are a couple things we can try.

I’ve done this six times now, and I hope to do it a million times more. But there’s a weird liturgy to it. My life is parceled out 60 days at a time. Right before the scan is a building terror, and right after is a deep relief. And everything else is…well…what exactly?

This is the two-month challenge. How do I live beautifully and faithfully and absurdly in 60 days as if they were my last? I tried to summarize this to my friend, Kori, as we were sitting on the floor in my office last week.

“I think it’s something like, ‘Living Well, Grieving Well,’” I said uncertainly.

“Oh, absolutely not,” she said. “That all sounds very serious and proper when you say it like that.”

We were quiet for a minute.

“How about your motto should be: ‘Balls Out Living. Balls Out Grieving.’?” she ventured.

“This coming from a pastor in the United Methodist Church,” I said, laughing. “And you understand me completely.”

She was right. I am circling around a way of being, but it’s hard for me to explain it to myself. I am trying to ask:

How do I live bigger and braver?

What should I take on?

And what should I let go of?

I think you’ll hear me talk about this a lot because these questions are sticking to me in this humidity. How do I live bigger and braver? Not in general, but now. In 60 days.

I have no idea.

Oh. My. Goodness. A butterfly just landed on my laptop. I’m not making this up. I wish I believed in signs because this is all very liveinthepresent and stopandwatchthebutterflies. But I’m getting the picture. How do you cultivate habits of living in the beautiful now?

Part of it has to be saying yes, yes to vulnerability. Yes to stupidity. Yes to an improv comedy night?

In my defense, I actually thought I was only agreeing to be part of a single scene for the DSI Comedy Club in Chapel Hill, North Carolina because someone nice asked me in a nice way. Would I come on the show and tell a story? NO PROBLEM. I know a great story about how my sister thought her friend was a pedophile, how I didn’t believe her, how Interpol became involved and how she ended up featuring in the documentary about his capture called “The Hunt for Mr. Swirl.” True story. She does her own voiceovers (“I never thought it would come to this,” she says in an ominous voice to the camera.)

So I said yes. Chances to talk about your sister’s international manhunt don’t come along every day.

The problem with saying ‘yes’ is that then you actually have to do it. So last night I went to this comedy club to discover that, no, I was going to be telling a LOT of stories because I was the premise of the whole show. Congratulations! You’re a star!

The great thing about comedians, as it turns out, is that they are funnier than you are or ever hope to be. So they used material from stupid stories from my life. There was the time a family member used to be late for gatherings because he was picking up roadkill and putting it in a cooler in the trunk for amateur taxidermy. (Correction: my sister is now saying that it was also so he could collect the fleas. So much to learn here!) There was that time my bridesmaids got the full weight of bird excrement falling from the skies and had to wash their dresses off in the decorative fountains. Which is visible in the background of many of my wedding pictures.

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So maybe that was the best part of all. I gave up stories from my past—great moments, ridiculous moments—and watched them become something new. Something even better than the past, because they were happening. Right now.

There were, of course, a million things that can’t be said. “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the chemo room…” That the only time I can’t breathe is when I think about my son not being able to remember me. That at night I write him letters so that, maybe, he can piece me together. These are the thoughts that feel like lead.

It is the odd work of grieving—all your stories become the weight of the past.

But I suspect that’s the beautiful thing about living. All your stories are still unfolding in front of you. In bright colors. In butterflies and a two-year old who figures out how to turn the hose on and run toward you at top speed. And, only sometimes, in front of a crowd of 80 intoxicated Chapel Hill undergraduates.

 

P.S. If you’ve done something bigger or braver, or taken something up and let something go, feel free to add it to the comments section. I’m always up for some inspiration.

Jimmy Carter and Me

Warning: The author does not actually intend any harm to former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter, who is actually—by all appearances—a wonderful person. The author actually feels pretty bad about what followed.

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For a while, Jimmy Carter was the best thing to happen to me. Newly diagnosed with cancer and horrified by the poison that was being injected into my body to treat it, I was sad about all the superficial things. The criss-crossing scars on my stomach. The threat of losing my hair. The lingering feeling that I was an alien who crashlanded on a planet of the carefree and healthy.

So when it was announced that I would be wearing a giant sack filled with chemotherapy fluid in a bag around my waist, attached to a giant needle that went into the port beside my heart, I was thrilled. Just *thrilled* to be bringing fanny-packs back into style. And since I always needed to wear my backpack to carry my medical equipment, I was essentially wearing bags on bags on bags. It was glorious.

“Some women bedazzle it,” said an older nurse, helpfully.

“Yes, this certainly needs a heck of a lot more rhinestones,” I said, looking it over. “Something that says ‘BLESSED!’…or something.”

“Or something,” said the nurse, and we silently agreed that it was hideous in all its forms.

So my best friends nicknamed the chemobag “Jimmy” because Jimmy Carter had made my day. As it turned out, Jimmy Carter, the former peanut farmer from Georgia, had recently been diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and he had started treatment at the cancer center at around the same time. And—just my luck—we had the same treatment schedule.

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Every week I would request the hallway chemo chair so I could see the Secret Service invade at top speed and whisk the 94-year old Carter to a private treatment room. And every week I would either completely miss seeing him because I fell asleep for two seconds or see an elbow or an ankle as he sprinted by to chemo as I got mine. In short, we were basically best friends. One time I even propped up a book about him in case I fell asleep and when I awoke I imagined I would find it signed. Except that never happened.

I told everyone about Jimmy and me. His appearances, my special chemo bag, our undying connection…everyone knew that Kate had cancer and that it was basically a special pass to understand the life and times of Jimmy Carter. Honestly, it humanized my cancer. People had something to ask about and to point to that was sweet and funny. No one had to lead with: “Soooo….you have cancer.” Instead, it was always: “So, how’s Jimmy?”

But then, one day, it was over. It was all over the news that the 94-year old (may I repeat NINETY-FOUR YEAR OLD) Jimmy Carter had been tested and there were no traces of his Stage IV cancer. His treatment worked and all subsequent photos showed him building stupid houses for stupid Habitat for Humanity. Not that I was bitter.

For the following weeks all I heard in the hallways was:

“Jimmy Carter was healed! I guess that means it works.”

“Congratulations Kate!”

“So it’s going to be okay for you!”

Unfortunately, no. I am always in the exhausting state of almost-dying. Despite how spry the 39th president happens to be. I have to keep struggling along, hoping for my own miracle.

I was attached to my little Jimmy Carter one day and I couldn’t take it anymore. I ran into a colleague’s office, closed the door, and burst into tears.

“MOTHER TRUCKING JIMMY CARTER!” I yelled, half-laughing, half-crying.

And my colleague, who I love, slowly turned in his chair toward me and looked at me solemnly.

“Where are these death panels Obama keeps promising us?” he asked gravely.

And I laughed so hard I had to re-tie my ponytail.

Last week, with my changed chemotherapy plan, I switched out my chemotherapy bag for pills that do the same thing. And so I say goodbye. Goodbye, sweet Jimmy, you were there when I needed you. Now build me a house or something awesome.

Anniversary

I was twenty-two when I got married. Young. Dumb. Happy. And quick on my feet.

That was fourteen years ago today.

I married the boy I met at Bible camp because he was funny and kind and absurdly good looking. We stood in a barely air-conditioned church in front of gobs of Mennonites and friends and family, some long since gone. And we promised that we would be there for better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in heath.

I loved your Justin Bieber hair.

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We aced “for richer, for poorer.” When we had nothing except what we could fit in a small family van, we could get into a lot of fun trouble on a $5 date. We loved each other so much that we were willing to live off of spaghetti in cities we didn’t grow up in and states we didn’t call home. We deferred other dreams for this one–this job, this place–and when arrived, this happened.

Today I’ll spend our anniversary mostly in the hospital, getting treatment, and putting you to the test, honey. I’ll ask you, again, to forgo the easy plans that people make. The second baby that we both wanted. And the guarantee that we’ll still have that same fight when we’re 80. You know I’ll win. I’m not sure why you keep arguing. But I like that you do.

So here we are, in sickness and in health. And you are exactly who you said you would be. You are constant and loving, funny and sweet. And you say stupid things like: “I still feel like I’m getting a good deal,” when you look at me, lying there, hooked up to drip bags and IVs.

The results are back and the doctor says that my tumors are stable. Praise God. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. They’re big but the medications are holding them at bay for now. There are no new tumors developing. It looks like the drugs are working, giving me forevercancer which is fine if it gets me a foreverlife. And I watched how your shoulders dropped and you sat back, exhaling deeply. Then you reached for my hand. It’s my cancer, my precarious life, but I know this is happening to both of us. And let me tell you the truth I know, truer than how terrible Canada is at the Summer Olympics. Truer than how loudly I eat tortilla chips. Truer than the florescent lights bearing down on us here, in another waiting room, holding another beeper, reviewing the scan results.

The truth is this: you are exactly who you said you would be. You are exactly who I hoped you would be.

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Happy Anniversary, honey.

I will love you all the days of my life.

Room With a View

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In about five minutes, Mr. Hospital Scrubs is going to pump something that looks like blue Kool-Aid into my veins and slowly push me into a whirling, deafening CT machine. I’ll hold my breath on and off so they can get a better picture.

“This is your scan day?” asks a kindly nurse. She is buzzing around the room, handing me a mask, setting up for the blood draw. I nod.

“Ah, family portraits,” she says with a sorry smile.

Yes, I am not alone in this body. I’ve got company. The machines will have a better look at the two plump tumors in my liver, the smaller, almost invisible other two, baby tumors nearby, and the microscopic cancer cells swimming around in my abdomen.

But everyone is trying their best. The reception volunteers their best port nurse to help me today for my big day. The technician jokes with me about Canada’s predictably paltry performance in the Olympics. Summer sports just aren’t really our thing. The nurse gives me a hug and asks if I want to pray over the vial of blood that will tell the oncologists whether I am deteriorating. I do.

Dear God, save me. save me. save me. save me. Again.

It’s been 11 months since my diagnosis, and it sounds weird to say that I am grateful. But I am grateful. I have lived one month past the regular appointment time that someone like me with an unexpected Stage IV cancer diagnosis should live.

I am doing things I never thought I would do again. Like hike a mountain.

Yesterday I was in the mountains of North Carolina with Katherine, one of Great Besties of all Time, and we were just stupid enough and just enthusiastic enough to sign up for a hike up the Blue Mountain trail. It promised to be short and hard with a spectacular view. It was hard, so I guess one of three ain’t bad.

We laced up our shoes and headed up the trail, only to realize that I had forgotten my water and sunglasses in the car. This was a great disappointment to Katherine, whose two great loves are hydration and retinal safety. But on we went until the trail got steep and narrow, little switchbacks that went back and forth, back and forth, and up, up, up.

We maintained the panting, cheery banter of two girls trying to pretend that we were almost there. We weren’t. What seemed, on the map, to be a mile-long hike to the summit was more like a slog through the jungle, hacking away tree limbs as we went.

Katherine noticed it first. The sun breaking through the trees above us. The shining promise of a panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains and our great reward: moral superiority over the millions of people who we imagined were sleeping or eating stacks of pancakes at that very moment. Those sitting in pews that Sunday morning never crossed our minds.

When we hit the clearing and felt the first heat of direct sun, we looked around. A lot. Mostly we were looking at the ground and its big pile of rocks which suggested that it was a campfire site. But no view. There were only trees and trees and more trees and a tiny sign that read: Blue Mountain Summit. I guess if there’s a sign, it counts more?

So, of course, we took a lot of pictures of our sweaty faces with the trees to prove to our dubious spouses that yes, sometimes we do things on our girls weekends, thankyouverymuch.
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But sometimes there isn’t a view. Sometimes we climb the mountain expecting God to give us a sense of perspective. Sometimes we expect to feel the grandeur of God’s love. Or maybe the distance we have come. And when we get there, there is only a pile of rocks and a sign pointing the way back down. It leaves us wondering if the exhaustion of the climb was actually worth it.

I am sitting beside the CT machine when I notice it. It’s a glass panel set into the ceiling with a large picture that glows. It depicts a mountain view, the tops of trees and the sky like an endless sea. The sun is breaking through.

I climb into the whirling machine, lie back, and stare at the top of the world. Sometimes in life I get the view, and sometimes I don’t. Even when I climb the mountain. And sometimes I am way, way down through a maze of white hallways littered with wheelchairs and the hum of televisions in a sterile room in a hospital gown as blue as the sky.