Carrying a heavy load

A few years ago, on a lovely Spring day, my sister and I arrived at my grandfather’s house and found him sitting on his porch, which was filled with furniture that had been stored in the basement during the winter. Most of the furniture was relatively light, but one upholstered chair looked quite heavy.

“Who carried all this upstairs?” we asked him, expecting to hear that a neighbor helped.

“I did!” he replied with pride and joy.

We were shocked. My 90-something-year-old grandfather lived independently and was relatively hardy for his age. He cultivated a full vegetable and fruit garden in his backyard and he prepared his own meals. We did not, however, expect him to carry furniture up the narrow basement stairs to the front porch, and my immediate response was a combination of awe and concern.

“How did you get the chair upstairs?”

He looked at us with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, but stated, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, “One step at a time.”

The past two weeks in my life have been filled with suffering, dying and death. I won’t go through the entire list, but here is a sample:

  • Friends needed to return to treatment for cancer diagnoses
  • Others received new diagnoses.
  • A friend’s two dogs died.
  • My body was in pain, limiting my movement and activities

The heaviest part was learning of three deaths in less than one week. It was as if a big hole opened between heaven and earth and everyone was getting sucked into it.

Two of those who died were people I knew and loved. I was not related to them, and we did not have daily contact. But when they passed, I realized that they formed critical parts of the foundation on which I stood. Each of them supported and inspired me, most often by simply living their lives and letting me be part of it. I don’t know if either of them knew how important they were to me. I didn’t fully know, at least not consciously.

I attended the first memorial service, sad and stunned and honored to be invited.

A few days later, about to restart chemo, life looked grey. I am comfortable feeling sad, but I wanted to see the life in life as well. I knew that if I could have even a little, thin thread of light, I could follow that. But every time I looked for something light, I only found more death and suffering. One example: Flipping through the television channels, I got drawn into a movie  – which turned out to be based on Mitch Albom’s book Have a Little Faith, about his friendship with a dying rabbi.

I tried ways to “snap out of it.” I sat quietly. I tried to figure out whether there was some lesson for me in this. I asked God for help for me and for my friends. I focused on each moment. I tried to take care of myself. (Thankfully, my husband took total care of the boys.) I moved through my week.

Some good events occurred. I started chemo and miraculously didn’t vomit or even get nauseous. (You know you are digging deep when a good chemo session is the highlight!) We celebrated the boys’ birthdays (with me in bed – I was exhausted) and they had a good time despite my physical and emotional state. Mostly, I focused on getting through each day, as opposed to actually enjoying it.

I sent an email to friends about my sorry state of mind, and they responded. A compassionate word here, an insightful sentence there, a connection through stories….I felt myself being slowly lifted by their sentiments. Soon I could see a tiny little sparkle and I considered – perhaps it was part of a sparkly thread. A place where I could start.

As I let this light in, my physical problems got milder or disappeared altogether.

Some level of grace (and significant help from my husband) enveloped us and enabled me to attend the second memorial service on Sunday. There again, I felt sad but honored to be able to say goodbye to someone I was privileged to know and to be among people I have loved for all of my adult life.

That kind of love is buoying to me, especially in the face of sadness. Thank you for sharing your very kind words, your encouragement, your outlook on life, your divine light. It entered my heart and touched the divine spark that is within me and within us all. To move my life from grey to Technicolor, I could start there.

To move anything, even ourselves, it helps to take one step at a time.

With love and gratitude,

What is reality?

Thank you for your prayers and good wishes. I had chemo last week, Tuesday through Thursday, with no vomiting during my at-home time. Woo hoo. To top it off, usually Friday is a recovery day, but this time around, I was able to walk and pick up my son from school. I attribute that to your prayers and positive energy around no side effects.

Last week also carried a Joni Mitchell theme, specifically her song Both Sides Now. Friends on Facebook would post pictures of clouds – storm clouds overhead, clouds during a sunset, clouds below their airplane. Each time, the lyrics, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now….”  popped into my head. Then a friend posted those specific lyrics. Another posted a picture of himself with Joni Mitchell.

In the meantime, chemo was done and I was feeling better. I reflected upon some point years ago, right after my diagnosis, when I was struggling to process all that was happening. At that time I thought, “What is the difference between the day before I got my diagnosis and the day I got it?” My body felt the same. The primary change was that someone else told me something they thought about my body.

Their words influenced my reality. They shifted how I thought and felt about myself and my life. So, I worked to form my own version of reality, and when I am feeling good, I like to think and act as though I don’t have cancer, and that makes me happy.

But then, sometimes, a different side comes roaring in: A friend sharing her experience on hospice, another experiencing a scary phase, a third who passed away. I felt deeply honored that they let me into their very personal experiences, yet my heart broke each time. I didn’t know how to handle all this, how to be a friend without layering my own concerns for them on top of it all.

You do that all time for me, and my gratitude expanded.

It is winter here, grey and cold. Driving to church on Sunday, the boys started to talk with each other about death and heaven. They discussed whether there is a point before you are really dead where you get to decide whether or not to die, who you might see there, what it would feel like. They seemed to have a pretty comfortable handle on the afterlife, and I was glad they were having this discussion. But it also reminded me that our family needs to have discussions like that, and I felt more and more of the darkness.

Once in church, the topic was about Jesus being a light in the darkness. When in the dark, look for the light. If opening my heart to my friends can have me feel heartbreak, it can also let in the light.

The day felt better now. Looking at it from a different side helped. Which is reality? I don’t know, but I like to think that it all is, regardless of the side we see.

Both Sides Now
Joni Mitchell

Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way 

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all 

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way 

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all 

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way 

Oh but now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all 

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all