The Power of Presence

When I first started this chemo gig, my infusion space at the hospital looked like party central. I invited friends and we gathered into the cramped space. We sometimes had food, we always had laughter, and I eventually ended up looking drugged because one of the anti-nausea meds made my facial muscles droopy and me unable to speak clearly.

Over time, the scene changed. We finally figured out that we could lower the dose of that face-altering drug. I stopped taking the steroids (which made me a crazy screaming person who couldn’t sleep) and replaced them with IV Ativan, which alleviated my tendency to vomit but put me to sleep.

Though we cut back on the party vibe, I was lucky enough to still have a friend to join me each time. They would support me through the port access and blood draw, and sit through the meeting with my doctor. After that, my nurse would administer the Ativan, which would shortly knock me out.

I always suggested that my friend leave right at that point. Why bother to stay only to watch me sleep? And what if I drooled or did other embarrassing or gross things – I wanted to keep my friends and some shred of dignity.

Recently though, an old, dear friend joined me for chemo for the first time. In her bag, she brought a shawl in case I got chilled, and a few other things. I can’t remember exactly what they were, only that every time I needed something, she had it in that bag. I was really touched.

We reached the point in the process where the nurse gave me Ativan, so I thanked my friend and told her that she could feel free to leave.

“I’m staying,” she said simply.

“Did you bring a book?” Her bag was shapeless and didn’t seem to hold one.

“No,” she replied. “I am going to sit with you.”

“I’ll be asleep,” was my weak but best response.

I didn’t have kind of time or energy to dissuade her, so that was that. I thought her idea was a little crazy but I was drugged and in no position to win with logic. And I love her whether or not she has a crazy idea.

So we moved to a room with a bed (for me) and a chair (for her), and I was out.

Some time later, the Ativan wore off and I opened my eyes. The first thing I saw was my friend.

At that moment, I was feeling nauseous and in pain, but my overwhelming feeling was the relief of, “I am not alone.”

I suddenly remembered: I do typically wake during chemo. And when I do, I grope around for the nurse call button. Eventually a nurse arrives who looks me over and asks what I want. I stammer that I need my nurse, she says that she will get her, and leaves.

Everyone is very kind. But they are strangers, and it takes effort to interact with them. After each chemo session, I block it from my mind as part of the whole event.

But today, I remembered, possibly because this experience was such a contrast. And not only did I feel so supported, but my friend looked at me and knew what I needed.

Firmly, she said, “I will get your nurse.”

No call button. No unfamiliar intermediate nurse. My friend left and I knew she would return with my nurse AND the medicine I needed. And she did.

She stayed with me until my chemo session was complete. Each time, when I finish, my husband arrives, and he and the nurse help me to put on my shoes and get me into a wheelchair. I never remember anything from there. But this time, I remembered that my friend was still with me. And that made all the difference in the world.


Fully present

Thank you for your prayers and positive thoughts. I rebounded pretty well from chemo and am up and about! Thank you for being there for me.

This past weekend, I was scheduled to lector at church, meaning that, among other things, I would stand in front of the church and read two of the readings aloud. In the days beforehand, I practiced in front of the kids as they played with their iPads.

On Sunday morning, I told them that it was time to go to church and they gave their usual protests. Generally, I ignore these protests because they really have no choice but today I told them, “Hey, when you are doing something special, I do my best to be there. I would love for you to be there for me today.”

In truth, when they are doing something special, I am often physically present but don’t always pay full attention. I check my phone. I talk with other parents. I craft a grocery list in my head. I try to be there, but I wander.

And I understand how long a Mass can feel when you are a child. So I told the boys that they could bring paper and pencils to church to draw or write but they had to come along.

After a stop on the way for croissants, we arrived early enough to get seats in the front pew on the side of the church. Mass began and the boys alternated between drawing and fighting. I tuned them out.

When it was my turn, I walked to the front of the church and read. I alternated between looking down at the text and up at the faces in the pews. The church was packed so there were many faces to see.

I hesitated to look directly at my boys, for fear of getting distracted. But today, when I glanced at that section of the church, I was struck by my very blonde eight-year-old son in our front pew, standing on the kneeler to get a better view. He was clearly fully focused on me and I could feel him using all his senses to watch and listen.

He stood like this through both my readings, completely attentive. After the second reading, when I rejoined him in our seats, he said simply, “Good job, Mom.”

I had forgotten the positive power of receiving the full attention of one person supporting your efforts, especially from someone you love. When I took him to tennis later that day, I was fully present and watched him play from the window above. And from the court below, he looked up at me and smiled.

May you experience the honor of being fully present for someone else today, and the joy of knowing that someone is fully present for you.


All you need

Last weekend, we sent our seven-year-old son off with a snowboarding instructor who expanded J-man’s passion for the sport and confirmed that he could venture forth on his own. Though the J disagreed, I insisted that “on his own” actually meant “with his mother or father,”

So, he and I set off together. He wanted the challenge of an intermediate trail. But I, conservative and probably a bit nervous, was more comfortable starting with a beginner slope. To minimize any argument, I suggested taking the lift to the top of the mountain. Hopefully, the altitude would allow him to feel like he was embarking on a challenging trail, and I knew we could take a beginner slope from there.

We navigated the lift line and boarded the lift. As we rode to the top, my heart leapt to my throat. My son has a slight build, so I worried about him sliding through the safety bar and dropping to the terrain below. From his perch, he watched the boarders on the slopes, which sometimes involved twisting his body to see how they fared as they progressed further down the mountain. He occasionally needed to adjust a boot or mitten, or slowly scrape ice off the bar or seat. He remained cool and in control while he made these movements, but each one filled me with panic that he might slip through the safety bar.

We finally FINALLY made it to the top of the mountain and off the lift. I thought I could breathe a sigh of relief and relax but no. Of course not. When he skis, I ski behind him, partly to keep an eye on him but mostly because I am slower. After doing this for years, I can watch his body movements and predict his turns. I know how fast he can go and still be in control. I can tell when he is about to fall.

But now he is on a snowboard, and I am not so familiar with the body movements that go with snowboarding. The mountain felt like a crowded rush of fast skiers and boarders zipping way too close to my little boy. As for predicting his moves, I couldn’t tell if he was about to turn away from danger or head into it. As he flirted with the edge of the trails, I worried that he wouldn’t turn in time and then go careening over the edge. No matter how many times or ways I asked him to stay away from poles and other hard objects, apparently they have a magnetic quality.

I could do nothing but worry about any of these things, and that worry consumed me through that run, the next ride on the lift, and the following run. After several iterations of this, I realized that, even if he got into trouble, I had no real skills to help him. This only compounded my worry and feeling of helplessness.

I had to get off this ledge. The worry wasn’t fun, or useful, or anything I value. Think think think. In the worst case, what could I do? Really, all I could do was be there. I could be first on the scene, for whatever that is worth. I could let him know that I was there. I could hold his hand.

Knowing what I could do gave me a little tiny opening in the worry, and through that opening, I could see that he periodically checked to make sure I was watching him. Confident, he wanted to make sure that I saw his smooth moves, and he was happy that I had an eye on him. A few times, he stopped at the top of a steep slope to get my reassurance that he could do it.

From my perspective, my emotional support didn’t feel like much. But, if disaster struck, it would exactly what he would need from me. I could leave the more tangible tasks to the professionals.

My worry cleared a little more and I relaxed enough to learn his snowboarding movements, to predict a turn as well as a fall. I observed pieces of the culture as older snowboarders made nice comments or stopped to give him tips. He worked on his turns, going for longer stretches between falls and finding jumps. And he kept looking for me, making sure that I was watching him when he was doing something great and that I was nearby in case he needed me.

Fortunately, none of my horrific visions materialized. Eventually, he will snowboard as fast and well as he can ski, and the time will come when I won’t be able to keep up. But today, he was happy to have me nearby, and we did okay together.

I relate to this feeling of making sure that someone is nearby. Sometimes I write more often than others, reaching out to you. I am checking to make sure you are there. Even if I am not in trouble, your presence is still necessary, still strengthening, and still makes the run more fun. I reach out to you, as your presence makes good news even better and provides reassurance when I feel a little uncertain or scared.

Know that even if it feels like all you can do is be there, that in itself is often exactly what I need. Thank you.

Love and blessings,

The power of presence

“Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal.  The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are.  We are all hungry for this other silence.  It is hard to find.   In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life.  Silence is a place of great power and healing .”                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                        — Rachel Naomi Remen

A few years ago, I had uncontrolled vomiting in the middle of the night. My husband, being a physician, usually takes care of any illness in our family, but he was traveling and my mother, who is not a doctor, was staying with us to help out.

My younger son woke to the sounds and walked to the bathroom to check out the scene. Wordlessly, he went to get his grandmother to help, and returned to bed. Lucky him.

My mother asked if she should call the doctor or do anything. I told her that I already called, that they suggested that I go into the hospital but I wanted to stay home.

I was getting sick more and more frequently, until it got to the point where I would just lay on the bathroom floor, knowing it would be only minutes before I had to return anyway.

So, my mother got a pillow and blanket for me, then she sat. All night long, she sat in a rocker in my room, there in case I needed her. I’m sure she felt helpless, but she sat, awake, trusting my call. I was getting snippets of sleep, but every time I woke, she was there, unintrusive but clearly ready to help if I needed her. My vomiting finally subsided in the early morning light, when she then had to feed the kids and get them to school while I slept.

Recently, I had horrific stomach cramps late at night. My husband had to work the next day, and because I want well-rested radiologists reading my scans, I felt like he should be well-rested for his patients. I asked him to go another room to get some sleep.

The pains had me screaming, waking my older son, who came to see how I was doing. He sat next to me, with a hand on my stomach, not saying a word. If you know our older son, this wordlessness in itself is rare. But there he sat, focused and breathing healing energy into my body. Again, I got snippets of sleep, and every time I woke, he was there, watching me and reassuring me, in a soothing voice, that it would be alright.

The past couple of days, I was ill from chemo and the dog did not leave my side. His body on the bed, touching my legs or feet, he only left when someone carried him outside. He would stay outside for only a moment and then run back to my side.

Each time, in the midst of my physical pain, each person’s (and our dog’s) presence made me feel immeasurably better, calmer, less alone in my funky experiences. It helped me to stay the course.

I am not someone who naturally can just sit with someone. I need to do, or to talk. I prefer to multitask; doing just one thing feels like slowing down. I cannot imagine sitting, just being there, totally present, especially in the face of feeling helpless.

Yet, this was the most valuable to me, in these weird, dark moments, and the best medicine I could have. I feel awe for the power of being, of holding space, transferring positive healing energy, and am grateful.