A Breather

This summer, a week before leaving for Santa Barbara, J⁴ spoke with a man who had had a near-death experience.  He flatlined 7 times.  The man told J⁴ that he had seen God and that it was beautiful “on the other side.”

After telling me the man’s story, J⁴ said,

“I want you to know that I’m at peace with dying.”

The summer before, in 2016, J⁴ survived malignant pleural effusion, a complication of lung cancer. Doctors predicted a 3-month life expectancy.

“If I’m going to die, I want to spend my last days at the beach.”

Her angel-of-a-husband, QCJ rented a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Santa Barbara.  They invited their family and my family for a week-long vacation. It was an incredible week.

In my wildest dreams, I never thought we’d make it back to the beach this year, but we did. J⁴ fought every single day of the 365 days, battling and overcoming the coughs, the fatigue, the treatment failures, the chemo, the radiation, and the depression. She assures me,

“I accept I drew the short stick with this cancer card,

but I’m not done.”

She keeps moving – onward and upward – hoping for a miracle and defying the odds.

And because of J⁴’s perseverance and optimism, we’re back in Santa Barbara this year.

We’re in a different rental house with a modified group of family, but we’re back at the beach and still have J⁴.

One afternoon while J⁴ rested by the rental house’s pool, I went out to photograph.  I google-searched a stairway to the ocean that I had seen while doing some travel research on Pinterest.  I used my Waze app to lead me to the stairway’s access,  hidden in between two homes in a Santa Barbara residential neighborhood.  With my 40+ lb camera bag on my back and wearing my street clothes and shoes, I headed down the path toward the stairs. As I approached the stairs, I saw a male runner ascending the stairs toward me. He was in great shape, yet as he passed me, I could hear his heavy breathing.  He was out of breath but still running.  I second-guessed my clothing and longed for my running shoes and workout pants/top.  The stairs were steep and numerous. This was going to be a workout for me, too.

As I descended, I noticed the people who headed up the stairs. Some had beach chairs and towels, so I presumed the steep staircase was the only exit option from the beach. Many took a break on a long bench located midway on the stairs. Below, I could see surfers slowly paddling their boards close to the shoreline, resting before heading back out to sea.  It seemed, at the moment, everyone was taking a breather.

I took photos while I made the journey down toward the water. When I reached the bottom, I, too, took a breather.

At the bottom of the steep stairs, I eyed the staircase. I had no choice but to climb in my uncomfortable shoes and with my heavy backpack the 270+ stairs back to my parked car. I knew I’d be out of breath – that the hike up would be strenuous, but I also felt confident I’d make it, possibly breathing heavily, but it’d be doable. I closed my eyes and acknowledged with gratitude my lungs that would ultimately get me to the top. I couldn’t help but think of J⁴, exactly where she should be, resting, taking a breather, by the pool and not with me at the bottom of this intimidating staircase.

That’s what happens when someone you love is challenged.  You feel the hurdle with them, and as your compassion grows, you acknowledge the simple acts we so often take for granted, like hearts continuously pumping blood to our organs and lungs expanding and contracting without thought.  We may feel occasional stress, but we don’t face a death sentence.  For most, a walk up a staircase is not life-threatening. However, when someone who used to walk with such confidence, speed, and grace, now struggles to walk a city block, we become aware. We recognize the gifts of living – of one more staircase, one more triumphant, one more day, and are humbled when we draw the long stick, allowing us one or more years.

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Yesterday, I went with J⁴ to her oncology appointment.  Her CT scans revealed the current chemo drug is working! Her lungs have 50% more room for oxygen.

J⁴ has triumphantly turned a death sentence into a life sentence, and we’ve all gotten a breather from worrying about her every breath as she moves forward and lives –

Next time you take the stairs, when you’re out of breath and agitated with the climb, take a moment for a breather – a time out to be grateful for breath, for health, for compassion, and for life.

And remember it’s our attitudes that shape our abilities to climb and to withstand precarious altitudes!

Positivity and hope heal – I’ve seen it firsthand “on this side!”

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Extra Oxygen

In December 2016, my friends, a father/daughter team, organized a blood drive, and I signed up.  I’d never donated blood, but

J⁴ needed a blood transfusion.  The 12-week chemo/immunotherapy treatment had lowered her blood counts to a point where she desperately needed a life-saving boost. She needed three separate blood transfusions.

Although I knew she wouldn’t receive my blood, I went into the blood drive thinking about her need and about how having her blood type available saved her life. Someone else had given his/her blood for her to live.

I answered, in a private room, the medical history questions – some questions pretty basic, have you lived overseas for more than five years during 1980 -? And some questions downright personal, have you ever paid for sex?  have you ever had gay sex?  I got my finger pricked to draw a bead of blood to check my iron levels. I had my blood pressure and pulse taken.

Then I stretched out on a portable hospital bed and had a pint of blood drawn via IV. I squeezed a rubber ball to encourage the blood flow. When I finished giving, the nurse took an extra seven vials of blood for testing.

I didn’t coast through the whole thing – actually, I had some light headedness and nausea which I’ve now learned is normal.  After donating, I went to bed early, but in the AM, I felt fine.

I thought about the 12 weeks I accompanied J⁴ to chemo.  The needles that stuck her – blood tests, chemo IV, immunotherapy IV.  The machines she’s laid in and tables and hospital beds she’s laid on while having CT scans, radiation and doctor visits. The Penguin Cold Caps we put on her head every 20 minutes before, during and after the treatments.  How cold the caps felt on my gloved hands as I readied them, yet J⁴ had to endure the ice-cold caps wrapped around her head and also carry the worry, will I  save my hair? (which she did!)

A few weeks after donating blood, I received an email from the American Red Cross, asking if I’d give blood again, after 56 days, the required time between giving. Without hesitation, I downloaded the Red Cross’ blood donation app and scheduled my next donation.  I’ve now given 3x since December, and I receive notifications when I’m able to give again.

On my 2nd blood drive visit, I met a woman in the ‘recovery area’ where salty and sugary snacks and waters are served. The woman ate Chips Ahoy cookies while I munched on Cheez-Its.  She told me that she had worked in a trauma unit in an east coast hospital for over 30+ years.  She said she’d given blood, on schedule, for the last 15 years. She witnessed a patient who required 100 units of blood (a person can only give 1 unit/pint, so 100 people saved one life!) and who then fully recovered from his injuries. After seeing the miracle, she committed to giving.

I listened to a Canvas-SF service this week while I strung a NeckGrace. It was about minimalism; Less is More.

“Minimalism is not about having less stuff but it’s about being free to do more which matters. True life, that which is real and full, is found at the intersection of simplicity and generosity. You make a living by what you get, and you make a life by what you give away. Passing blame that you don’t have time is absolving yourself from responsibility – cuz you ‘B-lame” when you blame other things for owning your time. Are you making a living or making a life? Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible – hurried people can’t love. Love takes time. Will you open your hands and loosen your grip on the more that you’re pursuing, so you may have true life.” – Travis

In 2012, healthy and well, three years before lung cancer, J⁴ traveled with us to our family’s favorite beach in the world, Anguilla.  For some local flavor, we recommended she read the book, A Trip to the Beach: Living on Island Time in the Caribbean, written by Melinda and Robert Blanchard, who gave up most of their worldly possessions and most of what they were familiar and moved to Anguilla and started a restaurant, Blanchards. J⁴ loved the book, so once on the island, she went to Blanchards and met the owners. She bought a hat, and they signed it –

I photographed J⁴ on the Anguilla beach wearing her treasured signed hat.

IMG_8113picWe took the photo next to these:

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“Extra Oxygen”

Five years ago, I had no idea that the beauty of these tanks in the foreground to the most beautiful water in the world foreshadowed J⁴’s necessity for extra oxygen.  The extra oxygen that will buy her time; time to read books, time to share with her beloved husband and boys, time to visit places that bring her joy and time to impact the lives of those around her by all that she gives.

Breathe life into yourself by giving blood, extra oxygen, sweat & tears and love in any way, shape or form.

‘Cuz real life doesn’t allow us to take a timeout when the going gets rough, and after we’re gone, the stuff we’ve acquired becomes someone else’s clutter, but what we give away sets us free!

Like when we take a trip to the beach – we keep it simple – some sunscreen, glasses or a good book – all the rest is extra – extra clutter – blocking us from the simplicity and a true life.

Don’t b-lame – give your extra away.