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!

*******

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.

 

 

 

Sight for Sore Eyes

A late spring Saturday night – 6 couples get together for a dinner party in one of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever laid eyes on.

My beloved friend, who’s lived and beaten the odds against Stage 4 lung cancer for 2 years and 4 months is there.  She’s now an honorary guest at our cooking group’s dinners and may I say, tonight, she’s a sight for sore eyes!

She’s had her hair done for the evening, and her makeup is flawless. Wearing an airy, blue & white patterned blouse, a white sweater, and white jeans, she’s standing in the hosts’ newly constructed dream kitchen. Guests are touring through the home, and rightfully so, raving about the design and decor.

I’ve taken the tour, so I hunt for the kitchen trash can where I may toss my empty beer bottle while no one’s watching. Discreetly peering behind each cabinet front, I finally find the trash bin and also discover the cabinetry conceals the refrigerators, warmer drawers, freezers, and dishwashers.

Every possible eyesore is disguised.

Guests are milling in the kitchen, choosing their beverages and preparing the food they’ve brought for dinner.

Guests are swapping stories – how are the kids? how’s your work week? what part of dinner did you bring? and even a, who’s new BMW is out on the drive?  

She’s standing on the sidelines in silence.

When she talks, she coughs.

As the drinks flow and the volume rises in the kitchen, the food celebration begins – oysters on the half shell, beef filet on the rotisserie BBQ grill, stuffed portobello mushrooms, spinach salad and caramel-chocolate souffle. A feast fit for royalty prepared in a kitchen fit for a king.

I am watching her.

She’s watching the activity, the conversations.

She’s trying not to cough, stifling it, but she can’t control its persistence. She’s quietly putting a Kleenex up to her mouth and then silently slipping into the back room off the kitchen.

Her Kleenex conceals blood-tinged mucus.

Coughing up blood is the lung cancer’s newest symptom,

and it ain’t pretty.

In fact, it’s downright ugly and upsetting but

brings this thought to light –

All that is downright beautiful is also housing the downright ugly.

People struggle.

We often don’t know others’ struggles – some struggles are more apparent than others, but nothing is perfect, nothing is seamless. We shouldn’t be ashamed or scared of the ugly – for it’s through our struggling, we expose the truth.

We, as humans, often search for the ugly – others’ faults, shortcomings, and secrets but wouldn’t we be more constructive if instead, we all, as a community, opted to share and to celebrate our struggles, so we wouldn’t have to hide?

Instead of looking for the eyesores, we looked at the Sights for Sore Eyes to reveal where strength, courage, perseverance, hope and joy live –

Struggles teach us invaluable lessons –

Genuine moments, like this dinner party, where I see a beauty with undeniable strength enter and leave the room.

That ugly cough doesn’t have her. She’s got it.  She deals with reality but keeps moving, continuing to manage and to celebrate.

Her struggle is real, yet has a purpose.  I tell her story because I’ve been given the gift to watch her, in all her strength and glory, carry on. I am so grateful for her. She’s a

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“Sight For Sore Eyes!”

It’s All Practice

“When you workout, you don’t pinnacle – you don’t finally make it – instead, you keep moving; keep practicing, working, building, learning, aspiring.  It’s cyclical, not linear.” – MDS

I began practicing hot yoga about 10 years ago, and at that time, I had no idea it’d become such an asset.  I added yoga to my training, since it was gentle to my joints and body, and mostly, because, through its practice, the yoga trained and calmed my mind.

I’ve called on my yoga often during these 10 years – broken relationships, empty nesting, injuries, worry, paranoia, doubt.

I’d assumed we’d all heard, “breathe in through your nose…hold…breathe out through your mouth – breathe in the good, and with every breath out, let go of what has no purpose, what doesn’t serve you anymore.”

But although we benefit every second of our lives from breath, we seldom spend time practicing it.

We take for granted our breathing, often not recognizing and celebrating our breath’s consistency, dependability or power. It just happens, but if we’re believing that we’re actively participating in life, rather than life just happening to us, then we embrace the circle rather than the line of life.

We need the oxygen that the Earth gives to us as much as the Earth needs the CO2 we breathe out – a cycle, that we all on this Earth create, together.

So you can only imagine, how at this time, I feel when I see and hear my dear friend struggle for each breath, as the lung cancer  tries to take up space in her airways. My friend yearns for the days when making a bed or preparing a meal weren’t huge feats, and I wish, with all my yoga practice breathing, that I had the capacity to breathe for the two of us – her to me and me to her – but that’s a cycle beyond my power and control.

So when I’m trying to breathe calmly when I see her struggle, I listen to our breaths and trust in the present -the right here, right now – the gift of breathing in and out, side by side, together.

Inhale, we’ve come full circle, exhale.

It’s a culmination of a lot of practice. You taught me. I taught you.

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I-Think-I-Can

I went into the store to find silk pillowcases for my friend who’s starting chemotherapy on Monday. Unfortunately, the store was sold out of silk, so instead of leaving with a pillowcase, I left with a mantra from the salesperson, who, she herself, five years prior, underwent chemo for 12 weeks.

“My healthy body is under attack and this chemo cocktail is saving me.”

Mantras are powerful –

they center us,

spotlighting the positive, bringing our goals to the forefront and flushing out the negativity that arises from of our fears.

Rest easy, my friend, we can get through this.

Our minds are our most powerful tools-

they work for us, not against us.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Repeat.

“I-Think-I-Can”

Lisbon, Portugal, October 2016

Rojo Fuego

“Let’s, together, make a birthday dinner for my mom.” – Phillip

Phil did the lobster tails and salad. We did the green beans, Julie’s Potato Pie and dessert, salted caramel milkshakes.

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boiled at fire-hot temperatures and now the color of fire-hot red

J⁴’s birthday, July 27th, fell less than a week after her video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), July 21st, and she was still struggling with recovery – the fatigue, as she described, is “unlike anything I’ve ever felt – like I was hit by a Mack Truck.”

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By candlelight, J⁴ and we sat at her “Daddy’s table,” in the dining room, celebrating her birthday.  I sat next to her.  On her arm, she had a tender spot where her surgery’s IV had bruised her. During dinner, she rested her hand on my forearm, mentioning how soft my sweatshirt’s fabric felt.

After dinner, we hugged to say goodbye, and J⁴ a pulled away, saying, “I love your sweatshirt – it feels so cozy and nice.”

Without a second-thought, I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and put it over hers –

“here, it’s yours.”

Home from dinner, I got online and bought a matching sweatshirt to replace the one I’d given to J⁴.

The next morning, I received a text,

Thank you for your sweater. Now I can say that you gave me the shirt off your back. 💕 ❤

Three months before, in May, J⁴ was diagnosed with malignant pleural effusion, a complication from the lung cancer. Her doctors had mentioned, “3 months,” and that night after she heard those words, we were together at a charity event.  It was the first time, during all her months of “whacking moles,” that I’d seen her mad.

“I’m not done.

If you’re going to tell me I have only 3 months,

then I want to go to the beach.”

Honoring J⁴’s wishes, Cal, her loving husband and primary caregiver, booked a week-long house rental in Santa Barbara, California, Aug 2nd – August 9th.

So on the heels of her birthday dinner, we had reached the 3 month mark and were headed to the beach, Santa Barbara, to the rental home that we now endearingly call, The Palace.

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The Palace

Cal & J⁴ flew, and I drove J4’s fire-hot BMW X5. During the drive, a road trip that normally J⁴ and I’d have taken together, I had waves of thoughts – what music would we’ve have listened to had we been together, what inside jokes would’ve come from our long distance time side by side and how fast would we’ve been clocked getting to SB?  Cal’s and her entrusted care of her car and the understanding that such a drive would’ve been so rough on J⁴ helped me see the good in my solo journey.

After a 7+ hour drive, I arrived at The Palace around 8 PM and was greeted by Cal at the front door –

“She’s been getting sick since 6 PM and she wants to see you.”

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I followed Cal into The Palace’s foyer, climbed the wooden, iron-railed staircase, and tip-toed across the glossy wooden floor to the Master Suite. Inside the suite, dimly lit by the remaining day’s light, J⁴ reclined in an upholstered chair with her feet propped on an ottoman.  Her head rested on the top of the chair’s cushion and she held a goose-down comforter to her neck.  With her eyes barely opened and her cheeks fire-hot red, she took my hands and said,

“I’m so glad that you’re here with me – I’m so sick. I guess I’m not in the best shape to start my party.”

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We left J⁴ alone to rest and to drink her Pedialyte. By 11 PM, she was regaining her strength and the nausea had subsided. She even rallied, eating some of the chocolate chip cookies that she’d baked, with her limited energy, for her week-long party before leaving for Santa Barbara.

Blaming the violent stomach sickness on food poisoning from possibly her shrimp lunch the day before, J⁴ felt much better in the morning.

Wearing our matching sweatshirts, we did a mini-outing to celebrate J⁴’s overnight recovery and to lift her spirits . We went to lunch at Montecito Cafe, with her youngest son and his wife, and then checked out a close-by clothing boutique.  The shop owner noticed our matching sweatshirts and asked what had brought us to Santa Barbara.

J⁴ gave her the short version of what had brought us to town – stage 4 lung cancer and a desire to be at the beach with “my family and my friend, who is my family.”

Moved to tears by J⁴’s story, the shop owner told J⁴ about her best friend who’s been living with advanced lung cancer for 9 years, don’t ever give up hope! J⁴ began to cry – I did, too. I purchased a Love Heals dog tag necklace, and the shop owner insisted that J⁴ pick out a dog tag necklace, compliments of her and the store.

We wore our Love Heal tags and our matching sweatshirts all week. Solidarity, it’s what we do.

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While J⁴ took a nap Monday afternoon, I went out on my own to photograph the Mission Santa Barbara. The mission has a self-guided tour, with directional signs and chained walkways leading visitors through the grounds.  I’d completed the walking tour and had arrived back at the starting point, adjacent to the mission’s center courtyard.  At the beginning of the tour, I’d admired some waterlilies floating in a water fountain in the courtyard’s garden, but the courtyard was closed and off-limits to visitors. I imagined J⁴ napping at The Palace but awaking to coax me – climb over the iron chains, unlock the gate, and  ignore the signs, Courtyard Closed for Maintenance.  She’s ornery like that – (if this were her blog, she’d argue that I’m the ornery one.)

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I behaved, exiting the mission through the gift shop and headed toward the parking lot. I noticed some chalk drawings on the pavement. Sidetracked, I wandered around the exterior of the mission.

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On the mission’s front lawn, there was another fountain with waterlilies – another chance to photograph waterlilies don’t ever give up hope! And even better, these waterlilies, outside the confines of the mission’s interior, were fire-hot red – the same color as our matching sweatshirts!

I’m reminded of the childhood game, Hot & Cold.

To play the game:  

Select one household item for hiding. Player 1 closes his eyes while Player 2 hides the item somewhere in the room. Once the item is properly hidden, Player 2 searches for it slowly and deliberately while Player 1 assists with verbal clues. If Player 2 is not at all close to the item as he searches, Player 1 says, “You’re cold,” but as he gets closer to the hidden item, Player 1 responds, “Getting warmer…” When Player 2 is very close to the item, Player 1 says, “You’re hot!” The verbal temperature indicators aid in finding the item.

When we were young, my sister and I played the game, and when Player 2 was right on top of the hidden item, we’d say, “you’re fire hot.”

At times, when I’ve wondered, where are we headed? Are we getting warmer, getting colder, hot, or fire-hot? I listen for the verbal cues and always seem to get them. I’ve found assurance that we’re close – fire-hot close – always adding warmth to each other’s lives, like those birthday centerpiece candles on Daddy’s table.

We have a friendwhoismyfamilyship that’s willing to give the shirts off our backs –

anytime and anywhere.

We’ve got each other covered –

it’s what we’ve built, it’s what we do.

We’re not going anywhere without the other.

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“Rojo Fuego,”

the fire-hot name of our matching sweatshirts.

 

 

A Cross to Bear

“I’m tired – I’m just done with all of this.” -JJJ

“How long have I been in this storm?

So overwhelmed by the ocean’s shapeless form
Water’s getting harder to tread
With these waves crashing over my head…

…And I will walk on water
And you will catch me if I fall
And I will get lost into your eyes
I know everything will be alright
I know everything is alright

I know you didn’t bring me out here to drown
So why am I ten feet under and upside down
Barely surviving has become my purpose
Because I’m so used to living underneath the surface

If I could just see you
Everything would be all right
If I’d see you
This darkness would turn to light”

– Lifehouse, “Storm”

IMG_7448-2“A Cross to Bear”