“Just breathe,” I thought, as I sat up all night, listening to the ragged breaths growling and gasping in and out of my feverish little girl. I had plenty of time to contemplate how the most intimate, profound, and intense moments of my life have centered around breath.
I was young when I learned that people could die in their sleep, about 5, I think. I would sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to do bed checks, making sure my family was safe and well. The snorers were easy. I could listen for my parents’ snoring from my bed. My grandfather snored, too, but not Grandma. I’d watch her low profile for signs of movement, but I had to be stealthy; she was a light sleeper, and still had mothers’ ears. I’d check on each of my brothers, as well, before I could let myself settle down, and go back to sleep.
When I got older, and couldn’t sleep, I’d sync my breathing with that of my parents’ snoring. It worked better than warm milk for sending me off to dreamland. Something about that snore meant “situation normal,” and the cadence was hypnotic and soothing.
Sometimes, I find myself in situations where I hold my breath. My large family stood around my brother’s bed in the ICU, each of us reaching out to touch him; a hand, a leg, I held him near his left elbow. The doctor turned off the life support, and I held my breath, hoping for a miracle. I held my breath for so long, but he was gone.
A few years later, in another ICU of another hospital, I held my breath as my mother was extubated after weeks on a ventilator. This time, it worked. It wasn’t easy, but she took a breath, and then another. Eventually, she made eye contact, and squeezed back with the hand I was holding. And soon, she was back to her old, talkative self.
I exhaled when my husband said, “I do.”
I held my breath through the frequent, and impossibly long pauses in my father’s breathing during his last weeks.
My breath gets away from me during a panic attack; I often hold my breath when I’m hopeful, and I use my breath to blow away eyelashes, and blow out candles to make a wish. Exercise, excitement, engagement, even lovemaking are all tied up in breath. Breath is life.
“Breathe,” my husband coaxed, as he counted through my contractions.
“Breathe,” I silently willed the air in and out of my newborn’s body.
“Breathe,” I commanded an empty room, wishing I could send my strength to my husband, who was in the midst of a medical crisis in Istanbul. “We can deal with anything else, as long as you keep breathing.”
I think of my newborn niece, just 3 weeks old, and she’s spent most of that time connected to machines that help her breathe, or breathe for her. Each time I pray for her to breathe, I imagine her mama has prayed a thousand times more. And she is improving, needing less and less assistance each day. Enough equipment has been removed now for her to cry – how beautiful is the sound of a baby’s cry? Especially after this.
Our breath is completely tied up in crying. And laughing.
I’ve experienced joy so overwhelming that I momentarily forgot to breathe. I’ve experienced pain so intense the entire world disappeared. There was nothing left but me, and the pain, and my breath. The slightest movement had to be orchestrated; rest on inhale, exert on exhale. Each breath is painful, yet each breath is progress.
Sometimes all we have left is our breath. Sometimes breath is all we need. One more breath, to take us to one more moment. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. A slow, quiet meditation on now, until our strength returns, or a renewed hope, even if just to get through another day, and we’re able to slowly start incorporating the rest of the world back into our reality.
If the only thing left to do is breathe, then breathe.
As long as you have breath, you have this moment.
P.S. The little angel is feeling much better, and had more energy than me today. As usual.
The sickness and poorer part of our vows were not an invitation. I’ll have you know that despite pneumonia, cancer, myasethenia gravis, a combined 18 nights in the hospital, more than 10 dashes to the ER, 8 years of at least one and usually both of us as full-time college students, layoffs, hours cut, car trouble, eviction notices, healthy diets, exercise, a sweet and miraculously healthy baby girl, daily “adventures”, good friends, a lot of wine, belly laughs, a home full of books, homemade dinners, long conversations late into the night, snuggling, holding hands, and occasional long walks on the beach, we’re happier and more in love than ever. You should also be aware that we have not given up hope on the richer and health part of those vows. You know where to find us.
Also, Happy Anniversary to my amazing husband. I love you more.
Those were the words I wrote without thinking: “a relearning how to dream after cancer blog.” I was shocked when I looked back and saw that I described my blog in this manner. Since writing the post, I’ve gone back and stared at those words countless times. To be honest, the words make me a little uncomfortable. Those hastily written words contain truths I didn’t realize were simmering under the surface.
Friday Night I found myself on stage at Courage Night as one of five women reading our work about surviving cancer. In the Q&A session, as I was describing how my blog had evolved, I recited this line from that blog post: “CoffeeJitters has been a single girl making her way in the world blog, a wedding blog, an infertility blog, a photography blog, a quitting my job and going back to school full time blog, a wow! I’m pregnant! blog, a mommy blog, a cancer blog, ….” except I swallowed the words “a relearning how to dream after cancer blog.”
No, in a room full of cancer survivors, women I love and trust, and who understand better than any one else, I could barely voice those words I had already published. I’m still not quite sure whether I said them out loud when I was at the mic.
I am currently taking Susannah Conway’s “Blogging from the Heart” class, which is proving to be more magical that I could have ever dreamed. This class is also bringing me face to face with that line – “a trying to relearn how to dream after cancer blog.” She is asking me to dig deep, and think about the purpose of my blog. It is easy to spot the focus on gratitude and appreciation of everyday magic, but this blogging practice is also challenging me to stretch.
Just as a physical injury can leave the body bound up in a tight little ball of muscle, the emotional trauma can have a similar impact on the spirit. Yoga and stretching and movement will little by little improve the flexibility and range of the body, but it’s sometimes painful and frightening. It is work that exists entirely outside of the comfort zone. I’ve reached the point where I understand what I have been intuitively trying to do, yet simultaneously resisting – to improve the flexibility and range of my imagination, of my ability to re-dream my future.
The process is slow and difficult, but looking back I can see how I have gradualy expanded the time frame of my dreams. Since diagnosis, I’ve had trouble imagining my life more than a few weeks or months ahead. Now my dreams stretch as far as five years out. Some day soon, I’ll be able to imagine myself at my daughter’s high school graduation.
I am so ready to get on with my life, but first I want to take a moment to say thank you to everyone who helped get me through the past 16 months since my diagnosis.
Look at that face. She is such a powerful motivator. And sweet, too.
No matter how rough things got, she was enough to get me out of bed – Even if that meant just going to the living room, and cuddling up with her on the floor.
It’s amazing how much she has grown up through this ordeal. Here she is just a week before I was diagnosed:
2. My Husband, Aaron
Aaron is my biggest cheerleader, the one who kept telling me that I CAN do this. He was the one who held me when I cried, and told me he would still love me no matter what, and made me feel sexy even missing a boob.
He wouldn’t let me get depressed, and he fills my life with music.
My mom was the one I could count on to drop everything, and come running at a moment’s notice
4. Friends who formed a little army of volunteers
Kristen, Mary Jane, Diane, Sommer, Carrie, Candice, Tim, Mel, Sharon, and Perry – I can’t begin to describe how much you helped me. From bringing meals, to babysitting Gem, to washing dishes, to just sitting with me or taking me outside for a walk, you really helped to carry me through.
5. The young women of the Young Survival Coalition
It’s one thing to experience sympathy and empathy, but nothing helps like meeting others who understand because they’ve been there. I have written about the Young Survival Coalition before, and I’m sure I will do so again and again and again going forward. These girls are my confidants, my hand-holders, my glass of wine with a side of giggles, and my sneaking out from a vegetarian retreat to bring back a side of bacon.
5. Debbie Cantwell and The Pink Daisy Project
A breast cancer survivor herself, Debbie started The Pink Daisy Project to help other young women deal with the overwhelming facts of everyday life that pile up while battling this disease. She came to my rescue by sending grocery cards so I could buy diapers, and hired a cleaning crew when I was too sick to deal with housekeeping. Debbie is truly a hero. Stay tuned: I’ll have more to say about Debbie in future posts. 🙂
Dee is one of my oldest friends, and she’s been there for me through thick and thin. When I was diagnosed, she flew out to be here with me during my mastectomy. She helped whip my house into shape while I was recovering, and watched the baby, and helped in too many ways to list in one post. She’s another one of those people that I can count on no matter what.
7. Old and New Friends; Some I’ve Never Met
Social media is an amazing phenomenon, and it has had a profound effect on my life. It’s brought me back into contact with old friends I haven’t seen in more than two decades, and it has introduced me to new friends, some I speak with every day, but have yet to meet face to face. These friends have followed me through the ups and downs, provided encouragement, hope, sometimes a little gift or cash, an ear, a shoulder – and often at 3 in the morning, when normal people aren’t available.
So now I’m done with treatment. I’m still contending with some of the side effects. I have some neuropathy, the fatigue is still slowing me down, and I’m typing with one hand because my arm is bound up to treat the lymphedema. But these are little, non-life-threatening issues, and we can deal with that.
Right now, my heart is just full of gratitude.
Now, we are looking forward. We are looking forward to Aaron getting a job. We are looking forward to me finishing my degree. We are looking forward to Gem being potty trained, and learning to read, and getting ready for pre-school. We are looking forward to a long, happy, and healthy life together.
I didn’t have to think very long or very hard to assign a word for this year. Cancer consumed my energy and time, but the one word I would use to describe this year is hope. Hope is what drives me, what gets me out of bed every day. Hope is what I see every time I look at my daughter. Hope is why I subjected myself to all the ick of treatment.
For what am I hopeful? A cure? Of course. And until then, I’d like to battle this cancer back, and not have any recurrence.
I’m hopeful I’ll have many more tomorrows.
I’m hopeful I’ll outlive my daughter’s childhood.
But there’s more than that – I’m 40 now, it’s about time for a midlife crisis. Imagine what happens to a midlife crisis when the universe says this might actually be the end of your life.
I’m a late bloomer: at 40, I’m still working on getting my bachelors degree, I haven’t yet started a career from which I could eventually retire, I’ve never been off this continent, I’ve just been married a few years, and my daughter isn’t even two yet. This mid-life crisis had already been messing with me when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
There is so much I want to do with my life. Most importantly, I want to be the one to raise my daughter, to guide her through adolescence and into adulthood, and to be there for her if and when she starts her own family. I want to get old with my husband. I want to travel around the world. I want to finish my degree – for myself, but also as an example to my daughter. I also want to write a book, and more than that, to make a living as a writer. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first comprehended that someone wrote the words I was reading when I was in Kindergarten. I have two big ideas for non-profits I want to get started. I want to make a mark on the world. I want to make a difference. I want to make the world a better place.
So hope it is: Hope that I can be here to raise a confident, intelligent, and compassionate young woman, and Hope that I can finish my degree, muster the confidence to start submitting my writing for publication (perhaps even some travel writing from all the adventures The Husband and I will have together), and get the ball rolling on righting some wrongs in this world.
That’s a lot to pack into one little four-letter word.