Casting for Recovery

A couple of weeks ago, I took advantage of an amazing opportunity to go fly fishing with a group of other breast cancer survivors in a program called Casting for Recovery. This program is available in 48 states, and has benefited thousands of women. Thanks to generous donations from individuals and corporate sponsors such as Orvis and Cabela’s, the retreat is completely free. During the weekend, we not only learned about fly fishing, tied our own flies, and went fly fishing under the guidance of experienced fly fishers, we also had time to share our experiences with each other and ask questions of both a medical expert and a mental health expert. There were other activities as well, and the food was delicious. The volunteers were all so kind and made us all feel welcome and cared about.

This time last year I was between surgeries and was experiencing quite a bit of discomfort, but some of the women on this trip had gone through so much more; they’d had several surgeries as well as chemo or radiation or both, and a couple were only in their thirties when they were diagnosed and have children. Some had lost family or friends who couldn’t deal with it. I witnessed some amazingly strong women on this retreat, women who now mentor to others with breast cancer, are traveling to distant places, and caring for other loved ones. When I think of the word strength from now on, I will always think of these wonderful ladies.

I am thankful to Casting for Recovery for empowering me and so many other women over the years, and I hope that many more survivors will be able to experience the healing and sense of peace that I did. Next Tuesday is Giving Tuesday. If you’re looking for a worthwhile organization to contribute to, please consider Casting for Recovery.

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In case you’re wondering, I’m in the lower left hand corner of the picture with the puffy blue jacket. It was a little bit cold!

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A Horrendous Week, a Perfect Weekend

It’s interesting how things can change so quickly over a week’s time. Last weekend, my husband was in horrible pain from what we now know to be a herniated disc and two bulging discs. I felt helpless to do anything, and I was pretty sure he would lose his job since he couldn’t stand or sit up and had to miss work. He’s only had this job since June and has no sick or personal days. I broke down one night, alone in the bathroom, sobbing out of fear…fear I know I shouldn’t have had as a Christian but fear I felt nonetheless. I just knew I was going to be supporting my husband again…after doing so for two and half years up to June. Fortunately, his new workplace has been pretty understanding and my husband was able to start back yesterday with the help of a steroid shot and a special inflatable neck collar. It looks awful, but it seems to help.

So after a stressful week, I had the house to myself this weekend since my husband worked twelve hour shifts both days. I started early yesterday, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, grocery shopping and starting some stew in the crock pot. Then I was off to Bartonville, TX where an old friend was celebrating her 40th birthday at Marty B’s BBQ. It was great to catch up with her and other friends I hadn’t seen in over a year.

When I came home, I decided to go for a bike ride and I was finally able to ride my bike without touching the handlebars, something I’d been trying to do for a while now and had done as a kid but figured I couldn’t do on a 21 speed bike…especially at my age. I can’t describe how light I felt. It was like when you’re a kid learning to ride your bike, and you suddenly realize you’re riding your bike by yourself because your dad has let go of the seat and is no longer running beside you. I felt liberated and young again.

I also spent a lot of time this weekend just resting and listening to soft music. I know that sounds boring, but when you’re always on the go and you have a stressful job, it’s rather peaceful and energizing. After church and lunch with friends today, I found time to play the harmonica for a while…much to the disappointment of my dogs.

The best part of this weekend was being called up and told that I get to take part in a Casting for Recovery retreat next weekend. These retreats, which are for those with breast cancer or who have recently had breast cancer, give participants a chance to learn how to fly fish and practice. I had been chosen as an alternate, but I figured no one would cancel, but someone did. I’m so thankful for this opportunity and am looking forward to being around others who have experienced what I went through last year. It’s been almost a year since my reconstruction, and I’m still trying to get used to the way I look, the way my clothes fit, and the sensations, and lack of sensation, that I experience.

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On the Mountaintop

Last year I wrote a post titled Wander On, Weary Soul, the title of which alluded to a song by the Bluegrass Gospel Project. I couldn’t think of a better song to describe how I felt at the time about my circumstances. My husband was out of work and had been for quite a while and my mother’s mental and physical health was declining in front of my eyes. It was a few months after this that I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. Luckily, I am now considered cancer free. My husband also started a job recently…the day before my mother passed away last month. So much has changed in such a short time.

I’m kind of in shock right now. For so long, I had no free time. Everyday, Monday through Friday, I would work at least eight hours, go see my mother for at least an hour, and then go home where my husband was starved for conversation after being home alone all day. I saw my mother for even longer on the weekends. As an introvert, this really took its toll on me. I was physically exhausted and mentally beat down. Sometimes, I would just get in bed and bury myself in the covers, not wanting to be disturbed.

Now, so much weight has been lifted from me…mentally, emotionally, and financially. Yes, my mother is gone, but her quality of life had greatly diminished due to the Dementia as well as her arthritis, blindness, and constant shortness of breath. She said she was ready to go see her family who had gone to Heaven before her, so I’m happy for her. I am confident that I will see her again someday as well. That being said…it’s hard to be a caregiver. Now that my husband is working, I have more time to read and to write. I’ve also been walking and riding my bike almost every morning which I find invigorating.

I feel like the past couple years I was struggling to climb up a steep mountain while being battered by raging wind and rain, and now I’ve reached the mountain top and the storm has suddenly stopped, the sun has come out, and the birds have started singing. It’s crazy how quickly life can change! I know this serenity won’t last the rest of my life. I know there will be other mountains to climb and storms to lean into. But for now, I’m going to relish the peace that comes after the storm as I stand on this mountaintop and rejoice. I have been refined like silver and tested like gold, but by the grace of God, I made it!

At the same time, I don’t want to forget the lessons I learned. When I was going through such a difficult time (especially after my cancer diagnosis), I was able to put my life into perspective. I started to detach from this world, and I hate to admit it, but I even prayed for God to take me. I just didn’t feel like I could endure anything else. Please don’t let that color your opinion of me, and please don’t compare my life to yours. I was going through multiple crises (spousal job loss, elderly caregiving, and cancer). You can’t possibly put yourself into my shoes, but a positive outcome of all of this overwhelming stress was that I was able to see more clearly than ever that we are only in these bodies for a short time, and we have to make the most of the time we have and do the most good that we can while we’re here. I think my greatest fear now is that I will forget that feeling and take my time and talents for granted again.

Another lesson I learned is that people only have so much emotional capital. We only have so much ability to cope. I think this ability to cope is like a pitcher of water. Every stressful situation or crisis pours out some of that water until we’re dry. I used to naively believe that people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and buck up. When you’re the one facing multiple crises, however, it’s not so easy. It’s no wonder some people turn to alcohol, drugs, smoking, and cutting. They’re desperate! I will never look at others the same way.

God gives us so much grace. He’s the kindest, most loving father in the universe, freely offering his divine favor and mercy. Shouldn’t we, then, turn around and show that same grace to others? Whether it’s in terms of forgiveness or helping others who are going through a difficult time, we owe it to God and to others to practice grace, to help others in need…even if it’s just in listening to a person share his or her story. You can do so much by simply being with a person and letting that person know that you care.

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Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw on Unsplash

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In Memory of My Mother

On June 10th, my mother was placed on crisis care with hospice after not wanting to wake up, eat, drink, or take her medicines. The only time she woke up completely, she asked me, “Are mom and pop still here?” and “Has John go back to the base?” My uncle John was in the navy and passed away four or five ago at the age of 88. My grandparents passed away when I was a child.

My mother went back to sleep and passed away two days later, soon after each one of her daughters and three of her granddaughters talked to her through the speaker on my cell phone, telling her how much they loved her and that it was okay to go to Heaven. After the phone calls, I played some soft gospel music, and I watched her take her final breaths during the song “I’ll Fly Away”. I cannot describe my feelings at that time.

The funeral was in Arkansas. My four older sisters and I reminisced about the past. Our relationship with our mother was a complicated one with many ups and downs, but in the end, she was still our mother. Despite our tumultuous history, I look forward to seeing her someday, healthy and whole, surrounded by her family who went on before her: my dad, my brother, her mom and pop who emigrated from Italy, and her six older brothers and sisters, including my Uncle Louis, missing in action in Korea whom she always mourned. A few weeks before her passing, she asked me what I thought Heaven would be like. I told her that she would see them all again and that they would all sit at a large table with a white table cloth laid out with all of their favorite Italian dishes like freshly made pasta with marinara, braciola, thick crust pizza, black olives, and for dessert, Italian Cream Cake. She looked out into the distance, grinned, and then said simply, “That sounds nice.”

mom young 1

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When Everyday is Saturday

This was a rather interesting week. I go to visit my mother everyday after work at her assisted living, and each day this week, she asked me if it was Saturday. She even called me at work on Tuesday to ask me if I was still planning to take her out for lunch since it was Saturday. Only it wasn’t. We all lose track of days when we’re on an extended vacation or retired, but my mother’s behavior was not normal. It was due to Dementia.

I did take my mom out to eat yesterday when Saturday had indeed arrived, and we had a lovely lunch at Cracker Barrel, but going out now requires the use of a portable oxygen concentrator, and she’s worn out by the time I get her back to her assisted living facility. She’s at the point where she’s too tired or forgetful to take part in activities they have, but she wants me there as much as possible…even though she dozes off quite a bit.

My mom is on Hospice, and I don’t know how much time she has left. It’s the oddest feeling…not knowing how long you’ll be in such a state of uncertainty…not knowing if there will be a sudden end to the uncertainty, or if things will gradually become worse. I’m a type A person, a planner, who likes to have everything scheduled and organized, but that’s not how life works. So I’m learning to take things day by day. I don’t like it, but I have no choice. I just pray that God gives me the strength to get through each day no matter what it brings.

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Man’s Search for Meaning

I finally read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl this week. I had seen it mentioned in other books and my senior pastor has referred to it before. From what I had read and heard, this was a book that I needed to read. It has been printed more than 12 million times which makes sense because there are so many gems of wisdom contained in it. This is a book that I am sure to read again in the future.

In the beginning of his book, Frankl recounts his time in various World War II concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, but unlike other Holocaust memoirs I’ve read, he does not greatly detail the horrors of the camps. He does describe them somewhat, but as a psychiatrist, he chooses to primarily examine the toll of the camps on people’s psyche. He recounts the various feelings prisoners, including himself, felt during various stages of their captivity. The realm of psychology he had been pursuing and writing about before his deportation was Logotherapy (therapy in which a mental health expert helps a patient find meaning in his or her life in order to improve the patient’s mental state), and he was able to use this therapy successfully with some of those who had lost hope since they felt their life seemed to have no meaning anymore. He also believed that concentration camps were hard psychologically for prisoners because they had no idea when their sentence would be over whereas those in regular prisons typically know how long their sentence is and can look forward to the day when they will be released.

Part two of the book contains Frankl’s insights from the camps which we can apply to our own lives. For instance, he asserts that prisoners still had the freedom to make certain choices in how they would react to their circumstances even though this was the only freedom they had. Some of them reacted in terrible ways while some were heroic in looking after others. He also points out that constantly dwelling on the past and what has been lost can make people miss opportunities to grow spiritually in the present. One thing that helped him to survive was visualizing the future, picturing himself in a lecture hall giving a speech on “psychology in concentration camps” which gave him a purpose to go on and a dream that he hoped he could someday realize.

Recently I read the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman in which the author talked about the connection between the mind and body and how those who are pessimists tend to have poorer health and shorter life spans. Viktor Frankl saw this first-hand in the camps. When people lost hope, they usually did not live long after that. This is also iterated in Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night when he states that in the camps, “If you cried, you died”.

So what is the meaning of life? For Frankl, it depended on the person and their individual circumstances. In one of many powerful analogies he uses, Frankl states that asking for the meaning of life is like asking a chess master for the best chess move. There can be no right answer because there are too many different factors depending on the players and the situation. Each person must find his or her own meaning or purpose in life. He states, “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment”.

You’ll have to read the book if you would like to find out the various ways one may find meaning. There is far more knowledge in this book than I can hope to fit into a blog post, and my summary pales in comparison to his astute observations, descriptions, and explanations.

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 unsplash-logoJohn Westrock

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Unafraid

Lately, I’ve been dealing with some pretty major anxiety. If you’ve read my recent blog entries you’d know why. My main problem is worrying about the future. I keep telling myself (and God) that I just REALLY need to know what’s going to happen in the next few months and years, but I finished a new book by Adam Hamilton that has changed this desire.

In his book, Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times, Hamilton begins by explaining how we’re hard-wired to feel fear because fear keeps us alive by prompting us not taking stupid risks like jumping out in front of a car. Unfortunately, as he points out with statistics and studies, we go overboard, especially because of the news and social media. We fear everything from certain people to personal crises and to apocalyptic events.

He eloquently points out through scripture, quotes, and real life examples that even though there are no guarantees in life, and we’re all going to die, we can take faith in the fact that God has promised never to abandon us, and even when something bad does happen (and he gives plenty of examples of people he’s known who have faced catastrophes such as job loss and terminal illness), good can come from these situations. I love the examples he provides such as a woman living in a nursing home who prays for and encourages others living in her nursing home and the man with cancer whose leg was removed but who volunteered to help others despite being told he was terminal. These people took bleak situations and used them for good.

Adam Hamilton also shares his own fears of failure and how he felt when he faced discouraging or fearful situations. He admits, too, that he and his wife still have fears that they each have to deal with at times, but they are much more realistic and hopeful now. He ends the book with an appendix of scripture readings for those experiencing fear.

This book had a profound effect on me, and I will probably end up re-reading it if I feel overwhelmed by fear again. As soon as I finished reading it, I went to see my mom at her assisted living facility as I do each afternoon, and it seemed so appropriate that Eye of the Storm was playing, so I’m embedding it below.

Whatever kind of fears you might be experiencing, just remember that, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

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