Archive for September, 2013

Strange Gifts

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

My handsome sweet smart 44 year old history professor brother of mine gave us all a scare this past weekend.  He had a stroke.  Actually, he had two strokes.  They were small and he is alive, thank god, but a bit shaken.  We all are!  The doctor’s believe a blood clot was released from his heart, blocking the blood flow and cutting off oxygen to his brain.  To confirm, they are putting him through all kinds of tests to find out exactly why such a young and apparently healthy guy (he hikes the Grand Canyon once a year for god sake) had a stroke.

Eric hiking the Grand Canyon

That was Saturday.  Today, he is at home, coherent but tired, nursing a horrible headache.  While on the phone with him earlier, I asked him how he is feeling.  He said, slurring his words a bit, “His head feels like someone hit him with a baseball bat.”   He is unsure whether the pain is from the stroke, or the concussion he got as a result of falling and hitting his head; on what, he does not know.  There is currently some blood on his brain due to the fall so he cannot take any blood thinners until he stops bleeding.  Anticoagulants are prescribed to prevent another stroke.  I think this worried him a bit but he seemed most worried about his kiddos, his work and the fact that the doctor said no driving for three months.  Or, maybe I was the one that worried most about this last fact.

Even after all the tests, they still do not know “why.”  His cholesterol is good, his blood pressure good, he is not overweight and although he enjoys his green chile burritos and occasional martinis, he is in good health.  Statistically, about 30% of young stroke victims never learn the reason why.  I hope the tests will give him an answer.  I truly do.  It is horribly difficult to live with a disease or trauma of some sort, without knowing the “why.”  You can speculate till kingdom come, and yet, the lack of answers will still haunt you.

Why me?  Why now?  Why this?  Why that? Why? Why? Why?

I asked myself that a thousand times since I was first diagnosed with cancer.  I still don’t have an answer.

But this ambiguity can be turned into something very positive and meaningful, I have found.

Take Elie Wiesel for example.   When Elie was a teenager in Transylvania in 1944, he and his entire family were taken in the middle of the night to the Auschwitz concentration camp.   In his powerful and terrifying narrative, Night, Elie writes, “There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text.  I am not convinced.  I don’t know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself.  A miracle?  Certainly not.  If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself?  It was nothing more than chance.  However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival.”

I so get this.

Why did Eric have a stroke?  I have no idea why.  Why did I get cancer?  I don’t know that either.  Was it my dense breasts or because I started my period when I was very young?  Was it the birth control pills, my 10 lb. babies, not enough vegetables, bad genes, lack of Vitamin D, chocolate covered almonds, Sam Adams, deodorant, that damn black bra with the underwire, stress, negative thoughts, polluted air, or acid rain?  Was it fate?  Did I have a lesson to learn?  The list goes on and on and on.  It’s exhausting.

Again, I don’t have an answer.  But, I do know, it was not useless.  I know that much for sure.  Why?  Because I gave it meaning, my own meaning perhaps, but meaning. And, so will Eric.  Joseph Campbell explains it this way:

“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be…”

And how does one do that?  How does one ascribe meaning to something so horrible, so difficult, so… Well, if Elie did it, I certainly can.  I can’t profess to know what Elie did to give meaning to surviving that terrible night at Auschwitz or his stay at Buchenwald.  But I can guess that his writing helped him profusely.  I can also guess that his writing was just one piece of a very intricate puzzle.  Although my cancer cannot in any way be compared to what Elie went through, my experience has helped me learn a few things along the way.

First of all, I have learned to look at difficult events that happen in my life from a different perspective.  Shining a new light on things, I have come to understand that trauma, difficulty, pain or suffering can be a gift if you choose to see it from a more meaningful viewpoint.   Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t wish cancer or a stroke or a concentration camp on anyone.  There was no “Woohoo, Eric had a stroke, he is one lucky dude!”  It’s not that kind of gift.

No, when I first heard that Eric had a stroke, I was devastated.  I was shocked, I cried and I was scared.  But, I am optimistic and have full trust in his “kicking ass” capabilities.  I know he will turn it around and pull himself up from his manly bootstraps.  And, like me, I believe not only will his stroke open new doors and new paths full of fresh opportunities for him, it will close doors that lead to dead ends.  Therein lies the gift.

A nice big door opened to me at the Susan G. Komen Luncheon where I was a guest speaker! These lovelies are all breast cancer survivors!

Secondly, I have learned compassion at a much deeper level than before.  And this compassion has helped me to understand others so much more.   It seems to me that one needs to suffer to understand someone else’s suffering.  You know the whole “walk in my shoes” idiom.  When we see someone else feel the pain we felt, our hearts open to their pain.  We feel empathy.  Well, most of us do, anyway.   And this empathy, this compassion opens a whole new world of understanding, one where judgment, anger, bitterness and resentment no longer dwell.  One that is much more peaceful than before.

The Venerable Maha Ghosananda, Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia,explains this well.  He saw that to unify the nation of Cambodia, it was essential for Cambodians to put aside their anger for the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.  He described it like this:

“The suffering of Cambodia has been deep. From this suffering comes great compassion. Great compassion makes a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart makes a peaceful person. A peaceful person makes a peaceful family. A peaceful family makes a peaceful community. A peaceful community makes a peaceful nation. A peaceful nation makes a peaceful world”

Does it sound overly optimistic?  Maybe.   But simply believing that it is possible to have world peace brings extraordinary meaning to one’s life.  I know that it’s a work in progress.  I am a work in progress.  We are all a work in progress.  But, I have hope.

Do you know that when Elii first wrote Night, every single publisher turned him down?  They didn’t think anyone wanted to read a book so depressing.  Or, read a book written by a Jew.  That was years ago.  Things have changed.  Elie’s book is now read by students everywhere as a part of high school and college curriculum.  What do you think of world peace now?  Is it possible?  Maybe.

I do not know all the answers.  In fact, I never will.  But, I do know that my cancer, Eric’s stroke and the Holocaust were not by some obvious universal extraordinary numinous pre-planned design.  The Universe did not have a vendetta against me, or try to teach me some lesson.  Cancer just happened.  It sucks!

But since I did get it, I might as well turn it into something less “sucky,” more significant, more meaningful and maybe, just maybe, not only bring a little more compassion and peace to me, to my family, and to my community, maybe in my teeny weeney little way I can be a contributing factor to bringing more peace to the world.  A tall order?  Maybe.

Eric, what do you think?

My Sun Sets to Rise Again

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

“[T]hat old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air … Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”   ― Wallace StegnerAngle of Repose

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

I was born on Labor Day.  Actually, I was born a few hours after Labor Day at three o’clock in the morning.  Although Labor Day is not my actual birthday, it sure feels like it. The day has always been dedicated to me.  And, as my mom always jokes, “Labor Day was named after me because I went into labor with Deanne that day.”

Every year on Labor Day weekend, I would have a big slumber party.  I invited all my best girlfriends, moved the furniture in the family room up against the walls and decorated with balloons and streamers.  We would swim, dance, eat too much cake, play “Light as a Feather, “Stiff as a Board,” and watch the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

I grew up with Jerry.  The first Jerry Lewis telethon was aired on Labor Day in 1966, the year I was born.  I loved him and his movies, especially “The Bell Boy.”  And, I felt lucky that with only five channels to choose from, all that went off the air at midnight, that my birthday was the only night of the year there was a television show on all night long.  It made me feel special.  We would watch Jerry push himself as he stayed up 24 hours straight raising thousands of dollars for muscular dystrophy with guests like Ed McMahon, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Oralndo and Dawn, “Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree!”  If Jerry could do it, we could do it!

But we couldn’t.  We didn’t.  At some point in time, we always fell asleep.

The first day of school after summer vacation always followed Labor Day.  Even though I was exhausted from the night before, I was excited for a new year to begin.  I would unwrap my new pens and erasers, set up my pencil box and three ring binder, and lay out my new fall clothes for the next morning.  I was so excited to wear my new outfits I didn’t care that it was still 110 degrees in the shade as I slipped into my 70’s gold turtle neck top, matching corduroy skirt and itchy tights.

Labor Day weekend always signified change for me; another year older, a brand new wardrobe and a new year in school.  But after years of no telethon, hundreds of channels and homeschooling, Labor Day weekend became just another weekend.  Until now!

This year Labor Day weekend yet again signifies change!

We are moving!  It was only a year and a half ago that we moved into this glorious monster of a house.  With its flowing waterfalls, lush zen garden and Koi ponds it has been both a blessing and a nightmare.  Parties, book groups, poetry workshops, rock concerts, movie nights, new friends and late night Nerf Gun Wars have filled both these walls and our hearts.  But so has flooded sump pumps, overflowing toilets, root infested pipes, armies of ants and the never ending wrath of the Santa Ana winds leaving me with two days of yard work and resentment.

Midnight Nerf Gun Wars

Mother Function Concert in our Garage

So after careful deliberation, we have decided to sell our home and move on to something less monstrous, less glorious, less work, less money, less;  but in the long run I know it will bring to my life so much more.

The house should be up for sale by this Friday on my birthday.  I am sad to say good bye.  Although I will miss our midnight Nerf Gun Wars and movie nights, they will always be a part of me just like those late night slumber parties and Jerry Lewis telethons.  In some ways, it is the end of an era for me, in others, a new beginning.  But I am not afraid of new beginnings (well maybe a little).  I just don’t always like the death that precedes it.

But as Robert Browning writes, “My sun sets to rise again.”  So, as the sun sets this Labor Day, I will unwrap my new pens and erasers, set up my pencil box and three ring binder and lay out my new fall clothes for a new year, a new beginning!  I am born again this Labor Day weekend.  Happy Birthday to me!