Crown of Beauty

Crown-of-Beauty

He was sent to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, to oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.  Isaiah 61

This scripture meant so much to me through my cancer fight, and it gave me encouragement in my darkest days.  Even when I didn’t recognize myself, if comforted me to know that God still did…and tenderly He says; Beloved, no matter what you’ve been through, you are beautiful in my sight.

I praise you, Father.  I praise you, Jesus.  I praise you, Holy Spirit.  Continue to grow me into a mighty oak worthy of you.

©Lynnea Washburn

 

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To Begin Again

Watching hair grow is like taking a snail for a walk across the Sahara desert.

Strangely, as soon as fuzz appeared on my head, my wig didn’t feel like me anymore.  This was surprising considering how it had made me feel completely like myself at the beginning.  But after eight months, it felt like the old me, the chemo me, the sick me, and I was ready to leave that me behind.  Although I was still a frightful sight for the general public, around the house I would sport my five o’clock shadow style.

My inching hair was outward evidence of an inward healing that was equally as slow.  Although I had days of aching joints, deep tiredness and very foggy thinking, I began to see small improvements over time. A bit more physical strength here, a longer period of activity there, a little less needed sleep to make it through the day.  I was making progress.

As the chemo mist lifted, I began to see more clearly.  But what I saw simply overwhelmed me.  So much catching up needed to be done.  The house needed repair, the yard needed tending, furniture needed replacing, work needed work, and our bank account left a lot to be desired.  There was too much to do, too much money needed to do it, and it was all going to take too much time.  Things were a mess, and improvement seemed unattainable.  I simply felt… behind.  And for some reason, being behind was an awful, horrible, terrible thing.  It meant that I had lost.

And the reality was, I did lose something.  I lost time I could not reclaim.  Try as I may, I could not possibly catch up for the previous year.  It was gone.  I had to let go of something I never really had a grasp of anyway, and I had to stop beating myself up about it.  Yes, I had won the battle, but I needed to cede that it had cost me something.  And I had to acknowledge that what it cost me was well worth what I had won.  This is obvious, and still, it is a process.

One of the reasons recovery takes so long is that the damage inflicted from the struggle can be so far-reaching.  It can touch all the events that make up the daily flow of our lives, reach all the people we know, and affect our total being; our emotions, our minds, and our physical bodies all the way down to the cell level.

So yes.  It takes time.  But what I found was that before you can even begin to move forward, you must start by leaving what is behind behind you.  I had to accept my reality, grieve what was lost, forgive myself even though it was not my fault, and then to lay it all down at God’s feet.  Only then could I turn my eyes to the next sunrise, be grateful for the new day, and realize how blessed I was to have the chance to begin again.

Sunrise © Lynnea Washburn

All portions of this blog are copyright Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

This is a late addition to this post (because at first I chickened out):

To save you the journey through the Sahara Desert with a snail leading the way, I’ve compressed my hair-raising experience from three years down to a minute and a half.

Deep breath, here I go… if I don’t share it now, I may never.  If I can get through it, so can you.

Overliving

Halfway to the halfway mark.  You’ve got to find your milestones no matter how small they are.  A new cycle had emerged; treatment, side effects, normalcy, repeat.  Four cycles, evaluation, then four more.  It was a deceptively simple routine.  One in which I felt I was accomplishing nothing, but at the same time experiencing everything way too much.  I called it “overliving”, a side effect of sensory overload, an awareness dialed up to the tenth power.

It began with oversmelling.  Every smell had intensified so much that a once-pleasant scent was now acrid.  Cooked chicken smelled like dead foul, steak like rotting cow, and coffee smelled exactly like what it was; burnt beans.  The smells were closely paired with overtasting.  Even water now had the flavor of chemicals and chlorine.  Nothing tasted as it had before, or perhaps it tasted exactly as it should… about this I have continued to ponder.

Then there were the soaps, the cleansers, the shampoos.  I can’t tell you how many different varieties were tried.  Even the unscented had scent.  And oh, how they lingered!  On the sheets, on my clothes, on my skin.  The products certainly did their job, and no amount of rinsing reduced their ever-so-fresh guarantee.  Each scent was now overdone and overblown, and made my nose zing in agony.

Body temperature was another thing.  Whether it was my skin or my internal gauge, I was completely out of whack.  At times overly hot, but more often much too cold.  I felt every little draft, and spent many hours wrapped up and still chilled to the bone.  When a wood fire was lit in an effort to bring me comfort, it smelled as if I was inhaling the burnt cinders themselves.

Surprising however, were the emotional changes.  This wasn’t on the radar of possible side effects.  I started noticing and enjoying seemingly little things I had missed before.  I felt happiness more strongly, gratefulness daily, and found much to appreciate around me.  The purity of a bird’s song, the warmth of a single ray of sun, the peace found in the dusk of the day, and the uplifting breeze that held the promise of spring.  I found new appreciation for small joys.

Music fell fresh upon my ears, with new meaning and more emotion than before.  Sunday messages held words spoken uniquely for me as if I were the only one in the room.  Conversations were filled with insights and resonating truth.  Books were read with new levels of understanding and empathy.  I often felt as if I were seeing things for what they truly were for the very first time.  I found new significance in familiar places.

It was as if somewhere it had been decided that if I had to endure the physical discomfort of this new kind of overliving, then I would also get to experience a new kind of overjoying.  And although the physical effects would gradually diminish, there has been something lasting about the emotional ones.  One was clearly medication-based, but the other?  Perhaps… this was merely grace.

And once again I pondered, if life is not the same as it was before… perhaps now it is exactly the way it should be.

Water Lily 1 ©Lynnea Washburn

Water Lily 2 ©Lynnea Washburn

Water Lily crystal paper weight

From the Living Victoriously collection of fine products by Boston International.

All portions of this blog ©Lynnea Washburn.

Beauty for Ashes

“Would you like me to cover up the mirror?” the wig maker asked.

“No,” I said.  I thought that watching the progression of my hair being removed would be easier than seeing it all gone at once.

I had been warned that it would fall out suddenly, and that long before I was ready, I would need to make a decision about what to do with my hair.  Or lack of it.  They were right.  It was mere weeks after the first round of chemo that it had begun to fall out.  Reality hit too soon as hair filled my brush, laid upon my pillow, and came off in my hands when I stroked it.

I hadn’t sought out the wig maker.  Someone I once worked with some ten years prior, in another state no less, just happened to have a close friend from her college days that lived not far from me.  I had met this friend briefly some 12 months before, and when she heard I had cancer, she called me.  It was upon her recommendation that I considered the wig maker, and I had made a consultation to find out more.  But since the hair had started to go, my consult was quickly changed to a hair removal.

His name was Kurt, and his talent was amazing.  Kurt’s father had immigrated from Europe to the United States with the craft of wig making using human hair.  What began as a thriving high fashion business in New York City changed over time to become a specialized salon that catered to the needs of cancer patients.  Kurt’s father may have taught him the trade, but Kurt’s tender disposition was uniquely his own, empathic, caring and kind.

With my husband in tow, we arrived early in the morning, as Kurt had cleared his entire day for me.  Gently he began, starting at the back of my head, and he carefully removed my hair in sections.  He then placed them on a bed of long pins in a very specific order.  This way, the hair would be sewn onto a silk cap exactly where it had once belonged on my head.  All the while, he left the front of my hair in place which framed my face.  He knew what he was doing.  From my vantage point, all I saw was me looking back at myself looking normal.

“Ready?” he asked before the last of it was taken.  After a quick breath and an encouraging smile from my husband, I nodded.  The last two sections were removed as I watched, and I sat there in disbelief as I looked in the mirror.

“I look the same!” I said in surprise.  Then I laughed.  What was I thinking?  That my whole face would suddenly change?  That I would morph into someone else?  Or something else?  I startled myself with this silly realization.  The fact that this irrational fear had only vanished when all the hair was gone was equally stupefying.  I gained some composure, put on a long scarf, topped it with a hat, and turned to my husband. Voila.

“You look beautiful”, he said.  I married the right man.

Later that day, when the wig was finished we returned.  It looked amazing.  You couldn’t even tell I was wearing a wig.  I was shown how to wash my hair in the sink, attach it to my head with double-sided tape, and style it as usual with the blow dryer.  It was a bit challenging to find where my hairline used to be as I positioned it on my forehead.  A bit off and something just looked… well, a bit off.  With practice I would get it… most of the time.

But the hardest part of the day came as we prepared to leave.  I attempted to tell Kurt how much this meant to me.  To still have my hair, to keep a part of myself, was huge.  Overcoming my fear that somehow I would lose myself was even greater.  I was humbled by the fact that his talent, this gift, would help keep me whole.  He had gathered the markers of illness and had woven them into a crown.  My gratefulness overwhelmed me, and the longer I stood there the harder it was to speak.  I got as far as saying thank you, but the rest of my words were choked back by tears.  It’s okay, he said.  He gave me a hug.  He understood.

Later that evening, as I was saying goodnight to the boys, I asked each one if they wanted to see my bald head.  Tyler and Nate’s reactions were the same.  They looked me over and slowly nodded, as if to say… so there’s your head, uh huh, okay, we can deal.  Then when I showed Nick, I laughed aloud for the second time that day as he exclaimed,

“You look the same!”

From now on every morning, my cancer was going to show its reflection to me when I looked in the mirror.  But it would be my choice to decide what it is I truly saw… how I had changed, or how I remained the same.  And it would be my choice to decide what I would reflect to the world.

* * * * *

God says He will give you a crown of beauty instead of ashes*, and this I know to be true.  He tends to your needs through providence that appears to be coincidence.  He tells you what you need to hear through someone words.  He comforts you through someone’s gifts, encourages you through someone’s smile, touches you through someone’s hug, and loves you through someone’s heart.  He sees you for what you really are, and no matter what you’ve been through, you are beautiful to Him.

Roses & Damask ©Lynnea Washburn

* Isaiah 61: 3

All portions of this blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

The Author

Up until this point, as the author of my life, I had a number of chapters outlined well in advance.  These included the boys’ graduations, college experiences, careers, weddings and eventual families.  Chapters about a growing art business, more time with my husband, maybe some travel, and what life might become in retirement.  But when cancer entered the plot line, all those future chapters were shelved.

The long view of my story had shortened.  Now all I saw was January to June, during which eight treatments would occur every three weeks.  Then we’d see what things looked like from there.  My view was shortened again as I realized I just needed to focus on getting through those 3-week intervals.  The first week was always the hardest, followed by two in which I gradually regained strength, just in time to do it again.  It was during that first week of each cycle that my view shortened even further.  At first it was an accomplishment to get dressed by ten a.m., then an accomplishment to get dressed by noon.  Then by four p.m., then at all.  The view from here became a view of here.

What you find in the long slow hours is that you have too much time for your own thoughts.  When the clock slows down, you contemplate your situation, ponder the outcome, and wonder about everything.   This is part of the battle, these debates in your mind, when on one hand you say, OK Hope, let’s hear your argument, and on the other you say, OK Despair, let’s hear yours.  Today’s topic; a miracle.  With the theme being settled, I had plenty of time to hear both sides and decide what it truly meant.

You see, once cancer becomes a reality in your life, so do other things.  Like the idea of dying… like the idea of miracles.  These are no longer abstract concepts, but very real possibilities.  A miracle just didn’t apply to some distant bible character, or a story of someone of someone I knew, it applied to me.  My situation.  Right now.  I knew I could pray for one, I knew God answered prayer.  I knew He was completely capable.  And it intimidated me completely.  How was I possibly worthy?

Who am I to call down the power of the Creator to attend to me in such a personal way?  How in the world would I ever be able to repay God for a miracle?  How could I ever honor Him or thank Him enough for such a thing?  I was paralyzed by the very idea.  I simply could not pray for one.  In today’s war of words, Despair had won the first round, and Doubt had been his right hand man.  If the long slow hours of the day were for fair debate, the dark lonely hours of the night were for Doubt’s soapbox.

Wrestling with sleep, the questions wouldn’t stop.  How would the boys do without me?  How would they get through school?  Through relationships, through life?  How would my husband handle being a single dad?  Being alone?  How would college be paid?  How would the bills get paid?  Would the household continue to run?  Who would keep things on track?  Should I prepare?  How could I prepare?  How this… what if that…?  With Despair’s constant monologue clamoring in my head, and Doubt’s hot breath raising the hairs on my neck, I felt the dark world closing in.  With my heart racing, I bound out of bed, sank to my knees and cried… oh please Lord, grant me a miracle.

Silence.  Then peace.  Then sleep.

By the morning light, it was settled.  Despair was gone, nowhere to be found, leaving only Hope to remain standing.  Hope was the debate’s rightful victor, and in its arms, held a prize called truth.  I am worthy.  I am loved.  And when you are loved, there is no “paying back”, there is only loving back.  About this there is no debate, no matter how the story plays out.

God is the true author of my life, not I, and He writes much better than I ever could.  He knows the beginning, the middle, and He alone knows the end.  When the antagonist shows up, He can use him in the story too ~ as a catalyst for action, for growth, and for trust.  And just when you are certain that the next page is blank, God fills it, and the story goes on.

Daybreak ©Lynnea Washburn

All portions of this blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All Rights Reserved.

Friends and Guardian Angels

As if a horn blew some warning call, so immediate were they that rallied around the one who was down… uplifting, soothing, encouraging, feeding, caring.  In all my life, I had never experienced anything like this.  Still to this day, when I think of the hours so well-tended by friends, my heart swells, my eyes fill, and I choke on humility.

My deep fear was that I would wear them out.  How long could they last, exactly what would I need?  No one knew.  I discovered it’s not a question friends ask.  They came with dinners, with books and with flowers, with lists of whom to call ~ for rides, for cleaning, for spending the night if needed.  They came with encouraging words, with prayer, with humor, and with hope.  They came with love.  I felt so undeserving, so overwhelmed, so incredibly grateful.  I was aware I was accumulating a great debt.  How in the world, I thought, how in the world… would I ever be able to thank them.

I tried keeping lists of who brought what, said what, did what.  With my mind clouded by chemo, the only clarity had been that there was absolutely no way I could keep up with all the thank yous I owed.  No way.  Tears of sadness at my own inability mixed with profound thankfulness for their deep capacity to care.  With regret I tenderly set aside the many unfinished lists, tucking them somewhere into the pages of these days.

Allowing myself to accept help was never my forte.  Admitting I was struggling was not really my thing.  Accepting this kind of friendship was like receiving a gift beyond measure, at once being something you can’t live without, and something of which you can’t possibly be worthy.

At the time, I felt completely disarmed.  Yet now I see I was armed to the nines.  For certainly I was in the trenches fighting the battle of my life, but somewhere behind me my ammunition kept coming.  Those behind me stayed steady, behind me stayed true.  I dared not turn to take my eyes off the prize. And I knew if I could reach victory, it would not be mine alone.  For each of us fought, all the way, to the end.  Each of us won, not just I.

* * * * *

Every prayer you say makes you part of the healing.  Every encouragement you speak makes you part of the hope. Every kindness you offer makes you part of the light.  Every moment you give makes you part of the fight.

And every time you held me in your thoughts, you lifted me.  Know that I felt it.  Know that I needed you.  Know that I thank you… with all of my heart.  You were both my strong guardians, and my very real angels.  Even more than that, you were my friends.

Cattails and Marsh Birds ©Lynnea Washburn

From the Living Victoriously collection of fine products from Boston International.

All portions of the blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

Singing

He said if he had a choice of tumors, this is the one he would want.

“Oh really?” I said, “Well then, can I give you mine?”

The radiologist doing the biopsy chuckled. When I asked him if it was going to be hard to reach the tumor since it was so near my spinal cord, he chuckled again.

“Honey, I could stand you across the room and throw a dart at it and hit it,” he said.

I burst out laughing. Fortunately, he had a sense of humor. Unfortunately, it also meant the tumor was the size of a potato.

The doctor clearly loved his work, and his energy was infectious. He explained that in this procedure, a “core sample” would be taken in order to determine the type of Lymphoma present.  Animated, he showed me the cat scan on the computer screen, and in detail explained what all the colorful images meant. When I asked him what the tumor was made of, he said it was a number of lymph nodes that had grown together with a kind of connective tissue.  I felt like a student that had stumbled upon an unknown topic that was immediately beguiling.

“Let’s measure it,” he said brightly.

As he measured the largest mass (2.5″ x 5″), he also pointed out all the other radish-sized lymph nodes that were enlarged and well on their way to becoming more tumors.

Huh.  This would all be very interesting, I thought, if it weren’t happening to me.

During the procedure, which required only a local, a few minutes had passed before I realized that I had begun to hum. I knew all the words to the song that popped into my head, and ever so softly, I began singing it to myself.  I found the praise song to be very comforting, and I liked how it flew in the face of Dire Straights, the uninvited guest who had so rudely taken up residence in my life.

I noticed slight movement in the room.  Perhaps a nurse had cocked her head… or exchanged glances were made. Then I thought… maybe it’s kinda odd for them to hear a little tune coming from someone in my position.  A cancer patient growing a veritable vegetable patch of tumors lying face down on a table with a sharp instrument, very possibly a dart, sticking out of her back.  Singing.  And then that idea made me start giggling.  So then I was singing and giggling.

I always wondered why they never mentioned it.  Perhaps it was because they knew something I did not.  I would need these moments of humor. And sure enough, it didn’t take long before the pain kicked in.  Even so, the events of the day tickled my funny bone, and I still laughed, and winced, out loud.

* * * * *

Cancer cannot halt the humming.  Cancer cannot hold back the giggling.  Over time, I would learn many interesting things about cancer and the human body, and come to better understand what was going on inside me.  In more ways than one.  Most importantly, I would come to learn the many things that cancer could not do.

Yes, there would be procedures, and yes, there would be pain.  But there would also be choices.

One of them would be singing.

 

All portions of the blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.