Reshaped

I looked like an alternate version of myself.  My bottom eyelashes were finally gone.  I still had some on top, although they were pretty wimpy too, and my eyebrows were not much better.  My shape was also shifting, my weight was up and my face was round.  Without my wig on, I looked rather a lot like Buddha, especially when I sat cross-legged.  But darn it all, I had made it to the halfway mark and could use a break, so I decided I would still go to the party.

After finding a new blouse (in a larger size), squeezing into old jeans (for the last time), I put on my wig, and painted my face.  Literally.  My eyes were constantly watering from the meds, and the bit of eyeliner I managed to get on kept wearing off, so I brought it with me to reapply often.  It took a lot of work, but I thought I looked okay.  Apparently, I wasn’t fooling anyone.

I was met with concerned faces.  Everyone was so kind and caring… but also so worried.  I began to feel uneasy.  I had wanted some fun, to forget my troubles for a while, mingle in a happy crowd, and have a pleasant distraction.  But I wound up spending the night explaining my diagnosis, my treatment, and how I was feeling about everything.  Consolation followed me everywhere.  Not exactly the night I envisioned.

Near the end of the evening it slowly occurred to me.  Oh…I thought, they think this might be the last time they see me.  This set my jaw. I wanted to stand up on a chair in the middle of the room, stomp my foot and scream WAIT! I am not going anywhere!  I decided it would be my last public event for a while.  How long, who knew.  But one thing I did know, I was just going to have to prove them wrong.

Looking forward, I braced myself for the second half of treatment.  I had begun to count them down backwards, four to go, two after the next one, one more after that.  Somehow this helped.  Chemo was slowly reshaping my resistance.  It was getting a little harder to bounce back, that “flu” feeling was lasting longer, and I was getting more tired out each time.  Seeing that last date finally approach was huge.

On treatment day my husband and I arrived with an edgy eagerness.  Deep breath, here we go, last one. But at the check-in desk, I was told I was not on the schedule.  What?  Heat began to rise within me, and I fought to keep my voice in control.  No I’m there, you must be mistaken. I sat right here when you made the appointment. No. You’ve got to be kidding. This is my last time.  You can’t tell me that.  I could tell by her nervousness as she checked her books, that she knew it wasn’t going to happen.  I’m sorry was all she could say.  I stomped my foot and cried WAIT!  I am not going anywhere!  Then, I lost it.  I began to sob.  Uncontrollably.  Loudly.

Wisely, they found me a room where I continued to weep in private.  It was only then that I realized how much it took to get here, to this building, to this floor, to these rooms with their smells, their day-chairs, their IVs.  It took every ounce of strength, every bit of courage I had to walk in here knowing how critical this all was, how venomous the drugs were, how sick I’d feel afterwards, how desperately I needed it to work.  It simply took everything.  When it all came spilling out, there was just no stopping it.

We waited through the morning hoping for a no-show, which would allow me to take their place.  This was a good thing, as it gave me the time I needed to gain some control over my emotions.  When it became clear there was no chance for this to happen, we scheduled it once again, and silently went home.  Not nearly the day I expected.

* * * * *

When things go awry, it’s not always easy to see what God is doing.  But often He uses circumstances to mold us and shape us into who He wants us to be; a better version of ourselves.  One experience can shape our determination, while another can temper it with patience, forming a new resilience not present before. And when He is finally done, no doubt His fingerprints will be all over us.  The bad news is that it hurts sometimes; the good news is that all the while, we are in His hands.

* * * * *

Olives/Faith ©Lynnea Washburn

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Prayer

Most days I felt hope.  It really was quite unexplainable.  But after a while, I began to see why.  Prayers were being said for me everywhere, virtually all over the country.  From my family and friends, to their friends and families, to their congregations, they could have easily counted into the hundreds, most probably the thousands.  I even knew of someone, unsure about this whole God thing, turn to Him and pray on my behalf.  Now that must have really gotten His attention.

Of course, I also prayed.  A lot.  Being the visual person I am, I often put my prayers into imagery that I could really connect with.  Daily, I visualized God’s hand wrapped around my tumor and squeezing it, crushing out the cancer.  Some time later, a scan would show that the tumor had shrunk by 60%.  My doctor explained that although we might always see something where the tumor once was, to think of it like a burnt marshmallow; if you hold it up to the sun, you would see a solid, but if you touched it, it would turn to ash.  I visualized God’s breath blowing the ash away.

In prayer, I visualized my body as a home for the Holy Spirit where nothing unholy was allowed to live.  Later, I was told that my Non-Hodgkin’s cancer was in fact “curable” and not something I would need to “manage” my entire life.  I was told that in time, all my enlarged lymph nodes would go back to their original size, and my lymph system would be working properly again.  A house put back into order.

As I walked into treatment, I felt emboldened as I visualized myself arm in arm with Christ.  After a couple of rounds, treatments became easier, and as a result my drip speed was increased, shortening my treatment time significantly.  Anti-anxiety medications were soon dropped as they were no longer needed, and the side effects of the medication were gone as well.

When I went in for the Famously Painful Injection the day after chemo to boost my red blood cells (one that required warming the skin and an extremely slow rate of injection to ease the wasp-like sting), once again I visualized myself alongside my Trusted Friend, and walked out without experiencing pain.

In the long slow hours of the most difficult days of sickness, when there was nothing left for me to do but simply endure, tears fell as I visualized myself sitting like a child curled up at the feet of Christ.  Simply being in His presence, leaning on Him, I found the inner strength to bear the discomfort, but more than that, I also found peace.

I had always believed in prayer, but now I actually felt prayer.  There were times when I would find myself suddenly uplifted and smiling for no reason at all.  Times when I felt as though I had already won the battle, and optimism would escape from my lips with a gasp.  Yes, there were hard days, but there were also many more days when I felt… well… happy.  And although the whole matter had not yet been settled, one thing was very clear.  Prayer mattered.

Did I think my chemotherapy was working?  Absolutely.  Did I think that prayer was also working?  Absolutely.  To my mental, emotional and physical state, prayer made a difference.  It was clear I was not fighting alone.  Christ said whenever two of you come together and ask anything of my Father, it will be done for you. When two or three gather in my name, I am with them.*  This I take to heart.  Whether it is spoken in thousands of whispers or in the small voice of a boy with his mom, prayer works.  Whether it be expressed with words, with imagery, or only with tears, God hears.  And God cares.

*Matthew 18: 19-20

Thankful ©Lynnea Washburn

The Circus Master

It’s amazing how fast things whirl around you when you are set perfectly still.  There are times when no matter how hard we try, we just can’t keep up.  Instead of the perfectly spinning top, we find ourselves wobbling like one about to topple.  It’s in those times when we must accept that we are no longer the efficient version of ourselves.  But it’s hard to give yourself permission to carry less than you once did, and it’s hard to be the one taking on the extra load.

From where I sat, watching our Family Circus, I thought things seemed pretty typical.  The boys skirted their homework, played video games too loudly, bumped off the walls while doing just about anything, and were generally the same old mess makers they had always been.  But for some reason it seemed this was no longer tolerable to their dad, and his patience was clearly running out.  A casual thing for some perhaps, but a rare event in our household.

Our easy-going guy had become the barking task master and was now making everyone jump.  So many things got under his skin.  The dishes, the schedules, the appointments, the laundry, the housework, the meals.  All the things that made up our three-ring life.  Even my reminder of whom-needed-to-be-picked-up-when resulted in a sharp snap in my direction.  Something was definitely off.  It didn’t make sense that the regular routine had now become so irritating.

Certainly things weren’t working quite like they once had, and I could see my husband was working harder than ever.  The energy required to parent this household was already demanding enough, and now he was going it alone.  His juggling act got very complicated.  On top of his job, the boy’s schedules, and caring for me, he was trying to keep normalcy balanced up in the air for fear it would all come tumbling down.  It was no wonder he was losing his grip.  I worried, wondered if he had anyone to talk to, and decided we had better try to sort it out.

Carving out some time alone, we finally got to talk.  As we did, we began to unpack the load, sorting through the tightly bound piles looking for things he shouldn’t be carrying.  Would things go smoother if the boys pitched in more?  Sure.  But we know they aren’t going to become perfect children just because of my cancer.  A loosened knot.  It’s unrealistic to think any of them will change into superman overnight (or ever).  An untied bundle.  And you know, you can’t expect to, either.  Another burden set aside.  The piles of shoes, the backpacks, the afternoon dishes, are these really worth being so upset?  Unbound.  Considering everything… do these things really matter…?  Unloaded.

We sat talking, working, unwinding, unbinding, until there was only one thing left in our pack.  And then I saw.  It wasn’t about any of those things.  It was about the single, biggest, hugest thing we had ever carried before.  It was about the one thing we couldn’t bear to speak.  The thing too difficult to articulate.  Beyond what to do with anger when there is no right place for it to go.  Beyond staying mute with indignation while wanting to cry out I am sorry that I am sick.  It was about standing on the high wire of our life and looking out and seeing nothing underfoot.  Not daring to take a step forward, not even daring to take a breath.

Finally, we exhaled.  Then the words came.

“We both know… if God decides it’s my time to go, then no one and nothing can prevent that from happening.  But if God decides it’s not my time to go, then no one and nothing can make it happen.”

And for some reason, simply knowing only that, it was enough.

Enough to gather up the things we should carry, give all the rest to God, and walk hand in hand into another day.

Queen Anne's Lace ©Lynnea Washburn

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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

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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

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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

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Beyond the Threshold

The night was endless. I spent it walking, standing, sitting.  Trying any position that might give some relief to the ever-growing pain.  I sent prayers to the heavens seeking help.  Things were getting desperate, and right before dawn my body began to shake.  I had hit my threshold, and became very afraid about what might lie beyond it.

I thought I knew all about pain.  After all, I’d been through three natural childbirths with back labor to boot.  As it turned out, that was mere child’s play.  None of my pain management techniques worked.  When a tumor is pressing directly on your spine, well, the world could end and you wouldn’t notice.

Off to the ER we went.  After multiple hours and morphine doses I finally began to endure my existence.  Although it seemed barely enough, a higher dose would be dangerous, and the pain ebbed and flowed like an unruly tide.  The cancer that didn’t yet seem real had shown itself to be very real indeed, at once holding captive my every thought, and assaulting my every move.  Why, I thought, had no one warned me that cancer could be so painful.

The next few days were a blur.  A myriad of tests were done as quickly as possible, under threat of the swelling tide of agony that could rush in any moment.  Cat scans, MRI, bone marrow draw, EKG, and a few others I can’t recall.  Then there were the IV’s, the burning injections, and the surgical implantation of a port in my chest, which was then quickly utilized by my first round of chemotherapy.  It would be only after receiving this, that the pain would begin to subside.

But there was one procedure that no one will ever forget.  The spinal tap.  I was forewarned that it might be uncomfortable, but it was only a thirty minute procedure, in and out and done.  So I agreed to let an intern do it under the close scrutiny of a doctor who happened to be “the best there is”.  I curled up in a ball and with my back to them, they began. But the intern could not get the needle all the way in.  He tried again, to no avail.  Deep breath, some instruction, then once again he started, and once again he stopped, without success.

Murmurs and shuffling ensued.  I sensed the doctors exchanging places and furrowed faces.  My husband left the room.  I uncurled and curled up again.  My arms felt the strain and I shivered slightly. But okay, I thought, we have The Best There Is, so here we go now.  No problem.

Problem.  He couldn’t get in.  He tried again.  No luck.  And again.  And again.

Tenseness was rising in the room.  Just then, my oncologist entered.  Looking alarmed, he immediately said what’s happening and I think we need to stop.  They paused.  Strained conversation.  I could sense the heat of frustration warming the coldness of my back.  It just wasn’t going well for The Best There Is.  Yet, who else could do it if not he?  They asked me if I could handle one more try.  I said yes, I’m okay, let’s just get it done, and finally, finally, they did.

Later my oncologist would confess he’d never seen anyone go through that before.  Never had he entered a room so thick with stress that you could cut it with a knife.  Never had he seen it take nine punctures with a four-inch needle to get the job done. Never had he seen The Best bested.  And never had he been so close to demanding respected colleagues to get out of the room.  Now.  Five years later, he still recants this story.

“If someone had told me then, that you were now going to climb Mt. Everest, I’d say, ‘Of course she is.’ ”

* * * * *

But you see… the thing is, I’m not really that strong.  I’ve had my few tenacious moments, but I simply wasn’t capable of breaking all hospital records for tolerance.  Not even in perfect health.  The reality was I had hit my very real, very human threshold days before, during that first long night.  Everything beyond that, I had not handled on my own.

Beyond the threshold of our limitation there is no need to fear, for beyond the threshold of our limitation there is God.  He was waiting at the ready, waiting for me to cross the plane.  And when I did, it was He who carried me through.  In the coming days, He would show up again.  And again.  And again.  Until it finally set in… He would handle those things that I could not.

"make no mistake, it takes everything you have, but know deep down, you have enough"

©Lynnea Washburn

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