Monday, February 11, 2013

"Stopping" on a Snow Day

The Vision

It's Monday morning. I get up early, work out, shower, and eat a healthy breakfast. I spend some time with the kids before they hug me and head off to school. While Brian is at work, I sit down at my desk and start to type away. The sun shines, the birds chirp, and my creativity flows like water. I stop for a nice lunch, then I return to finish a great piece of writing before I pick the kids up from school, help cook dinner, and hear all about my family's day. 

The Reality

It's Monday morning. Teddy appears at our bedside and I hear Annabel beckoning us to "Pum heeee-yeaaaa!" I pretend like I'm still sleeping -- my message to Brian that he needs to get up. Early work out? Yeah right. Shower? No chance.

The house looks like a bomb exploded in it -- a bomb filled with valentines, markers, mittens, sneakers, doll clothes, bills, boots, and Hockey Guys. The kids' school is closed because of the snowstorm, but Brian's school is open. That terrible mismatch means that I'm all alone with Thing One and Thing Two. 

Before Brian leaves, Teddy takes his place with his Hockey Guys beside the big living room window. He sits down on the floor and nonchalantly informs us that the window is leaking. Yep, it sure as hell is. Glad we got a new roof last year so that that would never happen again. 

Annabel spills her Gatorade. Teddy wants a bagel. He eats a few bites. Then he wants a cookie. I eat the rest of his bagel (and a cookie). I call the roof guy to ask, over the kids' fighting screams, What the F? He says he'll come out when he can but that "his guys are stuck." Yeah, I'm stuck too, buddy. 

I suggest making cupcakes for Teddy's birthday snack at school tomorrow (at school I think they call this "diversion"). Annabel stirs the box mix all over. They fight over who gets the blue spatula. I crack the eggs, they pour the oil and water. It's time to mix the batter. Annabel hollers that the vacuum (the mixer) is tooo loud! The kids get bored and start to chase each other around the house. The cupcakes are in. 

"Time to finish the school valentines, kiddos!" (my nice tone grows faker by the word). Annabel doesn't want to. She'd rather throw all of her toys around the kitchen in protest. Teddy rubber stamps a few pink cards, then he wants more Gatorade. The Gatorade spills. I look at the clock. 9:03. Oh dear. Long freaking way to go. 

A while later, Nana and Papa arrive for the rescue. They play with the kids while I clean up cake batter, then they take the kids to McDonald's (yes, a nutritious day for us all). Brian gets home and heads up to the roof to remove the stubborn ice dam that can never wait to form on the backside of our house. 

I don't think I've brushed my teeth yet (can't remember), but I sit down to write anyways. I listen to the sweet sounds of dripping water in my living room, and my husband scraping and stomping on the roof. I peek over my shoulder every time it gets silent to check if he has fallen into a snowbank. So far, he hasn't. I stop for lunch and slice my finger with the bread knife. Ouch. Lightning McQueen bandaids will do. At least my body now has what it needs to heal my small wound. And Brian has a reminder of why he always does the cooking. I finish lunch and debate changing out of my pajamas or cleaning the house. Nah. I'll just write until all hell breaks loose again.  

*  *  *

Back to that "Stopping" passage and the book it came from (Wherever You Go There You Are). My friend, Andy, gave me this book after he read about my self-made motto, I am here now. The book is about "mindfulness meditation in everyday life" and it's fascinating. So let's dive into it a bit. 

First, I need to admit that there's an enormous irony in the fact that I'm writing about this book. In another section, Jon Kabat-Zinn gives one of his only real pieces of clear advice that I've come across yet -- don't do that. He explains:

Every time you get a strong impulse to talk about meditation and how wonderful it is, or how hard it is, or what it's doing for you these days, or what it's not, or you want to convince someone else how wonderful it would be for them, just look at it as more thinking and go meditate some more. The impulse will pass and everybody will be better off -- especially you.
Well, crap. I'm fired. Because tonight, in writing about the "Stopping" passage, I am innately going. I'm doing what I almost always do -- I'm moving and ignoring any impulse that my body has to rest. Stopping!?! Well, that's hard work. Like I told Dr. Bunnell when he asked me if I was getting my energy back after chemo -- Well, I never really lost it. My thought bubble continued...Yep, I preferred the anaphylaxis / neutropenic / nosebleed route over plain old fatigue, but thanks for asking, Doc. 

So trust me, I see the irony that underscores this post. I know that instead of writing about trying to stop, I should just stop and try to stop. Wait. Now I'm just getting myself confused.

OK, back to basics, people.

So this book is really interesting to me, and since I've only just started it, please heed my caveat that I have learned probably 0.5% of what the book as to offer (and that's probably giving myself too much credit). But here's the most important thing that the 0.5% has taught me so far -- that I must be like five shots of extra caffeinated expresso to anyone who has achieved any sort of mindfulness.

Seriously, there I was on New Year's Eve bragging about how I needed a new resolution because I'd finally learned how to live in the present. Well, Mr. Kabat-Zinn put me in my place, that's for sure. Because even though my self-made motto -- I am here now -- really helped me get through some crap-ass times, I'm not sure Mr. Kabat-Zinn would think I had achieved any real mindfulness. Plus, I haven't seen any chapter in his book about Ativan, and that stuff has a lot going for it.

Lately though, I haven't much leaned on the I am here now motto. That's probably because I have moved onto the relatively easy part of my treatment and every day, my life looks more and more like it used to. Last week's Herceptin infusion was painless, aside from the typical trouble with the I.V. (no matter how many times it happens, a big needle fishing around my flesh for a vein just doesn't get comfier). Except for the triweekly trips to Dana-Farber and my Mondays at home, my life has quickly started to look a lot like it did pre-diagnosis, with work and kids' birthday parties and regular problems like leaky roofs and fights over spatulas. My medical notebook is put away, and I'm back to using my calendar for work and family events rather than for doctor appointments. In some ways, nothing has changed. But in other ways, everything has. 

On a broader level -- not the level that Jon Kabat-Zinn is talking about, I don't think -- cancer made me stop. It made me look around and see what was happening in my life. This wasn't the first time that I had done so, and in fact, switching jobs just six months earlier was largely the result of a simliar type of an assessment. But I ended one job on Friday and started the next one the Monday after. I didn't really stop moving, but I did switch to a much smoother track (and one headed in a desired direction).

After my diagnosis, however, many of my responsibilities and obligations immediately evaporated. I didn't have to work (except on Wendy's case, and that never really felt like work). I didn't have to return phone calls or emails because people would understand why. I didn't have to cook -- wait, I never really had to do that. Better yet, Brian rarely had to cook, which meant that he could be with me at the hospital or free up to help with all of the things that I usually did while he prepared meals. I didn't have to catch trains into my office because I drove instead or worked from home. I didn't even have to do the laundry because my Mom arranged for an awesome woman to help with that. (Sheesh, maybe I shouldn't admit how spoiled I was -- I sound like a lazy bum! Oh well, at least it explains where I found the time to write.)

*  *  *

If this is true, maybe you don't need to make one more phone call right now, even if you think you do. Maybe you don't need to read something just now, or run one more errand. By taking a few moments to "die on purpose" to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. 
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are

It's tough for a cancer patient to warm to the idea of "dying on purpose," no matter how metaphoric, although no part of me faults Jon Kabat-Zinn for his word choice. If anything, I so clearly understand what he's saying. In the last month or so, once chemo was done and my deepest fears had generally subsided, I did kind of, hum, what's a better way to say it? ... absent myself to the rush of time. It wasn't on purpose, necessarily, but it happened nonetheless. It didn't happen often, because as Kabat-Zinn explains, it's not easy for a person to see and hear and feel everything that is going on around her, to be "mindful." But I remember one night last month as clear as the water dripping through my walls...

When I was working, I often gave the kids a bath because bath time was the time when I was arriving home. When I was home on leave, however, we got into the habit of Brian doing baths, first for logistical reasons of me not being able to bend over or lift them, but then because I was clearly the superior cleaner-upper of the dinner dishes (one day I'll introduce Brian to the concept of wiping the countertops). So I would do that while Brian did the baths.

That night, I was clearing the table and listening to the sounds of the kids in the bath, laughing hysterically at something Brian was doing. I decided the dishes could wait. I went up and sat on the bathroom counter. And I just found myself watching.

A good way to stop all the doing is to shift into the "being mode" for a moment. Think of yourself as an eternal witness, as timeless. Just watch this moment without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear?

Those five minutes were perhaps some of the most vivid in all of my memory. I looked at my kids' faces. Listened to them laugh. Really heard them laugh. Got splashed by water and didn't move. Most of all, I saw how much they love their father; how he takes such good care of them. I'm not sure what Kabat-Zinn means by "eternal witness" but I was definitely a witness that night. A witness to something so awesome, I can't even properly describe it.

But here's what cancer has done to me (and probably, lots of people like me) -- those moments that are so indescribably wonderful can almost instantaneously become absolutely heart-wrenching. Sitting next to the bathtub that night, there was part of me that didn't want to change anything. But another part of me wanted to change everything. I wanted my family to always be that happy and I wanted desperately to continue to be here to witness it. But if I couldn't be, I didn't want them to miss me. I wondered how long it would take for them to all be that happy again if I was gone. Could they ever be? I couldn't bear it anymore so I yanked my mind straight out of that moment and put it back to wherever it usually is when I don't see or hear or feel that much. I think Kabat-Zinn calls that place a "sleep of automaticity and unconsciousness." Whatever it is, I went back downstairs to do the dishes in that state, far too scared of the other one.

The more I think about it, and I've thought about it a lot, I think I see where I went off-track, so to speak. I think what Kabat-Zinn means about "stopping" is that I don't jump to anything but the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the pure being of that moment. That I soak it in without going to anything more complicated -- especially something as complicated as my place in, or not in, that scene. My point is only that mindfulness seems difficult enough to achieve on a good day. Add on cancer, and I've really got my work cut out for me. (Which is probably more reason why I should be trying to be mindful rather than writing about it. Oops. Failed again.)

I've realized recently that cancer has forced me (and likely others) to balance so many opposing forces. The future looks as precious, and as terrifying, as ever. Years feel like minutes, and minutes feel like years. Medicines are toxic, and life-saving. I should be greedy for more time, and thankful for the time I've had. I need to wait and fight and wait again. Go and stop and go again. I feel like I should appreciate every moment with my kids even though I think I may have done a heel click in my kitchen when I got the email that they had school tomorrow.

Don't worry -- I'm not fool enough to think that cancer is going to make me enjoy every moment of the wacky reality that I described in the opening part of this entry. There's only so much Gatorade and melted snow a girl can mop up in a morning. But seriously, cancer definitely did make me stop. Now it's time to go again. So I'm going -- completely changed -- back to normal.

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