Tagged: death

This is What Happens When Cancer Takes Over Your Blog

Top searches that brought people to my blog this month:

– i’m 63 will i definitely lose my hair during chemotherapy?

– golytely not working kids

– i did my golytely prep but it feels like something is stuck

– chemo day 14

peach pit and seedling

Well, I have only myself to blame.

It’s been awhile. I’ve been busy. Very busy. So busy I pretty much stopped writing for six months.

Let’s just say, life is good. Very good.

Last year was an incredible year. I got married, was in the best shape of my life, had just come back from a vacation in Utah (one of my top three places on earth) with my son and his girlfriend, and had enough finished knitted items to toy seriously with the idea of starting my own little business.

And then at the end of May I went to the ER. And quickly discovered I had cancer. Ovarian cancer.

I won’t go into detail about that year. I wrote extensively about the experience here on Mind Margins. After surgery and chemo, I was declared cancer-free by December 2013.

It was an incredible experience. I am so lucky to have caught it early and to have survived. Two friends I made during that time, and the majority of women who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year (all years, in fact), weren’t so lucky.

Looking back at this past year post-cancer, I suppose I went through a modified version of the stages of grief. During treatment I was nothing but positive. I never, ever thought I wouldn’t survive. Post-chemo, however, was another story. Looking back on what I had gone through, and survived, I initially felt scared. I thought a lot about dying. That turned to anger. Then sadness. Then just plain depression. It didn’t last long, but these past few months I needed a break from all things cancer.

And every time I sat down to write, my fingers wanted to write about having cancer. My brain didn’t.

So I did everything but write–which means I got a lot of knitting done. I started running again. I spent a lot of time just sitting and thinking about what had happened and the things I learned from it. I put things in perspective and reorganized my life. My husband and I finally went on our honeymoon.

I grew my hair back.

And I knit. I knit a lot, sometimes for hours and hours. These past six months have been filled with family and love, appreciation for life, and learning to pick up where I left off. It sounds trite, but things that used to seem so important really aren’t anymore. When little things get to me now, it’s easier to see how unimportant they are. I don’t brood for days over them, like before.

I know how short life is, and how every moment is a choice. Either we embrace what we’re given and move forward, or we stay stagnant in resentments and feelings of injustice.

Relationships are important. Being kind is important. Never forgetting how short life can be is really important.

Though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been reading. I may not have commented on my friends’ blogs, but I have been keeping up.

I’m running again, and am up to 10 miles. I’m slower than I was before, but that’s okay. My oncologist says I’ve inspired her to run, and we’ve run two 5K’s together, both of them benefiting cancer. I even have my future daughter-in-law running with me. I’m also doing strength training and eating much healthier than before. Except for some residual chemo brain fog, I feel great. I’m not the same person I was before, and that’s a good thing.

I’ve learned a lot from cancer, but it’s time to release its hold on my blog. Here’s to more writing, more questions, and more thoughts on being human.

– Angela

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Have You Missed Me?

As you might have noticed, I went missing for a while. I started a story and left everyone hanging, right in the middle.

How rude of me, and probably somewhat thoughtless to those who don’t see me outside the words of these posts.  My only excuse, and the real reason I went missing, is that it was hard.

Life became a daily cycle of feeling like crap and not wanting to bring anyone down to where I was. I didn’t want to talk about it, think about it, or put into words how hard it was. It was too close. I needed a break from cancer, so I took it.

Chemo is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, in every way you can imagine. I never doubted that I would survive, but I have no idea why I ever felt that way. Maybe I was naive, or in denial, or just plain stupidly stubborn  And it wasn’t bravery or strength, and I’m certainly no hero just for having survived cancer. Braver, stronger women than myself have fought much harder than I ever did and still lost.

I was simply lucky enough to be diagnosed before it had spread.

I wouldn’t wish cancer on my worst enemy, but cancer itself was also never the enemy. It was always just something that happened to me, a bunch of rapidly dividing cells that found a home on my left ovary.

Chemo and I, on the other hand, were never friends, and I cursed him often. He had a job to do, though, and because of that I tried to be as accommodating as possible. I hated chemo. Chemo was scary because I could physically feel, with each treatment, that his poison had the power to kill all of me, and not just the cancer cells.

medicines

Having cancer has been quite an experience, a very humbling one, to say the least. But it’s even more humbling to know that I survived.

Today I sit here on the last day of the year, reflecting on everything that’s transpired this past year, from the first inkling I had on January 4, the day after our wedding, that something wasn’t right, to a trip to the ER, surgery, chemo, and now, recovery.  While I was thinking about all of this, the thought crossed my mind that I should be ready to see 2013 go. Hell, I should be ready to kick it’s sorry ass to the other side of the moon!

But in all actuality I’m kind of sad to see this year end. In some strange way, I’m okay with all that’s happened. It wasn’t all bad.

I married a wonderful guy, one who challenges me everyday to see things in a different way and to be a better person. I logged a lot of good running miles the first five months of the year, and I’m slowly starting to run again.

I got a lot of reading done. It wasn’t always quality reading, but those fluffy novels got me through many hours of post-chemo nausea and fatigue so deep I could barely get out of bed. And I won’t even go into depth on all the hours I spent watching Breaking Bad on my iPad. I credit it for saving my sanity those first two worst chemo treatments.

I got a lot of knitting done, too, and set up an Etsy shop. I rediscovered walking. My taste buds are back, and a good, cheesy pizza is once again heaven on Earth.

I learned that my children have turned into good, kind, caring adults, and that they chose their partners well. I discovered that people you think you barely know can turn out to be nicer than you ever imagined. I realized that people want to help, that almost everyone is kind in their own way.

I got four new hairstyles this year: shorter, even shorter, bald, and now a quarter inch of baby fine fluff with a lot more white hair (or extreme blonde, as I prefer) than before.

That’s me on the right, in case you couldn’t figure it out. Everyone loves to rub my baby soft hair now.

I learned that you can become friends with someone and love them just through their words and emails, and that losing them hurts just as much as losing someone you’ve known your entire life. Friendships, like life, can be forged–and lost–in the blink of an eye.

The words “life is short” became real this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I appreciate more now, the so-called little things. Taking a walk outside, running without a watch, playing games with my kids, cooking a meal together, hearing a good song on the radio . . . I could go on and on. I try not to waste those moments.

But there is still a story to be finished, a resolution to be told.

So in 2014 I want to finish the story I started, if only to help other women and their loved ones, and to honor my friend Katie and all the women who didn’t make it. Even though you all know that I’m okay now, please bear with me for the next few months while I write up all the unfinished posts I started. Maybe something I share will help you or someone in your life one day.

So, as I bid adios to 2013, I have to admit it was a good year, if only for this one big reason: I’m still alive.

teal ribbon

A Letter to My Friend

Dear Katie,

Six months ago you sent me an email. You had just left a comment on my first post about being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. You had also just been diagnosed, and you were scared. You were so scared you asked me to delete your comment because you didn’t want anyone to know.

Thus began our friendship. We traded stories of our surgeries, gave each other advice on how to get through chemo, and compared notes on our lives. You told me about your young daughter and your brother, and we promised each other we would run a race together when this was all over.

You made me promise, over and over, to NEVER GIVE UP! You always wrote it like that. You also put actions in your emails with an asterisk. *nods nods* was your favorite. God, you were funny. I could always hear your Irish lilt in my head, even though I’d never heard your voice.

On Sep 29 you told me that things weren’t going well. Your cancer wasn’t responding to chemo. You didn’t want to tell me the news, thinking it would affect my own recovery. I wrote emails to you periodically after that, knowing you would write back when you were stronger.

Tonight I found out you didn’t make it. You went into the hospital two days after your last email and passed away a couple of weeks after that.

I am devastated. Hearing the news was like a punch to the gut.

We never met in person. I don’t even know what you looked like. We were friends. You were my hero.

Your last post was titled “This Isn’t Goodbye . . .” I think you knew it probably was.

You touched other lives just through your comments here on my blog. People asked about you when you disappeared. I understood why you stopped writing and needed a break. I did so as well. After a certain point in chemo, when it got really tough, I needed to save all my energy for the fight. My brain was all jumbled up and I couldn’t string a sentence together, let alone make my fingers work on the keyboard. I’m sure it was the same for you.

You fought hard, Katie. You never gave up and you never lost hope.

You went so quickly.

Now that I know you’re gone, I feel like the only survivor of a plane crash. We are a small club of women. This cancer doesn’t leave many behind. It is selfish and claims most of us for itself.

I never felt anger towards our cancer before now. It was just something that happens to some women. Now that it has taken you, it’s become personal. Now I’m angry. This cancer can mess with me, but how dare it take someone as good and kind and honest as you were? And how dare it should take away the mother of a fourteen year old girl?

I bought a sticker for my car while I was still doing chemo. It’s a teal ribbon and says “I won.” I’ve saved it all these months until I got the official news from the doctor that I was cancer free. I’ve debated actually putting it on my car, thinking it might seem arrogant or disrespectful to the women who didn’t make it. You fought harder than anyone I know to beat this cancer. In your last email you told me you hadn’t given up hope. You told me once again, as you had so often before, to NEVER GIVE UP.

That sticker is going on my car today. I know you would want to see it there. I hope it makes you smile when you see it from wherever you are.

I didn’t give up, Katie. My fight was nothing compared to yours, but I never gave in. I was only lucky that we caught it so early. Most are not so lucky. It doesn’t make sense to me that someone can fight as hard as you and others have done and not win. I will never understand that. My victory is a hollow one without you here. It’s like breaking the tape at the finish line and realizing you’re the only one who made it to the end.

Rest in peace, Irish Katie. Your fight is over, and we’ll miss you here on Earth, but you’ll always be in our hearts.

Your friend forever,

Angela

http://irishkatie.wordpress.com/

Too Good Not to Share

I stumbled upon a great blog I love, My Swollen Stomach, when I was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer two months ago. Her story is slowly unfolding into something similar, yet very different, from my own. The writer was 22 years old when her journey began.

Please take a moment to read her blog. Start at the beginning. All I can say is, if someone had told me I had to wait six months for surgery to remove my “cyst,” like this young woman was first told, and sent home in the kind of excruciating pain I was experiencing, cancer probably would have killed me.

Sadly, this is what happens all too often to women who are not lucky enough to experience any symptoms or pain that may alert them earlier to the fact that they could have ovarian cancer.

There is no diagnostic screening for ovarian cancer.

Most women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer when it is already in the advanced stages. The overall five year survival rate for ovarian cancer is only 43.7%.

This year alone, 22,240 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 14,030 women will die from this silent, deadly killer.

Chilling.

Cancer statistics for ovarian cancer

teal-ribbon1

Back Home Again

Thursday, 6/13/13: FIRST MORNING IN MY OWN BED

I feel split open. I have no walls left, no boundaries, no anger. I have razor sharp focus. I feel pure love at my core. It all sounds so new agey and I could care less. There’s no room for anything but honesty, love, happiness, and acceptance. Amazing how coming face to face with your own mortality can change you overnight.

After the surgery, when we stayed up until 3:30am talking, I told everyone that this cancer has been a gift. I really meant it. It’s been a gift in that it’s cleared away a lot of cobwebs, that I can suddenly see what’s important in life and what’s not. It’s very much like that scene in Contact (one of my favorite movies because it’s from a book written by Carl Sagan) where Ellie travels through a series of wormholes on her way to  the aliens who have made contact with planet Earth. In between the various wormholes she has the chance to look around at the solar system, at the incredible beauty and magnitude of the universe, and all she can say is “I had no idea. I had no idea.” That’s how I feel.

The first few days after surgery, while I was on morphine, I had a strange experience. Repeatedly, throughout the day and night, I would “see” something out of the corner of my eye, always in the same area, at the foot of my bed in front of the door. It was a tall, thin man wearing a hat like men used to wear during the 30’s and 40’s. I never “saw” this man, I just always knew he was there. It wasn’t scary or creepy, it was more protective. I never had the thought that this man was there to take me to the other side. He was just there, watching over me. I didn’t tell anyone about it until later.

Blame it on the morphine.

On the flip side,  I never felt the presence of Bob or Arshad while waiting in the pre-op room before surgery (Bob and Arshad are two running friends who died in the past five years, Bob from lung cancer, Arshad from a car accident.) For some reason I always imagine Bob and Arshad coming to get me when the time is right, kind of like they’re bringing me into the heavenly running group they’ve started up there. I somehow “knew” I was going to be okay because Bob and Arshad were nowhere around.

[Do I sound really flakey and new agey? I do sound really flakey and new agey. I have no idea if ghosts and spirits exist or if there’s any sort of an afterlife. It’s all a fantasy in my head, but somehow it made sense to feel that way at the time.]

Michael and I had a great talk at midnight last night. We’ve never been able to be this open, to talk about our issues with patience and understanding. I guess we were both too defensive. He cried and told me this cancer is very serious, much worse than I think it is. Even if it’s only stage 2 it will be a battle. It may kill me in the end. He loves me so much. He is prepared to go on this journey with me. I am so incredibly lucky.

I’m procrastinating writing about the surgery and post-op. It is somewhat hazy and dark. Not sure I’m ready to go back to that place, but it has to be done. It’s time to rest, recover, and build my strength for the fight ahead. I’m also procrastinating reading about chemo and what to expect. I need to use all my strength to staying focused on today. Tomorrow will come, and I will be ready, but one step at a time. One day at a time.

Friday, 6/14/13: ONE WEEK POST-OP: HARDER THAN I THOUGHT

Took a shower this afternoon and took a true look at my body. First thing I notice is that I am skin and bones. My calf and arm muscles are flabby. My boobs are almost nonexistent. My incision scar is almost 9 inches high, from pubic bones to middle of ribs. My abdomen, waist, and upper hips are bloated and swollen.

But my skin is clear and acne-free and my hair has stopped falling out.

Stayed up until 3:30am watching The Notebook with Dom. Woke up feeling much better than yesterday. No stomach issues, and I ate well all day with no gas, no nausea.

The blood thinner injections are starting to become tedious. There is something very odd about sticking a needle in your body and injecting something. I have to admit, the blood clots kind of ick me out. The thought of something traveling through my body to my brain, lungs, or heart and possibly killing me — with no warning — is disconcerting. Maybe worse than knowing I have cancer.

Did a full loop of walking around the neighborhood. At 9:45pm it was still 91 degrees and no breeze whatsoever. My speed has certainly improved, though it is still uncomfortable to walk.

Eating in bed

Donut pillows make the best plate holders for eating in bed.

Looked at some photos Michael took when I was in the hospital. I am slowly starting to think about what happens next. I have a booklet I picked up at the hospital about chemotherapy and will begin reading through it. I also want to listen to the recordings Michael made of Dr K talking to the family right after surgery. Michael says she lays it all out and I need to know exactly what I’m up against.

One step at a time.

Very excited because tomorrow morning Bill is picking me up at 6:15am to meet WRRC for our very first Saturday Run My Hood in Sunnyvale at Kevin’s friend’s house. I won’t run, of course, but I am hoping to walk a little. Mostly, I just want to see everyone again and get back into some semblance of a “regular” life again.

Saturday, 6/15/13: A SHOT OF ADRENALINE

Spent the morning visiting with my running group in Sunnyvale. Bill picked me, Michael, and Susan B up at our house and we drove in together. Bill realized he might have left his phone on top of his car and had to leave immediately afterwards. He located his phone via GPS signal later in the day, in the median at Highway 80 and Big Town exit, smashed and pretty much destroyed — which meant a new iPhone 5.

WRRC

White Rock Running Co-op, my running group

It was so wonderful to see so many of my friends again, even if I couldn’t run with them. I managed to take about a three quarters of a mile walk with Michael and Katti (and her baby bump) and spent the rest of the time sitting and visiting with everyone. I was actually glad that I didn’t have to run because it was humid and a hilly route. Strangely, Stacy B was there with her busted up ankle and told me she also has blood clots and has to give herself injections of a blood thinner. She even has to have them twice a day. No fun.

Runners

The fast guys at the front

I am thanking the Timing Gods for making this all happen during the hottest part of the year. I have probably lost a lot of muscle not only from not being able to run, but also from not eating for three weeks and my muscles being used for energy when the fat reserves ran out. Not sure how scientific that is, but my calf muscles are super flabby!

Kilt

The indomitable Dane, who’s really a Scots, who proves that real men do wear skirts.

Appetite was great today, so Operation Fatten Up Angela is in full swing. After spending the entire morning in Sunnyvale, came home and took a long nap. It was the most activity I’ve done in weeks. Ran some errands with Michael (shoe shopping and buying dog food) in the afternoon, then finally got around to watching Alien with the family in honor of the alien monster baby I gave birth to a week ago. Just call me Angela Ripley Turnage.

Marine Corps Marathon 2013 shirt

Hoping there’s some way I can still be ready for Marine Corps.

First popcorn since surgery!

Sunday, 6/16/13: FATHER’S DAY VISITORS

Best sleep since I got out of the hospital. Slept four hours straight through, got on the iPad for about 45 min, then slept for another three hours. I felt great all day. Am trying to stretch out the pain meds to 5 hrs or more. It’s only tough when I walk around and the pain meds have worn off. I’d really like to get off of them as quickly as possible.

Feeling sad because my daughter flew back to Portland today. She will be back in a few weeks, but I will still miss her.

Completely forgot to take my blood thinner until after 2:00pm, the first time I’ve done that. I made the kids buy me a pill case the other day so I could keep all my morning and afternoon medications straight. I’m going to put the alcohol wipe in the morning section to remind myself of the injections.

Treated ourselves to What-A-Burger for dinner after the dog park (first junk food post surgery!), called my dad, and watched Smoke Signals in honor of Father’s Day. I pretty much napped off and on all evening on the couch. Nick loves to make fun of me for falling asleep all the time. Woke up at midnight just as The Shining was coming on, so Nick, Nicole, and I watched it until 3am. I, of course, fell asleep repeatedly.

6/17-19/13: SETTLING IN

The rest of the week the family and I tried to settle back in to our lives. I have had a lot of visitors,  but this Monday we managed to have our first visitor-free day since being admitted to the hospital. I continued walking in the evenings and made it up to 1 mile.

The stress of dealing with everything hit Michael the other night and he had a little meltdown. It’s to be expected. Everyone deals with tragedy in their own way.

I finally sat down and listened to the 45 minute recording of Dr K talking to my family directly after surgery. It was tough. While my family was celebrating the fact that she got all the tumor, she brought them down to earth with the reminder that this is still serious. The most sobering moment for me was when my daughter asked what are the chances the cancer will return, and she answered 85-90% chance it will return. I had no idea. I’d rather know the truth than have everything sugarcoated for me.

She took 25 lymph nodes to be biopsied, in addition to tissue from all my major internal organs. Now we wait until the pathology report comes back to see if it has spread. In the meantime, I need to start reading up on chemo.

A Day in the ER

The day after I wrote my previous post on death, I found myself in the ER. Coincidence? Karma? Jinx? More like bad luck and the reappearance of something that no one could explain six years ago. At least now: mystery solved.

Six years ago I landed in the ER, then spent five days in the hospital. Imagine the head of surgery coming to you and saying: The good news is: it isn’t cancer. The bad news is: we really don’t like to operate there, we have no idea what it is, and we have to admit you immediately.

I hadn’t been scared until he mentioned the c-word, and realized I probably should have been. Things could’ve been much worse. In the end, after five days in the hospital hooked up to an IV with no food or water, and after numerous tests, all they could say was they didn’t really know what it had been and hopefully it would never happen again.

It was just one of those freaky things that sometimes happen to people.

Fast forward six years to last week when a slight stomachache turned into pain and fever again, in exactly the same location. This cannot be happening again, can it? It must be something different! Of course I did what I always do when I need answers: I went straight to the internet. After ten minutes of peering intently at diagrams of the human abdomen, I knew I needed to call the doctor. Since I knew it couldn’t possibly be the same thing as before, this time I feared cancer–or imminent death.

I called my doctor.

I loaded up the Kindle and iPad and headed to his office. I knew this wasn’t going to be fun and would probably take all day, if not longer. If it was anything like last time there would be needles involved, and plastic-tasting liquids ingested, and hours and hours of waiting. And worrying.

I’ve had the same doctor for over 20 years. He knows everything about me. He said it was too coincidental that it was in the same location, and even if it wasn’t related the fever and pain pointed to something potentially serious. He wanted me to have a CT scan right then, and called ahead to the same ER I went to six years ago.

The ER? Seriously? Now the dollar signs appeared above my head. How much is this going to cost me? What is my ER deductible?

Even worse, how long will this keep me from running? I was training for a marathon, dammit! I hadn’t missed a day on the training plan yet, and my running was going really well!

I drove myself to the ER, all alone and feeling pitifully sorry for myself. I texted Michael and told him not to come meet me until he got off work and fed the dogs first, that I already knew the drill and there was nothing he could do to help. I had my iPad and Kindle to keep me company.

The ER waiting room looked like a Greyhound bus station. There was the ubiquitous TV playing a rerun of House or some version of CSI, and almost every chair was taken. There were entire families camped out, people hunched over asleep, people in wheelchairs and face masks, and lots of empty snack bags and Coke cans on the floor. There was a mix of ages, but the majority of people were old. And very poor. Strangest of all, people were talking. There were conversations going on about the most mundane things, laughter, jokes being told. Watching the people around me did not keep my mind off my worries. What stories do these people have to tell? What are their lives like when they’re not sitting in the ER?

I waited. I had a sudden, overpowering urge to casually walk out to my car and drive home. I wanted to curl up in my bed and draw the covers over my head. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

Six years ago the ER waiting room was empty and I was hustled back to a “room” almost immediately. This time I sat for almost an hour on a cold, uncomfortable plastic chair before I was called back, and I barely managed to get a curtained off spot in the hallway just big enough for a bed because they were so busy. My blood pressure was taken for the fourth time that day, I was given a gown, and I met the doctor on call who, after some gentle nudging on the area of pain, told me a CT scan was indeed in order.

I was hoping he wouldn’t say that. A CT scan meant an IV, and I hate IV’s. But once that was taken care of (and it really wasn’t too bad this time), I relaxed. I realized things were out of my control and I would deal with whatever the CT scan showed. If it was cancer, I would deal with it. If it was the mystery thing from six years ago, I would deal with it, too. I had lots of time to think about all this while I drank the Slurpy-sized container of plastic-tasting contrast liquid, then the two hour wait while it made its way through my body. Michael showed up just before I was rolled away for the CT scan. He immediately took command of the iPad and made himself comfortable on the floor.

The ER isn’t always like you see on TV. There was no screaming, no blood, no doctors running down the hallway screaming, “Stat!.” It was fairly quiet, even though nothing separates you from the other patients but sheets. Since I was in the hallway I saw everyone who walked or rolled past. All of the doctors and nurses seemed so young, but most of the patients were very old. I had the feeling most had been there before and used the ER as their primary care physician. I heard the doctor explaining to the woman next to me (who had a CT scan for what turned out to be a urinary tract infection) how he could only give her a prescription for pain medication for two days, otherwise “we’d have every person in the city coming here for pain pills” (which is something I’d never thought about before). He advised her to see her regular doctor if she needed more.

I've looked better

It’s the not knowing that is truly the worst. And the waiting.

We waited a long time to hear the results. We played Yahtzee. We talked. We listened to other conversations around us and I smiled encouragingly at other people being wheeled down the hall for tests. Everyone looked scared and uncertain, just like me.

Finally, a new young doctor appeared. After comparing the CT scan from the one taken six years ago, and ascertaining the problem was indeed in exactly the same location as before, the doctors could now determine what was going on. This time I was given a prescription for two types of antibiotics and a painkiller and instructions to eat only broth for a few days, then slowly reintroduce solid food. I could run again when it felt comfortable to do so. Now I knew what “it” was, that it’s something the doctors rarely see and is the reason why it wasn’t diagnosed six years ago, and that it can be treated. It wasn’t cancer and was nothing that required surgery or a hospital stay. A day’s worth of anxiety slowly seeped out of me, and suddenly I was exhausted.

Before I left, a nurse took my blood pressure yet again. Then she took it again. And again. Finally, she asked me, “Are you just a healthy person?” I told her I ran a lot and she was satisfied. It seemed strange to be asked that question in the ER, but was also a good note to go home on.

The view from my curtained-off area in the hallway

I feel very fortunate that it wasn’t something worse than what it could’ve been. Eating broth for a few days is no fun, but it’s a small price to pay. There are so many others who go to the ER with much worse ailments than mine, and sometimes the news is life changing (or ending). My day in the ER gave me a lot of time to think, about my health and my life in general, and I can’t help but know how lucky I am. I say it all the time, but things really can change in the blink of an eye. Simply put, don’t take your health, or your life, for granted.

Surprising Death and Final Regrets

Death is something we don’t like to think about. I, for one, can’t really wrap my mind around the fact that one day I won’t be here any longer. The idea that I’ll be gone, and life will carry on without me, just doesn’t make sense to me. I secretly harbor a tiny belief that I’m going to live forever, if only because I can’t believe the opposite is really true.

Is this all a little too macabre for you?

I actually think about death a lot. It’s not even a middle age thing. Ever since I was involved in a minor motorcycle accident when I was 18 I’ve been aware that life can end at any moment. When a close running friend died unexpectedly a few years ago, it only served to push the point home even further. In the blink of an eye, someone’s entire life can be extinguished. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the thought that one day I’ll be gone, and it puzzles and saddens me.

I used to think that if I could choose my own death, I would like to have time to get used to the idea. I would gather my friends and family around me, looking wane but still fresh, staring death bravely in the face, and tell them something wise and unforgettable before I crossed over to the other side. How melodramatic. I’m sure it’s rarely like that. Now that I’m getting older, I think I’d rather choose something quick, something that happens so fast I won’t have a chance to be scared or feel any pain. Sort of like death coming up from behind and whispering “boo” in my ear before it whisks me away.

Of course, the point is that I already do know death is imminent. It is, after all, inevitable for all of us; we merely don’t know exactly what the timeline is for when it will happen.  That means I better put my house in order while I still have the chance.

This morning I came across an article that made me think about any regrets I may have when I die. I’ve heard people who’ve worked with the dying say that no one talks about their money, possessions, or how many hours they worked when faced with death. I like to think that’s true, and I’ve used that knowledge in the past when asked to do more and more unpaid work at my job, and made to feel guilty for saying no.

Here are the top five regrets from the article and where I stand on them:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I think I’ve actually done pretty well with this one. I’ve always tried to be true to myself, even when others didn’t agree with or understand why I did certain things. I generally haven’t cared much what others thought of the way I lived my life, and I still don’t.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. This would have been true up until last May when I quit teaching after 20 years. I wish I had quit sooner. All those years of stress, working 10+ hours a day, and evenings and weekends spent grading papers, making charts, and designing lesson plans certainly took their toll. I loved teaching, but I’m glad I’m done. Life is slower now, less stressful, and makes more sense. I’d rather have less money than more stress.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. I don’t see this as a big regret of mine. I can be blunt at times, and I’ve certainly been known to stick my foot in my mouth, but I do believe there are times when nothing said is better than the wrong words. I suppose there are still some things that need to be said, but not expressing them doesn’t come from fear. It comes from an acceptance of what is. Sometimes words won’t help.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Agreed. I haven’t always been the best about staying in touch with old friends. I’ve always been the type of person who needs a lot of time to themselves, and I’ve lost friends because of not wanting to give up time away from my children, or myself, to do things with them. I do have regrets about some friendships that weren’t nurtured, but only a few. Surprisingly, I’ve reconnected with a lot of old friends on Facebook, and I’ve really enjoyed catching up and filling in the gaps.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.This would certainly be number one on my list. It seems so simple, but I’ve struggled with this in the past. I take things too seriously. I wish I had said can’t less in my life, and more yes, I can. There will always be something to worry about, but that doesn’t mean I have to. In other words, I need to lighten up more and just have fun. It really shouldn’t be that hard.

Channeling My Grandmother’s Chicken and Dumplings

The other day I happened to notice on my calendar that this Sunday is Grandparents’ Day.  This made me think of my grandmother, Moss, who always makes me think of chicken and dumplings.  In my humble opinion, there’s no greater comfort food than chicken and dumplings, and no one made it like Moss.  Anytime we visited her in Idabel, Oklahoma, I would always ask her to make it for me, despite my mom’s protests.  I can’t remember a time that Moss refused.

Moss got her name from my little cousin Stevie, and I think it came from saying Grand-MA’S, which eventually turned into Ma’s, then Moss.  You know how these nicknames come about.  Moss used to tell me that one day I would be a teacher, and she was right.  She always had my Big Chief writing tablet waiting for me when we came to visit, and I would find a spot to sit and write plays, stories, poems, or whatever else came to mind.  While I wrote, she was in the kitchen with my mom, making chicken and dumplings.  I was a skinny kid, and she was always trying to fatten me up.

Clara Johnson

My grandmother, Clara Johnson

 

Both my mom and dad are from Broken Bow, and my sister and I were born in the nearest town that had a hospital, Idabel.  Broken Bow was tiny, and they left there for Dallas shortly after my sister was born.  They went back often, and we had lots of aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins in Broken Bow.  I hated those three and a half hour drives, but my little sister and I always had tons of fun playing with our cousins once we got there.  I learned to ride a bike in Broken Bow (thanks Becky), tried to learn to water ski (never successful), and huddled in a root cellar to dodge a tornado once (it was scary).  We spent every major holiday in Broken Bow, had the best Easter egg hunts ever, and I now realize those were golden years.

One Friday we left Dallas to spend the weekend in Oklahoma.  I was 13.  Idabel, where Moss lived, is about a 20 minute drive down the road from Broken Bow, and was always our first stop.  We stayed for awhile to visit, and I decided to spend the night with Moss while the rest of the family drove over to Broken Bow.  Moss and her friend were going to go see a movie and I wanted to go with them.  At the very last second, just as my family was backing up the car, I changed my mind.  I wanted to go stay with cousins Keith and Becky instead.

The next morning, we were playing in one of the back bedrooms and the phone rang.  I don’t remember the particulars of what was said, but I knew something was wrong because my mom started crying.  I just sat there, listening, knowing something was wrong, and I think my dad came in to tell us what had happened. Moss and her friend had been killed in a car accident on the way home from the movie.  Someone had rear-ended their car on the highway and they lost control.  The police thought it was probably a drunk driver.

I remember Keith telling me it was okay to cry.  I didn’t.  I pretended nothing was wrong.  But inside, I was thinking, what if I had spent the night?  Would it have made a difference?

The rest of the weekend was a blur and I don’t remember much.  I chose not to go to her funeral because I wanted to remember her alive.  I think I wasn’t ready to let go.  I don’t remember when I finally cried, but a few years ago, when I drove through Idabel to visit family in Broken Bow, the memories of Moss and that weekend came flooding back and I cried like my heart was breaking.  Maybe that was the first time I truly cried from losing her.

She was gone way too early.  Moss always loved and accepted me, and she didn’t care if I was skinny, or quiet, or mean, or bossy.  She bought me finger paints, and she made me chicken and dumplings.  I don’t remember her ever raising her voice, or getting angry, or being impatient.  All I remember is love.

So yesterday I found a recipe and started cooking.  I had only attempted chicken and dumplings once before, when I lived in Switzerland in the 80’s and craved something from my past.  None of the Europeans were very impressed with my Southern comfort food.

This time I was older, a more experienced cook, and there was purpose behind the intent.  I wanted to honor Moss and all the times she had made me such a time consuming dish for no other reason than she knew it would make me happy.

After the shock of eviscerating a chicken (I knew I should’ve gotten the cut up fryer), and frying it up for a nice brown crust (making me realize there’s a reason fried chicken has always been so popular), things got easier.  The entire dish wasn’t difficult at all, but it was time consuming.  It took me about 3 hours from start to finish, but it was worth it.  Even Michael liked it, Ohio Yankee that he is (he still doesn’t like okra, though).

Was it as good as Moss’s chicken and dumplings?  No, nothing will ever compare to that.  Hers was infused with love for her children and grandchildren, the special ingredient that only grandmothers own.  One day I hope to carry on the tradition and make chicken and dumplings for my grandchildren, without even thinking twice about it, and I’ll tell them all about their great-grandmother Moss, and how much she loved me.

I can’t wait!

Fried Chicken

Thyme

Vegetables

Chicken and Dumpings

Chicken and Dumplings

Chicken and Dumplings

Sometimes You Just Need a Good Cry

This week I finished up my last week of teaching, two friends lost their mothers, and a dear work colleague passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. We only got the news of the work colleague’s passing the day after her funeral, which upset me more than anything else because the news didn’t get passed on to our school, where she was greatly loved, and many people would have wanted to attend her funeral to say goodbye. I also got the news of her passing right in the middle of a huge fight with Michael, when I walked out of the room and just happened to pick up my phone and see the email, which made the news even harder to take.

Sometimes you just need a good cry.

My first year of teaching, 1992

I hate goodbyes.  Leaving people you love is not easy, especially people you’ve worked with for 11 years.  I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my classes that I was leaving teaching, and that they would be my last group of students ever.  Every time I started to tell them my eyes would water up and I couldn’t go through with it.  Saying goodbye at the end of the year luncheon was hard, too, even to people I know I will see again.  Our time will never be the same as those years spent teaching together.

Our next door neighbor’s wife had been gone for over a month and we were starting to think she had left him.  When he came over to ask us to watch the house, we found out she has been out of town attending to her dying mother.  A few days ago I saw my neighbor outside, who told me the news that the mother had finally died, three days before her daughter’s birthday.  I felt so sad for her, knowing that her birthday would forevermore be accompanied by such sadness.  The next day we were told that our former principal’s mother had also passed away, less than a year after her father’s passing, which was also less than a year after her brother’s death.  Those goodbyes are perhaps the most poignant, the final goodbye.

I knew it would be hard, but when I said goodbye to my daughter outside her dorm the very first year of college in Austin, I wanted to turn back time, back to those days when she was small enough that I could protect her from anything the world might throw her way.  I cried the entire three hour drive back to Dallas, my husband sitting helplessly next to me, unsure of what to do or say.  Even though she wasn’t that far away and I would see her often, I knew, deep in my heart, that things would never be the same again–and they weren’t.  She grew up and didn’t need me as much, which is a good thing, but hard for a mother to accept.  It’s hard to let go sometimes.

And there are the goodbyes you never get to say, when those you love are suddenly and inexplicably taken away by death.

There are all the goodbyes we’ve said to our childhood pets, and to those we’ve had as adults.  My good friend, Carol, a fellow teacher, inadvertently killed both of her fire-bellied toads, Twodee and Fruity, on the last day of school.  She cried all morning, until one of her second graders yelled out, “Let’s get a fish!”  She couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of  the comment on the last day of school.

My dad’s job transferred him from Dallas to Massachusetts the summer after sixth grade.  It was a grand adventure for all of us.  Our street was at the end of a cul-de-sac and it was teeming with kids.  We spent the entire summer biking, swimming, chasing, digging, and doing everything kids should do, from dawn to dusk, outside and barefoot.  It was the summer of the Munich Olympics, and one night our neighbor, a former National Geographic photographer, took us all outside and showed us the Northern Lights, something we knew we’d never see in Texas.  It was also the summer of my first crush, when Chris, the cute newspaper boy across the street, would come out at dusk and we would sit against the fence in my front yard in the dark (with my dad nervously peeking out the window) and look at the stars and talk about Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Star Trek, and Land of the Giants.  A few months later, when my dad got transferred back to Dallas, I sat in the U-haul truck with all our furniture piled in the back and cried as I said goodbye to Chris and the best summer of my life.  As we drove away and I looked out the window through the tears I tried to hide, Seals and Crofts sang We May Never Pass this Way Again on the radio (I swear I’m not making this up), and I knew that I would never be the same again.  That song will forever be the soundtrack to that lost summer–and I never did return to Chicopee Falls, MA.

On some famous boat in Massachusetts with my sister. I was obviously mad about something. I was always mad about something when I was 12.

There are the goodbyes you say when you realize you must move on from a relationship, and the goodbyes you’re cheated out of when you get dumped by a lover.  Cry me a river doesn’t even come close sometimes.

So many goodbyes.  Before I closed the door to my classroom for the last time yesterday, I stopped and looked around at the empty room, remembering all the other rooms I had taught in.  So very many memories . . .  I said goodbye to room 201 and to teaching, turned in my keys, and went home and had a good cry.    It was exactly what  I needed to do.

Remembering a Friend on the Anniversary of His Death

Today is the three year anniversary of the death of a good friend. Actually, he was more than a good friend. He was someone I ran with.

We make friends throughout our lives and we lose them, usually when we change jobs, or move, or simply make new friends when our interests change.  Some friends we stay in touch with sporadically through the years, some we rediscover through Facebook or chance meetings, and some we wonder why we never made more of an effort to stay in touch.  We make new friends, we move on, and life continues.  The friends we lose to death, however, are the ones whose memories visit us late at night, and the ones we can’t forget.I met Arshad through running.  We had a mutual friend, Rich, and both caught up with me early one Saturday morning on a nine mile loop around the lake.   We discovered we were all training for an upcoming local half marathon and decided to meet during the week for a few runs together.  Arshad and I were both relatively new to running and had never run a half marathon before, and we knew that training with someone else would be easier.    Also, I came to discover Arshad was the type of runner who enjoyed socializing and meeting new people more than he did running, so it made sense.  Even though he was tall, lean, and naturally fast, he would purposely hold back because the companionship was more important than the running.

Arshad

So we trained together.  Rich had run a marathon before (which was something I could never fathom doing at that time) and he was our biggest cheerleader.  He liked to run a few steps ahead of us and keep the pace.  Rich was also tall, so keeping up with the guys was good training for me.  We jokingly called ourselves “The Dream Team” and logged many miles together in preparation for the race.  I found out Arshad was from Bangalore, India and had gone to school in Chicago for engineering.  I got to know him as a person, and he was always happy and in a good mood.  We made plans to visit India one day with Arshad as our guide.

There’s something about pushing yourself physically with another person that bonds you to them.  Running mile after mile, through every type of weather and temperature imaginable, at impossibly early times in the day, you really get to know a person.  All your differences melt away with the miles you log together.

The day of the race arrived warmer than expected, and finishing was tougher than I thought it would be.  I made stupid rookie mistakes (eating something different for breakfast and going out way too fast at the start) and seriously considered bailing at mile 10.  I finished in 2:03 and Rich in 1:56.  Arshad finished in1:49.  I couldn’t believe how fast he had run his first half marathon.

The Dream Team

I joined the Dallas Running Club and talked Arshad into joining as well.  Our goal race was the Oklahoma City Half Marathon.  He didn’t want to run another race so soon but trained with us anyway.  I noticed that Arshad would run with any group, no matter the pace, and could usually be found in the back of the pack talking to any one of a number of pretty, young, female runners.  He always adjusted his running speed accordingly.

Rich was training for a full marathon, and sometimes the groups would converge and run together.  I was in awe of the full group and the distances they ran each week.  The seed was planted for me, but Arshad said no way, he’d rather stick to half marathons and run them really fast.  The months and the miles passed, and I noticed Arshad seemed to be running with the same group—and one girl in particular, Elizabeth–each week.  I was happy for him, but never got the chance to ask what was going on.

Arshad’s lease was up on his apartment and he decided to move to my complex on the other side of the lake.  I talked him into running the OKC Half Marathon with the group and we talked about reserving seats on the bus the running club had chartered.  During that same time his parents came to visit from India.  On our Wednesday night run he asked if I would join them and a few other friends for dinner and a movie on Friday.  I met his mom and dad, his ex-girlfriend, Jen, and some friends from church.  We had a great time, though he took some grief for the movie, an ultra-violent film festival entry about the war in the Middle East.  He said he thought his mom would like it.

Arshad's dad, mom, me, Jen, Arshad, and Sarah

The next week, just before our scheduled Wednesday night group run, it started to rain.  Arshad called to ask if I was going and I told him no.  Fifteen minutes later the storm passed and my phone rang.  Tempted to ignore it, I picked up and told Arshad I would meet him at the gate, knowing how guilty I would feel if I didn’t run.  The dark evening was beautiful, and everything at the lake glowed from the rain.  Arshad ran fast that night and it felt good to keep the pace.  When I made a random comment about hating to run into a headwind, he remarked, ever positive, that he liked it because it kept him cool.  He talked about how beautiful the trees at the lake were, and how it was his favorite place to run.

It was the last time we ran together.

We had made plans to drive together to the local train station for the start of our Saturday morning group run.  When I got up early the next morning I noticed a message on my phone.  It was Jen, telling me to call her as soon as I got the message.  Even though it was six o’clock in the morning, I immediately called.  She told me Arshad had been in a car accident the evening before, and it was fatal.  His mother was also killed, and his father was in critical condition.

He died on a busy street I travel on quite often, and it was a long time before I could drive past the spot where a manufacturing defect in one of his tires caused his death.  Two weeks after his death I ran the Oklahoma City Marathon without him.  I ran faster than I’d ever run, because I knew he couldn’t.  When I crossed the finish line and the medal was put around my neck by a bombing victim’s family member, I cried and asked if I could have another medal for the friend I had lost who hadn’t made it to the finish line with me.

At the OKC finish line

His death made no sense to me, and it never will.

Today, three years later, I think about him.  I can still hear his silly high-pitched laugh, and see a smile light up his face.   I remember his earnest curiosity of what made people who they are, and his love of deep conversations.  I remember the new running clothes he bought just before he died, and how he worried about what he looked like in them.  I remember his carefree approach to running that I am still trying to emulate.  He is in my thoughts every single race I run, especially the marathons I never had the chance to talk him into running.  More than anything else, I just miss him.

His friends got together and donated a tree and a plaque in his name at the Celebration Tree Grove at the lake.  We all think of him when we run past the spot, which is on the same route we ran that rainy night, days before he died.   A little bit farther up the road is the place where it is always windy.  It took me a long time, but now I smile when I think about how he could put a positive spin on everything, even running into the wind.

Rest in peace, Arshad Ahmed, and know you are not forgotten.

Arshad's plaque