“When we practice dying
We are learning to identify less with
Holding my burning eyes while sobbing uncontrollably I beg the nurse for eye drops. Ignoring the white band on my wrist stating my allergic reaction to tape, the anesthesiologist had taped my eyes shut during the mastectomy. Unable to give me any form of eye drop relief because the doctor had not ordered them, my husband was hell bent on getting me out of that hospital immediately. He took total control of the situation, clearly distressed at my level of pain.
Precisely four hours after my mastectomy we were parked in front of a drug store. My eyes now soothed with drops, we waited in the Seattle ferry line to begin our two hour journey home. My husband assured me for the hundredth time that he could care less about the absence of one breast. He just wanted me to live.
With palpable tenderness he said, “All you have to do is sit on the couch and just be, I don’t care what you do, I just want you here.”
The next day, foiled in my efforts to hide my body after the mastectomy, I needed his help with the drainage pump and changing of dressings. As the weeks passed, he never flinched as his hands tenderly helped drain and clean the fluids coursing through the pump.
Beyond that I requested that he play golf, have fun and leave me alone. When I am un-well, I want a tray of food, water, medications, a book and the television clicker. I want to pull in and conserve my energy; an idiosyncrasy that frustrated many of my friends, children and clients who wanted so much to help me, to give to me. Yet most of the time it was their fears that I had to deal with.
I found that comforting their fears was exhausting. I simply did not have the energy to engage or reassure them that I was ok, leaving several loved ones feeling shut out of my experience.
For fifty-nine years, mentally, physically, and emotionally, I had run faster than I was capable of running in order to improve my innate brokenness. Like hitting a brick wall, the gift of cancer gave me permission to stop the hustle and bustle. No more running for the sake of self- improvement. I would just have to do as I was, defects, limitations and warts included.
Aside from the anticipatory fear of protracted cancer treatments, the larger part of me was elated at the prospect of having a long period of time just for me. Apparently, I needed a cataclysmic event to re-direct me to the center of my own existence.
I felt like I was given a present and could not wait to open it.
Sam, a revered medicine man in my community, presented me with a beaded leather medicine bag embroidered with a butterfly, which is my totem. This pouch, worn around my neck, carried my drainage tube and served as a visible badge to further validate my right for time alone. A confirmed introvert, now I felt legitimized.
The day that my husband helped me take off the bandages in front of the bathroom sink was both difficult and healing. I didn’t know which scared me more; for my own eyes to look at my mutilated chest or his eyes upon me.
With loving encouragement, he helped me un-bandage my disfigurement. Finally, wrenching up the courage to look at myself in the mirror, my husband tenderly held me as I wept. The long red scar stitched diagonally across my chest was hard to look at. “Oh my sweet chest, I am so sorry for our loss,” I whisper at the mirror.
I allowed myself to mourn that day, saying goodbye to the breast that had struggled heroically to survive which included a benign lump discovered and removed when I was age twenty nine.
Drawing strength, I looked back and compared the mastectomy with the hardest day of my life some thirty five years earlier.
Unable to financially support my children, I signed over custody of my three babies to the care of their father. With tears streaming down my face, my body literally bent in half, I blindly struggled to put pen to paper signing and sealing our fates. While the dark ink of my illegible signature granted me freedom of sorts, my children would become indentured slaves to the cruel whims of an abusive father. We would all suffer the consequences of my choice for years to come.
I recalled the waves of anguish that washed over me that day as I sobbed before my alarmed attorney. “As long as I live, nothing will ever touch me this deeply again.” I swear to God, nothing ever has.
With an abundance of gratitude, support from family and friends and keeping myself from falling into the victim role, nothing sustained me greater than remembering how horrible I felt on that long ago day.
Seriously, cancer, by comparison, has been a cake walk. Six weeks passed and my chest healed perfectly. One part of me felt strong, spiritually fit and ready to proceed with the next phase of treatment. Yet another part of me felt out of control with gripping terror thinking about the dreaded Chemotherapy treatments. How does one prepare for such a thing?
How do you prepare for fearful/terrifying life situations?
Do you ever prioritize or review past difficulties to help you get through current ones?
Permission to use photo of Beautiful Native American Bag by Debra Little Wing