I took the photo above on a trip through the detour around the California wildfires last summer. It looked like even the sun was on fire. I didn’t live anywhere near the fires, although I did live near enough that the Bay Area was covered with smoke that pushed air quality into hazardous ranges that required a mask when going outside. But I didn’t actually have to live in the fire zone to feel it. As the wildfires consumed so much of the state, they created a disturbance in the force. It was like Obi Wan said, “I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if a million voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
I know this was just one part of it, but 2018 was an amazingly difficult year. I kept thinking, wait, this year should be better. This is not the year I was diagnosed with cancer. It was not the year I went through surgery, chemo, and radiation. This was actually the year of remission, recovery, and reconstruction, but for some reason that has felt more difficult than the diagnosis and treatment. I’m at a loss to explain it really. Yesterday I was thinking that perhaps it was because I had become too comfortable with the idea of death, and that has made living more difficult. Little tiny things can set me off. A wrong tone of voice can send me spiraling down into these deep places, and I think I can never surface. Maybe I can put my head above water long enough to get a breath, but I will never escape. I’m not sure exactly how to put this, but in these moments I think of death as a relief. Like I said, too much time making a friend of this traditional enemy. Too many surgeries in which general anesthesia carried me away from all that hurt.
I have never been suicidal. Please believe that. I will stay here as long as I can, because there are people here who need me, people I love. And honestly, I know that there are things to live for. Life terrifies me just a little bit, but on the other hand I know it is fiercely beautiful. I do believe there is a reason for everything, and I seek the reasons. What is this teaching me? What am I supposed to learn, accomplish. Who am I meant to be?
Other things weighed on me heavily. The immigrant children who were ripped away from their families and put in detention. I’d look at my grandson, at his great emotional needs at this point in his development, and his really deep need for security, and for his mama for goodness sakes, and the thought of what these children were enduring, and the permanent damage being inflicted on them … well, it was pretty well unbearable. Again, voices crying out and echoing through the depth of my being.
Then someone on my street started trapping all the cats in his yard and dropping them off at a local park. I’d cared for some of these cats for years. One of them was always appearing in my dreams. I had a real attachment to several of them, and when they were taken and left in a place where there would be nobody leaving food for them, where the biggest source of water was contaminated with toxic algae, it was really upsetting. I looked for them. I went to two shelters before I found out where they had actually gone. I felt kind of dumb asking for feral cats, but a little less dumb because when they asked to see photographs of them, I had them on my phone, because they really were to me pets who liked their space. When I found out where they were, I went looking for them there, calling their names. I still think about them, wonder how they are, if they are alive. There were two left after the purge, and I have put out beds and houses for them, and have kept them well fed. But how about the rest?
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all these things impacted me so deeply because they were like distant echoes of the loss of my daughter. Probably all the suffering people and creatures in the world impact me in this way. When I see them, when I feel them, I feel my daughter. Their suffering and hers blend in this huge chorus that fills the atmosphere. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, so I guess these things would be considered my triggers. Whether it is people who have lost loved ones who were engulfed by those terrifying walls of fire as they tried to flee, whether it is people who have suddenly lost everything — not simply their homes and all the life, memories and comfort they contained, but even their ability to make money and provide for themselves, or whether it is the kidnapping by our government of these sad, vulnerable children, or lost, abused, suffering animals, including those from the fire, the suffering overwhelms me.
What I love are those stories of redemption — of those who have nothing being given something, of those who are cold being given warmth, those who are hungry given food, those who are sick given medical care, those who are sad given love. A local church is going through the process with our county to set up six tiny homes in their parking lot, to use as transitional housing for those who are homeless. I couldn’t help but think of how this doesn’t begin to make a dent in the homeless problem, but then I remembered the starfish story, that while they may only be able to help six people at a time (there is an 18 month limit, as they assist these people in transitioning to more permanent housing of their own, so it will be more as time goes by), for each one of those six people, it makes a lifetime of difference. This is a miracle of love, of comfort, of warmth, of hope. And again my heart aches over the fact that if only everyone was willing to give even a little, how many people could be helped. I’m guilty of this, too. I am afraid also, that I won’t have enough to pay my necessary bills. But if everyone operated out of a spirit of love and generosity, I wouldn’t have to be afraid either, and it would make it so much easier to open my hand and give.
Hmm. Pretty sure I have said that before. It’s one of my theme songs. Give, love, trust, have faith, do good. Don’t live in fear.
Anyway, as I face my post cancer life, I am also trying to figure out who the heck I am, what my purpose is, and what I am supposed to do about it. You might notice I have posted less lately. That’s because I have slipped outside the constraints of verbal communication recently, and into visual arts. I just completed my first semester of art classes. It’s changed the whole way I look at the world. The other day, for example, I found myself taking photos of my grandson’s back, just because the way his white tee shirt fell around him creates such beautiful shadows and highlights, and I wanted to draw it.
I have really enjoyed art, but after awhile I found even art was taking me back to the painful center. I had two major projects due in the last two weeks of the class, and both were about Michaela. There was one of me with Michaela, and one of Michaela. I wasn’t completely happy with either of them, but least of all with the final one, which I had with me as I drove to my last class. This was on my mind, and Michaela was on my mind. In my mind as I was driving to class I kept thinking of ways I could do it differently, and I envisioned myself devoting my life to the attempt to capture Michaela, and all she is in this world and in my heart, as I had done so much in my writing. The writing hadn’t really worked. I lacked the words to describe Michaela. I lack the skills to convey her in art. But I am driven to keep trying.
Other people in my life have had a hard time in 2018 as well. A family I love lost two beloved members. People I know and value were ill, even bright and shiny people. Can you imagine sending out sunshine from hospice? Not to mention, can you imagine sending out sunshine when you are suffering endless physical pain? If you read this, Beth, I cannot tell you how valuable you are. One of my greatest fears is embodied in a quote I heard somewhere: “I don’t want to die a caterpillar.” Well, you are a beautiful butterfly my friend. Absolutely beautiful.
Others I know lost pets, and that may not seem like it’s up there for some people, but for me it is. My own little miniature pinscher Spike turned fifteen years old in October, and his age is showing. His eyes glow with cataracts and he can’t find his way in the dark sometimes. He can no longer jump up on a chair or on the bed. He will sit and cry until someone lifts him. I spend a lot of time these days just carrying him around. When we got him, he had kennel cough, and I held him and fed him with a syringe, and he became a beautiful, healthy little dog. Now I just hold him, and tell him that I think 19 is a reasonable age to live to for such a small dog. But others have watched their beloved dogs decline, watching and wondering, when is it time. Are they in pain? Are they suffering? Yet there is this light in their eyes — there is this love in their eyes. The thing about dogs is there is one assumption you can always make. Regardless of the circumstances, they want to be with their people, and you can see it in their so expressive eyes. They would probably rather be in pain and be with their people than be pain free. It’s the extinguishing of that light, of that love and hope of love, that just tears my heart out.
For a part of 2018, I walked through a leg of the journey with another woman who suffered breast cancer. Pronounced cancer free in June, the cancer had returned by September, in several places. I walked with her through doctor’s appointments and treatments, and through the process of accessing her rights under California’s end of life law. As it turns out, I think she will be okay, at least for a long while. She will have to have chemotherapy every three weeks for the rest of her life, or until a better treatment is found. But as long as it keeps working, she can keep living. The journey I took with her this year had a deep, earth shaking impact on me. It added to my grief, it added to my hope, and it added to my confusion. Don’t pat me on the back for being a great person here, by the way. I wasn’t. She pushed a lot of my buttons, and some of those buttons were like the candy machines in my childhood, spewing out a handful of treats. But some were more difficult. And when something came up that pushed that mother of a missing child PTSD button, right at the time of the 30th anniversary of the day I lost my daughter, well, it was like my own private firestorm, and it became a barrier that caused us to part ways. Life had changed by that juncture anyway. I’d had to step away for my own surgery, and her needs had changed.
Don’t, please, think that any of this makes me a good person. I am not. Sometimes, in fact, I am a stark, raving lunatic. You know the saying, “They said I’d never be able to survive the storm. I replied, I am the storm.” Well, yes, I am the storm.
A few weeks ago I went to San Francisco by myself for a field trip with my art class. Driving to or in the City, especially by myself, is something that is normally on my do-not-do list. But I went. I did it, and even drove across the City to have lunch with a friend. I thought, this isn’t so bad. I should do this more often. On my drive home I thought about how much I’d missed out on in life because of fear. And I thought, well, I’m not really afraid of dying, so I should feel free to spread my wings, expand my boundaries. But then I realized it wasn’t death I’d really feared. It was life. It was making mistakes and having to live with the consequences.
So on we go, and soon it will be a new year. I have no idea what it will hold. I am cautiously hopeful, but I am also just a little bit terrified. There are many decisions to make. There are mountains to climb without clear cut paths to follow. I hope I find some answers. If I do, I’ll let you know.
Meanwhile, blessings on all of you. Thank you so much to all of you who have helped me make it this far in the journey. Thank you to those who accompany me through this blog. Please say hi. And may 2019 be good to all of us.