Community Stories ~ Writing & Healing

Traditionally, talking about life's challenges has too often been viewed as “wallowing in self-pity” and people were encouraged “to move on” as quickly as possible. Based on substantial research from psychology and medicine, we now understand that having a safe space to write and share one’s stories is incredibly healing and helps us turn those experiences into sources of strength—sometimes called “wounded healing.” Essentially, it provides an opportunity to release challenging emotions, process uncertainty, honor life’s journeys, and build meaningful community. The stories featured here come from community members who have participated in the writing workshops I've had the privilege to facilitate. For some, these are stories they've never told before. I thank the community writers for their bravery in putting them on paper, reading them together in the group and, for those who fell comfortable doing so, sharing them on this website! 

“Participating in this class gave me the creative and vulnerable space to put into words and share what I am currently experiencing, which was very healing. I learned new skills as a writer, while feeling nurtured to be vulnerable in the group – the class was more impactful than I could have imagined going in to it. I would recommend this class to anyone who is looking to learn, support others, and be supported through the healing process of writing!” Amy T.

Waiting for Dad

by Rhoda Story 

I’m sharing the story of my dad and I, not because we had a connection, but because we didn’t and I want to explore that and the impact that had on me. The good times are few, but they did occur like the warm, wet, sandy afternoons on the shore of Warren Dunes and jumping waves in Lake Michigan, a special treat that occurred once or twice each summer. He also had an incredibly infectious laugh. His shoulders would shake as his face crinkled up, especially around the corners of his eyes and he would literally turn a rosy shade of pink as the guffawing rolled out from deep within his being. We would all laugh when he laughed.

fardin-khan-GnVBceTo6xw-unsplash.jpg

He was also an accomplished musician. He was first chair in the Benton Harbor orchestra. He made his violin sing with emotion as he played the haunting, lilting tunes of Fritz Chrysler, his favorite composer. I can still see him standing in the living room of our 100-year old farmhouse, his 6 foot frame swaying to the sound that was emanating from his instrument, his arm smoothly moving the bow back and forth across the strings, his eyes closed in the rapture of the moment when suddenly he stopped short, looked at my brother who was valiantly playing his own violin next to my dad. “You stink”. The words that came from my dad’s mouth were incongruous with the magic of the moment. Again he snarled, “you stink”, get out of here.” My brother, Jim, who looked startled and humiliated, shuffled out of the room and dad continued to play, although the spell had been broken. Did he think that Jim literally stunk or that his playing stunk? I’ll never know, although it doesn’t matter. Hurt is hurt, regardless of intent. My dad was mentally ill, although never diagnosed to my knowledge. He started his career as a high school shop teacher until he had a nervous breakdown, which is what it was called in those days, after which he taught elementary school for the rest of his career. I’m told this because I was 5 years old at the time. Shortly before the breakdown occurred, he lined my mom and us 5 kids against a cold, damp, cellar wall and pointed a shotgun at us. I don’t know how long we stood there facing the barrel of his weapon because the memory is like an old flickering black and white movie that I’m watching through a detached viewer’s eyes. Eventually, he let out a long, audible sigh and with sagging shoulders and the gun hanging at his side with clenched fingers, he trudged up the narrow, rickety stairs leading to the main part of the house. The memory ends there. Another memory is less foggy because I was 12 years old when this incident occurred. We’re in Ottawa, Canada, my parents, twin sister and I. Everything is gray, the buildings, sidewalks and sky. People are milling about, but I don’t hear any sound, no laughter or conversation. It’s so silent in my memory, except for honking horns and hissing brakes. The air is warm and humid and I’m thirsty and hungry. The memory evokes a sense of dread and anxiety. I hear my mom telling Carly, my sister, and I over and over that he will come soon. Hour after hour, he will come soon. We can’t go in search of a water fountain for fear that he will show up and we won’t be there. We have no money for food, but that doesn’t matter because we can’t leave in search of something to eat anyway because we have to wait for dad. He will come soon. The whooshing, screeching, clunking traffic continues, the clattering of shoes passing by. We’re sitting on a curb outside of the parliament building where on a tour, something happened. I don’t have a clue as to what that was. I remember moving upward in a glass elevator and seeing my dad, glowering, in a glass elevator going down. He was staring straight ahead, not wanting to acknowledge us or show any recognition whatsoever. We laughed at the absurdity of this and assumed that he would get over his snit at some point. But, now here we were sitting on the curb on a hot summer day watching life revolve around us, people going about their lives while we wait hour after miserable hour. It wasn’t just the hunger and thirst, it was not knowing when he’d return or if he even would. We discussed how we might return home if he never came. My mom tried to keep our spirits up, but as the day wore on, that became a more daunting endeavor. It was summertime dark when our light green station wagon pulled up to the curb. We were completely emotionally depleted and yet my dad acted like he was picking us up from a day of fun and games. No questions asked, no apologies given. I held so much anger inside towards my dad. I felt no one in the world had a dad as hurtful as mine. When we got back to our campsite, Carly and I went immediately to the bathroom where I pounded my fists against the concrete wall until they bled, hot, salty tears flowing down my face into my mouth. I can still taste them. I can also still hear the guttural sound of my own voice as I shouted, “I hate him so much”! That was my therapy. That incident was never mentioned again. Often, after one of my dad’s meltdowns, he would insist on taking us out for ice-cream. Never once did I hear an apology escape his lips, but I do believe that was his way of making amends, although I don’t think he fully realized how much hurt he caused. So, we would troop into the ice-cream shop where we were only allowed vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. Why? I have no idea and I resented those excursions. But, in looking back, I realize my dad was an ill man and I have developed empathy and, even, love for him. That’s why I’m writing about him, to connect with the man who was abusive and yet, in a sad and dysfunctional way, I believe he cared about us. After all, he did come back.

Let Go
Beverly Treadway

“Have any of you ever learned to just let go? I mean to not force the outcome of something but just let it evolve?”

I am sitting in my twice a month Cancer Thrivorship Workshop and the question was put to the 5 of us by our therapist. Genie is a powerhouse of a woman, who speaks rapidly and with confidence. Her hair is always slightly messy, looking like she has just gotten back from a long hike in the hills. Which is usually exactly what she has been doing just before we meet. She wears her heart on her sleeve. She will both cry unashamedly when something hurts her heart and passionately slice an opponent down in a second when they have wronged a loved one. She reminds me that I can be both strong and vulnerable at the same time and it is okay to feel all  the things.

kasun-peiris-Kb0T-uRUBK8-unsplash.jpg

But these workshops are also draining at times. Because she does want us to feel everything and not hold back. Genie brings out the chatterbox in me. I never was a chatterbox. Not really. Not until I had cancer. Cancer does weird things to you. It is never-ending change. It doesn’t seem to matter if you are just diagnosed, in treatment, just out of treatment, in remission, or on a metastatic journey. There is a commonality of the insecurity of a life and death struggle, of hope and loss, of fear and anger, and yes, even joy. Right now we are doing Zoom meetings. I try and hide a little bit. With Zoom, you can mute you voice, and feign politeness, or slightly move out of frame to hide a painful facial expression. If things get to be too much, you can drop the call altogether, muttering about “technical difficulties.” Honestly though, Genie sees through all of that garbage, and will eventually call you out on it. I am drifting off. Genie’s question echoes through my head. “Have you ever just let go?” Have I? God yes! At least I’m learning to. I had to let go hand myself over to others when I got sick. I fought it. But I really didn’t have a choice, not if I wanted to live. 14 days in the hospital, two operations, and my body is battered and beaten. I had to let go. Then on to chemotherapy. Putting poison into my barely healed body, scared the crap out of me. My heart says “do it”, but I fight the thought. I pour out my pain, my fears, my questions, and my hopes to my doctor. He takes the time I need to understand why the treatment is necessary, I listen, begin to believe, and let go. My infusions are 8 to 9 hours long. I had a bad reaction in the beginning, so the IV drip is now tediously slow; drip … drip …drip. I turn on my music, close my eyes, and let go. I’m finished with my treatments, now. I am in remission, they say. We’ll just wait and see if the cancer comes back, they say. Just go live your life, they say. I’m still scared. I need to do … something. I don’t know what. I don’t know who I am. I try to let go, but it’s so hard. This is how I ended up where I am now; still sitting, hiding, and listening, in this Zoom meeting; getting the confidence healing nudges that are slowly showing me what life after cancer means to me. There are no hard and fast answers that tell you if you do this and then this, then you will be done. After so many months of being told what I must do to live, it is taking me years to figure out the next steps on my own. I’m pulled back to the present. Genie is still talking, elaborating on her question about letting go. It’s funny. It took mere seconds for my mind to take me back through my years long cancer trek. “When you just let go,” Genie pauses for effect, “beautiful things happen.” “When you stop trying to be in control, you allow the universe to unfold in its own way. Life becomes amazing and so much more than you can create on your own. Does anyone have a story to share with the group?” she asks. The group is silent. I don’t want to talk about my cancer and Genie isn’t asking me to, but my mind still goes there first. This is what she’s really trying to teach us at these workshops: we may have or have had cancer, but life goes on and it’s up to us to choose how we live it. My mind has now floated to find a new “letting go” thought; a not-related-to-cancer thought to comfort me, and I focus on that. I love my yard. I draw solace from it. But gardening in the high desert isn’t easy. Things will grow, or they won’t. Like Yoda says, there is no “try,” you either do, or do not. I have lived on my little piece of land for 20 years now. I was enchanted when I saw it. Mostly it was desert, with tons of native plants. While the homes surrounding it had been stripped bare of the natural plant life, this little plot stood like an oasis for cotton tailed bunnies, mourning doves, raccoons, and wild horses. It spoke to me, saying, “come rest here with us.” I bought the land and tended it. Over the years, it has become more nourished and alive. But just before I developed cancer, I began to plant other plants; plants from my childhood; plants that are not desert plants. I wanted to change my yard, for some reason. Maybe it was because I knew I was sick and wanted to hang on to something. I don’t really know. I watched the plants that were thriving and procreating and thought that I could master that too. I could grow and sell my plants and set up a side business. I planted new things. I planned out a new watering system. The new plants struggled and died. I planted more. Again, they struggled and died. I put up a greenhouse, the wind blew it down. I put up a different greenhouse, again the wind blew it down. All the while, the parts of the yard I left unattended, thrived. “I am a gardener!” I yelled to no one. “Why am I failing so badly?” I put up another greenhouse just recently, again, the wind blew it down. But this time, finally, ever so excruciatingly slowly, I let go. I really let go. I walked around the yard, and said to it, “I am sorry it took me so long. You are right. You win. You were beautiful when I moved here. You were an oasis, then, you are still beautiful and strong now. Forgive me. I love you. You don’t need me to fix you. I just need to fix myself.” I picked up the pieces of broken pottery, ripped plastic, recycling what I could and trashing the rest. I thought about how, ironically, stopping made me more content. It froze last night. I had a passing thought about covering my peach and apple trees to protect their blossoms from the temperatures. Then I realized that I should just let them be and give them their chance to decide their fate. This morning, the apple blossoms were brighter and more plentiful than they were the day before. Go figure. I smile to myself and again, pull myself back to present. The group is silent. Genie teaches us to embrace the silence, the spaces in between our thoughts. It quiets our spirits. I reach out to tap “unmute.” “I’ll share,” I say. “I’ll tell you about my yard and what it taught me.”

Motherhood

by Jennifer P.

I walk into her room as she is huffing and puffing, pacing back and forth. Her frustration is palpable. I look at my phone to check the time, we don’t have time for this this morning, we are already running late. In as calm a voice as I can muster, “What’s wrong Alexis?” She screeches, “Everything!” My turn, “Like, what everything?” Quickly the details, one thing after another, tumble out. Now with tears streaming she finishes, “and this day’s just going to get worse because today’s a school day and of course my teacher’s going to give me homework. I hate homework. Today is going to be a terrible day.”  

nathan-dumlao-EytWx3BOrwI-unsplash.jpg

I paused for a moment, looked at her without saying anything, and reached my arms out. She slowly walked over, sat down and I wrapped my arms around her as I talked about several things, but mostly told her how lucky she was to have the opportunity for a good education, even homework, and that she could make the day better if she wanted. As I felt her breathe and start to calm a little, I glance at my phone and think to myself, “Yep, she’ll most likely be late for school this morning, but it’s ok.” I wasn’t giving her permission, but really myself permission, permission to tend to her needs and her spirit, rather than a schedule. My oldest daughter didn’t experience this parent. Her parent was task oriented and list oriented and checking off boxes oriented. Rushing from one thing to the next in an attempt to accomplish everything with self and spirit as an afterthought. She would have received the same information but yelled from across the room as I packed a lunch or grabbed the backpack. Every few minutes checking on her and yelling in, “Come on, hustle, let’s get going, we’re going to be late.” Oftentimes, I’ve seen Motherhood as a struggle, a tug of war- back and forth—parent win, parent fail, parent win, parent fail. It sure seems like everyone else has it together, especially if you look at it through the lens of social media. I remember one day sitting on the couch with a newborn, three or four-months old scrolling Facebook. My friend had a baby about the same age. She posted a picture from the golf course with the baby carrier on the back of the cart—just getting a few holes in!! I looked down at myself, still in pajamas, nearly in tears, thinking of the list of things I still had to do before I could even think about “getting a few holes in.” I can’t remember as a young girl necessarily wanting to be a mother. I knew I wanted to go to college and have a career. I also wanted to have a husband, (I spent the majority of my teen and early twenties on that pursuit) so that just naturally led to a hazy picture of a family in my future. I often joke that each of my children were unexpected surprises and that’s probably the only way they actually made it into my life because when I think about actually planning to have a child, the thought terrifies me, even now. My first child was a daughter. I was 23 years old and found out I was pregnant with her during Thanksgiving break of my last semester in college. I was unmarried and from a religious family, so you can imagine how that went. I lived away from home, so when I finally worked up the courage to tell my mom I was almost 7 months pregnant. She got on a plane that Friday and flew to see me. My mom rarely flew, and never last minute. That was the first time. My second child was a son. I was 29 years old and newly married when I found out I was pregnant. The timing wasn’t great, but as I mentioned earlier when would it ever be, at least this time I was married. We were happy and my husband was so excited for a son and our daughter wanted a sibling so desperately. The pregnancy and birth went well. I was in the hospital room holding the baby when my mom called. She planned to come and stay to help take care of the baby once I was home from the hospital and settled. We talked for a minute and the baby started to cry- loudly. She said, ”Oh Jenny, he has some lungs.” My husband took him while I finished the conversation and then the nurse came to take the baby away for more tests. That was the last time I held him alive. Soon after he had trouble breathing and they took him to the NICU. Because I had a C section, I wasn’t supposed to get out of bed for I think 12 hours, so my husband spent time back and forth between the two rooms. The next day he was fading quickly so they wheeled me into the NICU to see him. I reached in to gently touch his leg and his monitors spiked. The doctor says, “NICU babies don’t like to be touched, it often agitates them.” I quickly pulled my hand away and just watched as my baby struggled. Not long after…. BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. Time of death 10:59 am. After a few moments I heard myself asking, “Can I hold him?” The nurse moved quickly to unhook him from several monitors and lines and gently lay him in my arms. I called my mom who immediately got on a plane. That was the second time. We held the baby for several hours, not wanting to let go. Through those hours more and more people would come to say goodbye. Slowly his skin lost its color and turned more and more purple and we knew it was time to let him go. I had to stay in the hospital for four more days to receive antibiotics for an infection. My daughter to this day says she felt like I was gone for weeks. My third child was a daughter. I was 39 years old and had a 17-year-old daughter. To say the news turned our lives upside down is an understatement. I wondered: “Why now? Why me? I do not want to start all over again.” I was not happy and spent most of my pregnancy irritated. Little did we know she would be exactly what our family needed so many years later…. I sit in the carpool line outside the elementary school waiting for a first grader. Yep, me, the one sometimes mistaken as her grandma. She runs to the car, “Mom guess what?” It’s the best thing seeing her ever so anxious to show me. I think she must have won a prize or a reward at school. Nope, she finished three homework pages during school so she doesn’t have homework tonight. As we’re driving home, she looks out the window and says, “I made my day better.” As with meat, the struggle, the back and forth, the pound pound pound creates a tender finished product. Unfortunately or fortunately, I have many more years of tenderizing. I secretly love that both my children (one 23 and the other 7) fight over who sits next to me on the couch. I point out that there are two sides as they both sink in close to me. It makes me feel as though I’ve done something right.

Sometimes Adventure is Overrated

by Smiley Walker

“Get up, asshole,” I yelled at my student. I kicked at his body on the ground. “Get up!”

Due to the situation though, my words came out as “Gaaaagh-p ath-o!” and perhaps did not have the impact I intended. So I kicked him again.

“Leave me here! Let me sleep!” I heard him say. I also thought resting on the snow-packed road sounded inviting, but no.

“Get up! We have to keep moving! It’s only a little way now.” We had been walking on this dark lonely road for an hour and hadn’t seen anyone. I knew we were still a long way from safety.

kiwihug-U9nsJdSNK8E-unsplash.jpg

The truck hadn’t blown up like it always does in the movies when vehicle meets tree. For that I was grateful. But, I knew we couldn’t stay with the truck and hope someone would find us. It was nine o’clock on a Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend in a state park with exactly three other campers. I mean, who doesn’t go camping on a Thanksgiving weekend? In California, I could take off any day at any hour and find a fun spot to camp. But this was Minnesota. All the other students who had signed up to go camping with us had backed out, one by one. Perhaps they had seen the weather forecast the zero-degree weather; more likely their parents had dissuaded them from going by providing a more fun alternative. So, it was just Donny and I. Me and Donny. We had a great time when we arrived to a largely deserted park on Friday. Our camp was set up in no time, leaving us to explore the roads and shoot off bottle rockets and throw rocks in the St. Croix River. Tromping around on make-your-own-trails in the snow left our feet wet and cold. It was warm while the sun shined, but quickly the temperatures dropped after sunset. Driving around with the heater on took the edge off the freeze. Finally, it was dinner time. We set up the backpacking stove on the edge of a firepit at an outdoor warming center, searched for firewood and built a fire worthy of the name inferno. Our faces and upper bodies benefitted from the blast, but the lower bits continued their slow descent into ice. I boiled up the instant ramen noodles, keeping my body moving all the time. Our luxurious meal took less than five minutes to consume, but it was satisfying. We ate with our feet up on the walls of concrete firepit. I took my scratchy wool socks off, laid them out hearthside and let my toes unfreeze and wiggle in the rays of heat. Ah, relaxation, warmth, food, finally! “Donny, your feet!” The steam I had seen rising from his feet had taken on a smoky bluish color; it was the scent of something unnatural burning that had opened my eyes. Donny yanked his feet back and howled, then laughed. His sock had started charring, right there on his foot. I took a look at my own socks drying by the fire. Oops. A crusty brown burn-hole had formed on my sock. At least my foot wasn’t in it. I laughed inside, remembering. But time was a-wasting. “Donny!!!” I yelled. There was a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach telling me that we would die out here. Another nudge and Donny started moving. He got up, and we slowly trudged onward, boots crunching in the newly fallen snow, guided by the thin slit of dark sky between the darker dense trees. Upon impact with the tree, my face had planted on the metal dashboard of the Ford Courier, despite wearing a seatbelt, and left a crease in the metal where my nose had hit. We sat in silence, like waking up from a dream. My head ached. I put my hand to my mouth. My hand was wet. Drool? Blood? My feet still felt like chunks of ice. In the snow-lit darkness, everything was blurry to my eyes. I felt around on the floor for my glasses, and found the harmonica I had been blowing. I shook off the fog in my brain and looked over at Donny. “Are you alright?” I asked. My voice sounded like gibberish, and I realized it was painful to talk. “Yeah. My stomach hurts.” I could see the steering wheel jammed up high toward the windshield. “We gotta get out. This truck is gonna blow.” I became frantic with the notion that we would die in a vehicle fire. So we unbuckled our seat belts and pushed the reluctant doors open, and stumbled out onto the snow. Our vehicle was near the intersection where we had attempted a right turn at 25 mph. I know the speed because I had looked at the speedometer seconds before we got to the intersection. After some debate, we started walking toward the south, past the road we had turned off. It was against my judgment, against my internal map of our location, but Donny insisted that camp was back that way. After five minutes of slow trudging, we started going uphill, which was remarkable for flat Minnesota. “Do you remember a hill?” “No.” “Neither do I. Let’s go back to the car. It’s cold and this is the wrong way.” With no disagreement, we backtracked and sat in the slightly-warmer-than-ambient-air truck cab. The not-up-in-flames truck cab. In silence. The silence was lulling, calling, begging us to rest. And so we did. Half an hour? Ten minutes? Somehow we were roused, and we decided our only hope was to get help and that meant walking a long way on this road. The map in my head said to go the way we were headed. And so we did. A chance passerby probably would have laughed at the sight of us walking on the road. Donny, with pains in his stomach and chest area, was hunched forward, head down. With injuries to my head, and bleeding from my nose and mouth, I kept my head tilted back to help stop the flow. And so we walked, one head up, one head down. Our navigation was accomplished using the cut in the trees as a surrogate for the road. An occasional glance kept us on a confirmed path. Our first crisis after the first crisis of crashing came at an intersection. Which way, again? I had no idea. I knew the river was to our right. I felt that this road to the right was one of many spurs fishermen took to gain access to the river and to fish. My mind screamed “Straight.” But I didn’t know. We stood there, dumbstruck for a few minutes. A wrong choice would take us away from help, and we would freeze to death. A distant memory crept into my mind. An idea? Something I had seen yesterday? Yes! Minnesota had an odd practice of posting little sign posts at each intersection in its state parks. A framed map. Six by eight inches large on a post three feet tall. I scurried around to find it here. The stick-like snow-covered lump to the left. With no glasses, I could barely make out the markings. I’m not sure how we were able to read it in the darkness, but I suspect that light reflecting off the snow and clouds in the sky aided us. The sign confirmed that going straight on the road led to the park entrance and civilization and help. On and on, the road never seemed to end. We took turns laying down and resting, and cursing each other with foul insults to get each other up and on the road. To sleep was to die. One time, our first time, we both laid down on the snow in the middle of the road and slept. What woke us up, I don’t know. Fear can be highly motivating. I had time to think. I knew I was in trouble, but for what? For getting in a wreck? Foolishly camping in the snow? For being ill-equipped for such a trip? Or for letting Donny drive? Yeah, that’s it. The stupidity of that choice gnawed on me. Donny had been begging to drive the whole day. But he was only 14, and I resisted his wishes. All day. All day, driving around the park trying to keep warm. Friday night had been incredibly cold, perhaps down to zero degrees, or at least it felt that way when we had to get up and fix our tent that had blown over in the north wind. But the day warmed up with sunrise. Still, it had been below freezing, as witnessed by the pools of ice that never melted, not even in the sunshine. So we alternated between hours of adventure outside and hours of driving around. The truck heater was of California capabilities, built for the slight inconvenience of a chilly night. Our breath in the truck cab formed ice on the windows, so the defrost was on most of the time. As night had fallen, we left our campsite and drove. My feet were numb. Donny said his feet were fine. A comparison of the two sides of the stick shift led to a conclusion that the passenger side got more heat than the driver side. Aha! A reason to let Donny drive! Or so I told myself when searching for a reason as to why I let him drive, when questioned by the insurance company later. The heat pouring out from under the dashboard was luxurious. My wet feet finally had a shot at drying out. And Donny was driving like a pro. “See? I told you I could drive!” “Yeah, not bad.” But it was mostly a straight road leading back from the river’s edge to the main camp road. No matter, his unusual attentativeness put my mind at ease. I took out my harmonica and blew out a few tunes at 20 mph and when he edged up to 25 mph, I gave him a few words of advice. He slowed down a bit and proceeded to execute a right turn onto the main camp road. The tires did not bite the icy snow, and instead slid past the road and straight into a tree. Many who have been in an auto accident will describe the slow-motion nature of the event. Ours was no exception. And there we were. Alone, cold, scared, fueled by adrenaline and fear. Walking towards God-knows-what. Who would help us? Finally, off in the distance, we could see a light. A light! People! Help! We rallied and walked faster down the road. The light appeared to be off to the right. We didn’t care. Both Donny and I re-set a course for the light and thrashed through the snow drift and across the brush towards the light. Just then, a car drove by on the road we were headed for, and pulled into a driveway. “Help! Help!” And of course, with my injuries, the ranger only heard gibberish. Noise. Like what a wounded animal off in the outback would make. He turned to look toward us as we crashed through the snowdrift back onto the street near his residence. He didn’t draw a gun, but I’m sure he wondered if he should. Finally, we reached him and told him our story in little pieces. He took us inside and asked us a bunch of questions, and called an ambulance, and the sheriff. He gave us some water and a hot drink, and we waited. I saw my face in a mirror. It was a mess. Donny was still complaining about pain in his abdomen, and finally threw up all over the black-and-white checkered linoleum of the dining room floor. Our journey was over. Or so we thought. My pregnant wife Jane caught a ride with someone to the hospital in St. Paul where I was transported after a night in one of the four beds at Hinkley hospital. Surgery for my broken jaw and nose would take place after the swelling subsided. Jane gave the surgeon a picture of a monkey from National Geographic when he asked her for a ‘before’ picture he could use to reconstruct my face and wire it back together. He was known for working on hockey players in the area, so I felt a great amount of confidence in his experience and abilities. I was off school for six weeks. The substitute was a horrible witch. That is the secret to a successful teaching career. Make sure the substitute is annoying. She had done what I could not. Students were more cooperative, more attentive, more interested in school. I still remember feeling the love at the Christmas program that year. My teeth were flattened and my nose broken, and teaching after winter break was challenging with my teeth wired shut. Many days were interrupted with appointments to get a mouth that looked reasonable and was functional. Donny was treated at the Hinkley hospital and released to his parents. It was quite a shocker when they got the news that Donny and I were in an accident. Facing the parents, knowing what I knew, was stressful. Luckily, I had a lot of medications to take the edge off. The father sat there in my hospital room, just he and I. “Well, there is more to the story.” The look on his face was classic quizzical, like a puppy with turned head and puppy dog eyes. “I was not driving,” I said. “Donny was driving. That’s why his injuries were internal, from the steering wheel, and my injuries were to my head, on the dashboard.” It felt like a confession, like something wrong. He sat there stunned. I could see the wheels turning. At the time, I felt like he was wondering how this could have happened. Looking back now, I see him worrying about the financial costs of all this, and would I sue him. We agreed not to tell anyone except ‘need to know’ people like cops and insurance to protect the boy’s fragilic marginal reputation. The legal and insurance ramifications never really hit me like I had worried about. I spilled it all to the insurance man who came round the house a few weeks after I got out of the hospital. Forty-five years later, I think I have convinced myself that letting Donny drive was the right thing to do. But I don’t know. The cost to him was just another burden added to his bag of burdens: A mother that died several years ago, his uncaring step-mother / aunt, a brother that would later kill himself, an addiction to anything that provided an escape from his life. The family and the boy and I have remained friends for almost fifty years. Donny and I had several interactions throughout the years, Idaho, and later when he went to college to not study and not learn. I became reacquainted with him when I took him in off the streets 25 years later and fed/housed him. He was one messed up SOB. Did I do that to him? Probably not. I still have back and neck pain to this day; some of it was started then. My nose is still crooked as a reminder. I’m much more cautious now. But only a little.

Anticipatory Path

by Amy T.

My physical being is present taking up space, yet I feel invisible. They ask me advice that is trumped by the opinion of friends, leaving my words hanging without purpose only to be plucked back again as if being heard for the first time. Straddling the line between daughter and nurse, child and adult, health and illness – the constant back and forth is exhausting.  

Strength is often a silent partner, one that shows up when least expected yet when it does it is a welcomed ally. It is odd how we tend to overlook the types of strength in our lives – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – until we need it to get by. Until we realize that it is the pillar of getting us through all of the most memorable times in life – from birth to death and everything in between, we have had to rely on it in some capacity. Reflecting now, I see where my strength has gotten me to this point and where I will need to trust that it will catch me when I fall.  

jon-tyson-FlHdnPO6dlw-unsplash.jpg

Sunday Breakfast had become a family tradition and one we welcomed to stay connected through the chaos of everyday life. It was another brisk Sunday morning in December, entering the building, the smell of smoke and stale beer from the night before engulfed us but only for a moment. Meandering through the restaurant, my parents were already seated – punctual even at 8 a.m. on a Sunday—the chairs were peppered with people enjoying their brekky. Approaching the table to give our morning “Hola Nana & Papa” coupled with big bear hugs, the shrinking frame of my almost 80-year-old father was magnified as he struggled to stand. The pain in his eyes and face that he couldn’t mask was the first I had witnessed—I felt the pain transfer to me-that would be the beginning of a journey into the unknown. The lights are bright, almost piercing but that is the way they have to be to illuminate the sick. It’s funny how sterile has its own “look.” Muted tones of blue and seafoam green on perfectly pleated curtains. The makeshift partition that separates stories waiting to be told, as if to rendering a sense of peace amidst the chaos. As I enter the room, I feel my muscles tense, the grip of anxiety and worry covering me like an unwanted blanket. The air feels crisp and somehow stale at the same time—a haunting type of cool that brushes my arms giving rise to goose bumps. The feeling is coming as much from the outside as from the inside of my body. The Nervous System is a powerful engine. I am in knots—I wanted him to be here, but now what? A battle of relief and fear is waged within every cell in my body. The telemetry monitors beeped from behind the pleated curtains as I walked down to the end of the long hallway. Whispers of muffled crying amidst the violent sound of retching, escaped from behind the curtain next door. Voices in another language trying to understand foreign medical jargon – who can understand that anyway? Sounds of coughing, break small moments of silence with a jolt, only to be serenaded again with beeping monitors. The sound of Dansko’s hitting the floor as the nurse comes to silence the beeps yet again. But don’t the beeps mean something? Or do they? Noise can feel like silence after a while to those of us that hear it all the time. The air was a pungent clean—lacking anything reminiscent of home or comfort, unless the smell of sterile processing is your thing. The occasional waft of a fresh food tray nudged at me, amidst the smell of fear. The taste of iron erupted as I realized I was biting the inside of my mouth—a repetitive, nervous tiny bite that gave way to blood as I stood there waiting to learn more. The taste churned my stomach more than it already was, leading me to grab a snack to quench my hunger. Purse crackers. Although my gut was churning from overwhelm (and hunger), for the first time in a long time I felt relieved. I knew that he was in the right place—he would be taken care of, examined by professionals with his best interest at heart—I believed this because I had to. I believed this because I am ONE of those professionals. What will they find? Will he be OK? My poor mom. At times, I felt like I was floating over the room peering down and watching it all unfold—watching and waiting to see the next phase of our lives. After all, that is what this is, isn’t it? THIS is the time that I had only ever thought about in the distant future—the time when I would be faced with the mortality of those who brought me into this world. I find myself staring that darkness in the face—being lead down some anticipatory path that others have paved before me. Feeling like running away like a wounded child, yet knowing that child in me is holding hands with the stronger woman I am today. We are both watching and waiting—trading feelings like a bad card game.

Imperfect

by Andrea Neahusan

I knock softly and open the solid door.  The cold mechanical breeze hits my face from the cooling unit on the far wall.  The modestly small room is saturated with the subtle combination of cleaning products, stale food, and urine.  As my feet carefully carry me inside, I notice how congested the new room is with the familiar aviation artwork and trinkets, displaying a scant glimpse into a passionate past.  How can a room feel so empty, yet so crowded at the same time?  

martha-dominguez-de-gouveia-KF-h9HMxRKg-unsplash.jpg

My eyes focus forward and lock onto the purpose of my visit. This scant, stoic, frail version of my father doesn’t move at my arrival. The rigidity of his uncooperative body won’t allow it, but his eyes follow mine. He is delightedly surprised to see me. My visits are strategically planned as surprises now in order to avoid his chronic anxiety attacks induced by his abundant anticipation of seeing me. Ironically, I wouldn’t wish late-stage Parkinson’s on my worst enemy. It’s pure torture for him to be trapped so completely within such a broken body. I enthusiastically announce my presence, “Happy birthday Dad! How are you? How do you like your new room?” He wittily smirks, “It’s too small.” I can barely make out his low, crackly words. I come closer and place a humble card and gift bag near his chair. His entire world has been reduced to living in this new medical-grade power recliner with a bed on his left and a flat screen tv on his right. This confining world matches his confining body, yet he daily struggles to retain a shred of humor and optimism. “Wow! Is that a new chair Dad?! That looks nice!” I exclaim. A glint in his eye shines and a whimsical smile grows on his face as he silently shows off his new toy. His cramped fingers push a button, and the chair smoothly lowers his head while raising his feet. He beams with pride at this miniscule, but rousing accomplishment. He is reduced to these small feats of joy. I clap my hands and cheer for him, laughing at his lighthearted antics. As he returns to an upright position, I notice how much his cheekbones, knees, and elbows protrude through his papery, translucent skin. “How was I ever afraid of this man?” I ask myself. He is the opposite of intimidating now. It’s hard to imagine how maniacal his control used to be. I thought with awe and gratitude, “You hold no power over me.” Although I realize this thought wasn’t completely accurate. I acknowledge an unexplainable, compassionate, powerful pull towards this dying man that keeps bringing me longingly back. This man, who by every ounce of reason I should loathe, still holds a poignant place in my heart. The intensity of my emotions confuses me still. This is the residual effect my dad has on me. At that moment, a vibrant older couple come striding in with balloons and a huge milkshake. They greet him with an abundance of friendly smiles and hugs and handshakes. My Dad smiles as they hand him the cold treat. He takes a bite and sets it down on the tray beside him. They both look at me, and introduce themselves, “Hi, I’m Bob, and this is Judy.” I return the greeting, “Hi. I’m Andrea, Tom’s daughter.” They continue, “We just have to tell you, your dad is the greatest neighbor we’ve ever had. Over the years he’s always been there in a pinch, to lend us a tool, to snow blow our driveway, or to simply stop by to chat. One summer, he even helped us build our big shed and then move it to our corner out back. We just can’t say enough about him. Your Dad is the greatest!” Even though I had never met these neighbors, I grew up hearing similar words from other neighbors and countless family friends and acquaintances. This is the epitome of my multi-dimensional Dad—the world loved him while his children hated him. The hypocrisy and disparity of this secret dynamic is almost laughable now. This is my dad. The most imperfect man I know. As these friends carry on a pleasant, but limited conversation with my dad, my mind drifts to a less pleasant time. A time where Dad violently slams down an open can of root beer in fury, erupting tiny, sticky brown droplets all over the kitchen floor, walls, counters, and ceiling. His face contorts into that of an enraged maniac. He spews out venomous, hate-filled words towards my mom that cut us all to our core. His swearing, and screaming is not a new thing, but this moment transcends to a new level as he rampages his personal attack in such a verbally precise and lethal way. We all freeze in shock. My sister sobs. My legs and arms uncontrollably shake, but I refuse to shed tears. Mom screams, “Get out! Get out if you’re going to be like this! Go on!” He storms outside and continues his one-hundred decibel level conversation in our front yard. He has lost all control, which is so ironic for my all-controlling father. The neighbors interrupt my wandering memory and back to Dad’s small world. His friends are passing along their goodbye pleasantries, “It was nice to meet you! We’re so glad you get to visit your dad on his birthday.” I return their smile and wave back as they leave the small room. Dad now turns to me and points his tremoring hand to his dresser. He asks me to grab his thick folder in his top drawer. I comply. The folder is overfull with many page protectors brimming with documents. These are documents of all kinds. There are his discharge papers when he was honorably released from the Air Force. He shows me birth certificates, social security cards, marriage certificates, death certificates, divorce decrees, insurance policies, and financial statements. Some of these papers are easily 20 or 30 years old. He’s not in control of his body anymore, but he still controls as much as he can in all other ways. His page turning becomes more frantic. He starts muttering in coherently. He reviews the same pages we’ve already gone through. He turns back to the beginning. “Is there something wrong Dad?” I question. “The front page is missing. The list of 20 things to do when I die. It’s gone.” His voice continues, in a barely audible whisper. “He took it, that son of a bitch. I can’t believe he took it.” He searches the papers once more and asks me to help him turn each one. His fingers have seized up again and making this task nearly impossible on his own. He discovers that his burial plot paperwork is also missing. His panic turns to anger. His weak voice exclaims, “It just makes me so God damn mad!” I calmly answer, “I’m sure we’ll find it. Is it in one of your other folders?” His body is frantically shakes as he answers determinedly, “No it was right here, right where I left it, and your brother took it.” Relieved, I reply, “Oh, I bet he still has it then. I’m sure he does. Let’s call him and ask.” I put the cell phone on speaker phone as my brother reassures Dad that he has copies of every document. He almost chuckles out the words, “You don’t need to worry about any of this Dad, I’ve got it all. It’s all taken care of.” This doesn’t satisfy Dad completely, but it takes the edge off. His body is exhausted after this anxiety episode. He sinks into his chair, still feeling a great loss for his papers, and his control over them. It’s then that I remember the birthday milkshake. “Hey Dad,” I announce. “Would you like some more of your ice cream? I know ice cream always helps me feel better.” He nods his head and closes his eyes. I reach for the spoon, scoop up a small bite, and bring it to his mouth. He methodically opens and gratefully receives the sweet contents. We continue in silence for a while, contentedly giving and receiving in such a simple gesture. He calms. Another knock sounds on Dad’s door. A young man pops his head in with a small cup. “Hi Tom, it’s time for your medicine.” Dad insists on introducing me to Simon before he takes his pills, two at a time. Hopefully this next dose of meds will further help lower his anxiety tonight. I’m grateful that he is taken care of so well here in this miniscule world of his now. Simon leaves, and it’s just Dad and I again. As I hold his hand tenderly and look into his blue eyes. “I have to go now Dad.” I say with remorse in my voice. “I know.” He responds. The pull is so strong. Why is it so hard to leave this man I should hate? He ever so quietly repeats, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so proud of you; I’m so proud of you. You are so blessed, despite me.” My eyes tear up as I pat his hand and sincerely tell him, “I love you.” I sit in my car in the parking lot, unable to drive. Tears stream from my face. I cry for the dad who’s dying. I cry for the dad of my childhood. I cry for the child I never got to be. I cry for the relationship that could have been, but never was. I cry with gratitude for the love that I still hold for this most imperfect man.

Set Free

by Michelle T.

Trembling, she cowered in the corner behind the dark wood nightstand. She tasted the salt from her tears and felt the angry energy in the room, but she could not move, could not get herself to safety. Amid the terrifying chaos, a woman appeared. She had blonde hair and blue eyes, just like the girl. The woman was calm and brought with her a sense of safety.

“Come with me,” the woman whispered, “I’ll keep you safe. You can trust me.”

guille-pozzi-y1wVavuxZtE-unsplash.jpg

After much convincing and reassuring, the girl placed her hand in the woman’s and allowed the woman to lead her out of the room. Though the room was small, the journey from one side to the other was long and arduous. At times the girl turned back toward the familiarity of the corner, but with the woman’s guidance she finally walked through the door and out into a long, poorly lit hallway. Light shone from an open door at the end of the hallway. Beyond the door the girl could see lush green grass, tall shady trees, and colorful flowers. It felt like freedom and she longed to be there. Hand in hand, the girl and the woman walked down the long, door-lined hallway. The girl thought the woman was leading her to the safety and serenity of the garden, but instead, the woman made a sharp turn towards a door inscribed with foreign symbols. The woman opened the door, led the girl inside, and sat in the middle of a churning tornado. The room was chaotic, wind whipping debris around the girl and the woman. Confused and frightened, the girl huddled close to the woman, longing for comfort and respite from the storm. But instead of comforting the girl, the woman pulled her knees to her chest and began to cry. Questions ran through the girl's head. Why did the woman bring her into this room? How could they escape? Could the girl escape without the woman’s help? The girl fought through the storm to the door, but when she pulled on the handle, she discovered that it was locked. Frantically she searched the room for a key, but none could be found. Then through the windy haze she saw a glint of light shining from the woman’s neck. A key! The girl ran to the woman and clutched at the key hanging on a chain around her neck. “Let’s go!” the girl shouted at the woman, “Please. I have to get out of this room and I cannot do it by myself.” Through tears, the girl pleaded with the woman to stand up and walk outside to safety, but the woman could not hear the girl over her own weeping. The girl saw her own pain reflected in the woman’s eyes and remembered the words that the woman had spoken to her when she was trapped in the corner of her own room. “Come with me,” the girl whispered, “I’ll keep you safe. You can trust me.” The woman stopped crying, looked deeply into the girl’s eyes, and took her hand. Together they struggled against the storm until they reached the door. The woman removed the key from its chain and turned it in the lock. Together the girl and the woman pushed the door open. As their breathing steadied, they began walking down the hall towards the safety of the garden. I awoke suddenly, still feeling the promise of peace from the garden. In that moment I knew that the girl and woman were younger versions of me, sent to help me heal, to help me grow, and to set me free.

Final Communion

by Sheri Stanoff

If you knew all the hardships and heartache that you were going to experience in life, you would just want to kill yourself now.  What the??? MOM!  She continued, but then there is so much love and joy in living that it all balances out.  I try to remember if this was a conversation before or after we received her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.  Doesn’t really matter, she had some great insight and was very opinionated and some might say outspoken.  My Dad for sure would say that, even asking me once if I ever had to wonder what my mom was thinking.  

awmleer-6XcziMmkNgQ-unsplash.jpg

Around this time, while studying for my master’s degree, I was able to include a wealth of material pertaining to Alzheimer’s. My thought was that I would learn how to prepare for what would come next and how to handle this disease and in turn, teach both my father and brother how they should deal with this. However, much like new parents that have prepared themselves by reading books such as the famous “What to Expect When Expecting”, there is absolutely no way to fully grasp what is about to transpire. My first big teaching moment was giving my father the acronym CARE. I thought this would be really helpful. The marriage of my parents was purely based on opposites attracting each other. They would, let’s say, debate everything; and yet they agreed on key principles of honesty, integrity, importance of family and a strong faith in God. Their steadfast marriage was to be tested relentlessly. I would tease my father that he understood the “ARE” of CARE, and yet the “C” was probably what was needed most. The ARE standing for; you don’t argue, you don’t try to reason and you don’t try to explain. Sounds simple, but it is not, especially for opposite personalities. That is when you must really focus on the “C”, for compassion. The saying of ‘don’t hate the person, hate the disease’, pairs perfectly with an Alzheimer’s patient as their normal activities, memories, sense of self and the many times their verbal filtering begins to shift. And yet, it is challenging to remove the person that you love and adore, when that disease has made them become someone that you could never have imagined. My mom was a pediatric nurse. And man, did she play that “nurse” card as much as possible. She loved children and would interact with any child that was around. There was no stopping her if a child was in her line of vision. And trying to remember in this situation that in no way could you argue, reason or explain that a stranger’s child may have been instructed not to speak to her. “Well I was a nurse, don’t you know,” she would state while slipping into her Minnesota accent. It is interesting how many times I would find other people, mostly strangers, to be far more patient with her than myself. When interviewing and selecting a care facility for her, just mentioning that she was formerly a nurse would have the staff give each other that knowing look. The look, as they explained, was that many of their most difficult patients were nurses and doctors. So maybe, it wasn’t always my imagination? You lose your loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s way before they physically die. And yet there are poignant moments that make it less harsh. Living in another city away from my mother, I tried to always be present at her doctor appointments at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, also known as the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas. The building for this clinic is structurally unique. Mom once remarked that the building is a reminder that the patients seen there were all crazy. A good visit would start with the accomplishment of a shower, dressing nicely (which meant clothes with no stains) and allowing me to semi-style her hair. Of course a little bit of chapstick and gum. Oh so much gum. We would find pieces of chewed gum in the strangest places that she was saving for later. If it had been a good day, while checking her in, she would grab a handful of large red & white peppermint puffs (sold in those big containers during the holidays) and stash them in her purse along with a couple in her mouth. And she would giggle. Peppermint puffs made her giggle. During assessments, she would be asked to listen to 3 words and then shortly thereafter, be asked to repeat them. I would try it out myself, and it really isn’t that easy. She would sometimes have to draw and other times write a sentence. My favorite sentence that she recited out loud while writing it was, “This is my beautiful daughter Sheri”. And then sometimes she would be asked questions, such as who is the president. Her answer to that one made us all laugh. She said that she couldn’t remember his name, but that he was black and that was alright with her. So did the funny things she say, outweigh all the spiteful and mean things lobbed our way? Calling my brother a bastard, my husband an asshole, announcing within my earshot that I was really fat. Of course, I’m sure my father took the brunt end of it all. She pouted, slammed doors, and refused to shower. Following my father’s death, she wanted to date and go out dancing. There was excessive use of baby powder and she began drinking wine at home, demanding that my brother have it for her every day. It was so excessive, that we had to water it down, especially considering she was a fall risk. And fall she did. Once at a playground when she was going to show everyone how to swing on the monkey bars and then before even touching a bar face planting to the sand below. I really did not think she was going to do that, I swear. Another time, falling backwards walking up a small slope to smell flowers, and then lying in the dirt saying as I approached her, to look at all the beautiful things God has made; the sky, the trees, the flowers, the fence, well maybe not the fence, that was probably made by a man. When my brother was to the breaking point and no longer able to take care of her in her home, I moved her to a care facility in Reno to have her closer to me, her granddaughters and all her great grandchildren. Four days after moving her, Covid restrictions were put in place and with the exception of a couple of late ER visits, I was no longer able to be with her. I knew that our timing of placing her there was good and how lucky we were that she was in a safe place, and yet, that did not ease my horrendous feelings of guilt. Covid in 2020 prevented so many things and devastated our world. My MBC diagnosis came two weeks after moving her into that care facility. I needed to see her. I just wanted to lie down and put my head in her lap and let her stroke my hair. My safe space, were I went mentally and sometimes physically when I was devastated, sad or just weary from the world. And yet, this could not happen. I called the facility and told them that they had to bring her to the window in her room. I cried as I reached out and placed my hand on the window trying desperately to connect with her. And of course she made me laugh as she was trying to pull the blinds apart so she could see who was outside. Her actions were so often childlike. However, I was already someone she didn’t know. The evening before she died on January 15th, 2021, I received a call from hospice that she would not last much longer. I prepared a bag to take with me the next day. Since the facility was still under covid restrictions, I was told that I would only have 20 minutes to be with her. Thankfully that restriction did change up, but before learning that I could stay with her and before two of my daughters were able to arrive, I had prepared and brought pieces of bread that I could soak in wine to give her final communion. As I said prayers of communion, I dipped the bread in the wine and placed it gently in her mouth. She immediately chomped down on that wine laced bread. Oh no, I panicked, what if she chokes? Holy crap, there I am with my little finger trying to hook that piece of bread back out of her mouth. Despite restrictions, I feel blessed that I and one of my daughters were able to be with her until she drew her last breath. We sang her favorite Bible School songs and told her how much we all loved her and that although it made us sad, she would soon be with all those that had ever loved her. I later collected her ashes, but have yet to open the box. Restrictions made it difficult to plan a memorial service and besides, she had outlived just about every close friend from her church, so we were not even sure who would/could attend. Once when she and I were randomly talking about where she wanted her ashes spread, she had said over mountains and water. I wasn’t sure where she thought she was going, so I asked her, since she was raised in Duluth, if she wanted her ashes spread over Lake Superior. Oh no, she exclaimed, that would be too cold. Oh Mom I miss you. Not having your unconditional love in my life leaves a gaping hole in my heart. Yet I know through our faith that you are for sure now hanging out in the best place ever. I’ll see you soon. Love you.

Long Road

by Natalie Z.

The muggy air would go unnoticed that evening as I lay on the large overstuffed couch taking up most of the space in my tiny living room. No memory of what I was wearing - it didn’t matter. As my eyes closed for a brief moment of rest, my active mind stays alert, begging for energy from the universe to power deeper breaths and a stronger heart. Memories of poison pulsing through my already battered veins. I close my eyes to forget. Wanting to make the short walk to the bathroom but knowing when I get there, I will be faced in the mirror with someone I no longer recognize. A gaunt human, olive skin turned white, emptiness for eyes, depilated and alien in appearance. So, I remain on the couch. Not by choice, but knowing my short, lifeless breaths couldn’t carry me down the hallway anyway. 

illiya-vjestica-zNTttcbHyX8-unsplash.jpg

The pulsing, burning pain in my eye sockets left me unable to distract myself with normal diversions from reality—funny television or a fantasy novel. I was left with gently closed eyes and vision only to the depths and workings of my inner self. My precious son, nine years old, humble yet full of life, luckily spent weekends with his father so I could rest. This night I selfishly wanted him with me. A heavy load for someone so young, I know; but I wanted to snuggle him and feel his calm energy envelop me - he gave me hope. I wanted to pierce his heart and download every last, bursting drop of love I have for him, so he could go on and still enjoy a happy life full of his mother’s love when my last breath came. On this long evening seemingly dragging on and on, I believed my last breath was about to come. Gently on the clouds it would wisp me away to a realm of unconditional love. I was broken. I was weak. I was ready. As I wrangle the lifeforce to make my way to my bed, heart barely pulsing like a stagnant stream, I think of the implications of not letting anyone know I may die while I sleep tonight. I certainly don’t want my son to come home to his mom’s wretched, stinking body laying lifeless in her bed. So, I began a short text to my mom and one sister who lived the closest to me. “I wanted you to know if you don’t hear from me tomorrow, although I hope I wake up, I may not. This would actually be the easiest way to die. I love you.” No need for an ambulance, chemo allowed me to be content with death. A long road to an early death is the best way to describe the circumstances that landed me in the lap of destiny. When looking back over sharp gray peaks and lush green valleys, a lifetime of seemingly unrelated experiences, I realize the inevitable path has been revealed. Experiences of color shaping every dimension of my soul.

Chosen Family

by Ashleigh C.

Cancer. What a lonely journey. I was raised to be strong and just “move through things.” Which, in ways, served me well. However, my loved ones also felt like we should all just be strong. I never felt like I had space to be vulnerable. I felt like I was taking up space reserved for someone else. Maybe some one more sick, some one more needy. Trauma leaves us with strange ways of remembering. I remember the day they told me I’d have to have most of my femur removed. They left me alone in a hospital room that was over looking a graveyard of all places. It was the first time I was really scared. I remember being told that after 6 rounds of chemo my tumors were small enough that they could perform a radical hysterectomy.

 

karl-magnuson-MvxMvPO3S1M-unsplash.jpg

I was alone that day and after crying into my sleeve for 10 minutes a medical assistant offered me a tissue. Hospitals are a place where I strangely feel safe, and yet the most alone. I’ll never forget the fact that my best friend accompanied me to over half of my surgeries and treatments because everyone else was….busy. One time they even thought he was my husband. I laugh cried until I couldn’t feel anymore about that one. But this terrible strange journey has also brought me into a group of incredibly resilient people. People who’ve lived this terrible tragedy, they get it. And suddenly you’re not alone any more. In the summer of 2018 I had the opportunity to join other cancer patients on a whitewater kayaking trip in Montana. At first, I just went because who doesn’t want a free adventure? But in those people I found a family I never knew I needed. After that I sought out people who “get it” in every part of my life and today, I’m less alone. That best friend? Now my partner. Those other people living with, in, or around, cancer? They are my chosen family. And it’s a pretty glorious world.