Tag Archives: resilience

A river runs north

May 1 is a day of seduction.
Without fail, it arrives cloudless and sunny, warm and fragrant, casting off the vestiges of a cruel winter.  Fear? Toss it out the window. Success is an open road looking for someone to tear it up.

I remember feeling that way 10 years ago, before the Nishisakawick Creek coughed up its sedge to form an island where its mouth meets the Delaware River. Back then there were a few scant sycamore trees that jutted up from the river, catching dead leaves and twigs in the rapid flow. There were no signs that the island would one day block the creek’s entrance, forcing the river to flow up instead of down. Had I seen it, I tell myself, I would have known.

But the truth is, we never really know life’s irony until it stares back at us from the page. And this story is no different. May 1, 2008, I started out on a morning of hope, launching a new business with my mother and father as partners. Sure, we had failed as a family unit. They’d divorced some 30 years earlier. But we’d learned from our failures. Time is a great healer, afterall. We were no longer mother, father and child, but adults who had experience in the world. Our business venture was destined to succeed.

As I made my way down River Road that morning, fire police detoured traffic onto Dark Hollow Road where I’d normally turn anyway. A sign, I was sure, that I was on a guided path. “A tree down,” I thought before losing myself in other mind chatter.

My mother would arrive late, complaining about a power outage that kept her from drying her hair. We huddled, vowing to knuckle down, make calls, do whatever it took to make this venture work.

Uneven road ahead

Only now do I see the irony. Yes, a tree did come down, ill-timed, crushing my stepfather’s car and killing him instantly. Nine months later, my father would be diagnosed with lung cancer. Our fledgling business venture would be buried along with him. My sister’s crazy outburst at his funeral wasn’t inconsolable grief, but a softball-sized tumor lodged in her brain.

I’d pay only scant attention to the thickness I felt, like a jelly fish, in my right breast while showering at my father’s house after his death. “Perimenopause,” I thought, before my mind wandered to the mold in the grout lines and whether I could adequately clean them or would need a professional before I could put the house up for sale.

By then, a large tree trunk had lodged between the river sycamores and on a sun-baked August day if you looked real hard you could just about see the sedge that was starting to mound at their base, not even enough ground to stand on.

Running in place

The next May 1 I was in Jacksonville, Fla. helping my sister navigate a life, post-cancer, that had taken a chunk of her brain and part of her mind, leaving her at times manic and at times depressed. It would be another beautiful, cloudless day. She would come and watch me run a 9K race, sitting on a curb, throwing up in the gutter from the mega doses of steroids she was on to reduce the swelling caused by the brain radiation. My mother was there. A new venture. Not of our choosing. One that had us chaffing life’s bit.

By the next May 1st I was bald and scarred, recovering from chemo and surgery. It was cloudless and sunny and my neighbor would insist on me joining her for a long walk with her dog along the river. The river sycamores were getting thicker, their trunks bent over nearly parallel to the fast flowing river. A piece of opaque, ragged plastic got caught in one of them, rattling in the wind like a sail.

Rising from the ashes

The next May 1st, cloudless again, the plastic gone and with it wind from my own sails. I’d buried my sister nine months earlier and felt bewildered by the world I was now living in. By now, the sedge had settled, forming two islands just off the river banks. Enough ground to walk on with a sedge sandbar starting to fill in between the two shorelines where marshy grass grew. By summer, the marsh choked the creek flow, pushing the river northward along one of the islands.

I made friends with the kids who moved next door and we’d spend summers exploring the islands, looking for fossils, feathers and bones, making up stories about where they’d come from or how they’d landed there. Taking picnic lunches, throwing sticks for the dogs and swimming.

We built a bridge across the north flowing river so we could get to the island without getting our feet wet. Stone pile sculptures magically appeared, as did a stick hut where we could hide out from the strong, summer sun.

Finding a new flow

Three  more May 1sts passed, all cloudless, sunny and warm. My hair grew back, and so did the cancer. The new drugs I was on fought it back until the river flowed north again that summer. By then, people were finding their way to sedge island to fish, leaving trash and the rotting spoils of their catch. Scrubby shrubs filled in between the sycamores. The kids were now older and we stopped our treks to the island, except for the dogs who still liked to walk its perimeter while chasing sticks.

Last May 1st was dark and overcast, and yet my mood was buoyant. I’d just come home from a writing retreat with plans to sign up for summer triathlons, eat healthy and start writing projects anew. I’d moved my treatment from a community hospital to a research setting. The new regimen was working and my options for future treatments, endless. I’d weathered the emotional move from one oncologist to another.  The river flowed north, but I was used to it.

Defying logic

Here I am today, another May 1st. Sunny, cloudless, warm. Tonight I’ll go to dinner with my husband and my mother. We’ll talk about my stepfather, our losses and the ones we still have yet to endure. The sycamores on sedge island are now about 15-foot tall, standing nearly upright. A bore infected the aged ash trees along the river bank. Their rugged bark looks starkly naked against the backdrop of the maples now budding. On my way back from the river, I walked past  pear trees in bloom. The pleasant fragrance caught me off guard. My throat tightened and tears welled up.

Life has turned upside-down. An author whose book on resilience got me through my darkest hour is now under indictment for enslaving a woman and taking photos of her. His words which once soothed now ring hollow. My family as I knew it has gone. Others have abandoned me, replaced by new friendships with deeper roots.

Yesterday I ran a half marathon with my other sister, her husband and my husband. We went out for lunch afterwards and my niece and nephew fought over who would sit next to me. This summer, I’ll take them to sedge island. We’ll look for artifacts and make up stories and I’ll show them how, defying all logic, the river runs north, but still it flows.

 

 

This post is dedicated to Stephen R. Hance, 1948-2008, who believed in me always. Pictured here, with my late sister Tracy Johnson Pollick. They always remind me that no matter what direction life takes, go with it, because even when a river flows up, it will eventually find its way down.

 

 

 

 

 

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You’ve just left ‘It’s probably nothing’

breast implant cancer

There should be a billboard outside the doctor’s office the day you’re diagnosed that reads “You’ve just left ‘It’s probably nothing.'”
Certainly it should be in every fortune cookie you receive from hence forward.
Still, it doesn’t keep me from trying in the dark of night to flee back to that place, despite the knowledge that from now on, it’s always going to be something.
Which is what happened three months ago on Labor Day weekend when my right breast – the one that’s been emptied of all natural tissue, nuked dozens of times for good measure and then stuffed with a silicone implant – inexplicably swelled up.
“It’s probably nothing,” I said to myself. “Give it a few days.”
By Tuesday the swelling was accompanied by a fever, so I called my oncologist’s office hoping for an easy solution, antibiotics called into my local pharmacy.
“Go to the emergency room,” said the nurse at the other end of the phone. “Unless your surgeon can get you in right away.”
It couldn’t be that bad, could it? I’d just had a CT scan the day before the swelling commenced that said the cancer is sleeping, no new tumors, no progression.
I phoned my surgeon who fit me in immediately. She seemed perplexed but not concerned, gave me the antibiotics I wanted and sent me on my way.
When the fever didn’t subside after a few doses, I called back and she sent me to see an infectious disease doctor.
Had I listened a little closer I would’ve heard the “click, click, click” of the roller coaster pulling me uphill during those few days. But I was still awash in the world of “it’s probably nothing.”

The infectious disease guy diagnosed it as cellulitis, a baffling bacterial infection in the skin. He admitted that without being able to test the bacteria, he’d have to guess at a remedy. He gave me a shot of Dalbavacin which kills off gram positive bacteria, then sent me on my way.

Two days later I was in the emergency room. My breast had doubled in size.

There were lots of needles, attempts to find veins that would give up blood, bruising and yet another shot of  an antibiotic with instructions to call my doctors for a new round of appointments. It doesn’t sound like much, but it took all day.

I was sentenced to two weeks of daily antibiotic shots with a “we’ll see” follow up that took most of the day when you factored in the two-hour drive to the doctor’s office. Between the drugs and the fevers, I was exhausted. When the infection still hadn’t cleared in two weeks, the infectious disease guy sentenced me to another two weeks, but added a steroid just for good measure.

That seemed to do the trick. The redness turned to pink and the fevers went away. We set up an appointment for a two-week follow-up, all of us hoping it wouldn’t be needed.

Within a week, the fevers returned. I demanded the infectious disease guy put me in the hospital so that I could receive a continuous drip of antibiotics. He didn’t agree, but also had no more answers for me, so he passed me off to my surgeon.

Gratefully, she was compassionate enough to admit me. A new infectious disease guy prescribed new antibiotics, but warned that the problem could be bacteria stuck to the implant which no amount of drugs could fix. Surgery might be the only answer, he said.

They sent me home with a PIC line (a hose they put in your veins) so I could administer my own IV antibiotics for another month. Once a week a nurse came to flush the line and draw blood so we could tell how much damage all this medication was doing to my body.

The fevers stopped. The fatigue and pain minimized. My skill is still red, which could mean infection or could mean new blood vessels are forming (read: healing).

Last week I finished the IVs. Now I stand on the corner of Wait and See to find out if the fevers will return, if the bacteria is actually stuck to the implant or just roaming around my dermis. I have a surgery date set just in case.

I won’t bore you with the details of what that will involve – cutting skin and muscle from my back to repair the damage caused by a few rogue microbes.

I’ll just say that this is life now, where things that were once nothing now turn out to be something. I live in a world full of threats I can’t see or defend against. And yet, somehow, despite the scars, my body and I miraculously bounce back.

I may have left the world of “It’s probably nothing,” only to have entered the world “Ain’t that something!”

 

 

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Resiliency Training- What It’s Really Going to Take to Bounce back

A friend handed me a newspaper article offering eight tips on ways to develop resiliency. When I read them it hit a nerve. The tips were a bit trivial and didn’t go far enough, as far as I am concerned. After mulling it over for a few days, I went back and revised the list (which I’ve left in italics). Here (in boldface) is my take on what it takes to be resilient:
1. Build and maintain strong relationships….The truth is, your relationships are about to go through a hurricane. Those who have stood by you to this point may fall away. It may be because they haven’t addressed their own issues. It may be because they just haven’t experienced what you’re going through. Some you’ll need to detour from. Some you’ll need to drop entirely. To deal, you’re going to want to pull away and “tough it out.” But the lesson is, people are not always loving or loyal. Forgive them, which doesn’t mean they’re not assholes, just that you’re not going to dwell on it. Instead, put your time and energy into relationships that are working.
2. Do something every day that is meaningful….Sometimes life doesn’t give you the option to do this. Sometimes it requires long stays in hotel rooms or hospital rooms or inside court rooms. An easier task is if you need joy, do something for someone else. Make a child smile, hold the door for someone, pay for the person behind you in line in the coffee shop or at the toll booth. It will bring you out of whatever funk you’re in and make you realize the world is a bigger place with bigger problems than what you’re going through.
3. Learn from experience that feelings are fleeting and you’re not always going to feel this way. At times it was hard for me to look past the anger, sadness, betrayal, grief even depression I was experiencing. But somewhere deep inside was a voice that said “This too shall pass and the only way out is through.”
4. See change as an adventure….This can be really hard when change is pummeling you day in and day out and hope seems to have abandoned you. As difficult as it seems, make friends with your fear, regret, anger, grief. As Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh says, invite it into your living room. Ask it to put up its feet, offer it a cup of tea. These difficult emotions are going to be with you for a while, so you might as well befriend them. As Pema Chodron says” How do you get comfortable with uncertainty? Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
5. Take care of yourself with a healthy diet and exercise….Better advice: Be gentle with yourself and trust the bounce. A year after my sister’s death we experienced a brutal winter, encased in ice that made it impossible to get out and exercise. So instead I stayed home and made lots of chocolate chip cookies. Many of them I gave away to the police and public works guys who were putting in long hours removing the snow; to neighbors who had shown me kindnesses; to an attorney who represented me pro bono while my father’s angry ex-wife chased me through the legal system, filing frivolous motion after frivolous motion just to antagonize me. But I also ate a lot of them and in the process gained 10 pounds. Until that point, every year I had made a New Year’s resolution to lose 5 or 10 pounds. But it wasn’t until I was 20 pounds overweight that I was actually motivated to lose the weight. I joined Weight Watchers in March with the goal of not only losing, but keeping it off. A year later, not only have I kept it off, but I continue to lose – albeit slowly. My point is, I ate those cookies with wild abandoned, which is what I needed to get me through that desperate winter. And when I was ready – when I hit my bottom – I bounced back. I’d learned that I could trust that.
6. Be proactive. Decide what you want and formulate a plan to get it….Truth is, life doesn’t go as you plan and often it has its own agenda. I have reams and reams of goal lists, action steps, crossed-off to do lists and I am no closer to my goals than I was five years ago, not because I’m not taking steps, but life has had other plans for me. This step is great for those still living under the illusion that they’re in control of their lives, masters of their destiny. Resilience is accepting that life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. The rest, you just gotta let go of.
7. Keep a gratitude log and when you’re stuck go back and look through it…I am a huge proponent of gratitude lists. I have several gratitude notebooks, a journal I write in daily that I always end with five or six things I’m grateful for. I also have a “mindfulness” eating habit where just before a meal I thank all of the people who have brought it to me (farmers, truckers, the grocery store clerks, etc.) wishing them happiness and health. When I look back on these journals though, I find that most of the things I’ve been grateful for are gone. My father, my sister, my good health, a sunny day has given way to rain, etc. Therefore, I’d say gratitude will help get you through moments of intense pain or difficulty so it’s a good habit to cultivate. But it will also show you how fleeting life is, and therefore how important it is to recognize, in this moment, what’s going well because there’s a good chance it won’t be there in the next. The rest, though, you just have to let go.
8. If you don’t feel these tips are working see a mental health professional….My advice: No matter how bad things are, don’t lose your sense of humor. Even in tragedy there is absurdity. If you find you can’t laugh, definitely go see a mental health expert. Also, don’t be afraid to go on medication if you need it. You’d take cough medicine for bronchitis, antibiotics for an infection, the same for anti-depressants. There are some mild ones out there that help put a brick under your foundation when you can’t feel the ground under your feet. You don’t have to stay on them forever, but healing can only take place when you’re grounded.

Believe me, one of the greatest lessons in resiliency is knowing that you’re completely vulnerable and you’ll still find a way to make it through.

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