Wake Up Call

Cancer, it turns out, it is a powerful proponent of simplicity.

Faced with uncertainty, one is forced to exam the complexities of life and cull.

Our lives are reduced to three priorities:

– Making healthy choices

– Caring for relationships

– Reducing financial burden.

Necessity demands that any extraneous commotion be pushed aside.

Meditating

“There are several steps to this meditation,” Dora Kunz began, “and with each one, if you hit an obstacle, just set it aside.”

I had come, as had those around me, to learn more from this enlightened soul.  Having experienced the sense of renewal that meditation could bring, I was excited to be learning from such an expert.  Dora Kunz, co-founder of Therapeutic Touch, had practiced meditation from the age of five, she’d told us.  Now in her nineties, she had endless wisdom to impart.

“Take a deep breath in,” she started, “and as you exhale, release any tension in your body.”

I breathed in, noticing that the area between my shoulder blades was knotted in tension. I tried to envision it breaking up with my breath, but it wouldn’t let go.

“If your tension won’t release, just acknowledge it and set it aside.”

I could do that.

“Now, without speaking, affirm to yourself: I am at peace with myself; and allow yourself to feel it.”

Breathe in.  I am at peace with myself.  Breathe out.  A niggling in the pit of stomach said, No you’re not.  I knew it wasn’t true.  I was not at peace with myself.

“If you feel doubts, set them aside.  If you are unable to do that, than act as if you are at peace with yourself.”

It is as if I am at peace with myself.  Ah, that felt better.  I could imagine as if.

“Now allow yourself to become aware of the person on either side of you, and beyond them to the circle gathered here, and affirm:  I am in harmony with those gathered here.

This was easier to do.  We’d come together with a common goal.  I inhaled the warmth of our kinship, and felt myself relax a little deeper.

“Continuing to breath deeply, allow your awareness to expand beyond these walls and connect with the nature that surrounds us. State:  I am at one with Nature.

The meditation room was surrounded by nature on all sides.  Following her instructions, I imagined myself breathing in the fresh country air, the vivid green of the trees vibrating around me, and the trickling sound of the brook flowing through me.  I am at one with Nature, I repeated to myself.  With each breath, I felt as if my body and my heart pulsed with the rhythm of nature; everything interconnected.  I was now deeply relaxed, surrendering.

“Now pull your awareness back into your own center.”

Focusing on my center, I drew my breath in, the sensation of relaxation filling my belly with a calm strength.

“From this center of calm and strong, connect beyond this room, beyond nature and the world, beyond the galaxy, to a universe of order and compassion.”

Slowly, she spoke her command, and my awareness obliged, expanding and reaching beyond the beyond,  feeling that connection, as if a silver cord of consciousness tied me to an eternal, omnipotent intelligence.  I connected with order and compassion; and the presence of unconditional love, and in that moment knew that all was as it was supposed to be: life has reason, and purpose, and meaning.  I wanted to remain suspended in this realm of knowing: free.

“Now bring your awareness back to your center, maintaining the essence of your experience.”

I felt stronger, somehow, and very calm.

“When you are ready, let your breath bring you back into this room, to the awareness of your body in the chair.  Gently move your fingers and toes, allowing yourself to return to full consciousness, renewed and restored, and at your own pace, opening your eyes.”

Reluctantly, I became aware of the room around me, and ever so slightly moved my fingers.  With a yawn, I let my body wake up, breathing life back into it and stretching.  I felt so good, so alive!

A universe of order and compassion, I thought to myself.  What a wonderful idea!  If only I could remember it in my day-to-day living.

“Exactly Right”

Thor and I have a favourite game: fantasizing about what we’ll do when we win the Lottery.  We like to play it Friday nights, before the draw.  “What’s the first thing we’ll do when we win?”  Thor will ask.  We’ve spent countless hours indulging this dream.

Recently, we won a different lottery:  Thor has been diagnosed with Stage III cancer.  I can safely say we have not speculated about this possibility, and now that it has happened, we no longer have the luxury of speculating about what ifs.

Some say that everything that happens in life is exactly as it should be.  I have sat with this idea for weeks now, unable to respond.  What could possibly be “exactly right” about cancer?

Coming to terms with the diagnosis and choosing a treatment path has caused many sleepless nights and a whole gamut of unexpected fears.    The delusion of a lottery win has been replaced by the cold hard reality of our life situation.  ‘Someday’ is now ‘today’ as we find ourselves forced to make tough decisions and clean up our lives.  Finances, health, and unresolved issues have a new immediacy.

“Your quality of life will change,”  the doctors warned.  Even though we haven’t started treatments, it already has.  We will be downsizing our living space shortly, and the trip we planned for the upcoming holiday season has been cancelled.  We have rid our cupboards of unhealthy foods, and plan to make self-care a priority.  The physical trials that Thor will endure are yet to be seen.

Through all of this, one thing has remained constant: our love.  Family and friends, who have always mattered, become even more precious.

Now that we have made decisions, and taken actions to support a healthy life, we are both feeling calmer.  Is what is happening exactly right?  Ask us ten years from now.

As for now, “Don’t be so sure we didn’t win the Lottery,”  Thor tells me.  “If we didn’t find the cancer, we’d be telling a different story.”

A Diagnosis

My intention in starting this blog was to chronicle my journey through cancer, however; after a lumpectomy and a brief recovery time, the threat was gone.  Nothing to write about, really.  I kept going anyway.

Yesterday, life as I knew it took an unexpected twist.  Thor was diagnosed with cancer.

“High risk,” the doctor informed us.  “Your only options are surgery or radiation, but we’ll want to do more tests first to ensure the cancer is contained.”

I felt the room spin.  My eyes were fixed on the doctor, hopeful that he would add something else, anything, uplifting.  Oh my God, I thought, my poor husbandWhat must he be feeling?  Without shifting my focus, I reached for Thor.  He needed to know that I was there for him, no matter what.

“I’m sorry, doctor, but I want to be clear.”  I struggled to keep my composure, but the tears were already breaking through.  “What do you think is the best option?”

We had arrived with a list of questions, which Thor now thrust at me.  Prepared as he was, he couldn’t access them.  I glanced at the paper, but nothing was making any sense.

“Well, I really can’t say,”  the doctor hedged.  “There will be side effects, of course.”

Together, we managed to breath through the consult, but I fell apart outside of the office.  Thor remained stoic.  Shh!  he gestured towards another patient.  How can he be so calm?

“I was expecting this,”  he told me on the way out.

“I’m so sorry,”  I blurted out.  “You don’t deserve this. I mean, you are a good person…..”

There are no right words, and mine certainly sounded empty.  Truth is, goodness has nothing to do with it.  I knew that.  I’d seen so many people suffer with cancer; sat with them through their pain and suffering, watched them die.  And I’d witnessed others who’d battled and survived.  None of them deserved the suffering.

“Even the blackest hole has silver somewhere,”  Thor offered.

Damned if I can see it, but I sure hope he’s right.

An Enlightened Life

“What would you like to learn about?”

“Tell us about your life,”  one woman called out.

“Well, yes, that,”  the tiny woman responded, “but there’s nothing to learn there.  What do you want to learn?”

After several protests, our teacher promised that she would fill us in on her ninety plus years at the end of the weekend.

I had anticipated this workshop for months, without really knowing what to expect.  Dora Kunz, co-founder of Therapeutic Touch, had published several books about her work, but I found them difficult to read, and hadn’t gained much from them.  Unlike her partner, Delores Krieger, Dora did not have a nursing background and so remained somewhat of an enigma to those of us who pursued understanding of this simple, but powerful technique.  I had taken several workshops with Delores, each of them long and gruelling, packed with information and experiences, Delores being a tireless lecturer.  Krieger’s workshops were always accompanied by an outline of curriculum expectations, and formally conducted.  Participants would have to ask for breaks, as Krieger’s passion for the subject matter precluded any need for a break in her presentation. It was immediately apparent that Dora Kunz’s approach was in stark contrast to that of her colleague.

My initial reaction to Kunz’s opening question was disappointment.  I had signed up for a workshop on meditation, did she not know that?   Was this woman too old and senile to be able to put a program together?

“Well we signed up for a workshop on meditation.”  Someone else must have been thinking the same as me.

“Yes, but what about meditation would you like to learn?”  I had to admit, the lady was charming.  She must have been all of 4’10”, with waves of white hair caressing her gentle face.  A warm smile, and twinkling eyes embraced her audience, and an obvious sense of humour set us at ease.  “At my age, I don’t plan for these things, you know.  I find it’s better to just go with the flow.”

So that’s what we did.  For three mesmerizing days, we listening hungrily to the words of this tiny guru, whose vast bank of experience and pragmatic approach to teaching guided us to the deeper understanding we sought.  For me, her greatest lesson was yet to come.

At the end of the weekend, as promised, Dora told us about her life.

“I was only five years old,”  she began, “when my parents, recognizing there was something different about me, built me a meditation room.”  As a young child, Dora had an awareness of energy and other realities that most parents would brush off as an active imagination.  Dora’s parents decided to nurture these gifts in their only child.  When Dora was eleven, she was invited to study with a man at an institute continents away, where the spoken language was different from her own.  Her parents told her to meditate on it, which she did, and decided to accept his offer.  “I looked like an eight-year-old boy,” Dora laughed, “when I arrived at this institution full of adults.”  Dora stayed and studied with this man for several years and then moved to another foreign country to further her studies.  Her work eventually led her to the United States, where I would have the privilege of meeting her.

When asked how she knew which offers to accept, Dora responded:  “No was not an option for me.  I trusted that this work was my calling, and so I always looked for a way to say yes when opportunity knocked.”  It was not always easy, she went on to explain.  At one point in her life, she was asked to speak about her spiritual beliefs to a group of convicts.  She was just a young woman, and felt incredibly vulnerable and intimidated by the gathering of murderers and hard-core criminals she encountered, but she said that was all soon forgotten when the men found something comforting in her words.

Dora continued her work, and I would encounter her again at another workshop, still teaching, just two weeks before she passed away.  She was 95.

Dora Kunz remains for me an icon of someone who has led a complete life.  She lived her life inspired by a passion for learning and helping others.   She was dedicated to a life of service.

(Image from nancybragin.com)

Fear or Legacy?

 

I fear illness.  I grew up in a household where dis-ease was the norm.  My mother had her first dance with death as a child, then suffered a broken back in her late thirties, followed by three bouts of cancer.  In her elder years, she lives with constant pain and many health issues.  My oldest sister had congenital heart problems all her life, and at the end, leukemia.  The next sister has schizophrenia and now Parkinson’s.  Diabetes, heart problems, and cancer run rampant in my mother’s family.  Ten of my generation have died.   My father and his siblings all died from respiratory conditions.

In other words, genetically, the promise of a long, healthy lifespan is not very bright.  When disease first knocked on my door, I made drastic changes to my diet, but I wonder if it is enough.

Fear, I know, can be a self-fulfilling habit.  But how do I let it go?

Years ago, I heard about a prayer for overcoming obstacles in life.  It goes like this:

I cast this burden of  ___________ upon the Christ within, that I may be free to ___________________ .

In my case:  I cast this burden of fear upon the Christ within, that I may be free to enjoy my gift of health.

What fear gets in your way?

(Image: inspirenow.com.au)

 

On Suffering

“All I need is to win the lottery,” Mae often proclaims.

“That’s not true,” I tell her.

“But if I had enough money, my problems would all be solved.”

“No.  If you had lots of money, you would still be schizophrenic.”

She takes this in and nods solemnly.  Then she laughs.  “You’re so funny.”

“I am studying the dictionary, though.  If I can get smarter then I’ll be better, don’t you think so?”  (Mae finished nursing school with 96%).

“Schizophrenia has nothing to do with intelligence, it’s a chemical imbalance.  You are smart already.”

The conversation is redundant.  We will revisit it many times.

Mae, like many people, just wants an end to her suffering.

As a student of alternative health care techniques, and a caregiver, I too have looked for answers to the riddle of why suffering exists in the world.  I have witnessed parents watching their infant die, and young children sitting at their dying mother’s bedside.  I have met those whose disease has debilitated them to a point of total dependency; and others whose lives have changed in an instant due to an accident or violence.  And I have met many, like Mae, who are born into suffering, with no hope for a cure.  Void of answers, I am only left with more questions.

What I have come away with, though, is a sense of awe for the spirit that drives each and everyone of these people.  In the midst of so much tragedy, I have encountered strength, willingness, compassion, and incredible resilience.

I don’t believe, as some do, that suffering is a choice; I believe it is inevitable.   And in some instances, I believe that suffering can open the doors for much discovery.

Racing Towards The Abyss

Ice, c’est Radio Canada.  Il est neuf heures quinze, et maintenant…..

“9:15!  If traffic goes my way I can be at work by 9:30, and with a half hour lunch, be done by 5:00”, I calculated while racing through the yellow light.  My day had started early with a brisk power walk to get me going, a quick shower, breakfast for the kids, then off to morning French class at the University.  Fortunately for me, my job offered flex time, so I could catch the early class before starting my shift.

I strained to catch the gist of the radio program.  Something about the funding of English schools in Quebec, and a debate about immersion.   A hole opened up in the line of traffic to my right and I weaved around the slow driver in front of me, just grabbing the tail end of a yellow to turn the corner and enter the parking lot.  I would make it to my desk with two minutes to spare.

“Bonjour!”  I greeted my co-worker on the other side of the cubicle.  I had been thinking in French since I left school, and forgot to switch back.  “When is my mind going to shut off?” I wondered.  It seemed like it was always racing these days, but I did have a lot to juggle.

I landed this job in early February, at a time when most corporations were not hiring.  I got lucky.  Just as the receptionist was turning me away, the Human Resources Manager was walking into the room and caught my eye.  “What are you looking for?” she asked.  “Can you speak French?”

“As a matter of fact, I can.”

“Follow me.”   She grabbed some papers off a nearby desk and led me into a conference room.  “Write these tests,” she said pushing the papers towards me.  “There is a job freeze on right now, but if you do well, I’ll keep your name on file.”

The call came that same afternoon asking me if I could come back for an interview.

“No one has ever scored so high on the tests”, she said.  “We’d like you to start right away.  There is an eight to ten week training program you’ll have to do first in Toronto.  We’ll put you up, all expenses paid.”

I was both excited and anxious.  I hadn’t worked full-time since the my first baby was born, and I while I was happy to be able to provide for the family again, I wasn’t sure how we’d all manage.  I’d made the promise to my husband though, that I would support the family while he took some time off to establish a new business.  He hadn’t been happy for some time, and so we decided to swap roles.

I completed the course in five weeks, wanting to reduce my time away as much as possible.  A year of training on-the-job proceeded the initial training.  I was exceeding all expectations within months and at the approval of my manager enrolled in a fourth year French course to be paid for by the company.  A pay increase followed as I was now their bilingual representative.  I was moving up in the world.

My husband was not having the same success.  Caring for the house and children turned out to be harder than he thought, and he finally admitted that it just wasn’t “his thing”.  I found a sitter, resumed the cooking, housework, shopping, and laundry. He bought himself a race car. He was looking into starting a mail order business.  Worrying that my income wasn’t enough, I picked up a job working weekends at a restaurant.

Sometime in the middle of all this, my oldest sister’s health took a turn for the worse.  The doctor’s wanted to hospitalize her, but she refused, saying she wanted to die at home.  A nurse was assigned for eight hours a day, but she needed around the clock care.  In the beginning, the family rallied around, and we all did our part, but that was waning.  Now it was only my mother and I who were committed to seeing her through.

“Can I see you in my office?”  My boss’s voice brought me back to the moment.  I followed her brisk walk down the hall.  “I have been reviewing your work and there are a few areas for improvement.”

I couldn’t believe it.  “I don’t understand,” I protested.  “I thought I was meeting all the quotas.”

“You are,” she said, matter-of-factly.  “There is always room for improvement.”

Driving home from work that night, I felt particularly exhausted.  What more could I do?  I arrived home to realize I had forgotten to pick up the kids.  It was Wednesday night.  Stuart wouldn’t be home till late.  He was meeting with the car club.

Don’t ask me what happened next; the night, like many others, passed in a blur of cooking dinner, trying to keep the kids from killing each other or themselves, completing homework, baths, and then bed.  Then when my husband got home, I’d grabbed my schoolwork and headed to my sister’s for the night shift.

I don’t remember Thursday at all.

Friday, Stuart headed off to the racetrack for the weekend.  He’d be gone five days.  It was the Thanksgiving long weekend.  Even though he had a cell phone, he didn’t anticipate it would work where he was going, and the track did not have a contact number.  I would not hear from him again till Tuesday evening.

It was later than usual before I got all the kids to bed that night, and even though I still had work to do, I just couldn’t face it.  I decided to go to bed early.  I was asleep within minutes, but not for long.  I was jolted out of my sleep by an all too familiar image – myself alone with the children, living in a townhouse complex.  Although I had dreamt of this place many times, with no emotional attachment, this time I woke up crying.  What was wrong with me?  The tears just wouldn’t stop.

Saturday was recreation day, and each of the children were enrolled in different programs.  Marie was taking art, Ester dance, and John was attending some sports clinic, all held in the same building.  This had been our Saturday morning routine for two months now, but somehow after I loaded us all in the car, and set out on our way, I could not remember where we were going.  I drove up one street and down another, and with each miss, grew more and more anxious.  Ester began to scream in the back seat.  Marie asked me what was wrong.  I didn’t know.  I started to tremble.  The tears started to come again.  I turned the car around and headed for home.  Our street ran off a main road, and all I had to do was turn left and we’d be there, but suddenly, I froze, mid-intersection:  mind, body, and emotions no longer under my control.  Ester screamed louder and the other two began to cry.  A siren flashed behind me and a police officer stepped up to the driver’s side.

“Is there a problem, Ma’am?”

I looked at him through a flood of tears.  “I don’t know where I am.”  I handed him my license.  He was young, and I could just tell he hadn’t expected this.

“Ma’am, your license says you live just down this street.  Do you want me to follow you there?”

“Yes, please.”  I don’t think I’d ever felt so humiliated.   We crawled down the street and into the driveway.

“Is there anybody you can call?” he asked.

“I don’t think so.  My husband’s away, and my sister’s dying, so my parents aren’t available.”

“Well, you need to call somebody.”

“Thank you, officer.  I will.  I’m so sorry to have bothered you.”

In the end, I called my Dad.  Between choking sobs, I told him I needed help.  He came right away.

That was the day I discovered that I have limits.  In those days we called it a breakdown, but in retrospect it was a breakthrough:  the beginning of a new way of being, one that took me out of the rat race.

(Image: fineartamerica.com)

Mindfulness

“Can you consistently eat when you eat, and sleep when you sleep?” asks Derek Lin in “The Tao of Joy Every Day”.

Therapeutic Touch is a practice which teaches how to stay fully present and centered in the moment.  Practitioners learn how to set aside all distractions so that they can focus completely on the treatment itself.  Like many others, I struggled with this concept in the beginning.  I would quiet my mind, focus on my breathing, and then remember I had forgotten to change the laundry over, or return my mother’s call.  My mind, I discovered loves to travel in multiple directions at once.

To train myself, I would pick random times during the day and “check-in” on myself.  The first thing I discovered was that I was driving without actually being aware of what I was doing.  Behind the wheel, I felt an inexplicable need to be in front of the traffic, weaving in and out, tailgating, and exceeding the speed limit.  I decided to replace this behaviour with mindful breathing, always bringing my awareness back to what I was actually doing.  Instead of passing the car in front of me, I would take deep breaths, and will myself to stay aware.  It didn’t take long before I began to notice other drivers like myself, driving aggressively.  Ironically, I noticed that many of those drivers did not gain a lot of ground, having to stop for the same lights, and succumb to traffic.  Remaining conscientious and choosing to drive mindfully, I knew myself to be a lot less stressed than those other drivers.   It was an aha moment.

I learned how to bring my full attention to my clients, effectively able to sense the subtleties and different patterns they presented.  I felt I had mastered this art.

Yet, in response to Lin’s question, I have to confess that I usually eat as an aside to whatever else I am doing, and when I sleep I toss and turn with thoughts of what was undone from the day before, or what needs to be done tomorrow.

I can’t help but think that if I could just focus on eating as a solo activity, I would be more conscious of the taste of the food and the response of my body, and maybe, just maybe, not eat to excess.  I would have to turn off the t.v., and the computer, close the book, and just eat.  It is a effort worth exploring.

As for sleeping, well, that is another matter.  How does one clear the mind enough to just sleep?

(Image:  healthyhappyhumanbeings.com)

Path Rights

Born underweight, and with a hole in her heart, my oldest sister seemed doomed from the start.   By the time I was born, her condition had deteriorated, and she spent most of her time in hospital.  My parents were told to expect the worst.  Open-heart surgery was the great new procedure that saved her life at thirteen.  She got better.

Two years behind her peers at school, she was hell-bent on catching up.  Years of being pampered had not helped her emotional development, and she was not afraid of acting out.  She loved being the center of attention, and didn’t care if it was for being good or bad.

Eleven years her junior, I found my sister’s volatility scary.  It was almost a relief when she would lock me out of the house, or ignore me for long periods of time.  Our relationship didn’t really develop until she gave birth to her own daughter, then she needed me.  I was a built-in babysitter.

I watched my sister jump from one bad relationship to another.  I witnessed my parents rescuing her time after time, and I was dumbfounded at her disrespect and lack of gratitude in return.

She could be sweet as anything when she wanted something, but if she wasn’t interested, or changed her mind, look out.

When she got sick again, I decided to explore ways to help her.  The more I learned about the body-mind connection, the more I was sure I could save her.  She laughed in my face.  You are so naive, she would say.  Or, You are playing with the Devil.  Personally, I’d always thought she was the devil.

One day, I decided that I would just let her be, and stop trying to change her.  I told her as much.  She tried to fight with me.  I stood my ground.  She cried.  Then finally, we talked.

“Everything I’ve been studying and doing is to help you,”  I explained.  “But it’s not working, so, I’m not going to push anymore.  You are sick, it is your life, and you have to do what is right for you.”

“You don’t understand,” she said.  She was right, I didn’t.  “I don’t know how to be any different.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I did what you say, and got better, then what?   Being sick gives me power.  It lets me get away with whatever I want.  How could I do that if I got better.”

She had a point.  Being sick gave her enormous power.  How could I argue with that.

In all the years that I had judged, and fought with my sister about her life, I had not appreciated that it was working just fine for her purposes.  We all have the right to our own paths.