Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving requires perspective. The holiday itself was yesterday. But the soul of Thanksgiving lives in the heart.

My sister had a lumpectomy two weeks ago. She now has an oncologist and a radiologist. Thirty-four radiation treatments are in store for her future. Her kids came home the week after her surgery, so she has cherished her time visiting with them before starting treatments.

Last week I learned from graduate students that some work I did in college several years ago should count towards my clinical license. For giggles, I called the state licensing department and wasn't told anything helpful. So I called my graduate school program and they deciphered what might be helpful.  I was almost giddy thinking I would be finished my post graduate work towards my clinical counseling license.

However, as I was learning this positive news, my partner left a message on my phone that his dad is in the hospital. Austin turned 85 last month. He's the one who was diagnosed with colon cancer last January and almost died from septic shock. He's had a quiet spring and summer.

I felt betrayed by the Universe. Happy, then before I can digest it, more sadness. Of course, I as worked through the counseling requirements, I realized that I still have other commitments to honor before submitting for my license. Sigh. I had been briefly imagining gifting myself a week-long Zen retreat the first week of December with a dream team of teachers. Like a kid circling Sears catalogue toys, I'd been circling this. But alas, not this year.

The next day, I burned my finger pulling out a dish from the oven. I didn't do it once. I did it twice. In the same spot. On the knuckle. And, I had a harp concert on Saturday.

I would be playing two trios and a solo. I had been avoiding solos saying that five years of lessons and practice would be needed before I would be decent enough to go public. I called my harp teacher and left a message asking if I could nix the solo. At the harp lesson the next day, we didn't talk about it. The solo sounded acceptable. The program already printed.

In the midst of Austin being in the hospital, Partner decompressing from his company's warehouse moving the prior week, and work to be done, I had a workshop to prepare for. But it was hard to focus.

A complex emotional rollercoaster ride was waiting for me that Thursday evening when the local community college's flute department was hosting their holiday performance. The theme was, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa." The program was dedicated to my dad's memory. He was supposed to have dressed as Santa and do the reading. Mom was asking her kids to show up. With a sister recovering from breast surgery and the other in Seattle, that left me.

With Dad's death, the teacher wanted the family to share a toast in his memory at the end. The college flute choir, of which he had been a member, played in the sweltering heat at his memorial service this past summer. The teacher was convinced she needed to do better. So, Mom, Parter, and I, along with a niece and her baby witnessed the program and came on stage for the last song. During the final piece, a huge picture of Dad as Santa holding my grandson was projected on stage. It made him look larger than life. It reminded me of a brief moment of preciousness that has passed and will never be again.

The evening was beautiful, touching, and funny. Dad hated The Nutcracker which was so prominently featured in the program. Dad was also a lousy flutist - he was breathy and made gutteral sounds when he played. But as the teacher said, when she met dad at his first lesson, he was dressed in overalls with zinnias from his garden to give her. She said she knew then that she had her Santa for this program which had been in her mind to do since then. He had charmed her with his crazy heart. His name for her was Lady Jennifer.

Thankfully, I had a day to gather emotional strength for the harp recital. Several friends would be in the audience. I'd hoped to warm up my hands before performing, but the teacher had her own agenda. Bad idea. My solo was before the trios.

Plainly put, the solo was awful. My fingers stuck to the strings as if rubber glue kept them from releasing. I couldn't actually remember how the piece was supposed to start. I looked at the notes I'd been practicing for the past several months as if they were strangers. I started and stopped. Started and restarted.

As a kid who has been on a stage since 4 years old, I have had wonderful, okay, and terrible performances. This one was pretty bad. Basically, my hope is that the kids felt like geniuses when I finished. Once I finally got through to the end, I stood up and took a dramatic bow and about knocked over my teachers v-e-r-y expensive harp. She had this panicked look. I grabbed it before the harp could decide whether or not to crash.

The trios were better, having had the chance to warm up.

The next day was fine. I got to give a second workshop on the intersection of Buddhism and Quakerism. It is always amazing to me that anyone shows up. But it was a nice turnout. Folks seemed genuinely engaged. This felt good.

Back to the grind of work with a big mix of life on Monday. Father-in-law was still in the hospital. Hospital reports from the family did not make sense to me.

After a week of hemming and hawing, the surgeon decided to cut Austin the day before Thanksgiving.  They rerouted his bowel around a tumor, but later said it doesn't make sense to keep doing this, he's full of cancer.

So much life compressed into these past 10 days. None of this begins to deal with my holiday issues. Except that I got a sore throat and muscle aches the night before Austin had his surgery. It's been hanging through the holidays. As in the past, the rule seems to be that if I stick around during the holidays, I get sick. If I leave home, I'm much healthier. This time a little Tylenol is all I needed to be get me through the worst of it.

I can live with that. Happy Big-Hearted Holiday!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Staging and the Unknown

We've got to stop meeting like this.

It's been over a week since I learned that my middle sister discovered that she has breast cancer.

Everyone thought it would turn out to be of no consequence. No family history that she could think of. She nursed her kids. No lumps.

The good news is that she is taking action. She doesn't have health insurance and was able to access community resources to get a mammogram and follow-up biopsy. Now more paperwork has to be completed for Medicaid to cover surgery and treatment. But at least breast cancer is a "covered" Medicaid illness for which she can cut through some of the red tape and not worry about that.

Her breast started bothering her this summer - pain, not a lump, was the signal. She told me it was a shooting pain from the rib through the breast.

My thought has been that as we were dealing with Dad's death, she was quietly experiencing this, too.

A friend of mine and nurse who worked with me in community geriatric care coordination, said she often sees this. A caregiver has a serious health crisis after the loss of the ones they provide care for. In this case, this particular sister has served as a part-time caregiver to my grandmother who died this spring and my dad who died 3 months later.

At any rate, this week is the surgery to "stage" the cancer. This will be done the day before she turns 50 years old. Basically, this is a process that cuts away at the tissue to see if it is just at the site or how far it has traveled. Hopefully, she'll get a zero staging  where cancer cells are only found at the immediate site. Then that will be that. But they have told her to be prepared for radiation treatments.

"So, what can I do?" I ask her.

"Visit me," she responded.

Well then, I will.

It is a lovely drive through the mountains of West Virginia from my home to her home. There are still a few leaves on the trees and we had our first frost last night. Everything has been harvested.

Since she is a Jehovah's Witness, I don't have to worry about how this will impact her holidays since she doesn't celebrate anything except wedding anniversaries. But in the larger scheme of life, we will review what has been gathered from our lives and hunker down for a long winter. Hopefully, we will emerge in the springtime ready for a new season.