I Gotcha

I’ve always known I believed in God, but there were plenty of times when that meant little more than an occasional fervently whispered prayer when I needed something. I’d engage in religious debates with other Christians – Christians much more learnèd and devout – and non-believers alike, but I didn’t know much beyond what I’d learned through years of religious classes. I didn’t really seek to know God.

My faith hasn’t grown deep and true in churches or on prayer kneelers. It’s grown slowly, over the course of the past couple of years, in hospitals and on winding mountain roads.

When cancer struck, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t understand how or WHY something so terrible could happen to Casey – to us. I was angry and confused and hurt. So I prayed, but I didn’t hear anything. For a long time after that, I was indifferent. I didn’t hate God. I didn’t turn away from Him. He just wasn’t a priority.

Then things got bad – really, really bad.

Visit after visit we received terrible news. The cancer had spread to his brain. The cancer had grown in his lung. The cancer had spread to the other lung. Shingles covered his right leg and the pain was excruciating; he could barely walk. We were defeated. We were lost. We were broken.

We went on vacation – just the two of us – in an attempt to forget, to heal, and to rest. While we were there, we stumbled on a beautiful little chapel. We drove past, in a hurry to play, and forgot about it. We passed it again on our way back. Compelled to enter, even as a vicious storm brewed, we stopped and walked and prayed. Then we called my dad and shared the photos and mostly forgot about it.

The next week, on our way to an appointment, I asked Casey what cancer had done to his faith. He said, “nothing good.” I asked him if he was angry with God and he nodded, nearly in tears. I wanted to comfort him, to whisper, “I gotcha.” But I didn’t think words would help. Anxious and afraid and desolate, neither of us spoke for the rest of the drive.

That day we got our first bit of good news. The radiation had begun to shrink the brain tumors.

Some of the tightness in my chest eased and I felt a glow of warmth I could barely begin to understand. Though of course I knew this meant the medicine was finally working, I didn’t think it was a coincidence that it was this particular medicine or this particular time.

A few weeks later, a friend from my dad’s church, moved by dad’s prayers during rosary, shared his own experiences with cancer. He gave my dad a bottle of holy water and a container of holy dirt and asked him to give them to us. We could sprinkle it on Casey, blend it as a smoothie, leave it on our mantle, pray over it. It was ours to use as we pleased, but he gave it to us to use in good faith. We accepted gratefully.

Both sat on our mantle for over a week as we thought about it. We finally made the decision to use them. Zoey and I rubbed the water and dirt on Casey’s chest, leg, and head – everywhere the cancer and pain was worst. Then we bowed our heads and prayed together.

A few weeks later, we got more good news. The tumor in his right lung was gone. The tumors in his left were shrinking.

We were overjoyed. Casey danced. I laughed. We both cried.

God was everywhere in this. It was like He’d reached out, wrapped His giant, celestial arms around us, and held us. We basked in His warmth and more of the tightness eased. We were finally able to breathe again.

We started talking about going back to church, something we’d done off an on since we’d been together. Church was tricky for us – I was raised Catholic and he’d been raised Lutheran, but what we wanted was a church we felt comfortable attending together. It was a struggle. I felt comfortable in the Catholic Church, but didn’t agree with or believe in all of its teachings. He didn’t feel at home or at peace there. We argued about it, prayed about it, struggled with it. We knew we needed to find a church, needed to raise our daughter knowing God, but we didn’t know how.

On a whim, one Saturday (after yet another church-related argument), we decided to try our friends’ church. I was convinced I wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t feel comfortable, wouldn’t want to return.

I was wrong.

God was everywhere. He was in the people, in the music, in the sermon. He spoke to me.

I thought it was a fluke, but had nothing to lose so we went back the next week.

I was wrong again.

God’s presence was even stronger this time and I knew, I just knew He was speaking to us. I could feel Him pressing on my heart. I felt safe. Loved. Comforted. Peaceful. Joyful.

I felt like I was home.

We went back to the doctor yesterday and heard more good news. The tumors continue to shrink. The medicine continues to work. The cancer is under control.

God is with us.

All this time, He’s been with us. Even when we didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t care, He’s been there. He’s just been waiting for us to hear Him saying, “I gotcha.”

Advertisements

Fear

I’m afraid of the dark – I always have been. I never knew why or what triggered the fear, possibly an overactive imagination and too many novels, possibly just the fact that I was a kid, but I rarely went to sleep fear-free. For years, I leapt on and off my bed to avoid the Purple People Eater any creeps that might be lurking beneath it, ready to kill me.

In order to stave off some of the fear, I convinced myself that if I did things just so, no harm would come to me. And so, every night I checked the closet and closed the door. I refused to look into mirrors when the lights were out. I pulled my blanket up to my chin, believing that anyone who wanted to hurt me (presumably by cutting off my head) wouldn’t do so if my neck were covered. No one wants a partial head, amirite? I didn’t get out of bed unless I had to use the bathroom and I refused to turn lights on if I did for fear of seeing something I shouldn’t. And when all else failed, when fear still plagued me, I closed my eyes and prayed.

It didn’t matter what I said, but I would usually wind up repeating the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary over and over, the familiar words and repetition calming me enough that my stomach muscles unclenched, I was able to breathe normally, and I’d eventually drift off to sleep. Nothing could harm me so long as I was praying.

The next night, the cycle would start all over again. I was afraid of lots of things as a kid – Bloody Mary (not the Queen of England, the mirror one), ghosts (though I wasn’t sure I believed in them), evil things that lived under my bed (thanks, Poltergeist), clowns (thanks again, Poltergeist). Those were the times I couldn’t wait to grow up because grown-ups don’t have irrational fears. Grown-ups aren’t afraid of the dark. Grown-ups are strong.

Unfortunately, my fears didn’t magically disappear when I grew up. They merely changed.

As a young adult, I was afraid I wouldn’t find the Right Guy, that I wouldn’t find a job, that I couldn’t do the job I found, that I’d never be a successful writer.

As a newlywed, I was afraid to be apart from my Right Guy, afraid that we would never stop fighting, afraid that I’d drive him away with my never-ending tears.

As a pregnant woman, I was afraid of birth defects, being a bad mom, being a mom at all, labor, missing life before baby everything.

As a mom, I’m afraid that she’ll grow up too fast, afraid of the moment she gets hurt, really hurt, afraid of mean girls and meaner boys, of the moments she’s sad or hurt or broken and I can no longer fix it with a hug and the Minion movie.

I thought I knew fear then. Until cancer. I’ve never been afraid of anything more than cancer. Because no matter how many times I check the closet or under the bed, or how high up I pull my blankets, or which lights I leave off or turn on, I can’t make his cancer go away.

But on those nights when I feel my stomach clench and my breathing hitch, when I feel the fear start to drown me, I close my eyes and start to pray, the same prayers over and over, the familiar words quieting my mind, giving me peace.

Our Father, who art in heaven…

And I know if I keep on praying, my fears won’t conquer me. Because it turns out that it’s not the words or the familiarity or the repetition that soothes me. It’s the knowledge that I’m not alone, that Someone is always with me. And for a little while, nothing – not the dark or mirrors or cancer – scares me.

Because nothing can harm me as long as I keep praying.

A Country Song

When I was 15, I fell in love for the first time. We spent our afternoons driving to Sonic for Route 44 Cherry Limeades with the windows down, blaring country music, imagining we were living a country song. We passed adorably folded notes in school addressed to “Babe” and “Baby” that were just cleverly rephrased conversations from the previous passing period. We fell asleep on the phone, our voices getting quieter and quieter as the hours passed, until finally one of us would hang up with a smile and a sigh.

It was true love.

Then I moved.

We stayed together for a few extra months, until distance tore us apart. Still, we kept in touch and played the on and off game for a few more years, each break-up more dramatic, more devastating than the last.

I thought I’d never get over him. I thought I’d love him forever. I thought we’d find our way back to one another eventually. I thought we were a country love song.

Then I fell in love again.

And again.

And again.

(I can’t help it. I guess I’m kind of a hopeless romantic.)

It turns out we were a country love song, but the song was over.

When I got married, I promised to love my husband forever. I promised to love him in sickness and in health. For better or for worse. Until death do us part. As long as we both should live.

I made those promises with a very vague notion of their actual meaning. In sickness? Sure, the flu’s not so bad. For worse? Well, all couples struggle. Until death? Gosh, that’s so far away!

It wasn’t long before I found out that sickness was cancer. Worse was far worse than I could have imagined. Death was too near, too possible.

And things were hard – really, really hard. But they were also better because, as a result, I learned how to love my husband. I learned how to talk to him. I learned to hear the things he said and those he didn’t. I learned when to give him space and when to smother him with affection. I learned how to be his friend, as well as his wife.

I learned what true love really was.

And sometimes we’ll load the kid in the truck, roll the windows down, and blare country music on our way to Sonic.

And when the song ends, we’ll play it again. Every day for the rest of our lives, until death do us part.

#blessed

These past few weeks have been a struggle. I’ve had to force myself to write. I sit at my computer and stare at words that don’t make sense, storylines that sound contrived, and I cringe. I don’t want to write. I’ve read – losing myself in stories not my own for hours at a time – but I can’t write. I have nothing to say.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the bone-weary task that is adulting, easy to forget the good things in the midst of the truly terrible, easy to dwell on the fuck you moments, easy to forget that I’m blessed by so many and so much.  I know; I do it all of the time.

But today I’m not going to. Today I’m going to take my daughter to the park because it’s a beautiful day and she loves the slide. I’m going to sit on the couch with my husband and watch TV. I’m going to kiss them both as much as possible. I’m going to laugh at my hilarious kid. I’m going to sing songs and play peek-a-boo and watch “Punzel” for the twelfth time this week. I’m going to make jokes with my sister.

And I’m going to ask you a favor. Share some good things with me. Text me. Comment. Call me. Whatever. Just lend me a little of your happy.

In return, I’ll lend you a little of mine.

image

This. This is my happy. Her name is Z and she’s my favorite person in the entire world. And she’s one of the many reasons that I am #blessed.

 

Enough

For the longest time, I wasn’t sure I wanted a second baby. Whenever people asked, I’d say what I knew they wanted to hear:

Of course! We’re just waiting until the chemo leaves his system.

Oh yes, Z needs a sibling. We don’t want her to be an only child! 

Definitely. But we’ll only have two – three tops.

But secretly, I wasn’t sure I meant it. I remembered the nausea and fatigue that comes with pregnancy and imagined feeling that way while caring for my terribly awesome toddler and a (possibly) ill husband. I worried I might resent another child for taking away what little me time I have. I thought about my anxiety and how much I fret over the state of one baby, fearful I might not survive the stress of two.

I’m tired. Exhausted. Bone-weary. I can’t remember the last time I felt truly rested, peaceful, contented. I know I’m not the only mother that feels this way, but sometimes I feel so alone. I feel guilty for wanting time to write or read or rest. I feel guilty when I ask other people to help me because I feel like I’m supposed to do it all myself. I feel guilty and anxious and tired constantly, and I just don’t know how I would care for two little ones when it’s a struggle to care for myself.

But then I watch my daughter’s face light up when I pick her up from school or I hear a raspy little, “thank you, Mommy” when I hand her something she asked for, and my heart skips a beat and I feel it. I feel the pull of another child, of another sweet face, another silly soul to steal a piece of my heart and make me a mommy all over. And I’m almost there – I’m almost ready for another baby.

When I asked the doctor last week about trying for a baby this summer (a full six months since the last chemo treatment), I fully expected him to say that we were ready to go. I wasn’t ready for the hesitation. I wasn’t ready for him to ask how I feel about abortion. I wasn’t ready for him to tell me they don’t recommend people get pregnant on any cancer medications. I wasn’t ready for the pity I saw in his eyes.

Until that moment, I didn’t know that I was ready for a baby.

He saw the pain in my eyes, the tightness in my mouth and he told me he’d look for more answers, he reassured me he’d know more the next week, at the next visit. He shook our hands and said the usual goodbyes and he left the room. My husband had been on the phone with the pharmacy for most of our conversation and we’d waited two and a half hours to see the doctor, so he was more than ready to go. He held open the door, smiled, and motioned me out. His face fell when he saw the tears welling in my eyes and I told him to close the door.

Then I sat in the hard, little chair and I cried. I cried for the baby I didn’t know I wanted, for the baby I might not be able to have. I cried for my only child and my sick husband and myself. I cried because it wasn’t fair and I didn’t understand. I gave myself five minutes to fall apart, then I let my husband hug me, I pulled myself back together, and we left.

On the way home, we discussed our options – adoption, In Vitro, playing the odds. None of them made me feel any better. I felt a void. I didn’t know I wanted another baby until the doctor told me it might not be an option.

I know we might still have more kids, that the doctor could come back on Tuesday and tell us he was wrong, that the odds aren’t stacked against us. I know this period of mourning might be premature. I know God gave us our little girl early, before cancer, for this very reason. But knowing those things  doesn’t fill the space I didn’t know was there – the quiet space a second baby was waiting to fill.

I may not have the option to fill the space with another child, but I know that if I leave it empty, it will poison me. So, instead, I’ll have to fill it with something else, with someone else, someone like the daughter I’m lucky enough to have. Maybe by filling the space with her, I won’t feel like something’s missing. Maybe I won’t even notice. Maybe I’ll be okay. Because even though I know now that I want another baby, the baby I have – she’s enough.
Enough2Michbelle

NOTE: This piece ran on The Huffington Post.

Tomorrow

I creep into her room before we leave this morning, my hand hovering over her back. I have to leave her with my sister again. It’s only the first time this week, but it’s the fifth time this month that I won’t be home when she wakes up, that I won’t be home to put her to bed. I want to cry because I miss the days when I don’t kiss her sleepy face or when I’m not there to listen to her early morning chatter. I miss her when I’m gone. I know she loves her aunt, but I also know there’s no substitute for mommy.

“I’m sorry I won’t be here today, baby. I’m sorry your daddy is sick and we keep missing things. We love you so much,” I breathe the words over her, praying she understands, hoping she forgives us.

*                *                *                *                *

Casey can’t hold her today. He had a scan with contrast this morning and is possibly radioactive so he isn’t allowed to be close to her for 24 hours. She runs to him when we get home, arms out, calling “Dada!” He gently pushes her away.

“I can’t hold her, Michelle. The radiation…” He stops talking and turns away. He looks sad. He looks sad more than he knows we realize, both Zoey and I. She starts to fuss, hurt by his rejection, not understanding the difference between can’t and won’t. So I scoop her up, kiss her cheeks, and tickle her until she laughs. I put her down in front of her toys to make dinner as Casey lies on the couch.

“Book, Dada! Book!” I hear her from the living room and look over to see her climbing on him. I take a deep breath and walk over to them, pulling her into my lap.

“Daddy can’t hold you right now, baby. Mommy will read you a book.” I smile at her, aware that my smile is different, stilted, and false, but I read and I hold her until it relaxes into something natural, until I feel the smile in my eyes, in my heart.

*                *                *                *                *

After her bath, I wake Casey from his nap so we can play with Zoey before bedtime. He still looks tired, but he grins as he takes her from me.

“Hugs for Daddy!” He says as he squeezes her. She squeals then slips from his grasp and drags her blocks over to him. We build a tower and cheer as she smashes it up. She laughs and we clap for her, our queen of destruction.

“Do you need me to get anything ready for you before chemo tomorrow?” I ask him.

“Nope. It’s just chemo – I’ll be fine!” He responds with false cheeriness and high-fives Zoey. She loves high-fives so she brings him more blocks to build more towers for smashing, knowing that we’ll cheer each time, real happiness bubbling from us.

We play a little bit longer, until it’s time to brush Zoey’s teeth. We have a routine: I hold her and Casey dances next to her, singing a song about brushing our toofers. But tonight he has to sit down as the pain and the anxiety overwhelm him. So I brush her teeth, then sing her a song, and lay her in the crib by myself. Then, just like I do every night, I kiss her and say, “Goodnight, baby. I love you.”

As I walk out of her room, I hear a small voice. “Nigh-nigh! I yuh you!” I smile and my eyes fill with tears as think about how even in the midst of all the awful, I am so lucky.

*                *                *                *                *

We pull up to the house, bursting with excitement. After almost a year, we needed some good news. Casey’s parents are in town visiting and what could have easily been a week of sadness, of constant consolation, is now a week of celebration. His dad asks us again what the doctor said, still in disbelief, needing to hear the good news once more.

“He said there’s a tiny, active spot in my lung and it’s probably just inflammation from the radiation so he wants to do a biopsy but it’s not a big deal.” His mom looks at me for confirmation and I nod. Relief fills her face. I want to feel that but something holds me back, something keeps me cautious. Zoey starts to whine, hungry as usual.

“Daddy’s going to be fine,” I whisper into her ear as I strap her into the highchair. “He has to be.”

*                *                *                *                *

We continue our celebration at the brewery. Mid-sentence, he stops talking and I know – something’s wrong.

“I have this weird spot in my eye. No matter where I look, I can’t see out of it.” I feel the panic rising as he experiments, looking up and down, side to side. He tries to reassure us, “It’s happened before, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

I chase Zoey around, tossing goldfish at her to keep her happy, ignoring the fear that’s nestled deep in my belly. She falls and scrapes her knee and reaches back for me, crying. I pick her up and hold her, soothing her, soothing myself.

“Shh, you’re okay. We’re okay. Everything’s okay.” I murmur the words until they feel like truth.

*                *                *                *                *

I can’t stop crying. He was supposed to be better. We fight on the way back from the hospital, our emotions high, the news too much to process. He leaves me sobbing in the car and stomps into the house on his own. Even though it hurts, I know he needs some time to think, to deal with the news on his own, and frankly, I’m in no place to be of any consolation. My mom and sister walk out of the house, but I pretend not to see them. I cover my face and whisper, “Please don’t come talk to me,” over and over again, willing them to leave me alone.

When I calm down, I walk inside and take the spoon and yogurt from my mom, hoping that doing something normal like feeding Zoey, will keep me grounded.

“Did he say anything?” I ask.

“Just that they found a brain tumor,” my mom answers me, her voice gentle, so gentle I feel my heart break. I put my head in my arms and start to cry again and feel two pairs of arms wrap around me.

But all I can focus on is the tiny hand that pats my head and the sweet, raspy voice that says, “Hi, Momma!”

*                *                *                *                *

“Everything hurts,” he tells me as coughs wrack his body. I tell him to go lie down and rest, Zoey and I will play on our own tonight. He doesn’t want to miss it so he sits on the recliner, pretending the pain isn’t nearly as bad as I see etched in his face.

She doesn’t like to feel ignored so she walks over to him and touches her nose. “Nose. Nose, Dada.”

He smiles at her. “Yes, nose.” She holds out her arms, waiting to be picked up but he can’t do it. He wants to but he can’t.

“Tomorrow, baby. I’ll pick you up tomorrow. I’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Somehow she understands. She walks to her shelf and carefully picks a book and brings it to me. She sits in my lap and I start to read quietly, “In the great green house…” And we all hope tomorrow doesn’t take too long.

Tomorrow1Michbelle

 

Note: I originally submitted this piece to a contest (with fake names instead of our own) in December. Obviously, I didn’t win, which is why i’m able to post it here now. I do, however, consider it a personal win since I still get to publish and share it with all of you. Since then, Casey’s tumor has been treated and is shrinking and he’s started a new round of medicine for the tumors in his lungs.

This piece has been published on The Huffington Post.

Thank you

The past year has been hell at its worst and slightly cooler than hell at its best. And while that may be hyperbole, it doesn’t take away from the fact that we’ve had a rough year and two months (thanks a lot, cancer).

To be fair, it hasn’t all been bad. Sure the endless hours at MD Anderson, the treatments, the sickness, the fear, the anxiety, and the stress all sucked, but there were some good things too – like Casey’s home all of the time and I started writing again.

Mostly though, those good things were all of you.

I’ve thought about sitting down to write each of you notes, letters, novels in which I would attempt to express what is, very simply, thank you. A few times I even sat down to do it, but the truth is that I don’t have enough time or energy to write to every person who has, at some point, done us a solid because so many of you have been so generous. So, this is our thank you – our very genuine, heartfelt, sincere thank you.

Thank you to the family who have given their time to be here with us for days, weeks, months at a time. Thank you for driving in on a moment’s notice when we were sick or overwhelmed or sad, for flying in when we needed help, for giving up your weekends so we could rest. Thank you for being our rocks, for keeping us going because we couldn’t do it on our own. Thank you for answering late night phone calls and researching options. Thank you for taking care of Zoey when, for whatever reason, we couldn’t. Thank you for your unending love, your constant support, and your steadfast positivity. Thank you for shouldering some of our burden so we didn’t crumble.

Thank you to our friends for all of the meals cooked, the car rides downtown (at all hours and during hellish traffic), and the thoughtful (and sometimes even grandiose) gestures. Thank you for visiting. Thank you for contributing. Thank you for being our shoulders to lean on. Thank you for understanding when we couldn’t meet you for dinner, when we didn’t make it to your wedding, when we forgot to return your phone calls. Thank you for being there, wherever there was, whenever we needed you.

Thank you to all of those who prayed for us and thought about us and wished upon stars for us. Please keep doing so. We need you.

I can not say it enough – thank you, thank you, thank you. We love you all so much and, cliche as it is, we know that we are blessed beyond measure to have you in our lives.

And so you all know, should you ever need us, we owe you like a thousand favors. So, feel free to cash those in at your earliest convenience. We’ll be right here, thanking God for all of you.

 IMG_8771