A Piece of Fruit

A couple moved in next door to my mom’s house years after my dad died. They were older and wanted a ranch home to live in as they aged. Carolyn had mobility issues. Dave helped her transform a fairly barren backyard into beautiful areas of raised flower beds. Dave would occasionally snow blow part of my mom’s sidewalk. They looked out for her and were kind people. It’s great when neighbors can look out for each other. My city is known as the Good Neighbor City. Most of the time we wear it well.

The years go by as they do. Carolyn became confined to a wheelchair. Dave grew older and showed signs of decline here and there. My sister and her partner started looking out for them. Now they would help with the snow as Dave had once done for my mom. Good neighbor spirit at its best.

The ambulance showed up next door on a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago. After a bit of a wait, a stretcher with Dave wearing an oxygen mask was brought out. He was loaded up and the ambulance took off. Carolyn was brought out, helped into a car, and it followed after the ambulance.

By the next day, cars were parked on the street outside their home. Cars usually show up at a house after someone has died with family gathering together and showing support. My sister walked over to find out what happened and to offer her help. Dave had died.

He choked on a piece of orange.

I’m still gutted. One moment a person is eating an orange on an ordinary day. The next moment it’s lodged in his throat. He can’t breathe. He can’t communicate. His wife can’t get to him and be of help. She watched in terror which is equally as gutting. He had been without oxygen too long and there was no brain activity. The decision was made to let him go and remove him from life support.

How sudden, unfair, and without reason.

Why? It’s another unanswerable question I’ve asked myself. Maybe it was his time. Maybe this avoided a long illness on the way or a devastating accident. Maybe these are things we just tell ourselves.

Dave’s death got me thinking about life and death. People often wonder if a quick death is better or a long one. My father died quickly of an aortic aneurysm after a second heart surgery. All sorts of medical issues were identified during that surgery. He had more surgery and a long road ahead of him. My family hadn’t faced a lot of death in the family. We were naïve and thought he’d get better. He thought this, too. It wasn’t meant to be. We were shocked not to have a goodbye.

My mom survived a little longer than a year after her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. She languished more and more in an assisted living facility for her final couple of months. More of her was lost each day. She didn’t have any wise comments about death or the afterlife. Talking about these things didn’t ease her. I remember she gave me quite the sideways glance when I once mentioned she’d see Dad again. Her mother (who had passed) came to her a couple of times to visit. She told me about that when I would drive across town to visit her after school and spend dinner with her. I wanted to know what she had to say but my mom couldn’t piece the conversation together. Another time she told me Grandma had left without saying goodbye and my mom was very distraught. All I had was comfort and love to give her. I would just sit and feed spoonfuls of soft food to her or watch her sleep until my sister would join me when she finished work.

Is a long goodbye or short goodbye better? Perhaps no goodbye at all?

We get what we get.

I believe we get what we are supposed to get.

If you are a regular reader, you know I have metastatic breast cancer. I am lucky to be here.

I would absolutely die if I died choking on a piece of fruit.

Forgive the dark humor.

Change is hard for me. None of us know when we’ll breathe our last. Some of us have a better idea than others what might cause our eventual demise. I’ve been able to think about what is important to me. I focus on meaning. I stage photographs a certain way so they can hopefully capture a moment or my spirit. I believe gifts should have meaning but I’m more into experiences. I have more than enough things. And oh, is time precious. Goodbyes are hard for me, too. I still want to have them.

But not now.

Living with metastatic disease involves living as fully as possible in the moment. I do a deep dive into connection with others. I relish times of calm and laughter. My values are more aligned with my words and actions. Living fully is where I place my attention and intentions. I think many feel the same.

There was a parent of a former student I taught who died two days after she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. No prior symptoms. She thought she had the flu. There was no time to process the shock let alone time for her family to say goodbye. This happened some years before I was diagnosed. It was unimaginable then and still is now.

Another death that was sudden, unfair, and without reason.

Maybe we don’t get what we’re supposed to get. No one should get only two days. The shock is still present. I’ve seen her children as adults. They turned out to be great young women. Great young women who lost their mother far too soon.

Why have I been blessed with nine years post diagnosis when she got two days? The survivor guilt weighs on me like a boulder crushing my chest. I work to free myself from it, to talk about it, to grieve when I can since I can’t do anything about preventing the loss anyway. It is out of all our hands.

Life is short.

Life is fragile.

Rest in peace, Dave.

Falling Sky

When the sky falls

It falls directly above me

Chunks of space left above me

An empty howling nothing that shouldn’t be there

An empty howling nothing

Pulling and waiting

Fissures fracture across the blue like fault lines on the ground

Foreshadowing where the next piece may fall

Sky falls when you hear the words

You have cancer

Lots of sky falls

Scans confirm it’s already metastatic

Another piece plummets

So much information

Type, subtype, hormone receptor, Her2Neu

Each a piece of forever lost sky

Cancer words hurl pieces of sky

To the ground in a show of gravity and force

Grades, mutations, invasive, lobular, ductal

More pieces

Stages

Chemotherapy

Lymph nodes

Trials

Genetics

Genomics

Treatments

Survival benefit

Bigger pieces fall

You barely notice because

Of the doom that distracts while closing in

Like a dark night of your soul

Metastatic

This piece hits like bricks

You’re never the same

Everything changes

Forever scarred

Inside and out

So many deaths

Each their own portion of fallen sky

Grandma, Mom, Pete, Jim, Becky, Susie,

Bobby, Karen, Marge, Kim, Lalay, Lindsay,

Meghan, Melissa, Heather, and so many others

Whose names do you remember?

Speak and give them voice

Irreplaceable sky fallen with each

Loss through death touches our souls forever

Like a shadow that never leaves

Or a coldness in the yellow warmth of sun

So many scans

Tiny tubes of skyless holes

Confining, enclosing, lifeless

Sky falls waiting for results

Slingshots take aim at clouds

We ourselves knock out chunks before we hear

News of regression, stability, or progression

Pieces of blue get patched and repaired with good news

And then fall again in bigger chunks with bad news

until they can’t be put back

Some things can’t be put back

Including the fallen sky

That won’t see sunrise or sunset again

Skies fall in countless ways

Some spoken and some silent

Skies drop cruelly with metastatic cancer

Piece by piece

Chunk by chunk

Section by section

Assaulting, assailing, and attacking

Erasing, eroding, and emptying more and more

Stealing, silencing, and stilling before our eyes

A persisting and prevailing powerlessness causing pain

For more than just the haver

Cancer kills

Murders

Slays

Massacres

Cancer carnage concealed in common language

Of either succumbing or statistics

What’s being done?

Where’s the urgency?

Why can’t it be solved?

When will all be saved?

How will we get there?

What’s being done is our voices

Speaking and shouting

More and more

We will be seen

And not silenced

More research slowly unfolds

More action and faces

More is needed

The urgency is the estimated 43,600 breast cancer deaths

For 2021 in the US

119 a day

Up 3 from last year

The answer is more resources and research

More advocacy, attention, and connections

Better treatments, more trials, more collaboration

Growing bigger one life at a time

I don’t know when all will be saved

I hope, I cry, I push, I pray

I keep going

I still don’t know

No one does

I don’t know how

But believe one day

Cancer will fall and be no more

Just like those pieces of falling sky

The sky has always been one of my favorite things

The endless blues

The different hues

The starry nights

The paint of sunrises and sunsets

The clouds floating freely wherever the wind takes them.

Still moments and morphing shapes change before our eyes

My home is still under its dome

Hope is in the sky

Let’s keep our eyes steady on the hope

Of today and all our tomorrows

And not those pieces of sky that fall

They will sadly keep falling

And I will look up to find

Handfuls of hope

Patches of blue

Where I can

Above

A Review of 2020

2020 won’t fade soon from our memory and never from history. Too many events were put into motion that will continue to play out for years to come. I suppose that’s always what happens. Some events have already had major impacts on our lives, whereas others may scarcely make a dent in the grand scheme of things. Big and small, this is my look back at 2020.

Nationally and Globally

COVID-19.

All anyone could talk about was COVID, COVID, COVID. Sound familiar? To frame it with numbers, almost 330,000 have died from the virus in the United States as of December 26th according to data provided by the CDC. That number is a staggering reminder of what will be carved forever in the rock that is 2020. I know a handful of people who have had the virus and almost all had mild cases. I am fortunate no one I’ve known has died from it.

Everyone knew who Dr. Fauci was and recognized him as the voice of science and reason throughout the pandemic.

Toilet paper and hand sanitizer became hard to find items. Shelves in stores were bare for months.

Too many people watched and got addicted to Tiger King. I did neither.

John Krasinski gave us hope in his segments of Some Good News.

Many passed the time baking sourdough and banana breads. These and other forms of baking provided comfort in a tangible way to our lives.

Earth had a chance to breathe when the world shut down because of COVID. Fewer cars on the road improved air quality. People used their cars less since many were unable to work or they worked at home. We all win with a cleaner planet.

Zoom. A word that can stand on its own.

People staying home more had some negative outcomes. The unemployment rate reached a record high of 14.7% in April. A rate of 6.7% in November has been the lowest since before the shutdown.  As a comparison, the U.S. ended 2019 with a rate of 3.5%. Many businesses permanently shut their doors during the pandemic.

The Summer Olympics set to take place in Tokyo were canceled and moved to 2021.

Black Lives Matter demonstrations took place across the country to protest police brutality and racially motivated violence towards black Americans. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Daniel Prude were a few of the deaths that caused unrest nationwide.

A fly landed on Mike Pence’s head during the only vice-presidential debate before the election and stayed there for around 2 minutes. Kamala Harris effectively and firmly told him she was speaking when he repeatedly tried to interrupt. She was speaking.

Mississippi voted to remove the Confederate flag as part of its state flag and replace it with the image of a magnolia blossom.

The U.S. held a presidential election. It affected people nationally and globally just as COVID did. Donald Trump will be leaving office. Joe Biden decisively won the popular vote by over seven million votes (81,283,485 to 74,223,744 votes) and the electoral college (306 to 232) and will be the 46th president. Kamala Harris will be the first woman vice president and the first woman of color to hold that office. The election was held on November 3rd and results were shared on November 7th. It took days to count the massive number of mail-in ballots.

The first healthcare workers in the United States received the COVID vaccine on December 14th.

The world lost many well-known figures in 2020. I apologize if I’ve left someone out you feel needed to be included. It means I am less informed than I would like to be and their name didn’t provide instant recognition. It doesn’t diminish their life contributions. There are always too many who have moved on. The world said goodbye to these well-known individuals:

Don Larsen 1/1

Jim Lehrer 1/23

Kobe Bryant 1/26

John Andretti 1/30

Kirk Douglas 2/5

Orson Bean 2/7

Ja’Net Dubois 2/18

Katherine Johnson 2/24

Roger Mayweather 3/17

Lyle Waggoner 3/17

Kenny Rogers 3/20

John Prine 4/7

Little Richard 5/9

Jerry Stiller 5/11

Fred Willard 5/15

Carl Reiner 6/30

Hugh Downs 7/2

Nick Cordero 7/5

Charlie Daniels 7/6

Kelly Preston 7/13

John Lewis 7/17

Regis Philbin 7/25

Wilford Brimley 8/2

Chadwick Boseman 8/28

Ruth Badger Ginsburg 9/18

Helen Reddy 9/29

Eddie Van Halen 10/6

Sean Connery 10/31

Alex Trebek 11/8

David Lander 12/4

Natalie Desselle Reid 12/7

Chuck Yeager 12/7

Charley Pride 12/12

If you lost a loved one this year, I am so sorry for your loss.

Effects of 2020 on My Life

I momentarily backtrack my comments to 2019. My 2019 was wonderful. I felt fantastic. I accomplished a lot and brought about many good things in my life. I’m always hesitant to start a new year because there are so many unknowns. It was the same way at the beginning of 2019 but I knew what I had by year’s end. I now know what 2020 has held for me.

My only vacation of 2020 turned out to be a quick trip down to Chicago to visit my friend Emily in early February. It was the calm before the storm. We ate in restaurants. We enjoyed the Shedd and walked around wherever we pleased while the penguins were confined. It turned out those penguins got out more than I did this year. We shopped in stores and touched merchandise we didn’t buy. My glasses didn’t fog up because masks weren’t on anyone’s radar. I could hug her family. It was a magical time.

The entire world was given an extra day of 2020 on February 29th with Leap Day. I don’t think it was needed, but we got it. John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live that night and delivered a monologue that I’ve listened to an absurd number of times because I’ve needed more laughs this year. It holds up and is still funny each time I hear it. Give it a listen.

March 13, 2020 was the last time I was social before the initial lockdown. My friend Holly and I were planning on going to Wicked on the 15th. It deteriorated and I bowed out because I couldn’t justify putting myself in a crowd that size for hours. I insisted she take the tickets. She had changed her mind about going when she came to pick them up for reasons of her own. We went for a short walk. The show wound up being canceled so no one went.

Then came the lockdown. I remember thinking a two-week lockdown was not a lot to ask. I thought it would be a little longer. It became clear pretty quickly that it was going to last much longer. Much longer became a lot longer. It was tough as the season changed from summer to fall that it was going to go into winter and into 2021. Here we are almost ten months later.

A good chunk of 2021 will be spent as a continuation of 2020. But I get ahead of myself. Back to 2020.

The biggest events for me personally were turning 50 years old, running my first 5K, and raising over $60K for metastatic breast cancer research. All three were connected. I am proud that I surpassed my fundraising goal. I’m overjoyed I was able to complete my run. My birthday was happy through and through.

Minor events make our lives. I made a batch or two of banana bread. I saw the Neowise Comet in summer. I set up a card table and draped it with a lace tablecloth to host friends for card making and pancake breakfasts. I began having breakfast each morning on my sun porch where I listened to the birds and let my thoughts wander. Other friends came over and we chatted on the backyard patio once or twice. I kept writing steadily. I spent time outside when it wasn’t too hot. I took neighborhood walks when my feet felt okay. Everyone scooted well out of the path of one another with a smile and a friendly wave. I took a lot of photos over summer. That took me into fall where I planned day trips to see old and new spots in Wisconsin and enjoy fall color. Workouts and book club kept me socially connected through Zoom. Meaning and joy rest just as much in the small things as they do in the big things.

Easter, July 4th, and Thanksgiving were celebrated on my own. Christmas too.

On November 10, 2020 . . .  I did a real push up. This is monumental. I’ll be honest . . . I did three. I did not go down very far, but I could get back up and I’m counting those. I achieved my goal of exercising every day this year. Some days were minimal but required more effort when I wasn’t up to it than days when my workout was more intense. What I considered my best depended on how I felt. I did my best every day.

My hair is longer and grayer than it has been in years. Thinner. I’m thankful to have any of it thanks to cold capping. Since these things all go together, I hope the lengthy and gray locks continue to grow.

I still have metastatic cancer to no one’s surprise. My health fluctuates between fair and fantastic depending on my mood, how much I worry, treatments, and time. I’m still here.

I remember people couldn’t wait for 2019 to end and be rid of it fast enough. My 2019 was a rather glowing shade of wonderful. I hoped 2020 would be the same. I understand the desire to move on from 2020 to 2021. Time marches on and we always hope what’s ahead of us is better than what we have at the moment. But each year, even if it has events that bring us to our knees, hopefully also has had a moment here or there where we’ve risen up and basked in the sun. May 2021 have more moments in the sun for everyone. I end my 2020 review with a prayer I found that encompasses every good thing my heart wants for all of us.

New Year’s Prayer

As the dawn breaks on a new year, let us give thanks for all we hold dear: our health, our family and our friends.

Let us release our grudges, our anger and our pains, for these are nothing but binding chains. Let us live each day in the most loving ways, the God-conscious way. Let us serve all who are in need, regardless of race, color or creed.

Let us keep God of our own understanding in our hearts and to chant God’s name each day. Let us lead the world from darkness to light, from falsehood to truth and from wrong to right.

Let us remember that we are all one, embracing all, discriminating against none.

May your year be filled with peace, prosperity and love. May God’s blessings shower upon you and bestow upon each of you a bright, healthy and peaceful new year.

Rev. Marcy Sheremetta

May 2021 be kind to you and yours.

Always.

Revisiting Grief

I ran into a friend of a friend a little over a week ago that I haven’t seen in a long time at a local restaurant. One of the things Laurel and I have in common is that we have both lost people we’ve loved due to cancer (my mother and her husband). She was with a group of about six or seven others. There was nothing remarkable about anyone’s appearance. Everyone looked normal. I stopped by her table for a quick hello as I left the restaurant and learned she was eating with her grief group from hospice. Her husband died around three years ago and although they do not meet formally as a group anymore, she explained they still get together every so often to check in on how everyone is doing.

“So, how are you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m vertical,” she told me.

She looked great. I know. Even though I heard it in my head, it was my first reaction. Looking great has nothing to do with how a person is feeling. I even used the word “normal” above to describe her.

It’s cringe-worthy.

I was thankful I hadn’t said it out loud. I know so well that someone can look like they have it all together on the outside when the inside is a hot mess. This is true whether the inside is slammed with treatment side effects, pain from sickness, anxiety, depression, or grief. The inside often is in some state of constant churning. It may be such a present feeling that it is normal for you. Normal always fluctuates for me and has an overpowering element of uncertainty of the future. Normal has to be rooted in the NOW. I’m good at holding it together on the outside. Most of the time.

Grief is messy.

Being vertical shouldn’t be so hard. But it can be.

There is something comforting about being with others who have similar experiences. Support groups are great for this if it fits your comfort level. I went to one after my mom died. It was more of a workshop setting. It gave me a better understanding of my feelings and explained a few things that I wouldn’t otherwise have attributed to grief. Individual counseling is another option to support someone through grief.

Running into Laurel made me pause to revisit what I’ve learned about grief over the years. I reminded myself of many points worth remembering.

Grief Reminders

  • Grief is physically and emotionally exhausting. A grieving person needs more restorative sleep.
  • Grief is hard. It’s tougher to make decisions and trust others, including trusting your own abilities while grieving.
  • Many question truths in their personal belief systems such as religious beliefs, the meaning of life, and ideas of fairness.
  • There is a sense of having no control over anything.
  • Grief is distracting. Functioning in day-to-day activities or at work can be affected. There is a tendency to forget things.
  • Some people may bump into things, drop stuff, or be prone to accidents. They do not attribute these events to grief and wonder what in the world is wrong with them.
  • Some people find it easier to be at work and like having a focus away from grief, while others find it difficult to be in their work environment. Some who find an escape from grief at work find that it overwhelms them again as soon as they get home where the memories live.
  • Dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other important events will be bittersweet. The anniversary of a death will be dreaded and the day after will feel better again because there is a whole year before it happens again.
  • Grief is real and ongoing. A person doesn’t just get over it. The goal isn’t to get over a loss but to find a way to get through it.
  • People grieve losses other than death. Loss of jobs, a move, divorce, a friendship or relationship, failed plans, and changes in health are all sources of grief.
  • It doesn’t mean someone is over their grief if they are having a good day. They may just be getting through the day vertically.
  • Grief spurts come out of nowhere. They may not last long but can be intense.
  • There is no timeline. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. What works for one person may not work for another.
  • Grief can teach us about life.

I find a lot of strength in affirmations. I’ve read and collected many, blended them together, and written my own when I have a specific need. I have close to one hundred in my affirmation file and I’m always coming up with more. Here is my group of affirmations on grief. Perhaps one or two will jump out as applicable to a situation in your life.

Affirmations That Acknowledge Grief

I allow myself to fully feel my feelings, both happy and sad.

I can still feel love in the world without my loved one.

I seek the help I need and accept help when it’s offered.

I hold on to love and will let go of the grief when I’m ready.

I am surrounded by seen and unseen love and support.

I am kind to myself while I grieve and heal.

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

I move away from memories that bring me pain and focus on memories that bring me happiness and peace.

Grieving is a part of life and I am doing okay.

There are many feelings involved with grief and loss and it’s okay to feel all of them.

I still feel my lost loved one’s presence and it comforts me.

I grieve loss in healthy ways that are right for me.

There is no timeline for when grieving is done.

Grieving ebbs and flows differently for everyone.

I recognize difficult moments and know they will pass.

I choose to grieve my loss and move forward at my own pace.

It is okay to feel happy again.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

I am grateful for the time I shared with my loved one.

This experience has allowed me to discover new truths about myself.

I am done being sad for today and I move on to other emotions.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

There are many people I can talk to who will listen to how I’m feeling.

I feel supported during this difficult time.

I am learning how life works for me with these new circumstances.

After I’ve given all this unsolicited advice, I think it’s also important to avoid offering easy answers or clichéd expressions to someone who is grieving. As an example, I often hear people say God needed another angel when someone has died. It’s meant to be comforting. I don’t believe this. Heaven has enough angels. Keeping people around longer on Earth that spread goodness seems like a better idea to me. We need those people to stick around. Someone who is grieving needs to feel listened to and feel comfortable enough to cry and express their feelings with the support of their friends. Telling someone how they should be feeling or dismissing their feelings with some tired or cute remark invalidates grief.

I have grieved my parents and other family members, friends, neighbors, and people I have never personally met who have died from cancer. I don’t think I’ll ever be done grieving some deaths, and that’s okay. It’s there. I can still be happy. I’ve grieved a child and an unfulfilled dream when cancer put a screeching halt on plans to become an adoptive parent. I’ve grieved relationships that have changed. I’ve grieved my teaching career when it became clear it was in my best interest to retire. I’ve grieved my past because I can’t reclaim my life and health to what it was before cancer. I’ve grieved my present because of disappointment and anger and changes that still don’t fit my plans. I continue to grieve my future because of fears. Although it isn’t what this post is about, I also have hope for my future and I will not let go of my hope.

There are many parts of myself that I grieve. I choose to keep many of those thoughts private for now. It’s my work to do, difficult to share, and very hard for me to put into words.

Grief is universal but everyone does it differently. There is no one right way to do it, but it needs to happen in its own time and in its own way. I don’t want to forget my loved ones who have died. I do want to quiet memories that haunt me. I do want to remember all the happy times I’ve shared with people who’ve died.

Laurel is incorporating grief into her life as she keeps living and moving forward. Looking fine on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story. It seldom does. I hope I can meet people with compassion and empathy to offer whatever support is needed.

Three affirmations from my list jump out at me as I write today:

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

 

What are your thoughts on grief?