Gladys Learns the Art of Letting People Help

Gladys and Mabel sample some immuno-bark and gin and tonics on the deck.

At some point in the course of the last 4 months, Gladys and Mabel appeared. Whether these gals are alter egos, imagined incarnations of our future selves, or just a hilarious take on the two old ladies who walk around the pond on “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” I don’t know. In a typical Newfoundland dual-matriarch situation, Mabel also answers to “Nan,” and Gladys is known to be called “maid.” But they speak mostly over text and pass on advice and comic relief at the most opportune times.

A recent text from Mabel: “Eat your bark, Gladys. It will give you sustenance!”

This is in reference to a concoction Krista whipped up – delicious dark chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, and a clove/cinnamon oil blend that is meant to boost immunity. It really did sustain me through the first two days of my last chemo cycle, so as usual, she was correct. It was about the only thing I could stomach, and I feel it has magic powers.

I have no problem graciously accepting gifts like immuno-bark now, but when I was first diagnosed Krista took it upon herself to make me understand how important it is to accept help. I was pretty obstinate in my selfish belief that I could handle everything on my own, and I balked at the idea of people going out of their way for my family and I. I didn’t want anyone going to any trouble. Maybe this is when Gladys and Mabel came to be. It was probably easier for Krista to point out the foolishness of determined old Gladys than it was to argue with her best friend who’d been diagnosed with cancer.

Now, Gladys, you are being stubborn. People want to help. Now let me handle it. I’m serious.

Finally, I quit arguing. Krista and other friends of mine and mom’s arranged meals for my family, rides to activities and practices, and even the recording and sharing of my children’s performances during a play and music festival. During the weeks I was away for treatments, appointments and surgery, Krista and our friends and neighbours helped keep my family’s routine normal. Friends from all stages of my life journey kept me connected to the world and smiling through text conversations and messages. My husband, parents and parents-in-law, who were all running our household at different times depending on who was away with me, had lots of support. Things happened that I still don’t even know about, and I’m so grateful.

Krista and I have been friends since we met in an art class about 14 years ago. Our kids and husbands are the best of friends, and we have had many crazy adventures. A couple of years ago, Krista and I were training for a 50 km ultra-marathon on the East Coast Trail. For months we arose early before work to run in all kinds of weather, and took weekend getaways to get our long trail runs in. One epic trip saw us running Gros Morne Mountain and the daunting Green Gardens Trail in a 24 hour period that also included a 3 course meal, hours of dancing to jigs and reels, and the closing down of a bar where we entertained the tourists with a rousing rendition of “The Ode to Newfoundland.”

I was always a little worried about keeping up. Krista is a triathlete and has even finished a half-Ironman competition in very good standing, a fact our friend Kyla, a formidable athlete herself, often repeats to impress younger and presumably fitter people than us on girls’ trips: “She’s an Ironman, you know!” she has been known to shout, pointing emphatically at Krista. I shouldn’t have worried, however, because in true Krista fashion, she always adjusted her pace to match mine.

The ultra-marathon itself was held on a foggy day in late October. I had had the stomach flu only a couple of days prior, and wasn’t sure how I would hold up. Once we started, however, I sensed a lightness in my feet I didn’t usually have. We trotted along cliff-side, up and down the heights, in and out of fairy woods, across streams and creeks. To our left, the coastline marked our journey. There were times we felt the spray. We lost precious minutes gingerly sliding down sheer spots on our bums, hanging on to rocks with outstretched legs and arms like water bugs. We saw ships. Later, farms. Cows and horses. Concrete observation structures left from World War II, made friendly with graffiti.

We knew from all of our training that we usually hit a bit of a difficult spot around the 12 km mark. This was when our legs would become tired and jelly-like, and our moods would plummet. But we had devised ways to get through this plateau and, on this particular day, we sang back and forth in an effort to work it through. After a while, though, Krista grew quiet, and I started talking. Telling stories, edging her on. I knew something was wrong. It turned out later it was her knees, but she didn’t say it out loud at the time.

She just continued on quietly, one painful step after another.

I started to fret. But then there was a man running ahead dressed all in orange. For a number of kilometres he was our beacon. Squinting forward, we’d see him crest a ridge or emerge from the shade of a grove of spruce and we would call, “Orange Man!” There would be a little boost for a moment, as we tried to keep him in our sight.

Then, another man chugged up close behind us. He had an interesting duct tape arrangement on his legs. Occasionally we would hear him stop and cough, his hands on his knees. We stopped, too, because he was violently winded and we were worried that he was going to tumble hundreds of feet to his death. Feeling conflicted, we conferred each time he stopped, “Should we stay with Duct Tape Man? But… Orange Man is getting away!”

For a while, Duct Tape Man and Orange Man helped us feel less alone there near the craggy fourth corner of the world. Ultimately, though, the decision to abandon our trek was made for us by the race organizers at the 42 km mark, when we missed the cut-off time for the last stage of the race by 10 minutes. I was secretly glad, because I knew Krista was hurting.

That night I couldn’t stop thinking about Krista’s day. How could she run in pain for so many hours straight? What culmination of will, training, strength and stubbornness would allow someone to keep putting one foot tortuously in front of the other for hours at a time? It could easily have been my knees that acted up that day, and I do not think I would have had the fortitude to continue.

It was impressive.

For now, though, Krista and I have gone from refusing rides from confused moose hunters who want to save us from the wilderness to deciding whether to have peppermint tea or wine when we go out for lunch. Her knees are better and she continues to train and work out and compete in events, but she also makes time to take trail walks with me on Sunday afternoons when she has already done more than her fair share of exercise for the day.

As the ultra-marathon of my cancer experience continues to unfold, she makes me laugh daily, sometimes as Krista, and sometimes as Mabel.

Id spare my right hip for you if I could, Gladys. Well, maybe my left.

I have always believed that people are intrinsically good, but I have learned more about compassion and caring in the last 4 months than I ever thought I could. And I think more about the trials and suffering of those who do not have the social support that I do.

In much the same way Krista and I latched onto Orange Man and Duct Tape Man when we were faltering on the East Coast Trail, my family and I gather strength from the support we feel around us. Our human nature means we look to other beings for connection in our time of need. Sometimes going through surgery or treatments is unbelievably difficult, but being alone would be the worst thing. Plus, I need my family and friends to make sure I take care of myself.

I hope the hell you got a nap after, Gladys!

And, just like Krista on the East Coast Trail, I am putting one foot in front of the other. While I do, I am learning to accept help when it is offered and even to ask for it when I need it. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be a part of this amazing network of family and friends. I hope in the future to help support others who are going through similar experiences.

Thank-you my family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, and blog readers for being the Orange Man on the horizon, the Duct Tape Man to the rear, and the coastline on the left marking the way.

Now, if what goes around comes around, I’ve got a lot of casserole drop-offs in my future. So if you need anything, Gladys is here for you, maid. And if I’m not up to it, I’ll call Mabel. She’s an Ironman, you know.

A birthday card from Mabel to Gladys.

It’s National Nursing Week

Thank a nurse today 🙂

Laura and I just before I was discharged from St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s, NL.

Recently, I underwent surgery at St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s and I had a week-long hospital stay afterward.

That was a hellish week. There were times I was writhing in pain on the bed or turning in circles in the middle of the night wringing my hands saying, “I don’t know what to do.”

Thank goodness, the nurses knew what to do.

They administered meds, and changed IVs, and reinserted catheters and adjusted pillows to try to get me comfortable. They talked to the doctors about what I needed. But most of all they showed care and compassion and empathy. They held my hand and hugged me. They asked about my kids and commiserated about my totally unfair cancer. They listened without judgment. When I asked, they told me about their children and their own lives. I needed those normal conversations. It made me feel like the world was still turning.

They related stories of past patients who had the same invasive surgery as me but were now scuba diving in Mexico.

They gave me hope. They helped me understand that I would learn to navigate the changes in my body. They gently encouraged me to dream about new adventures when just walking down the hall was a challenge.

Sometimes at night I heard people running in the halls, beeps and buzzers, and yells and calls. I know my nurses were juggling a lot. At the end of a twelve-hour shift, how tired must they have been? But they always came in to say good-bye and let me know when they would be back.

I missed them when I left the hospital, and I’ve thought of them often since. Maybe I’ll go back and visit someday. I want to hear how they are doing. And I will tell them all about my latest adventures so they can pass the stories on to their new charges.

Since I’ve returned home from the hospital I’ve gotten to know some other nurses and they have eased my transition. One nurse in particular has made herself available to me every week for an appointment so she can monitor my progress. She e-mails me regularly and answers all of my questions, provides me with supplies, and reassures me when I am worried. My healing time is lengthened by the radiation I underwent prior to surgery, a fact I didn’t realize until she explained it all to me. She is a wealth of knowledge and information and I don’t know what I would do without her.

Thank-you, Nicole. I hope you like chocolate, ’cause I’m getting you some 🙂

The Timber You’re Cutting

Photo credit: Colette Kenney

My cousin, Colette, saw this quote on a whiteboard somewhere and sent it to me recently, and it just seemed to fit so well.

What timber are you cutting today?

We all manage so much over the course of our lives, but there are times when the timber gets really thick, or the saw pile gets really deep, and we have to find the strength to get through it.

On my son’s 15th birthday this year, I walked smack into a whole wide unexpected forest. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer at 11:00 am, I was baking an apple pie at 2:00. My husband and I stumbled through the birthday supper, not looking at one another, and waited until the kids were in bed to stare at one another in crazed disbelief.

My whole life just slammed to a stop, and I was left staring absentmindedly into space or crying in dark corners between doctors’ appointments and scans. My thoughts coiled and uncoiled like a rope. Sometimes panic took the end of the rope in her teeth and ran and ran and it took all of my strength to reign her in.

This is my one of my first blog posts, and I don’t want it to be all about cancer. I want it to be about rewriting life, and cutting through the noise and expectations we shoulder everyday.

The meat falls away from the bone so quickly when things fall apart. Work – there was no way I could navigate my demanding job and deal with cancer treatments at the same time. Social commitments – all of a sudden, my friends became lifelines. Family time – yes please! Each and every interaction with my kids, husband and family became more special to me.

I can look back now only two months later and see how quickly my priorities shifted. I can also look back to that day and remember one strategy that I developed that reliably eased my stress and panic.

It was a visualization strategy, inspired in part by a book I was reading about Buddhism and then brought to life by my observation of a black speck that appeared in the water of my bath that evening. I watched the speck as it dipped and dived with the movement of the water. I moved my knee, and it swirled about in the eddy I created. I sliced my hand sideways and the speck lifted slightly towards the surface on the wave I brought forth.

Watching that speck, I realized that I was exactly the same. No more important, no less important, but caught up in waves and motions that I really could not control. I settled my shoulders down and relaxed and took some deep breaths and thought to myself that I would flow gently along with the waters I was immersed in.

Every day I did this visualization, and it brought me great relief.

What responsibility we shoulder! What great draughts of importance we gulp everyday! Recognizing our humble nature and honouring our helplessness is so freeing.

All we have is this moment in time – the past is gone and the future is yet to come. Right here, right now, we have some substance. Everything else is but a dream.

Peace Signs and Laser Beams

One of my brother’s fine old windows

Bolstering myself for the strangeness ahead I make an odd lonely peace sign in front of Josh’s window. Driving to the hospital I am so normal. The afternoon traffic laughs at me. Ordinary things like driving and giving your body up to medical science.

This is the first part of my treatment program. I am freshly freckled, my little black markings perfectly aligned. I imagine my tumor, happy and safe in its fleshy bed, is unaware of the coming onslaught. I feel a little sorry for it.

One of my mom’s legendary pieces of advice – when you are facing something difficult, focus on the after.

I will have a nice supper and glass of wine later with Josh and Ozgen. I will lie on the couch and read – imagine such a luxury on a Monday! My husband and children are at home, going to after school activities and slogging through homework. I am in the ether.

In the waiting room wool and needles await. All who sit here are invited to knit a square for a cancer patient’s afghan. I realize too late I chose an over-long pair of needles. I am clumsy and my thumb joint aches. I don’t want to knit the afghan square but there are others here and now I’ve committed. I jump up too quickly when my name is called, send the partially completed square flying into the basket with relief.

Lovely technicians talk to me and I am at ease in my hospital gown. In true Newfoundland fashion, we discuss our places of origin until we discern that I grew up down the street from one of their cousins. They organize my body on the machine, turn up the music and reassure me before they leave.

The machine approaches me confidently and turns all about my body, whirring and clicking. I think lights like eyes are on me but I’m not supposed to move so I don’t really see much. The lighthearted music makes me feel celebratory.

I christen the machine Wall-E. Soon it rests and they come back. They ask me how I’m doing. I tell them my surgery is next Monday. I ask about side effects and they explain that by the time I’m able to feel side effects the surgery will be done and that will cover them up anyway.

“So go out and have a nice dinner, have some fun! Your radiation therapy is 20% finished!” they say. They fuss around me for a moment. I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy the attention.

I float out of the Cancer Center. I am still in one piece. I am still me.

I made it to the after. We all make it to the after, in our way.

So many of my friends write me jokes about getting a laser beam to my ass. I really love them for it. I kind of wish I could show them Wall-E.