Monday, February 25, 2013

Just Breathe...

I greet the sunrise on my yoga mat, peering out my window over snow-covered trees at the buttery light. I begin my salute to the sun. Forward bend, I rise and lift my hands in prayer. My breathing deepens and settles in a slow, soothing tide. Soon, I’m in a place I never imagined, healing from an experience I never could have foreseen. 

In July of 2011, at the age of 35, I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. I thought my life was over. I was told it most likely would be in 18 months. After the initial diagnosis, my days consisted of doctor's visits, chemotherapy, scans, sleep, sickness, and fear. But throughout all of it I never gave up hope. 

On December 12, 2012, a year after the surgery that removed part of my colon and half of my liver, I was declared cancer free. Cancer free. Even saying those words now makes my heart sing. I rode the high of that declaration for a few days before the fear returned. "What if it comes back?" Like a haunting whisper this question was repeated again and again. So, I decided, if this fear wouldn't leave my mind, then I would. This is when I discovered yoga.

On my mat, the world disappears. I do not fear cancer. I do not replay those months of debilitating illness. I do not focus on the port and pump that still reside in my body. It is just me and my breath. On each inhale I feel my body fill with life. On the exhale I release all tension. When you truly focus on your breathing, there is no space in your mind for negative chatter. My breathing is a moment-to-moment reminder that I am alive.

Chemotherapy is a tricky beast. It cannot target only the cancer cells and destroy them. It is a sweeping forest fire within your body. And while I thank God every day for its existence, my body was ravaged and in desperate need of healing. My joints ached, my endurance was shot, the nerve weakness in my hands and feet made it difficult to walk in the cold weather. I could no longer run due to the hepatic pump (a device that pumps medicine directly into my liver) on my left side. I was running out of options. Then I remembered a yoga studio in town and how lovely the owner was. Maybe she could advise me. I contacted her and she said that while she no longer owned the studio, she was doing private instruction. She came to my house a few days later and changed my life.

Each week we work on different poses. Each week I seem to get stronger. Feeling the strength return to my body fills me with indescribable joy. Seeing the progress pushes me on. Each pose, each breath, brings me closer to my self. Not the cancer patient, but me. Every morning I stand on that mat and honor the day that lies ahead of me. I slowly go through my sun salutations, inhaling and exhaling. Holding on, and letting go. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

My Beautiful Boy

By this time next year my son will be finishing his freshman year in college. It seems like yesterday that I was doing the same. Time goes by in a flash. Seventeen years of my heart existing outside of my body; my world walking around in skinny jeans and worn out sneakers. Does he know how much he means to me? I hope so. That's all we can do as parents, right? We hope. But what if you realize you've had it wrong all this time? Is it ever too late to shift gears?

I was only nineteen years old when I had my son. Nineteen and determined to prove everyone wrong; everyone who told me I was making a huge mistake. Sean was going to be the brightest, most articulate, sweetest kid with the best manners. In my mind, if he is the best then that means I'm a great mom. I was so afraid of doing it "wrong", afraid of being judged. So I pushed and I pushed and I kept on pushing him. Stand up straight...try more. "Grow up and be something great," I would tell him. But the truth is, he already was. He was always smart and kind and loving. He just wasn't a great student. As parents, how do you know when to stop pushing? The answer is, when you see it's pushing them over the edge. Homework time became a nightmare. Lots of frustration, tears, yelling...and that was just from me. The boy who once bounced to my car at the end of a school day now skulked over, knowing full well he was about to be interrogated over the day's events. His light began to dim. I needed to make a change.

During my 18 months of treatment I had lots of time to reflect on my life. Like everyone, I've made some great decisions and I've made some crappy ones. I'm not going to try and be zen about it and say, "Well every decision I've made has brought me to where I am." Truth is, some choices were just plain bad and there is no sugar coating it. I knew they were bad when I was making them; I've had periods of terribly self destructive behavior. Others I thought were good and only in hindsight do I realize how damaging they were. I began to ask myself, "What do I really want for Sean?" I needed to put my ego aside and answer honestly. What I came up with was that I wanted him to have a happy life...whatever that meant. All this time I've had it wrong. I associated financial rewards with success and happiness. That's just window dressing. The house, the cars, the material things mean nothing if you're empty inside. And if you're fulfilled, they mean even less. I want Sean to have joy in his heart. I want him to know love; to give it and receive it. A life filled with friends and family, laughter and deep connections. I want him to be at peace. 

Unfortunately, it took a cancer diagnosis for me to get it right. But, here I am finally getting it. I pray for time to teach him all I have learned in the last year and a half. For someone so young, he has endured too much trauma. I am awed by his fortitude. I want to show him this does not have to define who you are. A person can take tragedy and turn it into a beautiful life; and there is so much beauty in the world. I want him to go out and find it.

My dear, sweet boy. Whatever you do, wherever you go, hold me in your heart as I hold you in mine. Be bold. Be fearless. Be kind. Be you.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Across The Universe

I believe in destiny. I believe in kindred souls. I believe in the healing powers of forgiveness and love. Yes, I believe in it all. This weekend, light and love and compassion washed over me like Holy Water and, yes, I felt reborn. On a three day yoga and writing retreat, I stood on my mat in a room full of "strangers" and spoke my truth, cried my tears and asked for help. They cheered for me and cried with me. They had my back. 

Who are these glorious people? They are entrepreneurs, wives, mothers, daughters. They are my soul sisters. They are my tribe. Everyone should have one. You don't need to head to the Berkshires to find yours. Turn to the ones who elevate you. Look for people who reflect your light. Throughout my life there have been people who have drained me of energy. Literally. I would walk away from them feeling depleted and icky. I needed to get away from them but didn't know how to shake myself free. I couldn't find my voice. Even this weekend I was afraid. Having ended treatment a month ago, I didn't want to be seen as 'the one with cancer'. But the truth is, it's part of my story. It's not the whole story, but it's a big part and I wanted this weekend to be about getting to the truth. My truth. So, in front of 35 people I told my story and I listened to theirs. I won't share what was said because it is not my story to tell. I honored them then and will continue to do so. What I learned is that every single person knows pain and suffering. Disease may ravage your body, your heart may be broken, someone you loved may be gone or your childhood scars may still open and bleed but you, your light, never dims. And when you truly decide it is time to heal, the universe will send opportunities your way. I trust in that. In my soul I know it to be true. This weekend was proof. 

As my friend and I drove back home we listened to my Road Trip playlist. As Let It Be played I told her about my connection to the song; how I played it during my treatments and I would give my fears up in prayer. At that moment a flock of birds flew in front of my car and just as quickly disappeared. We looked at one another and smiled. We may have left Kripalu, but it will never leave us.