Holy Underthings

The drive to Nordstroms to meet with the plastic part fitter, I’m a mess.  Want to go alone, but find no way of doing so.  Butterfly is along, chatting happily from back seat, asking me random questions.  “What are we doing after we go to the mall, Mom?  Are we going back home?  Is Sis going to be home by then?”  Our college beauty-girl is coming home for Christmas break.  I meet her at the airport tonight.  She hasn’t been home in months, and the house is all a buzz. The kids and I put everything together just right, but day before college beauty-girl arrives I fall apart and cry the entire day.  I have put off getting a prosthetic four months now.  I want more than anything to have a Merry Christmas with our kids.  I’m so lousy at faking.

Grey drizzle, wipers going, butterfly and I make our way down the interstate corridor.  We play Christmas Music.  It’s hard singing with a throat lump.  She is still chattering as we make our way out of car, Butterfly and I.  We are in the store, weaving through the bustle of the season, the escalator up, up toward sparkling Christmas trees.

Another bit of a walk and we are in the lingerie department.  There’s a line.  I wait behind one beautiful lady after another.  I think I’m the only one here today not buying lace and satin because I’m lovely enough to show off for my man.  I hate the gouge in my chest, numb and not belonging.  No matter how much Adored Husband tells me every day he finds me beautiful, I feel like trash. Butterfly’s warm hand swings mine.

“May I help you” says another gorgeous lady.  “I have an appointment” I say.  She rushes to the back room and in time Kind Eyes greet me.  “Hi” She takes my hand, tells me her name.  She smiles and talks to Butterfly.  We walk past the panties and satin gowns, down a narrow hall of mirrored doors, walls papered in flowers, soft carpet.  Christmas tunes playing as key unlocks room at end to the right.  We pass through the door. In the fitting room there are the preliminaries.  The measures.  The questions.  Cat rarely gets my tongue.  I can’t find much to say.  Slow at answering Kind Eyes questions.

I sit there in a fluffy overly turquoise robe and wait a while longer as she rushes away only to return with the loveliest girlie things I’ve seen in a long time.  Beautiful things.  Things I had thought would never be part of my life again.  The prosthetic is completely hidden.  I can’t stop looking.  I look like me.  I feel the shock.  It warms me.  I turn to look at her.  She’s busy loosening each, one by one, from their hangers.  Even the hangers are pretty.  Somehow industrial undergarments are all I can imagine will hold a prosthetic.  These are nothing of the kind.  No-one can ever tell from sight I’m missing a breast, that I’m wearing an engineered pillow that fits in a pocket.

This lady probably doesn’t know it, but she works for God.  Her calling is holy.  I think of the designers of these bras.  They must be God’s agents, too.  The engineers who make the best prosthetic they can, thinking of everything from comfort to heat transfer – ministers, all of them.

The song playing overhead  “… till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”  I leave the holy place of lingerie, Butterfly and I.  We weave past the sparkling Christmas trees, down the escalator and out into the grey.  “…a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, la, la, de, daah….”

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To Float Away

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My four year old is pretending again.  “She’s my mommy.” she says, referring to our sweet friend enjoying an end of the day swim with us.  “You’re the shark!!” My little chatty butterfly points to me.  I smile and feel the stab.  I love her pretend world.  How can her little innocent play feel real?  With the cancer diagnosis, the mastectomy, being told my genes have a high return for a whole variety of cancers, early and deadly – I’ve had to fight my thoughts.  My hyper-focused husband trying to manage the random task of raising our kids alone.  The impossibility of that.  Another Mommy raising our 10 year old tender powerhouse child,  our 4 year old butterfly, and our two older – independent but still needing a mom at times – kids who have just starting college.  There’s no way around it.  The kids will suffer. I’ve been feeling for a while now that bit by bit I’m floating away.  Far away to another place.

To one who has never seen the whites of the eyes of death, the rational goes something like this: “We all die sometime.  It’s just a matter of when.  It’s a waste of time and energy dwelling on it.”  Those words belong to folks who have not had their invincability yanked away.  When invincible is removed, there is the reality of the thing. What the family will have to deal with – what will be missing.  It’s ugly and raw when it’s real.

It would have been so kind of our foremother and father to never have tasted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The way that concept is taught leads one to believe that the first bite delivered a mouthful of sweet goodness that instantly changed to the sour rot of evil.  I’m thinking, however, as days and then years strip away one security blanket after another, ache after heart breaking ache, that the slow stripping away is the gruesome process of fully knowing the difference between the two, no longer able to frame hideous evil as natural, but knowing evil as evil, period.

Butterfly’s innocent pretend words sit heavy on my chest as I float on back across the pool.  I glance upward.  I’m surprised to see high above me the ceiling is mirror.

There I am, floating body, floating away.  Tight throat, tears slipping into the chlorinated blue around.  Letting-go bruises deep.  Bruises that throb.  I float there, thinking how I despise not feeling safe the way I once did.  I hate myself for being stuck in this floundering place of uncertainty. The pain turns my thoughts sideways and twisted.  “The kids will be better off”.  I’m thinking I will never be able to give them what they need, even if I live a long life, I will never feel safe again, impossible managing the day to day in a state of floating away.  I flail, wanting loose from the heaviness, this march toward goodbyes.  I want to run.  Run wild. Run and swim and fly far and strong.  I think of how I love to move.  Think how confining death will be.  Still.  Immovable. Anger burning.  I’ll never be able to talk Adored Man into letting my ashes float upon the water where at least the pieces of me will be moving.  More gut retching.

The side of the pool supports my aching head.  Irritated, I think myself to be ridiculous, breast removal almost 3 months behind me.  No chemo, no radiation, clean margins.  Pathetic drama and stupid.  I hate myself.  Treated water washes the reddened face.  I pull myself together and cross over, back to the other side of the pool.  To our friends and kids in time to hear chatty butterfly say “Mom, you are a very nice shark.”  She senses everything.  I hate myself even more.  “God, I need your help”.  I start to fake laugh and chat through tight throat.

We manage through our evening swim.  I return to the room with kids in tow, get the evening duties rapped up, say our good-nights.  As I wind down on my bed, I open the Bible to the random text of the night.  Psalms 88. Oh Lord, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before you.  Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.  For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave.  I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a ‘woman’ who has no strength, Adrift among the dead…You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves.

Did that just say waves??  OH MY GOD.  He sees me.  Jaw slides out of palm, a tired profile down onto the cool white sheet.  Still.  A shiver runs through.

I put the verse within range of my site. …“Lord, I have called daily upon you; I have stretched out my hands to you. Will you work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise you? Shall your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall your wonders be known in the dark? And your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?  But to you I have cried out, O Lord, and in the morning my prayer comes before you.  Lord, why do you cast off my soul? Why do you hide your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer your terrors; I am distraught.  Your fierce wrath has gone over me; your terrors have cut me off.  They come around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether….”

Some would not find this text comforting.  I do.  A man after God’s own heart is in the black place I’m in.  There is no happy ending.  It’s the dark throbbing heart of all of us trapped on this death laden planet.  His journal is not painted rosy to make tolerable.  It’s written exactly how things are.  No tidy rapping it up.  David does not suggest one should look on the bright side, count blessings.  He does not remind himself or us that others have it much worse, to forgive and forget, to deal with it.  The chapter is not missing a thing, because it’s the path of deep and lasting healing.  In the book Pilgrims Progress, Pilgrim takes a path to the Celestial City.  The only path to the City takes him through The Slew of Despond, the sloppy mud hole where sin and the consequences of evil can suck us under if not for help sent by God for each of us who pass through this dark place.  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Those are words of Jesus Christ.  God himself passed through this blank swamp.

Research backs up what the Bible models.  In order for a person to heal from trauma or loss of any kind there are steps that must be taken.  One of the steps is depression – i.e. hopelessness.  Short cuts create emotional wounds that in time become toxic cesspools.  Wounds that block the healing process for years, permeating multiple layers of a person’s wellbeing.

I close my eyes.  The image of me floating away lingers.  God reached me tonight, by sharing with me a scripture of dispear.  He has painted a different picture, helping  reframe this hopeless struggle.  I’m drifting away, but on a Sea called Grief and Loss.  I’m still here.  Experiencing once again another tearing away of the security blanket called invincible.  Another bite of sour evil.  And feeling it.

“Mom!!, Mommy, Mommy, I’m telling you something.  The Butterfly’s voice gets louder and higher.  “I have to go to the bathrooooom!!”  Slipping out of bed, I smile.  Ya, I’m still her Mommy.

Amelia

What Breast Cancer Can Not Destroy

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I’ve taken a trip to hide.  My husband has business here intermittently, and having just had my breast removed because of cancer, he was not inclined to have us separated.  Me either, for that matter. There is a period of time after surgery where no fake part can be used to get out and about, because the wound is just too raw, and reconstruction immediately is not an option for me due to other health conditions.  I’d be looking like a freak, all bound in an ace, one still with me, and the other giant nothingness where something use to be.

Days have passed… weeks.  I’ve decided that though my breast is gone, some things have not changed. I’m not hiding anymore.  When I can ware the fake pad, I will.  When it’s too painful, I won’t.  When it slides to the middle of my chest and you stare at me…. , than stare on.  Some things one cannot prevent unless one changes ones life to sitting idly by, making sure ones faulsie does not shift from it’s designated location.  To live, in my skin, is to move.  Therefore there will be awkward moments of things not in their place.  So be it.

I still have my family, the same as they’ve always been…. crazy, fun, loud and eccentric as all get out.

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I still have God.  Praise, anger, gratitude, rage… when I sob so deep in my gut I break blood vessels in my face, He is still and close and listens.  I can feel his smile on me sometimes, even when I blather on and on.  He loves me as is. I let that soak into me.  I need it right now.

I can still sing… I wasn’t sure how much would change as the breast sits over-top my lung, and thought maybe it would hallow out the sound, or weaken it.  No, all’s intact there.

My husband still finds me beautiful.  When you love someone this long, there is so much more to beauty than dimensions and contour.  His love and attraction gives me confidence to get about and live life, even now in a state where I can’t use some pretend thing to make myself look “normal”.  Sometimes hard things rip a couple apart.  Sometimes trauma heals broken places.  We promised each other before surgery we would not waste this horror, but would make sure the pain became fertilizer for growth and love.  God has helped us keep our promise to each other.  We are still a couple with ups and downs… but feel safer with each other, less defensive.  The love is real and blows about our hearts as we silently wonder how long we have each other.

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Jazz is still as amazing as ever, a good standard still fills up the pours in my soul.

This is still My Father’s World. The beauty on the hills around me the past 3 weeks has, at times, overwhelmed me.  Last weekend we got to 10,000 feet, it took a lot of huffing and puffing, but we did it.  Up there I can almost touch God, there where the clouds hover beside, pink our cheeks and frizzle hair with dew.

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Jury is still out on swimming.  I can’t yet, as the wound has not healed.  It has not stopped me from getting in the pool waist-high, and doing a kind of 46-year-old version of a ballet warm up, hanging on to the side with one hand, toe front, than swooping under and behind all the way back, out of the water, then front again… trying to keep myself from turning into mush.  I still feel the excitement stepping into the pool room, smelling the water.

I remember, a number of years back, the first time I discovered my connection to God and water.  I was trying for the 100th time to make my way through the Bible, found myself waylaid at Genesis 1:2 “The Earth was without Form; and void.  And darkness was on the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God hovered over the water.”  I realized at that moment that so much of what hurts us now…. giant voids all around and so much darkness, that Gods Spirit still hovers over, wanting to immerse us, heal us, and fill in the void that aches us.  Since then, I have discovered that swimming heals anxiety, have experienced the tonic of running in the rain, fresh grated ginger tea, a hot shower, ice on a twisted ankle, and standing on the bank of frigged mountain river, I watch as one child, another year, another child, and then again, our oldest three choose death to self and life to Christ in Baptism.  I still experience God near the water, and can’t wait to return to all the healing opportunities of my ugly blue swim cap, goggles and the crawl that has coaxed me out of bed and to the pool 5 a.m. BBC (Before Breast Cancer).

I can still RUN!!!!!  Found myself some Brooks.. my old ones were hanging by a thread.  The ones I just bought are mostly PINK.  What’s with PINK AND PURPLE RUNNERS THIS SEASON??… Oh well…. I ran, ace baggage and all, in red rock along a dirt road not far from Arches National Park. OK, just a walk/run under 2 miles, but it made me smile to know I can do this!

Have not tried to bike yet.  Should be OK, am just having to be OK with looking strange as nothing stays in place when truly active.  I saw a to-die-for baby aqua blue road bike I coveted at REI the other day.  It’s important to openly talk about ones temptations:)  And as I’m writing this, I’m thinking if I have a most strikingly beautiful bike, maybe the sideways station of my presentation will not be noticed.  OK, I’m justifying.  I’ll be fine with the ole stand-by:)

Cancer has slowed me down some.  “In our intact bodies we Live, and Move and Have Our Being” – NOT!  I hang on tight to Him in whom I live and move and have my being…no matter what is going on with my body.

In some ways breast cancer has changed me.  The feeling that life will be long.  Confidence that I will get to raise my children.  With the breast cancer diagnosis came information about a couple mutated genes that given the predictions could put me into a fetal position permanently.  I won’t pretend I haven’t soaked my pillow over and over, the future looming and heavy, but I regularly have to release to God my desire to raise our kids to adulthood, and be involved in our future grandchildrens lives.  These things are up to God.  He will decide.

Cancer is nasty.  Some people refer to reconstruction as “A Boob Job” and “A Tummy Tuck”.  I’ve been told loosing a breast is no worse than loosing a tooth, that I should be thankful for…and a long list of horrors are presented that are “much worse than loosing a breast.  What good are they, anyway?” I’ve heard things from people about loosing my sexual power by loosing a breast, and how sorry they are for me.  Some women may feel that way, but I don’t have the foggiest idea what that would be about.  No hard feelings.  These words come from people I love, and who love me.  They just don’t know what they are talking about.  Of course there are the words and actions, kind and wonderful.  Hundreds of them, thousands maybe.  In moments of black, however, they stand at a distance, hard to recall, and too far from me.

My breasts took a lot of getting use to as I was one of those freak girls who had to ware a bra in 2nd grade, was shy, and didn’t want attention for physical reasons in any way.  Missing a breast is just as embarrassing, people notice me for physical reasons.  Awkward.

The reality of loosing a breast is complicated…takes some getting use to.  Try imagining that every day when you dress, you put on your left sock first… and suddenly your left foot is gone.  The routine you once had is not possible, don’t quite know how to start your day. 

A week after surgery, I gathered all the strength in me and had a look, first time, at the wound.  The shock was horrific.  Looked as if a rabid animal had ripped breast from chest wall.  Revoltion, hot tears, the punishment I deserved for having been fondled at 8 by Land Lord of Apartments.  The words ringing in my ears, round and round in my head they condemned me “It’s interesting that you were the one molested when the others weren’t.”  The implication obvious… I had done something to cause the molestation that time, and the time when Youth Pastor molested me at 12, in car, along side road, on the way to babysit children so he and wife could go out for date, removing his pants and asking me if I’d ever seen man turned on before.  I deserved the cancer, the tearing shred, heavy chunk of black flesh atop scab.  Bones projecting from up to collarbone and down to nothingness.  I deserve shame.  That’s what I get. 

The words of people I’d tell secret to, in prayers preaching to forgive and forget.  Even since the cancer, in prayers, and to my face, telling me with hearty laugh “You know you did this to yourself, don’t you.  You have no one to blame but you.” The laugh resumes and walks away and burns hot. 

Things not thought of in so long become vivid color, words and actions with the viewing of the hideous chest, the hole.

I have observed nothing so violent before, although experienced birth four times, six miscarriages, a burst appendix. Nothing, including cancer, however, is nasty enough to rip away the “me” made in Gods Image.  That dignity, no ravage can touch.  I’m still the same me I’ve always been.  I’m done hiding.  If the void in me makes you uncomfortable, I suggest you find yourself some water.  I know I’m going to.

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Amelia Ponder