Win, win

5-6 weeks ago I couldn’t read or respond to almost anything written.  Texts, cards, emails, voicemails, communication through special apps went unread and unresponded to for weeks.  I apologize for all the messages that slipped through the cracks of that time.  After docs found leukemia had infiltrated my brain, and that it caused nerve problems, I could no longer open my left eye, hence the lack in response.  It was too hard to focus.  Radiation was scheduled with the intent to reverse the damage, both to my eye, drooping face, and other parts of my left side.  Unfortunately the week of radiation brought no changes, during or shortly after (which is what they had predicted),  Docs had told me prior to the radiation that it was designed to help with the nerve damage, but not cure the disease.  And so, for the first time, with his head in his hands, I heard one of my oncologists tell me  — we have nothing left for you.

I must have been in a strange form of shock because I don’t remember a lot of this time period.  I just knew they were sending me home to die, and as I began realizing it, I couldn’t seem to say more than 2 words to anyone without losing it.  I was told I had weeks, not months to live.

So we went home.  There were balloons, signs, decorations outside, and a hospital bed all set up  inside with more decor and love.  I felt so loved, but still somewhat in shock.  Luckily I was able to sleep that night.  I woke up and things were better.  People started visiting, and I remember crying a lot.  I think I was confused, but knew deep down it was okay. If all I knew was that Heavenly Father had a plan, and that the Savior was real, I could survive another day.  But it was hard to feel at peace all the time.

Fast forward several weeks.  While glancing at my phone once, I noticed I could read it.  I tried reading texts, responding, checking voicemails and other messages.  Sure enough, I could do it!  I realized that my good right eye, unbeknownst to me, had become a “stronger” eye in the last few weeks.  It was working

champion eye

double time so I could see finer things with clearer vision.  Wow.  What a champ!

It was at this time that I realized other things had changed too.  Well, I guess the first thing to mention was that I WAS STILL ALIVE, and doing remarkably well.  I went to a movie with my family and felt good about that, went out to eat… again…and again… and again.  My appetite and digestive habits were all good.   I was connecting with lots of people,  I was working on projects with people.  My bishop in Hyde Park extended a calling to work with the Young Women.  I was living! All the while, of course there had been thoughts of a possible miracle, an unexpected cure, or a healing through God’s power.  But it was difficult to put all my eggs in that basket given the fact that I was sent home to die, and probably should have been gone before New Year’s.  I thought of miracles wrought by God in the past, with prophets and the many, many miracles Christ performed while on Earth.  I knew He could do it.  I knew He had the power, even today, and even with me.  Thus began the perplexing discussions with so many about faith, God’s will, what we should pray for and more.  My family and I prayed to know what to do and how to recognize God’s will.  We fasted.  I was even able to attend the temple for a cousin’s first endowment (first time going through the temple), and felt that was a miracle to be able to go.

Somehow through this perplexing process, I realized that the Lord, in His mercy, had allowed me to work quickly through (because I couldn’t have done it on my own) the typical grief process.  As I got up to live my life each day, I began realizing I was at peace and acceptance with the idea of passing on.  But I was also at peace with a miracle that would allow me to stay – even it meant work, possible suffering, and a hard road ahead. Instead of picking one option and praying solely for that, I decided I would just walk the path — The Gospel Path, the Straight and Narrow, whatever you’d like to call it.  I decided that as I walked this path, whatever God wanted for me would be waiting on that path, as long as I moved forward seeking to live my best.

So I did.  Each day became a celebration of life, of people, and finding joy in simple things. As weird as it might sound, I’ve had the privilege of helping plan things regarding my funeral, written my will, signed important “end of life” documents, etc.   I’ve learned so much more about the Spirit World, and how incredible it is. And yet, my body seems intent on trying to blaze it’s own trail by evading doctor’s predictions.  Although I have had some pains here and there, I am by no means in “constant” pain, I’m not on hospice.  I get tired, but I take naps.  I’m not on oxygen all the time – only at night.  One day I noticed my left arm (that previously couldn’t reach above my elbow), was now suddenly lifting above my head.  Through the means of the right resources, I now sleep consistently.  (True miracles involved there)  A massage therapist worked on a terrible bruise (I get lots of those with low platelets) in a way I didn’t think was that special, but miraculously helped alleviate pain and provided healing that I know wasn’t there before.  (I am fast becoming a regular there…)  And just 2 days ago I woke up and my left eye was trying to open.  It now can, only partway, and not totally focused with the other one, but hey – it opened, on it’s own!

So what is next?  GREAT QUESTION!  Could I still pass away within days to weeks?  Yes, I could.  Could something happen, if it be God’s will, to allow me to stay and accomplish other missions on earth?  Yes, it could.

Bottom line?  None of us have our future nailed down, but if you’re on the gospel path, and you’re adding drops to your bucket a little at a time – your reservoir of faith will grow and be ready for any perplexing  (favorite word of this blog, ha!) situation,  In my situation, I may stay, or I may go.  But it’s a win, win.  I am at complete peace with either option.  Either option at some point will be waiting for me along the path and I won’t be afraid to pick it up and go with it.  It’s because of this whole process.  This time, believe it or not, has become precious.  I have connected and loved and laughed and cried with some of the best people God put on Earth.  Lesson learned: PEOPLE MATTER.  I’ve been lifted by way of sincere prayers, sweeter and sweeter visits, priesthood blessings, celebrating through food, entertainment, attempts to serve, shopping, and even going to the IV lab (where the nurses are as sweet as the free Diet Coke). Lesson learned: FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN DO, NOT ON WHAT YOU CAN’T.

Dear friends and family, I think you all know this stuff.  But I think it’s important lastly, knowing however long or short I have, that I simply share what I know..

I know the Plan of Salvation is real.  There is a lot of greatness waiting for us should we pass on.  I know God is a God of miracles, and if He wants to provide a miracle of any kind, He can if He wills it.  I know life is short and the best we can do with our time is come to know God through prayer and study. I know as we come to really know God and gain a sense of His love for us, we will look to others.  We won’t just want to help and love them because we pity them, or because we feel obligated to do some service – we’ll love them up – to where they’re our real friends.  Grief can be sweet.  Especially because of where it ends up.  Jesus Christ lives.  Because He lives, there will be no eternal losses – only wins.  He is at work today.  He’s invited me to join Him.  He’s invited you.  It really doesn’t matter if it’s from this side or the other – with Him, we win.

 

Pollyanna

IMG_5612Pollyanna.  Remember her?  That bright-eyed, bushy tailed princess of a girl who had nothing but good to see?

I remember, (with fondness now) a time where I was “accused” of being a Pollyanna.  I was a new-ish teacher, a little naive to the complexities of life, but confident about what mattered most.  I guess people saw that.  Whether it was about positivity, bright perspective, or an overall love of life, people apparently noticed my attempts at remaining hopeful about things.

I realize now that maybe my determination to be positive was actually a gift from God – something He knew all along would be necessary in order to help me survive.

Cancer itself wasn’t necessarily the hardest thing I ever went through. Honestly, it was the aftermath of cancer. I don’t think I’d ever felt so broken in my life. Re entering “real life” with all my new challenges felt like walking into a dance floor with a broken leg. And I love to dance.

The aftermath of surviving a crisis is much different than the crisis itself. It’s one thing to lose your hair on a cancer floor with roughly 30 other bald patients around you.  It’s another thing to struggle with thin, patchy hair when you’re surrounded by heads of healthy, normal hair. And then to realize you’ve not only lost your hair,  but also your lung capacity,  your ability to have kids, your muscles, and time. For the first time, my ability to be positive and hopeful was deeply challenged.

But….

Today is different. Today I’m feeling positive most often. And I also feel… stronger. Sometimes I forget how far I’ve come. (With immense help from others of course). 3 years ago I was living at home trying to recover.  I had few social opportunities, much less dating ones. I’m certain I worried about never traveling again, or being carefree, or living happily on my own.

But today I actually own a house. I saw Norway, Denmark and Boston this year. I’m dating an amazing guy, and I just finished a successful first day of school.  Things are better in so many ways. Guess what? The trial dial turns!  It turns out there is an end to certain things- maybe not all, but some. Yes, there were times where the Pollyanna in me lost the vision of good things to come.  I’ve learned that’s okay. Struggling is human. Painful things have brought gratitude and a certain sweetness to my current life.

If you haven’t seen Pollyanna in a while, go watch it.  Remember how she had a terrible accident?  Remember how bitter she was at first?  Certainly she was the most undeserving of such a fate, but that wasn’t her focus. In the end, she chose happiness over despair.

Even though there isn’t a sequel, I’m positive if there was, we’d be watching a girl still making good things happen, both for her and others. I believe she represents more than a couple hours of feel good entertainment.  She represents this truth  :

Tragedy isn’t the end, unless you allow it to be.

Thanks Pollyanna, you fictional character that came about long before I was born.  Your legacy lives on!

Thorns in the Flesh

Last year got ONE blog post from me. Take that 2016! Too busy living.

After a 3rd run-in with he-who-shall-not-be-named during the fall of 2015, I had a chance to put on the fightin’ gear once again. What I expected to be a long, ugly 6 month recovery turned out to be a shorter, less dramatic, 4 month recovery. 2016 grabbed the reigns of my life, cracked the whip and threw me into a new reality. I moved back to the house I’d purchased 8 months earlier, began working, dating, exercising and traveling again. Bustling demands and opportunities came, just like I’d hoped they would. Distractions from health concerns came, just like I’d hoped they would.

But other things came too.

Things I had wrestled with before, like anxiety, impatience, unfair comparisons, fears about marriage, insecurities about my appearance, and many more (a little too personal to share) were waiting for me.  They didn’t disappear after I left the hospital. Contrary to popular belief, there was no special immunity to everyday weakness, or petty problems, just because I’d survived cancer.

I still lost patience with kids at school. I still noticed all my flaws in the mirror. I still overanalyzed relationships that didn’t work out. On so many occasions, someone would say to me, “Well, I’m having a really hard time with something… but I know I shouldn’t even talk about it because it’s nothing like what you’ve been through!” (Insert face-palm emoji). People!!! I hope you realize that even I compare myself to that strong cancer survivor girl when having a hard time with things! I wonder, “Why is this other stuff even hard? I should be stronger than this!”

Here’s what I’ve learned. Sometimes there are things we face throughout our lives. Call them thorns in the flesh, ongoing weaknesses, or whatever you like. The prospect of battling them for an entire lifetime can seem daunting, discouraging, and unfair, but it’s certainly not hopeless.

First, a weakness wouldn’t be a weakness unless you struggled with it for more than a day. A week. Or a lifetime. Those other things that we figure out quick… those are obviously NOT weaknesses. And despite the common notion that some people just don’t have weaknesses, please remember: NO ONE is immune. We’ve all got stuff. It’s kind of part of the mortality package. The Lord wanted us to understand this when he said, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them,” (Ether 12:27).

I read a book once called, “Weakness is not Sin,” by Wendy Ulrich. The title struck me. Perhaps like many, I had fallen prey to the lie that I was somehow crazy, or unworthy, or just really alone – because of my recurring weaknesses. I felt pretty ashamed sometimes.  BUT, struggling with a recurring weakness throughout life is completely different than returning to sin, and not ever fully repenting. Weakness can feel like sin because the consequences may affect our relationships and our ability to see things clearly, but it’s still not the same.  Wendy writes,

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 12.29.30 AM“Because we are weak, we cannot make every needed change all at once. As we humbly and faithfully tackle our human weakness a few aspects at a time, we can gradually reduce ignorance, make good patterns habitual, increase our physical and emotional health and stamina, and strengthen our trust in the Lord. God can help us know where to begin,” (“It Isn’t a Sin to Be Weak”, Ensign April 2015).

Paul never says what his “thorn in the flesh” was, only that he “besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from [him].” It wasn’t taken away. But Paul, who trusted God enough was still able to say, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me… for when I am weak, then am I strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Perhaps more important than the size or nature of our weakness is the energy we exert in striving to overcome it. That, coupled with our application of the Savior’s grace, is a winning combination. Whether or not we overcome everything perfectly won’t matter as long as we’ve become something better, something stronger – in trying.

Thorns in the flesh,

are but stones to success.

For with Him, ALL things are possible, (Phil 4:13).

Good Grief

 

IMG_1748

“Society teaches us that having feelings and crying is bad and wrong. Well, that’s baloney, because grief isn’t wrong. There’s such a thing as good grief. Just ask Charlie Brown.” -Michael Scott, The Office

But seriously, can we talk about grief for a minute?

If you’re anything like me, you grew up thinking that grief was an emotion reserved only for those who lost someone to death. And rightly so.  But perhaps life experience has taught you there are many ways to suffer loss.

“Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.”            – Mark Twain

Some losses may be small and easily recovered. Others – life changing. I think about refugees who leave their countries, their homes, and sometimes their family  – most likely never to return.  I think of marriages that end in divorce, and the many losses incurred there.  I think of the aging process, and the loss of youth.  I think of the loss of health in it’s various forms.

To grieve may seem depressing, because it means acknowledging that something hard has happened. Things have changed.

But I learned something recently.  There really is such a thing as good grief.  In fact, I believe proper grieving can be therapeutic.  After an outburst of frustration and venting to my mother about a loss I didn’t understand, this inspired woman said to me:  I think you need to let yourself grieve over this.  I didn’t know how powerful that idea was.  Having someone to confide in while struggling or grieving, is priceless.

“Grief knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger links than common joys.” – Alphonse De Lamartine

Thanks to my mom, I began doing a little research.  I learned about the 5 stages of grief that are common for people to experience.  I learned about “grief triggers” – things you see in others, or experiences that remind you of what you’ve lost.  I learned that not everyone processes things the same way, or in the same amount of time – and that’s okay.  I learned that sometimes you’ll swing from acceptance to anger in the space of the same day, and that it’s important to have people in your life who understand that.

I often tell people that sometimes you just have to let yourself sit in the mud.  It’s important to allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel.  Get it out through talking or writing.  Express everything you feel in prayer – not just what you think God wants to hear.  And then, get up out of the mud and keep going.  The good news is, you’re stronger after you’ve gotten up.

“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

You’re becoming something beautiful as you work through hard experiences.  God is so anxious to help.  In coming to Him, you’ll be reminded of what really matters, and your grieving can be sweet and therapeutic.  Hopefully in the process you’ll catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about.

“All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it.”  – Joseph Smith

To avoid grieving is to avoid reaching a better place.  Perhaps you don’t want to grieve because you want to feel strong.  Perhaps you believe it just takes time and some grit to get through things.  But I’ll say it again – grieving can be sweet and therapeutic.  Only you can discover that.

Good grief – Charlie Brown was on to something!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Joy/Pain” spectrum

Analogies have served me well.  If I can form a picture in my mind, or make a new connection based on comparison, then tough concepts are easier to understand.  Lately, I’ve pondered on a new analogy, and it helps make clear some of my purpose in suffering.

I call this the “Joy/Pain” spectrum.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 6.26.29 PM

In my mind’s eye, I see a rubber band stretched between two points – joy, and pain.  In a simple way it illustrates the idea that we need both points to stretch, to grow, and to progress.  A rubber band with only one point, would not stretch.  Likewise, without both points – joy and pain, we wouldn’t stretch, and we wouldn’t grow. “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.  If not so… righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness…happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility,” (2 Nephi 2:11).

rubber band plain

No stretching, no growth.

Without their transgression, Adam and Eve would have been like a rubber band without either point.  No stretching, no growth, for “if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden…wherefore [Adam and Eve] would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery…” (2 Nephi 2:22-23, emphasis added).

Simple enough, right?  Why then is it so painfully difficult to experience life’s stretching effects? If I know this principle is true, then why does it still hurt when I hear bad news from the doctor?  Why does my heart ache when I see others moving easily into marriage, or expecting their 16th child?  (I know, I know, but that’s how it feels sometimes :)).

Perspective

It has everything to do with what we’re seeing.  In other words, perspective.  Let me illustrate.

As a child, the range of the “Joy/Pain” spectrum is small.  Something as simple as a lollipop, a bubble, or a new toy, can bring joy to a child. Conversely, watching a scoop of ice cream fall to the ground or losing a toy can be devastating.  The range is small.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 6.18.11 PM

We may chuckle at the simple joys or insignificant losses, but we must remember that children can only express what they know of their world. We may look at them and think, “Oh if only you could see!  It’s not that hard to get a new scoop of ice cream!”  We may see what seems obvious, but obviously, they don’t.  Is it so far-fetched to think that there is a similarity between these children in their limited earthly perspective, and adults in their limited eternal perspective?   As we grow older, we experience great stretching.  What we consider “joyful” changes, as well as what we consider “painful”.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 6.21.52 PM

Is the stretching worth it?

So now the question:  Is the stretching worth it?  Is it really better to rise from our ignorance and experience more?  What if all we seem to be seeing is the painful side of the spectrum?  Is it still worth the stretching?

Absolutely.

To know the dark side of pain and suffering is to have our capacity for joy and understanding stretched.  Napoleon Hill said it this way:  “Remember that every adversity has within it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Orson F. Whitney said it this way: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God, … and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire” (quoted in Improvement Era, Mar. 1966, 211)

D. Todd Christofferson: “With confidence we testify that the Atonement of Jesus Christ has anticipated and, in the end, will compensate all deprivation and loss for those who turn to Him. No one is predestined to receive less than all that the Father has for His children,” (“Why Marriage, Why Family”, CR April 2015).

Spencer W. Kimball:  “If we look at mortality as a complete existence, then pain, sorrow and a short life could be a calamity. But if we look upon the whole of life in its eternal perspective stretching far into the premortal past and into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may have more meaning and may fall into proper place,” (Spencer W. Kimball, Tragedy or Destiny, Speeches of the Year (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1955), p 5). 

Finally, the Lord’s words to Adam and Eve were to “taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good,” (Moses 6:55).  He sees it all.  We are very much like the children who don’t see beyond our “vale of tears” to a much brighter future.  And that is very human.

I know better than ever that being stretched through experience is worth it.  This doesn’t mean I will ask for stretching hardships, but I’m catching glimpses of the their purpose.  My joy in things that matter most has deepened.  The quiet peace that comes from knowing what’s true has increased.  I appreciate simple things more than I used to.  I believe I will appreciate many things far more than I might have otherwise.  I know I don’t see it all perfectly right now, but the Lord will lead me on, and for now, that is enough.

The mask

Last week I boarded my first flight since the summer of 2012.  My mom and I flew to Oregon to visit my brother and his wife.  Because I’m still on immuno-suppresant medication, I opted to wear my mask to protect against unwanted germs, especially sitting in such a confined space.

mask

After finding my seat, mask in place, I was surprised at what I began to feel.  First of all, people surrounded me on every side.  Coughing from two rows back was loud and persistent.  And what I felt?  I felt SO protected.  The embarrassment of wearing a huge mask and looking like a freak didn’t really even phase me.  I was just so grateful to feel safe.  I leaned back, looked out the window, and sighed inwardly at knowing I was doing all I could to protect my body.

My thoughts haven’t always been so cuddly toward such an awkward facial accessory.  The stares, the whispers, and the questions during the early stages of being in public were never rude – simply uncomfortable when I just wanted so badly to blend in.  But this time, on the flight, I didn’t care if I didn’t blend.

As the flight prepared to take off, my mind was flooded with thoughts.  I was suddenly thinking about the parallel between this mask and something else … commandments.

Because I choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I also choose to follow commandments – laws given by God to protect and bless us. I believe not only the command to love and serve God, our fellowman, and keep the 10 commandments, but I also follow direction the Lord speaks through His modern prophets.  These prophets, like Moses, deliver counsel and instruction that can bless and protect us.

Anyone familiar with Mormons may have noticed most don’t drink alcohol or coffee, or smoke. They strive to remain chaste before marriage, keep their conversations clean, serve each other, study scriptures, pay tithing, and much more.  And it may appear awfully restrictive and demanding.  For some, it may seem embarrassing to live such a way. It might actually feel like wearing a gigantic mask on your face – being the only one not jumping in on the crude conversation, willing to watch or listen to something, be a social drinker, or mess around a little before marriage.

But I realized something as I sat there.  Just as it had become so clear how much I needed this mask, and how safe I felt — at some point, I believe it will become obvious that all of God’s commandments are protective. It will become clear that they bring peace. Like the practice of any good habit, we may not notice the importance or significance right away.  But somewhere, sometime, there will be a quiet moment where we get it.

This coming weekend, anyone interested in hearing inspired instruction on how to better live commandments, how to gain peace, and how to stay strong, is invited to listen to the words of modern prophets and apostles.  Visit lds.org to find out more.

Give me patience… now please!

Within the coming hours of this day, I’ll sit across a table from one of my oncologists for my one-year review. We’ll discuss what’s going well, what is still concerning, and where we go from here.

Sometimes I take enough of a step back to look at all this and wonder, “Whoa. When did THIS become my life? When did constant visits, concern about stunted hair growth, lung capacity, fertility, whether I can hold a normal job, meet someone who could love me through everything… when did this become my life?!”

I’ve told people that blasting leukemia out of a person’s body is somewhat like dropping a bomb on a target during war. Certainly it’s a victory to hit the target, but there is always collateral damage… innocent civilians killed, and other nearby structures left destroyed or barely standing. And the aftermath of war, for some, may be a greater battle than the war itself. Especially when you, a survivor, see skyscrapers and beautiful parks going up in neighboring cities… while trudging through rubble.

The point I’ve come to realize in my life is that if I wasn’t killed during the “war”, then there surely is a purpose for my survival. Even with all the wreckage, there is a reason I’m still here. And even though I can’t tell you specifically what all the reasons are, I’m learning to trust that there ARE reasons.

Of these “broken cities”, Isaiah, prophet and poet, speaks comfort: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings… to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes… they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities…” (Isaiah 61: 1, 3-4)

I trust Isaiah was on to something here.

Pondering these words helps crystallize my goal: It is to be patient with this process of rebuilding. It is to trust the Lord’s words and His ability to mend, rebuild, and eventually perfect things that are broken.

Can I be patient? Absolutely. There is only one source, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, that will help me grow my patience fully and properly. I’m grateful to have a relationship with the most perfect Teacher.

I have faith I will build and rebuild. In His way and in His time, I know there will be beauty for ashes.