Quiet Sleep and A Sweet Dream – Revisited

Five years ago this month, in September 2013, I took my mother on her last outing. It was nothing extraordinary. We went to a doctor appointment, ran a few errands, and ate lunch at her favorite Mexican restaurant. Perhaps if we had known it was the last time we would be out together, we would have done something more purposeful, more memorable. Nevertheless, it was. That day, out of the blue, she told me that soon she would be leaving. Despite the fact that she was elderly, in poor health and wheelchair-bound, she remarked matter-of-factly that she would walk out the front door of our shared home and head down the sidewalk, carrying everything she needed in a small bag. A few months later she did leave. Just not on foot. She left on the wings of a dream and, in her memory, I am republishing the blog I wrote about her departure. Herewith is “Quiet Sleep and a Sweet Dream.”Dream (3)

Throughout her adult life, Mom experienced a recurring dream that was poignantly revealing. In the dream she roamed the halls of a school, unable to find her locker or her classroom. She was always lost, always searching, never finding. One hardly needs to consult a dream interpreter to understand the obvious meaning behind her unresolved quest. To think that she was perpetually adrift, unable to find her heart’s desire, was reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy.

Toward the end of her life, Mom also suffered from vivid nightmares. Many times I would hear her during the night or during an afternoon nap fighting against someone or something that posed a threat. She could rarely recount the experiences when I woke her, but judging by the flailing and yelling, the danger must have seemed very real. Sometimes she was so enmeshed in these dreams that it was difficult to break the spell. When gently touching her shoulder or softly calling out “Mom” didn’t work, I resorted to shouting her name, “Joy!”

One day just before she was admitted to the home hospice program, she was able to recall a particularly powerful vision. It began harmlessly but ended in disturbing cries that drew me to her bedside. Her story is still clear in my mind.

I was with a bunch of other people by the water. I’m not sure whether it was the ocean or a lake, but there was a pier. I’m pretty sure the people around me were my brothers and sisters. Sam (her late husband, my father) was in the water and he wanted me to get in. He kept laughing and trying to coax me, but I didn’t want to go. Finally, he grabbed me and pulled me in. Everyone was laughing, but I was really mad.

Dream (2)

As with her recurring dream, this one did not require hours of thoughtful analysis. She simply was not ready for the end of this life … or on the flip side … the beginning of a new one. The hospice social worker she shared the story with concurred without hesitation. I was quietly concerned because I knew Mom did not have much time left to prepare. The ethereal boat was going to leave the pier with her aboard regardless of whether she wanted to go. I shuddered to think that she might die flailing and shouting – figuratively if not literally – as though she were in the middle of another bad dream.

The day inevitably came, of course, when she traded her hospital bed for a seat on that ghostly vessel bound for the Other Side. By that time, though, I was no longer worried that she wasn’t ready. Long after she stopped talking to us, my sister and I heard her pose two important questions to no one that we could see. I was alone with Mom for the first question. My sister was alone with her for the second.

Where are we? Where are we going?

Although she displayed some typical signs of near-death anxiety in the days leading up to her departure, Mom was entirely calm and peaceful when she asked these two questions. Her eyes were closed to the mortal world. There was no trepidation in her voice whatsoever.

I can’t think of anything she could have said in her last hours that would have given me more comfort. The answers would be interesting, but the questions are solace enough. Evidently, she went somewhere with someone.

Dream (6)The idea that our loved ones depart on a journey of mystical proportions is not without basis. Religious beliefs aside, it is a fact that the dying use travel as a way of expressing their impending departure without even realizing it. In their 1992 book Final Gifts, hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley documented multiple examples of patients who exhibited near-death awareness in this way. Mom could have been one of their case studies. Out of the blue, about three months before she died, she told me that one day I would come home from work and she would be gone – out the front door, walking and carrying everything she needed in a small bag. I thought she was joking as she so often did, but her voice was somehow different. Faraway. When I questioned her scenario, she was indignant. I let it go, and we didn’t talk about it again.

Today, with about 17 months of bereavement under my belt, I still miss my mother terribly. However, I don’t worry about where she is. I don’t picture her splashing around with my father in a lake or the sea near a pier, nor do I imagine her walking down the sidewalk of our neighborhood with a hobo sack slung over her shoulder. I don’t think of her futilely roaming the halls of a school because I think that, in the end, she finally located the elusive door of her locker or classroom and found paradise inside. No, I have embraced another vision – one that she shared with me on a sunny morning after she awoke from a quiet sleep accompanied by a sweet dream.

I was riding a motorcycle down a winding road with tall trees on both sides. It was getting dark and all I could see clearly was the headlight of the motorcycle on the road as I went around the curves. I don’t know where I was going, but I could feel the wind in my face and I felt free.

Dream (1)That is how I like to think of Mom – on an endless sojourn with no particular destination. I can imagine her long, dark hair blowing in the wind and a beautiful smile on her youthful face. She leans right into one curve, straightens out her bike, and leans left into the next turn. She is free.

And maybe freedom is the real point after all. Not where you are going or how you get there.

When our family gathered to scatter Mom’s ashes at her beloved Oregon Coast, we took some time to play and sing the songs she had requested – Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan, Tender Years by John Cafferty, Around and Around by John Denver, Always by Irving Berlin. I read a little poem she wrote when she was a child about wanting to be a cowboy. We wrapped the tribute up with a piece by the late British poet laureate John Masefield; a poem Mom had loved since she was old enough to read and appreciate classic prose. I could never deliver it in the resounding, dramatic way she always did, but it was the perfect farewell nevertheless.

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking. I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied. And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife. And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

On this Mother’s Day 2015, my long trick writing Notes From My Mother has come to a natural end. I have shared all of the posthumous notes Mom left me and have posted some additional stories that fit in nicely with the theme. As of today, I am going to suspend my weekly entries in order to follow my maternal muse down a different path of remembrance. If you look back at my October 2014 column titled “Don’t Forget Our Secret Handshake,” you’ll get a clue about what is to come. I expect to check in periodically while my sister and I work our way through this other exciting project. For now, I thank you for reading these stories about my beautiful, funny, sometimes weird, always wonderful mother. And I wish you all – wherever you are – quiet sleep and a sweet dream.

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A Few Less Columns on My Spreadsheets, Revisited

Last September when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I posted an essay in this space about a vivid dream with an important message from my mother. I condensed her rather eloquent advice into something akin to a pop culture metaphor.

“I should have a few less columns on my spreadsheets.”

For those not schooled in the addictive powers of Microsoft Excel, the basic translation is that I should dial down my natural tendency to over-analyze everything. Appropriately, the software reference is also reminiscent of my mother’s characterization of me as “queen of the spreadsheet.” It’s a moniker earned by my penchant for using Excel as a tool to create order out of the inevitable chaos that is life. I had to laugh when, looking

Spreadsheet Queen

The Spreadsheet Queen

through pictures for something to post with this column, I ran across a 2008 photo in my mother’s files of … you guessed it … me working on a spreadsheet. That one was a budget for a family wedding.

In the first few weeks following my cancer diagnosis, I clung to my mother’s posthumous wisdom like a mantra. I didn’t want to research traditional treatments vs. alternate treatments or weigh my options against prognosis charts. I didn’t want to write pro and con lists or forecast outcomes using elaborate software formulas that resemble physics equations. I just wanted to do what my doctors recommended and pray for strength and grace. And I did.

I’m not sorry I took that stance. It was a good approach for someone whose emotions were raw and whose brain was on overload. It got me through the initial shock and the surgery.

However, once I felt more like myself again, I couldn’t suppress my own nature. In fact, I came close to being a complete failure at that resolution. It doesn’t really surprise me. I spent most of my public service career planning, developing, implementing and evaluating programs, and I’ve spent my most satisfying personal hours digging into topics that interest me and writing stories. Why should this experience generate a lesser response?

My first project was to research traditional treatment for Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. What I learned led to a couple of tough decisions. With my family’s blessing, I was prepared to reject chemotherapy if recommended. It was not. I was also prepared to reject radiation, which was pushed in a rather uncompromising fashion by a stern cancer radiologist who I’ve come to remember as Dr. Humorless. She wasn’t the reason I rejected radiation, but her demeanor certainly didn’t help sell me on her service. The one traditional treatment my research did convince me to accept is a hormone suppressant since my brand of cancer thrives on estrogen. I may not want to try to kill the beast by radiating every good cell around a few bad ones, but I don’t want to feed it either.

With those decisions made, but still no spreadsheets on my laptop, I turned my attention to reducing the risk of recurrence through nutrition. In the seven weeks since my retirement, I’ve read dozens of articles, watched multiple videos, and referenced some highly rated books on this broad subject. The volume of information is staggering. Unfortunately, some of it is also contradictory or suspect.

Take sugar for example. One claim, backed up by legitimate scientific studies, says sugar encourages cancer cells to grow. When I read that a few weeks ago, I was so shocked that my first impulse was to try to cut sugar out of my diet and write about it in this column. Since then, I’ve found reliable sources – like the Mayo Clinic and the MD Cancer Center – that don’t consider sugar consumption a bonafide risk.

In the end, I decided to trust my oncologist. She says, yes, if you inject pure sugar into the tumor of a lab mouse, the tumor will grow significantly. In real life, for humans, you would have to eat massive amounts of sugar to create the same effect. Instead, she regards sugar as a contributor to obesity, which is a known cancer risk. It’s not necessary to give it up entirely, she says, but Americans in general should eat much, much less. Naturally occurring sugar is not harmful; it’s the added sugars in processed foods that are ubiquitous and risky.

I’ve also read with interest about so-called super foods that combat cancer. There is truth to claims that apples, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that help prevent or inhibit cancer growth. There is also truth to studies that show the primary benefit of consuming these foods is not to fight cancer, per se, but to promote overall wellness. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes and many other maladies have a tougher time taking control of a healthy body.

Some experts point out that, like sugar, we would have to eat massive quantities of a particular super food to truly make it singly effective against cancer. That’s not to say we shouldn’t consume them. Quite the opposite, in fact. I added pomegranate seeds and Brazil nuts to my shopping list after reading about their potential cancer benefits, but not to the exclusion of many other healthy foods that will help me trim down, bolster my immune system, lower my blood pressure, and generally feel good.

As I’ve educated myself about sugar, super foods and other nutrition strategies, I’ve simultaneously become very wary of the plethora of videos and articles posted on the Internet by people who introduce themselves as doctors but are actually clever entrepreneurs. All I will recommend, if you are inclined to click on something like “the five foods you should never eat,” is to further research any claims these people make. Almost without exception, they want to sell you something. The Internet is littered with predators out to make a buck.

Inevitably, I suppose, a couple of weeks ago I began to toy with the notion of entering all of my most reliable findings into a spreadsheet to try to isolate the best ways to approach nutrition as a cancer survivor. I could almost hear the sound of a needle scratching across a vinyl record when that idea came to an abrupt halt. It was the moment I noticed that two resources I trusted had completely opposite viewpoints on coffee and caffeine consumption. One recommended restricting caffeine to no more than 50 milligrams per day from coffee or any other source. The other said that caffeinated coffee consumption in normal amounts for Americans (e.g., up to 400 milligrams or four cups per day) is not a concern as long as every cup isn’t loaded with creamer. In fact, the latter resource said, some research indicates coffee consumption might actually be beneficial for cancer patients.

As soon as I saw those completely different schools of thought from two trusted resources, I knew I was done. I suddenly and vividly remembered my dear mother nodding when I said in my dream,

“You mean I should have a few less columns on my spreadsheets?”

This doesn’t mean I will never read another word about nutrition and cancer. What it means is that I’m going to implement the big takeaways from the research I’ve done and otherwise go on with my life. Quite honestly, I have better things to do with whatever time God grants me than obsess about everything I eat. It’s become a source of stress and, guess what, that is also a known cancer risk.

The big takeaways, if you are interested, are what we’ve been told by many respected nutritionists for many years. I don’t claim to be a subject matter expert myself, but it’s hard to argue these points.

  • Eat a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, legumes, nuts and fish. Go heavy on the fruits and vegetables and light on everything else.
  • Use healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil in your recipes.
  • Stop eating food that isn’t real food. At the top of my personal list are margarine and artificial sweeteners. By definition, margarine is “imitation butter” and an artificial sweetener is a “synthetic sugar substitute.” Imitation and synthetic have no place in a healthy diet. Based on my research, I’m striving to stick with organic butter and sweeteners like raw honey, raw stevia leaves and dark amber maple syrup (formerly known as Grade B). The closer a food is to the way nature produced it, the better.
  • Don’t try to lower your caloric intake by choosing reduced fat foods. What the manufacturers do to these foods to make them taste good with less fat is simply not healthy. Look it up or take my word for it; it’s better to just eat less of the real thing.
  • Limit processed foods, which typically contain large amounts of sodium and added sugar. Your sodium and sugar intake should mostly be from the naturally occurring nutrients in the original food.
  • Avoid foods that include preservatives and chemicals you can’t pronounce. The only things on the ingredient list should be real foods whose names you recognize.
  • Buy certified organic foods. Stop eating pesticides, antibiotics and any food that has been genetically modified.
  • If you need to lose weight, exercise portion control and get your body moving. Don’t rely on diet foods or diet aids.
1 - Mom and Me 19540001

Mom and me shortly after my birth in March 1954.

These are my big takeaways. And I don’t need a spreadsheet to convince me that they are sensible takeaways. If I happen to run across anything else that seems equally sensible, I’ll share it. Otherwise, I’m satisfied with my analysis. I’m not going to over-think this.

If I’ve learned anything from my brush with cancer, it’s that our days are not promised. Time is too precious to spend it doing anything that doesn’t give you joy. It’s not lost on me that my mother gave me her first name as my middle name. It’s a daily reminder of what she always wanted for me. JOY. Thank you, Mom. Message received.

 

Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

My mother was fond of catch phrases, song lyrics, movie quotes and other familiar axioms from popular culture. Repeating these at apropos moments not only helped define those moments but also cemented memories of similar ones.

In her posthumous notes to me, delivered on fitting occasions by family co-conspirators, she documented dozens of her favorites. I have used each and every one of them in this column as a means of preserving stories about her and our nine-year relationship as caregiver and care receiver. Just this morning I noticed that one was missing.

Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

I remember Mom reciting this when she was in a self-deprecating mood about her weight, when I was about to indulge in some ill-advised sugary treat, or when one of our pets grew a little too rotund for his or her own good. She wasn’t using it to bully anyone as kids apparently did on the playground once upon a time. It was just the first line to an old song she remembered from her youth; one that she quoted when the circumstances seemed to call for it.

At any rate, the phrase came to mind this morning when thinking about my health. Next week I have to go in for my first routine blood draw to determine if there is any cancerous activity brewing anywhere in my body. I have to admit, it’s nerve-wracking even though the tumor they removed from my breast last fall was very small, and I’ve been on a cancer suppressing drug for the last few months. I keep thinking about the random microscopic cancer cells they found in one of my lymph nodes and try to silence the “what ifs.” It’s much more productive to think about the things I’m doing outside the medical arena to discourage a recurrence.

Which brings me back to Fat, Fat, the Water Rat.

The entire time I was taking care of Mom in our shared home in the Nevada desert, I told myself that I needed to work on weight loss and physical fitness to avoid the many maladies that plagued her. Diabetes runs in our family and is fueled by obesity. Mom was an insulin-dependent diabetic. Heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease and osteoarthritis are also caused by or exacerbated by excess weight. Mom was under a doctor’s care for all of these issues.

So, of course, I was keenly aware of the chance I was taking by carrying around much more weight than I should. But there was one risk that escaped me.

Breast cancer.

Did you know that?

I didn’t. Not until I was diagnosed with it.

Mom and Laurie - October 2013

Mom and me in October 2013, about two months before she passed away.

When Mom was alive, I did try to lose weight a few times and a couple of times I was successful. Invariably, though, something always happened to derail my progress. Stress, an injury or an illness (mine or hers) would pop up, and the pounds started coming back. I finally gave up when she was in her last year of life. She was my priority. Period. Then, for the first couple of years after she died, I was too grief-stricken and, coincidentally, under too much pressure at work to even think about self-improvement.

Finally, in January 2017, I took the plunge. I joined a well-respected diet program online, started walking regularly, and by the end of August had lost 44 pounds. That’s when I scheduled my first mammogram in six years, and my life forever changed. At first, it was a whirlwind of tests, surgery, consultations, decisions and overwhelming worry. Worry about my future, our finances, our kids, our grandsons, and how my husband would cope if things got ugly. Eventually, after the initial shock passed, I took matters into my own hands and read everything I could find about traditional treatment and alternatives. That’s when I learned about obesity and breast cancer.

As it turns out, fat cells create estrogen. My particular form of breast cancer – invasive ductal carcinoma – eats estrogen.

If you’re overweight, let that sink in for a moment.

As soon as I read this, I renewed my commitment to weight loss and fitness. I was able to lose another eight pounds before the end of 2017 despite the challenges of recovering from surgery and the temptations of the holidays. I gained a few pounds back the first couple of weeks of January when I continued to snack on high-calorie leftovers and skipped some of my daily walks due to the flu. But, when I uncovered another sobering fact while digging into the role of nutrition in cancer recurrence, I quickly got back on track.

What was the sobering fact?

Sugar – which I love as dearly as it loves my thighs and my belly – is cancer’s friend.

German Nobel Prize winner Dr. Otto Warburg first discovered the connection between sugar and cancer in the early 1920s. After more than 40 years of research and study, he presented findings demonstrating that the fermentation of sugar suppresses oxygen in body cells, which promotes cancer growth. Another study released just last fall by a team of Belgian scientists says the same thing. The best explanation I found is from a New York Daily News article written by Dan Gunderman and published October 18, 2017.

“Scientists explain the customary way non-cancerous cells get energy – through a process called aerobic respiration, where digested food is transformed into energy-filled molecules. The process … requires oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. Cancer cells, however, do not fall in line with that biological process. Instead, cancer cells harness energy from fermenting sugar. This means sugar can ‘awaken’ cancer cells and make them multiply and expand.”

Sugar can awaken cancer cells and make them multiply.

Oh my gosh, this is scary stuff. Sugar is omnipresent in the average American diet. I know it is in mine. Even when diligently dieting last year, I managed to include it in my meal plans and stay within the allotment of points my weight loss program allowed. I knew that sugar is a major contributor to obesity, but I figured it would be OK as long as I kept it under control. “Everything in moderation,” as the saying goes. The fact that I lost weight while consuming modest amounts supported my theory. I didn’t know about the cancer connection.

With these two ghastly realities about fat and sugar fresh in my mind, I’m now working on identifying the foods I should be eating to continue to lose weight and further reduce my risk of cancer recurrence. As you might expect, it’s mostly about fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. There are also some so-called “super foods” that bear consideration. However, I’ll leave the details for another column. Today I just want to spread the word about the two very important things I didn’t know but wish I had.

Fat cells create estrogen. Breast cancer (at least my variety of breast cancer) eats estrogen.

Sugar not only contributes to obesity but can encourage cancer cells to grow.

Laurie - January (2)I thank the good Lord that Mom never had to deal with cancer on top of everything else that plagued her. She was certainly a prime candidate for it, just as I was. Hopefully, I learned about the risks of fat and sugar in time to save myself further health issues in my retirement years. Time will tell. For motivation, I’m going to make a little sign and tape it to my bathroom mirror. Thanks, Mom, for the quote.

Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

Think Beyond Pink

My mother adored autumn. Reminders of her love affair with the seasonal colors are mounted in photo albums and picture frames that still reside in her bedroom in the home we shared. Nothing was more priceless to me in her waning years than her contented smile when I drove her past hillsides and through river canyons exploding with infinite shades of red, orange and gold.

This year, my fourth autumn without Mom, I suddenly noticed that October is no longer reserved for the warm colors she so eagerly anticipated. It’s pink.

This apparently started in 1985 when the American Cancer Society and a major pharmaceutical company teamed up to promote breast cancer screening through mammography. That’s a good thing. Awareness, early detection, prevention. Who could argue with that?

Well, no one. However, the major marketing crusade that has amassed around breast cancer is disconcerting to me. Maybe it’s because I was personally diagnosed two months ago, but I can’t wait until the stores I frequent replace the current plethora of pink products with the greens and reds of premature holiday cheer. In my humble opinion, the common and effective advertising strategy known as branding has transformed breast cancer into something that’s it not.

First, let me assure you that breast cancer is not pink. It’s nothing like the enchanting ribbons that many of us have willingly pinned to our shirts and blouses since they were introduced in 1991. It has no resemblance to the eye-catching pink cleats your favorite football players show off in October games. It’s not a cute slogan on a t-shirt or a reusable shopping bag. It’s not a fanciful character in an animated television commercial.

Breast cancer is a menacing spot on a mammogram that, on an ultrasound screen, turns into a hideous intruder with ugly little tentacles stretching into healthy tissue. It’s a monster that sends you into shock no matter how gently the diagnosis may be communicated. It immediately triggers a deep and life-changing sense of mortality. It’s sends you down a rocky path that you never dreamed … not in a million years … you would have to navigate.

Once the initial shock wears off, breast cancer spawns a new lifestyle. As your calendar fills with medical consultations, tests and surgery, you pause to project how long your accumulated sick leave will last. You look at your bank account to make sure you can meet your health insurance plan’s annual out-of-pocket limit, which you are absolutely sure to reach, probably not just this year but next year as well. You start to fill a big, white, three-ring binder with prior authorization notices, medical bills, pre- and post-surgical instructions, and pathology reports that send you in search of reliable cancer websites for interpretation. There’s a breast cancer manual on your end table and a new file on your computer where you store links to websites, summaries of your research, and questions for your multi-disciplinary team of cancer specialists.

And those are just the impersonal lifestyle changes. The personal impacts are even more distressing.

Your cancer becomes a recurrent topic with family and friends. While you want and need to talk about it, you realize that you can’t let it invade every moment of your own life and the lives of your loved ones. You spend long hours awake at night because something about the cancer constantly interferes, whether it be post-surgical discomfort, fear of pending test results, anxiety about projects you want to complete at home or at work before some aspect of treatment knocks you flat, or simply wondering whether you have any other nasty, little cancer cells taking root somewhere else in your body. Even the newsfeed and pop-up ads on your social media account are constant reminders of your diagnosis because all that internet research you’ve done has turned your smart phone into a tattle-tale.

Last but not least, breast cancer demands a grave internal debate, and sometimes a tough conversation with family, about quality of life. Certainly, every one of us has had at least one hypothetical discussion about what we would or wouldn’t do if faced with a potentially life-ending disease or debilitating injury. Breast cancer makes any theoretical answers seem irrelevant. Suddenly you really do have to decide whether you want the aggressive treatments that sometimes pose greater risks to your body and your health than the cancer. You have to weigh whether you want to improve your odds of surviving 10 or 15 years by a few percentage points in exchange for short-term, or perhaps long-term, misery. Or are you more drawn to the least disruptive traditional therapy coupled with alternative approaches like nutrition and immune therapy?

Your conclusions depend on your cancer pathology, years of data about the experiences of millions of women, and your personal feelings about how you want to spend your life. Trust me, these are tough choices and no one … absolutely no one … can make them for you.

That’s what breast cancer is. It’s not a pink ribbon. It’s not a badge of honor. It’s a horrible diagnosis that changes your life. And, if you don’t have the financial and insurance resources that I am blessed to have, multiply everything I’ve said by the tens of thousands of dollars that cancer costs in terms of lost income and medical expenses.

I hope that the frightening details of my first two months as a member of the breast cancer club will fade over time, but there are moments burned in memory that will be impossible to forget. One of them is a conversation with a sympathetic co-worker who said, “I bet you wish your Mom was here.” I shook my head and responded softly as I turned to walk away, “No, I don’t. This would break her heart.”

No, breast cancer is definitely not pink. Pink is a little girl’s princess costume for trick or treating. Pink is a spray of roses in your wedding bouquet or in a crystal vase on your anniversary. Pink is the shade of your favorite lipstick and nail polish.

Breast cancer is a dark scourge that breaks your mother’s heart, if you are lucky enough to still have her around. It steps on the hearts of everyone else who loves you, too. It disrupts lives. It drains your material resources, alters relationships, and makes you physically sick even if you felt fine before the diagnosis.

Physically sick. That’s an apt description of how the all-consuming October crusade built around breast cancer makes me feel. Contrary to the original, altruistic purpose of the pink ribbons and the designation of a month to raise awareness, breast cancer is now a branded, marketable product. It kills more women than any other cancer, with the exception of lung cancer, but there is almost a fanciful aura around it that makes it seem like the trendy “disease du jour.” It is exploited as a money-maker by opportunists whose concern is less about breast cancer and more about selling their wares to good-hearted consumers. Worst of all, in an effort to capture the imagination of younger audiences, hip advertisers have come up with questionable slogans like “Save the Hooters” and “Save Second Base” that some say inappropriately sexualize the fight.

As a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient, I know I’m at a vulnerable juncture, and I could be over-reacting. Yet, something deep down inside tells me I’m not. The corruption of breast cancer awareness is real. For now, though, all I ask is that the next time you think of breast cancer, think beyond pink. Think ugly. Think devastating and life-changing. Once that is embedded in your mind, think hope. Think cure. That’s truly where the pink should lead us anyway.

A Few Less Columns On My Spreadsheet

A little more than four months after my mother died, I had a vivid, intense dream about her.

That characterization appeals to most people, which is why I use it. However, if I’m truthful, from my perspective it was not a dream; it was a visit. I’ve had enough of these kinds of nocturnal journeys after the death of a loved one to know the difference between a misty, rambling, illogical fantasy that is easily forgotten and a genuine encounter filled with stunning detail and brilliant color that is inscribed in memory. This was most decidedly the latter.

Either way you chose to look at it, there was a message in the experience for me. How do I know? My mother said so.

Mom was sitting on her bed surrounded by presents all wrapped in blue paper and ribbons. I asked, “Is it Christmas?” She said, no, it was the Awakening. Since this visit occurred after I went to sleep on Easter Day 2014, the correlation made perfect sense, as did her counsel about love and renewal. Then she said there was a message in the Awakening for me. To paraphrase, she said I shouldn’t be so analytical about everything.

Her advice made me chuckle. The older I have gotten, the more I have approached every significant decision with detailed research, painstaking work to forecast outcomes, and plenty of agonizing internal and external debate. My pro and con lists are on steroids in multi-tab, colored-coded, formula-driven Excel spreadsheets. Mom didn’t call me “the spreadsheet queen” for nothing. In the dream, I asked her …

“You mean I should have a few less columns on my spreadsheets?”

She smiled and said, yes, that’s pretty much what she meant.

Regular readers of this column may recall that my June 18th edition this year was all about reaching a coveted milestone in my recovery from the grief surrounding Mom’s death, the loss of my sweet Springer Spaniel, and career-changing events at my place of employment. In a nutshell, I had finally come to the joyful realization that there was still life ahead for me!

I kept an additional twist to myself but, while writing that column, I understood with a pleasant jolt that I had entered into the Awakening my mother had referenced during our visit in dreamland. I’ve literally been walking through a time of love and renewal these past nine months. I love myself again, I’m optimistic about the future, and I’ve been busy renewing my body by losing weight, getting fit, and catching up on neglected wellness and prevention activities. I feel more like myself – both mentally and physically – than I have in several years. It’s amazing and energizing.

In a movie, this is where you would hear dark, foreboding music. The main character doesn’t hear it. She is blissfully unaware that her life is about to change. All you can do at the theater is cover your eyes and peek through the cracks between your fingers. All you can do right now is read on.

On August 17th, I had my first mammogram since 2011. They called me back the following week, but I wasn’t the least bit worried. “It’s just been a while,” I thought, “and they need more images to compare.” However, after upgraded 3D pictures and an ultrasound, the radiologist looked down at me with her magic techno-wand still in hand and said gently, “You have cancer.” I actually think she said, “a little cancer,” but all I heard was “cancer.”

Everything after that was surreal. I didn’t absorb a thing that was said to me by the appointment scheduler, but I somehow managed to book a biopsy for the next day. I went back to work but couldn’t think, so I confided in two close friends – one in person and the other on the telephone. I met a couple of my cousins for lunch as they were passing through town and, after they swore to keep mum, told them at the end of our meal. I saw my husband at the restaurant, too, but he was lunching with his department director and co-workers, and I didn’t want to distract him. Instead, I broke the news to him and our grown children that night.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t say, “I have cancer,” to any one of these precious people. The radiologist had said it with no reservations. What she saw on the screen was definitive. But I said, “The doctors think I might have breast cancer.” I maintained that stance until the biopsy results came back the next week. Then I had no choice but to say it out loud.

The first night after the radiologist confirmed her diagnosis, I woke up every hour with one thought in my head, “I have cancer.” I imagine it was my unconscious mind working overtime to help my conscious mind believe it. That was essential since everything moves at light speed after a diagnosis like this. I had very little time to wallow in shock, denial and anger. Acceptance had to come quickly so that decisions could be made.

It’s now been a month since that first mammogram – the day a routine wellness check morphed into a life-altering medical condition. I’ve done a little reading on the internet to better understand breast cancer; being careful to avoid anything about prognosis and risks. I’ve gotten words of wisdom from two very close friends who are breast cancer survivors and suggestions from a few friends stricken with other varieties of this dreaded menace. The Cancer Resource Center associated with our local hospital gave me a wonderful book that literally answers a hundred questions, of which I have read about a dozen. My surgeon patiently presented every option; repeating information whenever necessary during our 30-minute encounter. Yesterday I took an hour or so and got a handle on the expenses associated with the diagnostics and surgery.

During this process I have not constructed one single spreadsheet. I have not designed formulas that estimate costs within a fraction of a cent or that compare the benefits of this treatment vs. that. I have not ranked my choices with a DEF CON color coding system or created tabs that categorize options and establish priority. There isn’t even a rudimentary pro and con list on my home desk. This time – this life-changing time – I am listening to the sage advice of my dearly departed mother and am not being so analytical about the situation and my choices. Instead of …

“a few less columns on my spreadsheet”

… there will be no spreadsheet at all. There will be only prayer for strength and grace, coupled with hopeful trust that the good Lord will help me see the blessings in this experience and make it count for something in my life and perhaps in the lives of others.

My lumpectomy with sentinel node biopsy (the most common choice of women in similar circumstances) is scheduled for Friday, September 22nd. I will let you know what happens as soon as I am able.

Make the Most of Your Time

A New Chapter

Through the years, I have come to regard life as poetry. Between each hopeful sunrise and blushing sunset, the universe expertly weaves a melodic sonnet that perfectly reflects the infinite beauty of all that surrounds us and flows through us.

The prerequisite for this harmonic perspective, I believe, is an awareness of life’s poetic moments. When recognized, such a moment can teach a lesson, validate a decision and even serve as a compass. The most powerful experiences can affect you forever, as was the recent case when I was decluttering my bookshelf and found an unfamiliar hardback called My Time by Abigail Trafford.

Thinking the book was a potential candidate for the donation box I was filling, I wondered, “Hmmm. What’s this one about? I don’t remember reading it. Where did I get it?” I slipped it off the shelf, opened the front cover and saw familiar handwriting. The inscription from Christmas 2004 read …

Make the most of your time. Mom xxxooo.

My Time Message

I drew a quick breath and read the book jacket. It said, in part, “This generation (ages 55 to 75) is the first to experience the period of personal renaissance in between middle and old age. (The author) skillfully guides us through the obstacles of My Time and shows us how to reinvent ourselves in these bonus decades.”

Immediately, I felt the power of the moment. I had stumbled upon a posthumous note from my mother! No, it was not one that she wrote during the last weeks of her life and entrusted a family member to deliver at an opportune time (as were most of the notes that have fueled this column). This note was more profound, more ethereal than that. Written more than a dozen years ago, the message waited patiently inside that important book until I was ready to embrace it.

And, indeed, I was ready. The timing was so precise, so perfect that it left me awestruck. Clearly, it was synchronicity at its best.

Mom’s death in December 2013, in the very room where I now write these words, affected me deeply. Early on, I didn’t know how I could carry on without her. Even when the feeling passed that I may as well have died, too, it took many agonizing months to reach that place of “the new normal,” which in recent years has become the coveted nirvana for anyone suffering a loss.

Piled atop my grief about Mom were the passing of my sweet, old Springer Spaniel in September 2016 and a problematic shift in leadership and organizational culture at my longtime workplace. There was little I could do about the sorrow surrounding Katie’s death except wait for time to work it’s magic. At the office, I took the advice I had always given others. If you are unhappy, it’s up to you to make a change.

A transfer to a different job in the same state department helped for a while. In fact, voluntarily moving into a position with much less responsibility gave me time to focus on myself for the first time in a decade. I joined Weight Watchers and began to take long, purposeful walks in the evenings after dinner. The pounds I had accumulated through years of stress eating and a sedentary lifestyle began to melt away, and the solitary walks gave me time to think. It was on one of those walks that I suddenly realized I had finally passed a previously elusive milestone. There actually was going to be life after Mom for me! It took more than three years, and I honestly didn’t see it coming, but I had finally arrived at the summit of my long journey. It was such a surprise, such a defining moment, that I almost expect to see an “X” marking the spot on Ryegrass Road in our neighborhood.

Around that time, some disconcerting issues at the office led me to another realization. A different job, on what was essentially the same organizational chart, was never going to restore the joy I once took in my work. After much soul searching, I decided to leave public service as soon as I could develop a viable plan. The biggest obstacle, of course, was my budget. Retiring before age 65 meant a financial sacrifice. I went on the hunt for a low stress, private sector job to supplement my pension. The day after I picked up an application for a position that fit my criteria, I found the book. That moment … that indescribably poetic moment … changed everything; most importantly my attitude. I threw the job application in the trash, stopped planning an escape and started planning a life.

My Time

Just 15 pages into My Time, I began taking notes on post-its and pasting them like tabs so I could easily return to certain passages. Information about the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, directed by Dr. George Valliant, captured my attention like nothing else had in a very long while. I could see myself in the stage called Generativity, which typically involves giving back, and in the stage called Keeper of the Meaning, which involves tying the past to the future.

Both personally and professionally, I highly value the future as well as the past. I’ve often said that raising two children who I regard as superlative adults is the single most important thing I have ever done or will do on this planet. And, as a leader, mentoring my staff and preparing them for their turn at the helm is consistently at the top of my priority list. Equally important is passing on family history at home and imparting lessons learned at the office.

Until I saw myself in Abigail Trafford’s book, I didn’t regard my interest in heritage and legacy as anything other than a personal passion. Now I understand that it’s part of life; part of being human. It’s an especially great motivator in one’s later years when most of us begin to truly grasp the reality that our time here is limited.

My Time didn’t change my mind about retirement. What My Time did was inject excitement into the possibilities of life after retirement. I am blessed with a well-developed sense of Generativity. I am the Keeper of the Meaning; that’s so me. Doggone-it, I still have something to give! What an incredible awakening! Between now and the end of the calendar year when I step out of public service, I intend to transform these cherished gifts into my new life’s work. I intend to dream and hope and create. I intend to take risks. I intend to live.

Sometimes I wonder why Mom gave me Abigail Trafford’s book. Here is what I know. At Christmastime 2004, Mom was in the midst of a health crisis. We had lived together for three years, I was taking her to see specialists of all kinds, and she was enduring a laundry list of tests to determine the cause of her distressing symptoms. We wouldn’t know for two more months what the problem was and how to address it. Once we did, her health improved, and she lived another nine years. But on Christmas Day 2004, when she gave me that book, she probably thought she didn’t have much time left herself. I imagine she looked back on her life, regretted the things she didn’t do, and wanted me to live with enthusiasm after she was gone. Mom didn’t talk much about her deepest, most personal thoughts, but gestures like this one were worth a thousand words.

I know I never read My Time until now. Not only was I busy taking care of Mom, but it just wouldn’t have interested me. When I unwrapped that Christmas gift a dozen or so years ago, I had just hit my 50s, still had a long career in public service ahead and was still zealous about my work. How grateful I am that I kept the book all these years. How poetic that I randomly picked it up at a major crossroads in my life. How I appreciate Mom for somehow nudging me from the other side …

Make the most of your time.

I will, Mom. I promise you. Your baby girl isn’t ready to settle into a rocking chair just yet. To borrow a popular quote attributed to writer Hunter S. Thompson, I don’t intend to arrive quietly at my final destination. I will “skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride’!”

Dream (8)

Like I Was Never Here

(Three-Year, 36,000 Mile Check-Up)

In the months leading up to her death in December 2013, my mother often said with sad resignation, “It will be like I was never here.” She typically voiced that concern when discussing the inevitable disposal of her cherished belongings – elephant figurines, crystals, teacups, scrapbooks, Star Trek memorabilia and countless other collectibles that represented her personal fascinations. The thought that they would end up in a Goodwill box, and all evidence of her existence would be erased, tormented her.

The truth is that the vast majority of the material possessions she treasured were reverently distributed among immediate family members and a few close friends who wanted keepsakes. Today I’m sure every one of the recipients of these beloved baubles enjoys gazing at them from time to time. I’m equally sure each and every one of them would say they don’t actually need a physical reminder of this precious person we called Mom, Grandma Joy, Auntie Joy or dear friend. The mark she left on our lives is far more powerful and timeless than any memento could ever be.

So why is it that – three years, one month and 20 days later – I cannot get her wistful lament out of my head?

 It will be like I was never here.

This mournful prediction will never be true – at least not in my lifetime or the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Mom is with us in our hearts every day. She and I shared the same zany sense of humor and, when I giggle uncontrollably about one outlandish thing or another, she is right there with me. On Saturday nights when the kids and grandkids descend on my house for a weekly meal and family reboot, we sometimes imagine what she might have said about this or that and whether she would have liked a particular dish on the menu. This past Christmas Eve, while everyone was in hysterics over a spirited game of Jenga, my daughter-in-law suddenly saw Mom out of the corner of her eye, standing next to her old chair, wearing a white dress splashed with flowers, watching us. You don’t even have to believe the sighting in order to be warmed by the thought.

So, again, with the connection to Mom still so strong, why can’t I let go of her fear? I suppose, in reality, it has now become my fear. It’s a heavy, burdensome inheritance from the woman who gave me life and who I escorted to the next one.

What if I start to forget the sound of her voice or what her hand in mine felt like or the details of the stories she told and retold? Coincidentally, I have similar fears about my sweet Springer Spaniel, Katie, who died at the end of last summer. I never want to forget how soft her coat was or how her little stub of a tail wagged vigorously when I came home from work or how she always managed to convert a quick pat on the head into a lengthy rub of her hind end.

This is the angst I live with every day. It’s a fear of the growing distance between the time they were here and the time they were not. It’s a separation anxiety not unlike my dog’s recurring panic whenever I had to leave her. Truth be told, it has triggered some rather odd behavior on my part.

Every time my husband empties the dishwasher, I come along behind him and rearrange the coffee mugs so that Mom’s favorites are stored in what was “her corner” of the cupboard. Although the bathroom connected to her bedroom has now become my domain, I haven’t had the fortitude to change the decor or dispose of some of the powders and lotions that were in her medicine box when she departed. There are gouges cut by her wheelchair in the door frame of her toilet room that should probably be repaired. And it was only because of my dog’s end-of-life incontinence that I finally surrendered and steam cleaned the carpet in Mom’s bedroom, erasing evidence of the day she fell asleep in her chair and a nearly full cup of tea slid out of her hands. I actually took a picture of the stain before running the machine over that spot. (OK, two pictures.)

Likewise, I went around the house snapping photos of the dark shadows on walls where my dog loved to cozy up and sleep before I could finally muster the resolve to point a bottle of Formula 409 at those smudges. More than three months had to pass after her death before I could bring myself to remove the reminder for her monthly pain injection from the front of the refrigerator. Even then I didn’t throw it away. It is tucked in a Ziploc bag with the care instructions I always left out for my husband when I had to be away overnight.

So what is it that causes an otherwise normal human being to obsessively preserve evidence that a loved one existed? In this column, I have always tried to refrain from espousing words of wisdom that might label me as an armchair psychologist, so I will carefully answer this question only from my own perspective and through my own soul searching.

Reluctance to dispose of possessions, change routines or redecorate is rooted in the same need that causes a person to spray-paint “Bob was here” on a boulder in the desert. Gravestones are kind of like that. So are those wooden crosses erected on the side of the road in memory of accident victims. Even charitable and advocacy organizations that spring up after a family suffers a tragic loss are tools of the “remember me” trade.

I’ve never painted on a rock and thankfully don’t need a tombstone yet. However, when I was 17 years old and heartbreaking circumstances forced my parents to sell our beloved home in rural Oregon, I took a break from cleanup to slyly deposit a tiny reminder that I, Laurie Samsel Olson, had lived there. I put a bobby pin on top of the door frame that separated the kitchen from the den. Such a small act, and I’m sure the hairpin was tossed into the trash sometime in the last 46 years. I want to believe that, when it was found, someone at least thought, “Hmmm. Well, how did that get up there?”

Pragmatic people would no doubt say what I already know intellectually and that I stated early in this column. Physical reminders of a lost loved one are not critical. The mark that they left on our lives is far more powerful and timeless than any memento could ever be.

And yet, letting go of the tangible in deference to the power of the intangible is much easier said than done. I still want to see and touch things that my mother saw and touched. I want to hold my dog’s dirty old collar and know that her DNA is still on it. Somehow, their belongings establish a comforting link between the world they now call home and the world we formerly shared. Today I can’t think of one good reason to sever that strong, psychological tie.

Realistically, I know it will happen. Someday I will redecorate Mom’s bathroom, repair the gouges in the door frame of the toilet room and paint over them, and rearrange the kitchen cupboards. Likewise, I will round-file the instructions for my dog’s care and take her old, lumpy bed out of our home office. I will do these things. Intuitively, I know I will. But I also know that none of that will happen until my heart is absolutely sure that I’ve successfully wrangled with and tamed the plaintive voice in my head that still whispers …

 It will be like I was never here.

No, Mom, that won’t ever be true. No, that will never be the case, my sweet Katie girl. You were here. You will always be here.

(Today’s column is dedicated to my sister-in-law, Lori Samsel, whose mother, Donna Anderson, passed away on Friday, January 27, 2017. She, too, will never be forgotten.)

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Katie and Me – July 2007