Making friends…

I watched it happen twice today, perfect strangers sharing the cancer experience; talking, exchanging stories, and actually hugging each other when they part to enter an exam room where their doctor will meet them for a appointment.

In the out patient center, an African American man, wearing a mask, bald from his chemo treatments but with a beautiful smile, talking non-stop to his neighbor sitting in the chair next to him.  She was a middle-aged, white woman also bald, but wearing a beautiful head scarf tied in a knot at the neck.  She returned his smile and easily joined the conversation, sharing stories about her journey and how she’s vowed not to give-in to this disease.

Her nurse burst into the waiting area and called her name.  She jumped to her feet, extended her hand but he extended his arms.  Two cancer patients, in a big hug, then off to deal with their life changing ordeal.

Then there was the couple in the elevator with me.  Just before the doors were about to close, another couple hit the button, the doors opened and now there were 5 of us.  The first couple greeted the second so I just assumed they knew each other.  And they did, but only because they had arrived at the Cancer Center at the same time today and had taken the same elevator up to the lobby and in to the waiting area.  Now, they were leaving at the same time.  The conversation was one that cancer patients would understand. “How was your appointment?”  “How was treatment?” “Feeling OK?”  Elevator doors open, “Drive safely home.”

Making a connection. Feeling a connection.  Making friends.

 

 

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There are no rules to follow, no handbook you can buy, that gives you real guidance on how to find a new ‘someone’ after losing a spouse to cancer.  In fact, some of us go for years without thinking about it.  We all have our reasons and there shouldn’t be any judgment one way or the other.  Some experts say it goes hand-in-hand with our own individual grieving process.  Other grief counselors encourage widows or widowers to actively search for new relationships.  They say getting on with life means getting on with life with somebody.

One thing I know firsthand, if you’re in a group situation, it can be really tough being the ‘one’ in a group of ‘two’s.’

Couples do things together.  They sit together.  They sit with other couples.  They don’t tend to sit near a ‘one,’ or if they do, the conversation is stilted and they find it uncomfortable for some reason.  A ‘one’ is a ‘one’ in a group.   A couple will eat together at a gathering or they’ll ‘couple-up’ but they tend not to include the ‘one’ into the group.

Being a ‘one’ I have lived this scenario more than once with people I’ve known for years and I’m always stunned by their behavior.

I call being a ‘one’ the leftover piece of the cancer journey that keeps on giving.  It isn’t bad enough that the world has shifted beneath our feet after going through cancer world, now we have to feel the added shift of going from a ‘two’ to a ‘one.’

Some days it’s not easy finding your place at the table.

 

 

 

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We really didn’t have a choice, we were going to stay and hope for the best.  We were journalists who were in the path of the hurricane, so not only were we going to stay through the storm, but then we’d leave what was left of our property and go to the worst of it and report on it.

I’m talking about Hurricane Andrew.  Twenty-five years ago, Leroy and I were making so many of the same decisions millions of people in Florida have been making these last few days.

I know forecasters are saying Irma is not Andrew.  This hurricane is worse that Andrew.  In terms of hurricane stats that’s probably true.  It’s a wider, wetter storm.  Andrew was fierce, packing Cat-5 winds, but he was a speedster, traveling almost 20 mph.  Andrew rolled over South Florida and wiped Homestead off the map.

Our home was in Coconut Grove, about 13 feet above sea level.  The surge predicted in the Grove was minimal, but we were still very worried because we were a 5 minute ride away from Biscayne Bay.

The surge for Irma is predicted to be deadly.  As they say in hurricane country, “You can hide from the wind, but you RUN from the water.”

I’ll never forget spending the night in the one bathroom in our house that was surrounded by strong walls.  We put a mattress on the floor just in case we would need it as protection.  We had a radio, a phone, flashlights, some snacks and a lot of water.  We had filled the tub with water too.

Leroy had picked up a load of heavy lumber and had spent the afternoon and evening boarding up our home.  He used heavy bolts to secure the boards.  Pool furniture went INTO the pool.  We even took care of our neighbors house, including her cat because she was out of town and did not want to come back for the storm.

As the storm progressed through the night, I remember hearing projectiles hitting our house.  The winds howled all night long.  Big things were hitting the house, but we were spared the water.  We had hidden successfully from the wind.  The water never got to our door.

But it got close.

When dawn broke and we opened our front door, a tree was leaning over Leroy’s car.  It was almost protecting it from any other debris.  Crazy things happen in hurricanes.  As I walked out through our front fence, there was a 45 foot cabin cruiser.  A beautiful boat that had been lifted up by the surge and currents and it had settled down in our front yard.  So much junk was scattered every where.  Palm trees were bent over but not broken, land crabs in our pool, children’s toys from houses miles away, roof tiles scattered everywhere.  WE had been spared the worst of it, but it was still a huge mess.

We quickly changed hats and went from Andrew survivors to journalists who begin to report on the storm.  We’d cover the storm by day and come home to no water and no power at night.  We would repeat that drill for weeks.

Irma is predicted to roll right up the Florida Peninsula.  Every update brings worse news of her projected strength and path.  I hope everyone in Florida takes these evacuation orders seriously.  Hurricanes are not fun.  This storm is especially scary because of the water surge.  Tides and rain and wind make for a life threatening situation.

Run from the water.  You can’t run fast enough.

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What is it about loss that makes us feel like we have to heal quickly and begin again?

Really.  It’s expected of us to have our moment of sorrow and I’m not talking a ‘moment’, I’m talking many moments that take a long time, but I mean our family and friends think we’ll ‘get through it’ and move on to life in the ‘normal’ lane.

So my ‘normal’ lane has taken longer than I expected, or actually longer than my inner circle had expected.  I didn’t have a clue how long it would take to find my lane.  A group of women I know who have gone through loss from cancer have also found their lane at different times.

Wednesday is the 6th anniversary of the death of a very dear friend.  Leukemia and its side effects took his life.  He left behind a great wife and two great kids.  Each of them has found their lane in such different ways.

The daughter carries the loss of her Dad buried  in her heart.  She and her Dad were like two peas in a pod. I think she was so deeply wounded by his death that she rarely shares her thoughts about him.  She’s used the years since his passing to grow into a beautiful young woman who is strong with opinions that only young college kids can get away with, but look closely behind that strength and you’ll see someone still bruised and needing that Dad who left too soon.  Her lane is still slightly blocked.

Her brother is just starting college this year and he’s busy spreading his wings the way some kids do when they burst onto the college scene.  He’ll ‘rock the world’ with no net beneath him, I’m pretty sure of that.  But I’m also pretty sure the memories he holds of his time with his Dad are some of the most precious and private thoughts he’ll have in his lifetime.  Very few will be allowed a peek into the chamber where these memories are held.  His lane is wide open, except for road sign marked “Dad.”

Their Mom has guided both of these kids through the hills and valleys of grief and growth these past six years and that’s no easy task.  She’s also managed to figure out her own path along the way.  She’s made a new life for herself  while at the same time has successfully merged her lane with that of her kids and a new relationship that has just started to unfold.  And if you think this has been easy, you would be wrong.

Lanes are tough to rebuild when cancer breaks-up the road that was once paved with plans.

Take your time.  There’s a lane out there for you too.

 

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So, here I am; beginning again.

Every time another year after honoring Leroy’s passing, I think about how I’ve changed.  How has this past year been different from the year before and the 8 before that?

The first two years were foggy.  I really had to concentrate to get things done.  The legal documents that needed to be delivered to alert companies and doctors and banks and other institutions that Leroy had died kept me busy for sure, and just “stuff” that needed to get done.  And, he wasn’t here.  How did THAT happen?

Daily life and routines that had been set aside because cancer was in the room, took a long time to fall into place.  I’m sure there were some things that never returned because they needed Leroy to make them worthwhile.

Time has passed and I’ve become used to being alone.  There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely.  Some days I’m both, but not so much any more.  I guess that’s a sign of healing.  I know it’s a sign that my grief has shifted and moved to a different place.

I often wonder what our life together would have been like 9 years down the road.  I can only imagine.

My life has grown in many directions and I’m grateful for having the strength to get through some tough turns in these past 9 years.  There have been many days filled with smiles and laughs and sighs; lots of good times.

I like to think of myself back in the starting blocks again, reaching for new experiences, one year at a time.

 

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To The Big Guy

An amazing life and legacy...Remembering Leroy

An amazing life and legacy…Remembering Leroy

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I didn’t know it,  but this was the night before…

Death had come knocking a few times and he had always been able to push it away.  His doctors had rallied and pulled him out of bad situations.  He’d had the strength and the will to go on.  There was so much to live for and death would have to wait.

This time was different.  Hospice, death’s facilitator, was a part of our team now and all those medicines to ease the pain and promote sleep had been dispensed with a plan in mind.  It would allow death the space it needed for one final visit.

Nine years ago I sat on the edge of Leroy’s hospital bed with old pictures in-hand and old stories in-mind about a couple of young journalists who fell in love with news, sports and each other.  It would be a night of remembering.  I’ll never know why I chose that night to recall some of the craziest, funniest, and serious adventures we had shared together and apart, but I can tell you this, I chose the perfect night.

Maybe those hours of storytelling helped me more than it did him.  He never really responded, but I know he heard me.

I wouldn’t get another night.  This was the night before.

 

 

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She lived with cancer for 7 years. It was a real struggle some of the time, when the disease was fully present in her body and her treatment options were few.  That’s because she didn’t live here in the United States.  She lived in Kathmandu.  That’s in Nepal.

Kathmandu is approximately 7, 907 miles away from the United States.  It’s a million miles away from cutting edge cancer care.  The reason I know that is because this cancer warrior’s sister is a friend of mine and for the past 7 years I’ve lived this cancer treatment nightmare with my friend.  She would give me updates on her sister’s condition and come with a list of terms her doctor would use but never explain.  For the most part, I could give her a pretty description of what this doctor was saying and then she’d make the call to Kathmandu and so it went.

More troubling than serving as  a cancer dictionary and encyclopedia for this family, was the fact that I learned there  really isn’t any health insurance in Nepal.  The same goes for New Delhi in India, where this woman would travel to see a cancer specialist when they could afford it.  Health care equals how many dollars you can put down on the table, or under it.

They even took a three day train ride to get a second opinion from a doctor in a remote part of Nepal.  Once the train stopped, this patient and her husband, found a taxi to drive them to the hospital.  That took another hour! With cash in hand, they met the specialist who said she was getting the proper care. A quick exam and then turn around, taxi back to the train station for the three days ride home.

Seven years, this family did what they needed to do to give their loved one a fighting chance.  She enjoyed remissions along the way.  Those were the good weeks.  Most of the years were spent pushing back the cancer with treatments cancer centers in the U.S. haven’t used in a very long time.  They weren’t the wrong treatments, just not the latest treatments that have shown so much more success in killing cancer.

My friend tried to get her sister to come here for treatment, but home is home.  She was afraid to leave and not be able to go home again.

She’s at peace now.  She was 52 years old.

We all know how hard it is to live in cancer world. It’s especially hard in a far away land.

 

 

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The Wave

“Four fingers extended upward from the steering wheel, but may be modified to suit circumstances and locally accepted etiquette.” What is it? Why it’s the Urban Dictionary’s description of the “JEEP WAVE.”

When Wrangler owners passed each other on the road or at an intersection, they’d exchange this wave.  I know this because there was a time at this house that a bright orange Jeep took up residence here.

How we loved our Jeep.  Leroy bought it in California when he was doing a visiting professorship at USC.  He drove it across the country on his way home and who knows how many secret waves were shared in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and so on.

9 years ago on this final day of July, I accepted a check and watched as the Jeep left our front yard for the last time.

Leroy was too sick to watch from the window.  He was too sad too.  His cancer had taken so much from him that driving was no longer a part of his world.  It was the ultimate insult from this disease that been relentless in its pursuit of his active life.

That Jeep brought us so much joy.  We would jump in and rumble down the road and literally feel the years fall away.  We were kids again on an adventure.  And if we were lucky enough to pass another Wrangler I would watch Leroy’s four fingers rise off the steering wheel and he would laugh his big laugh, when the other Wrangler driver would return ‘the wave.’

So cool.

Such a wonderful memory.

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Took a walk down memory lane today at Hopkins.  Walked down the halls of infusion; chemo land to be specific. There are not many good things to remember about chemotherapy.  Hands-down the best part of that time was our friendship with our chemo nurse.  She was and still is a great pal.  She got us through the beginning, middle and end of each session.  Thank goodness she was a sports nut like me and actually Leroy too.  On the toughest days, talking sports got us up and over some nasty hurdles of cancer and chemotherapy.

Things have changed in chemo land.  There was always room for improvement, but hard to implement because of logistics and sometimes things just stay the same because they do; no reason, no excuses.

Clearly the nurses and their supervisors have cleared the way for patients to receive a better experience, one that provides easier procedures along with faster treatment times and more efficient care.

There’s really no more one nurse to one patient.  Instead the ‘pod’ where the patient goes for chemo has a team of nurses familiar with all patients assigned to that specific ‘pod.’  A patient to multiple super nurses: I like that math.

There are ‘safety zones’ where a patient’s chemo is double checked before treatment.  There is nothing more important that patient safety.

Some patients require special needs.  Some patients circumstances mean more attention is insisted upon, so new assigned support teams are at the ready to fill those needs.

Phone teams are in place now to make contact ahead of the chemo appointment to check on the patients’ condition, and just to remind them they are expected for treatment.  That way any problems can be anticipated before the patient walks in the door.  Even the chemotherapy can be mixed and ready when the patient arrives at infusion.  Thinking back in time and remembering the delays in treatment only because the pharmacy was backed up, as we sat there watching the clock.

Supplies are within an arms reach, there are new and important protective gear orders for the nurses in case of any spills.  Safety precautions for those we rely on to provide the care is critical too.

The world of chemo therapy and how it’s dispensed has moved forward, giving the patient a safer, faster, more secure approach to treatment.

Cancer world is growing up in so many ways.

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