From My Fingers to Your Ears

June 16, 2009 the radiologist turned his head from the film to me. I can’t tell you the date of the formal breast cancer diagnosis, but June 16th is the day I knew. I went back to Casey’s to pick up Liam. They had gone for a walk, so I plopped down on her hammock on the porch, put my feet up and looking up past my red toenails said, “So this is it, huh? You’re putting this in my lap?” That was my first icy conversation with the Man who can take anything.

June 16, 2010 is in three days. Putting Liam to bed the last few nights, he rubs my curly head and says, “Mom, your hair is so soft and beautiful. Your lips are beautiful. Your whole body is beautiful.” There are few obstacles or filters between this child’s heart and what moves over his lips.

I’m done with surgeries, chemo, radiation, first-year checks. With MGH by my side, I’m cancer-free. And now I have been given the task to take my filters down. From my shoes, “thank you” feels like such a measly two-word expression. I’ve said it to many and truly meant it but feel that it just doesn’t cut it. I’ve only written a handful of thank-you notes throughout this last year. And I struggle now with truly making you understand.

One day, Will was upset after school because, although oldest in the class, he had only lost one tooth, not two like most of his classmates. I tried to explain that everyone was different, and somehow in that discussion I said that everyone had different gifts. Five minutes into our drive home, he said, “Mom, I know what your gift is: surviving. And I know what my gift is: loving.” Each of you has given different gifts to us. And unlike Will, I can’t eloquently sum up what they mean to me in just one word. Calls. Play dates. Flowers. Prayers. Thoughts. Meals. Visits. Conversations. Laughs. Pink care packages. Chemo with compassion. Radiation with smiles and laughs. Coming over with dinner and having to stare at my wig on the Dartingon vase… I can’t create a complete list of your gifts without inadvertently leaving one off.

On its third time through the wash, my “courage” bead broke off of my prayer bracelet. So now just a plain wire hangs where a beautiful bead used to be. A bad omen? At first I felt that all courage was washed away and I needed to get a bead back on there fast. But yesterday I fingered through each bead and decided that the absence of a confined blue bead meant that courage needs to be unrelenting, bigger than any bead I could find to replace the one lost. Now I see that little wire as a kind of lightening rod, sending out ripples of courage, perhaps more so to the other women whose names are on the bead next door, the pink stone inside a gold cube, that their cancer is contained, controlled and cured.

I’m a perfectionist and as such a procrastinator, hence the above digression… I’m now heading out of the house. Thank you for my time out, Bill. A year ago, I made the commitment to myself to keep the house a kind of Murphy Temple for our family. Preferring to dump tears on some park bench, not my couch, while talking this out on my cell phone to family, my pastor, friends, and the strong formidable women in my life who have been down this road.

From a park bench beside a lake… It’s a little rainy, so my tears will blend better here than inside the house, as I spew on…

Knowing I would need to go through chemo, I had created my list of questions in August for my breast surgeon. I mechanically went through each one with my surgeon, one of the most compassionate women I have ever met. I left the big unwritten questions for last. “Can I take my sons to school?” Yes, but don’t stay for the Halloween parade with a bunch of little kids with runny noses. “Can I kiss my three boys?” Yes. But, with the crazy swine flu era, I abstained from kisses. I called my quilting friend and told her through tears that I needed a little bag to tie around my waist so the boys could “deposit” kisses there. A week later, amidst a box of treasures, was my bag with 20-some hand-made little hearts, to be kissed and deposited. And I cried again. Not for the lack of kisses, but for the individually hand-sewn hearts. Sharp and pointy, that needle is a strange contrast to the humbling softness of a Kingston friendship.

The things I have asked from all of you. And the things you have done for us.

My coffee appointments were quite possibly more effective than my chemo appointments. Even during the down days after chemo, I tried to consistently say “yes” to coffee. Café mocha tasted pretty good even when my home brew didn’t. That was due in large part to the women sitting across the table from me, talking to me like a mom, rarely like a woman with cancer – only to ask how I was and playing it from there. That was a big chair to sit in across the table from me. Having cups of coffee with you… a touchstone that kept me grounded in “today.”  Starbucks therapy was much cheaper than the other options.

For my friends of 25+ years who trekked across the country to be with us. That you dropped everything, messed with schedules, pulled your kids from school, a husband from work, and appeared at Logan International Airport…. Those were some of the best days of my life. I really have no other words than those for what your friendship means to me.

And to all of my Midwest friends who offered to come out… your messages are still on my voice mail, saved on my email, alive on LHH. I occasionally revisit them, still in awe of your kindness.

For my “Tuesday” friend: “I’ll just come over on Tuesdays and you tell me what you need done.” From the wiping down of my doorknobs during my low-blood counts to cleaning my cupboard so that I wouldn’t get injured opening that top cupboard door. I love our chats – from the anatomy of cancer to cooking and rounded out with the how-to’s of raising spicy boys.

Last night we watched a video of the last few days of Will as a kindergartner. He was on stage with his class, with his teachers shepherding the kids and leading them in the words and hand motions. The next shot was Will at bat during T-ball, with Liam’s smiling face bouncing in and out of the picture. Then from yesterday, Will’s drum recital: he on a drum set and his instructor Josh on a bass, jamming. They co-wrote a song called “CJ Rock.” And Will grinning ear to ear after the last beat. Liam’s school year comes to a close and he has simply flourished, moving from the end of toddler-dom to being a little boy. Taking art classes with his big brother; kindly requesting back rubs “like my teacher’s” to go to sleep. You have set up big shoes to be filled by Liam’s next teacher. As teachers, perhaps you felt you were just doing your job, but your presence in our lives… From the moment I sat in tears, cussing with Liam’s teacher last August, saying the boys were going to be at school full-time because of the unknowns down the road – to rides, play dates, prayer shawls, dinners, art class, music class, Spanish class, P.E. class, and a smile in the hallway. I’m personally touched (such a silly word), but more importantly so thankful for the consistency you provided in our lives, for your compassion, and for your talent as teachers.

I made a decision at the beginning of the school year to be upfront about what was going on with our family. I’m glad I did that. I didn’t want hushed whispers and rumors surrounding me. Every smile and “how are you doing?” gave me the chance to affirm that I was OK. Taking my boys to school and picking them up, and that was a damn good thing – even if I was in a wig and a fog. Your smiles, hellos, meals, groceries, a turkey pan, and how-are-yous: more therapy.

For all of you who constantly visited me on the web site, reading whatever I tossed out there… Knowing you were there, sometimes quietly, sometimes commenting, it was like having you all pitch tents in my backyard. And if I opened the window, there you were for a chat or lending an ear. If your tents really were here, Bill could build a fire and I would have the BIGGEST Smore’s party for all of you. Few things touch the sweetness of gooey marshmallows melting “Horsey” chocolate, as Liam calls it, between graham crackers. While I’ve reread some of the last year’s postings, I’m saving a day this summer to print everything and read your comments and mine from beginning to end. But like today, I need to make a plan and be prepared to experience all that… with :”) – happy tears – of course. I love the web your comments have created. You’ve shared humor and I’ve learned more about you through it. God bless humor. Without that funny bone, we would have been little more than a soggy mass this year. The web created by extended family has been especially sweet. I’ve learned more about my own history through the stories shared by my sister, mom, aunts, cousins, great-aunts, second cousins, and my grandma – of course the rooster story comes to mind. ;) And Paul. Oh, Paul. Paul, Paul, Paul. Such a brave man, fearlessly commenting with that smile on your face, from across the pond, amongst so many women. You so often left me speechless, tied up in a fit of laughter. What a gift. As was your and Monica’s visit in February. Although it was a lot of work preparing for your arrival – remember the mouse story? :)

My back-pocket, Fill-the-Freezer friend. What I’ve asked of you, what your family has done for us, can never be repaid and that breaks my heart. I told you how I was doing this and you just jumped on board, being there at every turn.

And my family… a chapter in themselves. By the end of radiation, I could get through my prayer bracelet without tears, until I landed on the last set of beads: “I pray for my parents, brothers, sister and family. Please give them comfort as I know they are worried about me. Remind them daily that I am from strong stock: Murphys, Mills and Iowans!” I told Mom one day that I walked by the pediatric oncology unit every time I visited my oncologist. I told her I would walk this path a million times over my kids having to do it once. Then Mom said, “I feel the same way.” It was one of those moments that I felt silly for being so insensitive, to say that to my mother. But I know why now: she’s one of my best friends and that day, with that comment, that’s who she was. While this is a letter of gratitude for much, my tears shed here are apologetic. Through distance, you all did what I asked, to stay strong through all of this. And for my sister, bringing Dad out before Christmas, bringing Ellison out for Will’s birthday, bringing Mom and Dad out last summer. Organizing my laundry room. For seeing what I needed but perhaps couldn’t verbalize. You live in the kingdom of “see it, do it” and I’m blessed, near and far, with your stamina and strength – especially flying Dad out, complete with a “hitch in his giddy-up.” :) The load was lifted with that visit. I could always say I was doing pretty good, but I needed Dad to see first-hand that a bald head did not equal a weak body. And then there’s the 10-year-old boy who shaved his head for his aunt…

I brought my basket of cards and gifts that I’ve received to the lake to shuffle through… and I haven’t touched them yet, instead this has become a collection of randomness. I’ll save the basket for another day. My heart is full, my cheeks are wet, and I have four minutes of battery power remaining…

No matter how many stories I tell today to convey my thankfulness, there will always be a vast space that I can’t fill, as much as I try to shovel in the words – it’s an unending crevice. Always indebted to your kindness and friendship. I feel guilt for that and such a full heart.

Staying strong with :”) …