Part Three: Releasing the Grip

I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of messages and responses I’ve received after writing this story. I have read, and continue to read, every Facebook comment, text, and email that came pouring in last week, many from friends from all corners of my life, and many from people I’ve never met. Some people offered sympathy, some shared their own scary stories, some asked questions and offered advice.  Thank you, all!

Yes, I’m still waiting it out. I have no new information since I wrote Part Two. I will have future MRIs, and future visits with neurologists to test for MS. I still have the blurry spots in my vision, but they really only bother me when I move around a lot, get hot, take a hot shower, or when I’m under fluorescent lights. Optic neuritis can take up to 6-12 months to heal, and in some cases the vision problems never go away. Time will tell.

Though moments of fear bubble up here and there, I am feeling much more positive now. I’m simply not going back into that very bad place where I was so afraid, so I’m choosing to believe I’m getting better. And in turn, I’m feeling better.

While I used to be a person who exercised (bike, run, swim, or lift) 5 times a week, since mid July when this all started, I have done nothing. I was too tired and worried, my head hurt, and my vision bothered me too much. Two weeks ago, I ran one mile, and it was hard! This past week, I ran two miles TWICE and have gone to the pool before work TWICE. Small miracles.

I am so grateful. I can’t believe the life I get to have. I get to live on a lake in beautiful Maine and now I’m free to make plans for nights out, trips to warm places, and races I want to run. Everything I thought I appreciated before has even more sparkle now; even the most mundane moments in the kitchen with my family feel like scenes from a movie.

I’ve been replaying many of the moments from the last 3 months, and I’m noticing a different feel now that I’m at a safe distance from the pain.

The people around me.
Within 15 minutes of receiving the brain tumor call from my doctor, my mom said to me: “I wish I could take this from you. This should be me and not you.”  I had zero doubt that she meant it, too. My mom is a cancer survivor herself, and we watched as cancer swiftly took my dad away. And still my mom was front and center, sweating out every MRI result and doctor’s appointment right with me. I don’t think she slept through the night once in those 67 days. Such is a mother’s love.

I talked on the phone to my brother and sister much more frequently than I usually do. I got sweet and funny cards in the mail. My English colleagues sent me to the spa. I got flowers from several friends. My friend Sarah sent me magical unicorn/rainbow socks. I got daily texts from dozens of friends and family members.

I always say that my husband Tim is a highly evolved human. By that I mean that he doesn’t overreact, he is calm in a crisis, he delays judgment, sees the good in all situations until he receives information to believe otherwise. Sometimes I’d know that I needed to cry from the weight of carrying all of this, and Tim would sense this and help me finish dinner or get the kids to bed, wait until we had a quiet moment, and sit next to me. I’d say something like: “I can’t do this anymore,” and complain about being scared or how I just needed to know what it was I was fighting. He always listened,  and then he’d say something like, “I know. This totally sucks. I can only imagine how exhausted you feel.”

He never told me not to worry, or how not to feel. He never made me feel like I was doing this wrong. He never pretended to know the answers. But he always ended our conversations firmly:  “We can do this” or “We’ve got this.”  I was so comforted by his confidence. Somedays I felt as though he was reading from a script I had unconsciously provided, as if I could think: this is what I need you to say to me, and he would say it.

Reed and Skyler, ages 9 and 12, have been little pieces of gold. We did a pretty good job downplaying the situation to keep them from worrying. They had important things to do, like start middle school, play football, jump in the lake, play with their friends. But they told me in their own ways that they were thinking about my health a lot too.

One night I was lying in bed with Reed. We were in the middle of a story when he stopped me and said:  “Mom! Your glasses have a smudge on them!”  He took them off my face and ran to the bathroom to wash them. He was so bummed when he realized my vision was blurry even after he cleaned the smudge.  He also told me a few times that the night we got the brain tumor call from the doctor was the “worst night of his life” and that he wished it was “all a bad dream.” Reed is a hugger and a cuddler anyway, but he has been extra clingy since August 2nd.

Skyler showed her concern by freaking out every time I stepped outside to take a phone call.  “What, Mama? Is it your doctor?” Other times she’d ask me questions out of the blue: “What was it like for you when your dad died?” “What do you think you’d do for work if you went blind?” And one day she came into my room very seriously and sat down on the edge of my bed holding my lap top. “Mom, why were you googling ‘foods that fight cancer?'”

The kids knew I was having another “picture of my brain” taken that Friday, but I had told them we likely wouldn’t get any clear answers yet. When I told them the good news that afternoon, I could see the relief spread over them.

We sat on our swing at the edge of the lake and I told them honestly how scared I had been, apologized if I had asked them to be quiet because I had a headache too many times. The three of us sat there and cried together, looking across the lake at trees bursting with reds, oranges and yellows. “We are so very lucky to have this life together,” I said. We sat in silence for a long time and then Skyler said “I’m just so sorry you’ve had to be so scared for so long.” I assured her it was all going to be okay now, that I wasn’t scared anymore. We looked out at the water and squeezed our hands together.  A few minute later, Reed said: “Mom?”  I said “Yeah, bud?”  And he said “What’s for dinner?”  And I laughed and cried and laughed some more.

Is this Brave?
So many of you commented that I was being brave or courageous in how I was dealing with this scare. BUT I’M NOT! I was trying to express in my writing that I was scared out of my mind, and that I didn’t stay positive, that I let worry make me feel crazy and paralyzed.

In my imagination, I had a brain tumor that was taking over my head. I dreamt about lava-lamp looking substance inside of me spreading and expanding. The fact that I developed an increasingly bad headache about a month after my first MRI that was unresponsive to pain meds was more evidence that I was indeed dying.

Is this brave?  I think maybe what is brave is when we, in the face of anxiety and pain, show up for our lives even when we want to stay in bed and cry.  The whole “I can’t do this but I’m doing it anyway” approach to life. That is probably brave, yes, but what is the alternative?

Most of you, though, seemed to think the brave part was writing about it, showing myself stripped bare like that. I have thought about this a lot.  I had not spoken any of my darkest fears out loud to anyone before I wrote them. I know my loved ones were thinking the same thoughts during those two months, all the “What if she dies?” scenarios.  I know every parent has had these thoughts; mine were just more urgent because I’d been told I had a deadly brain tumor, and then told “well, maybe not.”  Dying while your kids are young is every parents’ worst fear. And I guess it was cathartic to get it all out of me by writing about it. Is that brave?

I am not a private person, and I don’t hesitate to write about personal things. The writers I am most drawn to myself are women who strip it down and show themselves being real and vulnerable: Anne Lamott, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Glennon Doyle Melton.  Life is hard and shitty and beautiful and messy, and let’s please tell our stories honestly so we can connect and understand.  So yes, I was scared, and at times it got ugly, but at the very core of my fear is a mother’s love that so intense it could light a match. In part, I told that story because I was struck so many times by how much of my will to keep living was fueled by my need to be here for my kids.

Thoughts on prayer
Though I struggle to define prayer for myself, hearing someone say: “I’m praying for you” was incredibly comforting to me. Whatever that means for the one doing the praying, I’ll take it.

I don’t believe prayer can stop a brain tumor. If that were the case no one would die of cancer or any other disease. I don’t believe any one person can affect the course of a disease through prayer, but I do believe we can begin to heal ourselves with positivity, love, and attention on the right thoughts. When I pray, it is for a bigger, more open, more awake life.

When I found myself at my worst moments during the waiting period, the only single thing that gave me peace was to adopt an attitude of surrender. I would think:  I give myself up to you, universe, because I clearly cannot think my way out of this. Nothing I say, feel, or do is going to change whether what is growing inside my head is a fatal brain tumor. Whatever it is, it already is.

I had to give myself up to something greater than me, to trust that whichever direction this went, I would be taken care of.  Is this what it means to have faith? Because I never felt sure that I wouldn’t die, but I did find some magical moments when I truly believed that I would be okay, in life or death. I actually had moments of clarity that my kids and Tim and my family would be okay without me.  These were fleeting moments, but amazing ones, and they didn’t feel like defeat, just surrender.

My friend Kristina mailed me a book this week:  Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott.  In the first chapter, I found the perfect paragraph for me right now:

“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy–all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs agains the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being physically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly.”

When I was able to release my grip, I felt connected to something bigger, and that is how I prayed. I did this by sitting with my pain, leaning on my husband, mothering my children, walking up and down the road. I prayed by jumping off of the big rock in our lake, teaching my seniors to meditate, guiding them to write honestly and bravely. I prayed by imagining all the things I wanted to do when I felt better:  bake a bunch of bread, eat spicier food, jump off the dock naked, read 100 books, run another marathon, turn the music up.

You cannot go through something like this and not change your perspective on life. So few of the things we usually complain about really matter at all. Are you too tired to cook dinner? Your afternoon schedule of shuttling kids around is stressing you out?  But you are alive. You are here.

I am releasing my grip. My headaches are lessening each day, and I’m finding pleasure in just about everything I do. I’m thankful to cook dinner, to go for a run, to have a busy day, to put my head on the pillow at night and actually look forward to the next day.

It’s so good to be here.

It’s time, people: The Clean Food Challenge

I have been sick for 10 days.  During this sickness, I have had conjunctivitis (two times) and I have had a cough, sore throat, body aches and headaches the whole time.  During these past weeks, I have also been super busy and therefore eating on-the-go.  My diet has mostly consisted of bread in many forms, you know, like bagels, bagels and more bagels.  Today two things happened:  I felt like crap in a way that I only feel when I’ve been eating too much bread and not enough whole foods and veggies.  And, my friend at work told me he is going to do the Clean Food Challenge with his wife next week.  (You are OMIM official, Tony and Kate!)

I did finally get in a run today and felt pretty good, so I’m ready to make my way back and get super healthy.  But I have the upcoming week off from school, and I do much better on the CFC when I am working and my time is very structured.

I’ve been leading up to this for a few months, knowing it was time to cut the crap and clean myself out, so here we go.  I will be doing the CFC for 7 days beginning on Monday .  That means I can spend next week, vacation week, organizing and stocking my freezer with extra clean soups and dinners.

What is the CFC?  It’s a simple cleanse that I made up last year and this is the 3rd time I’ll be doing it.  It feels so fantastic, and I recommend you try it.

Here are the “rules” of the CFC (remember that I made these up but was guided and inspired by other cleanses).

-No Dairy
-No Sugar
-No Alcohol
-No Gluten
-No Processed anything
– Only organic and lean proteins like fish and chicken.

I will eat:  vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, fresh-pressed juices, green smoothies, and a gallon of water per day.   I will drink one cup of coffee per day.  You may call this cheating.  I call it necessary.

Have you been interested in doing a cleanse, but never been brave enough to try?
Would you have better luck on a cleanse if you had friends doing it with you?
Whether you’ve done it before or whether you are a cleanse virgin, would you like to join me?

If you are thinking about it, you may want to read these two previous posts:
getting ready for the CFC
shopping for the CFC

And use these tips to help keep you organized.

1. Plan Ahead.  Pack your fridge and cupboards full of CFC friendly foods.  If you want to go crazy, you might even make a few soups and salads (like quinuoa, veggie and bean salads) to have in your fridge for quick lunches.  Almonds, cashews, pre-cut fruits and veggies work well for snacks you can grab when you are hungry.  The afternoon hours before dinner are hardest for me, so I like to drink a smoothie or eat something filling that will get me through the dinner prep time.

I also prepare for the CFC by deep-cleaning my fridge and my oven.  It just seems like the right time to do it.

2.  Go for filling foods.  You are giving up processed food, yes, but that doesn’t mean you need to be eating celery sticks for a week. Especially if you are exercising, or if you are like me, you’ll really want to feel full after you eat.  Curried Sweet Potato Soup (skip milk) is a life saver and keeps well in the fridge.  Anything made with potatoes will fill you up, and baked sweet potatoes are packed full of nutrients and taste really good.   I even love to cube and bake a sweet potato and then put it, still warm, on top of a giant salad (thanks, Ange!).   Eat oatmeal for breakfast with a pile of blueberries on top and some maple syrup.  For a snack, slather almond butter on a banana, eat handfuls of dried fruit and nuts, or eat a whole avocado sprinkled with sea salt.

3.  Go for flavorful foods.   Grill some pineapple or mango for a fruit salsa.  Add curry or cayenne or paprika to your dishes.  Dress your salads with lemon, agave, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Make a pesto (no cheese) to put over fish or boiled potatoes.  Eat spicy black beans and salsa with home-made guacamole!  Walk through your health food store with an eye for something new; try new foods and make it an adventure.

4.  In a pinch?:  During the CFC, I try to eat only foods that are whole when I buy them from the store,  But, if you are in need of a store-bought snack, Kind Bars are dairy and gluten free and are minimally processed so they would be a good choice in a pinch.  Also, Lara Bars are dairy and gluten and sweetened only with dates.

5.  Drink the water:  Water helps this whole cleanse process because it flushes your system right out.  If you can succeed in drinking the recommended 1 gallon of water a day (my camelbak water bottle filled 5 times), you will be peeing all the time.  It’s kind of a pain, but I credit all of the water as being one of the things that helped me feel so clean and sparkly during my last cleanse.   And water helps you feel more full, too.

Here are two recipes I loved last time on the CFC:

Tangy Basmati (from friend Josie)

1 cup basmati rice
1 3/4 cups water
1 Tbsp oil or ghee
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp crushed coriander seeds
3 Tbsp grated coconut
1/4 cup chopped almonds or raw cashews
3 Tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

In a small pan, heat up oil and add mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander seeds and nuts. When
seeds begin to pop, add coconut and stir well to toast and blend spices. Set aside until rice is
ready, at which point stir into rice with lemon juice and chopped cilantro.

Tempeh Stir Fry
Stir fry together 4 minced cloves garlic, 1 onion chopped, 1 package of crumbled tempeh, 1 head of broccoli chopped,  a bunch of halved green beans, 1 cup of sliced mushrooms, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.

I served it over brown rice and sprinkled it with peanuts that I ground up in the food processor.
Yum.

Clean Food Challenge (updated)

I’m taking the Clean Food Challenge! Never heard of it? That’s because I made it up.

I decided that I wanted to challenge myself to a one-week “cleanse” that wasn’t actually a traditional cleanse. What I mean is that I’d like to seriously “cut the crap” for a week but I cannot fast or drink those colon- cleansing concoctions that make your poop crazy because it pulls all of the toxins out of your body. (Have you heard about the crazy poop cleanses? People who do this take photos of their poop and post them online. I swear. Google it).

So, because I have my family (3) plus my students (112), that’s 115 people counting on me to have enough energy to maintain my life, and I cannot do the full cleanse with all of the expensive supplements that I’d like to do. If I lived alone on an island and could meditate all day, I’d do the crazy poop cleanse.

I’m taking this challenge with my friend Sarah, a super mom of three beautiful boys who lives in Grand Junction, CO. We’re going to both keep you updated on the blog on how our Clean Food Challenge is going and what we’re eating. Sarah was a big part of why I started running, and she inspires me greatly as a runner and a mom. She’s super fit and tough, runs trail and ultra marathons like it’s no big thing. Sarah and I have been great friends since high school and her brother Austin was my first boyfriend.   True story.

Here’s Sarah with her boys Luke, Henry and Oliver, and yep, that’s her backyard.

Sarah and I will be eating clean together and writing about the process.

Our plan:  For 7 days, we will eat no processed food, no alcohol, no sugar, no dairy, no wheat.   (I’m scared).

We will eat only:  vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, some lean proteins, fresh-pressed juices, green smoothies, and a gallon of water per day.

I know that typically I would also quit caffeine with a plan like this, but I’m going to allow myself one cup of coffee or green tea per day.  I’m up to three strong cups of coffee (yikes, but yum) a day right now, so stopping caffeine altogether would make this process really un-fun because of the headaches.  I don’t want to quit caffeine and then depend on ibuprofen to get me through the day, so I’m keeping one cup of caffeine per day.  That will get me down to a more healthy level of caffeine without killing me.

I’m using the book Clean Food that a friend let me borrow which is full of wonderful recipes and ideas that I’ll be sharing with you as well.

Here is an excerpt from the book about clean food:  “Clean food is minimally processed, so our bodies get the maximum nutritional value needed to fuel metabolism.  The more clean food we bring in, the cleaner and more efficiently our bodies function.  The results (of eating clean) are less mental and physical stress, more oxygen circulating through the body, more toxins eliminated, more strength and more efficiency of nearly every system. ”

Why do I want to do this?  I’ve become fairly deliberate about my eating over the past few years, but right now I’m in a cycle of not paying careful attention to what I’m taking in, lots of leaning up against the counter and smearing peanut butter on bread when I’m in a hurry, eating food off of my kids’ unfinished plates, handfuls of chocolate chips, sweets and baked goods, and not being as organized about dinners as I usually am,  so eating cereal at 8:00 a couple times a week.  It just makes me feel like this one part of my life lacks control, and I like to reign myself in once in a while.  I think this process will just feel energizing and bring awareness to what I’m putting in my body.  I’m curious to see how I feel after one week.

Why does Sarah want to do this?  (UPDATED in case you don’t read the comments)
A few reasons why I want to clean out my diet:
*I struggle with the after-the-kids-are-in-bed sweet tooth
*I find myself eating three bowls of cereal in a row after 7pm because I forgot to eat during the day.
*i have major mood swings when i’m hungry. i already have a busy life and i struggle with my moods in general (not in a worrisome way, but definitely in a “i’m a busy mom of three boys with a job in my family business and have a husband who travel half the month” way.)
*i eat the wrong things when i’m hungry (like 1/2 a box of cheddar bunnies, or a bag of Boulder chips)
*i don’t drink enough water.
even though i long-distance run and practice yoga and ski, i STILL have the gut from the 3rd baby (who is almost 4) that i keep blaming on my age (i’m 36). i secretly think the gut is there because i don’t eat enough well-rounded meals, then i’m hungry and eat the wrong things, or i binge out on sweets at night. anyone can relate to that????
  (um, YES!)

Also, for me the timing couldn’t be better.  We’re going to start the Monday after Thanksgiving and that will send me into the Christmas season with a good, clean start and will cause me to be deliberate and rational about all the party food and sweets that come my way during the holidays.  I have no races during this part of the year and can give myself more time to rest.

About drinking water:   I used to intend to drink much more water than I actually did.  But since I started drinking out of these camelbak water bottles, my water intake has probably tripled.  The bite valve that is attached to a straw just makes it so easy to sip all day.  There is no lid to unscrew.  I used to often spill water down the front of me when drinking out of a Nalgene in class (graceful!) and this design works much better for me.  There is something so comforting about it.  My friends and I all carry our bottles around and suck on them like they are our pacifiers.   Weird?  Maybe.  But try it.

I’ll have to fill this bottle more than 5 times to get up to a gallon.  Right now I drink at least 3 bottles full a day, so that’s a pretty good start.

Sarah and I are starting on Monday . That leaves me with one more question:  Anyone want to do it with us?

You can leave a comment here or on facebook if you want to join us, have advice, or just to want to make fun of us for all of this silliness. 

From Maine to Arizona, for love.

My sister Liesel told me ahead of time that when I landed in Arizona I was going to feel like I was on a different planet, and she was right. In Maine right now we are just barely leaving winter behind; our trees are still barren and brown. Ive been cold for seven months but as soon as I stepped off the plane and walked onto the tarmac, I was warm to the core. The air smelled like honeysuckle and sunshine even though it was evening, and the curving road that led us out of the airport was lined with palm trees. We drove 20 minutes to the resort and bam, just like that, I was sitting with my sister, barefoot by the pool next to a cactus garden with a mojito in my hand.

 

Sometime last year, Liesel and I decided it was time to initiate a mid-year sisters retreat, that the once-a-year visits during the summer just werent enough. She lives in Utah and I live in Maine, so as we were staring at the US map trying to figure out where to meet halfway, we thought: Kansas? Missouri? Kentucky? And no offense to Kansas, Missouri or Kentucky, we wanted some place warm and a little bit exotic. We chose Scottsdale, Arizona, which is definitely closer to Utah, but I was totally game to make the trek west, into the sunshine and into the loving arms of my big sister.

 

During our two days in Arizona (which is not enough, but all we had), we talked and talked like it was our job. When we are usually limited to 10 minute phone conversations while my kids are pulling on me, or her kids are waiting to go to soccer practice and dinner is simmering on the stove, two days of uninterrupted sister time (in the sun! surrounded by wild flowers!) was a welcome change. We caught up on all the regular stuff, what the kids and our husbands are up to, the stresses and joys of work, and updates on friends. And then we got to wander through all of the other stuff, the funny anecdotes that you never have time for on the phone, the good books we have read, the observations we can make about ourselves as working mothers. We know we are both missing out on a lot because we accidentally put down roots in places that happen to be 3000 miles apart. But we made up some ground in Arizona.

 

Some conclusions we got to by the side of the pool, in brief: our kids are changing in both predictable and totally surprising ways, we can learn things about ourselves as we watch our children grow up and other relatives age, we both worry like our mom does, and we are both blessed beyond measure.

 

I am an anxious traveler but I dont want to be. So whenever I travel, I create more internal conflict by judging myself for struggling with things that I so wish could be easy. I dont mind the actual state of flying; I watch out the window as much as I can, and I love the feeling of being suspended between two places. But I just dont like being in a closed space with no exit, and airports with all of the security measures and lack of fresh air just make me nervous. But most of all, I am just anxious about getting anxious. My heart races and my palms sweat. Travel takes a toll on me.

 

I want to be this carefree woman who just flies over here and flies over there and doesnt think twice about it. I am not. But heres the rub: I used to be. I keep thinking I can get back to being that person, and therein lies the struggle. Maybe I know too much, or love too deeply, or care too much about the life I’ve created and I have become more sensitive with age. Maybe becoming a parent has changed me inexorably, made me more vulnerable in the world. I dont know. But despite the fact that traveling has gotten more challenging for me as I’ve gotten older, I still wont stay home. I will go anyway, and white-knuckle my way around the world because I dont want to give in to the alluring pull of home/ the kids/ Tim, a comfort zone that is more comfortable than ever. Traveling reminds me of the quote I posted when I was about to do my first half-iron triathlon:  I cant do this, but Im doing it anyway. With anxiety, it is tempting to want to just stay home, live a small life, where everything is safe and predictable, but I resist. There are too many places to see, and too many people whom I love that don’t live in Maine.

 

On the second day of the Arizona trip, Liesel and I drove to the Desert Botanical Gardens outside of Scottsdale. What a different land. The sun was high and hot by 9 am, the desert sand was dusty on my sandals, and there were way more species of cacti than I had ever imagined. I find the desert beautiful in a slightly haunting way; the earth is so dry and the vegetation so prickly, but the sky was a deep blue and the flowers smelled sweet. When I go west now, after living in New England longer than Ive lived anywhere else (16 years), I realize what a New Englander I truly am. I prefer a lake, an old-growth forest, and a crumbling stone wall marking old foundations in the woods to any other landscape feature. Its fun to walk around and point at a cartoon-looking cactus and desert bird, but at the end of the day, I find myself thinking about the cool breezes and damp earth of home.

But not so fast. Liesel and I had more to discuss, more drinks to order, and some incredible Mexican food to eat (oh my God, the pork belly tacos with cola and lime; and the spicy Mexican street corn; and roasted butternut squash tacos with spicy black bean sofrito, poblano, pickled jalapeño & cotija; and the skewered chicken in mole with sesame, peanut, cocoa & pepitas) at The Mission (voted best Chef in Arizona). We sat in the sun, each read an entire book, alternating between sun, shade, and pool. We ordered drinks from the very attentive wait staff. We ate chips and guacamole in lounge chairs.  We exercised not at all.

 

For people who dont know my sister, I describe her as an older, wiser and much more relaxed version of me. I soaked up as much of her good vibes as I could at the airport before we parted ways for our separate gates and each flew home. She flew north, I flew east. We both returned home to our loving husbands and children, and our piles of responsibility, and unfortunately, to some late spring snow storms that didnt help showcase our suntans.

 

I am so thankful: for comfort zones, sunshine, window seats, and the greatest sister in the world.