By the grace of God, my good days lasted through the Wednesday before Christmas, enabling me to spend time with my dear friend Marty; go to prayer group as just “one of the girls,” standing when they stood, staying to the last; wrapping presents with my husband; leading our family’s Jesse Tree devotions; and going to school Wednesday to watch Little Bear’s nativity pagent.
The little kids were so good! They each had a part to play, and they took it seriously for God. Little Bear was “a little shepherd, with JG!” his best friend, as he never hesitated to remind us. The two of them cracked themselves up a bit, and I have pics of a cunning little smile peeking out of the string-tied headdress, but it was all in good fun. I had fun too, delighting in their success and joyously hugging so many of the mamas I had seen only via email and facebook this year. Members of my prayer group rejoiced with me a second day as our kids ran around afterwards, celebrating the hour or so of freedom – at school with friends, but free to play as they wished, securely in the care of loving teachers and parents.
And then I rested. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were miserable, catching up from the times I had joyously spent in the company of friends and family (my parents for three weeks, and then my husband’s parents for two weeks and counting). I lay in bed, discouraged, sad, and with pain wrapped around my sides and straight through my bad spot (where the terrible pain indicates cancer) as if pierced by an arrow right where my spine meets my waistband. Nothing worked on my pain, and I cried and cried alone upstairs for much of the days, passing the time reading scripture and novels alike, searching for something to inspire me, to distract me, to pass the hours, and to give me strength. The times I was able to go downstairs with my family were delightful, if too short: making myself comfortable enough with the fancy chair, pillows, and oxygen; playing checkers with 7 year old Widget and teaching him chess (at his request!); and just sitting by the lit-up Christmas tree overflowing with presents despite our rule this year to just choose three….
I just had to tough it out, waiting for methodone to take over and reduce the pain, aided by fentnyl for breakthrough pain (as if it were ever not breaking through) — but the medicines’ effectiveness lessened as my tolerance increased. Truthfully, I ought maybe to have stayed in bed Saturday evening, but I couldn’t. Saturday night – Christmas Eve! – was the culmination of so many things for me. It was a goal, you see. A goal set just about a year ago, when we were told that the cancer had spread to bone, first the ribs and then the spine, neck, and hips, and the pain came back, and we were gobsmacked by the setback that began as a year of treatment and worry, changing attitudes and trying to understand what our “new normal” might be. This year was to be Widget’s year in the Christmas Eve Nativity play, you see, and we had looked forward to it for so long – we already had plans for the grandparents all to visit our house this year at Christmas, for the first time ever – and I remember crying in frustration a year ago that I might not be here to see it.
But I saw it. I picked myself up off the bed and put on my pretty clothes, and went to the church with grandparents from all around. We saw Widget pass by in his costume, and, I have to say, there’s never been a finer Joseph since the very first one. He was so handsome in the dark maroon fabric, serious face giving way to twinkling eyes as I surprised him by stopping by the children’s prep room before the church service began. He ran up to me with a great big hug, and, as I saw him start to get overwhelmed by the excited children, I was able to whisper to another parent that that happens, and if he starts trying to control things, it’s only because the ruckus makes him nervous. The room quieted (coincidentally); I left, and Widget later joined us in the pew. As the priest stood up to read the story of the nativity, the little children took their places around the church. Widget found his place in the back, standing next to the little girl who was to be Mary, and they walked slowly and seriously down the aisle to the altar. Finding a manger there, the little children knelt and listened while the story played out and the others came to worship the Christ child, symbolized of course by a doll. Afterwards, I was so proud of my little boy turned bigger boy, and when he sang the carols from the hymnal with me, I might have shed a tear.
I led a prayer myself later in the service, the same one used to pray for the sick and dying each week, and it was right and good. And then, just before we walked out, singing Joy to the World, a visitor to our church came and knelt at the manger, bringing his gifts first to the symbol of the Christ child, and then, we hoped, to children everywhere.
The next week I would pay for being out that night, exerting myself beyond where I thought I could, but it was worth it to see my beautiful Widget be so reverent and grown-up, to sit with Little Bear on my lap and worship God, and to look fondly down the pew and see all of our grandparents together for a day (not to mention visiting friends!), and for the next day’s family celebration besides.
The week has been at times horrible and at times terrifying, but my medicines are again starting to catch up to the pain and I have a new commitment from my doctors. We will control the pain. They will control the pain, using new approaches and stronger medicines, and they understand now how very terrifying it is for me to work so very hard and to endure so much for so long in hopes of reaching a goal (sitting in a chair with minimal pain; reading, writing, and playing happily with my children; and eating dinner each night with my family) that is far below the quality of life enjoyed by most, and far below what I consider an acceptable exchange for giving up days each week for chemotherapy and other infusions, losing my hair, my independence, and my ability to leave the house without someone driving me (I’ve only driven once since July), and suffering the pain of metastasis in my bones that sends me to bed in tears one or many more times a day.
To survive now, I need to come to terms with this exchange, and to find out what I can do to make the days worthwhile, so I can sleep peacefully at night while we wait for the medicines to heal – or at least to relieve pain that the cancer has caused. I am trying to shift my perspective from anger that my future that has been taken from me into gratitude, again, for all the days that I have been given since my cancer metastasized and indeed, since my initial diagnosis with breast cancer in June of 2007.
Our Christmas card this year was stuffed full of pictures of the good times – so very many good times that would never have happened for me without the medical advances enabled by cancer research, the confidence that comes from belief in a loving God and the existence of tomorrow, and a supportive and loving family that loves me for what I can do, not judging when I can’t.