“Holding space for another person is incredibly profound. When you hold space for someone, you bring your entire presence to them. You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go. You give your heart, let go of control, and offer unconditional support. And when you do both of you heal, grow, and transform.”
October is such a transitional month. The weather is a mix of warm and cool days. The typical mood of the school year sits low between the novelty of the new year and anticipation of the holidays. Even the flowers- it’s time to plant bulbs but you won’t see them grow for 6 more months.
Seems fitting that “Breast Cancer Awareness” month happens now, too. I am almost 4 years since my diagnosis, 3 months since the disease took my mom, and I don’t know how to feel. Angry at the disease itself, proud of my mom who lived well with it so long, thankful it’s not part of my story any longer, guilty that I can say that.
It doesn’t help that Covid makes everything seem wrong and weird. Hospital workers are burned out… I think everyone is.
Not to mention we’re about to have an election where people land so strongly on one side or another. I’m confused by the blurriness of Christian love how that plays out in the political world. And then I’m confused about why that’s confusing… it shouldn’t be that hard, right? How can people with the same foundation have such different resulting views. Does that mean our foundations really aren’t similar??
So, as I’m existing in this “middle of nowhere” October, I’m trying my best to soak up the precious family time. We have found ways to safely enjoy activities and the low-key/low-expectation pace has felt good.
A few weekends ago we cashed in on my birthday gift from April and went to Great Wolf Lodge. Don’t tell them I told you this, but the girls had a ton of fun together running around and laughing…. like they loved each other!
It. Was. Amazing.
It also happened to be the day of the Steelers/Browns game… and you all know that made the day perfect. While up near Lake Erie, we went to Marblehead Lighthouse because… why not? The girls need a change of scenery. (We all do.)
Olivia got her pointe shoes this month and we’re so very excited for her. My mom would LOVE this so much! She would also love hearing Liana learn the violin! (Learning the violin is much easier to listen to than learning the recorder!!)
Last weekend we were lucky enough to go to “Boo at the Zoo” at Akron zoo. (Thanks to Wadsworth Community Radio!) and then do some drive-thru trick or treat in C Falls.
October- The calendar page where 7 of our favorite birthdays live- my dad (happy birthday Larry Caldwell), some of my best friends (happy birthday, Alli Herren, Mandy Daughenbaugh Schmeling, and Steph Byham, I miss you all!), Ava and Hazel (see bday pics below), and Harley the hedgehog (RIP). There are definitely some good things about the month. And some good memories that I’ll cherish forever. It will likely have one more on Saturday that will warrant its own post…
“All clear” scan results again today!! It was such a relief. The “scanxiety” feeling is SO real!
I know you fellow survivors can relate. It sneaks up on you as routine appointments get close. Then it sits really heavy in the pit of your stomach, and the back of your mind, and wherever other places tough feelings go to try and hide… until you hear good results- and that is when you exhale (and probably cry and dance, too.)
I wore my mom’s sweater on scan day last week. It still smells like her even though I washed it (thank you for that, God.) As I folded it to lay it in the locker, temporarily replaced by a sterile faded hospital gown, I paused for a moment. I thought about her, smelled the sweater again, and asked her to be with me and put in a good word to suggest having a clear test. She was with me and I felt it.
As hard as life is without her physically here, I can FEEL her all the time. I felt her presence with me before the scan. I felt her during the 30 minutes my face was squashed in a cushion with the loud clanging all around me. I feel her in my heart.
It’s a terrible thing to lose your mom, but there are sprinkles of beautiful that I’m starting to see.
I had a slow, peaceful start to my morning today, which I LOVE! The slowness allows time for reflection.
My mom has been gone for 40 days. There have been 40 sunrises that she didn’t see. My eyes have closed 40 nights and opened the next morning with my first thought being “my mom died.” I start with that thought every day, it coming to mind in a tone of confusion. It’s so immediate that I know it must’ve stayed at the forefront of my brain while I slept. Living right at the surface until the second I’m conscious again.
On a weekday, I quickly have to ignore the feelings of sadness that so badly want to come next. I have to get ready for work- get out the door on time to spend the day answering other people’s questions and solving their problems. But I have bigger questions and deeper problems in my heart. My mom is no longer on this earth and it’s not okay with me. I don’t pretend I’m fine; I don’t lie and tell others “I’m good.” I’m honest that the days are hard; but that honesty doesn’t make them easier.
So I push through, staying busy and distracted, trying to be a confident/competent leader during a worldwide pandemic, all the while crumbled and foggy on the inside in ways I’ve never known.
Then comes the weekend. Our stay-at-home weekends are a much different experience and I’m really thankful for them. I can take more time to think about life and how my heart is feeling. This morning, I was finally able to put some of it into words:
The grief I have felt in losing my mom is new to me… different than losing my close friend, my cousin, my aunts, and my grandparents. This specific grief I’m sitting with elicits so many raw emotions right now.
If you have kids, or have worked with groups of kids, maybe this analogy will make sense. You know the feeling when all of your kids (and sometimes your husband) are talking to you at the same time and there’s music or tv on in the background? When there are so many things demanding your attention that you can’t really process any of them? That’s how these feelings are to me right now. Sadness, emptiness, worry, fear, love, peace, relief, depression, anger, hope- they are all constantly trying to stake their claim as the answer to “how am I feeling”. With so many big emotions circling around the outside of my heart, it’s just too hard to let any specific one in… especially for any length of time. The hard ones are too painful, the angry ones seem uncharacteristic to my nature, the joy- well that seems inappropriate in grief.
And since it doesn’t feel ok to let any of them settle in and be truly felt, none of them actually do. Hence the confusion. I feel all of them a little bit. Or all of them a lot. I just don’t know.
What I do know, is that I’m changed by this. I hope that as time goes on I will more often think of the positive changes than the negative ones. But for now, I feel this heavy weight of grief always present with me.
I guess like backpacking. Hikes can be beautiful and peaceful. They can feel easy and comfortable sometimes, while challenging and exhausting at other times, depending on the difficulty of the path.
When Covid hit the path suddenly felt all uphill on a humid day… and I thought that was hard.
Now my mom’s gone… and it’s like someone strapped a 50 pound backpack on me. But I still have to keep going up the hill. This backpack of grief is never lifted. I have friends who walk up the hill with me. Some without a backpack at all. Some with smaller ones, or older ones. And I know some people have much larger ones than I do. Nonetheless- mine.is.heavy.
I imagine that the load won’t lighten… it will always be heavy but I will learn to get stronger and carry it well. I’m just not there yet.
If you’re carrying an obvious one, I can pray for you. If you’re privately carrying a heavy one, I’m here to listen and love you through it. If you just want some acknowledgment that it’s there, I can do that too.
Most importantly, I know God loves me through this mess. I know I’ll be ok as He guides me to slowly let those emotions settle where they need to. And as He encourages me to bear the load of the backpack. It’s nothing compared to the weight of the cross. I can do this.
This picture is really just to pair something with my thoughts tonight. (But it is meaningful- Olivia brought home a coral colored hibiscus flower the first time Trisha Brunazzi took my kids to see Amy’s burial spot. Since then, I’ve gotten a coral hibiscus plant every summer.)
Anyway… Tonight I’m writing to process one of many things I’ve been feeling lately- the impact of purpose.
I was watching a loved one struggle this week. The strong person I know so well was hit with uncharacteristic weakness. To be with them during a challenge is an honor. But it’s a very difficult place to be. (Yes, it does help me empathize with what Rob went through when he helped me so much. The gratitude for that is too deep for words.)
As I watched the struggle for simple tasks, I felt confused and helpless. And then a beautiful group of friends stepped in to help. They stood outside of a hospital window, waving toward a tiny silhouette of a person 6 stories above them. And suddenly, I could see a spark again.
They provided purpose. A gift. Intangible; simple but profound. Their presence gave purpose to get to that window and see love in action. The reaction was the first smile in days. And one I will never forget.
Find your purpose. Be the purpose for others. Never underestimate how important it is.
I’ve always loved this “Day and Night” print by MC Escher. He combines beauty, geometry, and illusion into mesmerizing works of art.
Rob and I bought this puzzle for Aunt Pat’s 70th birthday. After she passed away, her daughter suggested that everyone who wanted should take a puzzle of hers with them, so I brought this one home and pulled it out at the start of our “stay at home” weekends. We finished it last week, but the kittens got a hold of a few pieces that we weren’t able to find.
Staring at the final product with those 3 pieces missing, I can’t help but feel it so fitting. The puzzle is complete, but with obvious holes. Just like our lives after a loved one is gone. You can still see the entire picture, but there is a space not fillable by anything other than that piece that was there. So those spots remain empty. Some are very noticeable; others might be overlooked at a glance but are still there. Feels like our life after losing someone. And today, on her birthday, the empty spot where Ant Pat was feels very obvious.
I actually didn’t know when we bought this for her that she was also such a big MC Escher fan. But it makes sense. A lot makes sense when I think about her and the things I’ve grown to love in life- puzzles and games, MC Escher, jacks, painting kitchen cabinets, brain teasers, April birthdays, miniatures, notes of encouragement posted in our living space. Spending time in her home a few weeks ago reminded me of how much of her is in me. It was so comforting and inspiring.
Ironically, it reminds me of four words she spoke to me the last day that she was able to talk to us. After sitting next to her hospital bed for a few minutes, she grabbed the infinity scarf I was wearing and pulled me closer to her. In single, breathy, labored words she said, “Strawpump…is…in…you.”
That likely doesn’t mean much to anyone outside of my family. Strawpump is the name of the town where my dad and his 11 brothers and sisters grew up. It’s the place where our family roots are planted. That small house in a tiny town where siblings raised siblings, life and meals were simple, and a generation learned to love from a woman with a heart of gold. Thankfully, my Aunt Marion still lives in that house so we can still go back to it. But I know that no matter where I am- where any of us are across the country- Strawpump is in us.
Those four words were a breathtaking compliment from Aunt Pat shortly before her soul left this world. It was an amazing gift. Up until then, another one of my favorite-ever gifts was a refinished water pump that Rob gave me last Christmas. Not only did he refinish and paint the pump, he also stenciled “Strawpump” on it. He knows me so well. I love it; and so did Aunt Pat when she came to visit us in September.
Today is her birthday. Her first one that we celebrate without her here. I will think of her all day. I will remember her four words that bring me comfort, especially during a time of such uncertainty in life. And I’ll be thankful for 2 important things that I’ve learned from her.
1. My new life goal: To live a life that people are proud to say about their character traits: “I get that from her.”
2. When life is stressful, build a puzzle.
It’s so exciting waking up on Christmas Eve, even when you’re an adult getting ready for work.
I remember knowing every year as a kid that we would be going to Aunt Marlene’s that night for our gift exchange. And that was the big $10 one so it was always great!
My favorite gift ever, by the way, was Domino Rally, given by cousin Ryan (though we all know cousin Kim picked it out. Or maybe even my mom just bought it and wrapped it and handed it to them who gave it to me.) Whatever the case, it was awesome. And makes me smile every Christmas Eve remembering my aunt’s house with all of the family there. Taking our shoes off in the “fancy” living room where we only went to open presents. The “Home Interiors” windmill candle decoration that seemed to make whatever MLM scheme worth it. And Pap- sitting in his chair in the kitchen next to the tiny tv in the corner, never quite sure if he was paying attention to us or just trying to hear the tv. But he always seemed happy to ask about school and grades.
Downstairs we’d spend time in the half-finished basement playing games (or Domino Rally). The unfinished half was reserved for roller skating or playing school with Amy’s real school desk in the closet.
The point is, I don’t remember if Aunt Marlene’s windows had fingerprints or there was dust on picture frames. I never noticed if she and my mom (Dorothy M Caldwell) were hurried to prepare food or worried about making sure the tablecloth matched the napkins. None of that mattered to me. I remember my family. I remember feeling joy and love. I remember always looking forward to it. And I remember thinking I was so lucky because I had a beautiful Christmas Eve every year with the “Smith side”.
I have really tried to think about things like that this year. Knowing things don’t have to be perfect for my kids and their cousins to feel magic and loved. The crazy of each celebration is eventually balanced by peace- even if it’s after they go to sleep. The important things are spending time together, making memories, and enjoying the celebration of Jesus.
This Christmas Eve, I also can’t help but think of Mary. The soon-to-be mommy, with the immeasurable anticipation of a new baby she surely felt. I vividly remember the day before I had Olivia. I didn’t know for sure she would be coming the next morning, but I did know it was close. My walk to Burger King just to get moving and order a drink. Eating spicy wings. And every place I went I felt like telling people- “you realize my life is going to change drastically any day now”. Really- they knew. I was huge.
I was so excited and scared to push a human being out of me and into this world. And, no offense to her, but it was just Olivia. Imagine knowing you’re going to give birth to God’s son. The man who would save the world. Wow, that’s important stuff- making the day before even more anxiety-provoking.
Mary was one tough cookie.
So with my “stream of consciousness” Christmas Eve post, I take pause to remember Mary and respect how she must’ve been feeling. And another pause to remember all of my mom’s family who helped make my Christmas Eves so fun and memorable. Two very different, but very important things that affected my life all of these years later.
Here’s a photo from my cousin, Kayla’s, recent wedding, which includes just a few of those amazing people. It’s minus another generation, but they’re there in spirit because we talked about all of them. Amy’s there in spirit, too.
I had initially chosen several pictures to share from yesterday- part 1 of 3 of Christmas celebrations for us this season. You know the photo drill- everyone with their favorite present, kids baking together, and beautiful dinner platters (on paper plates). But I decided it’s more meaningful to share my two favorite parts of my family being here.
1. We played football in the street- all of us. It was fun, funny, and slightly competitive with only surface injuries to some of the adults. 😆 I had to leave the game a little early to get the ham out of the oven to get ready for dinner. I love that the layout of our home allows me to be in the kitchen, cutting ham, with this view of our street- the perfect perch to watch the people I love the most laughing and having fun. The best part, I realized, was this was about 3 hours into our Christmas, and still not one child had asked about opening presents. They were just enjoying time with each other, having fun and spending time making memories.
2. This morning was peacful and quiet. Nico and I had some time warming up near the fireplace eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Mine with milk; his without. He showed me all of the bracelets he wears and it was the perfect moment to give him one more gift.
When I was in Hawaii I bought a pura vida bracelet with a wave on it. It reminds me of my “trip of a lifetime” learning to surf and feeling healed from cancer. This morning, I gave a matching one to Nico so when he looks at it he can remember that sometimes life is really tough, but things get better and you might just end up surfing in Hawaii someday.
It’s not easy or frequent to have a naturally sweet moment with a 12 yr old boy. Today, I’m extra thankful to have had this morning with my nephew. He thinks my back scars are cool. I think is motocross elbow scar is even cooler. And we’re both doing ok. 👍🏻
Merry Christmas Eve Eve Eve!
I’m writing this on the plane, flying home from an amazing experience at Camp Koru in Maui. I should be sleeping because when we land today it’ll be tomorrow at home. But I’m still riding the wave of excitement so I wanted to share it.
I flew alone to get to camp- to meet 15 strangers who have or had cancer, along with 5 counselors (3 of whom also had cancer.) It was out of my comfort zone to do something so big, but be so alone. Turns out this camp was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.
We spent 5 days in Maui. 4 of them were filled with surfing and paddleboarding lessons. There’s something about the ocean that spurs so many metaphors- changing tides, ocean waves that have traveled so far to meet you in a moment, persevering through rough waters near shore to get to calmer waters beyond it, waiting patiently out in the water for the perfect wave to come- knowing it’s worth the wait. See- SO many metaphors. They were swirling in my head all week.
The challenge of learning to surf meant that my body got beat up quite a bit. The rocks scratched our legs so much that when we would get out of the water the “camp doc” had us line up for the “peroxide shower”… where she squirted peroxide on everyone’s legs. Paddling out in the ocean made our arms so sore that it felt nearly impossible at times (especially for this body that doesn’t have lat muscles anymore). My knee was so banged up and bruised that it swelled up for most of the time there. And it was worth Every. Single. Ache. Because in the end, I was standing on a surfboard in Maui, riding waves with some of the most meaningful new friends in my life.
What was most beautiful about camp was the natural comradery of being surrounded by other survivors. The ease at which “cancer talk” happened so organically in conversation was surprising to me. A group conversation would easily flow from learning each other’s favorite hobbies to discussion about how we each handled bathroom accidents during chemo. And instead of the typical response of “awe- I can’t believe you had to deal with that”, it was laughter at everyone being able to relate; and seeing who had the most creative solution to that particular issue. We would talk about the beautiful ocean water and then seamlessly transition to which remedies work best for long-term side effects. It felt so natural and easy to talk to these people who knew me for such a short time, but already understood me so much.
On Tuesday night, I had an amazing conversation with a girl, “Huck,” who would soon become one my most important friends. She is younger than me, married without children, living with chronic thyroid cancer. I had noticed the first day at camp that her medicine took up a large portion of her packed items. At that evening’s campfire talk, she mentioned that her faith helps her get through hard times. So I knew I wanted to ask her some deeper questions about faith when we were alone. I’m so glad that I did.
Why I have not heard these words before is beyond me. Maybe I haven’t been asking my questions clearly enough. Maybe people have told me this and I just haven’t “heard” it until now. Or maybe no one has given me such a clear answer before. I’ll try to explain…
I had watched the movie “Breakthrough” on the plane ride to Maui. It was a heartwarming movie, but I got hung up on the fact that if we credit God for answering prayers when they are answered the way we want, how do we explain and (maybe more importantly) find peace when prayers are not answered the way we hope.
In previous conversations and readings, when I’ve asked why prayers aren’t answered, it inevitably leads to a response that “prayers are answered, just not always the way we expect.” Then THAT always leads to the same dead end in my mind of why we bother asking for anything if it’s all going to work out according to God’s will anyway. I have struggled with understanding the “why bother” side of praying for specific things. (Side note: I do see the value of prayer drawing us in closer relationship with Him, but that’s not where my hang up has been.) Remember, I’ve lost two very close people to cancer, so it’s hard for me to accept the “unanswered prayer” response. I’ve also, obviously, been healed from the disease which complicates my brain’s attempt to process all of this.
That’s when Huck’s wisdom hit so hard that I was speechless. This is a woman who has chronic cancer, 8 years since diagnosis, unable to have children of her own. She shared that she prayed to be cured for several years. And for a while assumed it would happen- in God’s time. Then she realized what would bring her peace… and has brought me peace as well. She prays for God to guide her heart to have desires that align with His will. God is more concerned with our spiritual healing than our physical healing. That spiritual healing comes when we are at peace. And that peace comes when we are desiring what He is planning anyway. Mic drop.
Ok, I’m being dramatic. But it really did hit me that hard because it made so much sense. I feel like I finally understand how to navigate the confusing maze of “why even pray” and “God’s will is always going to happen anyway”. I went to bed Tuesday night with such a sense of peace and understanding. Pray for our desires to align with His will. Then we have peace because whatever happens is what our hearts are ready for.
Wednesday, in the middle of our week, turned out to be one of the most special days of my life. Our counselors surprised us with a trip to do outrigger canoeing with native Hawaiians. The two natives who led our group were elders who are held in high regard in Maui. They showed us how to paddle the outrigger canoe as a team, while singing chants in Hawaiian along the way. I was enjoying the songs and felt very connected to my team- out on the shores of Maui singing songs and gliding through the water because we were a team of warriors. Suddenly the elder changed the words of the song we were singing to the English version. You know what it was?… “This is the Day that the Lord Has Made.” A favorite hymn. I couldn’t believe I was chanting a worship song on the ocean and didn’t even know it until then. A while later we were doing a different chant in Hawaiian, and he again eventually switched to the English translation- it was “Let the Sun Shine In.” I’ve been listening to Frente’s version of that song at least once a week for the last 3 months on the drive into work in the mornings.
So we finally navigated around a small rock wall near the shoreline to a cove. The elder explained that the purpose of the rock wall was to help catch fish and food for the island. Our purpose there was help build up the wall- collectively pick up some of the rocks that naturally got knocked over or worn away and pile them back onto the wall. This would help the natives for catching food for their families. I felt honored to be invited to help build something that has been so important to these people for centuries.
After we worked on the wall for a bit, they asked us to circle up in the shallow water. The elders stood in the middle, filled a coconut with water, and sang unfamiliar words that wove themselves into my soul, settling deep in a comfortable spot inside my heart. I closed my eyes, tears rolling down my cheeks as their words moved me. They walked around to each of us, blessing each one individually as he looked into our eyes, dipped a lei into the water and blessed me with it on my head, shoulders, and legs. It is impossible to put into words what happened and how it made me feel. But I truly felt like I was healed- physically and spiritually. I had my answer about prayer life from Huck the night before. And now had this incredible feeling of being blessed and healed in the waters of Maui, through words of a different language that meant the world to me.
Side note: As I talked to Huck afterward about how moving that ceremony was, she said that she recognized “Jesus Christ” being said several times in the elders’ chants and songs. So in the middle of this crazy emotional meaningful jumble of beautiful words, they were actually praying to Jesus.
So I walk away from this week feeling healed- spiritually and physically. I sure hope the physical healing lasts for another 40 years. But I know that regardless, the spiritual healing is what is more important. That comes from the peace of understanding I can pray for my desires in life to align with His will. If I desire what is already part of His plan, I really can’t go wrong… am I right?
Since my diagnosis in 2017, I have thanked God for the medicine to kill cancer and for surgeons to “fix” me. I have been in awe at my body’s ability to heal. But I have not thanked Him for this body that betrayed me. Honestly, I’ve been bitter toward it for two and half years. This morning- my last morning waking up on a bed outside on a Maui beach to a beautiful sunrise- I closed my eyes and, without hesitation, prayed thanks for this body. The moment I did, I was brought to tears realizing that I wasn’t bitter anymore. Which meant that for the first time since 2017, I felt truly healed- inside and out; spiritually and physically; my heart and my soul…. Mahalo, Maui.
October 11th was my dad’s birthday, my hedgehog’s birthday, and my half-birthday. That means I have just under 6 months until I’m 40. So… I’m excited to say that I’m squeezing in a special “Under 40” experience just in time!
Marquina Iliev-Piselli is the author of the book I shared in my last post. She is also the reason I have this cool opportunity coming up soon. During our first interview for the book, she mentioned a camp that she was a part of- Camp Koru. After talking with her last year, then applying and not being able to go, I’m happy to say that this year I am able to participate in a Surfing Camp for Cancer Survivors…. in Maui!
The camp is designed to bring together survivors who were diagnosed under 40- to teach them a new skill as they learn to accept their “new normal”. So in a few weeks I’ll be trying to surf in Hawaii with several other young survivors!
If it’s anything like snowboarding or water skiing, I’ll be horribly- stiff, awkward, and falling all the time. But I’ll give it a try and see how it goes. It took quite a bit to get to this point. The timing had to work out around my other surgeries. I had to acquire enough PTO again at work. I had to apply and wait for a spot, then get my medical clearance to go. Finally, it’s all working out and I’ll be heading to Hawaii in a few weeks.
I’m extremely excited, but also very nervous because I’m doing this alone. They don’t have camps for “survivor spouses”- though they totally should since that takes just as much courage, strength, and grit to live through. I don’t know who will be there, what they will be like, or how we’ll connect. I’m sure it’ll be great, but this is so far out of my comfort zone I can’t even see it in the distance.
What an opportunity, though, right? Maui, I’ll see you soon.
It’s October, so get out your pink. I’ve been so hesitant to embrace the pink in the past- I think because I feel guilty that other people don’t get a whole month of recognizing their challenges in life. And I was so determined to not let my experience define me. But the further away I get from the shock and fear of what I went through, the more I can see the value in acknowledging the importance of the challenges and celebrating my cancer-free life.
Today was “wear pink” day at work. I almost didn’t wear my shirt because it said “Survivor” on my back. So I wore my work backpack for a lot of the morning to conceal it. Then at lunchtime, we gathered for a picture for all the employees who wore pink to work. And there, one of my closest survivor friends, Melissa Samulak greeted me with the best hug I’ve had in a while.
There are a lot of really crummy things about 2017. But there are at least as many, if not more, wonderful things. One of them was meeting this woman who would fight her own battle shortly after me. I still cannot clearly explain what it feels like to go through cancer treatment while working at a very public place. But the comradery and closeness of walking alongside someone whose experience is similar is something very special. After catching up with her and seeing her beautiful smile, I was reminded that being a survivor isn’t something that should be covered up by a backpack.
Thanks to everyone who wore pink today at work. And to everyone wearing pink at their own workplaces this month.
I’ve been a little absent from posting for a while. Trying to be online a lot less and not over-thinking everything in life. But I do have some good things to share, and I think this month is a good time to restart the blogging. Stay tuned…