“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.”
There aren’t enough “thank yous” in the universe for this woman. She’s my oncologist- Dr. Rehmus- the person who saved my life. This post is to acknowledge and celebrate her!
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day in 2017 when I met her. I had just learned of my diagnosis around lunch time and had an afternoon appointment with my surgeon (someday I’ll see if he’ll let me take a selfie with him, too!) It was the end of day on a Friday and I’m sure she would have been on her way out the door if not for me. Thankfully she said she would take my appointment at the last minute.
As Rob, Trisha and I walked into the room with the round conversation table, I couldn’t stop thinking about how nauseous I was and unsure if eating something would make it better or worse. Dr. Rehmus walked in with her medical student and introduced herself. I vividly remember that the first thing she did was sit next to me and turn her chair so that we were knee-to-knee. I don’t know the exact words she said but the sentiments were acknowledging that this was a hard afternoon and an immediate concern for taking care of myself- starting with getting me crackers and ending with a prescription for Ativan and instructions to pick up a bottle of wine on the way home (don’t judge if you haven’t been in that position before. )
She saw me that day with all of the fear in my eyes that I couldn’t hide. She knew how much to explain and when to stop because it was mental overload. She had been here thousands of times with other patients, yet still managed to make me feel like I was her only (and most important) one. She did this throughout my entire care with the perfect combination of intelligence, reason, compassion, encouragement, and humor that is necessary for this kind of work.
I have always had confidence in her as she provided reassurance in her responses to my gazillion questions. She is the epitome of amazing medical care. Although I obviously wish I didn’t need an oncologist, I’m thankful she’s the one!
Now, after years and years of treating thousands and thousands of patients, she gets to retire! I’m so excited for her. Yes, she diagnosed me with “oncologist withdrawal syndrome” (her made-up term for what I’m going through), but I don’t know how to feel knowing that I might never see her again!!
So I will celebrate her here and introduce her to all of you and pretend like she’s a part of this group. Because I wouldn’t be here to keep writing and sharing thoughts if not for her. Not sure how a woman like that stays so humble, but I want to be like that when I grow up.
You just never know where your path will lead. Rob’s path is taking him through the 5 boroughs of New York for the NYC marathon!! He’ll be running in November and achieving this goal he set out to do a few years ago. He was planning to do this in 2020 but obviously that was cancelled, so he is now on his way to do this in a few months and I’m so proud of him!!
You all know cancer has affected our lives so much- as well as so many of you. Rob has chosen to race by fundraising for a cancer research center in NYC. If you are able to donate to the cause, click on his link. If you are donating in honor/memory of someone, let him know and he will add it to his shirt on race day. And if you are inclined, please pray for this amazing research company because, my goodness, what a difference it would be if a cure can be discovered. Thanks in advance for everyone’s support for him. He’s a rockstar!
This is how we fight this disease together!
Two bags of trash- seems like no big deal but it was SO emotional. (I wonder how it feels for other people who aren’t so sentimental about every little thing in life.).
These bags are the last round of my “cancer stuff” that I’ve held onto. The “essentials” from surgeries and treatment that I haven’t gotten rid of yet. In trying to explain to Rob, I realized that this seemed important enough to include on this page- and so I’ll share…
These two bags are filled with the medical things that helped me through cancer treatments- the expired numbing cream to go on my port each time they accessed it for treatment; the wraps to keep the bags of ice on my hands during chemo treatments to minimize neuropathy; the “drain apron” that was essential to hold the drains post-surgery; the bandages and binders to help hold my body together as it healed. These items were valuable to me along the way, and holding onto them has made me feel prepared for the “what if…”
I’ve always thought that part of the PTSD aspect of my experience was that it was so sudden and unexpected at my age. And I wonder how differently (if at all) it would have felt to go through it when women are “supposed to”- more like in my 50s or 60s. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been so traumatic if it was more expected and I was more prepared.
It makes me think of the wave that knocks you over in the ocean: when you’re facing it and watch it get closer to you, you are ready for the hit no matter how hard it comes. You bend your knees and you either dig your toes into the sand to stand firm; or you time a jump just right so that you can ride it out with a little grace. It doesn’t seem so bad when you are ready and face it head-on.
When you’re not expecting it- that’s when the wave knocks you over completely. That’s when you face plant and get a mouth full of saltwater. And you get all turned around and disoriented for a minute, not knowing what happened or where it came from.
I pray every day that I don’t get hit by another wave. I feel guilt because my mom didn’t recover from her wave. And the recent anniversary of the day Amy went to heaven reminds me that it can be even more unexpected than my own hit.
Subconsciously, but not too far down to retrieve the thoughts when I need them, I know I’ve hung onto this stuff just in case. Today, in a moment of freedom and excitement and worry and guilt and fear and peace… I let them go.
January 20th- it never comes without all of the emotions.
4 years ago today was my initial diagnosis.
1 more year until the big #5- when recurrence risk is low enough that I can use the word “cure”.
The details of that day have not faded; and the impact is a mess of thoughts and feelings.
It seems like a lifetime ago and just yesterday at the same time.
I’ve hated my body and been amazed by it.
I’ve felt closer to God and then not sure He’s even there.
I’ve mentally planned my funeral, and never been more alive.
I have been held up by others, and held others with even heavier burdens.
I have joked about cancer, and have been paralyzed by the seriousness of it.
I have embraced my scars, and hid behind clothes and in the dark.
I have felt thankful for being physically cured, and guilty because mom wasn’t.
Weak and strong.
Alien and human.
Depressed and joy-filled.
Frustrated and grateful.
Broken and healed.
Weary and hopeful.
The only constants: “change and time” … and HOPE.
Artist credit: Katie Belden
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.