I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. In case you were wondering, I haven’t stopped writing, haven’t stopped pouring my soul out on cyber paper. I’m a writer and that’s what I do and I love it. But I took a break from the “public” blog while I healed from my recent (and hopefully final) surgery because to be honest, I didn’t know what to say to all of you. Why? Well, simply put, I was having a hard time understanding myself, my new and cancer-free self! I needed to put the mental burn time in, a concerted effort to introduce the old me to the new me and try and make some sense of it all.
But it’s been really hard. Harder than I thought it would be and that’s been humbling.
I have a great husband, great kids, great friends, great church, a truly great life, and yet the best way I can describe my life right now is that it is not yet my own. It’s like it’s a bunch of pieces of jagged glass that do not fit together, that seemingly have no other purpose other than to tease me that my life has always been and will always be on the brink of fragility.
This post cancer life is so new and different and, in a way, disconnected from a lot of what I once was. It is by all accounts a rebirth.
Fall dawns in San Diego the end of August and with it, a sort of changing of the guard. Don’t laugh, I know the calendar says Fall isn’t until mid-September, and yes, it’s true our beaches in August are still packed with plenty of sunburned tourists. But it’s also true that by the end of August, although the days are still warm, downright hot actually, the nights are rather crisp and cool, dropping a good twenty degrees from the daily highs. This drop-in temperature somehow serves as a signal to us California natives that it’s perfectly fine to start burning pumpkin spice candles, adding a fleece throw to the back of the sofa and warming our hands around a cup of homemade soup while watching the promos for Hallmark Channels’ Christmas Countdown. It also signals the beginning of apple picking season, a sort of frenzied time that despite San Diego being a fresh fruit capital, we gather the troops and parade up the mountain tops to pay exorbitant prices for the opportunity to pick our own apples.
It’s just the kind of kitschy juxtaposition that makes San Diego a great place to live.
So, it was in the spirit of all things Fall, that my husband, eldest son and I, dressed in shorts and tank tops and oiled with sunscreen, crammed into my Volkswagen convertible and made the two hour trek up to the mountain town of Oak Glen on the 1st day of apple picking season.
It was also an activity I felt would help me cope with the stress of awaiting the final surgery I was having in September to remove my reconstructive implants. The implants I felt, although there was no medical consensus, were at the root cause of the continued debilitating physical issues I had been having over the past three years.
It was hot. Eighty five degrees to be exact and with the top down on our convertible, I could feel the sun baking my skin, burning it as we wound our way up the mountain side. I began to doubt myself. “What a stupid idea Anne.” “It’s freaking August, you should be at the beach.”
I remember silently praying that the trip wouldn’t be a bust. But God it was so hot.
We pulled up alongside the orchard and the scenery was breathtaking. Trees of all shapes and sizes and colors. Scents of pumpkin and apple and something that we discovered was berry, filled the air. There was the sound of a folk band, voices in harmony blended seamlessly with the strum of guitar and bow fiddle. The sun was still blazing, but the sky was so blue and the surrounding mountains were still lush and green.
Is this what heaven is like?
The three of us, my husband, my son and I, walked down a lane lined with blackberry bushes. Off to the left was a little stand and a friendly man with a careworn face dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, work boots and a cowboy hat who greeted us.
“Hello folks, welcome, welcome!”
This must be what heaven is like!
The man with the cowboy hat explained to us the process of how to pick the apples, the trees available for picking would have yellow ribbons on them and there were several varieties. The man handed us some bags to hold our pickings. We would pay for what we picked on the way out. There was a two-bag minimum and the price was steep, but the happiness that filled me was knowing no bounds.
With instructions and our bags, the three of us walked down the trail and around some very cute out buildings that had been carefully restored to look like a western town that had seen better days. I felt an immediate connection to it.
Life is like that, somedays shiny, other days broken, but always we push on.
Around the bend we entered the orchard. It took a bit to find the trees we could pick from and we decided to split up so that we could pick a variety of apples.
One particular apple tree caught my eye. This tree, one among the hundreds on the mountain side, had been picked clean on the exterior, but the interior branches were bulging with bright, red and green colored apples, and it reminded me of a mother holding her young to her bosom.
I studied the tree. It seemed to be calling to me.
“Won’t you please come closer and tell me your secrets. I promise I’ll listen to what is on your heart and then, as my gift to you, I’ll give mine…the fruit of my womb.”
I drew nearer, extended my arm as far as it would into the center of the tree and my hand enclosed around an apple and I gave it a tug. But it’s stem held on tight, as if it did not want to go with me. I tried again, tugging and pulling and as I was bracing my leg against the trunk of the tree for more leverage, I looked down and there underneath the canopy of that apple tree were literally hundreds of discarded apples in various stages of decay. Pitted apples. Pockmarked apples. Apples with brown holes. Worms? I picked several up and I didn’t find any worms. But the pile of discarded apples was unusual, huge in fact and so out of character for what lay underneath the other apple trees around it. Out of the blue a thought popped into my head:
“Is this apple tree holding on to its’ final offering because it is afraid to shed its’ old self, to make way for the new.”
What the??? Where did that thought come from? Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew the answer to that question.
Because the tree was me.
The me that had shed so much of what was broken in me physically over the past three years was there on the ground in the form of all of those discarded apples. But the me that held onto the memory of all that I was pre-cancer, my life before all of the drama, was there in the form of that tree holding on for dear life, afraid to give up the last of all that it was…of all that I am.
Isaiah 41:10. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
All at once it seemed too much to ponder, too painful, too sad, this me that I once was and this me that I so desperately wanted to figure out, so I quickly joined my husband and son and focused on filling our bags full of apples of every sort. We laughed and laughed and soon my momentary sadness was forgotten. Bags full and caught up in the joy of the experience, we decided to also pick some blackberries.
More money of course, and it was darn hot out and we were all sweating buckets, but something about the whole experience was having a cathartic effect on not only me, but on my husband and son, and in that unity my spirits soared.
It was as if God was saying to me, “I’ve got you Anne, I won’t let you go.”
So, baskets in hand we went off in search of blackberries. There was one section of the orchard that had a kind of maze-like structure with groomed blackberry bushes, but there was another section, a less structured section, with tall, craggy bushes full of thorny bramble.
You can guess which ones called to us.
Anyhow, without thinking, I reached in to said bush and instantly my hand was full of juicy berries and equally full of tiny, microscopic thorns. I won’t lie to you, those tiny thorns hurt! But I couldn’t stop myself from reaching in again.
Further and further and further into the brambles my hand automatically went.
“Oh, I see you. I see you hiding your beautiful berries way back there in the dark recesses of all that you are. Don’t worry, I know you are scared of me, but you know what, I’m scared of you too! So, let’s be scared together.”
My stinging hands, black from the berry juice filled basket after basket. Bags of apples lay at my feet. Enough for a pies and syrup and fruit pancakes and…I had to stop before the money ran out!
Conveniently across from the blackberry bush there was a copse of trees, diverse in their variety, but similar in their leaves, which were all in various stages of color transition. Some were evergreen, some a sort of mottled green-yellow, a reminder of the dry, desert climate that is Southern California and some were the palate that I most associate with fall: deep brown, burgundy, golden yellow and burnt orange. It was this latter colored tree that, while casually picking the blackberry thorns out of my fingertips, that seemed to speak to me.
The trunk of the tree was oddly shaped. Instead of the typical circular base that begins wide at the bottom and then gradually tapers skyward, this tree’s base was extra wide, distorted in proportion, to the rest of the trunk. It was as if it had taken a long pause before deciding that yes, it wanted to continue its’ journey skyward as a tree.
Moments of pause and reflection are good in our life journey. Sometimes they are planned, sometimes they aren’t, but pausing never the less affords us the time and opportunity to access if we are headed in the right direction.
Cancer for me was like that. An unplanned pause that pushed me to reflect on all that was my life and what I wanted to carry with me forward in the journey, post cancer. Now what exactly is that?
I noticed that the skin of the tree trunk was punctuated (every so often) with circular, rough-edged knots. A few of the knots were superficial, their middles slightly grainy in texture, not much more than a fleshy surface wound. Others of the knots, were deep, dark and cavernous. Their center void indeterminant to the naked eye, as if mirroring infinity.
As humans we share a common guarantee that our lives will be filled with all sorts of knots, anxious moments, that tear at our core, causing us to momentarily bury deep within ourselves to wait out the storm.
But in the past few years I’ve come to recognize that these sorts of troubles, while important and valuable in my personal growth, are more or less equal to butterflies in the tummy. That quick quiver, that reminds me of just how fragile my life really is.
The greater task for me is to make peace with the larger knots. Those that seem ridged and permanently affixed to my story, no matter how hard I struggle to rid myself of them. Would they disappear if I just “let them fall away?”
I guess it is true that no matter what our battles some memories and scars are fleeting, parked for a bit waiting out the passage of time, while others remain, glaring, blatant and perfectly comfortable altering our person, our existence.
My person. My existence.
So, as I continued to pick out the last of the thorns, I wondered to myself:
What would happen if I just let go of the worry and just let myself fall into my new life?
But I don’t like letting go. I don’t like falling.
The sporadic clumps of gnarled star-like bouquets affixed to the trees branches that stood before me in shades of orange, gold and brown and burgundy were stunning in the bright August sky, startling actually against the green of what is the norm for much of the California landscape and they should have made me happy. But it was this difference, this odd combination of brilliance in the face of death that gave me pause. Something that oddly felt like resentment welled up inside me.
“There you are Anne in all your Fall glory. Wow, you look so great for all you’ve been through!” Should I look old and haggard? Is that a choice I can honestly make and still be accepted? Would I accept myself as less than what I think I should be?
“Bright, Bold, Beautiful! What tremendous energy you radiate Anne!” What if I told you there are times that I feel void inside, would you run? What if I told you there are days when I’m barely hanging on? What if I told you that I’m afraid?
“Anne, how have you survived cancer and all of the other health issues you have been through with such a positive attitude? Well, you know beautiful, I couldn’t do it. I don’t have the strength you have.” There are days, lots of days that I don’t have strength either, did you know that? Do you even want to know? More importantly, do I want to know?
“Anne dear, what you have accomplished is nothing short of an inspiration.” I’m nothing special. I’m not. I’m just as regular as this old tree. And I didn’t do anything spectacular. I fought cancer, as do millions of other people each and every day, by putting on my game face and working my ass off to stay in the game. Simply put, if I had a choice about my place in this world, and I was blessed to be given one, time and time and time again, I wasn’t ready to give up my earthly role, whatever the hell that is. It isn’t any more complicated than that.
Or is it?
As I stood staring at that gnarled, old, broken down tree, almost forty months of voices full of compliments and encouragement and every heartfelt sentiment filled my head.
Sometimes I do not feel worthy of what should be a joyful noise as I get on with my life. Instead my head is filled with a cacophony of disconnected notes, rising up into the sky to reveal, leaves that, upon closer inspection, are black at the tips, reminding me of myself, my fragility, a falling star, my brilliance slowly being extinguished as it streaks across the nighttime sky. As I said, I am afraid.
Hands still blue, and free of thorns, I felt tears well in my eyes as they travelled up to the crown of the tree, I noticed that many of the upper branches were denuded of any leaves, their fate sealed by the wind and their proximity to the heavens.
There they sit, under the watchful eye of God and man, raw, naked, completely exposed. As do I. As do we all.
I suddenly felt a kinship with these stripped branches of this craggy, old tree. These branches, the once proud harbingers of birds, and bugs and life. How strange it must feel to hold such vast secrets within the warmth of limb and leaf only to have them stolen by the breeze, and left a barren landscape, void of what was once bright and beautiful and appreciated. I understand.
My once normal life has been bowed under the weight of its’ burden. My limbs snapped under the pressure of accepting something for which I had no root cause. Nothing I could say, “Well, that’s why I got cancer?”
I’ve tried to remain colorful and brilliant and to hang on to every thread of what was good about my life prior to cancer, but the true story is that underneath my canopy, where my once bright leaves stood shimmering in all of their glory, they are now withered and crumbled, their dust scattered on the ground, just like those discarded apples and I don’t know what it all means, this transition.
I feel like I am someone I don’t know yet. And that’s o.k. because God will continue to show me the way. I understand why it was important for me on this extremely hot day to be standing here in the middle of an orchard with my family, hands stinging from bramble, nature’s bounty at my feet, learning to fall in love with me.
The new me.
So, I stand here, a tree, naked of its’ leaves, branches askew, trunk soft and swollen under the weight of its’ burden, wondering what to do next.
I know people will continue to come up to me and tell me how great I look. What tremendous energy I radiate…
What an inspiration I am. I love them for it.
I’m still learning what I feel about this me that is still revealing itself.
But I promise to keep trying to figure it out.
It may take a little longer. And that’s o.k. because I am not alone in my journey.
With God’s help, I’m slowly falling in love with me.
As always, thank you dear readers for liking and following my blog. Feel free to share with friends and family, those you feel could benefit.
TOGETHER WE CAN LIFT EACH OTHER UP!
Radiant work you have here. Keep it up!
I’m sitting in my kitchen at midnight, crying, happy, loving you for what you have shared with the world. Your very private journey laid bare. I am left without words for you & your spirit that has not failed you. It is the same spirit that the old tree hangs on to: LIFE Anne, you have so much more living to do!💞 Judith
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Thank you Judith. You are such an inspiration to me of what it means to live a life well lived and well loved.