As I mentioned last week, this summer I am taking time to reflect on what it means to say good-bye. Summers have always been a season of transition for me and this year is no different. This summer marks five years since I moved from my hometown of Denver and relocated with my family to Seattle. This season is also the end of many requirements such as a master’s degree, internship, externship and thousands of clinical hours necessary to become a licensed therapist in the state of Washington. For the first time in five years I have no one that I must answer to for a grade or for a signature of approval. And while to some, that may feel freeing, to me, it is terrifying. It means that the constant state of someone else being responsible for my fate has now shifted to me being responsible to create my own assignments and requirements for what it is I want to achieve.
I’d like to illustrate this contrast more clearly anecdotally.
On our recent family vacation, we visited two separate water resorts. One was Glenwood Hot Springs resort and the other was Denver’s epic Water World Outdoor Family Water Park. Going to both locations was a treat for me to share with my kids the places that I frequented when I was a child. And each experience was markedly different from the other.
Dipping into Glenwood Hot Springs was like sinking into one’s personal bathtub. The water is a balmy 93 degrees naturally and its presence on my skin felt like a hug over every inch of my body. If the pavement all around the pool was positively blistering, the water was its salve. In fact, I had gotten two large scratches on my arm earlier on the trip and had put ointment on them daily to try to prevent both scarring and infection. But after my time in the magic sulphur spring my wounds closed perfectly and looked better than they had since the initial puncture.
Even before we swam in the pool, when we exited the I-70 tunnel out of the canyon and into the town, I felt a sense of ease and peace and knowing. I had been there many times before and memories of youth trips and diving contests and steam off the hot water in the winter filled me with consolation and giddy elation. It was like coming home from college for Thanksgiving dinner. I was met with the sites and sounds of the familiar, of tradition, of knowing and being known and I was comforted.
My experience at Water World was vastly different. We went there in the afternoon because the astronomically priced tickets were half off. We knew this meant that we wouldn’t get to do everything we wanted to do, but Lucy and Peter are still young enough that a full day might have been too much sun and water for their little bodies to handle. Since we only had a few hours at the park, we chose our rides carefully, because we knew we would be waiting in line for at least an hour. Neither of our kids had been to water parks that had the caliber of rides that Water World affords, so they were wide-eyed and mesmerized from the time we entered the gates. So, even though waiting in line for an hour was less than ideal, we kept telling them that it was worth the wait. And after we rode on the spiral spinning cavernous Journey to the Center of the Earth, they agreed.
Next, we chose to wait in line for a ride where all four of us were seated in a large raft that would take us plunging down a steep incline and dump us into a toilet-bowl like structure where we would swirl around and around and around and finally be dumped onto another landing that slid us through a waterfall and out to the finishing pool.
One of the best moments of the whole trip was the look on Peter’s face when we approached the initial incline of the “toilet-bowl” ride. I had shifted in the raft to where I was heading backwards down the incline and couldn’t see where we were going. Peter, to my right, was looking dead ahead and saw what awaited us all. As I felt myself fall backwards, I looked at Peter. With goggles over his eyes and his mouth wide open, he screamed a sound that was a mixture of terror and delight while his face expressed the notion of being both scared and excited at exactly the same time. It was priceless. I would wait at least another two hours in line if it meant I got to see that expression again. In an instant, he captured for me what it feels like to be in a place where what awaits you is inextricably both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying.
Lest I digress into more dreams of time gone by, let me circle back to my initial paragraph. [The natural problem with using anecdotes is that they only illustrate the point if they’re not so long that one forgets the initial point meant to be made]. What I meant to demonstrate was contrast. The two water resorts were very different experiences of very much the same thing – water fun. One was comforting, soothing, even healing. The other was exhilarating, terrifying and unnerving. These are the two states that I currently find myself between. I am saying good-bye to the familiar of the last five years and awaiting the unfamiliar of the next five. One has been a source of consolation and healing, will the next be terrifying and unnerving, even if exhilarating at the same time?
Perhaps what is at the core of saying good-bye is that one is leaving the familiar and heading into what is unfamiliar. Who really ever wants to leave the cozy, warm and containing presence of knowing and being known into what seems to be the cold, stark and steep dive into the unknown? And yet, when I really think about it, if I had my choice, I would choose the experience of Water World and witness Peter’s face of exhilaration and delight over the comfort of the hot springs bath any day of the week and twice on a Sunday.
Our family just got back from a nearly three-week long vacation. We drove from Seattle, through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming down to Colorado. We swapped cars at my parent’s house and went on to Kansas to be with Karl’s dad before he went into open-heart surgery. After his dad made it successfully through the surgery and was in recovery, we drove back to Colorado for a relaxing week of visiting friends and experiencing some of what I know and love about my home town: Water World, Beau Jo’s Pizza, Casa Bonita, Colorado Mills, Heritage Square, the Renaissance Festival, The Market on Larimer Square, Lucille’s Creole Café, Snooze and much more. When we left Denver, we headed west to go through the ski towns of Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail and Beaver Creek and on to Glenwood Springs where we stopped off just long enough to introduce the kids to the natural sulphur hot springs the town is known for. We finished our trek through Colorado by driving through Grand Junction where I spent my freshman year of college and there I was also able to show Lucy and Peter the grand glory of the Colorado National Monument at sunset.
Next, it was on to Utah to travel through Moab near Arches National Park down to the corner of the state to re-enter Colorado again briefly to see Mesa Verde and end up at the Four Corners National Monument where we could all experience being in four states at one time. Afterwards, we drove along the outer rim of the gorgeous Lake Powell and ended up in Cedar City, Utah to stay with my dear friend Hope for just a day – long enough to visit the ranch where she works and catch chickens, feed horses, let baby calves suckle our fingers and scout out lizards and beetles. From there, it was a quick sprint back through Idaho and the corner of Oregon and into Washington to get home as quickly as possible as we had already spent nearly eight days driving.
The 10-state adventure was one we won’t likely make again in the near future. One generally doesn’t drive multiple hours to stand for mere moments at the Four Corners, which is out in the middle of virtually nowhere. So, we made sure to capture as much picturesque beauty and wonderful national spectacles that western America has to offer, even if only briefly.
The process was an interesting juxtaposition of saying hello and goodbye at the same time. I was introducing many things to my kids that I hadn’t seen since I was their age. And at the same time, I was saying goodbye to all that had been my familiar home for nearly 32 years, not knowing when we would be back to visit again. There were moments of nostalgia and downright glee, and also moments of pause to acknowledge that what was familiar to me as a child will be different from what is familiar to my own children. They will have different memories – ones of the Pacific Northwest. Instead of dry, desert climate attractions like Glenwood Springs and Mesa Verde, they will remember lush, damp forests of the Cascades and fresh, cool dips in the Puget Sound. I am excited at the new prospects of discovery for our family in an unfamiliar territory. And I am also saddened by the reality that what I now call home is no longer the mountainous, colorful terrain of Denver, Colorado.
I have been pondering what it means to say good-bye. I wonder about the value and significance of those two little words. They seem to hold great meaning by the sheer fact that many people do not like to say them. So, as I am finishing several chapters at once right now in my life, I will be reflecting more on endings and what they mean to me now, and perhaps what I’d like them to mean to me in the future. I hope you’ll join me as I embark on a new journey – the journey of saying good-bye.
It is an honor to introduce you to a dear friend Cortney. I first met “Cort” 9 years ago as we were first time moms trying to figure out this new life with a little one. Along with three other first time moms, we formed a playgroup as a way to support each other through the transition into motherhood. Our group of 5 moms with 5 kids has now grown to 5 moms with 14 kids. We still manage to get away for playgroup from time to time, which is now more appropriately titled “Girls Night Out.” We have done life together through many seasons of highs and lows and have experienced great beauty and pain together. We know each others stories well. I vividly remember the day Cort shared she was pregnant with her 2nd and 3rd child…twins! She was beyond excited, yet anxious, and she beamed with that pregnancy glow. Late into her 1st trimester one of the twins she was carrying passed away. The mixed emotions she experienced knowing one twin had lost it’s life so the other could thrive was so heartbreaking yet powerful to watch. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only loss Cortney has experienced. She has also had to endure the painful death of her mom after a 10 year battle with breast cancer. This is where her story picks up. Please join me as she vulnerably shares her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy a short 4 weeks ago. Here is her truly inspiring story, in her words…
What led to your decision to get a double mastectomy? Can you walk us through the process of that decision?
My mom was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer when I was a teenager and fought almost a 10 year battle with it before it finally took her life. Back then, it was very rare to live that long with cancer, so she was a trooper. It started out as a lump in her breast and then metastasized into her bones and eventually into her brain. She underwent so many painful procedures; experimental bone marrow transplants, vertebrae fusing, spinal taps, lung aspirations. Ugh- it was so tough on her. Cancer tortured her physically and the rest of our family emotionally. During the later years of my mom’s sickness, I started struggling with depression when the very real feelings of hopelessness washed over me. We had to stand by helplessly as we watched her become a shell of who she once was. Not fun.
When I entered my thirties, I started getting regular mammograms because of my mom’s young age at diagnosis. My mammograms showed that I too had the same kind of fibrocystic breast tissue that had made my mom’s cancer so difficult to detect. I also had several masses in each breast. Awesome. After a biopsy of one small area, I was told that it was benign, but that there were pre-cancerous calcifications lurking around in there and we really needed to monitor them. This was frustrating to hear as I remembered that years before my mom was diagnosed, she had found a tumor in her breast and her doctor told her, “It looks ok, you just have very fibrocystic breasts. We’ll just monitor it.” Argh! Several years later, both of my grandmother’s were diagnosed with breast cancer too. Both underwent mastectomies but for one grandmother it was too late, she passed away after it metastasized into brain cancer.
Last year my masses grew to the point that I could no longer sleep on my stomach comfortably and I went in for another ultrasound. Once again, they said, “It looks ok, we’ll just monitor it, but you really should go talk to the Genetic Counselor.” After years of putting it off, I went and did a session of genetic counseling where I was diagnosed as high risk due to personal family history (my mother diagnosed early and two grandmothers and a maternal great-grandmother with breast cancer) as well as other factors. I was given a 26+% diagnosis, which means I have over a 1 in 4 chance of developing breast cancer someday. I took the BRCA gene test and tested negative (yeah!) however, this did not affect my high risk diagnosis since I was still placed at the 26+% for developing the cancer in my lifetime. I basically had three options:
1) Monitoring/ surveillance for early detection with a mammogram, MRI, ultrasound and 2 specialist visits per year for the rest of my life. This would cost nearly $2,000 per year even with my insurance.
2) Taking a low-dose of chemotherapy for the rest of my life.
3) A prophylactic (preventative) bilateral mastectomy and possibly reconstruction. I would have no more mammograms for the rest of my life (yeah!).
After struggling through such a painful situation with my mom and then watching both of my grandmothers have double-mastectomies, I really wrestled with the anxiety of the seemingly inevitable diagnosis that many high-risk women like me deal with. I walked into every mammogram, ultrasound or MRI expecting to get a diagnosis of cancer. I dreaded those visits and so did my husband. I also knew that I didn’t really want to keep going back for unending painful biopsies of my growing masses, especially since the number had grown to three by this time. Awesome.
My genetic counselor recommended Bright Pink to me. They are a national non-profit experiential outreach group focusing on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women. They provide support for high-risk individuals like myself. I went to some of the events (all by myself) and met some amazingly brave women who are all at various stages on the monitoring and prevention track. I made some great friends among these inspiring women. They helped educate me in the process and give me advice on my situation. This group ended up being invaluable to me through this journey and in my decision making process. I would have been lost without their information, help and support.
My husband and I prayed hard about the decision, asking God to direct us and lead us through the process. Our friends also prayed over us. We asked God to completely close the door if we chose a path that was not for us. I couldn’t ignore my intuition and I quickly came to the decision that I wanted to have the double mastectomy and reconstruction. This way I could be free from the emotional roller coaster of developing the disease that has taken the lives of too many amazing women in my family. I wanted to be able to know that I did what I could to give my two kids and husband the best chance of having me in their world for as long as possible. I want to be able to dance at their weddings and hold my grand babies. Obviously, this is not guaranteed, nothing in life is, but it is a proactive solution to eliminate a very probable outcome.
Tell us about your mom…
She was a light. She was an incredible friend, comforter, encourager, servant, bible study leader and teacher. She was an amazingly gifted mom. She wanted to be nothing else and she was proud of it. I am so proud of her for that. She was extremely gentle yet strong and fiercely protective of her family. She knew Jesus well and walked with Him. She was creative and thoughtful, sacrificial and prayerful. She reminds me of the Proverbs 31 woman: a passage that contains this crazy list of seemingly unattainable virtues of a Godly woman, yet she effortlessly exuded so many of them at once. She bravely faced endless surgeries and scary diagnoses with expectancy that God was going to be glorified through her struggle. She shared her story with the doctors, nurses and everyone she came into contact with.
Every day that passes as a parent I am reminded of how special she was. There are so many ways I wish to be like her. There are so many times throughout the day I wonder how she would react, how she would respond…so many ways I miss my mom. I miss her company. When I became an adult, she became my friend. My heart still aches when I see a mother and daughter out spending time together because I know I’ll never experience that casual closeness of running errands or grabbing lunch with her again. I miss her guidance. She gave the best advice and knew how to speak truth in love. She was an amazing wife. By her example, she taught me how to truly love my husband. I miss her presence in my kids lives. It’s such a tragedy that they will never know her, because she would have had so much love for them. She would have been the first one to offer to hold and rock them to sleep as babies. She would probably be volunteering in their classrooms and planning all of their parties.
It’s been 11 years since her death, and I still can’t believe she’s gone. I felt numb for so long, void of highs and lows. Depression robbed my every effort to grieve my mom’s death in a productive, healthy way. I knew as I was just going through the motions of life that it was wasted time, yet it was so difficult for me to climb my way out of the depression. It took many years before I was finally able to deal with the emotions of loss, confront them, and heal from them. God’s grace has been faithful to cover me during those tough years.
How do you think she would feel about your decision to get a double mastectomy?
I think being supportive would be an understatement. She was an excellent caregiver and she would have probably moved in with us for a month to take care of me and my family! I’m sure she’d also say, ” I wish I would have done that.”
How did your dad respond?
He was excited and a bit relieved. My dad feels that same way my sister and I do, that breast cancer was almost inevitable, so he was extremely supportive. My dad flew out for 5 days to stay with us and help take care of me after my surgery. I’m sure it was difficult emotionally for him to be back in a caretaker role. It probably brought back some painful memories of doing the same things for my mom. I know he enjoyed being helpful though, and he was helpful. I needed that.
Continue reading Cortney’s story in Part 2…
*Cortney is a wife to Ryan, a mama to Kieran (9) and Cale (7) and her favorite drink is Sangria. We are so thankful to Cortney for gifting us with this powerful story. We invite you to engage her story in the comments section below. May all of our reflections and comments bring honor to the beauty of her story.
*Sunday Specials are a weekly round-up of happenings on the web-o-sphere. So enjoy your coffee while checking out what’s caught our attention.
It’s been another weekend chalk-full of soccer – the sport our entire family has grown to love. Traveling all over the state each weekend, filling our car with all the necessities like gigantic sport umbrellas that stretch throughout the entire length of the vehicle, and the barrage of tiny black pieces of rubber (remnants of turf fields) all over my house – none of this is how I imagined my life would look like when we began a family nearly 14 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I envisioned we’d have at least an athlete or two (given the natural talent and athleticism present in both of our family lines). I thought perhaps we’d have a basketball player, maybe a single soccer player, and for sure at least one dancer (since all but the most recent addition started their first dance class while still in utero). Life is full of beautiful surprises and I am so thankful for that. I love plot twists and turns. I love when the story surprises us and takes us in new directions. When we stumble upon the unexpected we have to grow and adapt and get creative. I can own it now – we are a full-fledged soccer family. I am a full-fledged soccer mom.
Honestly, at this stage of my life, if I wasn’t a soccer mom I would likely be far less motivated to spend time in public arenas. I imagine that I would surrender most weekends to my more introverted self and spend the time addressing the need to restore my often weary soul. Instead, I muster up the strength to immerse myself in the crowds that line the endless green fields. More often than not, I avoid a lot of social interaction and the camaraderie that naturally happens between families whose children are bonded together by way of the beauty of a team sport. My withdrawal isn’t about being anti-social, but more about self-preservation. I spend so much time in my work as a therapist processing the stories of others, sorting out the relational dynamics that make-up the rhythm of their lives and being as present to their emotional wounds and needs as possible. Perhaps the most significant occupational hazard I have discovered in doing this work is that there isn’t an easy on-off switch. I bring all of who I am with me to the soccer fields. I analyze. I assess. I listen. I observe. For this reason, sometimes it’s best if I live in my own head while on the soccer fields.
Yesterday I witnessed a troubling yet common scenario. I was pushing Briella in the stroller up and down a long stretch of sidewalk awaiting the eventual surrender of her tired eyes to the nap she so desperately needed when I saw a little boy of no more than six years of age get banged up in a scuffle on the field. He immediately grabbed his wrist, the obvious place of injury, and began to cry in pain. I watched as his eyes surveyed the player bench and the crowd looking for someone to respond to his pain, to his need. He was standing there crying, pleading, while the game went on. Finally, one of the coaches noticed that he was distraught and began to command the boy to pay attention to the game. Only a few short seconds later, the whistle blew because the ball had ventured out of bounds and the coach called for a sub. I then watched as the little boy walked to the bench and sat down entirely by himself without receiving so much as a pat on the back or a single word from either of the coaches or the other two players already sitting on the bench. It was heartbreaking…and then it became infuriating. Gender dynamics aside (I could go on and on about that subject in another post), this was such a powerful portrayal of our inability to meet each other in our places of pain.
Whether we struggle to enter into each others pain because we don’t know what to say or because we have grown desensitized or lack a developed sense of empathy – PEOPLE, we are devastatingly failing each other all over the place. I know this because I get to see the pain of people who have been missed, left alone, abandoned and expected to tend to their own wounds or learn how to not feel pain altogether. I know this because in different seasons of my own life I was also left alone to tend to my own wounds.
I am still sitting with Margot’s story this week, allowing it to take root inside my own story, so that I might grow my capacity to bear the burdens of others. Margot was able to tell her friends that she needed them to let her feel whatever she was feeling. She taught them, and will likely continue to teach them, how to be a safe place for her in her own experience of pain and need. This week, I searched the web for a few more voices of the wounded willing to teach us how to be there for one another.
Responding to Those Who’ve Lost a Child
Responding to Those Who’ve Suffered Abuse
Last week was a big victory for all those involved with the alleged Sovereign Grace Ministries sex abuse scandal. Nate Morales, former sex abuser from Covenant Life Church, was found guilty for all 5 counts of sex abuse to 3 victims and faces up to 85 years in prison! He is also faced with more charges from another victim in a trial next week. ~Renee Palmer-Gambee
In light of the recent conviction in this case, I revisited a couple of posts by Rachel Held Evans from over a year ago specifically addressing this scandal. The comments are filled with voices of the wounded. #IStandWithSGMVictims
Responding to Injustice #BRINGBACKOURGIRLS
In light of our first Feature Story from Margot Hale, I want to offer some data regarding the social norms of grief. Shauna, Sarah and I were at a conference last November where we learned that in America, the standard timeframe wherein it is socially acceptable to grieve is twelve days. That means that after twelve days, people stop bringing over food. They stop asking how you are doing with a tone of empathy. They begin asking, “How are you?” with a raised inflection at the end of their sentences. This subtle shift is indirectly inferring that the only acceptable answer is that one has moved past grief and is now in the process of healing.
After twelve days, grief is seemingly no longer an acceptable burden for others to bear.
Moreover, this social stance makes it awkward for the person grieving to freely share their roller coaster experiences that inevitably follow a loss. After twelve days, they are likely still feeling sad and want to talk about how things were before they endured their loss. But everyone else has moved on and gives the impression that to live in days gone by is to suffer unnecessarily. However, psychologically, this is actually by far and away the most counterproductive measure.
It is in the retelling of the past that gives a grieving individual a firm and faithful foundation from which to begin their healing. Without a past, there is no hope for a future. They remain stuck in an unanchored present without memory or dreams. Allowing someone space to talk about what has happened (past tense) is rooting him or her in his or her experience (now). Unfortunately, what often happens is that people don’t continue to share the past after twelve days, because society expects them to be moving on to a hopeful future. And yet, I cannot stress this enough. Without a grip on the past, the visions of the future are not clear enough to move toward.
A beloved professor of mine once said,
Give me the norms of grieving in the Jewish community any day before those of the Christian church. They allow space for one another’s grief for a year.”
She went on to describe a Jewish custom of covering the mirrors in the home of one grieving. The mirror is traditionally the means of achieving social acceptance by enhancing the appearance. Covering the mirror allows for one to not feel the pressure to conform to social acceptance and gives them the freedom to render themselves just as they are.
I attended another conference more recently where a therapist was talking about a case in a South American culture where a young boy around the age of ten came into therapy mute. He had suffered watching his home and loved ones carried away by a massive flood. His trauma had left him bound up with emotion without words to communicate his feelings. Having some background information of the traumatic event from the parents, the therapist began by asking him to draw what he remembered. She described his initial drawings as chaotic scribbles and showed slides that were hardly recognizable. She also said that when he began drawing he started to speak and his words were as frantic as his fingers scribbling across the page. He took out another paper and continued to draw and tell the story. Each time he came to therapy he drew and spoke and drew and spoke the details of the event. It took several months of weekly sessions, but the drawings he rendered at the end of treatment were ordered and colorful and clear and bright. His ease of speaking had also returned and gone were the frantic anxious words he used to describe the story and in their place was the optimistic intonation that Americans demand after twelve days.
I want to use one more illustration before summarizing these thoughts. Several years ago when I first began my graduate education I attended a workshop that was aimed at helping children grieve in a group setting. Relatively new to the field, I was perplexed and even shocked to hear how children were encouraged to process their grief. The presenter explained several group therapy techniques to utilize. One was to stage a funeral for whom they lost. They would dress up and have a casket and say prayers. And they would want to enact this scene over and over and over again until they understood in their young minds what had really happened. Another exercise was to have the child lie down on the floor on top of a large piece of paper. Have someone trace a marker around their body so they can visually see themselves. Then, the exercise was for that child to find the hurt and draw where they feel it. They would draw pulse marks around their heart. They might have squiggles where their stomach would be. They could draw something heavy on their chest. Group leaders were encouraged to allow the children to find the pain, name it, describe it and tell their story again and again until they had some map of navigating grief, sorrow, loss.
There is a theme in these three vignettes that is counter to American culture of grief and loss. The antithesis of a twelve-day mourning period is illustrated by these more healthy and helpful measures. Don’t forget. Remember. Don’t go mute. Speak. Don’t stay with all of your confusing and painful feelings trapped on the inside. Get them out in a visual manner until you find some peace.
May we begin a community who will honor grief and loss in a way that is healthy, helpful, and ultimately healing. May we give space to tell stories of the past. May we be the listening ears so one needn’t try and forget. May we offer a blank canvas for friends to paint their pain. May we be the safe haven where the one grieving can go after the culturally mandated twelve-day recovery.