Our great friend and fellow blogger and radio host, Mel Majoros, AKA “The Cancer Warrior“, asked me to give her some thoughts about cancer awareness during September, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. I thought about it and decided to do something a little different: two stories about transformation, turning points and clarity in life – both before and after losing Sarah to ovarian cancer.
For all you Carcinista fans, I think you will enjoy this. See it here.
Let us know what you think!
Despite my facade of bravado the night before, I woke on Thursday nervous as hell. Picture it: a woman who, regardless of recent fitness, has a lifetime history of athletic underachievement, a recent history of daily two-hour midday naps, and a bad case of altitude sickness (not to mention stage IV lung mets) spending six hours climbing a big rock and then rappelling down it again. Teamwork and awesome support notwithstanding, the potential for failure was pretty high. But then again, that’s what First Descents is all about, right? Pushing past your fears, self-imposed mental and physical limits, and getting on top of the rock.
Everyone was pretty jacked up by the time we left the lodge. The plan was to revisit the big thumb we had climbed on Tuesday, just outside of Estes Park, but when we stopped by Mary’s Lake to throw in rocks covered with our inhibitions and self-criticisms, the horizontal rain and strong winds threw a wrench in that plan. Flexibility and going-with-the-flow might be the secondary mottoes of FD staffers and CMS guides: within minutes, a new plan was formed, and we took off for the Boulder area and Castle Rock. The hour-plus drive was beautiful, and gave me a chance not only to admire more of the amazing mountain scenery but to psych myself up for the challenge that was looming over my head like a cliff. I had gotten over the whole being-carried-up-the-approach thing; now I had to trust myself, which seemed significantly harder.
Down a winding valley road just outside of Nederland, Castle Rock appeared around a corner and everyone gaped. Three hundred feet of lumpy granite rising into the air like a tower; a creek runs around one side and the road around another. It looked as if it had been set down inside a bowl, with the hills curving around it – maybe that would cut down on the wind? Whatever, it was tall, and we had to climb up it.
The campers split into two groups: the more expert climbers (Alabama, Psych, Foodie, Sprouts, DoBo, Fluff) and the less expert climbers (Spike, Clover, Milf, Caribou, Wiki, Kale, and me). Guides were everywhere, looking very businesslike, draped with hundreds of feet of rope and dozens of carabiners, talking intensely in hushed groups and planning like generals. We scattered into the bushes for last-minute bathroom breaks, and I noticed dusty chalk prints in the cracks up the steepest southern face of the Rock. Clearly, it was a top-notch climbing spot; I just hoped we’d have slightly larger handholds.
And in came the Sherpa. Nicknamed Luddite, I had gone all jittery-schoolgirl when he’d introduced himself at breakfast: 6′ 3″, strawberry blonde, broad shoulders. Now, with a coil of rope split over each of his shoulders, he was positively psyched about practicing carrying me up the approach – whether his insistence that I was doing him a favor was just blowing sunshine or actual fact I’ll never know, but who the hell cares. Check out the photos:
It was rough, I tell you, rough. His shoulders were so broad it was hard to get my arms around them. Grinning like an idiot the whole ride. You see I needed the team tiara to really polish off the effect.
Away we went, leading the north-side group like the Pied Piper. Low branches were a bit of a hazard, but fortunately the approach only took about five minutes, as opposed to the twenty-five minutes of the other rock we had planned to climb. I didn’t have long to feel guilty.
By the time we got started actually climbing, it was nearly noon. Good news: lunchtime! Warm sunshine! Bad news: naptime was approaching like a dive-bomber. Sometimes I got frustrated at the hurry-up-and-wait nature of it, each of us climbing in pairs up the pitches, but the rest time while we waited for the team to reassemble gave us time to rest and eat and drink. The guides were amazing – the spaghetti pile of two-hundred-foot ropes, carabiners, and climbers they had to belay and keep track of was staggering. There wasn’t much conversation with them, although they did pause for an occasional smile and a contribution to the ongoing “If…” book discussion. Special shout-out to Spare Parts, who worked the belay like a machine all day long.
Each pitch in itself wasn’t that hard for me. The irony of the whole day is that I actually found myself liking climbing. It’s like putting together a puzzle: a hold for the left hand here, a step for the right foot there, and hoist! Now a right handhold, a left foothold…no? Can I brace with my thigh? Very rewarding and satisfying to the female tetris-loving brain, like watching a needlepoint project or a jigsaw puzzle turn into a whole image from the teensy mosaic pieces. There were moments where I got frustrated because there wasn’t an easy solution, but the cheering from the teammates and occasional coaching from the guides helped my confidence enough that the pieces fell into place, and I found myself flopping over the top ledge like an exhausted swimmer out of the pool.
After about stage three, though, I was done. No, really. My legs were like Jell-O, my arms too tired to lift over my head. I had eaten good complex carbs and drunk plenty of Gatorade, but the burst of renewed energy was not coming. I think my body doesn’t do that anymore. But no sherpa was going to haul me up the rock. And there was no bathroom at the summit. So this is where I usually fall flat – I’m really tired, it’s time for a nap, I can’t do any more today, I’ll be in my office. Take me home, put me to bed, see you later. This day, from somewhere, I had to find the energy to keep climbing.
I just didn’t think about it, any of it. Not about how tired I was, not about how crappy my lungs felt, not about how tired I was of being cold and clinging to a rock. Not about how far my life had come from what I’d imagined it would be, nor how pissed I was at that. I just climbed. Waited ’til it was my turn, and climbed. And then I was up.
Once we were all there, it was strange – we were all jubilant, incredulous at the magnitude of our accomplishment, but exhausted. No one seemed to want to leave, whether we were all too tired to move or just didn’t want it to end. Photos were taken, jokes were told, and then it was time to go.
Rappelling was less terrifying to me than belaying; I guess I’m a control freak, because once I was the one holding the reins (so to speak) letting me down the cliff everything was fine. It doesn’t make stepping backwards off a perfectly good 250-foot cliff any easier, though, even when I’m well rested. Which I was not. And yet, I think the exhaustion quieted the jitters: by the time my jelly-legs had gotten me to the brink, and Spare Parts had hooked my harness to the ropes, I was simply so eager to be finished that I cooked over the edge and started bouncing my way to the ground.
After what felt like ten minutes, but was probably only about two, I stopped for a rest. And looked around me. The sun was setting, the shadow climbing the wall of the bowl around me. The sky was blue. No one was asking me for anything. I had gotten up and over that big friggin’ rock under (mostly) my own power, despite my misgivings. Holy crap. Then I made a mistake – I looked down. People are very tiny from that far up, as are minivans with reclining front seats. Time to get cracking.
Shoulders get sore passing handfuls of rope to yourself over and over again. Switching hands wasn’t an option, though, so I rested a couple of times. I was really cognizant of being the third one down, though, and that there were about twenty people up top who needed to follow me down. Past the hundred-foot pine tree, over the ledge, run out of footholds and swing precariously, and then hands on my waist helping me down. Done. I could barely unhook my climbing harness and stagger to the van. Seat down, feet up, pass out.
And not be able to fall asleep. As I lay there staring at the bushes outside the window, so many things ran through my head. First was, “Why the hell did I do this? I can’t believe I signed up for this nightmare. I’m so tired I’m going to die.” Next came the cascade of memories from the day: rooting for reluctant climbers; Slash’s ridiculous sing-alongs; the sunshine on all of us at the top. As I heard subsequent rappellers finishing their descents and cheering for each other in a mob, I was overcome with jealousy: at their energy levels; at their ability to stand up after that day; at the fact that some of them were over their disease; at the fact that I wanted to plan to do First Descents again and might not get the chance to. Tears of exhaustion. Frustration. Nap.
Spare Parts opened the tailgate some time later to start loading in equipment, and threw on some tunes for the assembled cheering squad – the clock said 6:45. No wonder I was zonked. It took another forty-five minutes before everyone was down and loaded. I was so excited to be driving home I could hardly stand it. Nap. Forget dinner – to bed, to bed. My pre-noon flight the next morning would probably require an early wake-up call, so I was eager as hell to check out.
Ha ha. It seems that other members of our team were HUNGRY. We stopped in Nederland at a Nepalese restaurant called Kathmandu for dinner. I was nearly in tears again at the thought of having to get up and walk into the restaurant and make conversation for an hour. Oh, and it’s buffet. Now I have to balance a plate, stand up and make conversation. Then it came to me, like a message from heaven: I. can. order. a. diet. Coke.
Caffeine, food, and chai actually dragged me out of my funk, and I completed a couple of sentences at the table. But by 8:30 I was practically herding people out the door to the vans. Slash said that once we got back to the lodge, we still had a Campfire meeting to get through, plus the awesome slideshow from the week. Bedtime? Maybe midnight.
I did finally fall asleep in the van, but it took everything I had left to pry my bod out of bed, wrap myself in a sleeping bag and shuffle outside for the Campfire. I won’t share everyone’s secrets, but it was clear ground had been broken, lifetime friendships made, personal limitations smashed.
For me, my contribution to Campfire was that the day’s heroic achievements had been so huge there was no way I could summarize them without some sleep. I said that when I woke up on Tuesday, I’d probably blow my own mind at how huge the day had been. I was seriously so drained, and the magnitude of our journey so epic, that to this day I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.
What I know for sure is that the next morning, when I had to say goodbye, it was like cutting off my arm. First Descents felt like an entire year of college, with its friendships, shared in-jokes, and constant togetherness, crammed into five days. I was so tired I thought I wouldn’t make it through security (thank heaven for first class lines!), staggered to a kiosk for a fatty bagel-egg-bacon-cheese, collapsed at the gate and burst into tears. How does one come down from a high like FD and return to the real world? The regular real world would have been hard enough, but I had to psych myself up for chemo in two days. I needed some motivation.
I’ll be back.
Photos courtesy Kale, Clover, Spike, DoBo, Wiki, Wildflower, and Garçon. I forgot to take any.
I left a whole bunch of things at home this morning as I rushed out of the house ten minutes behind schedule, and only realized my mistake(s) as I was merging onto the Mass Pike. I called home to ask Mr. Wonderful to email me the shopping list so I could stop on my way home. Being the Mr. W that he is, and since he was coming downtown anyway for a meeting, he offered to bring the other stuff to me at The Cancer Factory. Timing was tricky, as I was running back and forth between two buildings for appointments that couldn’t seem to start on time, but someone smiled on me, and he pulled in just as I was dashing back across the street for my CT scan.
Short story long, he brought me the things I had forgotten, packed in a little reusable bag from lululemon (a store at which I hope to spend a lot on exercise clothing in the future). Printed all over one side of the bag are inspirational quotes, admonishments to carpe diem, etc. One specific line caught my eye: “Life is full of setbacks. Success is determined by how you handle setbacks.”
Particularly poignant this week. Yesterday I cornered a despondent and stomping #1 Son, grouchy because his brother hadn’t wanted to play outside with the dog with him. From somewhere deep within the storage pool of mothering instinct came the line, “You can’t let your happiness depend on the actions of other people. They all have their own thoughts, their own desires, and they can do as they please. If you can’t be happy unless they do exactly as you wish, you’ll always be disappointed. Be happy with your own actions, and let that be enough.” (I have no idea where I got that from, as I can be quite susceptible to the problem at hand myself, but it sure sounded good. I should probably needlepoint it on a pillow.)
It’s been a tough week to be me. Although both kids have been in school five days, for six hours at a stretch, by Tuesday night I had come down with the week-off-the-mystery-drug-fever again, and felt like a sodden lump of sand. A “quick” four-hour trip down here on Wednesday for two types of blood draws and pee-in-a-cup showed no reason why I should have a fever. Nonetheless, by mid-afternoon I’ve been ready for bed, which did not accommodate yesterday’s pot of chicken-noodle soup (I had to do something with Monday’s leftovers) nor the 6-to-7:30 soccer-clinic-on-the-complete-opposite-side-of-town-in-a-downpour-wait-in-the-van nightmare. By 8PM I was fish food.
And as I slumped despondent on the couch with hot tea and layers of wool, watching The Blind Side with the hubs, I was put in mind of something my own mom used to mention (from her infinite pool of mothering instinct). When asked the eternal question, “What do you hope for your children in their lives?”, she never responded the expected, “I just hope that whatever they do, they’re happy;” she always said, “Life is full of times that won’t be happy. I want my kids to be able to cope.”
Which is, I think, what’s been going on here at Carcinista Central. Whatever the cancerverse throws at us, we find a way through it, and most of the time we are actually happy (although some days I just sob on the steering wheel). We lean on each other when we need support, take time away when we need to be alone, and take risks knowing that the family and friends who love us will be there to pick us up if we crash.
I’ve just met with Dr. A, and my CA-125 and CT scan have deteriorated a fair amount from ten days ago. While that’s never good news, at least the results are definitive: I’m going off the study and starting chemo when I get back from First Descents. I am glad that my week in Colorado will be drug-free, but I know I’ll still be a tired mess, push-ups and pull-ups notwithstanding. It’s a program for cancer survivors, after all, even if I am the oldest and illest one there – I’m sure they’ll understand. I’ll nap if I need to, bow out of activities if I must, but I’m going. If they have to shovel me onto the plane in a wheelbarrow, I’m going. Mom taught me that much.
Besides, six hours all by myself in first class? Each way? I wouldn’t pass that up for anything.