Rough Waters

For the past five months, I feel like I have been on a wild white water rafting trip.  If you’ve never been on one, this is what happens:  you’re floating along a river in a rubber boat, soaking in the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the views when suddenly you come upon some frantic rapids – big white roiling waves, the kind of water that has the potential to throw you out of your life boat if you don’t pilot them correctly – and you have to instantly determine what to do.  The learning curve is steep as you navigate your way through each wave and around each rock.  Decisions are made both on a gut level and based on past experience.  In order to survive this set of rapids, you must stay present to the moment.  Once you get through those wild waves, you might have a reprieve – to rejoice, to take in the learning, to rest, or freak out, but then another set of rapids demands all of your attention.  And you do it all over again.

That’s what my life has felt like for the past five months as I’ve navigated my way through cancer, two major job changes, and helping my siblings move my parents out of our home of 50 years, the house that holds all the memories of, not only my childhood, but all of the family gatherings of my adulthood.

Now that I’ve come to the end of this river, I am able to start reflecting on everything I’ve experienced.  My first question to myself is: How did I manage?  How did I get through this?

After my car accident when I was 17 years old, my Grandmother sent me five small Catholic saint medals on a safety pin.  Her note explained that these were my deceased Grandfather’s medals and that he had them hanging on his bedpost when he died.  Homer, my grandfather, was a devout Catholic, a man of deep faith.  And while I am not Catholic, or Christian for that matter, these medals have always symbolized the beauty of faith.  On the eve before my biopsy, I took them from my own bedpost, where they have hung since Grandma gave them to me,  and attached them to a long black leather cord.  I have worn them every day since.

Grandpa’s medals hang right at the slight “v” of my small cleavage and serve as a reminder that faith in life, in the Universe, in the power of good,  is a daily choice.  I don’t question anymore why my cancer happened.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I trust that this experience can be, if I allow it, for my highest good.

So I have sat at the helm of my boat this summer knowing that, no matter what happens, ultimately all will be well.   Though I don’t have a bible or church doctrine to assure me of that, I do have my past.  I have survived other white water trips in my life that have threatened to throw me out of the boat. Instead of tossing me into the water, those other trips have brought me right here, right now.

Right where I am.

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Dancing at the Shame Prom

I am proud to announce that I have an essay published in a third anthology, Dancing at the Shame Prom, Sharing Stories That Kept Us Small, edited by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter which hit the bookstore shelves yesterday.

One time, years ago, my brother told me about someone who admonished him for something he did by saying “Shame on you!”  My brothers was incensed.

“Shame on me?  Really?  Why would anyone wish shame on me?  I don’t think my actions warrant shame.”  It was then that I started looking at shame, what it is and how easily we can throw the word around.  Shame is one of the most debilitating emotions and keeps us from being the people we truly can be.  Why would anyone wish that on another without very good reason?

Shame can be insidious.  For many years, shame was the backdrop to my self-esteem, but I didn’t necessarily know that.  By inconspicuously hanging out in the background of my psyche,  shame informed my decisions and choices.  It took years to identify and let go of the shame I held around being a disabled woman.

I even felt ashamed that I have cancer.  I was a smoker.  My diet isn’t strictly organic.  Did I bring this on myself?  Am I to blame?  I spent a couple of weeks beating myself up about it.  And then I remembered:  being ashamed of myself doesn’t allow me to live into my fullness.  If cancer has taught me anything, it’s that my time here is limited.  There’s no time for shame.

If you’re intrigued by the notion of shame and the myriad ways it can creep into our psyches, then get yourself a copy of this book and see how these women transcend shame.

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Itchin’ to be Found

Seven weeks ago I had what I refer to as a “plum sauce” itch.  I call it a “plum sauce” itch because of a story my brother tells about when he was in a Chinese restaurant many years ago.  His waitress, a Caucasian, gum chewing, pencil in her tussled up-do kind of gal, brought him his egg rolls.  My brother asked for some plum sauce.  The waitress turned her head to look at the surrounding tables, itched her boob and said, as she smacked her gum, “We ain’t got no plum sauce.” 

So, seven weeks ago, I have a plum sauce itch and I feel a lump.  Yes, a lump.

It’s funny how the mind handles certain information.  It can freak out.  It can get on-line and research.  Or, as in my case, it can pretend the whole plum sauce itch never happened.  Until the next morning with my first cup of coffee.  Did I feel a lump last night?  The whole itch felt like a long forgotten dream.  I tentatively put my hand on my breast, applied pressure and, sure enough, there it was.  As big as a garbanzo bean.  Or as small as a garbanzo bean.  But for my size A cup, it felt big. 

In an effort to minimize, I didn’t tell my husband.  Instead I “went to the store.”  Well, that was my excuse to get out of the house and bee line it up to the Diagnostic Imaging Center where they do mammograms.  It seemed perfectly reasonable to me that they would be open on Saturdays for emergencies, like a walk-in clinic. I was fully prepared to march up to the receptionist and demand a mammogram.  Stat.

My stomach fell when I drove into an empty parking lot.  It was Memorial Day weekend and I’d have to wait until Tuesday morning to get my mammogram.  I decided it was time to tell my husband.  And we worried together, quietly, all weekend.  As I lay in bed on my side with my breast falling downward, I could feel deeper into my breast.  I swore I felt a second, smaller pea-sized lump next to the garbanzo bean.

I did get into the Imaging Center on Tuesday morning.  I called my gynecologist at 8:00 am and she got me in by 10:00 am.  First I had a mammogram.  When I was told me they wanted to do an ultrasound, I knew it wasn’t good.  But I’m a girl with a lot of cysts.  In a desperate attempt to not be a drama queen I kept telling myself these were just more cysts.   After ten minutes of gliding the ultrasound wand over my breast with the warm gel (thank you – great invention!), the radiologist said, “Yep, this looks like cancer.” 

I shot up to a sitting position and looked at the screen.  As he pointed to the images and explained the characteristics of cancer, all I could see was a sea monster.  All the tissue in the background of the image, the connective tissue in my breast, looked like roiling waves on a stormy sea.  The two lumps on the foreground looked like big eyes bulging out of the sea staring at me.  Not in a menacing way.  In a “get me outta here” kind of way.

Now I’m a pacifist at heart and I knew immediately, when I looked cancer in the eye, that I was not going to battle this creature inside me.  This was not going to be the fight of my life. I knew that I was going to confront it.  I was going to see what cancer had to teach me and bring me.  I was going to see how cancer would enhance my life. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the loss of my leg, it’s that when I embrace the difficult parts of life, they usually turn into something positive.  Teachable.  Sometimes even beautiful. 

When I saw the surgeon for the first time, she commended me on finding the lumps.  “Good for you for doing your monthly exams.” 

I corrected her.  “I wasn’t doing a self exam.  I had an itch.”

I loved her response.  “Funny how our bodies talk to us, isn’t it?”


I’m one of the lucky ones.  I have Stage 1 cancer.  I just had my lumpectomy and once I’m done with a six week round of radiation, I will be okay.  I am not looking death in the face.  I do get to stick around for the most important part of my life: I get to see my kids grow up.

 I truly think my body wanted me to find that cancer.  I think my cancer was just itchin’ to be found. 


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The Ultimate Choice

Why is it when I’m faced with adversity I tense up and get scared?

I’m curious why my default mode is to step into fear and not love.


I am 52 years old and I’ve had my share of adversity.  And do you know what?  Every time, every time, regardless of how much anxiety I have around the situation, regardless of how difficult it is to navigate through it, the real captain of the ship is love, not fear.  Love has always been the driving force behind every success.  So why do I get so scared?


A few years ago I spent time meditating with my “demons,” those nasty voices in my head that nag at me all day long about one fear or another.  They tell me I won’t succeed, or that I’m stupid, or to be careful.  When I spent time meditating with these parts of myself that are, ultimately, afraid, I learned what they each wanted: love.  Or peace.  So, individually, I sent them love and peace.  And as they were showered with my love, they disintegrated. 


I haven’t done this exercise in a while, so my demons have had the opportunity to reform into their fearful selves again.  But what I learned from that experiment was how powerful love is. 


The problem for me is, and this is what makes it so hard for me to stay in a place of love/peace/trust, is that fear is so loud.  What wakes me up in the middle of the night?  Fear’s thunderous roar.  What tugs at my belly and makes me feel sick?  Fear’s menacing pull.  So what I need to remember is this:  Fear is so big and in my face because, I think, it’s screaming at me to remember love.  I don’t think fear really wants me to be afraid.  Fear wants me to just feed it love. 

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I do no define myself by the wrinkles making a road-map of my face,                                                                                                                                                       I am side-splitting laughter; I am anguish and pain; I am joy unfettered.

I do not define myself by my jiggly butt or round tummy,                                                           I am nourished and grateful for my food; I am thrilled with my sweets; I am intoxicated with culinary delights.  I nourish myself not just through good food, but by the appreciation of it.

I do not define myself by my gray hair,                                                                                          I am a compilation of every reason my hair has turned gray.

I do not define myself by my swollen, achy foot,                                                                           I am sure footed, confident of where I plant each step.

I do not define myself by my nearsighted eyes that can’t see passed the rainy windshield,                                                                                                                                            I have vision grander than my eyes will ever see. I see the whole picture, the aerial view.

I do not define myself by the bursitis plaguing my hip or the tendonitis in my butt,               I am walking into my future with a steady gait and sure direction.

I do not define myself by my abbreviated body,                                                                           I am a whole woman who realizes that, though parts of my body can be cut off, no doctor in the world can cut me off from my soul.


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Staring Back

Today is the day.

The sun is shining and spreading warmth – the kind of warmth that makes me want to shed my pants and don my shorts.  But before I do that I need to take a deep breath and make a mental shift.  I need to steel myself in preparation for all the stares.

I used to have a leg that was sculpted and painted to look as much like my long leg as possible.  About three years ago I made the shift to a C-leg, a very mechanical, robot-looking leg.  Instead of a Caucasian colored calf, I have a grey tube, complete with the C-leg logo.  I’ve always disliked clothing that advertises a brand and here I am walking around with a brand on my body.

I used to be able to pretend that my sculpted, painted leg made me look normal.  In fact when my prosthetist urged me to switch to the C-leg, I was worried about how that would change my husband’s desire for me.  I didn’t know how much my sculpted leg had fooled him, too.  I’ll never forget his answer when I asked him, “Would it make a difference to you if I had a robot looking leg?”

“Honey, I want you comfortable and happy,” he said.  “That’s the difference I care about.”

So I made the change and I love the way walking feels in the C-leg.  But I still have to get used to being so obvious.  Mind you, I’ve always stuck out, even with my sculpted leg, but with that leg, people usually had to take a double-take to realize what they were looking at.  With my grey C-leg, there’s no question what you’re looking at: a piece of hardware made to help me walk.

The feelings that arise when I’m stared at are a jumbled mess of discomfort, vanity, self-consciousness, pride, and, sometimes, anger.  I like attention as much as the next person, but I prefer it for something I did well or for looking good.  What makes me uncomfortable, even thirty four years later, is that I’m being stared at because of my deficit, because of my difference.  I understand that people are curious; I just don’t like being a curiosity.  And I don’t want to compartmentalize myself by saying they’re just curious about my prosthetic leg.  My prosthetic leg is not separate from my body; it is a part of my body.  So when people stare at my prosthetic leg, they are staring at me.

I used to stare back at people, well, glare actually, to let them know how rude they were being.  I threw my discomfort right back in their faces and tried to make them as uncomfortable as they were making me.  A number of years ago I stopped doing that. I realized that didn’t help the situation.  Now I just let people look or stare.  And deep inside, I remind myself:  it’s my difference that has shaped me, sculpted me into the woman I am today.  When they look at my prosthetic leg, they are looking at courage.  And when I look back at them, they are staring straight into the eyes of acceptance.

Okay, so here goes….. I’m digging out the shorts.



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The Impact

Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book.

“I love this song,” my sister Mary Beth says wistfully, as she navigates the snowy drive through the Chuckanut mountains to Bellingham, Washington. It’s 1978, and the hit love song, “Somtimes When We Touch” plays through the speakers of our yellow Ford station wagon. Christmas break is over, and my thirteen-year-old brother, David, and I are accompanying Mary Beth back to college, then making the two-hour drive back home to Bellevue. I’m seventeen and the prospect of that long stretch back thrills me but scares me too. Though there’s still plenty of daylight left, it began snowing shortly after we left home almost two hours ago and the roads up here in the foothills are covered in an inch of snow. “Yeah—I like this song, too,” I say. We all start singing along, crunched together in the front seat, David sandwiched between me and Mary Beth.

We are creeping along at about thirty-five miles an hour with the rest of the cars, forming a curving serpentine as we weave through the foothills.

“Oh no!” Mary Beth suddenly shouts. A white semi truck is in the left lane with its right turn signal on, and it begins to merge into our lane. The giant smiling face of a child that is eating a piece of buttered bread leers at me from the side of the semi, getting larger by the second. Mary Beth taps gently on the brakes, but our car starts to fishtail, like when I slam on my bike brakes on a bed of gravel. I throw my arm across David’s stomach, like my mother would do. As the car starts spinning out of control, I have this crazy memory of the teacup ride at Disneyland. My stomach drops and I flatten my feet against the floorboard. Though I’m scared, I’m also aware of how pretty the snowflakes are swishing past the windshield. I feel like I’m inside a snow globe. It seems to take forever for us to stop. Then we slam the guardrail so hard my teeth vibrate. The station wagon comes to a stop on the left shoulder of the freeway, facing traffic. Not one of us speaks. The windshield wipers continue their lazy swiping, the radio drones on, and everything feels quiet.

The cars in the right lane keep streaming by. No one seems to notice that a car with three young people in it has just spun out. No one is stopping to help us.

“I’ll get out and check the damage,” I say, my voice sounding calmer than I feel. I slip out the door and take a few steps to the front of the car, my legs trembly, breathing shallow, to see if the tire and bumper are damaged. I feel light, like I could float away, but also relieved. Inconquerable. We’re okay! I think. And so’s the car. I scurry back inside and make my report. We need someone to stop traffic so we can make a U-turn. Why isn’t anyone helping? I think. It’s one in the afternoon; how could everybody miss us? Then I wonder, What would Kevin do? My older brother, Kevin, is the problem-solver in the family, and since Dad’s death four years ago, I always look to him for answers. As if channeled by my brother, I suddenly know what to do. “I’ll get out and flag down some help,” I say. It makes me feel proactive and smart.

I get out of the car again and walk carefully around its back and up to Mary Beth’s driver’s-side window. She unrolls it and hands me her gloves. “Be careful,” she says. David opens the passenger side door and starts to get out. “David!” she yells. “Stay in the car!” David quickly slips his legs back in the car and shuts the door.

Now that I am out here on the shoulder of the freeway, I feel foolish instead of in control. How do I get someone to stop and help us? I wave my arms feebly, knowing I look stupid. Shouldn’t a seventeen-year-old girl standing next to a spun-out car be an obvious call for help? What am I, invisible?

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