"I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to 'cut back.' From then on, I've tried to be a little more flexible."
(Erma Bombeck)

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'The truth is, you don't control squat'

Above: A photo of me during the chemo phase of my treatment. My husband (the photographer) just said something to make me laugh.

Note: I wrote this blog entry months ago, but couldn't bring myself to post it. I kept thinking I would come back to it and revise it. I just re-read it today and realized that I really did write what I wanted to say. I'm not sure why I didn't post this earlier--maybe I was afraid of stepping on someone's toes or bringing down the wrath of people who like to feel empowered. Hey, I like to feel as empowered as the next person. But, for some reason, today is the day to post this.

I'm not out to burst anyone's bubble with this blog entry. Rather, I'm writing from a place that I've been struggling in for a long time. If you take the time to read the entry, please click the video link at the bottom as well. It is intended to be the capstone.

The title of my blog entry is taken from a quote by Ed Dobson, who was a “celebrity pastor with a large congregation and broad influence.” In 2001, Ed was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), a fatal illness that changed his life and ended his church leadership role. Doctors told Ed that he had two to five years to live. Despairing, Ed prepared to die.

Although I was not given the devastating news of an ALS diagnosis, I do know what it's like to be told that I have a terminal disease (although one could argue that we are all terminal, aren't we?). Although many people beat breast cancer, there are plenty who don't. The truth is that I am constantly aware that cancer could rear its ugly head again—and that I should enjoy every day I have been given as a reprieve.

I have pondered the idea of “control” a lot since my cancer diagnosis. I'm continually torn between the idea that I have some kind of control over my health with my lifestyle habits (eating, exercising, keeping stress levels down, etc.), and the gut-level feeling that I'm deluding myself and that any kind of control I have is all an illusion. In other words, it makes me feel better to think I'm in control, but that's about all it does.

See, I do believe that taking good care of myself helps me feel better. And I do believe that working hard in life pays dividends--usually. I believe all of that—and in apple pie, baseball, Chevrolet, and motherhood.

But I'm talking about real control. This was brought home to me in a very personal way in the last few months and, truthfully, is one of the reasons I've been struggling with depression. Someone quite close to me (a good friend from church), was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and she's gone now. If ever there was a person who believed in living a healthy lifestyle, it was her. She was one of the most energetic and hardest working people I've ever known. She was full of vim and vigor. And today, she's gone.

I have found that many people (including myself, in a former life), are prone to at least subconsciously “blame the victim,” chalking a cancer diagnosis up to some kind of unhealthy living or habit. I suppose the obvious reason we do this is to distance ourselves from the terrifying thought that something awful could happen to us as well. Yet, the truth is, many people have not done anything but eat well, exercise, breathe the same air as the rest of us, and they still get cancer—or some other terminal disease, anyway.

After my friend's cancer diagnosis, she doubled up her efforts to eat right and take good care of herself. When the doctors told her that the chemo wasn't doing its job, she visited an alternative cancer clinic where she was given herbal remedies and pursued a rigorous “healthy” regimen, being told that many people had been restored to health using the same treatment. But it was not to be.

I spoke to my friend two weeks before she died and I'll never forget what she said--probably because I identified so closely with her--“I never expected to die this young.”

Add this to another woman I know from the cancer support group I've attended. She was like the poster woman for cancer survivors. She beat breast cancer over 12 years ago and is fit, a healthy eater, upbeat, tan, optimistic—a veritable role model for all women who want to move past cancer. I happened to see her at a luncheon last summer and learned that her cancer had returned and that she had just undergone a double mastectomy. I tried not to let her experience get to me—after all, she's still a survivor—but I wondered, “Is that me in a few years?”

So, I've struggled with whether any of my efforts make any difference at all. And the truth is, I don't think so. I can't jog enough, pop enough vitamins, eat enough veggies, or donate enough money to deserve this life. Each day is given to me, not because I've done anything to earn it, but because of God's graciousness. The very beat of my heart is a gift from God.

I'm sorry to admit this, but when I see people so pleased with themselves for having their 401Ks buttoned up, their scale reflecting their desired weight, their pantries lined with all the right health foods and vitamins, their tanks filled with gas, and their clothes, hair, and make-up “just so,” it makes me want to scream.

I still have well-meaning people recommending books and emailing links to me—tips on how to extend my life. Apparently, getting a mammogram was my first mistake. Maybe it was; I'll never know.

But it makes me want to say, “Really? Really! You have it all figured out . . . you've happened upon just the right regimen that's guaranteed to allow you to live to what? 90? 100? Well, GOOD LUCK WITH THAT.” 'Cuz . . . you don't control squat. YOU'RE STILL TERMINAL.

The truth is, I'm envious of people who are all snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug with their illusion of control. I'd like to go back to being deluded myself. It was much more comfortable to believe that life is secure with all my ducks in a row. Feeling in control feels good.

The first time I remember having my notion of control and stability challenged was when I went through a divorce that I didn't want. I thought that I had done things the way they were supposed to be done. What I didn't count on was another person's choice impacting my life in ways I didn't desire. I didn't want to be a divorcee, but it didn't matter—I became one whether I liked it or not.

The second time my illusion of security was challenged was when my husband and I lost our house through a failed business. I thought that God wouldn't let us lose our house (why I thought that is a whole other discussion, but suffice it to say that I no longer think this way). Despite our best efforts to work out a deal and keep our house, we lost it.

The third time my illusions were challenged was when we found out that we couldn't have any more children. I believed that God could do anything and that He could reverse the infertility diagnosis. But it didn't happen.

The fourth time I experienced cognitive dissonance over my security was September 11, 2001. I remember going to bed that night with the chilling thought that evil really did exist and that I was no different than any of those people who went to work that morning, expecting to have a routine day. If it could happen to them, it could happen to me. I remember laying in bed that night, gripping the covers around me, pondering the reality that evil lurked just outside my door. I did not want to think about it.

The idea of having any real control over my life keeps getting chiseled away. In 2008, after having a mammogram, I heard the words, “We found a solid mass.” I was told it needed to be biopsied. I remember saying to a friend, “I don't have time for this! I've got a lot on my plate right now.” And when my doctor told me, “You've got a year of extreme fatigue ahead of you,” I wanted to slit my wrists. Talk about having no control.

Now, before the hate mail starts pouring in, let me clarify something: I'm a big believer in free will. I believe that God gave us free will to make our own choices and, of course, control over our lives, control over things that—to me, anyway—are short-term. Like getting an education, creating a business, shaping the kinds of relationships you want to have, and whether or not you're an obese slob or a healthy, fit person. Yes, of course, I believe we have control over those things.

What I'm saying, however, is that those things only give us an illusion of control in the end.

Back to Ed Dobson, who is amazingly still alive after 10 years with ALS. Ed's story is being told through a video made by his son. The video tells of Ed's realization that “it ain't over 'til it's over.”

You may think that Ed's video would be depressing, but, it is just the opposite. Ed has found the secret to appreciating life in learning how to really appreciate living. If only we could all learn from his experience without having to live through it ourselves. Jesus said it best (paraphrasing), “He who loses his life will gain it.”

Ed Dobson points the way for the rest of us and, for me anyway, inspires me to learn from his experience. Ed Dobson tells it like it is: the truth is, you don't control squat.

ED'S STORY Series Trailer from Flannel Staff on Vimeo.




Today is my birthday

Today is my birthday. Fifty-six years ago, I was born in what is now the city library in Anacortes, Washington. I always joked that I was born in the fiction section. And that my family moved a lot when I was a kid . . . but, somehow, I always managed to find 'em. Ba-da-bing.

I don't care who knows how old I am. That's one of the perks of getting to be this age. In my head and heart, I don't feel this old. It's only my body telling me that I'm past my prime. But, that's another story.

Anyhoo, I may as well warn you: this is going to be a stream-of-consciousness blog entry. In case you haven't noticed, I haven't written on my blog for over three months—the longest I've gone without writing since its inception.

In no particular order, here are some of the reasons:

My daughter graduated college with her bachelor's degree in English last August. And she got married exactly one week later. I could hardly wrap my head around it. She lived at home the entire time she attended college, right up to the day she got married. Yes, we know that's unusual in this day and age. I think someone referred to her as a “throwback.” And you know what? She really is.

But, that's okay. We're good with that. We don't own a TV, although we love watching movies on our big-screen projector on the basement wall. With a computer and an internet connection, I'm not sure TV is even necessary anymore.

Our daughter took summer college courses so that she could graduate earlier—and she did. She ended up graduating college one full year ahead of her high school friends. Debt-free. She sacrificed a lot to do these things. To save money on gas, she rode a bus to a neighboring city to attend university classes. Sometimes, the bus was so full that she stood the entire time.

There were times she wanted to be out on her own (we didn't stop her, by the way; it was her choice). The last couple of years, she was chomping at the bit to get out of the house. I understand all that.

I didn't have time to contemplate the usual things surrounding a college graduation. A week later, our daughter married the young man she's dated for nearly three years (a wonderful young man, by the way). So, most of my time over the last three months was spent putting the wedding together. There's too much to say about it, so I won't.

I'll just say this <deep breath>: it was an exhausting, rewarding, beautiful time. I don't remember what all my mom did when I got married. I know she did a lot. And I think I remember her paying people to do a bunch of work.

Well, since I'm a photographer and graphic designer, I got to be a little more involved in my own daughter's wedding. Here are the things I produced for her wedding: engagement photos, save-the-date cards, reception book, reception slideshow, wedding invitations, sandwich-board signs, wedding program, signs for the church, tags for the favors, shower invitations, maps . . . my mind is a blur. And that's not to mention all of the researching vendors and vendor contacts. And, you know, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. What an honor and a privilege to do these things for my daughter.

God blessed me by allowing me to swing a deal with my employer to take two months off for the wedding preparations. How in the world that happened, I don't know. But I will be forever grateful.

There were times when I thought my daughter and I were at the end of our ropes, hanging over a cliff, together. Prior to the wedding, she worked full-time and finished her college courses. Naturally, I wanted to help take some of the pressure off of her. As moms often do, I overstepped my bounds on more than one occasion.

Nevertheless, we made it through to the wedding day, which was August 25th. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was ready to give up any control over the proceedings and just go with it. I wanted to relax and enjoy the day—and maybe knock back a glass of champagne as a reward for all of our efforts.

The wedding ceremony was beautiful. Many, many people remarked how beautiful it was. You can't beat the Orthodox wedding ceremony for beauty. It's really what a wedding ceremony should be.

I don't know if you've been to any weddings lately, but they are becoming less and less traditional and more and more secular. Reminds me of a joke: I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out. Only in this case: I went to a debauched party the other night and a wedding broke out. Something along those lines.

The reception far exceeded my expectations as well. Friends and family members attended from across the country—actually, the world. My nephew and his family came all the way from Milan, Italy. It was wonderful. Really, really wonderful. Several of our church friends showed up the day before the wedding to help decorate the reception hall (at another church). So many people gave unselfishly of their time and talents, it was unbelievable. I don't know if they'll ever know how much they blessed our family by their efforts.

I was really worried that after everything was over, I would fall apart. My husband took the week after the wedding off so that we could go away for a few days. That never happened. We just didn't have the funds. I thought I would be depressed and feel sorry for myself, but I really didn't. I was a little sad because I felt like my husband and I really needed to get away from everything. Maybe one day, we will. Or not.

After our daughter returned from her honeymoon, she sent me an email and innocently asked, “So, what's it like around the house now that I'm gone?”

I started to reply to her message several times and each time, my reply got longer and longer. I thought of more things I wanted to say. After a couple of days of writing, I finally decided to send my reply.

Afterward, I realized that my response to her question served as a sort of period at the end of a chapter I needed to write.

I told her that I wasn't as emotional as I thought I'd be. Then I qualified it with admitting to waves of emotion rolling over me when I least expected it. I mentioned many of the memories I had of her growing up, and of the mother-daughter bonding times I would miss: watching “Monk” and “Carol Burnett” episodes together, giving her a hug and a kiss before bedtime, and hearing about her day.

I reminisced about the many memories I would always cherish: lying on the bed together, reading about Lance the Lion and Peter Rabbit, singing “Splish Splash” at bath time, Saturday morning soccer games, and listening with pride while she played at her piano recitals and band concerts.

I told her that it has been a wonderful ride and that I feel so very, very blessed to be a mom and a wife. I remembered the week I was diagnosed with breast cancer, how I was lying in bed, filled with fear, and wondering if I would ever experience happiness again. “But I did and I do,” I said. “I thank God that He raised me up out of the hospital bed—after not just one, but two cancer surgeries—and allowed me to witness you and James falling in love and becoming husband and wife. I know that, if it hadn't been for God's mercy, it could have gone an entirely different way.”

I hope I get to witness many more firsts, by the grace of God.

I asked her to forgive me for the times I had failed her, ending with this:

“If your dad and I hadn't stuck together through the hard times, we would have missed so much beauty and love and what came next. Who knows, what is next may be the very best part. Your dad and I started this journey together as two young people in love, like you and James. By the grace of God, we are still here. We may be bruised and beaten up a bit, but we are clasping hands and facing forward, with love still in our hearts.”

Of course, my husband had to trump everything when he bluntly answered her same question with: “We run around the house naked now.”

Life is getting back to the new normal. The other day, I opened the mailbox and caught a glimpse of an envelope that said, “Breast Care Center” in the return address, a reminder to schedule my next mammogram appointment. I immediately started to feel depressed.

The last few months, I've been engaged with life and it's helped me forget the “Big C.” I always feel that it's just behind me, tapping me on the shoulder, lest I forget it. I can't, nor should I. It has helped fashion me. Because of cancer, I am less afraid, more myself, and have a better understanding of how one moment can change everything.

Sometimes I miss the days when I could go blindly through life without thinking of my mortality. But, thanks to cancer, I know that I have been granted a reprieve from death once, but it's only a reprieve. Each moment, day, week, or year that I live, I am grateful—and never grateful enough.

As summer turns to fall, the trees become golden and red, and the leaves begin to fall. After 56 autumns, it's still my favorite season. No matter that winter is just around the corner. This is the season that promises new beginnings.


"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans" - John Lennon

In case you haven't noticed, I haven't been writing on my blog. But it's not for lack of creativity. No, I have been creative out the kazoo lately.

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Life in perspective

Yesterday, during a visit to yet another eye doctor (third one in the last 10 days), the doctor placed his hand on my knee and said seriously, “You are in a very difficult situation, dear.” I was not surprised to hear this. Ever since I was diagnosed with glaucoma back in January, things have not been the same with my eyesight.

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My other life

Awhile back, I added a new page to this blog called, "My Other Life," referencing my business, Bella Vita Creative. I've mentioned it a time or two on this blog and, being the shameless promoter that I am, I'm going to mention it again.

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Just call me 'Ebenezer'

Lately, writing on my blog has taken a back seat to life. When I first started this blog, the entries would be half-written in my head before I ever sat down at the computer. Now, I don't even WANT to share what's in my head!

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I am a sentimentalist

sen·ti·men·tal·ist noun one given to sentiment or sentimentality expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia (e.g., We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons).

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