I love a good road trip. Obviously I love family vacations and the occasional girls' weekend away, but I'm also a big fan of going it solo. I love the planning, the anticipation, the packing, the leaving, the arriving, all of it. And no matter how long it takes to get from the point A to point B, I love the hours on the open road. Okay, I love most of the hours on the open road. The hours I don't love are when I've exhausted my podcasts, my audible library, the rare albums I'm able to listen to for pure enjoyment, the time I get to spend writing in my head, and dreaming. Because when those activities are done, I'm left with the hours that get filled with worry, mind-fighting, loneliness, negative self-talk, and feeling sorry for myself. Those are ugly hours.
I've noticed over the years, how when I'm driving and somehow get consumed with all those negative, self-absorbed, fear-filled thoughts, I inevitably end up miles down the road, not remembering a single thing about how I got there. I don't remember the sights I've driven by. Whatever places I could have seen and enjoyed and learned from, I've completely missed. I've always hated that feeling.
I started this cancer journey as the new year began. I have been given every indication I will end the year cancer-free. The grace of that statement overwhelms me. The planning, anticipation, and starting off on this little 12 month trip has been one of the biggest blessings of my life, truly. Someday I'll write more about that, but I can't tonight because I'm a tad weepy and I can't see the screen if I'm all blurry-eyed. Sometimes I think about the celebration I'm going to have when 2021 becomes 2022, and folks, it's gonna be a party, you can count on that. But I'm realizing it's the getting from point A to point B that will refine me in ways I never wanted. These are the hours on the open road. And some of them are just plain ugly.
I made it through the first round of chemo, feeling relatively well. Had the expected nausea, exhaustion, raw mouth, loss of appetite, hair loss, etc. I wasn't prepared for this, but one of great cruelties of this treatment is that one of the true happinesses in my life, coffee, now tastes terrible. I can't tell you how sad this makes me. Anyway, the symptom that got me the most was bone pain. Ugh...it is no fun. It's from the drug I'm taking to boost my bone marrow and keep my blood counts where they need to be. I'm sure there's a better way to explain how it works, but that's my attempt to keep it at level I can understand. It is crazy how you feel good until they try to make you well and then you feel like crap. By day 10 after chemo, I felt pretty good. So thankful for that.
Round 2 was last Thursday. Everything about this round was harder. I had all the same symptoms, just all a little tougher to deal with and wasn't sleeping as well. I ended up staying home from work a little more this week, but managed a full day on Wednesday. This morning I went in for blood work and ended up getting IV meds and fluids, because every person I saw said, "Do you feel okay?" Apparently I looked a little weary. So, I got the IV, slept the afternoon away, and tonight, I feel pretty good.
Over the past few days, I've realized I am on the open road. I've planned, I've anticipated, I've packed, and I've left point A. There have been many, MANY hours of joy so far. I will recount as many as I can at some point, but again...weepy...can't see... But some of these hours are the ugly ones. The hours I can't stand to listen to a book or podcast or music. When I can't read or write or even move. When my thoughts get the best of me. When the only thing I have the strength to do, and probably the worst thing I can do, is look at my phone and watch the world go by as I am reminded of all the things I can't do or am missing out on. See the tailspin happening? It ain't pretty.
When Harrison and I left California last November for the long drive home after American Idol, I called my friend Lisa and said, "Here's where we are now. We'll be somewhere in Utah around midnight. Can you find me a hotel somewhere so we can get some sleep and finish the trip tomorrow?" I just couldn't deal with one more detail. She got back to me with three options in the general area we expected to be in at that point in the trip. A couple weeks ago we were recalling the events of that night when she said, "I couldn't wait for you to wake up the next morning and see how beautiful it was all around you. I knew you'd be driving through some incredible places." And she was right. It was stunning. Some of the most beautiful creation I've ever seen. In the midst of our long drive home, when we might be tempted to give in to disappointment and sadness, she knew there would be beauty. I've learned a lot from Lisa about having that perspective.
I have no doubt I am driving through beautiful country these days. I hope I can keep seeing the beauty. I don't want to get miles down the road, not remembering how I got there and realize I've missed things I could have enjoyed or learned from. I know there will be stretches of highway when I am fighting discouragement and loneliness and the reality of just how long the drive is going to be. I've been trying to approach the tougher moments the same ways I try to keep my thoughts in check when I am literally driving on the open road. I pray out loud. I write in my head. I drink coffee. Again, the sadness over my coffee. I open the windows. Yeah, it's been a little cold for that. I dream out loud. I thank God for the good things happening in other people's lives. Trust me, those things don't come easy in those moments. But I do know it's a choice. So I'm trying to choose wisely. Anything to get my heart and mind back on things that are true, noble, right, pure, and lovely. I'm also trying to be okay with the moments when it feels like midnight and I can't handle one more detail. When I just need to go to bed and trust I will wake up and see the beauty.
We dream. We make plans. We work hard. We knock on doors and walk through the ones that open. Sometimes, everything falls in place and it is a beautiful thing. Other times, everything falls apart and we’re left staring at something we never intended to see.
Last August, my son, Harrison, auditioned for American Idol. The whole process looked different this year because of Covid, so the first few rounds were conducted online. The first day took several hours. One producer, then another, then another. Questions. Interviews. One song, then another, and yet another. More questions. More interviews. Uploading videos. Another producer. By the time the first audition day was done, he was pretty sure he was moving on to the next round, whatever that was to look like.
A few weeks later, we found out he was indeed moving on, which meant they would be flying him and a guest (that would be me) to California in November to audition before the judges. Yes, those judges. They would fly us out, put us up in a resort for up to 2 weeks, where he would audition, conduct interviews, and be available for any additional filming. Covid restrictions were enforced at every step. We tested negative before we left, and were scheduled to test immediately upon arrival in California on a Friday afternoon, then quarantine until our results came in. Harrison’s interviews and audition were scheduled to begin Monday morning. Everything went according to plan. Until it didn’t.
We were watching a movie in our hotel room late Sunday night when Harrison checked his email on his phone. He then reached down to his computer, paused the movie, turned to me and said, “Mom, I’m positive.” Within the hour, we were told he was being released from the show and they were making arrangements to get us to a hotel in Los Angeles the next morning where we would quarantine for two weeks. That’s when this mama said, “Uh, heck no. We will be getting in a car tomorrow morning and driving the 24 hours home, thank you very much.” The Idol staff (who were kind and compassionate and awesome at every turn) made it clear that was not possible unless my results came back negative. Thankfully, about 15 minutes later, my results arrived in an email. Negative. We would drive home the next day. (A few days later, Perry, Houston and I all tested positive.)
After learning his Idol adventure was over, Harrison and I stayed up late talking about everything that had transpired. We were obviously very sad and a bit angry, but mostly we were shocked at how everything had fallen apart just hours from what should have been an amazing experience, regardless of what the outcome would have been. We had a plan. And things didn’t go according to plan.
The next morning we got up early and headed toward LAX to return our rental car and pick up a different car for the long drive home. On our way, I asked Harrison if there was anything he wanted to do in California before we headed east.
“No,” he said. “I just want to get home.” He leaned his seat back and closed his eyes.
”We’re pretty close to the ocean. Do you want to stop?” I asked.
He kept his eyes closed and replied, “I didn’t come here to see the ocean.”
I kept driving south toward the airport. About 45 minutes later, I saw an exit sign. I don’t remember what town the sign was directing us to; I only saw the word “beach.” I took the exit.
”What are you doing?” Harrison asked.
”We’re going to see the ocean.” I don’t know why, but I felt strongly it would be good for him. Maybe I thought I needed it too.
Ten minutes later, we parked the car and walked about 100 yards to the beach. For the next 20 minutes or so, we walked the beach a little, but mostly we just stood on the sand and stared out over the water. We stood there feeling small, weary, discouraged, and with a whole lot of questions. And yet, we also stood there in awe, overwhelmed by power and beauty, and certain we were looking at the handiwork of God. We didn’t have answers, explanations, or any clue what the new plan was, but somehow we knew it was going to be okay. Sometimes you just need an ocean in front of you.
About two and a half years ago, I put myself on a three-year plan. It was mostly about some professional goals I had, but it was very personal too. I dreamed, I made plans, and I worked hard. For just over two years, everything was going according to plan. Until it wasn’t. Last fall, the company I had contracted with to write musicals for the past ten years, went bankrupt. I learned of this development just days before winning a Dove award for one of the projects I wrote for the company. Talk about the highs and lows of the music business. A couple months later, my cancer diagnosis. None of those developments were a part of my three-year plan.
I came into 2021 thinking I would see the completion of my plan. I didn’t come here to see the ocean.
And yet, here I stand, feeling small, weary, discouraged, and with a whole lot of questions. But I also stand here in awe, overwhelmed by power and beauty, and certain I am looking at the handiwork of God. I don’t have answers or explanations, but it’s okay, because I’m pretty sure I am looking at something more beautiful than I could have ever planned on my own.
The ocean has always been a bit scary to me. It’s massive. Powerful. Uncontrollable. I can’t see to the other side. I’m well aware it could take me under in a split second unless I have something strong enough to keep me afloat. But because I do have something to keep me afloat, I can look at the ocean in all its fury and say, “It is well with my soul.”
The new season of American Idol starts next week. I’ll watch with mixed emotions. I might recognize names and faces and locations. But mostly, I’ll remember when it all fell apart and I watched my kid stand on the beach and look out over the water, as I thought to myself, “God, we didn’t come here to see the ocean, but WOW. You did good. And I still believe there are better things to come.”
Brief update for those who want one: Round 1 chemo - done. A dear friend told me, chemo isn’t for sissies. No it is not. Three more to go before surgery. Last lymph node biopsy was negative. Felt like the first positive turn I’ve had on this road. Thank you, Jesus.
One of the things I became keenly aware of early on in this journey, is how the manner in which people approach me is largely based on their own experience with cancer. It is fascinating. As people have shared their own stories with me, I have been struck by the wide range of experiences and emotions felt as cancer has left its mark. Some can barely speak about it without falling apart as they remember a loved one’s ravaged body. Others joyfully cheer me on to victory, certain I’ll have the same quick, virtually painless battle their friend fought, as they conquered the enemy. Many simply say, “I’ve been there, too. Hang in there.”
My family tends to face difficult circumstances with a certain level of humor, dark humor at times. I would blog about some of these conversations, which I find hilarious, but I’m afraid one of you would have all of us committed. However, I knew when I returned to work, the students I work with didn’t need me cracking jokes. Some of them had lost parents, grandparents, or friends to cancer. Those are likely the ones who came up to me after class with tears in their eyes, saying, “I’m so sorry.” Others, however, have parents in the medical field and seem to take a more clinical perspective. Those students come to me after class, hands squarely on their hips, and say matter-of-factly, “I heard about your diagnosis. What’s the plan?” Either way, I clearly see their hearts, and I love it. I love them.
When I had the opportunity to address a couple classes about what things would look like in the days ahead, I let them know my door was always open to have any conversations they might want to have. I wanted them to know I wasn’t afraid of any questions or comments, and to come to me if they needed a safe place to talk about their own experiences with cancer. They have been awesome. But what they haven’t offered is advice. Bless them.
There has been no shortage of very well intentioned people offering their insight into my current situation. Now, before you think I’m about to unleash on those who’ve thrown unsolicited advice my way, trust me, I’m not. And here’s why. Over the past few years, I have found myself learning one consistent lesson which has led to this conclusion: most people truly are doing the best they can with the best of intentions. I really do believe that. I have to. And wow, is it helpful on this journey.
As my blogs sometimes do, this one now leads me to write about one of my favorite subjects - food.
I’m a huge Food Network fan. Especially those shows where contestants are basically competing for a prize that might lead to their own show. Over and over again, they are asked to present food to the judges that incorporates the one thing that makes them unique - their POV. Point of view. A lot of people can make amazing food. But to cook up something amazing that comes with a personal slant or story - well, that’s what sets the network superstar apart from the great cooks. If you consider those chefs who’ve made the jump from contestant to TV star, you’ll see how they have simply communicated their vision to the world and the world likes what they see, so, we go along for the ride, looking at food from the host’s point of view. The value of what they have to offer isn’t simply in the food they make; it’s in the way they view food that draws us in. And as we tag along on their adventure, we find enjoyment and answers and comfort and beauty in seeing things from their perspective.
I have to believe in the power and value of a person’s point of view. It is one of the reasons why I write songs. There are millions of songs about love or hope or struggle so it isn't as if the world needs another song. But someone in the world might need a song about one of those subjects from my perspective, because they're in a similar circumstance but can't quite put their thoughts about their own experience together. It’s the same reason I blog. Okay, there are multiple reasons why, but one of the main reasons is because I believe with my whole heart that if one person is at a place in their life where they need someone to put voice to their thoughts, then my ramblings might be worth something.
The problem comes when we are confronted with someone’s point of view and we take offense, for whatever reason. We might feel attacked. We might feel insulted. We might feel manipulated or just plain annoyed. And when I say “we”, I mean “we”, because I’ve felt all those things at one time or another. But that little life lesson I’ve been learning the past few years? The one about people doing the best they can and with the best of intentions? Yeah, THAT has made all the difference for me.
Trust me, I’m a work in progress on all this. Some days, I respond well in these situations. Other days, like if you casually tell me my situation is exactly like your Great Aunt Nelly’s little lumpectomy-didn’t need chemo-she’s 104 now-you’ll be fine too, I will likely squint my eyes, cock my head to the right, smile, nod, then walk away thinking, ”Nope, not the same. Idiot.” and then repeatedly say to myself, “Breathe in Jesus, breathe out love.” As I said, I’m a work in progress.
There’s a word that gets thrown around a lot but doesn’t always stick - grace. Seems like grace would be a game-changer in trying to not take offense. I'm trying harder to assume the best of people and have a whole lot of grace on hand for the moments they disappoint me. It isn't easy. The moments I've learned the most about grace are when it has been extended to me from others, and when I’ve needed it most and haven’t received it. Both experiences have been humbling, teachable moments.
Obviously, I don’t mind letting you know how it feels in this valley. I also don’t mind hearing what your view of my valley looks like. From where you stand, you might know the best way for me to get out of here. You might not. Either way, there's no harm in hearing your point of view. I might take your advice. I might not. I’ll try to not be offended by your advice if you try to not be offended by my choice to take it or not. Seems fair to me. If we can do that, even when life's roads take us through the darkest of valleys, I think we can help each other find enjoyment and comfort and answers and beauty. And maybe we can all learn to appreciate each other’s view from wherever we happen to be standing.