Monday, July 13, 2015

A shiny pink colon

I know a thing or two about colons, both grammatically and physiologically, and I'm a big fan of each. In writing, a well-placed colon makes us stop and pay attention to what's coming. It's dramatic and sometimes even a bit sexy. Not so with the other colon. Although it can make us stop and pause (and run to the nearest toilet), it's rarely dramatic nor sexy. Let's face it: Our colons are poop pushers, and nobody really likes to talk about poop. (That is, unless they are any of the three males living in my house.*)

My mom died way too young because she was embarrassed to go to her doctor when she started having poop problems. I'm still so angry with her about that, 20 years later! Even more, she didn't just die, she really suffered. For years. First through painful surgeries, then the indignity of a colostomy bag, then countless rounds of chemotherapy that left her bald and weak. And let's not even talk about the pain she endured as cancer ravaged every one of her systems in her final months. These things were not her fault, I know, but my sadness and anger over her death only deepen when I think that it could have been prevented, either by her going to the doctor sooner or by the doctor asking the right questions about her damn poop.

Now I have a colonscopy every 5 years to make sure my own colon remains shiny and pink and healthy. In between those checks, I'm like a poopologist, paying meticulous attention to how many times I go to the bathroom in a day, size, shape, color -- you get the gist. I even ask my husband and children embarrassing questions about their poop, and I don't get at all upset when a kid calls me into the bathroom yelling "Mommy! You gotta see this one!" I eat as much fiber in a day as possible, sneaking oat bran into pancakes or beans into, well, everything. (And yes, I take Beano so as not to embarrass myself and all those around me.) And I drink water like it's my job because I hear colons really appreciate that.

Yet as today's colonoscopy -- my third -- edged closer, I found myself tensing. This creepy, hateful voice in the back of my head kept whispering "she was only 4 years older than you." I would push that voice away, punch it in its ugly face, but it sneaked up more than once in just-before-sleep thoughts or even a couple times in the middle of reading a manuscript or checking my emails. Like a mosquito buzzing viciously around my ear. Even yesterday as I was going through the "prep" (which is a polite way of saying super-intense laxative-induced toilet-hell), I found myself thinking, oh God, what if they find something? What if I have to have surgery or go through chemo? I can't be sick to my stomach like this for more than a few hours! Nobody in this house can take care of getting their own snacks or remember to scoop the litter box, for Chrissake, I CAN'T DIE! (Yes, I spiral like that -- from medically prescribed and controlled diarrhea to brutal, cancerous death in minutes.)

We all know our fragile little lives can change permanently and incomprehensibly in an instant. We read all the time about dramatic and horrible things like car crashes, running accidents, or random violence that cut young lives short. But what about occasional dizziness or difficulty pooping...things we totally don't think about in our ultra-busy days? It happened to my mom. In the last two months alone, two of my dearest friends have been diagnosed with brain tumors, seemingly out of thin air. How is that possible? One minute you're planning a birthday cruise to Alaska, the next you're on a surgical table with someone poking in your brain. What the hell? And let's not forget that I sat with Honey in the hospital just a month ago, mere hours after a glorious sunshiny hike along the Maine coast, wondering if this was the bout that would do him in.

In a blink, a snap, before you even know what hit you. It all happens too damn fast. And I'm all too aware of the genetics that I carry -- the cancer and the diabetes and the high blood pressure -- all of them game-changers. They're all sitting here with me now, in fact, hanging out on my shoulders and tickling the hairs on the back of my neck as they so often do, the jerks.

Yet here's the good news: On this day, at this moment, my colon is shiny and pink and happy. No abnormalities noted and a discharge paper that reads "See you in 5 years." I'm going to grab my kids and my husband into a gigantic, awkward family hug this evening, and we're going to pray in gratitude for my shiny, pink colon. We'll pray in gratitude for the "butt camera," as Zippy termed it, that has set my fears at ease for now. And we'll pray in gratitude for the endocrinologist and nutritionist who are helping Honey to battle his genetic trash, too. We'll also pray in gratitude for my friends with their fancy brains, because we know that they are resilient and strong and they will teach us how to be so, too. We'll pray in gratitude that my mom lived a brief yet gigantic life, that she touched so many others with her smarts and her generosity and her love -- and we'll be grateful that because of her fight, we now know how important our poop truly is.

* It should be noted that the three males in this house who love to talk about poop were completely horrified by the colon photos I showed them this evening. And you may thank them for talking me out of posting those photos here. Even though they are gloriously beautiful to me!

Resilient is more than strong

I don't think I wrote about it here, but my word for 2014 was Grace. I selected it from a bowl at church and pored over it for a few months, studying the morphology and religious and lay interpretations if the word. I found over the course of a few months, the word grace came up often in sermons and speeches, but also in conversation, readings, or general "symbols" around me. Maybe because I was thinking about it and paid more attention...or maybe because the universe was trying to get me to pay attention. 

In fact, when I came to Portland for my interview -- the one that eventually led us on the giant leap-of-faith relocation adventure we've been on -- the company took me out to dinner in a beautiful restaurant that had previously been a church. Its name, I'm sure you'll guess: Grace. I smiled inwardly throughout dinner, grateful and gracious (and hopefully graceful) and winking at the universe for this big flashing sign that everything about this idea was okay. The next morning I met an old friend for breakfast and I told her about the interview and the experience at the restaurant, saying "you might think this is silly, but..." and I watched tears fill her eyes. "It's not silly at all, T," she said, "because I've been going through a really hard time and on the drive over here I prayed for clear, visible grace and gratitude to get me through this week." Ta-da! That, right there, be Grace with a capital G.

Fast forward to the first week of January 2015, two months after our move, a time in which we had snow up to our knees and cold like I've never experienced, no friends locally, children who were homesick and having trouble making new friends, Honey and I both with brand new jobs (his at the time a really bad-paying brand new job), a big empty house 500 miles away, and a whole lot of bills to pay. The days in Maine in January are short; darkness falls just beyond 4:00pm, so by the time 8:00 rolls around, my body was telling me it was time for sleep. But I think some of that sleepiness was depression, too. You know that if you just go to bed early, maybe read a stupid book for a little while, tomorrow will bring new happies. 

I didn't have a church yet, so I decided to pick a word at random to study: Resilience. This word has intrigued me for a long time, since attending a talk in which the speaker told us -- an audience of all women -- that being strong isn't necessarily the answer to life. But being resilient is key. Resilience literally means the ability to rebound or recoil, but in human terms it's more. In schools these days there's a lot of talk about developing "grit" in kids -- which is really just jargon for developing resilience to persevere through difficult situations. 

Every human being will face change and uncertainty, sometimes every single day. We know this. Throughout this year, I have pondered this word resilience at length, rolled it around in my brain and chewed on it with my morning oatmeal. I think, really, resilience is what it means to keep moving forward when faced with crushing news, how the very experience of moving forward shapes us and forms us into Full-Grown People. Being resilient means acknowledging the blisters on our feet and the scorching heat of the desert, wallowing for a few moments in the pain, then picking up the backpack and hiking up the hill and out of the valley.

I wear a piece of sea glass on a long chain around my neck. It's a simple piece of jewelry presented by my grandmother years ago; my sister and cousin have similar pendants, too. Sea glass is a beach-living thing, obviously, and we spend a lot of time nowadays searching for it in the sand. But this particular piece means more to me than just a pretty ornament to remind me of sunny seaside days. Think about sea glass, about its life cycle: A bottle or dish is dropped in the sea, whether purposely or not, where it is battered and bashed by time and elements. Genuine sea glass can take 7-10 years to wear into a smooth, small piece. During that time the glass loses its sharp edges, it's smoothed and rounded and changes shape multiple times. Its shimmer dulls, its surface becomes pocked and scarred in unique ways. It may even change color, as happened with ancient bottles that turned from green to black (the most valuable sea glass, by the way, are the older pieces). 

But then...after all that tumbling and changing, a child finds it on the beach and hands it to his mother, who tucks it into her pocket. She immediately begins planning the wire she'll wrap around this piece; it's perhaps too big for a ring but would look amazing as a pendant. She holds the glass in her hand and feels its smoothness, the cold comforting weight. She knows just the friend to present this pendant to, as well, the friend who is dealing with more adversity in two months than most people see in a lifetime, as a talisman and gentle reminder of love, hope, and transformation. 

What was once a plain old bottle is now a gem -- a "reverse gem," made by man but refined by nature, with potential to be turned into something way more beautiful and meaningful by creative, nurturing hands. Sea glass, to me, has become a major symbol of resilience. Which is why I wear this piece over my heart, why I clutch it when I feel weak or scared or hurt. I bet that bottle felt overwhelmed when it was tossing in the sea, too.