One Breath at a Time

It has been a just over a month since my world was forever changed. On November 9, I found out that my 28 year-old brother, Mark, had passed away suddenly and tragically.

About a month before that my friend Amanda died after 7 years of treatment for her metastatic breast cancer and a prolonged time on hospice care. When Amanda passed away, I was sad, and I missed her, and I was broken-hearted for her husband and her sons, but it was hardly a surprise. I had been visiting as often as I could through her last months and I saw her withering away. The last time that I went to see her, I held her hand, I got a brief moment of clarity from her drug-induced haze when she looked right at me and told me she loved me and I was able to say the same to her.

amanda
The last picture I have of Amanda and I together.

On the drive home I sobbed and I prayed that she would let go, that she would be released from her unimaginable suffering and finally be at peace. When I got the news of her death, I was in the middle of writing an angry rant that I will probably post eventually, but I stopped and cried for a while. I had been actively preparing for her death with my therapist (as much as you can prepare.) Every time I saw or spoke to her I knew that it might be the last time and I always ended our visits with that in mind.

I first met Amanda 3 years ago when we were both in the infusion room getting treatment. I was happy to have her as a friend, and to be able to provide free childcare for her through Mommies In Need. Three days after her death, a fantastic group called Resounding Harmony was doing a benefit concert for Mommies In Need and we decided to dedicate a song to her and to light candles in her honor. I was the one who was going to deliver her tribute. At the dress rehearsal I was a mess. I barely got out the words I had written for her memorial and then I sobbed through the whole song.

But the next day for the show, I called upon every bit of strength that I had and I was able to speak for her in a way that I will always be proud of. I had no idea that event was a sort of dress rehearsal of it’s own.

When Amanda died I thought I knew what sad was. It turns out I had no idea.

I now know that there is a level of grief that is so deep it physically hurts. I know what it is to be shocked with news that knocks the breath out of your lungs. I know what it is to fall to the ground crying because you cannot keep yourself upright. I know the panic that comes when you feel that if you allow yourself to start crying you will never be able to stop.

When my brother died, my parents were extremely smart about how they told me. They called my husband and had him come home to be with me as I heard the news. When he said he was getting out of work early, I didn’t think anything of it at first. But when he got home, he guided me to the couch and he said he had something to tell me.

At that point I got this strange tunnel vision- I knew what he was about to say would be bad and my mind was racing as to what it would be. My first thought was that one of my grandparents had passed, but I had talked to them earlier that day, so that didn’t make sense.

When he said, “Mark is dead,” I did not understand the words that were coming out of his mouth. I went into a sort of shock in which I laughed and said “No, that’s not true.” He had to tell me five or six times until I could put it together in my head.

It’s funny how some memories are so blurry and others so clear. I don’t think I will ever forget how that felt as I began to comprehend that my baby brother, the sweet little boy nine years younger than me, whose diapers I had changed, who I read all the Harry Potter books out loud to, who is a part of most of my best family memories, was no longer on this earth.

I don’t think I have fully accepted that I will never see him again in this life. That still feels too big to even start to process.

The details of the days that follow are more complicated and personal than I can even begin to share here. I will say that I am forever grateful that my other two siblings and I live in Dallas and that we are all married to exceptional people who helped us get through the worst of it. We were all able to be together at my parents’ house as we stumbled through that first day. Grieving with people doesn’t make it any less painful, but it does make it a little less heavy. My family and I helped carry each other through the moments when none of us would have been strong enough to get through it alone.

As funny as it sounds, I have a lot to be grateful for from that period. Grateful that my family could be together. That I have two amazing and hilarious 5 year-olds that I can snuggle all the time. That a friend of mine is married to a funeral director so I had someone to call in those first hours to help us stumble through the practical things you have to do when someone dies unexpectedly. That I have a pastor and a church community who were present when I needed them. That one of my dad’s best friends heard the news and put together a celebration of Mark’s life just three days after we found out he was gone. That a wonderful musician and family friend was in town and sang in Mark’s honor. And that I had that dress rehearsal.

As we talked about what we would do and say to honor Mark, I volunteered to speak for him. When my parents asked if I was sure that I could do it, I said yes. I had gotten through my tribute for Amanda and I knew that it would be a thousand times harder but that I could also do it for my brother.

Me and Mark
This picture is from a few years ago but is still one of my favorites of Mark and me.

And I did. I read a beautiful message from my father, a poem my mother selected, and wove stories that my parents and siblings contributed into a speech that I think was just right for him. We ended it with a toast and a shot of Jack Daniels because that felt like something he would have thought was pretty badass.

I held myself together through the whole thing and then had the blessing of that beautiful song in which I let it go. I cried and was held by my loving family as we continued to share that grief.

So how am I now? Well, it depends on when you talk to me.

For a few weeks after we lost Mark, I went into a hole and pretty much didn’t talk to anyone except my immediate family. My friends texted and called and emailed but I couldn’t face talking to anyone. I have slowly started to join the world again, so there’s progress.

Sometimes I am pretty good. I am back at work. I couldn’t get myself motivated to start up again for a long time. But then Mommies In Need got applications from two new families desperately in need of help. I couldn’t get it together to do admin work or fundraising, but being able to help someone else going through a terrible time in their life made me feel just a little bit better.

Sometimes I am a good wife and parent. I can pick up my kids from school and play with them and talk to my husband about all the stuff we have going on in life. My patience is pretty limited though. I get irritated easily, I snap more than I would like, and I haven’t cooked an actual meal that I can remember (not that I am normally much of a chef, but right now even boiling water is sometimes too daunting a task.)

But then there are the times that I am so sad. So deeply sad that I can’t function. Or when I feel like a zombie just going through the motions. When I walk around a store for an hour and then leave without even buying anything because I am not actually seeing the store, I am just keeping my body busy while my mind checks out.

I am going to the holiday parties, and I manage it pretty well when I am around people I know and can be honest with. But I just can’t with idle chit-chat. I found myself at one party just sneaking off to a corner with an XL glass of wine because I couldn’t face anyone.

I will tell you one thing I know for certain. I will get through this. I am a Survivor after all. I get into dangerous territory when I spend too much time thinking about how much I have been through in the last six years and wondering how any one human being can be expected to cope with the constant blows I have been dealt.

But then I stop (maybe take a Xanax) and breathe. Another thing I am grateful for is that all the shit I have been through has taught me how to manage the worst moments in life. I have learned that you have two choices- curl up in a ball and die or keep going. I will always choose to keep going.

And that looks different depending on where I am. Sometimes I take it one day at a time, or one step or a time, or one tiptoe at a time, or one prayer at a time. And when it is really bad, when the sadness threatens to envelop me or I feel myself coming to the cliff’s edge of an anxiety attack, I get through one breath at a time. Take one breath and then another and keep moving forward. If I can remember to do that, I know that even this I will survive.

 

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Mitzvah Therapy

Yesterday was an amazing day.  A Hallelujah, sing in the car, have a super-cool dance party with the hubs and kids sort of a day.  Yesterday I got some incredible news- my Osteoporosis has not only stopped getting worse, it may actually be reversing itself!!!!  I also had a great meeting with the wonderful folks at Cancer Support Community of North Texas.  The work they do for people affected by and living with cancer is unbelievable.  If you or anyone you know are dealing with cancer, please check them out as a resource.  They have support groups, informational meetings, kid’s nights, social workers, counselors- you name it, all FREE to members (but that actually cost a lot of money, so if you have some extra cash laying around you might want to throw it their way!)

At this meeting I got invaluable ideas and support for Mommies In Need, and I also came away from it with my favorite new term: “Mitzvah Therapy”

When I explained the whole backstory of Mommies In Need coming from my struggles and said that it has really been a huge source of comfort and joy to me in my recovery, one of the women in the meeting said that was an example of Mitzvah Therapy.  In its casual usage a “Mitzvah” is an act of kindness that you do for a person without expecting anything in return.

When I got home I googled the term and found this video:

http://storiesofchangeandpossibility.com/tag/mitzvah-therapy/

The story told here made me cry in it’s simplicity and beauty.  In it, Bill O’Hanlon describes what the late Dr. Sol Gordon coined “Mitzvah Therapy” and tells a lovely story about how it changed one woman’s life.  Now, I am all for psychotherapy- I’m not canceling those appointments anytime soon!  But as he says in the video, psychotherapy is all about you and Mitzvah Therapy is all about giving.

And I have a confession to make here, I have kind of become a giving junkie.  Seriously, I am always looking around for my next fix.  I actually keep some of it a secret (I guess until now) from my family because it seems a little crazy- well, crazier than usual.  If I have extra cash I pay for the parking of the person behind me whenever I leave the hospital lot- someone did that for me once and it made me smile on a not-so-good diagnosis day!  I have blessing bags in my car with protein bars, tissues, soap, etc. to give to any homeless people I see.  We did a diaper drive for the twins birthday and I got a huge high when the woman picking up the donations was so excited about everything she was loading in the car to distribute to underserved families.  I even carry around $5 gift cards to Starbucks that I sometimes give to random moms when I see them carting 3 kids through Target or dealing with a toddler having a stage 5 meltdown.  I hand it over with just a few words, “One mom to another, you probably need to treat yourself” and walk away.

I tell you this, but please don’t go on about how awesome I am or anything like that.  I mean, I’m pretty cool, don’t get me wrong, but I am not writing this for compliments!  See for me, those acts are actually pretty selfish, because I get such a huge boost of happiness and even self-confidence from doing those things.  When I walk away from that mom who has a little light of hope in her eyes that someone gets what she is going through, I feel pretty darn good about myself.  And that feeling, really helps me get through the day sometimes.  I have been forced to deal with a lot in the past few years- see A Brief Timeline of Crazy.  And there are days when I can get pretty depressed or anxious or just plain mad that all of those crazy and terrible things happened to me.

And I need my psychotherapy to work on the root of that depression and anxiety and anger, it’s not something that just goes away when you ignore it- believe me, I tried that and wound up with panic attacks (which I really don’t recommend!) But for me, when I get in a dark place, being alone and thinking about myself is a surefire way to go even darker.  And the quickest fix? A little Mitzvah Therapy!

So maybe I have taken this to an extreme by starting my own non-profit, but seriously, try to insert a little random kindness into the days you are feeling like crap.  It’s hard to be grumpy when you are giving joy to someone else.  Even just holding the door open for someone with a genuine smile on your face, rather than grudgingly doing it with no eye contact can brighten a person’s day just a bit.

Ugh, sorry if this whole post is a little Pollyanna, but I am coasting on a major high right now.  Mommies In Need has officially accepted TWO new families to help!  I am overwhelmed by the amount of support that this cause has gotten in such a short amount of time.  Don’t get me wrong, my heart hurts for the women we are helping.  I have been in situations like theirs and I know the kind of rough road they are going down.  But I am filled with joy knowing that Mommies In Need is taking a huge burden off of them by making sure their children are well taken care of.

If you feel like doing a little Mitzvah Therapy of your own today, please consider donating to our campaign to support these Mommies in their journeys through cancer.

The kids of the first Mommies In Need family.  Knowing we helped them have stability while their mom was sick is the ultimate Mitzvah Therapy!
The kids of the first Mommies In Need family. Knowing we helped them have stability while their mom was sick is the ultimate Mitzvah Therapy!