In Memory of Betty Hoffmann- February 18, 1949-May 17, 2014
It has been 3 years and a lifetime since I last saw you, spoke with you, or held your hand. I love you still with all my heart, Mom. Be patient with me. I am still learning.
The past few weeks have been challenging around here. I finally had my final reconstructive surgery after being treated for breast cancer since last April. This was a huge milestone marking closure of one of the most difficult times in my life. It was originally scheduled for February but a bout of shingles and a very popular, very busy plastic surgeon’s schedule thought otherwise. So here I am- one week post-op. My body is not what I expected it to be. I am bruised, EVERYWHERE. I am sore. I am moody and cranky because of being bruised and sore. I am soooo ready to be done with all of this. But most of all, I am thankful.
Thankful to be given a second chance at getting life right.
Thankful that we have the means to do surgery so that, at some time in the not-so-distant future, I might begin to feel a little more normal again.
Thankful that I have a supportive family and friends who have helped us, and me, out immensely.
And thankful for time. Slow time. Breathing time.
Honestly, before I was diagnosed, time was not my friend. It was a boundary I could push, or threatening that it would run out before I got everything done, or even something that I had already lost when I lost my mom in 2014. Time always moved way too fast, and just when it seemed like there was a little bit of it left over something came along to fill it.
My life had become the spinning plate trick, but the plates were falling.
The plates that fell first were my sense of security and enoughness. I remember talking with my mom on the phone not too long before she died. She asked me if I was happy, because she did not feel she could die in peace if I was not happy. I told her I was, but the truth was that I thought I was happy because of my income but I was very unhappy in my job. To make up for it, I shopped. I thought if I could finally have nice things, then I would be good enough. I began spending money before I started spending time. Fast forward two years and three jobs, I was not honoring my mom’s wishes. Losing my mom left me feeling more empty, lost, and extremely anxious than I had ever felt in my life. Nothing I bought filled up that space.
After mom died the next plates to fall were my boundaries with time. I took on more work than I could reasonably handle to try to offset the constant guilt I felt about not providing more financially for my family and covering my stress shopping habit, and also to avoid the feelings of emptiness left from grief and years of unprocessed emotional baggage. At one point I was working three jobs, staying up way past midnight to finish work or going to one of the jobs after hours only to stay up, again, way after midnight, to finish work that I should not have taken on. I was subsisting on less than 5 hours of sleep most nights, only to binge sleep on weekends. I was not spending time on what really mattered: my family, friends, making memories, and doing things that bring me joy. Instead, I continued to try to fill myself up with shopping. That only continued the cycle of worry and overworking to pay the bills created by the shopping.
I passed the first anniversary of my mother’s death while white-knuckling my way through an impossible schedule, hanging by a thread. And then, just after it seemed like all my running and pushing was about to pay off in the purchase of our current home last year, I was diagnosed with cancer. Just over one month before the second anniversary of the loss of my mom.
To say that time stops when you are given a life-threatening diagnosis is not correct, at least it wasn’t for me or my family. Time sped up immensely, but in a different way. We sold our home, moved into a new home, my husband was offered a different job at his company, my daughter finished fourth grade and turned 10 years old, and I measured my weeks in terms of chemotherapy treatments and time until surgery, praying for a return to health. My husband struggled to learn a new job while taking care of my needs. My daughter worked on adjusting to a new home and neighborhood while trying not to worry about her sick mom or seem disappointed that her annual birthday parties were cancelled until further notice.
I spent the second anniversary of the loss of my mom in the hospital recovering from a blood infection caused by a side effect of chemotherapy, decreased white blood cell counts. This was ironic, because my mom had spent most of her final years in the hospital until she entered home hospice care.
Above it all, during this time I began to finally grieve her loss.
I also began to grieve my life.
It was during that time that I knew I was not going to die from cancer, but I also knew that something big had to change so that I could feel like I was alive again. That something big was not something on the outside that I could buy anywhere. It was an inside job.
You see, I had fallen into one of the most common situations that people face. We are led to believe that happiness comes from the outside in material things, like clothing, jobs, relationships, or anything we name when we tell ourselves that we “will be happy when _____ happens.” For me, I found temporary happiness in material objects, mostly clothing. The happiness from those things never lasted very long, though. No matter what I bought, I was still overworked, overtired, longing for my mom, and worried about my family and finances.
When I was diagnosed, I finally saw that my current way of life had become unsustainable. If I kept it up, I would die. So I stopped running.
Did the plates fall? Of course they did, but when they did it was a lot less dramatic than I had imagined. The only plates that mattered were the ones that were restoring my health- feeling my grief, taking time each day to envision health for myself and my loved ones, rediscovering what brings me true, lasting joy, and creating a vision of a healthy, happy future for myself and my family.
Since that time I have made some dramatic changes. I no longer believe in living the fast, busy life that our culture tells us we need to live in order to “make it.” The brass ring is not out there. No amount of stuff can mend a broken heart. I have since quit a “regular” part-time job that I enjoyed but had a commute that didn’t work for me (2 hours each day) to work at a contract job that I really love but is challenging me in ways I never dreamed.
I have also chosen a slow life. I still work, sometimes too hard because it is an old habit. However, now I listen to my body more and rest when it tells me to rest, eat when it tells me it is hungry, and try to balance in some time for fun. My body is slowly healing in fits and starts. I am nowhere near as strong as I was before being diagnosed. Time out of active treatment is restoring me slowly, but I have a long way to go. This doesn’t always win me awards and is probably irritating to others at times. It is really, really hard to go from super achiever to snail, even if being a snail is what is going to save your life.
However, the hardest struggle for me has been letting go of shopping as a crutch to feel better when I get down. It is very easy to get down as I find my way toward a new normal. Sometimes I fail and emotionally shop, but overall I am heading in the right direction. I have not stopped shopping, but I almost always ask myself why I am thinking of buying something before I buy it. If the answer has anything to do with making myself feel better, I don’t buy the item. I also keep in mind that things aren’t going to be the keys to my reaching my goals. It helps to feel more peaceful about paying bills, especially with a variable income like mine, knowing that I am not paying off yesterday’s sorrows with today’s money.
So what does the slow life look like for me? Well, it changes all the time. Some days it means sleeping in to let my body heal. Some days it means making time to get out for a walk in the fresh air. Sometimes I read or watch a movie. I take time to enjoy crafting now and then, and I talk with my husband and daughter. I pet my dogs. I spend time with friends. Sometimes I work, but I try to set reasonable goals and I set and maintain boundaries around my work time. Right now I am looking forward to summer and finally being able to enjoy our neighborhood pool, bonfires, and good times with new and old friends. I will enjoy my Arnold Palmers while sitting on our patio watching our bird feeders fill up with birds. And I will take the time to watch the fireflies each evening.
Life is so very precious. We have no idea what a gift we have been given. Live it slowly, enjoying every moment, and love yourself and each other. Have a PrettyJoyful day!