I feel like my friend the bear. I’ve been hibernating in my cave through a long winter. An extra-long winter in my case, as I didn’t ever come out last spring. I’m afraid I’ve pretty much been in here since I had major surgery in November of 2021.
Now here it is March of 2023, almost a year and a half later. Even though it is cold and the rains are still pouring down, something inside me is awakening. I feel spring. With this blog post I’m sticking my head out of my cave and looking around. I wanted to reach out and say “Hello, miracle of miracles, I’m still here!”
In fact, I’m doing very well. I’m just back from a check-up at UCSF where all my tests were normal and I don’t have to return there for a whole year. My surgeon tells me that he thinks I have only a small chance of recurrence of my disease. “If I were a betting man," he told me, "I think you will probably die of something else." That last part about dying of “something else” may not sound encouraging but it was to me because this whole adventure has been a deep lesson in confronting my mortality. In this painting that I made a couple of months into my recovery, I am meeting death as I walk along the road that is my life. Thankfully this time I’m being allowed to walk on by.
Three Surgeries in 2021
I left you last with the post I wrote in May of 2021 near the beginning of all my health challenges. It was just a couple of months after I had my first surgery. As I reread that post this morning, I hear the innocence of the newly diagnosed. At that time I was so relieved that next steps were not being asked of me, but eventually they were indeed asked. I ended up with three surgeries in 2021.
I've read online that my last surgery, the CRS/HIPEC procedure, is often referred to as the “mother of all surgeries.” Thankfully I didn’t hear it described that way before it happened to me. They call it that, they said, because it is like ten open abdominal surgeries wrapped into one. It was indeed an aggressive procedure with enormous risk. When I say “miracle of miracles, I’m still here," it is because I managed to make it through, thankfully with no complications at all.
The Birth of My New Book
The Scalpel, The Paintbrush and the Pen: Healing as a Creative Art
My recovery here inside my cave has been another kind of challenge. I needed to retreat for months and focus all my energy on my own healing. I called on the arts, my dreams and my intuition to help me all along the way. They were a big part of my preparation for surgery and a huge support during my recovery.
All of this time in my cave has not been unproductive. I surprised myself by writing a new book. In it I share my experiences as I've found my way to healing. It is titled, The Scalpel, The Paintbrush and the Pen: Healing as a Creative Art. It will hopefully be available by next fall.
Though I didn’t intend to write another book, I know now that writing this new one was a big part of my healing. In the early months after surgery I couldn’t find words to express what I was going through. I was too lost living through it on the physical level. But as I sat in my recliner with pens and a 6 in. X 8 in. tablet, I let my imagination fill page after page with paintings and drawings. That art was telling the story of my experiences along my road to recovery. It was also challenging me and lighting my way forward.
One day about four months after surgery I started feeling restricted by the carefulness of the art I had been making. I felt the urge to be more reckless with my pens, to loosen up a bit. That day I stayed with the small format but let my pens move more freely. This is the painting that appeared. That fiery sun coloring the sky was the focus of my energy while I did the drawing. I sensed that something new was trying to light up my world. I didn't know what it was but something in me was moving and changing.
The very next day I couldn’t wait to paint again but this time I knew I wanted bigger paper with more room for movement and even messier pens. I found my tempera pens and went at it. The fire that was in the sun the day before was now in my body. In just a couple of minutes this creature blew onto the page, mouth wide open, complete with all those sharp teeth, a gaping maw indeed! I realized that the energy that wanted to break out was anger, not just plain old simple anger, it was pure unadulterated rage about the trauma I had experienced. It wanted to express itself. It wanted to tell its story.
The next day that rage poured itself out onto the paper, this time not in paint but in writing. Words began to flow like lava erupting from a volcano. I found great relief as that repressed energy was able to rise up and move out of my body, specifically by way of my mouth. I was surprised by its force. I had been so very grateful that I had done so well with the surgery, that I hadn't had complications, but the fact was my body had experienced a big trauma and now it was ready to talk about it.
My words didn’t stop coming. They did become less heated, less angry. That rage just opened the door so I could begin to speak. Soon my writing was helping me to integrate all that had happened to me, to my body, to my mind and to my soul. I did not know that my writing was the beginning of a new book. I just knew I was dedicated to letting the words keep coming. They felt like a lifeline.
I soon realized that I was writing a book whether I’d planned that or not. My writing was helping me sort out the complex emotions that are part of a medical crisis. While I was dealing with the crisis on the surface of my life, a deeper part of me was on an adventure. She was painting and drawing, singing, dreaming and talking to foxes. She helped me find the voice of my own inner healer. A magical process was unfolding and I wanted to share that process with others. I wanted to tell them about the synchronicities that marked my path, the magic of the way my art, and my dreams were becoming one with my waking reality. I was literally experiencing and honoring the miracle of the human body's ability to heal itself and I wanted to tell others about that miracle.
Again and again I found myself stumbling into moments when I felt held in the pure love at the center of everything. There I understood that my little life was just a tiny reflection of the bigger energy that holds us all. I hoped my stories and experiences might help others going through something like what I was experiencing. In all these ways my deep inner knowing had offered up powerful messages that allowed me to be an active participant with my surgeon and his team as we sought healing. The fact that I found myself with a surgeon who welcomed me and all that I brought in these ways was an important piece of the miracle that helped me heal.
You don’t go through an experience like this without it changing you. So as I peek out the door of my cave today I see a new world. It is new because I’m new. I left the old Marilyn back there somewhere or she transformed into who I am now. I'm still sorting out all the changes.
Reflections on the Web of Life
One thing I know for sure. I wouldn't have made it though without the help of so many. A couple of months ago I sat down and spent a morning reading everything in regards to my surgery in my UCSF My Chart app. When I finished reading I was overwhelmed by the thought of all those people, bringing all of their humanity and all their training to help when I needed it most. The care I received in the hospital was remarkable.
My dear sons had arranged their lives so that they could see me through the first month of my recovery. Friends gathered round throughout to help me when I couldn't fend for myself and to support me in ways, big and small during my many months of recovery. I was held by so many from near and far with messages of love and concern for my well being. My doctor commented again and again about how important this was for my recovery.
I did this paper collage to try to express how cared for I felt, by so many. Here I stand in the remnants of my old life which had been shredded into tiny pieces, but I am still standing. The lightening in my center is expressing both the storm that was going on in my abdomen physically and also the way that storm brought such deep gut level understandings about the miracle of life. Here I'm surrounded by so many. Take a moment and imagine their number as infinite, as each one would not have been there without others bringing them into being. And think about the fact that the science that allowed the procedure to happen at all was based on so much human exploration. And underneath all of that imagine the thread that connects us to the less than human world, to Mother Nature and to the universe beyond. Connection after connection after connection all coming together to support my life in this time, in this moment. There wasn't paper enough to express the truth of all that, but I knew it to be so.
My place in the web of life had never been as visible to me as it was as I made my way through this challenging time. As an introvert who has perhaps treasured my independence a little too much throughout my life, I was humbled by this experience of being so held. My gratitude was overflowing.
A More Somber Reflection
In the midst of feeling this abundance of connection, an experience brought me to a more sobering reflection about the web of life. During my stay in the hospital news came that a loved one, Josh had disappeared and was not in a good state of mind. It was such surprising and distressing news. A friend had given me some candles (battery operated) to have at the hospital with me. That night I placed those candles in the window of my hospital room as if to light the way for Josh, hoping he would find his way home. But a few days later as my son was driving me home from the hospital, we got the news that Josh had been found. He had taken his own life.
It didn't escape me that here I was at 75 years old risking this aggressive surgery so that I might add some years to my already long life while Josh, in his forties was deciding that he had had enough of his. My heart went out to him and to his family, to all who knew him and cared about him. What had happened? We will never really know what Josh was thinking. The best that I could come up with is that in that critical moment when he took his life, deep down he must have felt completely alone, like he had fallen out of the web of life where we each hold the tension of our own existence and at the same time hold our relationship to everyone and everything else around us. My heart aches when I contemplate what that might have felt like.
I had just put everything in me behind my wish to stay alive, to be part of it all for a bit longer. When I imagined what it might be like to have fallen out of that web, to feel as if there were no place for me there, I understood terror like I have never understood it before. Strange how my new awareness of the enormity of the web of life, and how deeply I was planted in it, helped me understand with equal measure what it might be like to experience the opposite.
A few months later as Josh's memorial neared I was talking with my sister and my niece about the closeness or lack of it in our extended family. As part of that conversation the topic of depression came up. Suddenly I couldn't contain myself. I burst out with “For goodness sakes, if either of you are ever thinking of killing yourselves, please talk to me. I don’t know that I could help but I wouldn’t be afraid to talk about it and I promise that I would bring my whole self to the conversation." "OK," they shouted laughing, not at what I had said but about the passion with which it came out of me. It is a wish I have for all of us, that we make a promise to one another that we will reach out when we find ourselves in need of help. We are all in this together whether we know it or not.
A Word About Our Belonging
Confronting a life threatening illness has given me many new experiences of just how deeply we are all connected. Though I had come to understand my belonging in many ways before my illness, it seems now like I only had pieces of a puzzle. I had never fully grasped experientially the enormity of the web in which we are all held. I am certain that I am still not seeing the whole of it but I know more than I did before. Those pieces of the puzzle I once held seem to have come together.
As I awaken now from the spell of being a patient and step out of my cave, I'm stepping out into what feels like a new life. I have new eyes and a much bigger heart. I'm asking myself, What now? What do I want to do with however many years I may have left? I hope you too are asking that question. I'd love to hear your response to this post. Let me hear what you are thinking.