What Have You Done Lately?

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Adirondack 46er Finish

Several weeks ago, I posted this photo and caption ‘5 years ago, I became an Adirondack 46er’. The photo came up in my Facebook Memories on July 25th. I remember my emotions when that image was taken. That morning started with a drizzle of cool rain and an overcast sky which did nothing to deter me and my hiking partner from our hike of the day.

The photo is me on Big Slide Mountain in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, holding a small, circular patch, tears in my eyes and grateful that the moment was finally happening. It’s been said, “They don’t give out that patch just for walking down Main Street”! I did it. I had just hiked my 46th peak. It took me a long time to hike all 46 mountains over 4,000 feet. It was an enormous goal which required a lot of physical strength, a bit of courage and plenty of determination.

I had the most incredible hiking partner who would always show up well-prepared with more enthusiasm for hiking than I knew existed. We knew safety was our priority, yet there wasn’t a hike where we ever turned back. Rain, hail, wind, mud. There was no whining (ok, maybe I whined a little ascending Seward Mountain in a downpour) …no “I can’t do this”, or “why did we do this hike”. I learned a lot about my hiking partner during our miles over the mountains. I learned a lot more about myself.

I posted that photo ‘ 5 years ago I did this…blah blah.’ The question that really needed to be answered was, Wendy, What Have You Done Lately?

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On July 30, 2016, I finished a 5K.

Big Deal.

Well, yes. To me is was a big deal. You see, I made it to the 7am start of the race (a 90 minute drive). My goal was to start it, to finish it and I hoped to complete it in under 45 minutes.

I had finished Radiation treatment for Breast Cancer on July 20, 2016.

When I crossed the finish line with my son along side of me, I was elated, exhausted, ready to burst into tears and laughing – at the same time. I wanted to remember this moment as crossing the finish line of cancer. I wanted to run further than cancer could. I wanted to be done with the appointments, the treatments, the endless discussion and research of cancer. I wanted to go back to my life.

(Honestly, when I have another ‘memorable moment’ photo opportunity–could someone please hand me a towel to wipe my sweat, and kindly mention to me to fix my hair…? Thanks)

The cancer diagnosis to me is like being a waiter in a very busy restaurant. The waiter has a huge tray filled with plates of delicious food and beverages in pretty glasses – and the waiter is about to leave the kitchen – little does the waiter know that someone is coming IN the OUT door of the kitchen. The tray and its contents end up everywhere, mostly broken into pieces on the floor. Nothing looks the same. Nothing will ever be the same. It’s a very big mess and a long time before it’s cleaned up.

I’ve been on the care-giving side of cancer – which really is no picnic. I’ve now seen both sides as care-giver and person diagnosed with cancer.

I was extremely fortunate for many reasons. As I waded through the diagnosis, I came in contact with some amazing humans. A Radiologist who, while most were obsessed with Pokemon GO!, he was diligent in doing what he does really well and was paying close attention to my scan. And a surgeon who is gifted in her craft and even more, in her role as the most caring human I’ve met in a very long time. I’ll write more about her-she deserves her own story.

Three biopsies and two surgeries really didn’t fit into my workout plans very well. Once I received the OK to exercise after the last surgery, I felt better emotionally. (This is by no means medical advice to anyone.). I then faced Radiation treatments. I had to find a way to stay focused and to get through the 21 days marked on my calendar. You see, everything else in the world becomes less of a priority. There’s less energy to complete all the usual tasks of life. My work as a photographer started to expose gaping holes on my calendar.

I made a decision to take some control in a situation where I really had so little control. Every day after radiation treatment, I went to my gym and promised myself I would run on the treadmill for 20 minutes. Every day. Miles didn’t matter. I thought I could do anything for 20 minutes. There were a couple days where I sat in my car in the gym parking lot, doing my best to gather strength to walk across the parking lot and go inside. No one at the gym knew of my cancer. There were a couple days where I felt I was towing a refrigerator behind me. I had to walk some of those minutes. I was grateful I could move forward – one step. The exhaustion from radiation treatment is real. The effects are cumulative. I remember Day 8 on the treadmill was really challenging. Exhausting. The next day I felt better.

I needed to focus on finishing and being done with cancer. I signed up my son and I for the ‘Runway 5K’ – an opportunity to run the world’s busiest runway at EAA in Oshkosh, WI. If you’re an airplane buff you’ve heard of EAA. It’s an amazing event. My son asked if I wanted him to run with me. Usually I run alone with music but was grateful for his offer, his company. He kept up a steady commentary pointing out some of the thousands of planes parked on the grass, taxiing and taking off on that overcast morning. I mentioned to him before the start that if I stopped running, to just say “keep moving forward, mom”. We ran the whole way. OK, that’s not a fair assessment. Like a thoroughbred under rein, he was doing a slow jog, I was just trying to keep my feet moving.

We were coming up on the last mile. I was exhausted. I was grateful that the sun was not out. My skin was still hot. I wanted to stop.

I had to dig very deep to keep moving. I needed a positive thought in my head but came up empty. I briefly recalled my 46er finish, but that was too much energy to summon. And in one instant, something came over me that it’s not about me. I could do this last mile for someone who can’t. Immediately I found energy inside. I dedicated the last mile to a woman I met during radiation. We had started radiation the same day. Her cancer story has been non-stop, 24/7 since last October. She’s had chemo, double mastectomy surgery and wasn’t finished with radiation yet. I carried her in my heart across the finish line.

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The waiter’s tray is a mess on the floor of the busy restaurant. There’s some yelling and screaming and lots of chaos. I calmly stand up, take a deep breath, I inhale and exhale. I pick up the tray and decide what to place back onto it, if anything.

Most people don’t know I had Breast Cancer. Apparently, as my hair was still intact, people thought I ‘looked great’! Cancer hair loss is usually related to chemotherapy. In a future post, I’ll write more about my chemo story. I’m very fortunate.

I thought I was going to pick up my life where I left off after my ‘6 month Vacation’…(ugh, predictive type always fixes that)…after my ‘cancer treatment of 6 months & Radiation’ – that world doesn’t exist anymore.

Sadly, there are a lot of cancer stories. Many are painful stories with unfortunate endings. Mine is filled with amazing people, mountains of kindness and incredible moments.
I’d like to share them with you.

rsvp

expect a miracle

“Those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand”.

~Patti Smith

I’m scratching my head, wondering how I missed the signs? How did I not get it? What had I been thinking?

I’m confused.
You see, I thought I was the giver of a gift.
Now I realize I’ve been wrong this whole time. Instead, I have been on the receiving end of a beautiful treasure. There were no streaming ribbons, no pretty gift wrap or colorful tissue paper arranged a certain way, no special delivery.

I should explain. Last week I was given an invitation to photograph a beautiful woman one week before she passed away. She had cancer and was in hospice care. Several years ago as a fledging-photographer-wanna-be, I offered to take her twins’ high school photographs. I was grateful for the experience and provided the rookie “shoot & burn” experience. She loved the photographs and talked about having family portraits taken “some day”.
I learned a lot.

Fast forward a couple years. I received a tear-filled, barely audible phone call about family portraits:

…”are you available this weekend?…the cancer is back…in my spine…everywhere”…

She wanted more than anything to leave a legacy for her kids. She wanted them to remember her, smiling and happy, healthy-looking and laughing.

The gift-giver in me said, ‘yes, of course’.

Two frigid, winter days later, I drove to their apartment with my heart in my throat. I felt such pressure and nerves, hoping I could do an acceptable job for this family. I arrived to find everyone in their boxy white shirts, little available light and a woman with the pain of cancer so bad that she could not manage to sit down.
We shared a lot of special moments that day.

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The good news was she didn’t pass away.

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I learned a lot.

My photography business continued to evolve and on occasion I ran into her in town.
I saw her in March this year and asked if she would help me. I was adding a different style of portraiture, would she bring dress up clothes and would she mind curling her hair…I wanted to practice the posing, natural lighting and more importantly, the connection with the eyes.

She shared with me how good she felt trying on outfits the prior night. Her husband enjoyed her enthusiasm, she said. She was thrilled to dress up and moved into various poses easily, willingly giving me what I asked of her. I asked her to connect with my camera. To connect with me.

It was a wonderful session.

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I learned a lot.

Her kids wanted to surprise her for a mother’s day photo this year–the surprise was getting two 20 year olds and a 7 year old in the same room! She laughed and enjoyed each frame with her children. I noticed their relationships differed slightly. Her son who towered over her made her laugh easily. His twin sister brought out the honest beauty of her mom, while the 7 year old mostly devoured the hugs. I remember her presence and laughter behind me when I asked her kids to jump on the trampoline that frigid day in May. She loved every second as we created memories. Her final Mother’s Day on earth.

Mother's Day

Photographs make moments freeze in time. Assembling the people and allowing the experience to unfold then capturing it at the right moment is extremely powerful.

August. After a few weeks away from an internet connection, I wrote a blog post…hesitated for one split second then changed the entire thing*. I wanted to add a portrait and chose one of her and wrote about our session. I pressed ‘publish’ then sent her a message….

“hi! check out my new blog post, you’ll recognize a beautiful woman on it!”

Then I looked at her facebook postings. I called her. The cancer was everywhere.

She read my blog post then cried as she read it again. At 48 years old, she told me she finally felt beautiful. She didn’t have to hide behind someone else’s idea of “beauty”. She is beautiful and carries it with her. I was able to show her. She believed it one month before she passed away.

I visited with her in the last days of her life. She thanked me for all the photos over the years and mostly for the words I had written on my blog. She invited me to take more photos of her. I returned the following day to her hospice bed with my camera and a full heart.

She was exhausted, yet looked into my lens with the same invitation to “come in–visit my soul”. I went willingly and respectfully.

Later that night, a sense of urgency flooded me. I realized I had to go thank her for the gift she has given to me.

We hugged. We laughed and cried.

I thanked her from the bottom of my grateful heart.

I felt honored tonight as I left the funeral home. Her portrait – the one where she gave me that connection to her soul, the one I intuitively put on my blog, was enlarged and prominently displayed next to her ashes at her request. Her eyes invited everyone in that room to see her beautiful soul. My words about her were read as a eulogy.

beautiful, happy

My original post: *the invitation, WAVphoto.com, August 14, 2013 http://wp.me/s3rHYI-390