Saturday, October 26, 2013

Pink Power

As we observe the final few days of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (or Pinktober, as I like to call it), I wanted to share about some incredible women in my life -all of them with gentle hearts but fierce fighting spirits.

The first woman I want to honor is, interestingly, one of the most passionately private people I know.  Therefore, I will limit my story to the basics of her fight - not her personal life.  Laurie, my church's capable and always-smiling secretary (who easily does the work of at least three people), is a lady whom I have admired for years.  Her family and mine have been very close for probably about 17 years.  We joke that Laurie's sister and my dad are so similar that they must be long-lost twins.  Laurie herself is a beautiful example of God's redeeming grace, having gone through a very difficult divorce many years ago.  I think I would have handled things differently had I been in her situation (and by differently, I mean very, very poorly), but Laurie isn't the kind of person to raise her voice unless she is cheering someone on!  I never saw her lose hope.  I know her struggle was and is an internal one, and I don't presume to know what pressures she undergoes.  But I do know that she is a woman who exudes grace and dignity even as the storms of life are crashing all around her.

She will probably blush, shake her head and laugh when she reads these things, but she needs to know how deeply to heart I have taken her example all these years.  Although she certainly has a great sense of humor, what is most remarkable about Laurie is her quiet, gentle bearing.  She is a physically lovely woman with an easy, infections laugh (I think it's one of my favorite sounds ever, and all the women in her family share it), but she doesn't like to draw attention to herself.  She doesn't pretend things are okay when they are not, but she has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drama.  She is loyal. She is faithful.  She is kind. 

So when, several months ago, she shared with us - the members of Pastor Stephanie's small group - her diagnosis of breast cancer, we were stunned.  Laurie was one of those people who loved exercise, ate well (in part due to some dietary restrictions), and took care of her body.  How could this happen?  I, in particular, don't think it registered in my mind as fact until many weeks later.  Of course we prayed for her, but my heart housed some fear.  We had just lost two beloved ushers in our church very unexpectedly - and then I lost my mother immediately after that.  Another usher had a close call and landed in the hospital as well.  Being so deeply involved in our church, these ushers, to us, weren't simply smiling faces who handed out bulletins and guided us to empty pews.  Linda had been a friend who whore the same perfume as my mother, who lost her adult son within weeks of one of my miscarriages, who told me that her boy was already taking care of my babies in heaven because he loved children.  Steve was our head usher, patriarch of a family that I consider pillars in our church community - his widow, Kay, is a leader on the ministry team; his daughter, Sue, is one of our worship leaders; his granddaughter, Sarah, is an active and vibrant part of the youth group.  Brian, the usher who survived, is a newer member of the church with a big grin and goofy sense of humor.  We all held our breath as news trickled down to us that he was improving and, eventually, released from the hospital.

Would our precious Laurie be the next victim in this bizarre series of tragedies?  I admit, since my miscarriages, my relationship with God has sometimes been strained.  I don't blame him for "taking" my children, but I keep returning to Him like a needy child, asking again and again that simple but weighty question - "Why?"  I didn't know what to expect for Laurie.  Of course we prayed for and with her, but I feel like my faith is remedial nowadays, plodding forward with itty-bitty baby steps, rather than great soaring leaps.

So I hoped.

Laurie believed for her healing, but - like most folks in our church - had no issues with turning to doctors for support and treatment.  (Or general belief is that God has MANY ways to heal His children, and medical intervention IS, in fact, one of those ways.  We believe in prayer combined with medical attention.)  She underwent her radiation like a champ.  She lost all her hair.  She had to cut back on her hours at the church. 

Image from
Last month, she had her final biopsy and got the all-clear.

Laurie is cancer-free!

Through the whole process, the only complaint I heard from her was that she was frequently tired - which was, of course, due to the chemotherapy.  She did shyly mention, however, that her nurses told her they loved working with her because she was so full of joy.  She wanted her experience there to represent her love for Jesus and share it with others.

I think that's pretty amazing.

The other two survivors I know have come into my life only recently.  My direct supervisor at work, Mary, and the office manager, Karen, are both standing tall (relatively speaking, since they aren't much taller than me) after battles with breast cancer.  Although I don't know much about their individual battles, I know that they are part of a much bigger network of support and love for victims of breast cancer.  When I told Mary that my friend Laurie had been diagnosed, she asked about her regularly.  Both women were quick to sign a get-well card I got for her, even though neither had ever met her.  When I shared the news that Laurie was cancer-free, both ladies celebrated with me as if they'd just been given the same news for themselves.

What fascinates me about this awful disease - which strikes both healthy and less-than-healthy women...which attacks the very nature and identity of the female body...which causes women to struggle with their identities as women...which has no real cure...has also proven to motivate women to support each other with an unwavering and awesomely beautiful strength.  The mildest, quietest women become outrageously fierce warriors when they wrap their arms around the newly-diagnosed, when they strap on pink sneakers to raise money, when they don pink shirts and march for the cure.

While I hate the disease, I love that, although it was meant to main, destroy, weaken and kill, it has instead raised up a veritable army of both women and men who have given each other the strength to raise their voices as once and roar, "I will overcome!"

And I Would Walk 500 Miles...

...or at least, you know, jog for about three.

It was The Big Day.  As Pittsburgh welcomed the huge, slightly ridiculous but really adorable floating Rubber Duckie during its Festival of Firsts, people like me - first-time runners - were wondering what this 5K thing was all about...and, maybe, if it was worth it.

Oh, it was.

When I had signed up for the race several months ago, I didn't really know if I could do it.  Like many people (artsy ones in particular), I really struggle finishing projects that I start.  and this was a really big project for me.  I've mentioned in the past that I was diagnosed with asthma when I was a child and dealt with a myriad of respiratory problems during my youth.  Although I haven't had many issues as of late, I didn't know what starting a real exercise program would do to me.  

Turns out, it's actually been great for me.  Since I had started out very gradually, strolling for a half-hour on my lunch break, then slowly increasing it to a 50-minute power walk, I've built up my endurance.  I still need my albuterol sometimes, mostly during seasonal changes or extreme weather (ultra-high humidity and really brisk mornings are hard - and this past week has been particularly difficult), but most days I'm fine without it.  My bigger concern was that I had gotten drastically off-track regarding my Couch to 5K program.  That, coupled with an upper respiratory infection that had been clinging for the pat week, led me to the decision that I would complete the race, but as a walker, not a runner.  And I was okay with that.

Then something crazy and wonderful and magical happened.  As I was in Oakland, in my beloved city on an absolutely picture-perfect day, surrounded by a sea of people in brightly-colored Nikes and battered track pants, I realized that I had no reason to be nervous.  I guess I'd imagined that all 15,500 runners and walkers would be sleek and trim, with calves to kill for and perfectly toned arms.  I thought there was such thing as a "runner's body", but guess what?  There isn't! 

There were heavy-set women in their thirties; skinny, bearded old men who wobbled a bit as they ran; tall, athletic college students who hardly seemed to sweat; scrawny pre-teen girls; lithe, flexible twenty-somethings whose running shorts were a little too short; and young mommies and daddies jogging alongside their children.  And they were all there for one reason: to finish the race.

My former roomie Megan sent me a message encouraging me to do my best, whether it was by walking or running, but, she said, there is something very special about being in a crowd like that - you never know what you are capable of.

She was right.

I started the race with my husband at my side and we were walking briskly.  Almost immediately, I slid into an easy gait and the first mile was down - no sweat. I couldn't believe it.  I hadn't gone for a jog in probably almost three weeks, but there I had it.  Mile one in about fifteen minutes.  And I felt great!

Mile two started with a bit of a hill, and many of the runners and walkers around me slowed a bit.  I did the same, as did Ross, and I lost sight of him.  As I began to struggle a bit for breath, for the first time, I focused on the sounds around me.  The constant slapping of shoes against pavement.  The ragged breathing of the beefy guy behind me.  The nearby "good job, keep going" of the volunteers offering water just up ahead.  The members of Duquesne University's marching band rocking "Eye of the Tiger" to my right.  (No joke - you ever hear that played on a tuba?  So much awesome.)  The day was gorgeous and it was a strange experience to be running the path I had driven so many times when I worked at the Starbucks in Oakland.  I wanted to just gaze up at the bright blue sky, enjoy the crisp air and the sunshine, but I forged ahead.

Mile three, I swear, was going to be the death of me.  The fact that I had not stuck with the Highmark program was now painfully clear as I tried to measure my breathing, ignore the slight cramping in my side, and the sweat that was cascading down my neck and back.  On the sidewalk, here and there, were officials, family members, and volunteers.  I saw two older women who didn't appear to be there to support anyone in particular, so they were cheering for every single person who jogged by.  I thought that was great!  I played songs in my head to keep my feet moving.  I finally settled on "Overcomer", a recent Christian hit that has encouraged me in plenty of ways.  And my feet kept going.  My arms kept pumping.  My breath kept coming.  My heart kept beating.

As I rounded the corner, hitting the three mile-marker and seeing the finish line on my left, I felt tears well up in my eyes.  I had little breath to spare, but I said, out loud, "Mom, I'm doing it!  Mom!  I did it!" and felt that I had defeated my own fears.  I know she would have told me I was crazy (maybe I am).  And asked if I'd taken my inhaler (I did).  Then offered to make my favorite dinner as a victory meal (her oven-breaded chicken, wilted spinach salad [with bacon!], and great big gobs of gooey mac and cheese [with bacon!]).

As soon as I crossed the finish line, raising one weak arm in the air, I felt a wave of nausea overwhelm me and thought, "I am going to vomit here in the park.  With thousands of people watching me.  Oh, my God, I am about to be THAT person."  Thankfully, though, the feeling passed almost immediately and I began to search through the throng of exhausted runners for my husband.  He finally found me, and I noticed that he was holding a banana and an Eat 'n' Park Smiley cookie - and neither one was for me!

"Priorities," he said with a grin.

As our bodies recovered from the happy torture we had just endured, we made our way down to see that yellow duck in the river.  Was it art?, probably not.  But man, it was cute.  And it seemed to make the real ducks jealous.  The mallards floating by must have wondered why they, residents of the city rivers for years, had never been given any type of party at all.  We took some cute selfies and wondered how many peoples' pictures we ended up in.  Then we headed to the new coffee shop in Carnegie to celebrate our victory (i.e., survival).

Ultimately, I learned that I completed the race in 39:22, giving me about a twelve and a half minute mile.  I was fairly impressed with myself and thought - how much better could that number have been had I stuck with the program?!  Still - pretty great for an overweight asthmatic!

I haven't run since the Great Race.  Sadly, I pulled my hamstring and it is taking some time to heal.  Not to mention, the recent change in weather has been hard on my asthma and I've been having flare-ups recently.  Still, I'm bundling up at work and walking on my lunch break.  I've maintained my weight.  My PCP was proud of me at my recent wellness check when she learned of my weight loss and regular exercise schedule.  I'm planning on running the Race for the Cure in May to honor several friends, so I'd better get cracking, here.  Soon!

Thank you to all of you who cheered me on  - whether you really thought it could do it or not!  If you want to read my story from start to finish, you can click here, here and here.  I had the honor of sharing my journey via my employer's blog, too - I hope that it was a message of encouragement to everyone who got to read it!

(Currently, the internet isn't letting me post pictures on this blog so you can click on the links above if you want to see some.  I'll update as soon as I can figure out the issue!  -RG 11:00 AM 10/26/13)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Crazy Cat Lady

I do not believe in ghosts.  Or that the spirits of the dead can inhabit the bodies of the living.  I do, however, believe that spiritual gifts can be passed from one generation to another.

Freyja's new toy.  :-/
Now, granted, I don't recall that "talking to animals" is listed among any spiritual gifts in the New Testament.  Nevertheless, I'm thinking that, just maybe, upon her passing, my mom's uncanny and often freakish ability to connect with animals may have fallen upon my shoulders.

I mean, I held a chipmunk the other day.  That's, like, Disney Princess level animal communication, right?!

I guess maybe it's more of a mutant power than a spiritual gift.

My mom, to my recollection, was never a social butterfly.  She was certainly good with people, especially when she worked in the service industry.  But she was never, ever a "let's chat over a cappuccino" kind of girl.  Especially in her later years, I think she preferred the company of animals to people.  I mean, can you blame her?  Scroll through your Facebook feed for thirty seconds if you still wonder a person might like dogs better than humans.
My mom rescued a groundhog who had gotten his head stuck in a jelly jar.  My mom taught our adopted mutt to obey commands that she spelled.  My mom caught and freed panicked hummingbirds that had gotten trapped in our garage.  My mom had four neighborhood pups trained to line up on her porch for treats twice a day.  My mom nursed a mostly-dead tomcat back to full-fluffed, glossy and shiny health, despite repeated suggestions that she let the local vet "put that thing out of its misery".  I am fairly certain that my mom could have taught a fish to sing or a rabbit to brew her tea.  My mom had a gift.
Granted, I fell head-over-heels in love with my sweet Thor long before we lost my mom, and we adopted our snuggly Loki months before she passed away.  Yes, I cuddle them, even when I am wearing black (Thor in particular enjoys leaving his soft gray brand of fluff all over the house).  Yes, I have long, detailed conversations with them.  I also baby-talk to them.  I sometimes even let them sleep with me.  But. . .

. . .Twoper - now Freyja - didn't stroll back into my life until after my mom was gone.  I wouldn't be surprised if she'd asked God to send us just one more kitty to love - one cat to temporarily fill the void left after each of our lost pregnancies.  Three fur-babies to love.  Freyja will be getting a visit to the vet in the next few weeks, if we can set aside the money, and she'll be moving from Porch Cat to her rightful place as a Cat of Asgard.  She is certainly the gentlest cat I've ever met.  In the more than six weeks that she has been hanging around my house, not once has she scratched, swatted, or bit at Ross or me - or anyone else.  In fact, during our Geek Gala, she positioned herself like a tiny, loaf-shaped sentry in the middle of the porch and saw our guests out with a rumbly meow.  I love to cuddle with her and scratch her back.
Last week, when Ross and I were leaving Target, we encountered a man about our age holding an absolutely gorgeous gray and black kitten.  "You guys want a cat?" he asked.  I must have looked shocked, because he hurriedly continued, "I found her by Chick-Fil-A and I gave her some food and now she won't leave me alone."  Sure enough, when he placed her on the ground, she sniffed at Ross, then our truck, and rubbed up against me, but lingered nearby.  Of course I wanted her!  Ross even had the same look on his face that he did when we impulsivelyadopted Loki.  But four cats?  With one not even house-trained yet?  "I'm sorry," I said sadly, "We just adopted out local stray, or else we'd take her."  "That's what happened to us!  That's how we got our cat," the guy replied enthusiastically.  At least we could tell he was a cat-friendly person.  As we reluctantly left, I prayed that the little girl would end up in a home that really needed the unconditional love of a pet.
Loki is a Jedi.
That's the thing about cats, people.  Yes, they do have a reputation for being aloof, solitary, and, thanks to internet-sensation Tardar Sauce (AKA Grumpy Cat), even arrogant.  Some are, I guess.  Unlike those cats of world wide web fame, Loki is flat-out sociable.  She jumps into the laps of people who are trying to eat at my dinner table.  She spent all of last month's party in the middle of the living room, politely perched on a pillow or examining vacant chairs.  She plays fetch with her woefully ragged cloth mice (the last gift my mom had picked out for them before she died).  She is curious and desperately cuddly (some of the time).  Thor, I guess, is more your typical housecat.  He is irritated by changes in routine; he's possessive; he's often dismissive.  He thinks he's the alpha male, but he doesn't really act like it.  But with me, he's a bundle of loving fluff.  He curls up on my chest at night, before I go to bed, and demands that I put my phone down to nuzzle his nose.  He'll flop on the couch and watch television with me.  He lets me flip him on his back and stick my face in his bunny-soft belly fur.  He lets me clip his claws with absolutely no protest.  He even lets us bathe him
Thor is a superhero.
with minimal fuss.  And it was Thor who came to me when I learned of my friend
Linda's passing, and he sat with me on the bathroom floor until I was done crying.

Freyja will  likely have her own set of quirks when she moves in.  I can't wait to see how she lets us love her, and how she shows her love in return.
Yes, this formerly skeptical girl has become a full-blown crazy cat lady.  Apparently, contrary to popular opinion, being happily married does not prevent this condition.  Even my baby sis, dog-mom to the Unreasonably Huge Mutt, Tex, admits that her recently-adopted kitten, Ranger, has wormed his way into her heart and become a part of her family much faster than she expected.

All I can say is "told you so!"