Single Digits – The Great I Am!

Sunday in church we sang Mary Did You Know? the Mark Lowry song about all the things Mary’s son, our Lord,  her newborn baby would do in his lifetime. The song asks questions of Mary. Did she know He’d heal the sick? Give sight to the blind? One day rule the nations? Mary Did You Know was a popular Christmas tune during the last weeks of my first pregnancy in 1992. That Christmas was bittersweet as I knew a divorce from my son’s father was imminent. We separated shortly after our Christmas Day baby was born. The words, “the child that you deliver…will soon deliver you” were hauntingly true for me in early 1993.

I struggled for months trying to understand why my hopes and dreams of creating the family I wanted were torn apart.  How could someone not fight with every ounce of purpose in their being to preserve a family, provide for a child, and care for his wife, the woman who’d given birth to his child?  The experience of bringing new life into my world had left me physically, emotionally and psychically exhausted.  I can close my eyes today and still see my living room where I’d sit alone in the dark literally crying out to God to help me figure things out.   

The song in church Sunday hit me like a blow from out of nowhere, words blasting my heart with a pain I wasn’t expecting. All the sad aspects of that Christmas 18 years ago came rushing back.  I felt dizzy as I fought hard to not start crying in church. To steady my emotions I closed my eyes and sang the words as I recalled them on the Christmas album I had back in ’92.  The melody I sang was a bit different from the one the choir member sang.  I wanted it to be I was singing a prayer to Mary and to God as a way of making sense of what happened all those years ago.

I turned to look down the pew at “my baby boy”, a young brilliant man who wants to go to medical school and who may, one day, truly heal the sick. My baby, just under 11 pounds at birth, is still a big guy. Tall not heavy. He’s 6’4″ when standing supported on his nearly size 16 feet! Short blonde hair. Beautiful blue eyes that sparkle when he looks at you. Long, dark eye lashes, A bright warm smile. Long, slender fingers on a hand so wide and large his reach covers slightly more than half way around the circumference of a basketball. I watched him sitting next to Don, watched as they leaned in toward one another and whispered comments about things only they share.   I wondered how the pain I felt from the abandonment so many years earlier could still be triggered inside of me from a song that promised so much hope. 

As the day wore on I tried to enjoy Don and the kids but I felt “off”.  Tilted a bit.  I forced myself to keep walking through my day.  Neelan and I got into an argument later that afternoon about college essays, application deadlines, and university choices.  I argued that I wanted so much more for him than I had managed to figure out on my own when I was a senior in high school.  My dreams for myself didn’t matter much in a pragmatically-minded family.  My dad once suggested I become a stewardess so I could meet a successful man, marry, and have a comfortable life.  I had secretly tried to explore the possibility of being a “women’s doctor”, a psychologist, or a writer, but had no idea how to actually try and pursue any of those ideas, and was too unsophisticated to know who to ask for guidance.  I was painfully aware of my ignorance back then which left me feeling embarrassed at my simpleness. I had actually been invited to a journalism program at IU the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. The invitation was an incredibly proud moment for me.  One of my final essays won a $1500 scholarship! I sat with my parents for the closing luncheon and scholarship award. I remember the devastation I felt as I listened to the program director announce the other girl’s name as the scholarship winner.  The happy winner thanked me for writing it for her.  I was too insecure to write a compelling enough essay about me to win the scholarship for myself.  Wouldn’t that be bragging, I had wondered?  But I extolled her talents and virtues like a female Ted Sorensen.  I never told anyone that I’d written her essay.  She accepted the money.  I accepted the fact that I’d be staying in Fort Wayne attending a commuter campus and working several part-time jobs to pay for the classes I strung together to form a degree.  I see now that my professional role as a contributor to other’s success was launched that summer.  Over the years I’d remind myself, “At least I didn’t become a stewardess!”

My argument with Neelan Sunday escalated quickly and ended with his interrupting me with, “That’s right!  So you don’t know anything!”  His words hit their mark.  I could hardly breathe.  They pushed me a bit further off balance.  We were bracing to leave each other, I knew that much.  Another bittersweet Christmas season was being ushered in.  That made me sad.

Monday I struggled to wake up.  The darkness of the morning left me aching inside.   I laid in bed and reminded myself that I was almost finished with my radiation treatments.  I lightly stroked my chest and marveled at how the rash that burned and itched just over a week ago had calmed down to almost nothing since my targeted “boost” of radiation had started and the treatment of the entire breast halted.  I recalled the fun parts of having had Neelan home over the weekend, the progress I’d made on decorating the house for Christmas, the profound pride I felt in both my kids for the way they’re growing up.  I played all my mental coping games to try and pull myself back away from the distant rabbit hole I saw rapidly approaching.  But nothing worked.

The trip to my appointment that morning was scary.  Icy roads covered in loose blowing snow.  At times I couldn’t see the cars in front of me.  I drove 45 to 50 miles an hour down the Interstate.  So did the cars around me.  I arrived a few minutes later than normal.  There was no one in the waiting room.  I was quickly called back for my treatment.  That fact alone should have made me calmer.  No waiting.  That rarely happened.  But I’d come to enjoy the short visits with other patients.  Monday the absence of others in the fight left me feeling empty and frightened in a way.

The remainder of Monday left me bracing for the unstoppable advance of a cloaked enemy over my spirit.  News reports on all stations announced that Elizabeth Edwards was not going to go through any more treatments for her recurrent cancer.  Her recurrent breast cancer.  Six years.  It had reached her bones and ultimately her liver.  She was done fighting.

My day’s agenda was getting moved around because of the weather.  I have the luxury of being mobile with my work.  Amanda, my graphic designer and amazing sidekick, could work from her home, too.  There was no need to venture out into the frozen tundra to work at my place.  So I had the entire day to myself.  That’s such a rarity that when it does happen I kick off my shoes, pull on shorts or jeans depending on the weather, and cozy up in my favorite “work chair” by my favorite window and get lost in the creative process.   But Monday, the open calendar felt more like being confined to solitary.  I couldn’t focus easily on the projects I had to finish, a training session and a website outline with a quote.  But memories that were not necessarily sad trickled into my psyche and stirred up troubling feelings.  I shed my first tears about 12:15.  Every inch of my body began to ache.  It hurt to move, hurt to walk from my comfy workspace to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  I wasn’t coming down with the flu.  I was being overcome by evil.

Since I work outside of a traditional office I have no co-workers for tension relieving banter or sparing.  I posted lots of stuff on Facebook, my “cluster of virtual-office friends”.  That silly social network was the only thing that kept me from experiencing a total emotional breakdown that day.  My head was splitting in pain.  I couldn’t understand what was happening to me.  I know that I experience stress in several ways.  Most I can identify as they rise up.  But this was a different demon.   A therapist I’d seen years earlier to help me cope with my divorce had diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He explained that it wasn’t caused by my divorce, but by several experiences from much, much earlier in my life.  My divorce was the trigger to a frightening decent into hell.  What I learned through the struggle to cope at that time is that I’d actually been living in one level of hell most of my life.  The divorce just pulled back the curtain to expose the room I’d hidden myself.  I’d spent months digging out from the wreckage of my life and learning coping skills to help save myself from falling victim to the various triggers that pop up, sometimes unexpectedly, always at the worst times.  Monday there were songs, messages, people that seemed to jump out at me and stir the waters of worry I’d started to wade into.  My private storm lasted until nearly midnight.  My eyes were swollen and sore, but I had finished all my work.  Unable to keep my eyes open I shut my laptop off and headed for bed.  The pillow was cool on my face.  I slept until Don woke me at 6AM the next morning.

The first thing I did Tuesday morning was ask the Holy Spirit to enter my soul and to protect me from whatever force had hold of me the day before.  I ordered God to lay beside me and hold me tightly.  “I cannot go through today without you, God,” I pleaded.  “Please hold me,” I begged.  My eyes were crusted over from the tears the day before.  They itched and burned.  The hallway light irritated them.  I decided to take my shower before breakfast.  I turned on the water.  I walked under the warm force praying that God would help me with this day.  As I dropped my head and pushed myself into the stream of the shower I chuckled, “Wash away my inequity and cleanse me of my sins.”  I thought that was what the priests used to say when preparing the Eucharist.  The water felt good against my skin.  The steam helped open my eyes.  I held my face into the water and filled my mouth.  I loved blowing the water gently out of my mouth and filling it back up again.  I washed my chest, careful to use only my flat hand gently against my left breast.  I noticed with a surprise that I didn’t feel the blistery-like rash of bumps under the smooth glide of my soapy hand.  To check I gently drew my nails against my skin.  No scraping.  “Huh,” I said aloud.  My eyes were still achy from the day before so I didn’t look down at my breast.  Instead I moved to conditioning my hair.  I enjoyed the smooth glide of the long strands, felt comforted by the pounding of the warm water against my back.  I circled my head around in slow rhythmic moves first to the right, then to the left.  Breathe.  Prepare.  Relax.  Calm down. Breathe.  I said the words in time with the movements of my head.  I rolled my shoulder back and stretched my arms up then let my head fall back into the water to rinse my hair.  I stroked it again to feel its silkiness.  Breathe.  Prepare.  Relax. Calm down. Breathe.

I stepped out of the shower and wrapped my hair in a towel.  Then I grabbed another and began to dry off.  I was careful to only pat my chest.  I noticed it didn’t itch or burn as it had in the past.  I walked over to the vanity and stood in front of the mirror.  For the first time in weeks I saw a pretty, normal appearance.  I looked down and touched my breast.  The skin was smooth.  I held it and pressed it against my chest.  The pores of my skin weren’t hideously large.  I felt almost beautiful for the first time in years.  I giggled.  Even the boost mark didn’t look as dark as it had before.  I put on my robe and walked downstairs to Don and Emily in the living room.  I opened my robe.  “Look at this,” I said excitedly.  Don turned toward me, “Uh. Miss Scofield.  I’ve seen them before,” he teased. 

Emily was sitting on the couch as well.  “Oh, gross!  Guys!  Kids in the room!” she hollered. 

“NO!” I said.  “Look at it.  Feel it.”

“Oh, Miss Scofield.  Your making me feel tinglies…”

Emily and I both laughed at Don.  “No.  Put your hand here.”  I reached for his hand and took his finger tips and glided them against my skin. 

“Wow!  The rash is gone,” he said slowly. 

“Ya!  Look at it!”  I was beside myself standing half undressed in our living room. 

“Uh, Miss Scofield,” Don continued.  “Um. The neighbors can probably see you.  I don’t think we should be putting on a show,” he sounded nervous. “Maybe you’d like to go upstairs and put some clothing on.”  He smiled his goofy clown grin and shook his head up and down very quickly in an animated, cartoonish way. “I….I…I…I think you look very nice,” he imitated Dustin Hoffman’s character Ray in Rainman. “But, I think you should go get some clothing on very quickly…Quickly!”

I wrapped my robe around me and headed upstairs to dress.  It was Tuesday and that meant we’d see Dr. Montravadi after my radiation treatment.  I felt like a little kid with a new toy.  I was anxious for him to see my breast!  I wouldn’t know how to explain it to him, but I hoped he could explain what happened to me.

“Oh. Your skin looks beautiful!” he said after he pulled open my gown and began examining my skin and the scars. 

“Ya!  I know!” I said, feeling giddy.  “Funny how the rash like came over me one day and just as quickly as it started it stopped!”  I was breathless.  I giggled.  Don chimed in, “Ya.  It’s amazing how quickly those creams worked once she started using it three times a day.”  Dr. Montravadi looked up from his work and smiled at Don.  “Keep using them!” he said, as he walked over to the sink to wash his hands.

He walked back over to me and spoke to us about my future visits and what they would entail.  He reached his arm around my shoulder and gently rubbed the top of my back as he assured us both that we’d have no need to worry about missing any signs of anything in the future.  That would be his job.  I gathered up the front of my gown and held it against me as I asked if I could give him a hug.  “Oh, sure!” his face was beaming.  We hugged each other tightly as two friends who’d survived a tragedy together might.  He started to laugh.  He turned his head to Don and then looked back at me.  “We’re going to make him jealous!”  We all laughed. “Nah,” I said.  “Women hug on him all the time.  Now it’s my turn! He can handle this.” 

“I’ll see you next week.  Then we’ll set up the next appointment at that time!”  He never stopped beaming.  He opened the door and said good-bye.

Don and I walked out to the parking garage together.  We both had hectic schedules to keep.  We kissed and hugged good-bye with a promise to see each other back home later that evening. I had to conduct an e-mail training in Fort Wayne.  He had to solve network problems in Muncie and Fishers, Indiana.  It would be a day that we’d both need strength to get through.

As I drove home my sister-in-law called to check in with me before heading to her Bible study.  We talked about my doctor’s visit and all that had transpired the last three days.  I told her I believed I had received a miracle.  She laughed and shouted through the phone that she was going to claim it with me! I’d made it through the storm.  I felt God’s presence with me.  

Tuesday Elizabeth Edwards died.  She was 61.  She’d made choices and decisions I might not have made in some areas of my life, but she did fight to live for her family.  I know what that is like.  I know that I’ll have to say good-bye to my little boy and hello to the exciting opportunities he has waiting in his future. “Mary, did you know your baby boy has come to make you knew?  The child that you’ll deliver will soon deliver you.”  That beautiful Christmas 18 years ago was the start of a new life for me.  I didn’t just give birth to my son.  I gave birth to myself.

I’m 49 years old.  I know that I may not be alive in 30 or 40 years.  But it’s not cancer I’m afraid will take me from my family.  It’s the more likely event of being hit by a truck on the way home from the gym.   It’s having an argument that we won’t resolve that might cost us years of knowing each other’s thoughts and joys.  It’s possibly getting too wrapped up in work or business and missing their lives.  Those are more probable realities than a recurrence of cancer.  And there isn’t any good that will come from worrying that it may in fact return one day.  One thing is for sure.  When I die, and we all do, I want to have lived my life in such a way that it will prove to have been worth saving.

I’m claiming my miracle now, again.  Mary, did you know, your baby boy would calm MY storm with his hands?

My love to each of you,

Angie (aka:  Mary Angela Scofield-Branstetter)