Dying to Swim, Swimming to Live

I always thought dying was like slipping into a pool, something warm and inviting. I thought it would be a relief, after the pains and struggles of mortality. I thought the water released you, lifting from you the heavy burdens of gravity. I thought it was a choice, jumping in and sinking down until touching bottom, then being catapulted up toward the light, faster and faster until you can finally fly.

That is part of it, but only part.

There is also the setting aside.

I slept in my faux silk pajamas last night, and when I woke and stood, they moved with my body. They blew in the wind of the fans that keep me cool. They moved as I moved, went with me where I went, and covered me while I did the things I did.

Until I was ready for my shower, and my pajamas were tossed to the side.

That’s when I noticed it, how my pajamas just lie there by themselves when I am not wearing them.

This isn’t Dr. Seuss. My clothes are not animated. They don’t go without me, or move around on their own. They cannot move on their own at all. They need me inside them to go anywhere, or to do anything.

That’s the setting-aside part of dying.

It is true that dying is a release, an approved escape from what has been hard, because you have been called to a new assignment elsewhere.

But the other part of dying is the setting aside of this body that I wear like pajamas, letting go of the part that cannot move without me, laying down the part of me that can do nothing while I am not wearing it.

I know I will get it back, resurrection and all, like having a good shower and putting on fresh pajamas once I am all clean.

I know that when I die, it will be because I have been called to serve my parents, to finish duking it out with them, to joyfully be reunited with them, to be forgiven and embraced by them.

When I die, it will not be because of cancer.

It will be because I finally got my call, the envelope I have been waiting on, legitimately assigned to go serve my parents and finish what we started here.

But I also know that day is not today.

I know that I get a voice on when my papers get submitted, and that my agency matters. I know that for now I get to choose Nathan, and that I can choose him without abandoning my parents. I know they are happy with my choice, and that they are helping me through this cancer because they support my choice.

And because they love me.

I do choose Nathan, even though that comes with the heaviness of mortality. I choose because I love him, and because there are still things for me to do. I cannot do things if I cast my body aside.

But that means keeping my spirit strong, which means refusing pain medications unless I really need them. It means praying before eating my food, even though I won’t be able to finish it. It means reading my scriptures every morning, even though I might fall asleep. It means looking pain in the face, and breathing my way through the wind of it.

There are some experiences, which are required of us for transformation, that can only happen when they are endured consciously and intentionally. Sometimes that means not taking pain pills just because I have them, and other times it means not eating something just because it is there. Sometimes it means walking even though it feels far, and other times it means resting even though you don’t know when you will wake again.

To skirt the edge of mortality is to see the face of God.

There are some experiences that teach us the rules of mortality, which include enough sleep, eating nutrient dense food, and holding hands. Just as you cannot take pain pills only to escape your body, neither can you imprison it by refusing available help. It’s a dance of truth that takes practice, exploring how much are you willing to endure to know more than you knew before, as well as how skilled are you at the basics to care for you enough to have the strength for enduring?

I read these verses today, from 1 Nephi 17:47, 48, and 55.

Behold, I am full of the Spirit of God,
insomuch that my frame has no strength –
I am filled with the power of God,
even unto the consuming of my flesh-
We know of a surety
that the Lord is with thee-
worship the Lord thy God.

I know that dying is not always a choice. Our mortal lives are confined to the bodies that house our spirits, and so must be in good condition to contain us. My mother dying in a car accident was not a choice of timing.

But we choose our living. We choose how we spend our time in mortality. We choose what we do, and what we say, and how we interact with others. We choose the kind of life we want to life, now and into the eternities, and we choose the consequences we want to clean up along the way. Heavenly Father has a plan for us, my friend said today, and we choose the easy way or the hard way to get there.

Cancer is not my fault, and is not a consequence of some past sin. But it does make sense to me, in my context, why this would be a battleground I must cross. There are other things I have endured that seem harder to understand why that is an experience I had to endure. But what I know is that we can only progress by experience, and so Heavenly Father has given me a lot of experiences – as a mercy to me – so that I could make some progress.

And I can be grateful for the things I learn along the way.

Even if I still hate cancer.

And even if I don’t pretend to enjoy the experience.

And even if sometimes it makes me cry, because the pain is so bad or because the experience is so hard or because the treatment makes me so sick.

It makes sense that a lot has to happen to me, because I needed to make a lot of progress.

And cancer is just one thing.

One small moment.

It’s nothing compared to everything else. It might look scary when it shows up like dinosaur fossils trying to lasso my girly parts, and it might feel scary when the pain knocks the breath out of me and squeezes out hot tears I don’t want anyone to see, and it is scary when it is attacking or stealing my food or not letting my body work and when the only treatment is to actually poison me.

But it’s just one thing.

The rest is an illusion.

And it’s just one moment, even if it lasts for months, or even a year, is nothing to eternity.

I think that’s why I had to swim before surgery, that day I danced at the pool.

Because surgery is holding your breath and jumping into the pool of death and sinking all the way to the bottom, and then chemo is the water that tries to drown you before you can make it all the way back to the top for air again.

They say water a good thing, for swimming, but they don’t talk about drowning.

They say chemo is a good thing, for fighting cancer, but they don’t talk about poisoning.

In another week, I will have this surgery licked. I might not be strong yet, or able to lift my toddler, or carry Five around on my back. But my incision will be healed, and my organs all re-stitched and grown back into the places they should have been in the first place, and my balance relearning itself with bionic ears and no tailbone, and my hips less tender from having dinosaur fossils chiseled off the insides. I will be able to walk, to sit, to sit, and maybe even to get in and out of bed. No one will clap when I have a bowel movement, and no one will cheer when I wake up from a nap without a fever. We will have conquered surgery itself.

It will be like safely touching bottom of the pool.

But then the next two weeks start, which will be my struggle for strength enough to get back up (in time) for air. I cannot breathe in water. I cannot heal by poison.

The weeks that should be my recovery, a time of rest and moving slowly and gaining back my strength – those will be the very weeks it is stripped from me.

There will be good moments of light, where I can look up and see the sun through the water, like when I got to walk outside today. But mostly it will be a long swim to to the top, with no air to breathe.

There is nothing to do about it, but just keep on swimming.

I already jumped.

I can’t un-jump.

I can’t go back, except to swim.

The chemo is already in me, and the battle has already started. Just because I start to rouse myself for the post-surgery fog doesn’t mean I get to take time to think about whether to jump or not. I’m already in the water.

And there is no air here.

Except for love. Love is air. I get air from Nathan, and his family, and from our friends.

Friends who donate money to the cancer fund so that we can get a window unit air conditioner in our bedroom to help cool down the room as we fight fevers. Friends who quickly shift from folding clothes hot from the dryer to wiping me with cold cloths when the fevers come. Friends who call to check in me, who send cards, who send notes, who comment, who hold my hand for just a moment. Friends without faces who bring food, drop off silly gifts, or take a moment to read to my kids. Friends who check on Nathan for me, who bring him an orange cream slush from sonic for no reason, who mow the yard when he isn’t looking so that he has those hours to keep the kids from climbing on me. Friends who text me, laugh with me, let me cry, and quietly pick up hair off the floor. Friends who take my kids to see cows and pigs and donkeys, and friends who buy me wigs. Friends who aim the fan at me, cover me with a blanket, and lift my feet high enough to slide a pillow under my knees. Friends who wear teal, and pass out bracelets, and paint their nails. Friends who show up to sweep the floor, or run the vacuum, or do some dishes. Friends who talk cancer with me, and friends who talk normal with me.

I don’t know how you are doing it, people say.

Because I have friends like that, I say.

Some friends who don’t even know me, I say.

Friends who pray, I say, and give me air to breathe.

Sometimes that’s what keeps me alive.

Sometimes my body cannot swim another moment, and collapses into a fever sleep, and my spirit knows how to fly away. My spirit knows how to soar, how to see, and how to be free. I could let go then, and will have opportunity again as I have had in the past. It is tempting now, different than before, because my parents are there, because I am trapped in my body here and can be so busy there, because that light is so very bright.

But I know today is not that day, and I know that is not my choice at this time. My today is the husband I prayed for since I was a child. My choice today is the five year old redhead that I asked if he bit his lip and he said, “no, mama! I hit it in Nicholas’s head!” My choice today is the little brown two year old that I believe still has power to attach, so why work so hard all year and then un-attach? My choice today is the fiesty adult daughter just starting her life.

My choice today is to stay.

It is a hard choice, but not a regretful one.

This is when my fevers are the worst, and my pain is the greatest, when my spirit has to squeeze back into this body-trap.

But it is also how you will know that I am not dying, because my body is not quitting so much as my spirit has gone away to class. There are things for me to see, so that I can ponder. There are assignments for me to receive, so that I can “go and do” when I am better. There are things for me to learn, so that I can come back to testify.

I am grateful for the times when sleep or the nourishment and distraction of friends buoys me up through the water and makes time pass more quickly during this dreadful illness. I am. But I also have an understanding that internally, some of the most powerful lessons come from those moments where spiritual eons pass during a single moment of physical pain.

I do not think God wants me to be sick, or to be in pain.

I know that I do not want to be sick, or to be in pain.

But I do believe we can use it well.

My friends who do not believe they are spiritual beings will think all this nonsense is only the pain medication talking. That is probably why I am prevented from taking very much of it, actually. Other friends, regardless of religion, who know we are spiritual beings will understand pieces of what I am trying to say. Most of it is for me, to remember later, though I have learned enough not to write full accounts of every vision, dream, or understanding so publicly.

But I wanted you to taste it.

Because it is so very bright.

And it is worth swimming for.

For those who don’t want to taste it – although, if you couldn’t taste it even a little, you would not have made it through such a long, wandering essay. I’m just saying. – here are just the facts:

* Last night I slept better than I have so far, sleeping three hours before waking once and then another three hours before waking at 5 am, and moving to my chair and sleeping another four hours.

* Sherrolyn King, from Ranch Creek ward, who was my interpreter for missionary discussions and helped with my cochlear implant surgeries, came back today and made me cucumber sandwiches, made the bunk beds in the toddler’s new room, helped with fevers, massaged my feet, and folded laundry.

* Stephanie Merritt, a nurse and nursing professor from Brookhollow ward where I was baptized, came today and bought me fish and broccoli and took me on a walk and made sure my healing is going okay and talked cancer and chemo with me. She says MD Anderson is a good place, and is glad that’s where they sent my dinosaur rope of death pearls.

* We talked to the doctor today. My pathology results won’t be in until Friday, they say. They have not talked to us specifically about prognosis, other than saying that if I survive chemo, which has to be aggressive, then I have 39% chance of living another five years (if cancer doesn’t show up somewhere else).

You know what that is? That’s a statistic about other people with my kind of cancer on the same kind of medicine. It’s something I could find on the internet. It’s not me.

Because I am an eternal being, and I plan to swim.

That’s why I don’t always want to just give the facts.

Because the facts are just an illusion, like the sticker price on a car.

If we really learn to have visions, to discern, we know there is more than just the window pane. Beyond it, there are eternities to see.

What I know, what I know, is that surgery has been hard, but chemo will be harder and longer.

I know that I choose, today, and that my choice will be Nathan and the children, even though it would be so good and easy to go to my parents.

I know that I am not alone, and that I will learn to rely on friends and strangers while still being fiercely independent.

I know that love is air to my lungs, and that what is not-of-God turns us into dinosaur rocks.

I know that I am an eternal being, and that cancer won’t stop me.

About Emily

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009. I serve as a Chaplain, and work as a counselor. I got bilateral cochlear implants in 2010, but will always love sign language. I choose books over television, and organics over processed. Nothing is as close to flying as ballroom dancing - except maybe running, when in the solo mood. I would rather be outside than anywhere else, especially at the river riding my bike or kayaking. PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, and currently doing a post-doc in Jewish Studies and an MDiv in Pastoral Counseling. The best thing about Emily World is that it's always an adventure, even if (not so) grammatically precise. The only thing better than writing is being married to a writer. Nathan Christensen and I were married in the Oklahoma City temple on 13 October 2012, and have since fostered more than eighty-five children. We have adopted the six who stayed, and are totally and completely and helplessly in love with our family. Nathan writes musical theater, including "Broadcast" (a musical history of the radio) and an adaption of Lois Lowry's "The Giver". He served his mission in South Korea, has taught song-writing in New York City public schools, and worked as a theater critic for a Tucson newspaper. This is not an official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Dying to Swim, Swimming to Live — 6 Comments

  1. Thank you! Thank you for sharing so personally. I wait for every update…and think of you and pray for you many times every day. So grateful you are surrounded and supported by so many good souls.