Numbered Days

Swimming is maybe my favorite thing in the whole world.

Two summers ago, I wrote about my last day swimming in this blog, which you should maybe read if you haven’t.  It was just before my surgery, and I knew that by the time I recovered from surgery summer would be over.  I was also aware by that point, that the doctors weren’t sure I would live to the next summer.

But I did.

I missed it, though, the next summer, because I spent it caring for Kyrie.  It was the summer we were in Cincinnati, life flighted there unexpectedly.  We were up there for more than two months, and missed summer all together – except for one glorious day at the zoo.

This, then, is my first summer back.

It’s not summer yet, and I know I am rushing the season, and I really do love Spring with its colors and smells and rains and crisp mornings and cool evenings.

But I am very, very excited about sunshine on my skin.

And I am even more excited to be swimming again.

We have had so many kids coming and going, and then so many little ones.  It was a season of almost not existing in my own life, while my life was poured out in runny noses and feeding tubes and seven baths a day and so. many. diapers.  People urged me to care for myself as well, but it was my season of learning to nurture and softening my own heart and giving something back to a community that has done so much for me.

Besides, it was taking care of myself: ovarian cancer is pretty much a five year death sentence, and working so hard at caring for so many kids helped me stay focused and not give up halfway through.

That’s the secret of consecration, though: by giving up your life as you once knew it, you end up creating a life far better than you ever could have dreamed up on your own.

And my greatest lesson learned from caring for kids who have been through so much, and from loving this baby that everyone said would not live even three months, much less a year?

That life is worth fighting for, when we can.

Sometimes that means acting in faith to work hard to continue developing the relationship with my parents, who have both passed away, only because the family proclamation says we can and the temple promises this truth.

Sometimes that means acting in faith by working hard to keep air and calories in your baby who is trying so hard to claim the life she has been promised.

Sometimes that means acting in faith by resting when your bones are on fire, or using a whisper with a child who is screaming at you, or enforcing hard limits to help them learn boundaries, or creating brilliant rewards as blessings for little ones who have come so far and tried so hard.

Sometimes that means acting in faith by just not giving up.

Recently, we had a conference after which I received some counsel and a blessing.

My days are numbered, they said, but not because of cancer.

Our days are numbered because He counts our days toward our good.  He knows we are progressing through experiences and continuing the learn. He sends us the experiences – even the hard ones – so that we can wrestle with angels, and ourselves, and that which is given us to choose.  It is how we learn discernment, that we may understand the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil, and between joy and pain.

That’s the whole reason we are here.

Our happiness depends on the integrity of living lives consistent with who He knows we are and promises we can be, not in being comfortable or having things or being spoiled.

To tune out, to numb out, to hide, to disappear, to avoid, and to give up are ways to distract us from the hard work of being happy, but it’s worse than that.

Those are ways to pretend we are back in a premortal state, before we had bodies with agency sent here to integrate ourselves into a whole soul.

It’s like floating on the bottom of the pool just because weightlessness feels good, but thinking you won’t run out of air.

I have prayed some very intimate prayers on the bottom of the pool, and I really like it there because it’s the only place my body doesn’t hurt, but to confuse intimacy with intensity would be to drown.  I can’t stay there, nor am I meant to stay there.  Many things given us for rest or delight or exploration are not meant as a state of being.  Relationships are meant to be a completion and wholeness, not a sacrificing of who you are until you disappear.  Therapy is meant to help and progress you toward healing, not be a lifestyle or an addiction. We cannot be angry for never feeling safe in a world in which we ourselves also choose to be destructive.  We cannot refuse to serve or participate or help, and expect to see beyond ourselves.  The noise of the world is meant to inform us, that we may respond in ministry through spirit promptings, not drown out the gentle whispers of the Spirit all together.

I cannot expect to beat a disease while eating foods that feed it, or expect to return to life while staying on bedrest forever.

Bedrest is easier, by the way, when you have six very hard children, even on a good day, and no matter how much you love them.

Because it’s a premortal state, right?

It’s the premortal state, when things exist, but you don’t have to swim upstream through molasses just to choose wisely and well.

There’s something very heavy about gravity, and cancer seems to be a grave matter.

My doctor said that no matter what miracle stories there are, he has never ever had anyone with ovarian cancer live more than five years.

Most of the last bit of that, he says, doesn’t count as living.

I want my living to count, even if my days are numbered.

I know, in a common sense and realistic way, that ultimately I will leave mortality as my Father has ordained, in the timing that He sees fit.

I get that.  I do.  This isn’t about denial.

This is about living, and right now I am still in a place where I have a choice.

I want to choose life, even if it is very hard, even if it means choosing life like my life depends on it.

I am at a place, the blessing-counsel said, of choosing, and that His blessings are upon me either way, and that letting go is okay, or fighting is okay, and that both take courage.

I have been sleeping so much, you see, for many months, with much pain when I am awake, and more to do than I can accomplish, and all of it overwhelming me.

My patriarchal blessing promises that as I study and ponder and memorize the scriptures, the very fibers of my being will be strengthened.  When I feast on the scriptures, it is to stay alive, as much as it is to live well.  I’m a miserable mess of a mother, but having my prayer and scripture time makes such a difference, and more is accomplished than what should be possible.  It changes everything.

Getting sick shook me up.  It knocked me down.  It distracted me.  So many hard things in such little time was like a tide trying to suck me under the current until I was lost.

But I fought.

I fought in my spirit, and fought against darkness, and fought against a lesser version of me.

He promises more.  He promises repentance.  He promises the relief of happiness simply because we can keep on trying.

That’s an act of faith: to just try again.

There is a new sense of urgency of the literal consequences of choices I make today for what my life will be like tomorrow, and even how many tomorrows I will have.

I try when I eat oatmeal for breakfast.  I try when I have my protein shake with banana in it, even though in my head it is stealing a banana from the baby.  I try when I do a workout video with the children instead of having a snack, or when I eat even when I would rather not.  I try when I go to bed instead of staying up, when I turn away from that which is tempting, when I turn toward that which is good (instead of just not-doing-bad).

I have gone on a two or three mile walk with the children every other day for a month now, and this week we have gone every day.  It is such precious time together!  This week I have also added cardio or strength sessions, and it’s been a long time since I was able to do that.  My body hurts from moving, and my muscles ache, but it’s a good sore and it overrides the fire in my bones.  It is good for me, and it means life for me, but it is hard work and not easy and gives me sleep so deep I sometimes wonder if I will wake from it.  We have been swimming in the evenings, and it loosens my tight muscles and relaxes me after a day of trying really hard.  We go on evening walks together, and it is good to be up and moving, to be walking instead of sleeping.

My challenge, I think, is not so much cancer, as the effects of the procedures done to me and the medicines given me.  It is these that I must survive and recover from, more than anything else.  That may be my greatest battle.

Well, that and motherhood.

Last night we were swimming with the children, and I cried because I was so happy.  Really.

They came to us so afraid, and so behind on skills, and so unsure of whether to trust us.

Now they are so open, and so full of life, and so willing to try new things.

And they jump to me.

Kids who aren’t safe, who don’t trust, who have not grown up with summers in the water don’t jump in.

With this group of kids, my children who have stayed, we started last summer.  We worked all summer, with swim lessons we missed too many of and intermittent family swims different temple weekends, just to get them into the water.  By fall they could hold on to the side, stay on the steps, and knew how to sit and kick their feet.  All winter we worked on me pulling them out away from the wall, only a few feet, and turning them to kick and dog paddle to the side.  They have to be safe before they will be comfortable, and they have to know how to get themselves out of the water before they can play safely or comfortably in the water.

But we got there.

And last night, for the first time, they would jump to me.

They jumped to me, and then swam to the edge.

Mary still takes ages to leap, physically willing herself to do it, with nose plugged and eyes covered and squatting until she is almost sitting.

She is still learning to trust in a way she doesn’t admit, but I see it in those moments.

We both know the water only comes up to her chest.

Sometimes it’s not about how deep you are, but about whether you believe can get back out again.

Kirk can do it, even without me by the end of Spring Break, confident he will touch and knowing how to jump up for air, and able to get himself to the side of the pool again.

He has the additional challenge of learning to get himself out of the water once he gets to the side.

He can go to the steps and walk out easily enough, but I want him to be able to pull himself out with one arm, so he is safe no matter what water he falls into, and he can almost do it.

The fours, my Anber and Barrett twins, who were only three yesterday (Anber will be four in June), have been with me for so long and since they were so young that they almost don’t remember before, and they trust me more than the others.  They jump almost before I am ready, but then reach for me instead of the wall just because they know I am there.  I have to back away more than they are comfortable for jumping, more than I am comfortable for jumping, for them to turn to the wall instead of me.

I won’t always be there.

I will try, probably too much, but I won’t always be there.

I shouldn’t be, even, because its her life and his life and theirs to jump.

I cannot jump for them.

There are spiritual lessons in all of these experiences, and I tell them this as we drive home from the pool.

Follow the prophet, read your scriptures, pray. 

That’s what will keep you safe, even when mom and dad are not around. 

Take sacrament, because that’s how we get to start again.

Go to the temple, because that’s what will give you power to do good. 

Nathan’s parents came up to the cabin for one night to spend some time with the children, while I stayed home with the baby.  I had an extra one at home, one who has had a rough week but is trying hard, and was flipping through the television to find a PBS learning show as a reward for all that trying hard.  I found, quite by accident, the movie Nathan had told me about but not yet “let” me watch, knowing it wasn’t time.

I guess it was time now, and I saw only the end, which was the hardest part.

I want to buy it now, and watch it a thousand times, which is maybe why Nathan counseled me to hold off and wait until it was time.

But now that it is time, and I will watch the whole thing some day when I have the courage because it is about ovarian cancer, but now that it is time there are some things for me to remember.

I will read it, because it’s a play, and underline and highlight and breathe the words until they are mine and I can remember them.

“One thing that can be said for an eight-month course of cancer treatment: it is highly educational. I am learning to suffer.”

“Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see I have been found out.”

“It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.”

~ Margaret Edson, Wit

Today is not the end.

Today is the day the baby-becoming-a-toddler cruises toward me from chair to chair, coming at me under the table with slimy hands covered in squished banana (because there is always sufficient for our needs) and half chewed bits of cereal.

This is living: to face the nastiness of that because of the brightness in her eyes and the smile on her face.

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.

Comments are closed.