Sunday, April 30, 2006

Afraid of Flying?

When I was a teenager I used to scoff at people who were afraid to fly, because as a young traveler I found it to be quite convenient. I'd board, fall asleep, and wake up at my destination.

Later, as a college student, I transformed into a nervous flyer after hearing several air disaster stories in the news. Two in particular were caused by stupid mistakes and were really traumatic. One involved the collision of a commercial jet and a student pilot who forgot to check in with air traffic control, and the local schools had a lockdown so that children wouldn't walk home and see body parts that rained down from the sky and lay scattered on the ground. It was gross and made me think twice every time I boarded a plane.

Then I had an interesting experience on a business trip with my husband more than a decade ago. On a flight from Los Angeles to Houston, our anticipated "on-time" landing was delayed for an hour due to heavy storms that closed the airport in Houston. The problem was the delivery of this news by the pilot: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I have good news and bad news." It was a little scary.

Another time, during a short flight from Oklahoma City to Dallas, the passengers near the window suddenly started pointing to the window, saying something about seeing lots of smoke and fire. I was in an aisle seat, so I had no clue what they were seeing. The window seat guy in my row must have seen my eyes get really big, because he leaned over and explained that there was a large brush fire on the ground, and the view from the airplane window was the source of all the excitement.

Because of the string of "mini-traumas", and because I would sometimes have nightmares about seeing planes crash (which reminds me of the movie, La Bamba), I routinely flew with a knot in my stomach and sweaty palms. It didn't keep me from flying when it made sense to fly, but it was still an uncomfortable thing to do. I knew it was an irrational thing. I know all the stuff about air travel being so much safer than road travel. Irrational fears are exactly that - irrational.

Enter a deadly, menacing form of cancer. As our family recently boarded the plane together for our trip to Disneyworld, I had no fear - no sweaty palms - no knot. In fact, I almost - ALMOST - had a flicker of disappointed surprise when we landed safely on our return trip. (Talk about irrational!) Granted, I think we should all live long, healthy, and productive lives. I don't want to cheat my children out of the opportunity to grow up, and I also don't want them to become orphans. But the idea of a plane plummeting from the sky with our family intact on board was less scary than the idea of cancer taking me alone and leaving them behind.

It's so silly. Bird flu, terrorist attack, natural disaster - things that are truly undesirable and worrisome - don't worry me at all for that same reason. The Second Coming and all the turmoil that will supposedly precede that event - small potatoes on the Worry Meter. Stacked next to brain cancer, they seem pretty tame. It's the classic case of thinking other problems would be easier to handle (grass is greener). Or maybe it's my cancer-riddled mind's way of searching for an easy "out". Whatever it is, it makes me shake my head and laugh at myself for having such loony thoughts. (Maybe the tumor triggered a loony thoughts button???) Each one of us has a time to be born and a time to die. It's okay (even now, I can say this) to let the Lord be in charge of that stuff.

Even so, I sure did like flying with dry palms!

When You Wish Upon a Star...

...Makes no difference who you are;
Anything your heart desires can come to you.
I sure like that little song;
I sure hope that it's not wrong!
I have dreams of remission -
Hope they come true!

It's been a long while since my last posting, and while it's nice to know that people notice, I should assure my dear readers (some of whom have expressed concern) that my absence was not for any bad reason. After the Easter/Messiah whirlwind I was a flutter of activity getting client projects finished and preparing things at home so that we could take our much-anticipated family trip to Disneyworld.

This trip was a Christmas gift from my mom, who always knows what to get the person who has everything (including cancer). We were able to enjoy the trip together with Mom, my brother, Dr. Jim, his family (wife Rachel and children Madison and Ethan), and my "baby" brother (who is approaching the quarter-century mark), Blake. Our group was large enough to qualify as a "Grand Gathering", full of many magical and wonderful experiences.

We blitzed through the entire World in five days (four full days and two half-days)and still had time to hang out in the hotel pool. We met with/took pictures with/got autographs from almost every Disney character and/or princess that you can think of. We ate enough fabulous food to look like we were all on steroids. We did all the "headliner"/must-see rides & shows & other attractions (except that I was a good patient and stayed off the rollercoasters and fast rides, which but for the advice of my doctor I would fearlessly go for). We stayed in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, where we had giraffes and zebras and other animals feeding right outside our balconies. We had a great time.

To Jared: It was fun to relive our 1993 "second honeymoon" trip to Disney World without having to play "what's colder than me." (Inside joke!)

To Jim: Thanks for the mole checks at the pool and the housecall when Mom and I both got the same funny rash on our ankles!

To Rachel: Thanks for taking on all the many details of trip planning, so that we could have so many awesome activities!

To Madison: I'm glad we were able to celebrate your 7th birthday together in the Magic Kingdom! I'm sad that you got sick the next day, but glad that you got better. You are a beautiful young lady, and Jacob looks up to you as his older cousin.

To Ethan: You did a great job, man! Jacob loved playing with you as his younger cousin! His favorite memory is playing light sabers with you!

To Blake: "If you knew Suzy like I knew Suzy..." (Inside joke!!!!)

To Jacob: Remember that just as in life, most of the things we did were not as scary as you feared! You were the most charming little prince in the whole Disney World!

To Emma: You were born to be a princess, and while you won't remember this trip, I'm still glad that we could see it through your eyes.

To Mom (aka The Fairy Godmother): Thanks again and again and again for making this magical dream trip come true!

And we all lived happily ever after!

p.s. Pictured from left to right are: Emma, Jared, me, Madison, Mom, Mickey Mouse, Jacob, Ethan, Rachel, Blake, and Jim

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Stepping Out

We added some new Easter decorations to our home this year. Two are framed pictures that caught my attention in the store, because they both depicted Christ emerging from the tomb. One is a front view, and one is a rear view perspective.

I have seen many pictures of the empty tomb. I have seen many pictures of the Resurrected Christ appearing to his disciples, to Mary, etc. The "stepping out" part of the story has always just been implied until now.

The "stepping out" moment is one that is so dear to me, because it was that very moment when all of the things we suffer in mortality were rendered temporary. There is no sorrow, no disappointment, no sin, no illness, no pain, and no death that can't be overcome. He bore it all in Gethsemane. He died on Calvary. He was resurrected and fulfilled all that was required, so that the Atonement was completed. He has perfect compassion for all that we must endure, because He bore it personally. And ultimately, it all gets fixed someday. None of the messiness of life has to stick forever. We get relief from it someday. All of those pains were relegated to temporary status the moment Christ stepped out of that tomb and finished His work. It's an awesome moment to be captured by an artist.

As I was sitting among the bunnies and plastic eggs and grass - the other Easter decorations in our home - I was considering when I might finally take the time to pack up the box of Easter stuff and start setting out the summer decorations. But the "stepping out" pictures will remain on our walls as a comforting reminder of the very moment that gives comfort and relief to all that we must face.

Monday, April 17, 2006

I Could Handle Messiah

(My mom still giggles at that pun...)

After the performance was over, as I was making my exit, I couldn't help but marvel once again that this happened despite having cancer, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy drugs invading the right brain, where musical ability and memory are controlled. I could remember. I could discern pitch. I could sing. It meant so much to me. I had my diva moment and sang my solo to the best of my ability. Later in the performance, my husband and I sang a duet, "O Death, Where is Thy Sting?" We were divas together. It felt great. (Although I hoped I wasn't throwing down a gauntlet by taunting Death with that song!)

The preservation of my musical ability is a miracle, a tender mercy, a great blessing, and more. It was a great gift. In addition, I managed to have enough strength to withstand the nearly 90-minute performance, despite having had so many previous days of illness and exhaustion. Sometimes I could barely endure rehearsals. My energy level during the performance was amazing. I feel very blessed and grateful.

We had a wonderful audience, and I was happy to know so many members of the audience. We had lots of local friends and family there, and we also had some who traveled from the Houston area and even from as far as St. Louis - just to hear me sing. It meant a whole lot to me to be able to sing to as many people as possible.

I don't know if this is my last Messiah performance. I pursued it as though it were, but I hope that it is far from my last one. My dad suggested that I should be like Cher, who has had ten "farewell" tours. My brother predicts that four years from now everyone will be rolling their eyes when I come in again for my audition - "Here comes Sister Oakes, saying it's her last Messiah AGAIN". I hope he's right. We don't know how long I'll be here, and we don't know how long my musical ability will last even when I am here. But all things are possible.

Handel's Messiah is not only an amazing oratorio, but the story behind it is remarkable, too. Handel's career was in ruins; he was bankrupt; his mother had recently died. He was about as down and out as one can be. With a little money from his mother's estate, and with the scriptural libretto from a friend, he began an intense, three-week process that was filled with inspiration as he wrote the entire score of Messiah. It not only defined him as a composer, but it allowed him to become a philanthropist who used the money from his work to free debtors and benefit orphans. Like the real Messiah, Handel's Messiah brought him from despair to glory. There is hope for all of us to be rescued from our deepest trials, and this was indeed something to celebrate. I was glad to be able to do it with wonderful music, surrounded by friends and family, savoring talents and abilities during this season of unknown duration, where they still exist.

Thanks to my brother Blake, these performances were captured on stealth video:

Monday, April 10, 2006

Gaggle Therapy

I recently started my maintenance dose of chemotherapy - high dose drugs for five days each month. So far it's going okay. The best thing was that I started another therapy around the same time.

Three of my good friends from high school came to visit with me this weekend. One is here for a week, two came for a few days, and while we always want it to be longer, it has been a wonderful time!

There is actually a group of five of us - I usually refer to us as the "gaggle". We hung out together in high school and sang in the choir and danced in Cloggers West and thought we would all get married to the cute boys we had crushes on and live around the block from each other forever and all that great stuff. As is typical, though, we all grew up and drifted wherever our lives took us. (I did marry the cute boy that I had a crush on, though!) We are spread out from Oregon to California to Utah to Texas.

Our last "gaggle" reunion actually took place nearly five years ago. We all had babies in 2001. For me, it was my first. For others, it was their last (or near to the last). But we all happened to be visiting in Utah during Thanksgiving weekend, and we met up for dinner with our babies in tow, and it was really fun. Since then we had our 20-year high school reunion, but I don't think the five of us were all together at that time. But meanwhile, our friendships have endured the test of time.

Cancer has infiltrated the gaggle twice. One of our friends was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years ago, and I drew the black bean for brain cancer. Twenty-plus years after playing and singing and gossiping together, we are now realizing how precious life is, and we are supporting each other as best as we can. Cancer is a lousy excuse for a spontaneous reunion, but I was glad that we had one! Only four of the five were together this time, but hopefully we'll catch up somehow. It was a really fun time. We giggled through the pages of our yearbooks, we put on our clogging shoes and danced, we sang karaoke, we ate great Tex-Mex food and toured Dallas (I'm hoping to recruit future Texans), they came and heard me rehearse Messiah, and we just had an all-around great time. Friends that are still friends after graduation and college and husbands and kids and careers and moves and life crises and all that stuff. Throw us back together and we're transported back in the good times! Add my bestest friend from high school, aka my high school crush, aka my husband, Jared, and we were all twenty years younger - regardless of what state our bodies might be in!

This is a time of my life where I have enjoyed visits from both family and friends, and it always does me a world of good. It reminds me of how wonderful my life has been, and how wonderful it continues to be. I am blessed in many ways.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hurdle Cleared!!!!

The MRI today was good! We are breathing a huge sigh of relief.

I start a high dose of chemo on Friday and take it for five days every month. In four weeks, before starting the next five-day dose, I'll go in for neuro tests. Four weeks after that, before starting the third five-day dose, I'll have another MRI scan. This will be the routine: monthly neuro tests & scans every other month while taking high dose chemo 5 days a month. If something pops up or progresses, we have something else to deal with. But for now, all is as well as it can be.

One thing that came to my mind today was the realization of not only how many prayers were offered on my behalf (THANK YOU AGAIN), but also how many times I prayed for this outcome today. It was more than the routine prayer schedule, to be sure. So my question for myself today was whether my prayers of thanksgiving will be as numerous and frequent as were the prayers for help with this scan. I definitely need to step it up. And I guess it would also be a good idea, while I'm thanking those of you who prayed for me, to ask you to join with me in a prayer of thanksgiving for a good result today.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Moment of Suspense

This is it - that first "how's it looking" MRI scan. I go in tomorrow morning, and I leave the MRI facility with films in hand and take them directly to my oncologist. I'll know pretty quickly how things look. They have all the prior scans, including the ones that were done during radiation treatment, so they will know all about the "area of concern" and whether it looks the same now.

Based on my clinical performance, the expectation is that the scan will be good. I hope they are right. It would mean smooth sailing for our upcoming Disney trip. For my upcoming Messiah performance. For, you know, LIVING and stuff. And then I start my maintenance regimen of chemo and we keep on monitoring unless/until we find something to deal with.

This is another big prayer moment, and another nervous moment. I keep telling myself, "IT IS WHAT IT IS." This is just a matter of finding out so we can deal with whatever we need to deal with. Or hopefully just a matter of finding out that it's okay for now, so I can have that peace of mind. There will be many big prayer moments and many nervous moments. I have to remember how to ride these in a way that will keep me from going nuts. It is what it is what it is what it is...

Let's just hope that it is...good news!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Handel's Messiah

One of the highlights of the Easter season for me is our local community performance of Handel's Messiah. Once again, I am singing with the choir, and once again I get to sing one of my favorite solos: "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings To Zion". A new thing this year is the addition of my fabulous husband in the choir, because he and I are also cast to do an alto/tenor duet of "O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?"

I have mentioned Messiah before, and how glad I was during an earlier rehearsal to realize how much of the music I could remember. It's such a miracle that I can sit here with cancer in my RIGHT BRAIN, of all places. That's where musical tones and pitches are recognized, and where musical rhythms are processed. Where memory happens. Where just about everything relating to this performance was potentially affected. And it wasn't. This is one of my favorite "tender mercies." Only the Lord knows how much it means to me to sing. How much I love music. My abilities in this area have been literally untouched by my cancer and the subsequent treatments that have been invading that part of my brain.

My performance this year is a celebration of that miracle, and an expression of my gratitude for this continued talent. What better way to use that talent than to bear witness through song of the Messiah? The One who bore all that I will ever have to endure. He not only bore my sins for me, but He bore all of my suffering, disappointment, pain, fear, and grief. And because of it, I will someday overcome all of these things. I will even overcome death, because He did. I am just so excited to celebrate Easter in a fitting manner, singing praises to our Savior - the Messiah - Jesus Christ.

My husband makes a face when I say this, but we really never know if this will be my last opportunity to sing Messiah. Statistically, it would be, but I'm pooh-pooh-ing the statistics. I'm hopeful that a miracle will keep me here for many Easters. But regardless of how long I stay around, we have no guarantee that my musical ability will always remain as it is. I hope it will be, but since we just never know, I want to make the most of today's voice. Today's song. I want to make it my very best, and savor it and enjoy it as much as I can. I hope we have a big crowd to sing to!

The performance is Easter Sunday, April 16, at 7:00 p.m., at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2801 Eldorado Parkway, McKinney, Texas. The public is welcome, and it is free of charge. Come and hear me sing my solo. Come hear me sing a great duet with my very talented husband. Hear me sing, so that in case next year I can't do it anymore, at least I will know that I sang to as many people as I could. Come early to get a good seat, and stay afterward to say hi and get "thank you" hugs from me as I exit the podium!