Thursday, February 27, 2014

Resiliency and Self-Respect Knows No Bounds

     “Anything can happen to anybody at any time. But it’s what you do with the anything that makes the difference.”  This was the message I gave when speaking to a group of high school students recently. They were amazed by my story and many questions were asked. But the two questions which kept coming up were, “What kept you going?” and “What kept you from giving up?” 

       I have reflected on these very questions over the past 17 years, and I recognize that there are many tools in my Survivor’s tool kit which I call upon daily to keep me on track, and keep these fake feet moving forward.  And believe me; I use more than one of my tools every day.

      I have used time as a tool; time to grieve my losses, and time to heal from them. I have used distance from the events which have taken my life from me, stirred it all up, and dumped it out. And I have used the tool of choice; the choice of picking up the pieces, putting myself back together, and redefining who I am.
      But one of my biggest tools—one of my biggest “guns”—is resiliency. The ability to bounce back no matter the circumstances is in part driven by my genetic make-up, pure unadulterated 
stubbornness. The other part comes from a much deeper place, a place of respect, of self-respect.  

      I have been watching the Olympics lately—and watching and watching. You could call me a fan, a groupie, addicted, and you would get no argument here. I love the Olympic winter sports. There’s something about watching men and women fling themselves down a mountain, or speeding at 80 MPH on solid ice with nothing between them and the ice, but a glorified piece of fiber glass that excites and entertains me.  But what I like watching and hearing about the most are the back stories of the athletes themselves.

      It’s not necessarily the medal winners that I like to watch and hear from either. Although listening to the top three tell of their sacrifices, and dedication, their training and devotion to their sport is 
inspiring; it's the ones who don't win, the athletes who come in 21st, or 10th, or 4th who I appreciate most. They give me strength, because even if they don’t make the podium, they don’t give up. I have not heard one of them say, “I’m tired of trying,” or “I just can’t’ do it.” I have never heard any of them say “I’m a loser.”  They pick themselves up, dust the snow or ice off, and keep going. They respect their efforts, their sports and fellow athletes. But mostly, they respect themselves.
     Through my constant vigilance to the Olympics, I have come to understand that resiliency is driven by self-respect. When you respect yourself, recovery is doable. “Never say die,” becomes your motto
      No one gets through this life unscathed. We all get our share of bumps and bruises. We all fall from time to time. But it is the survivor who dusts the snow off, who keeps skating along, even though the podium has become elusive and the competition has ended. It is the survivor who will keep competing, and falling, and picking themselves up, because they respect themselves too much to let their losses get in the way of their living. 

      Survivors know that losing is a temporary status and not a state of being. That even in the midst of loss, they respect themselves and believe that they are winners. The survivor understands that no matter what obstacles occur in their lives—whether they appear within a matter of minutes or years—there is always a way to the podium.   

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Question Authority

(or anyone else who has the answer)

     My husband Michael was a hard hitting hippy—a Crested Butte (a small Colorado mountain town) living, free love professing, vegetarian. He had a full beard and long hair and lived out of his truck for a time. That was before I met him, and after he left Crested Butte.

     When we did meet, he had a full time job, neatly trimmed hair and beard, and the best blue eyes I’d ever seen. I thought he was beautiful.  He entertained me with adventures from his “early” days in Crested Butte, his spirit singing to the part of mine which longed to be whimsical and free.  But most of me was entrenched in middle class values, and a Protestant Work Ethic that would have made Martin Luther proud. Michael loved tofu, and I loved steak, but somehow our relationship was lovely and easy, and it worked.

     Michael drove a blue Toyota pickup, with a prism hanging on a string tied around his review mirror. He often burned incense in the cab of his truck to headache producing quantities, and there was a bumper sticker on the back of his truck (along with the Grateful Dead skull with top hat and dancing bears) which stated “Question Authority.”

     Although never a fan, the Grateful Dead stickers didn’t bother me. But the “Question Authority,” did not sing to my Middle America values.  I was raised to not question authority of any kind. Michael questioned everything. And I eventually learned that it is always better to know—to be informed—than to be clueless, left in the dark, ill-prepared for the inevitable. 

    Michael was an honest guy…so honest that at times his truths left my face blazing red. He had no sense of decorum whatsoever. The top of my embarrassment meter was often reached. He used to tell me, “if you don’t want to know the answer to the question, don’t ask the question,” (I never asked him if my rear end looked big in a certain outfit… didn’t want to know the answer to that question.).

     I weighed his words carefully—considered each consonant, rolled around each vowel on my tongue— and still do especially now, dealing with two teen-aged boys. As it turns out, I agree with the whole question authority thing. And believe me; I have heard answers I wished I would have never heard... and most of the time those answers are not coming from the teen agers.

     Michael’s last appointment with the Oncologist was something I will never forget. I could see that my husband was quickly declining, that the cancer was racing on at life taking speed. But Michael, always believing that he would beat this disease, did not want to accept that he was dying. I needed Michael to come to terms with his own decline. I needed him to break the denial, and recognize that he was not winning the battle with cancer. I needed him to tell our children that he was dying. 

      I questioned authority that day. I asked the doctor point blank if Michael was going to survive this cancer, if he was going to beat it. I did not want to know the answer to this question, and yet I had to ask it.  The answer was “no.”  The doctor then told Michael that he needed to go home and tell our children that he was not going to make it.  

     Michael’s father was with us for this appointment. I told them to go ahead and go to the car, as I needed to take care of something first. After they left the office, I found the doctor and asked him the next hard question—again a question I didn’t want to know the answer to—“How long does he have?” 

     Michael died a week later.

     If I hadn’t asked those hard questions, I would have never been prepared for his death. Our children would have not been told, thinking that their dad would be okay, and then feeling betrayed when he died. Because of the questions asked, we were prepared. We didn’t get the answers we wanted, but we had to hear the answers anyway.

     It is those questions, the ones whose answers you don’t want to hear, which could be the ones to save your life, or help your child, or take care of a parent. If we go into the future blinded by our own denial, or fearful of the answer, we may miss opportunities to be prepared, say good-bye, or get the information we need to make good informed decisions. 

     Survivors understand that asking the hard questions brings necessary information.  Survivors know that even though they may not want to know the answer, they still ask the question. Survivors realize that you don’t have to be a hard hitting hippy to “Question Authority.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Purpose: Do You Have One?

“The Purpose of life, is a life of purpose”
                                   Robert Bryne

     I have travelled through my life looking for a cause, a reason, a purpose. I wanted to feel like I had contributed, given of myself, aided in the sculpting of humanity. My sister, a child of the 60’s, was always in the grand mix of things; protesting the Vietnam war, listening to “radical” thinkers like Cesar Chavez, and the dreaded (at least in my household) Reyes Tijarena.  She played the musical soundtrack from “Hair” on our stereo, and when the song “Masturbation” echoed through our living room, my mother came undone, stuttering and sputtering and sweeping me, the baby of the family, from the room.

      I was on the cusp of it all. There, but not quite there. But I got it. Being an activist, fighting for a cause…having a purpose was what I wanted.

     When I was in the hospital, many years later, I had a lot of time to think—lying in a bed 24/7 provides that kind of opportunity. Figuring out what had happened to me, why it happened, and to what purpose captivated me. I knew that finding the reason—the purpose— for my illness and subsequent disability was paramount to not only my physical healing, but more specifically, my spiritual healing.

     After getting out of the hospital, I began my quest for purpose. I started a support group for amputees. I worked on and helped pass legislation in the state of Colorado, which requires health insurance companies to provide coverage for prosthetic limbs. I talked to business owners about better access for people with disabilities. I did peer visits with people who were surviving limb loss. But, I had yet to find my purpose.

     Two years into my recovery, I found my purpose…well some of it anyway. My husband, Michael, was diagnosed with cancer. After his twenty month battle with this invisible monster, and after giving everything he had to try to beat it, the cancer took his life. I was left with a new identity— a triple amputee single mom of two small boys. Had I found my purpose? Was raising my children, by myself in a disabled body my purpose? Well, maybe in part.

     What I have come to find about myself is pretty simple. I was born with purpose; just like everyone else in this world. How I define and develop that purpose is totally up to me. Do life experiences help to hone the definition?  Of course they do. But the development is strictly up to me. I have always wanted my life to count, to make a statement, and be remembered. Do I do that by finding a purpose, a cause, something to sculpt?

     I don’t know if I will ever discover my purpose en total, but I am hopeful that it will be revealed to me at the end, as the Divine clears up all the other mysteries of my life—it shouldn’t take long, I’m not that complicated.

     I have found, however, that even having some purpose (whatever that may be) to hold onto—when my life twists and turns and leads me into the sewer instead of the garden— keeps me focused and moving forward. Without it, I would be lost wandering through foul smelling waste. And as I continue in search of my garden, I will focus on the part of my purpose I know. I will continue to raise my children to become fine young men. I will continue to speak out for those who believe they have no voice, to work effortlessly for those who feel disenfranchised, marginalized, and who have no home.

     Everyone has a purpose, but Survivors realize it. It may not be clearly defined, but having a clear definition is not what it’s all about.  Finding purpose—even in its incompleteness, or without a clear cut definition—provides many opportunities to figure out where your garden lies. Taking others along with you to your garden could very well be your purpose.

I agree with Bryne. In order to find purpose for your life, you must (first) live your life with purpose.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

“It is only when you open yourself to others,
that you will find the truth which lies within you.”
                                                             Cindy Charlton

     Going to Physical rehab was terrifying.  But getting to rehab via transportation in a van equipped for people with wheelchairs was a stunner.  I had entered the hospital on February 15th, with all my limbs intact. I exited the hospital on May 20th, with one remaining limb. 

 I was now leaving the world I had come to know, transported in a van equipped to move me in a wheelchair…my wheelchair. I had been outside one time during my three month stay in the hospital. My first wheelchair outing left me spent, and in pain. The trip to the rehab facility was exhausting, and excruciating both physically and emotionally. I dreaded the thought that this was going to be my “new normal,” my new life. 

      I was feeling pretty low and pretty darn sorry for myself by the time I arrived at my destination. Meeting my Physical therapist and the other members of my rehab team did not lend comfort to me either. While I was in the hospital, I was rarely left alone. I was completely coddled by my caregivers. Every need, want, and desire was met. I knew the doctors, nurses, and even the ladies who came in to clean my room. I knew what to expect every moment of every day. My days looked very different now that I was in rehab.

      The expectation was that I would spend very little time in bed, getting used to being in a wheelchair, and working on doing things for myself. I had entered into a different arena where coddling and being taken care of were no longer a part. The tasks which I was expected to accomplish were daunting.  My unwanted new identity—a wheelchair bound triple amputee—began to sink in. “Devastation” didn’t even begin to cover how I felt. 

      And then something earth shaking occurred. I met some of the other patients. A young man—a boy really—seventeen years old, suffered a severe head and neck injury while playing in a football game, was in the room next to mine. I could hear his parents weeping at his bedside. He would never be able to move his body again.  A young  man, who was in a bar fight in Mexico, and didn’t get to a hospital in time, suffered such traumatic brain injuries that he would never walk again and had the intellect of a six year-old child…on good days. I saw his parents weeping in the hall outside of his room. A beautiful teenage girl, from the South, in a “constant vegetative state,” had been in a devastating car accident the night of her 17th birthday. Her mother shook with grief as she told me that her child spent her 18th birthday in a coma. 

  Tremor after tremor shook me, as the stories mounted. When my world settled, a new revelation had formed. I recognized that opening my heart to the experience of others’ pain gave me a whole different perspective of my own. What I had to feel sorry about was miniscule in comparison.  As I offered a shoulder, a listening ear, and a word or two of encouragement, my own struggles diminished in their perceived severity. I began to heal myself by simply opening my heart to those around me. I soon realized that listening with my heart affected my hearing…it began to get better.

     I often wonder what has happened to the people I met in rehab. I wonder how their families have managed to get through their struggles. I hope that I helped in some way, by simply listening to their fears and strife. I also know that I could never have helped them as much as they helped me.

      I left rehab standing on my own new feet. I left knowing that my life, although unexpectedly altered, would be better and richer for having met these people. I left rehab open to all possibilities, open to the fact that I had an amazing life ahead of me. I left with an open heart, knowing that there will always be someone who needs a shoulder to lean on, or an ear to listen. I left knowing that my hearing would continue to get better and better and better.

     Being open is a necessary tool in the Survivor’s tool kit. Allowing ourselves to remain open enables us to recognize our own possibilities. It allows us to help others, which leads to bigger hearts, and better hearing.