Tuesday, September 27, 2011

River Discovery, Part II

The days are getting shorter. Richie and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary Thursday. In the craziness of the last two weeks, we both forgot about it. I am glad we could both be okay about that because even though it is an important anniversary in our story with each other, it is just a day. What is important is what has happened in the meantime. And what is happening right now.

I left off my recounting of the River Discovery trip after day two. I am glad for the diary I kept because I quickly lost track of days and dates. Time was easy to estimate with the sun’s position, but keeping track of the days didn’t seem terribly important. So if anything seems out of place and time - it’s only in the recounting, not in what was actually happening.

Sun Sept 4

By Sunday morning, I had easily lost track of the day and the date. And what a feeling, the world had really fallen away. I had the best night's sleep and was ready for the day. This morning I started the day with Amy as a guide. She, her family and friends are the reason that River Discovery exists because of their own intimate story with cancer. Their lifelong love of the river and knowledge of the wilderness is what helped to carry me through this adventure. When you have confidence in those around you, you can’t help but be confident in yourself. (This is exactly how I feel about the doctors and nurses that have helped me in the cancer club!) The guides’ knowledge of the river, the local geography, geology and history of the Salmon River Valley was not only part of the program, but a special treat. Hearing someone’s love of their environment and place resonates with me. This helped to increase my sense of safety and my trust that on this trip down the river I was going to be okay. They hadn’t steered me poorly yet and by today I realized that was unlikely to happen. Being able to trust so openly and honestly in others is so freeing, such a gift to receive. I will be forever thankful.

We stopped early for an hour's hike up a small tributary. This was a beautiful walk and the prize was a small pool at the end of the trail. This was physically challenging for me as I have been so inactive in recent months. I had to work hard to complete the hike, but I was pulled by the beauty of the area and a feeling that I had to see it to the end. The trail started by a beautiful bridge which stirred my memories and gave me a sense of peace, as if I had been there before. I felt like I had seen this bridge, I had a connection.
I hiked with the others to the end of the trail and rested at the pool. I felt such a feeling of peace and completeness in that moment in time.

We stopped and made an early camp that day at a sandbar that had a rather high cliff we would be using to rappel from. I was clearly exhausted from the hike and Ellen got me tucked into a restful spot in the shade for a short nap. I felt like a little kid again in a way because I was just too excited to sleep. But I rested and relaxed while others sat in the water, played games and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon. It was nice to have a day to slow down.

At camp, Amy got busy rigging her ropes for the rappelling. We climbed to the top of the 60 foot cliff and after very thorough instructions we took turns rappelling down the wall.
I volunteered to go first. I knew that if I didn't jump right in, I would change my mind. As I stepped off the edge and followed Amy's instructions to go straight down (yes, straight down!!) the side I was just overwhelmed with a feeling of freedom. Even cancer couldn't touch me there. In that moment in time, I wasn’t a cancer patient or an out of shape 47 year old woman or a mother or two teenagers - I was just Maggie!! It was incredible, I was on cloud nine!! It was easily one of the most exciting things I have ever done. I was crying and laughing at the same time. Such joy!!

Ellen had rigged up a solar shower for us and it was such a reward to pour some warm water over my head and ‘bathe’ at the end of the afternoon! In the evening we gathered for dinner at the campfire, recounting our highs and lows for the day. I really enjoyed this ritual. As much time as we all spent together during the day, it was always interesting to hear others interpretations of the day, their lows and their triumphs. Sunday was easily the highlight of the trip for me. And I knew all my angels were near, the human ones and the spiritual ones!

I thought a lot that night, watching the stars, and thinking about growing up. I was always in a such a hurry to get through childhood. I wanted to do it all by myself. I wanted to do what I wanted, no one telling me yes or no, right or wrong. I wanted to play all day, my games, my way. In my rush to grow up, in the reality of life as it is now, I had shuffled those childhood dreams and wants to another place. And although, I haven’t let cancer take my optimism or sense of humor, I have let it take away my sense of FUN! The reality Richie, Madeline, Charlie and I face is not so innocent these days, but there’s still time for play. We need more lightness in our lives and to encourage each other to live in the moment. I found new strength and purpose in these moments, in these times. The excitement of the rapid followed by the peace of the eddies, a hike, a prayer at the river pool and the thrill of rappelling, each moment gave me comfort and confidence in life again. And in my ability to LIVE it!

Mon Sept 5
On Monday, we awoke, ate breakfast and struck camp. The morning reading gave me thoughts to chew on for the day. Another short day on the river, with a stop at hot springs along the way. Sometime in the 70s some people had brought in concrete and created a makeshift pool at the source. Everyone in the group trekked to the ‘hot tub’ and was able to jump in and feel the warmth for a bit. There were smiles all around especially from those of us who were missing the conveniences of the modern world. It was so comforting to feel that warm water after days of sand, dirt and cold water. A nice reminder that civilization was not so really far away.
We made camp early again this night at a beautiful sandbar on a bend in the river. There was more time for a warm wash and quiet before the evening began. We had plans for a combination luau and fiesta!! A celebration for the many miles we’d covered so far and our triumphs along the way. We had guacamole, chips and margaritas! I admit I overindulged but it was such fun, there was much laughter and a feeling of happiness in our little community. One of the participants had some experience with hula dancing and so our cross cultural evening on the Salmon was interesting to say the least. Imagine 15 women singing, dancing and laughing on a sandbar on a river in wilderness. The gods MUST be laughing. We had a lovely dinner, fish tacos, and ended the evening with another gathering to share our highs and lows. Really by this time, I couldn't come up with any lows. Nothing but good was happening for me. I was amazed at how each day I felt a deeper sense of compassion and love for all the members of this group.

My hopes for myself on this trip were that I would be able to break out of the comfort zone that I have created for myself these last four years. I like to think of it in terms of peace. I have been looking for the peace that has eluded me for these years. Mostly, I am trying to find peace with my disease, peace with what it is today. I still believe that I can find remission and a return to good health, but if that is not my path, then I have to find peace with the cancer as a chronic disease and to come to terms with this as a part of my death. In recognizing I have no control and that that is okay, I can see the peace. One gift the river was beginning to share was that living in the here and now was the most important thing I could give myself. This doesn't mean I can't prepare for a future, but I need to find the joy and love and gift of every day and revel in that. There will be moments of change and chaos (the rapids, the chemo treatments) and then the times of relative calm (the slipstream, holding Richie’s hand, taking a walk.) And I am okay with that.

Tues Sept 6

Striking the camp in the morning was an important ritual for me. Starting fresh every day. The habits established in these few short days showed me what strength I still had. Not just the physical, which was wonderful and felt so good, but in the emotional and intellectual strengths I had to offer. It felt so good to rely on myself again. The support I have received from all my family and friends notwithstanding, I have not had to do much for myself. Not to belittle the physical demand that cancer makes on my body (it’s a bit like getting beat up every month, as Richie puts it) but I don’t do much in the yard or around the house. Emotionally, I have taken a break too. I am not always able to give the hug or kiss the booboos. Not like I used to do. And so to keep up as I did was one of the many rewards of this trip. I felt strong for myself and others and it was such a wonderful strength to hold on to!

This day we stopped at an old homestead that seemed to me to be a garden of eden in the wilderness. The original owner was a real mountain man, a loner, who loved women and adventure and seemed only a little odd - all things considered. He built his fortress and lived his life in a remote wilderness. Relying on himself to manage through the days in that canyon. Sure, he may have been a bit kooky, but I was a little jealous of the surroundings and the peace that came with that isolation.

But I am a social creature and would have found that life lonely. The people that occupy the bar now are making their own way and it appeared to be pretty darn peaceful. And they sold Haagen Daas ice cream bars - what a treat on a hot summer day!!

After we left the fortress we had only a short float to camp. The day was very warm and the sun was high in the sky as we prepared to pull in to camp. In the last half mile or so, I jumped in the river following Amy and Sandy. In the first seconds in the water, I was so shocked by the cold, I imagined I could jump right back into the raft just from sheer shock!! I could not believe how cold the water was, but I settled in for the float and actually became used to temperature for that short period of time. The strength of the current made slowing down difficult, but the shallow depth kept me from floating too far away. I made a safe landing at the beach.

We unloaded the boats, set up camp, relaxed in the shade of an enormous ponderosa pine and prepared for our final night on the river. I certainly could feel a sense of melancholy settling in for me. In all these days and nights on the river I had experienced a full range of emotions. I hadn’t thought beyond my immediate circumstances or surroundings in days. Knowing that it was coming to an end was both relief and a disappointment. Always a city girl, I was looking forward to a long shower and washing my hair. I started to think about Richie, his smile. About Madeline and Charlie. I did miss them.

Wed Sept 7

Bittersweet day, the trip is ending. Our group got packed up early as we had to meet a plane. This last day we would only spend a short time on the river, but we had a couple of good rapids to meet and I could feel the electricity in the air. I traveled the last day with Larry. And I jumped in the back of the raft. It hadn’t taken me too long to figure out that the back of the boat was the spot for me. I didn’t get nearly as wet there as I had while riding on the front and I could stand up and hoot and holler, which I am rather good at!

I felt the river was a little sad that day. I was a little sad. I had experienced such a variety of emotions and physical challenges in the previous five days (and the past four years) and I had survived and thrived. I had met the challenges and felt stronger than I had in many, many months. I feel like I am prepared for the future, whatever that may be. And lucky me, I am moving forward with 23 new friends. Although lonely some days, I have never been alone. That’s a lesson, isn’t it? I have so much, I’ve recognized that these last few years, felt it - now I know it, with such certainty and trust.

Fast forward.....
Tues Sept 27

I have survived another round of doxil and finished two weeks of double antibiotics. I am still standing. I feel remarkably good given the chaos of the last two weeks. I feel a shift has happened in my life and while I believe I have been on the path towards this shift for a long time, the trip to Salmon and the adventure down the river has solidified that shift in me. It wasn’t just the experiences I had or the laughter I shared that moved me. It wasn’t just the rapids nor was it the slipstream we floated through. I have been searching for a way to accept the cancer into my life (which means accepting it as a part of my death) and to find my peace with it since the diagnosis four years ago. Every stage of this story, from the first emergency surgery, to recurrence, to constant chemo and related health issues has challenged me in every physical, emotional and intellectual way. And still I am here.

On the first day on the side of the river, after the paddle boat and crew dumped, we stopped to see if we could help the others. I was shivering cold, teeth chattering, and Kyle told me, ‘get off the wet clothes, into your dry things right now’ and I did. Right there on the side of the river I stripped out of the wet and in to the dry. It wasn’t until after that I thought about my naked body out there, my white fanny flashing in the air. I realized that I’d already given over my trust to this entire group. We were there to support one another, to carry each other to the end. As the river had provided many metaphors along the way, I decided that this was an important one for me. I shed the cancer story when I took off the cold, wet clothes. I pulled on my dry, lovely fleece, like a new skin, a new perspective. I allowed myself to feel scared, joyous, cold, warm, silly and brave. I took care of myself. I reawakened that little girl who so loved to do it herself and now has the maturity and wisdom to trust that in the end, it will all be okay. No matter what.

I have a favorite poem by e.e. cummings called ‘let it go.’ Brenda shared it with me in early days and I read it regularly to remind myself that in ‘letting go’ all that is left is love. And that, I have in abundance.

Love, love, love

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

River Discovery, Part I

This is going to be a long one, and I am having trouble getting my thoughts down so I am going to send this out in installments.

I left Lawrence on August 31st on a 6:15 flight to Boise. It was a long day, and the start to a great adventure.

Wed Aug 31

Had to get up at 3:30 am to make it to airport for an early flight. My wonderful cousin Greg gave me a round trip ticket on Delta to Boise and from there I was picked up by Mary B. Mary is a board member of River Discovery. We had a wonderful time visiting. She was my kind of gal and conversation was easy and pleasant as we drove from Boise through the mountains to Salmon, ID.

Her car was filled with fresh peaches -what a fragrant trip! We also stopped at a fruit stand and grabbed some fresh fruit and veggies and stopped in Stanley for a picturesque lunch. These are beautiful mountains and the scenery was incredible. Mary and I talked about love, marriage, knitting, children, life, cancer and of course, River Discovery. We arrived in Salmon around 5pm and I was wiped out, I ate a snack and then slept for about 12 hours.

Thurs Sept 1

Woke up Thursday with good energy and had a relaxing morning, enjoying ‘modern’ amenities like hot water and flush toilets for the ‘last’ time for a week! I had a room at a hotel right along the Salmon River in Salmon and I do admit to watching the water flow at a rather speedy current and thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?”

I was picked up by Mary W., the exec director of River Discovery. She already had three passengers in the car and they had just flown in from Boise and were participants in the river trip. We drove out to Morgan Bar (every campground, ranch, historic settlement, etc. along the river is called a bar because most are sandbars!) This was a lovely spot with an area for eating and camping. We ate a nice lunch and then had lessons on putting up our tents. More participants arrived throughout the day and by the end of the afternoon a small, cozy crowd of campers, guides, board members and friends had gathered for a send off dinner.

It was clear to me that our group of survivors was meshing well. This was an amazing group of women. We had 15 members ranging in age from 21 to 69. We had some women who had been cancer free for years and others who were still in treatment. Most had breast cancer and a few of us were battling other cancers. Most importantly, you could hear laughter coming from various areas and see friendships forming as the afternoon passed into the evening. I had a great feeling about the trip that night and the arrival of Cousin Ellen really made me heave that great sigh of relief that comes when you feel good things falling into place.

After dinner, our lead guide, Amy, gathered everyone around to give us a bit of information regarding what the schedule was for the next day. It all sounded so wonderful, and scary, but I was ready. Wonderful Ellen had brought her tent and offered it to me and needing the privacy, I gladly accepted it. I shared a tent for the first two nights with lovely Rachel. She celebrated her 21st birthday that day. After that, I took Ellen up on the tent offer and it was nice to have a place of my own, a place for a nap and some quiet time.

We were given a diary for the trip and ended the night with a bit of conversation around the campfire.

Fri Sept 2

The next morning dawned bright and clear, but very cool. It was our first full day on the river. We had breakfast, struck camp and loaded up on the bus for about an hour's drive to the load in area. That first day on the river was a little cool. We started out with sun, but the wind was blowing through the canyon and it quickly got chilly when we got wet. We had one boat that overturned in a rapid and had some shocked campers at that point. I was exhausted, cold and tired and let myself kind of fall apart that early evening. I thought for sure that this had been a mistake for me and I was not going to be able to continue at the same pace. Then I realized that I needed to pick myself up and keep moving. After a quick rest, I joined the group. I wasn't going anywhere but down the river.

We arrived at our evening stop called Lance Bar. As a team we unloaded the boats, put up camp, changed into dry clothes and gathered for our first night on the river. Once I had had a chance to rest and cry a bit, get over the stress, I settled in for a good evening. We had a delicious dinner of salmon and spinach salad.

We closed the evening by telling a bit about ourselves and what we hoped our experience would bring to us. It was wonderful to hear other's comments and a great way to get to know people. I went to sleep with a bit of apprehension for the next day. We wouldn't be leaving any rapids or the cold water behind and I quickly needed to get used that idea!

Sat Sept 3

Today dawned beautifully. We had a delicious breakfast of pancakes, I tried to go the GF way with yogurt and fruit. Everything tastes different in the wilderness. I finished every morsel I put on my plate at every meal. I quickly threw out the gluten free strategy after that because I decided that to limit myself in this environment was a little looney. I was going to need all the food I could eat.

We spent the morning taking a short hike up the the Lance homestead. Amy was full of wonderful information about Mr. Lance who had settled the land. In those early days, he had to walk out 75 miles to get to the nearest town. He made quite a home for himself though and the valley was incredible. He had his own orchards, a fresh water source and the means to support himself and stay occupied. I have always romanticized this life, but it was so isolated. It would have been hard being so far away from others, yet that was part of the beauty of the land. It was overwhelming and awe inspiring and really inspired self reflection from me. I knew I was in a special place and was reminded by Ellen's urging that the river was a really healing place. A place of now, where you must be connected with your immediate surroundings. Only 24 hours in and I really started to enjoy the rhythm and peace of the day.

While on this trip we had to pack out everything we brought in except our urine which was released into the river. I had to deal with my colostomy on this trip and I was (very) concerned about how I would manage and am happy to report that I managed just fine. But how lovely to come back to flush toilets!! The first night or two was daunting, but eventually I fell into that rhythm I wrote about and it didn't take long for my body to follow .I was moving into this quiet and comtemplative place and could feel myself enjoying it. We did have lots of fun and made lots of noise, and drank some wine. So the next morning, like all following mornings, we struck camp and loaded the boats and left the previous day's camp. It was utterly simplistic and quietly serene.

I spent this second day with the same women and same guide. We were headed into an exciting day - depending on how you look at these things! Kyle (said guide) had told us much about the river. We learned out to listen (sometimes hard with all the talking), and how to look at the river’s horizon line to determine the change in the river. But we were also approaching a rapid that had changed over the course of the year. He had not gone through it yet and so the plan was to stop and scout the rapid before we went down the river. I agreed this was an excellent idea, further reinforcing my faith in the guides and their rational thinking!! This caused much anxiety on my part and others, but I believed it was inevitable, right? We had to go downriver, always forward, just like pushing through the cancer, we can't go back. It took until we were actually cruising through the rapid that I actually realized I was okay and I was always going to be okay. That in all these years the basic truth is still the same. I am okay and will always be okay. I followed total strangers (the nurses, the doctors) in to the cancer club and I was doing okay. They’d given me good advice and I have followed it and I am still alive. And I had followed these strangers, these guides into the wilderness and they had steered me clear and safely, always forward, never back.

The river really is a healing place.

It was another long day on the river, but because of the rapids we went through that day we covered more mileage and the weather was slowly getting warmer - a sign of the change in the elevation good fortune in weather!

That night's camp was established quickly. We were losing light and wanted to eat and then end the day as quickly as possible. I used pain killers as needed, mostly for my back and that really helped with the bouncing and constant movement. I was exhausted again, but feeling like I was keeping up with the group. I slept better that night, probably better than all the other nights. I wasn’t feeling an ache for home or for anything really. I was really in that time and place.

Tuesday, September 20

It has taken me over a week to pull myself together since the end of this trip. I came home on Thursday, September 9. Richie and Charlie met me at the airport and it was so, so good to see their faces. And then to walk in the door of our home and hug Madeline. I was complete. We had a lovely dinner on Thursday.

Friday morning we discovered I had a bacterial infection. It was likely my port that was the point of entry for the infection and so since Friday, September 10 I have had my port removed, a picc line inserted into my left arm, twelve IV infusions of vancomycin, and one infusion of doxil. So, forgive my tardiness, I have been re-entering the world.

I believe I was on my way to the wilderness before I actually got there. I realized that I have been on this healing journey since the day I was diagnosed. I have had to be on this road because there is no other. I was so lucky to have those moments and times with each woman and man that went into the river with me. But each one of you was represented in one of them. You have all been with me, always, all along the way.
Thank you.

I hope to have some more posted next week. I find that taking some time to digest has been a good thing. No reason to rush, the memories will be here next week and so will I.