Tired… but Grateful

Two years in living with incurable cancer and I’m tired. Tired of all of it. But for each thing I’m tired of, I can usually find something to be grateful for. (OK… maybe not for each thing. Like the diarrhea side effect—hard to be grateful for anything in that. TMI? Sorry.)

Note that phrasing—“I can FIND something to be grateful for.” It is often a conscious effort to look for the good. Sometimes it is quite hard to find it and stay focused on it when crappy stuff closes in. I am definitely still in training where this endeavor is concerned. Some days, I can’t get past the “tired of it all” feeling, and honestly, I think most people would understand if I took up residence in that camp permanently. But life is much more positive and enjoyable when I can break through that space and enter a place of gratefulness.

How does it work, this trading “tired of it all” for gratefulness? It goes something like this.

“Night” – Aristide Maillol. This statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicts how I often feel.

I am tired of feeling tired all the darn time. Profoundly fatigued. But I’m grateful that I have been able to step away from my job so I can rest. I’m grateful for a friend who invites me regularly to walk because, counter-intuitively, exercise helps with the fatigue. I’m grateful for a husband who picks up my slack when I just can’t muster the energy for what must be done.

I am tired of feeling sick—nausea, wooziness, a horrible taste in my mouth, lack of appetite. But I’m grateful for ginger chews that take the edge off nausea. I’m grateful for friends who drop off a meal unexpectedly with food that seems to be just what tastes good at the moment. I’m grateful for shedding some pounds because of my lack of appetite.

I am tired of medicines. Taking pills daily. Getting injections every month. With each new med, comes new side effects. What a drag! But I’m grateful those medicines exist. I’m grateful that new medications are being developed and become available every year or two. And I’m grateful to have good health insurance that makes all those medicines affordable.

I am tired of doctor’s appointments. Every month, venturing to a major cancer center downtown, waiting my turn in a room filled with other women with cancer—some without hair, some using canes and walkers to get around, some frail and sickly looking. A reminder of illness (as if I needed a reminder) and a glimpse of what my future may hold. But I’m grateful for the skillful medical team that treats me. I’m grateful that my oncologist is on the leading edge of metastatic breast cancer treatment and research. I’m grateful for the friendly faces that greet me when I check in each visit.

I am tired of being poked and scanned. Blood work sometimes as often as weekly, scans every few months. Not only do I face the physical discomfort of someone sticking a needle in my arm, I face the emotional stress of wondering what the latest tests will show, particularly this past year in which each scan has shown further trouble. But I’m grateful that these scans and tests exist, so my doctor can see what’s going on inside with this cancer monster and can chart a course to try and kill it. I’m grateful for health staff who can easily find my veins and poke me without me feeling it (especially thankful for Stella, who is a blood-drawing wizard!). And I’m grateful for doctors and physician assistants who deliver news from my scans with compassion when there’s progression, or with excitement when things look good.

I’m tired of being a cancer patient. I hate this part of my identity. It’s not anything I’d wish on my worst enemy. But I’m grateful for everyone who has walked alongside me, who has called to see how I’m doing, texted me to let me know they’re thinking of me, prayed for me, sent notes of encouragement just when I needed them, and listened to me whine or cuss. I’m grateful for friends who also talk about stuff other than cancer, who let me be “normal.” I’m grateful that I’m able to take trips and go out to dinner and enjoy camping get-aways and take in a show or the symphony—and for awhile forget that I have cancer.

I’m tired of this life of disease. I miss my old life and wish I could go back. But I’m grateful for each day I have, for each morning I breathe anew and get to keep moving forward on this journey. I’m grateful that my doctor doesn’t think I’m going anywhere anytime soon. And I’m grateful that each good moment seems that much more good, beautiful, meaningful, amazing, and powerful because of its contrast to the negative moments I face regularly.

Perhaps you have your own “tired of it all” situation? What would it look like if you applied a gratefulness filter, consciously looking for something positive among the negative?

Piecing It Together: Reflections on the Artistic Process

In a quest to fill my days with something productive, now that my health has led me to leave the workforce, I have taken up creating mosaics. So far, I’ve completed three 6 x 6-inch squares with fairly simple designs. A couple have gone to friends as gifts. The creative process has been quite therapeutic, and each step is meaningful in its own way.

Step 1: Break things. The first step for any mosaic is taking tiles and ceramics and breaking them into small pieces. These pieces become my medium. I try to nip the tiles into the shapes I’ll need to create my vision, but there’s a lot of randomness to the breaking, too. Even when I have a shape in mind, the tile or dish in my hand may have a different plan for how it will crack. The therapeutic part here is that I can take out some of my frustration, anger, or anxiety on the tile and ceramics rather than directing it at people around me or bottling it up inside. And the randomness of the tiles breaking is a good reminder that I am not in control—and yet, in the end, I still wind up with what I need to complete a project.

Sunrise: Rejoice and Be Glad

Step 2: Bring the design to life. Once I have a collection of pieces to work with in the colors of my design, I start applying broken bits to the surface, fitting them together into the shapes I’ve designed—a landscape or a flower or maybe just a pattern of colors. This part of the process is almost like meditation. I can spend a couple hours at a time, focused solely on where to place each piece, trimming or reshaping a piece if needed, and readjusting bits when I run into a challenge. It’s like assembling a puzzle I’ve created in my own mind.

During this time, everything else seems to wash away. Thoughts of my illness, treatment side effects, or the next doctor’s appointment disappear. Worries about my boys off at school subside. Questions and fears and doubts flee. My mind is engaged in a single task—creating the art before me.

Broken but Beautiful

Step 3: Fill the gaps. Once the mosaic has taken its final shape, it’s time for grout. Although the image is fairly clear at this point, there are gaps between all the pieces. The grout fills those gaps and brings all the pieces together into a cohesive whole. It is this step that’s perhaps most meaningful to me. All of the individual, broken pieces are still evident, but they are held together by a unifying element that not only serves to fill the empty spaces but also becomes an integral part of the art itself.

I feel these days much like the tile and ceramic pieces, fractured and dislocated. My body is broken by disease and side effects of the medications meant to treat disease. My family is split by distance as my boys pursue their education away at college. My vocation is no longer in tact. Yet, within all that brokenness, there are unifying forces that hold me together and fill my gaps: a God who holds me tightly (though I sometimes fight against Him), a loving husband and family who are always there for me, and a group of friends who encircle me closely. They lasso the broken bits of my self, re-assemble them, and help patch me back up—but often not before challenging me to sit and examine the pieces and acknowledge the pain, fear, or confusion in them. And just as the grout between the mosaic pieces is part of the artwork, those people in my circle become more and more a part of who I am.

Step 4: Reveal the final shine. The last step in creating mosaics is buffing them. As you wipe away the excess grout, it leaves behind a residue, which results in a hazy film on the pieces. A careful polishing of each piece ensures that viewers see the mosaic in all its shine and shimmer. Here, too, is a metaphor. The same people who support me and help wrangle my broken pieces also play a role in shining up the creation that is ME—helping to remove the mental, emotional, and spiritual film and filth that can accumulate and obscure my true self.

Beauty in Bloom

Step 5: Admire my handiwork. I said buffing was the final step, but that’s not quite right. There is one last step—to admire for a moment what I’ve created. By no means are these mosaics masterpieces, but they reflect a God-given creativity that’s recently been loosed within me. I’m not sure if it’s a new quality that developed for this time when I need something to do with my mind and hands, or whether it was there all along, lying dormant while I was busy with other things, but it is a part of me that begs for expression these days. Stopping to inspect each mosaic and appreciate the work of my hands is a vital part of the process and an opportunity to be grateful in this season. With all its challenges and frustrations and fears (I will never say cancer is a blessing in disguise), this season has also brought great joys, deeper relationships, new friendships, new opportunities, beauty, and exploration.