Life is a Puzzle, We are the Pieces

The elderly woman with the walker said, “Yes, we know that honey, the gal opens up at 8am, come and sit with us and help us figure out this damn puzzle!”

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I entered the waiting area of the radiation oncology department a half hour early, anxiousness after all of my pre-appointments with the oncology team, and ready to get the actual radiation started.  The receptionist area was still closed, a sign taped to the wire cage that the office opened at 8am, but I was surprised to see three women already seated, their heads huddled together around what appeared to be a large puzzle.  

One woman was definitely in her eighties. She had a walker perched to one side of her, a cup of coffee in her hand and she was wearing a bulky, ill- fitting cable knit sweater that dwarfed her petite frame.  Around her neck was a patterned wool scarf that literally swallowed her chin, and on her head of silver, was a knit cap of the same pattern. Her ensemble struck me as really odd given it was mid-October in San Diego, our Indian summer, and despite the air- conditioned waiting room, once outside it was hovering in the low 90’s.   Her face was deeply lined and her skin, an ashen shade of grey.

“Wow, she must really have cancer pretty bad”, I thought.

The woman to the left of her was probably in her fifties and she was wearing a pastel pink headscarf with a beautiful jewel pin on the front.  In contrast to the woman in the bulky sweater, this woman looked very elegant in a tailored crème pantsuit with a silky blouse of jade and matching jade pumps.   She was leaning forward over the puzzle, a piece of it in her hand, and her face registered intense concentration.

Seated next to her was another woman, she was much younger, maybe mid-twenties. She had on yoga pants and an off the shoulder sweatshirt that said, “#cancersucks”, her hair was little nubs like grass seed that is just beginning to sprout.  She greeted me with a big smile and said, “Welcome to the Club” and motioned me to come sit next to her.    

I looked at her confused, what club?   “Well, um, I need to check in, I’m starting my radiation treatments today.”

The elderly woman with the walker said, “Yes, we know that honey, the gal opens up at 8am, come and sit with us and help us figure out this damn puzzle!”

I was taken aback.  I just stared at them.  Puzzle?  What in the world, are they nuts?  I’m here for radiation.  This is serious you idiots.  I HAVE CANCER!   I have no time for the trivialities of a puzzle!

I turned towards the registration counter, and read the sign again. “Open at 8am!”  I turned back towards the waiting area and the elegant woman, puzzle piece in hand, motioned towards the open seat next to her.   “C’mon over here and help me find where this sucker goes!

Again, I just stared.

This time my voice was a little firmer.

“Um, thanks, but I’m here for my first radiation treatment today, I don’t think I could work on a puzzle.”

The elderly woman said, “We’ve all been there honey, but trust us, together is how we beat this thing.  I’m back for the fourth time, not much left to radiate, but I’m going to beat it like I’ve beaten cancer all the other times.  My friend here (pointing to the elegant woman) is almost finished with her radiation treatments for breast cancer, she gets to ring the bell tomorrow.  And the youngster there (pointing at the woman in the yoga pants) is a newbie, like you, but she started a couple weeks ago.”  

I’ve blanked out what happened next because I certainly don’t remember the elderly woman getting up and coming to stand beside me. But suddenly she was just there, walker and all, right next to me gripping my hand.  I have a fuzzy memory of her saying something like, “C’mon, it’s ok, come join us!”

I remember her hand was like ice.  Cold… so very, very cold.   The bones of her fingers had a gnarled appearance, blue veins standing out like cracked porcelain against the grey of her skin.  Two of her fingernails were black.  I tried to recoil my hand, but she held on tighter.  “C’mon, we need you!

Despite her cold hand, I felt a trickle of sweat drip down my back.   Fear???

The elderly woman drew me over to the puzzle area, “Sweetie, fighting cancer is like this puzzle.  It takes us apart and we have to put ourselves back together one piece at a time.  Sometimes we need help to complete our puzzle…lots of help.  C’mon and sit a minute with us while you wait for your radiation appointment and help put “US” back together.”

Did I hear her right? Did she just say, “Help put “US” back together?” 

What is this “US” business?  Poor thing, she must be delusional.  I’ve never seen her or the other two women before in my life.  I’m here for my radiation treatment, not to work on a puzzle. Again, I tried to pull away, but the elderly woman patted my hand and softly said, “Help us.”

Something about this elderly woman fascinated me, but also scared me. It was silly.   I was towering over her and she looked as if a gust of wind could topple her without the security of her walker. Something about what she said made me want to run, to hide. The sweat was now rolling down my back.  She tugged on my hand harder. 

I took a seat next to her like she had asked me to. I was too afraid not to.

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I was 52 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mom had breast cancer in her 50’s and so the possibility that I might someday have it was always lurking in the shadows of my mind.   But my mom had beaten the disease for over twenty years and in all honesty, I really didn’t spend any measurable time worrying about cancer or any other sort of life altering disease.  If I got cancer, or any of the millions of other illnesses that were possible to ravage the human body, I’d deal with it as I’ve dealt with every other drama in my life.

On my own terms, head up, and with my usual can-do spirit.   

But here it was, this cancer demon not only on my doorstep, but taking over my entire house.  Every room.

It was overwhelming.   The neat and tidy box I imagined my cancer journey to be, was not so neat and tidy in real life.   I had complications, lots and lots of complications. I felt torn apart, like pieces of a puzzle waiting to be put back together. 

It was unsettling, disconcerting, humbling and frankly, the scariest thing I had ever dealt with in my entire life.

 I stared down at the puzzle in front of me and back up at the women.

The elegant woman said, “We were just saying to each other that figuring out the puzzle of life is hard enough, add cancer or any other major trauma and sometimes things don’t fit like they used to because cancer changes us, not only physically, but in all ways.”  She talked a bit about how she had to rethink her life priorities, particularly when her cancer returned in a new, more aggressive way.

I found myself opening up.  I told these strangers about my breast cancer, the complications, the surgery I was facing after radiation to fix my colon and after that a very probable hysterectomy.  I told them I was so scared.

The elegant woman handed me the puzzle piece that was in her hand.  “Honey, sometimes we need a little teamwork to get us through the darkness.”

I looked down at the puzzle before me.  It was one of those thousand-piece deals, of a very famous Thomas Kinkade painting.  A cobble stone street stood in the foreground of a white cottage.  Yellow lights winked happily from the cottage windows and the street lanterns along the cobble stone street showcased an abundant garden, flora of every color, wrapping itself around the sides of the cottage like a hug.    It was a happy looking picture and I smiled, until I looked down at the puzzle piece in my hand.

The piece was not pristine white, or cheery yellow, or even red or green or blue, no, it was midnight black.

The reality of the entire puzzle came into focus then.  All that was left to finish of the happy scene was one corner, one dark corner.   Every piece that was left to place was midnight black and indistinguishable from each other except for the individual intricacies of their jagged edges.

Why these women wanted me to help them because this is the hardest part of the puzzle!

A solid field of darkness that requires a keen eye, patience and sheer determination in order to solve.  I didn’t think I had any of that left in me.  

I held up the puzzle piece to the light above me.   It was unremarkable.  One of those typical puzzle pieces that look like two hands sticking out from a horseshoe.  Common, except one of the hands was a little longer than the other.   

The woman in the yoga pants said, “These two ladies come a half hour early for radiation to work on the puzzle together.”  “I thought that was ridiculous! Why would anyone come early to radiation? Then I went home that first night after treatment and the fear crept in and ever since that day,  I am here early, with these amazing ladies and one of these crazy, silly puzzles.”

“We are often surprised when we arrive each day that all that is left to finish of the puzzle is the darker, solid pieces”, said the elegant woman.

“We often need the assistance of a new person to help us solve where those darker pieces go, “said the elderly woman, that’s how we met our friend here”, she said pointing to the woman in the yoga pants. “In fact, she finished this tricky corner over here yesterday.” 

I looked back down at the puzzle. The dark space that was yet to be completed. Suddenly, the puzzle dissolved before my eyes and in its place  I imagined myself prostrate on the table with these three women hovering over me.

“I think it might go here,” the elderly woman said trying to put a piece of me back together.  “No, can’t you see that edge there is a bit jagged?”, the elegant woman said.  “Keep trying”, the younger woman said, “Together we can do this!”

“Help me”, I said.  “Help me to be whole again.”

I was suddenly back in front of the puzzle, the three women at my side, their eyes on me with a clarity and a knowing that was palpable. I took the puzzle piece in my hand and pressed it in place.

Click.

“You did it!”, the elderly woman said.  “We needed you and you did it.”

My name was called for my appointment and I got up and hugged each of them.  The radiation tech smiled and as she walked me to the back area she said, “It’s funny how a silly puzzle has a way of helping us see just what we need.”

I lay on the radiation table, bare from the waist up, hands above my head, while the radiation tech maneuvered my body into place.  I was told not to move as gears began to grind and my body slowly, very slowly was placed inside a large tube.

“Are you ready”, the radiation tech said.  For a split second I felt a pang of fear.

Then a warmth enveloped me and I was laying there, my three new friends hovering over me in my mind, reassuring me that they would pick me up and put me back together, no matter how hard the puzzle.

“Life is a Puzzle, We are the Pieces” 

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Cancer is indeed a part of my life puzzle and it has certainly changed the physical me. However, cancer also gave me the opportunity to understand that the puzzle of my life is not mine alone to solve.   When it comes to the hard parts of my puzzle, the pieces that don’t seem to fit, the dark spaces where it’s almost impossible to see the light, I can rely on the kindness of my family, my friends and yes, even strangers, to bless me, to put me back together in a way that is better and stronger than anything I could do on my own.

I hope I can be that for you too!   PositivelyAnne

Please “like” and “follow” my blog for weekly positive inspiration and for a daily positivity boost you can follow me on FB at PositivelyAnne or Instagram at #positivelyanne

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Keep Dancing!

I wanted to be that joy, that hope, that moment in time when there was nothing I could not do…

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Photo: “Moe and Joe #5” by PositivelyAnne

A person who says it cannot be done, 
should not interrupt the one doing it.
-My Money. My Time

I was about five years old the first time I saw Ginger Rogers glide across the television screen into the arms of Fred Astaire (they are considered the most successful on-screen dance duo of all time and well worth checking out if you have never heard of them). The memory, some fifty years old, is still so vivid.  Me, lying prostrate on the living room floor wrapped in my trusty blanket; the grainy black and white images of a beautiful woman, in a feather dress, twirling and swirling and leaping across the television screen (as if she floated on air) as a man softly sings, “Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”.   I don’t remember anything else about it, except that my still forming brain knew I was witnessing something magical…something personal…something life changing.

I just want to dance!

I uttered those words to my mother not long after.  My mom found a beginning ballet class at our local park, so off I went: pink leotard, white tights and black ballet slippers and a zillion dreams of floating on air just like that beautiful lady on the television. The class was held in the gym and it must have looked ridiculous, to any adult in the room, to see this group of gangly little girls gathered around a waif on toe shoes under the canopy of a basketball hoop.  But I didn’t care.

I just wanted to dance!

My mom, always a stalwart supporter of my dreams, soon found a dance studio in our area and I dived in, not only ballet classes, but I took tap dance and later jazz and Hawaiian (hula).   I can only imagine the sacrifices my parents must have made in order to afford all of those lessons.

But I loved it.  I loved tap dance; the energy of it, and with my tap shoes (named “Moe” and “Joe”), I would practice for hours in our garage with the goal of beating Ann Millers’ tap record (again for you younger readers, she was a 1940’s actress and dancer famous for being able to exceed 500 taps per minute-also worth checking out if you want to see tap perfection).   I loved jazz dance and the challenge of mastering the unspoken rhythms between the notes.    I loved Hawaiian dance, hula.  The idea of telling a story with my body either in flowing, almost dream-like movements, or with just the simple volcanic explosion of my hips.

It made me feel beautiful, powerful, magical!  I just want to dance!

Now ballet was another story and I soon discovered what it means to love something when it doesn’t love you back.

In my cherub years, public park ballet classes were fun, joyful and basically all that was required of me was to try and make it from our house to the park gym without shredding my tights!  I was taller than most of the girls and already had some athletic ability so I caught on easy to the steps.   I also adored my instructor, a waif like, still teenager, who seemed to float on air, just like the lady I had seen on the television screen at home.

But once I got into a dance studio environment, ballet became a whole different beast.  While tap, jazz and hula dance were pretty much open to anyone willing to give it a go and learn the steps, ballet belonged to an elite group of girls: the pencil thin waifs and gossamer fairies with swan like necks, whose pristine footwork on spindly legs made one think of elfin creatures in magical forests and all things fragile.

I was anything but waif like, elfin, or fragile.

The good Lord gifted me with thighs that rival those meaty turkey legs you get at the summer fair. Powerful thighs that enabled me to leap with athletic prowess, but shook the floor when I landed.   And my neck…well, I guess the best adjectives to describe it are “squat, stubby, short.”  Not a hint of fragility or waif likeness there.

I was pretty much a gladiator in a tutu. Still am!  My ballet instructor let me know it:

“Your legs are so…so…well, top heavy dear!”  “You have turkey thighs!” “That neck, stocky like a pig!” “Be a swan, dammit…elongate, elongate, ELONGATE!”

I won’t lie to you, it was discouraging.  Even ten-year old girls are savvy enough to know what adults mean when they whisper and point and outright tell you to your face you aren’t worthy.  And my mom, well my mom, bless her heart, knew that, and I can remember a time or two when her vocal talons let my ballet teacher know just how she felt about her criticisms of her daughter’s chances at ballet greatness.

But the thing is, I didn’t want to be great at ballet…or tap…or jazz, even hula.

I just wanted to dance!

I wanted to be that long ago grainy black and white image of a lady, a beautiful lady, feathers wafting as her dance partner carried her across the dance floor effortlessly.  I wanted to be that joy, that hope, that moment in time when there was nothing I could not do.  I was floating.  Lighter then air.  “Heaven…I’m in Heaven…”.

So, I kept at it.  I danced for years until time passed and “Moe and Joe” (incarnation number 5), lay forgotten in my closet, replaced by high school shenanigans, chasing boys and new dreams of learning to fly and to sail and to write.

Along the way,  I have had more than my share of naysayers.  Kids, teens, grown men and women, just like my ballet instructor,  intent on making sure I understand I don’t fit the profile.  I don’t have what it takes. Sometimes they have been right.

But more often than not, I’m grateful for that little girl who believed in the magic of the dance. In that grainy black and white image on a screen of all that is possible, of all that could be and will be in my life.  Of all the joy, hope and beauty in the living, in the trying. 

The wonderful swirls and twirls of life that weave us in and out of our dreams.

I’m grateful that I didn’t give up on her. She knows

I just wanted to dance!

And dance I am.   I hope you are too!

In this positivity journey together, one positive (and negative) step at a time,

PositivelyAnne