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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“Turn off the Stove!

…and everytime before the surgical anesthetic took me under, a fleeting thought crossed my mind: “Turn off the Stove!”

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photo: “Goodnight Flame” by PositivelyAnne

At some point you grow out of being attracted to that flame 

that burns you over and over and over again.

-Taylor Swift

In 2016, my remarkably stellar health decided to make up for 52 years of an otherwise perfect track record.  I spent fifteen consecutive months floating in and out of stark operating rooms; their interiors filled with all sorts of monitors and robotic machinery sporting lobster like claws and dozens of masked strangers, whose eyes reflected the seriousness of my condition and yet, were somehow comforting.

After so many consecutive surgeries, it often times felt like I was dropped into the middle of an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”.  But unlike the television drama, my encounters with Mr. McDreamy and company were a little strange to say the least, as each and every time before the surgical anesthetic took me under, a fleeting thought crossed my mind:

“Turn off the Stove!” 

Given everything I could possibly consider as my last conscious thought: gratitude for my life, love for my family, thankfulness that the doctor hovering over me with that long needle was pretty good looking…concern for turning off the stove” didn’t even register. 

Definitely not an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy!”    

“Maybe it’s just some crazy side effect of the anesthetic!” My family and close friends knew how often I fell into the “only one percent of the population gets this side effect” column, so the possibility that this was just some sort of reoccurring hallucination (brought on by some very powerful drugs) wasn’t unreasonable. 

“Maybe it’s just one of those random things we humans worry about, like turning off the lights or locking the front door, when we are going somewhere for an extended period of time.”  Possible, but…the fact that this idea of “turning off the stove” kept happening, surgery, after surgery, I had to think there was something more to it.

“Turn off the Stove!” 

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my family was already dealing with my father-in-law’s declining health due to dementia and so I was determined not to let a little thing like “cancer” rock my world any more than it had to.   My prognosis was better than good and I had no concerns that life wouldn’t soon return to normal once I took care of this little blip on my radar.

But as time passed, and complications arose for me and other surgeries were required to treat those complications, it became a daily chore for me to keep up the positive veneer.  

On the inside, I was angry.  A seething, burning flame!  A stove perpetually lit! 

Seething with anger that I didn’t have any control over getting cancer or the other issues that ravaged my body.  Seething that my perfect life plan was no longer perfect.  Seething, just to seethe because, well, just because!!!

One could argue that it’s perfectly normal to be angry at the cancer demon. I mean we are trained from the cradle to light a fire in our bellies to beat life’s demons, right?

But what if that that fire is always on,  not only to produce the energy and passion needed to conquer life’s demons, but to fuel perpetual anger and negativity?

“Turn off the Stove!” 

A stove doesn’t turn on unless you light it, and when you light it, it breathes flames.  Flames that can only be controlled by a knob.  Turn the knob to high and the flames rise like a beacon in the night.  Turn the knob down low and the flames simmer, barely visible, but always there, just under the surface. 

Now, it matters not if the stove is turned up high or turned down low… as long as a stoves flames are left on, they can burn, scorch and destroy everything they touch UNTIL THE STOVE IS TURNED OFF! 

My personal stove had been lit for fifteen months straight!

On the morning of my 15th surgery, I was handed a clipboard by a nurse with the usual paperwork attached and I began to fill it out with my usual nonchalance until I got to the line, “I understand that complications may arise that result in permanent injury, disfigurement, even death.”  I had signed my name to that line fourteen times before without giving it second thought, but today I paused, and the magnitude of those words hit me.  I felt the flames of my stove rise, higher and higher.  I COULD DIE! 

And if those words came true, then would my husband, my kids, my friends remember a woman who had given life the best she had to offer or, would they, instead, remember a woman drowning in the flames and ash of her own imperfections? 

No, NO, NOOOO! I couldn’t let the latter be my epitaph. 

So, I turned down the flames of my stove to simmering and I signed my name on the line, put the clipboard aside and cheerfully asked my husband to pass me my purse.  In my purse, I found my makeup bag and I pulled out my trusty tube of cherry lipstick. My “happy” color always made me smile.   I painted my lips (without a mirror) and put the tube back in my bag.  I asked my husband if I looked o.k. and he said, “Great.” 

But as I said, I had left the flames of doubt on my stove still simmering, just there under the surface.  So I pulled out my compact and took a look at myself in the mirror:

WHO ARE YOU KIDDING GIRL?  A little cherry lipstick can’t hide the fact that YOU ARE TERRIFIED!  Yes, you’ve beaten the odds time and again…but, c’mon, it’s only a matter of time!

My stoves flames licked higher and higher beckoning me towards negativity.   

My anesthesiologist walked into the room at that moment, and I looked up from my compact, cherry lipstick smile quivering, our eyes met, 

“Look at you,” he said cheerfully.  “Wow, I needed to see a bright face this morning.”

“Bright face…me?”, I thought.  I’m dying inside.  Burning up.  Searing. Tears came to my eyes and I just stared up at him.  Everything in my heart, my soul, my entire being was in my eyes at that moment.  I could feel the flames of anger and sorrow that I had been carrying around with me for the past fifteen months rise up to the surface of my body.  My skin, like the flames within me,  felt so very hot.  Could he feel it too? Could he see the flames? Something in my eyes must have registered with him because at that moment he came closer, pulled up a chair and grabbed my hand.

“I will tell you a secret”, he said.  “It’s fine for you to be scared, I get scared too…I do, but keeping you alive is also what I do and I’m good at it.  I need you to trust me, but more importantly, I need you to trust in yourself. No doubts!   You’ve made it through fourteen other surgeries just fine and this is just another one. We’ve got this!”

I’d like to tell you that I had some profound words in response and we hugged and it was a true “Grey’s Anatomy” moment, but all I did was lightly squeeze his hand.  Two quick pulses of my fingertips against his palm.  A fleeting gesture of confidence in his words that I have no idea if he even felt.  But I’d like to think he did.

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photo: “Joy” Carlsbad Flower Fields by PositivelyAnne

But it doesn’t matter.  I felt it. I felt the sincerity in his words.  His willingness, like so many others before him,  to take on my lifes complications and face the fires of hell for me.  I closed my eyes and imagined my hand reaching,  slowly, slowly for my stoves knob.  I quickly turned it all the way off.  The flames winked out and unbelieving of what I had done, I reached out and touched the grate…it was cool to the touch.

Soothing.  Calm. Comforting.  A balm to my weary soul. 

It was then that I came to understand the immense value of what the words, “Turn off the Stove” meant the past fifteen months and for my life going forward. 

In times of stress, I had to let go of my ego, my pride, my fear that I, and I alone, could handle all of drama life was handing me.  God and a whole host of family and friends and medical professionals had been whispering in my ear each and every time I went into surgery and all along the road of my life, that I did not have to go it alone.  I didn’t have to fear things.  I had help…help to stay positive.  

I had to “Turn off the Stove” and trust others to light my way. 

As you sort through your own laundry list of challenges: health problems, difficult family dynamics, financial worries and all sorts of unresolved situations that raise your flame quotient higher and higher, just remember to keep your eyes, ears and heart open to those helpers, both familiar and stranger, who are there to whisper a reminder:

“Turn off the Stove!”

And then turn it off and go live your best life.  I can tell you it works!

PositivelyAnne