Sunday, December 30, 2018

Hang On


Roughly two weeks ago, on Tuesday, December 18th, the world as I knew it flipped upside down. I was wrapping up my first semester teaching in Valle Gran Rey, and was preparing for a weeklong Christmas trip to Lisbon. I had been experiencing moderate anxiety for a couple of weeks leading up to that day, but had been unable to pinpoint a source or a trigger. I just woke up one day with that familiar pit in my stomach and couldn’t shake it. Normally, I can chalk it up to hormones or something in the stars, and it eases after a day or two. But this anxiety was different, and settled in my mind in a way I hadn’t experienced since my sophomore year of college. I wrote it off as homesickness and frustration with my ankle injury and tried to move on with my life. When my mom asked to call me that afternoon, I immediately shot down the thoughts in my head that something could be wrong, and told myself she just wanted to talk. After two weeks of anxiousness, I was mentally loaded for bear and was working hard on redirecting unhealthy thought patterns. But just seconds into the phone call, my unexplained uneasiness suddenly had root. My dad had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. 

Thinking back, I’ve never had such a clear turning point in my life. Basically all prior change has been pre-meditated. The events that rolled out after that phone call with my mom were anything but. In the following 24 hours, I canceled my Lisbon plans, booked flights home, alerted those close to me, packed a suitcase, cleaned out my fridge, pleaded for and (thankfully) retrieved a return authorization from the Spanish government office on the other side of the island. By the grace of some all-powerful entity, I found a transatlantic flight for just 350€, despite the fact that I was booking just two days in advance. The JFK-Ohio leg was nearly the same price. I spent 39 hours in transit, completely numb. I hadn’t been expecting a return to the United States until June, and much less one under these circumstances. I had also been planning on avoiding winter for a year, having lost my ironclad Maine cold tolerance completely. But shock and disorientation make for a fine coat. 

I am home now. The days have been slow and gray, with little bright spots here and there. I am relieved to be in the arms of my family, taking in these precious moments with them in our little rural bubble. Nearly everything is different, but a few things remain unchanged. My brother is still making us laugh, my mom is still holding everyone together, and my dad is still first and foremost concerned for everyone else. I have to laugh when he asks me “What’s wrong?!” Of course, I am still the family’s emotional weak link. 

Against my Gemini stellium nature, I’ve had little contact with the outside world—I can’t seem to muster the energy to maintain lengthy text conversations or even answer many messages at all. All of my processing has turned inward. Spiritually, I feel full of mud. I know that I have to seek a “new normal”, but it seems like such an immense effort right now that I’m not yet inspired enough to face. I’ll get there, though—I know people get through times like these by leaning heavily on their spirituality. I welcome any recommendations.

I know for certain I must recapture my sense of gratitude. It will come back to me as things settle down and the seemingly constant flow of bad news stems a bit. For now, I’d like to officially publish a list of the things I am thankful for in this moment.
  1. My dad starts chemotherapy tomorrow. I know he will head into this battle with the same optimism and intensity he’s always carried inside. Though it’s going to be a tough road, we’re all relieved that tomorrow is the day we start fighting back. 
  2. We have an incredibly supportive network of friends. I always knew that my parents had a lot of connections because they’re nice people and great birdwatchers, but I never fully grasped the sheer number of amazing people who care about my family. Thank you. 
  3. I’m so lucky to have had the privilege to race all the way home to Ohio from a tiny rock halfway around the world. And though there’s no good timing for something like this, having it line up almost exactly with my Christmas break is incredibly fortunate.
  4. The sun still rises every day, even if Ohio hides it behind gray flannel most of the time. 
  5. I am healthy. 
  6. Everything in our lives has rapidly been distilled into things that matter and things that don’t (there’s a great Rascal Flatts song about this). Problems and worries that once seemed insurmountable are now entirely irrelevant. Sprained ankles will heal. Money will come back. Happiness should come first whenever possible.
  7. I have a sweet, thoughtful, and patient boyfriend who’s certainly gotten more than he bargained for when he invited la americana to watch the sunset back in October, but who has handled every twist with grace and understanding. 
  8. I also have a big family of wonderful coworkers waiting to welcome me back to Canarias. Thanks to them, I will leave one home and return to another. 
  9. My current anthem: Hang On by Guster. 
Thank you for your time spent reading this journal-entry-turned-blogpost. I’ve been drafting it in my head for a week now to explain tone changes/delays in posting, but I realize it also helps me immensely to distill and transcribe my thoughts. I am grateful for this medium and hope to bring more joy here soon. 

If you would like to keep up with my dad’s story, please visit https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/bt3updates.


33 comments:

  1. My heart is sick with worry for you all, but your remarks about your dad’s fight cheered me. Our best wishes and strongest good vibes go out to you.

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  2. Phoebe, you have so many folks in your corner. Breathe, breathe. Tune into that breath to bring it back in when you need to. You aren’t walking alone. Much love to you and your beautiful family. Your northern friends are holding you close. Xoxo, Trixie

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  3. Mi amor por ti nunca ha sido más fuerte. Sé que tu mundo está cabeza abajo. He querido llamarte o escribirte pero respeto totalmente tu necesidad y deseo de procesar estas noticias inesperadas en los abrazos de tu familia. Toda tu familia vive en mis oraciones y los guardo en mis meditaciones muchas veces todos los días. No pasa una hora que no paro para pensar en Uds. Si necesitas o quieres hablar, estoy disponible en cualquier momento....podemos hablar por What’s App, SKYPE, etc. Regresa a tu isla con corazón de esperanza y fé. Te quiero con todo el corazón. Y estoy aquí por ti si me necesitas. Un abrazo fuertísimo.....Tanya

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  4. Ahh, sugar. Grief and worry are the price we pay for love. I don't know what anxiety is the price for, but it's not worth it, is it? And yet. Arms around.

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  5. Sending positive thoughts every day for you and your family. May comfort and peace be yours as you walk down the road ahead.

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  6. I'm grateful to you for posting this journal/blog entry. I'm holding you and the rest of your lovely family in my heart. Hang on indeed. xxoo

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  7. You and your family are in my heart and in my prayers.

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  8. You are stronger than you think. Taking time to dig deep and better know yourself is a virtue. You and your family mean a lot to me and I will keep you all in my prayers.

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  9. Phoebe, I experienced something similar at your age... and even now, 40+years later, I struggle for words of comfort because I know there really aren’t any. You will change, you will grow in ways that you don’t expect. You will become a warrior on some days, and a puddle of mush on others— and that’s all perfectly okay. I am here if you need me.

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    1. So well said and exactly what happened to me years ago when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. And yet, 14 years later, I can offer no words of advice either, as you will be the one who finds a way to be the new you, to handle the anxiety, the grief, the roller coaster of emotions. The mush days and the bright days and the so so days. One step in front of the other, one sunrise, one sunset, one meal. I'm so glad your family has so many caring, supportive people for you to feel wrapped in love. Sending love and hugs to your hearts.

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  10. Phoebe, although this is a difficult time, it sounds to me as though you're dealing with it as well as can be expected. The only advice I can give you -- after losing my sister to pancreatic cancer in September -- is to value time. It doesn't mean planning momentous events. Often, the most mundane activities are the most comforting -- and memorable. And it seems that you and your family excel at this; a walk in the woods, singing a song. I and my family were very fortunate to have my sister back in Athens for her last year. We had time to concentrate on the "things that matter" and some of my fondest memories are of very simple activities and meaningful conversations. Best wishes for comfort and peace for you all.

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  11. I don't know how you did this. Or when. Right there, you're showing substance and integration that anyone could be proud of. Our lives are divided into BD and AD, D being diagnosis. And so onward we walk. On with your beautiful life on La Gomera. You help us most be being who you are meant to be.

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  12. Your wonderful family and the support you all give each other, with love and laughter on top - and the vast network of friends who love you all, even if they've never met you, will help. And your thompson-zickefoose strengths will shine every chance they get. Wishing you all strength, laughter, and when needed, the release of tears. I was just thinking of Chet Baker's muzzlepuffs and smiling myself.

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  13. So much love to you all all. We are all so fragile and so worthy of love. Thank you for writing about this and sharing it with us. I will be thinking of all of you.

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  14. Beautifully written! Hoping for a peaceful, healing journey for you, your father, and the rest of your family.

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  15. Oh, Phoebe! The root of the root at the center of the heart. Heartbreaking, pure, beautiful. So much love to all.

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  16. I want to say something that will make everything better, but no one can do that. From reading this, it's clear your parents raised a beautiful human. You will get through this and my best to you and your family as you all deal with the challenges ahead.

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  17. Your beautiful family has a world-wide fan club. We are sending love and support in all the ways possible. We hold you all in our hearts and hope for the best.

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  18. Written with honesty, dignity and grace. I admire how you express your gratitudes despite the incredible angst of not knowing how life will unfold for your incredible family. So many are with you here and in the ethereal, (including three grandparents and a very special dog) as you hang on. My love to all.

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  19. Although I have been through it twice in my life I cannot offer up “the” answer. Just don’t let the unknown rob you of fully cherishing every moment you have. That goes for all your life. Ask any questions you have that you haven’t yet asked and say things that you feel but may never have said. Lean on each other and laugh and smile your way through this as much as possible. And let the tears fall as they may. Know that your love is felt and lifts your loved ones.
    And keep writing to get all those feelings out of your head. It is great therapy. Love and hugs to you and your family.

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  20. Sending love, redheaded chickadee whom I've never met. xox

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  21. We're all pulling for Bill and the family. Everyone needs support and love. So glad that you could make it home so quickly. Hugs to you all.

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  22. I don’t want to sound corny but you keep mentioning faith and your spirituality. Embrace your belief in your higher power. It’s the infinite wisdom and strength of God. It’s real and prayer does work. Pray for guidance and strength, He will direct you. Have faith.

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  23. Sending positive energy your way, Phoebe. Treasure every moment. When I was 25, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. The day before she started chemo, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly. As you and others on this post have noted, such events divide our world into "before" and "after" and the trauma we endure in the "after" changes us in ways that are often not revealed for years. But you will survive! And my hope for you is that some day your heart finds some peace and perhaps you even come to see a silver lining in these recent events. If nothing else, one's priorities become ever more clear in the face of such a diagnosis as your dad's. And that is a gift, especially at such a young age. Peace to you at this difficult time. You, your mom and dad and brother are in my thoughts.

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  24. One foot in front of the other. Repeat with other foot. I have Stage IV Ovarian Cancer and that is how I make through the days. Right foot, left foot, repeat. You have strength you never imagined and it will manifest when you need it most. Positive vibes to you and the family.

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  25. Dear Phoebe, This is Kathryn Murtha. I have not seen you since you were a little girl, but you have grown into such an amazing writer (no surprise!). I am impressed with your introspection and happy that you are focusing on gratitude statements. New perspectives are a silver lining that will last a lifetime. Keep hope and faith. Enjoy precious family time, and don't feel guilty when you need solitude. Keep journaling, whether you share your thoughts or keep them private. Trust that you have already given your father and your family the best gift ever, by being YOU and being there with them. I believe in miracles and the power of prayer, and I will continue repeating "Thanks for bringing Bill back to a state of perfect health" often each day. Sending you and your family big hugs and lots of love.

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  26. Phoebe,
    Life is full of challenges and there are so many things we have no control over. If love could cure this, your Dad would be well and then some. Your family is my thoughts and I hope for your Dad to beat this cancer. Be strong, be present, and just be. ❤️ Susan

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  27. Dear Phoebe, Your family has given so much joy, humor, delight, and education to tons of people everywhere; know that each of them is sending back strength and support for the challenges ahead. You've told a hard hard story with crispness and grace; thank you for information that can guide our thinking about you all. Know you are loved.

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  28. Phoebe,
    You parents have to be so proud of you right now, even more than ever. I remember watching you and Liam scoot around Lakeside at the Midwest Birding Symposium many years ago. You were the apple of your mother's eye then, and I suspect even more so now, having written this wonderful piece under such hard and stressful situations. I was so sorry to learn the news about your dad. It devastated all of us. I can't imagine how you, Liam, and your talented mother are able to cope. But this essay, as hard as it had to be to write, is an example of the strength and ability of not only you but each member of your amazing family. My wife and I wish you all the very best. Thanks, again, for your personal and poignant sharing.
    Grace and peace,
    Bruce

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  29. Hey girl, you are a very good writer, which helps when writing is therapy not for just you but your entire family, especially your Dad. He cannot help but feel better when he reads your posts, and for that, there is no greater medicine. Seems like you're going to have a lot to talk about now and in the future, so know that your talent for words and thoughts and context and even white space will take you like a sail through whatever lies ahead. Your Mom and Dad did a hell of a job raising you, and the world is a better place simply because. And I don't even know you. Please, don't forget the music. Do the music. It's a family thing.

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  30. I know you “second hand” from your mom and birding. Your raw first hand writing and probing will help sustain you, your family, and frankly all of us during this time. Write on!

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  31. I also know you indirectly from birding with your Dad - when he spotted a phoebe at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA., he beamed with pride as he told us about you :-) In any case, thanks for sharing this, and know that there are SO many people sending you positive thoughts and wishing you all strength in the coming months. I was lucky enough to bird with your father on multiple occasions, but it only took once to feel like you suddenly had a caring, energetic, passionate, bird-loving friend for life. Plus, he collected beer cans in his youth and we have that in common. Tell him I send along a big hug and lots of love from HMH Publishing in Boston and thanks again for sharing this with the world. - Kevin Logan

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