Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thoughts on my new sport

I was interviewed today by someone writing a piece about the experiences with a dragon boat team. I am so very new to the sport. I have not yet been a part of my team for six months. I jumped in right at the end of the season and competed in the last race before I knew what all of the paddling terms meant. It was a strange thing for me to be interviewed. Perhaps because I was tired.  Perhaps because I was uncertain if I was to talk about cancer or my experience with the team consisting of cancer survivors. 

It is not my comfort zone to tell the story verbally.  I prefer to write. I found myself distracted and wondering on countless tangents, perhaps in an effort to protect what is really hurting underneath. I want to be open and share what this sport has meant to me, but I suppose I am still figuring that out and so, my soliloquy unconsciously wanders into the history of my cancer story. For me, that part of my life is still very raw and new.  I have not yet adopted the language of "cancer survivor" with a "survived since" date.  I am still trying to figure out who I am now.  I didn't think cancer could change me so much, but it has.  So much of my life has been cut and mixed like the water that the boat moves through.  I am still in awe of the wake trailing behind.

I suppose of late, questions of cancer is what I am used to answering. Mostly the questions  have been superficial as others are curious.  No one has asked me any other topic in the last year. Others perception of my illness has consumed my real identity. The scarf I wore on my head became the sign for my identity: cancer.  I am still feeling the bizarre emptiness of no longer traveling to the hospital on  a regular basis.  I have recently given up my scarves for virgin hair.  I am working to recognize myself in the mirror with my first new short hair style.  My hair is now thin and dark.  My eyebrows have not yet returned, so it is the make up pencil every day.

The topic of interview highlights my story and my disease process.  I'm uncertain I want to go there, but my story is fresh and I don't have much in between point A and point B other than the Big C.  Finishing the major cancer treatments only several months ago, I am still recovering. I am still angry. I am still trying to find my place past the medical traffic that has been a part of my every day life. Only a year and a half ago, a doctor was tearfully telling me words I did not know.  People in small rooms suggested that I  get my affairs in order and to continue the medical torture for the chance it may prolong my existence, while I numbly listened to statistics of my "chances".  Numbers and ink, and a language of medications and treatments unknown to me. I was suddenly at the bottom of the ocean, running out of air.

Only several months ago, I was being driven to the hospital daily, because I was unable to on my own. I now find myself returning to that traffic.  Now my side effects and the damage my body has sustained under "treatment" continue to chase after me.  I have now added a cardiologist to my collection of doctors caring for me.  My chemotherapy lessened my heart function and capacity.  My radiation, being on my left side caused scarring.  Nerve damage is an issue throughout my body, but I am able to hide most of my symptoms, until I burn my hands cooking dinner and don't realize.

For some, cancer is a bus ride.  It was for my father.  Caught early and treated briefly.  At some point, they find their stop and get off. I am like the child that has fallen asleep in the back of the bus, only to wake up feeling lost and uncertain how to get home. Everything looks familiar, but somehow different. Has everything changed around me, or have I changed within? I was asked if I have changed or become a different person. I struggled to answer because my answer is still being defined. For me, it is a complicated answer. Inside, the raw basic make up of who I am is still there. My passion, my strength, my devotion, my desire to live wide and deep remains in place. I'm crying stuck inside these walls of pain and hurt sometimes. I don't need or want anyone to come rescue me. I will climb out myself and feel whole as I choose not to sit and wait trapped behind the tragedy life brings. I do not bury my feelings except around those I am unfamiliar or have not grown to trust. I have been hurt by some I trusted in my journey of healing.  Some that I believed were helping me were using my vulnerability for their own gain. I can see the world again now. I feel empowered to do things on my own again. I struggle to accept help, but I know I must and continue to learn the balance of dependence and independence. Being in the dragon boat, a similar lesson plays out.  As I train, I focus on my physical strength and learn the form of the stroke.  At the same time, I must learn to watch the others and pace myself with them.  Every member of a dragon boat team can be in a different place of strength and skill, but in working together and remaining in sync, the boat moves as well as the combined machine allows.

Perhaps my life has indeed changed; but then, my life has been a series of changes seamed together. I have never lived life like a toy train going around to find the same place again and again. Illness came along out of the blue one day. As if I got on a bus one day.  You see, I never ride the bus. I always drive my own car. I was a fish out of water. How much bus fare do I pay? Do I need a ticket or do I pay with cash? Will the driver tell me when to get off? Is there a map? How do I know when I have arrived at my stop? I feel powerless and sit down by myself somewhere in the back. I look forward and everyone else riding seems comfortable. They know where they are going. They know when they need to get off as they put away their book and ready themselves for a quick exit off the bus. I am lost but determined to watch until I figure out how to find my way home.

The interview seems to be at an end.  Pain and anger resurface that I was unaware. I am asked about finding an emotion while being in my first race. Again, I hear myself say anger, but I feel more than I can say. Feelings feeding my desire to be fit and paddle harder to the race's end. I plunge my paddle with passion but without skill. My feelings seem to contradict. As I am pushed beyond what I would do on my own, I feel strong and alive. For the first time in my life I feel that competitive spirit within. Or perhaps anger turned to passion. I will not pull my paddle out and rest. I refuse to give up.  My body wants to quit and I wonder if I will ever have the endurance the rest of my team shows.  I do not know what it is like to be a part of a team yet.  Though I enjoy playing outdoors, I've never competed or belonged to a team.  Junior high volleyball once, but I spent my childhood moving several times which kept me from really continuing with anything.   

On the water I feel alive and free. I feel separated from the responsibility of being what others expect. Freedom from the illness others have now defined me. Free from others trying to control my will to fight, wanting me to give up and rest.

This summer I joined a dragon boat team. It is a Breast Cancer Survivor team. Deep down there is anger that will heal. I welcome the acceptance of others who have journeyed this disease without the need of constant commiserating. I do not believe we are all the same. We are all as different as we were before we were stricken with the thing that brought us together. Each journey its own journey. Some believe we all feel and experience the same thing but I have seen enough to know it is an illusion. For some, it is easier to accept that way wrapped in pink bows. Some find it all easier to cope as they compartmentalize logic and reason denying raw emotions. Yet, we each have our own path. Our disease may have the same name, but our ailments find their own path also as we cope in our own very different ways. Underneath the pink bows, there is pain and darkness. For some those dark memories are in the distant past covered by seasons of debris. The truth is, for all of us, there is an unknown finish line. No one really knows during the race how one will place, but the intention is to win.  I've heard it said, in the boat, no one paddles to place second.  I suppose that's true of any sport or competition.  I suppose that's true when we battle cancer too.

When I'm in the dragon boat, I am simply an athlete. I work hard to put out while my muscles scream. I can be angry without knowing it and take it out on the water. When I'm done, the water is cut and I am satisfied. My mind is at peace and my body is spent. I get behind the wheel for my long drive home, sweaty and tired. My body was pushed beyond what others have been trying to keep me from doing. No one is trying to stop me or force me to take things easy. I am free from the perception of others that I am weak. A victim. I feel a high and grin to my music blasting through the door speakers. The ride home is long and I am ready to return for more.

I want to be strong and catch up with everyone who knows this experience. I don't want to be the newbie but I have much to learn.  First day home after an early practice, my mirror is my husband's face. Seeing the confirmation of my grin it is set. The team is named for the ailment I'd rather forget, but I am hooked. Not what I'd expected.  I have taken my family and friends by surprise by becoming an athlete. I've been a soccer mom. A devoted wife. A faithful daughter. A committed sister. A dependable friend. A hard working career woman. Illness came along and made me take pause. Winter set in and the world became black and white. The color was gone. When I show up for training in the cold morning fog, I see the color emerge as I paddle and my muscles begin to ache. My cold discomfort quickly turns to sweat.  The cold and fog slowly lift. As my mind focuses on the commands and my body strives to stay in stroke, a part of my mind wanders as I see the heron take off in front of the boat. I enjoy the beauty of the day revealed to me. I would have missed this if I chose to sit behind the wall of pain. The early morning is not usually my favorite time, yet I smile as I watch the sun rise on my long drive to the river. I am tired before training begins, but then a dew covered spider web on the bow of the boat makes everyone take pause. It is then I am wishing for my camera instead of my paddle.  We pull away from the dock unable to see through the fog.  Soon we see an amazing silhouette against the dark water as the sun finds its place on the horizon. The work begins and quickly we all forget the chill.

Out on the water I do not feel broken.  My body is healing. This sport consumes me as it strengthens my body and I leave behind those that doubted my ability to live. I know those I paddle with have journeyed also in their own ways.  There's something more that defines me than the scars that people see. I live beyond what other's see. There is something more. It is an undefinable strength that has taken me this far. That something that pushes me past the finish line.  After my first race, I did not realize until others stopped, that we had continued to paddle past the finish line.  How is it that we are ready to keep paddling past the finish line? When others are ready to quit or feel relief?  I get it now. Yet, I find it difficult to explain. Reach! Full in! Finish! New words to me. Focus on now and get it done!

I think back.  It's race day and the finish line is in the back of the boat. Pain dissipates. Nerves are gone. Jitters are forgotten. Crowd cheering is inaudible, invisible. Boats nearby that are temporary enemies seem out of sight. Buoys have sunk into the horizon. I see nothing but my teammates arms in the air. Stay in stroke. Follow! Push! Breathe! I growl as I find more than I have from nowhere to stroke again. I know not where the finish line exists. I do not keep track of what is behind me because it would tell me how far I have yet to go. I never counted my sessions in chemotherapy.  I never wanted to feel how far away the finish line was to reach. When I ride my bike up an impossible hill, I look down at the pavement putting the uphill horizon out of view under the brim of my hat. I keep peddling knowing eventually I will reach the top. I know there will be an end, so I worry not about how many more I must endure or push out! It's getting there that matters. I use that in my mind to keep paddling. Pretending to count an unknown total. Five more strokes. Then five more. Five more strokes keeps me going. Adding the total distance hinders me. My sense of time betrays me and I exist in the moment over and over. I can't hear what's around me and so I focus on the paddler in front of me for the moment. I am still learning and so I do my best to mimic what I see before me. My muscles want to give out and collapse. I argue with myself, No!! Keep going. The more my body wants to give in, the more angry I become and give more. I remember the advice given earlier by a veteran, if you get tired, don't give up or pull out, just breathe through it and take a couple easier strokes, but stay in stroke no matter what! So my body shuts down as I'm silently yelling at myself inside, and I remember those words and follow what I don't quite understand until I do it. I close my eyes, despite the need to concentrate that I'm in a race. It's real. Why am I closing my eyes? I close my eyes and take two strokes easy. I breathe. I look back out into my own boat and I'm still in sync. I find the anger down within the pit of my stomach and push harder. I don't give in to my rookie weakness. I dig into the water harder. I finish and feel elated, spent, I want more.

Crossing the finish line is a high that does not last long. But when I cross it, I want to feel it again. It is the last race of the day, and it is over. It is the last race of the season, there is no more. My fear and anxiety are gone. My anger feeds my strength. My strength pushes me. It consumes me. I know I will be back for more. This has now become the first obsession of my life. I crave the strength it give me.  I feel the beat. It catches my heart and I'm ready to find my place. My husband is buying me my own paddle for Christmas. I continue to work out and can't wait to be back on the water again. This season is long already as I battle with my health again. Others encourage patience with healing as there is time over the winter to get ready for new competition. I am addicted to the pain in my muscles as they remind me of life. Disease and tragedy can try to take focus, but I want to be on the strong line. No longer in the blind spot, but on the open horizon breaking past the buoys. As I train for my first full season, I come to realize how much comes before the finish line. I am asked again why I joined this sport. Why do I like to paddle. Why do I put in the long hours of training and get up early to get on the river. Sometimes, no matter what I doesn't make any's just simply the feeling of being strong.
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