Lately, I’ve been really reflecting on what has been making me so anxious about this surgery: the emotional disconnect with “out with the old, in with the new” (boobies, that is), not being able to care for my children, the amount of preparation that needs to go into taking 6 weeks off from work with an entirely new staff to handle the work load, the hospital, the risks of surgery, the preparation for “what if?”, or the realization that removing my breasts (and, eventually, ovaries) is the only way to reduce my risk of hereditary cancer? So, yeah, it’s probably all of those… and more.
I’m also not one to enjoy pain medication. While I’m a fan of the good old epidural during child birth, I usually do not take any Tylenol for headaches or cold medicine for a cough or even ice packs for sore muscles. It’s not that I enjoy pain, it’s just that I know medicines usually mask the pain.
I’ve been given lots of advice in the past few months. One piece of advice that keeps popping up, though, is “take the pain medication, Liza.” My mastectomy pro’s have told me that “reducing the pain will help you recover.” And, recovery is good. But, taking pain medication is outside of my comfort zone. I like being aware. I like being in control of my surroundings. I spent a lot of time not aware of who I was; in college, I spent lots of time using alcohol to mask my insecurities or to help me enter into a comfort zone. I made the choice, later in life, to no longer engage in masking who I was. And, while that put me out of my comfort zone for a while, I’m now much more comfortable being in control of my body and mind.
While in a meeting at work, my phone began to vibrate. I glanced down and saw a familiar — yet, distant — name pop up on my screen. “Julie Burke.” Why in the world would Julie Burke be calling me?
In the 4th grade, I became friends with a girl who was completely different from me. A huge, bushy, chestnut brown ponytail, attached to cafe’ skin, bright brown eyes, and a huge smile, took off like lightening. “Who is that new kid?” everyone asked. No one knew her name. All we knew is that this girl was the fastest thing we had ever seen in our lives. At the Elementary School Field Day, whizzing around the track, even the boys couldn’t catch her. We became fast friends – both having crushes on the same boys, Chris and Jamie, and we alternated which fantasy boyfriend was cooler, cuter, and more adorable. When I got my appendix out in the 5th grade, Julie made two boys, who I thought were super hot, write me a Get Well card that said, “Dear Liza, we are drooling over you. We love you.” I still remember it because the boys actually spelled “drooling” like “drolling”, and I had to ask my mom what the heck “drolling” meant. She said, “Kids should not be writing that kind of stuff.” Oh, mom, how innocent that was back in the day!
“Julie Burke? Why the heck is Julie Burke calling me in the middle of the day?” my mind drifted from the meeting to my cell phone.
As soon as I could, I checked my voicemail. The familiar happy voice was bubbling with so much excitement that I had to replay it twice before I knew what she even said. “My mom is the on the board of this organization called The Charity Guild and they are having a fund raiser gala. I want you to go with me!”
I actually found Beth before I found Julie. Facebook has a funny way of connecting you to people, and “Beth Burke” was a friend of my brother, Paul. She was one of my brother’s gal pals, the girl who was always at our house, and when we couldn’t find Paul, we’d call over to Beth’s. It was only recently did I find out that Paul would even go over there when Beth wasn’t home, to raid her mom’s kitchen cupboard of snacks and treats. Some things never change. Through Beth, I found Julie. I remember going through that Facebook moment before hitting “request”: Should I even friend her? Will she even know who I am? Julie left the public school system in junior high, and I had not talked to her since the 6th grade. I went ahead and did it any way, and I realize now how much my life has been impacted by Julie and how much I would have missed had I stayed within my comfort zone.
“Beth and I are going to run, too!” Julie wrote on my Wall. Here they were, these two women (who were still girls when I knew them) were going to train for, and run, the Worcester 1/2 Marathon with me in honor of my Marathon B4 Mastectomy journey. “Really?” I thought. “We haven’t seen each other in over a decade?” That was the start of my understanding that this journey – this 1/2 marathon and mastectomy – was so much bigger than me. This was an event for anyone who wanted to push a little more, to move outside of their own comfort zones, and to rally around something that made them feel good.
On June 13, 2010, I saw Julie and Beth for the first time in years. With Julie, it was the first time I had seen her, in my recollection, since she left in junior high school. Yet, there she was. Unchanged. Beautiful. The same chestnut brown, bushy ponytail. The same bright smile, deep brown eyes, and the spirit that makes you feel like you can do anything. We hugged; I cried (shocking, I know). We ran together for the first, oh, 30 seconds, and then she, her fiance, and her sister took off.
Throughout the course, I saw her parents — Jim and Brenda. They were at the mile markers where I felt I needed someone most. Though their girls, and their future son-in-law, had passed their support station long ago during the race, the Burke parents (and Beth’s husband, Rich), were there. The first time I passed them, I shouted and waved with enthusiasm and excitement. When the race course came back around after far too many hills, the second time I saw them, I sobbed. I was exhausted, and all I could mutter was, “Thank you. I love you.”
Aside from seeing their car pass me on the road during the race (and fighting the urge to scream, “Stop! I want a ride to the finish line!”) I saw a glimpse of them again at Mile 13.1.
Last night, I saw the Burke family again. When Julie called to invite me to the gala, I wanted to say, “No thanks! But, that was really thoughtful of you to invite me!” After all, Thursday’s routine is to work a long day, pick up all three kids, get everyone a snack and drink while driving to karate, get everyone dressed for karate and into the studio before the Sensei notices they are late, and keep Evan from knocking down all the trophies that happen to be at his eye level. Then, rush home, let out the dog, dinner, baths, bed time stories, and finally, the long process to get everyone to sleep. Thursdays are rough.
“Hi, Julie. I’d love to join you! Thank you so much for thinking of me! I can’t wait – earrings and a dress? Dang, it’s gonna be awesome!!” is what I said to Julie. What I was thinking was, “It’s been a rough week. I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom. I’ve cried every single day. I’ve felt like a failure. I don’t want to do this anymore.” After I got off the phone with Julie, I took a deep breath, and actually laughed for the first time that week.
Then, my mind began to focus on the logistics of the night. We haven’t seen one another, really, since we were kids. Will we have enough to talk about? Will we be awkward? What if we are so different — too different — to talk?
Then, I remembered Julie. Not the Julie she was back in 4th grade, but the Julie I have learned about this year. I remembered the vibrant, wonderful messages she sent me via Facebook this year. I remembered her funny messages to her sister, her love for her dog Millhouse, and her kind spirit for joining me on this journey. I remembered the incredible work she does with the Massachusetts Women’s Forum and her sassyiness.
Four hours on Thursday night was not enough time to spend with Julie and her family. We could have hung out for hours, talking, laughing, and connecting. Funny thing is, when I pulled into the parking lot where the gala was being held, I had to tell myself, “Stretch past your comfort zone.” Yet, when I walked in and saw Julie, I realized that this was my comfort zone. Being around wonderful people — people who genuinely care more about others than they do of themselves — is exactly where my comfort zone is. Being surrounded by laughter, joy, and interest is exactly where my comfort zone is.
I realize this morning that attending the gala wasn’t about forgetting my pain for a few hours. The experience of pain allowed me to appreciate the joy of life, the value of friendship, and to truly see the warmth of the human spirit.
I’m surrounded by people who tell me that “this, too, shall pass.” Truth is, friendship is about knowing how to help others move past the pain, rather than sitting by the sidelines and wondering if it’ll get better. Friendship is about knowing when to push someone past their comfort zone, and being with them until it’s no longer unfamiliar.
“To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived — that is to have succeeded.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thank you, in a very special way, for all of you who have helped me through this week of ups-and-downs, good moments and bad moments, and for letting me share with you here. Thank you for both pushing me past my comfort zone and for allowing me to stay entrenched within it during difficult times.Thank you to those who reached out to me to share your own experiences with depression, with sadness, with grief and with anxiety. Thank you for pushing past your own comfort zone in sharing, and for creating a new one for me to join you.
Peace, love, and breathing easier this week,