I am happy to say that I am about halfway through my stem cell transplant hospital stay! It feels like an appropriate time to start reflecting on what I’ve experienced so far during this process. The entire transplant is not simply the 3 week stint in Chicago, but a process of rebuilding that will take several years. However, I’m already experiencing changes in my body and most certainly in my mind. When I look back at this time this is what I hope to remember-not the chemo, the pain, the boredom-but the important life lessons I can share from this process. And these are some of the things I want to be able to tell my children I learned from this process.
Lesson 1: Spread laughter.
It’s no secret that I have an amazing support system. Frankly I wouldn’t be here without it. My general tendencies to bare my feelings make me more serious than not, so I knew I would need someone to lighten things when the transplant days got, well, dark. The husband of my forever friend sends me jokes every single day. My forever friend sends me pictures of comics featuring palindromes. My favorite joke? “What’s so great about living in Switzerland? Well the flag is a big plus.”
Funny enough (puns!), I wrote cards for my kids to read each day that I will be away, and what did each card feature? A joke. What do we talk about when we FaceTime? The jokes. It’s not hard to find a joke book and pass along a laugh, but it makes a huge difference. Spread laughter.
Lesson 2: Marry someone with whom you can be silent
The days are long and the room is small. I haven’t spent this much time alone with my husband since our honeymoon, but it confirms that I chose the right person. We are both introverts, and the fact that we have flourished during a high pressure situation where one of us is not feeling her best taught me A LOT about marriage. Obviously, I want my kids to marry people who make them happy and who they love. But there is also something to say about the particular intimacy of being able to sit in silence next to each other on a particularly uncomfortable bench with no TV, phones, or distractions, and just be together.
Lesson 3: Good Manners Matter
Since I arrived in Chicago, I’ve been at the mercy of hundreds of caretakers, helpers, hospital and hotel employees. I was always going to have to depend on countless other people. How pleasant those interactions were depended on another factor-mainly me.
I’ve befriended so many people here simply by saying please and thank you, remembering names, smiling, and looking people directly in the eye when speaking to them. Of course, it’s important that all of this is done with authenticity (people know when your blowing smoke up their bum!). I’ve made the continuous effort to let my helpers know they matter to me as people. What I’ve gotten in return is unbelievable care and attention, not to mention directions to a wig website, a suggestion to have High Tea in Boston this spring, on call rides from the hospital to hotel, GF restaurant ideas, and a hallway brightened with Christmas decorations. My greatest triumph was finally connecting with one particular medical tech after four days of trying. She was a tough cookie to crack, but even she eventually started calling me JoJo and giving me her secret recipes.
I can’t say whether these people would just have done these things regardless of my behavior, but it feels good on both ends to not only be grateful, but to show how grateful you are for someone.
Lesson 4: Be compassionate (especially with yourself)
The day after my actual stem cell transplant I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t done as good of a job as I could have (darn perfectionism!). I woke up with a fever than ignited a particular antibiotic protocol, and I truly thought I had messed up. Why hadn’t I meditated more? Why did I sleep with socks on? What had I eaten that could have made me feel lousy? In my mind there clearly was something that I did or failed to do to bring on a fever rather than the fact that my body was engaged in full on war.
Then I received a text on my phone from a friend I’ve had since I was 7 years old.
I’m compassionate with others, why not with myself. Yesterday was another day when I woke up feeling lousy after 2 days of feeling pretty decent. But this time I didn’t place blame. We are all doing our best.
Lesson 5: Trust fall (this is the BIG one)
Do you remember trust falls? Popular at school leadership retreats and corporate outings, even the movie Mean Girls referenced this exercise when an individual crosses her arms and free falls into a crowd that is supposedly going to catch her. Scary? Maybe. Cheesey? Kinda. Important metaphor? I think so.
I’m very lucky to say that trust falls have never been a fear of mine. I did my first trust fall at a student council meeting in the 5th grade, and from then on was generally the first volunteer. Stepping up and giving in to the belief that others will catch you is simply central to who I am. I’ve never understood book characters with trust issues, I’ve never had trouble with baring my feelings, and I’m frankly not sure how I avoided meeting a stranger with Skittles during my childhood. While I obviously want my children to be a bit more leery than I am, I want them to know the amazing things that can happen when you let yourself trust and fall.
It’s not that I haven’t been burned in the past-I have. But the connections that I formed and the memories I made despite the end results were worth it. So I’m still much more likely to go 100% in, allow myself to be vulnerable than to hold back. Like the character in this clip, I’ve always spoken my truth (on this blog and in life), but in a way that I hope has been authentic rather than brutally honest. In making the decision to be authentic, I’m making the active commitment to let myself be vulnerable.
And vulnerability lends directly back to trust, which leads to connections. Which is the lesson.
I’ve been on a journey while writing this blog through this transplant process. Balancing vulnerability and self compassion. Inviting authenticity to reign over insecurity. Questioning if there is a difference between what it means to let your crazy flag fly and what it means to let your light shine.
Admitting my fears, my hang ups, my failures, and my triumphs through my writing is very self-serving, but I’d never press “Publish” if I didn’t have the goal of connecting with others through this act of trust. I realized from my earliest posts that we are all going through something. Your struggles might not be like mine. They may not be health struggles, child-rearing struggles, or overcoming perfectionism struggles, but I am fairly certain that we all have struggles.
What if we all allowed ourselves to be vulnerable? What if we all actually let ourselves fall and trusted that someone would catch us? What if we admitted our mistakes out loud and then treated ourselves and each other with the compassion and kindness we need to thrive? What if we all told our stories so others felt they now had permission to tell theirs, too?
We might get burned. But I think we would walk away with something positive, too.
I am a little more than midway through the process of killing off cells in my body to trust that new healthy cells will grow in their places. I have climbed up on the trust fall stage. I have already felt my community catching me. And it feels pretty damn good.