In the moments after I wake up, one of my first thoughts is, “Am I in pain?” Some mornings it’s a bit hard to tell. I slowly turn to one side, testing to see whether I feel a pinch, or any tingling in my arms. Sometimes it is a sharp sting, sometimes it is the slow tightening of my chest, like something very heavy has suddenly been placed there. The pain often makes it difficult for me to sit up, so I take everything very slowly. I raise my arm, I twist at the hip, I cautiously inch my way up to a sitting position. It has only been one week since the surgery, and my body is still in recovery mode.
On some mornings, I can hear Nate playing downstairs with his dad and I feel my heart swell with happiness. “How lucky I am to be a part of this family,” I think. On other mornings, on those when the pain is bad, I think how sad it is that I am in this bed and missing out on the cuteness that is surely happening downstairs.
But then I shift my mind back to figuring out how I’m going to get out of bed. Everything feels very slow in the morning. Each movement is calculated to be gentle, cautious. I try turning, bending, reaching in several ways until I reach the side of the bed and slowly lift myself up. When I get out of bed, after taking my pain medication, I walk down the stairs. Each step, slowly slowly. I can hear Nate’s voice chatting away. He is busy making up words and peppering in a few of his favorites. He will point at Mitchell’s nose and say, “nose!” Then at his toes and say, “Toes!” At his water bottle and exclaim, “wawa!” Every word is its own exclamation, a lovely surprise at the miracle that such things as noses and toes and water simply exist.
I peek around the corner of the staircase and wait for Nate to see me. That first smile in the morning is the best. He sees me standing on the stairs and then he says, “mama!” And smiles a smile that says, “I knew you were there, all along.” I take the last few steps on the stairs with a concentration on savoring the slowness, because I know in mere moments the hurricane that only a 17 month old can create will soon overcome me. I wish I could be part of the hurricane with Nate and tear through the house, the world, my heart with the assuredness and strength that only those who don’t know the dangers of life can do. Instead, I practice the art of slowing down. I walk over to the couch and sit down, and again build a little fortress of pillows around me.
Nate wants to crawl up my legs and demands, “Up,” “Uppy,” Up!” I can’t pick him up yet, so he wiggles his way up my legs and manages to get onto my lap and snuggles back into the pillow protecting my chest. As he sits there, I try to relax. I try to straighten my back, to not hunch my shoulders to protect my healing body, and to let out a few deep breaths and enjoy the fleeting stillness of this moment. But just as quickly as he scrambled onto my lap, he wiggles his way down again and is off running into the kitchen. It turns out that “up!” doesn’t actually mean, “pick me up,” rather, it’s more akin to “hold me, please.” Sitting on my lap while being separated by a protective pillow, is not the same as a real cuddle, so he moves on, taking off into the kitchen, yelling “milky!” or more often than not, simply yelling.
My chest is sore, but mostly it is numb. The most significant area of pain is actually under my arms, which strikes me as strange after a bilateral mastectomy. My mobility is also restricted. I can raise my arms to almost parallel to the floor now, but not much higher. Watching Nate run and play and laugh reminds me that the surgery may have (temporarily) broken my body, but it certainly did not touch my heart, nor my capacity to feel love (or heartache).
Healing will take time. I don’t mind the slowing down. I think it’s a good thing. It helps me to focus on each movement, each moment. Last Mother’s Day was my first. Nate was only 5 months old. I was still in the exhausted but elated stage of motherhood. Just 7 months later, at the age of 35, and just 5 days before Nate’s first birthday, came the diagnosis. I’m still sorting too much out to say that I have a new perspective this Mother’s Day, but perhaps I have more perspective. A cancer diagnosis has the ability to make life feel too fast, too short. So right now, my mother’s day gift to myself is to allow myself the time and energy needed to hone the art of slowing down.