Part 1: Before the Surgery

“You’re a very pretty girl.  You won’t be after this.”   These were the words my neurosurgeon had for me a few days before performing surgery to remove a tumor from my head – a tumor the size of a baseball that we had just discovered only a week before.

When he told me this, I was lying in a hospital bed, after having just had a procedure that was supposed to minimize the bleeding in my brain during surgery.  I wasn’t allowed to move my legs (they had gone through a major artery in my upper thigh).  I couldn’t run, so my body started shaking instead.

“You’ll never be able to smell again.  We‘re going to have to cut through all your olfactory nerves…and there are, of course, risks to this surgery.”  Of course there are.  “You could wake up blind, paralyzed, get an infection in your brain….”

I was 20.  It was 2 weeks before my 21st birthday.  I didn’t know how to be with this.  I didn’t want any of it.

I appreciated the neurosurgeon’s honesty and directness.  He didn’t coddle me.  I learned later that he had a daughter my age and that his heart ached for me.  At the time, I simply thought he was cold and ruthless in his delivery.

I was released from the hospital the next day and told to come back Sunday night for my surgery that was scheduled for early Monday morning.  I had 2 days to deal with this.  I needed to move quickly.

I had an amazing boyfriend at the time, Tim.  I remember spending one evening that weekend staring at myself in the mirror, trying to imagine what I would look like “after the surgery”.  The neurosurgeon had showed me all the places that they would have to cut – down the center of my forehead, across my eyebrows, down the sides of my nose, across the top of my head…and of course, they would shave my hair.

Tim came over to stand beside me.  He didn’t try to make me feel better.  He just loved me.  Tim was a man who never resisted how Life was moving.  He didn’t pretend that he could control life.  He didn’t argue with life or beg it to be different than it was.  He just showed up and met it as best he could.  He was my teacher, even though I didn’t know this until many years later, well after we had gone our separate ways.

My mother, sister and I went to the hospital on Sunday evening.  It wasn’t until we were settled into my room that it really hit me.  “My world is about to change and there is nothing I can do.  I could die.  I could wake up from the surgery blind or paralyzed.  I could wake up horribly disfigured.”   I didn’t know which was worse.  I started shaking and sobbing.  My mother and sister didn’t know what to do.  They nervously moved around the room, wishing they could do something to help me.

The sobbing continued for a few more moments.  Then…as my being faced the reality that there was nothing I could do to get out of this moment…something surrendered.  It wasn’t anything “I” did.  The surrender happened only in the seeing that I couldn’t escape what was happening.  And something else came in.

That is the only way I can describe it.  One moment there was this unbelievable suffering and then in the next moment, there was just this Love and Presence.  It was me and not me.  And in that moment, I knew that it didn’t matter what happened – I could die, I could be disfigured, paralyzed, blind – it didn’t matter.  This Love was here and it was so much bigger than any of it.  This Love, that was me and more than me at the same time, It could meet whatever the next day was going to bring.

I woke up the next morning ready.  They came early to get me and prepare me for surgery.  My mom was crying.  I was calm.  I tried to tell her it was okay – not that everything would necessarily be “okay”, because the reality was that from the outside, it might end up not working out so well for her daughter – but that at the truest, deepest level, it was really okay.

This was the gift of “before surgery”.  There were many more gifts to come with “after surgery” – when – as my teacher Adyashanti likes to say, “the rubber really hits the road”.

“I want a balloon.”  Siena declared this as we were walking to the Farmer’s Market on Sunday.

Uh oh.  Not good.   I could already see where this was going, but it still didn’t take much for me to give in.  Siena entered the Farmers Market like a lion on the hunt.   She first caught scent of her prey when she sighted a couple of children carrying balloon animals.  And just 10 minutes later, her eyes locked on her prize – The Balloon Man.

“Mommy, there!  There he is.”

Crap.  Okay.  We head over.

“I bet you’d like a balloon” he asks.

Siena nods.

He offers her a choice.  “Would you like a butterfly, a flower or a bunny?”

“I want a sword.” she says.

Siena picks out a yellow balloon for her sword, her favorite color, and for the next 25 minutes, she is blissfully happy.  Until…

We were back home for no more than 5 minutes.  I was putting my bottles of raw milk from the Farmers Market in the freezer, when I heard a loud POP – then silence – then, “Mommy!”

I walked into the living room.  Siena was holding what was once a swanky yellow sword with a handle, but now looked like a rather obscenely large banana.

She looked at me and said, “I can still use it.”

“Yup.  It’s still a sword. “ I assured her and went back into the kitchen.

Thirty seconds later, I heard a low, hissing sound, followed by another “Mommy!”

Somehow her remaining sword had deflated and all that was left was a small yellow orb.  I waited and watched her.  How would she react?

And then came the uncontrollable sobbing.  It’s gone.  She realizes it now.  It won’t be coming back.

I go over and gently pick her, up placing her on my lap and wrapping my arms around her.  My heart is breaking as her heart breaks.  I look at her and just love her as she grieves this loss.

“I…” (sobbing)…”want…” (sobbing) …”to go back and get another one.”  She doesn’t want to be with this pain.

“I’m so sorry you’re balloon broke. I know you want another one. We’re not going back to get another one.”  My job is to be present with her in this pain and support her in seeing that if she allows herself to feel it, she can move through it.

Again. “I want to go back and get another one.”  More sobbing.

Gently I said, “We’re not going back.  I’m so sorry your balloon broke Lovey.”

The sobbing continued for another 5 minutes or so.  I held her tenderly.  I recognize that grief of losing something that brought you joy.  I recognize the desire to avoid feeling the pain.  And I know that the pain must be experienced and felt so that she can continue to live fully alive and open to life, without shutting down or putting up walls.

I knew the moment she wanted the balloon, that with the joy of having it, would inevitably come, the pain of its demise.  They came as a pair along with the balloon, the joy and the pain.   There was no way to give my daughter just the joy.  Just like me, she’s here to experience all that life brings and my job is to be present to her and support her in being present to herself through it all.

Much later in the day, when we were driving back from a trip to a nearby farm, she was holding on to her yellow balloon orb, all that was left of her sword.  “Look Mommy, it’s like a yellow apple!  I love it!”

“I’m so glad.”  I smiled.  My heart filled with the love of her, the preciousness of her and the gratitude that I get to experience her – all of her.

In the end, that turned out to be the question I had to answer.  Again and again and again. Sometimes the question demanded to be answered with an urgency and intensity that made everything else in my world stop until I faced it.  Other times, the question called me quietly, patiently, waiting to see if I’d pause in my busyness to notice it and pay attention.

When the day came that I had to decide whether or not to end my marriage – this question burned everything outside it to oblivion.  I had wrestled with whether or not to leave my marriage for a bit too long.  Life was becoming impatient.  My husband was becoming impatient.  It was time.  I jokingly called this day “My come to Jesus day.”

I spent the day in silence by the ocean. The whole day was a prayer, “Please show me what is true for me.  Please show me what will most serve all of us – my husband, my daughter, Life, the Whole…and well, me – this tender, earnest being on a journey of waking up fully.

I cried.  I listened.  I cried.  I sat with huge amounts of anxiety and sadness that I don’t even have words to describe.  And then, the question arose, loudly, clearly.  “What do you want to give your Life to?”

In that moment, I could no longer deny this truth that had been present in me the last couple of years – this truth that I knew, but didn’t want to know.  My marriage was done.

At the time, I didn’t even know all the reasons why it was done.  That would take time to unravel and understand.  I simply knew it was done.  And that left me with this question, “What did I want to give my life to?”  If my marriage was done and I stayed, I would be giving my life to safety and comfort, and I would be blatantly denying what was true for me.  I would be denying how Life wanted to move in me.  I would be choosing safety over truth.  Or, I could give my life over to Truth.  I could jump into the unknown and trust this Mystery unfolding to take me wherever It wanted me to go.

So I jumped.  And here is what I discovered.  I can trust this Mystery.  Completely.  If I can give up every idea of how I think things should look, what I think is “best” for myself or others, every should and shouldn’t – and instead – just listen deeply to the undercurrent of Life and let go into it, then things unfold with a magic, grace and ease that I could never conjure up on my own.

I also learned that every time I ignore or resist how Life wants to move or what is true for me, I suffer.  As soon as I catch myself suffering, the questions arises again, “What do I want to give my life to?”  And I get to choose once again.