It’s hard to go back and read essays I wrote years ago. Before the divorce. Back when I was making dinner and singing songs and baking bread. I shake my head at how naive I was. How sheltered I was. How ridiculous of me to make that much bread. The world as I knew it fell beneath me like a molten floor, and I simply crumpled in the melting.

It’s hard to dig even deeper, to when I was first diagnosed with cancer. When they told me they’d probably take out my eye, and it would ruin a perfectly fine legal career. I’d be filled with radioactivity and wonder every six months whether that melanoma would permeate my liver with death and have to look like a pirate with a patch on a Tuesday. I had needles shoved in my eye to relieve the pressure and later it was filled with oil just to hold up my stupid retina. Imagine, I told my mother. An eyeball filled with oil.

You know what else is hard? To have been strapped down to a table before surgery, because your baby is seven months along and you feel his heart beating strong. To feel his kicks and his little hands and to know you are his sole and undivided protector. And they tell you they have to operate and remove the cataract or your eye will explode but you refuse anesthesia because of him, inside of you, living. So you sweat and you can hardly breathe but for the tube and you are covered in plastic and iodine. “Whatever you do,” the surgeon said, “you cannot move.” “Oh God,” I thought. “Here we go again.”

And oh, my first born. She exploded out of me as a brilliant fire. And yet the staph infection set in, and my gut raged, and I was in and out of being present, and the pain hurt so much I didn’t even feel it anymore. They cracked me open and took out all my organs, and then put them back again, freshly flushed with a saline rinse and Vancomycin. For a month I lay there, turning and searing and begging God to someday let me see my baby. I put my lipstick on despite the raging fevers. I tried to pretend I didn’t feel the stabbing pain of pumping with a ripped-up gut in a delirious drug-induced belief that I’d go home and breastfeed my child. I cracked bad jokes to the nurses, thinking it would earn me freedom.

It’s hard to go back. To take a moment to stare at the burned parts, the ones seared into the fabric of my life. I have not just waded, but tore my boots off and plunged head-first into some very troubled waters. And each time, I asked. “God? Are you there?” All those Bible stories I learned just seemed to fade away. All the times I sat with my gloves on in church on Sunday just seemed like fools gold. Oh, God. I am too young to die like this.

There was no still, small voice. There was no Charlton Heston voice either. There were no words at all. But God spoke straight into me. I was fully loved. He was present. I did not have to handle this. And although I didn’t hear this last part, he was probably also like “take deep breaths” and “so when we are done here let’s not have any more children, K?” and “girl, that bread just goes straight to your hips so for the love of heaven eat more kale.”

Sometimes it’s okay to remember. Because in the hurt you see all the healing that’s taken place over a lifetime. You take note of the way in which it’s formed you. You recognize the power of vision – in hindsight – even with one eye.

You see for the first time how far you’ve really come.




Role Play

It’s no surprise that I went into health law. Being a natural control freak, it has been nice over the past dozen years to be the one in charge. To say to a surgeon, who is so incredibly skilled and calm under pressure, it’s okay. Let me explain how this works. Even though inside, I’m probably laughing a bit, like “this is only a deposition!  If it ends badly, what’s a half-day mediation among friends?” And yet I’m a lawyer, and this is what I know. Surgeons tell me colonoscopies are easy, but you stick me in front of some sleeping guy with a probe, I’d faint on his anesthesia-filled abdomen like a Victorian bride.

I think I’ve worked with doctors long enough to know how to relate to them. They know how to deduce and diagnose and empirically treat.  We lawyers know how to protect and defend and watch over them.  We each play an important role.  And, if my legal knowledge fails to impress a physician, I simply need to sit for an hour listening to their drug-seeking patients explain how they flushed their Norco pills down the toilet by accident while the doctor gets back on schedule.  That wins them over every time.

If you are a drug-seeking patient, by the way, let’s all just agree to come up with more creative stories.  How many times does one actually lean over and inadvertently dump an entire bottle of pills into the toilet?  Pills that are allegedly so vital to your daily survival as a human being?  If this really does happen, you should (1) create some other story that sounds more plausible, maybe one involving aliens; (2) “I left them in my friend’s car in Las Vegas” is never an acceptable substitute; and (3) try to go without your pain medication for a day so you won’t fall asleep or feely loopy while you are learning basic life skills like “hand stability” and “how to open child-safety locks without spraying pills all about the dang place.”   

But whether you’re a doctor or lawyer or rocket scientist, it’s never fun looking at life from the vantage point of a patient.   When I was lying there in a hospital bed in a paper-thin gown so many times, staring at water-stained ceiling tiles, I felt helpless. I hung onto my physician’s every word.  I tried to understand the things they were all collectively telling me, but it all sounded so strange.  You have a detached retina.  You have an unexplainable infection.  Your heart stopped. You have cancer. Those statements were harsh and foreign to my ears.  I wasn’t trained at this.  I was out of my comfort zone. All I saw was a doctor’s mouth moving, throwing my entire world around like balls in the air.  Cataracts and cancer.   Bleeding incisions and scars.  Bouncing up and down, up and down, up and down.  Crazy words I couldn’t control.

Then I realized we are most scared of what we don’t understand. I understand how to be a lawyer.  Pediatricians understand why children get sick.  Surgeons know how to cut. But put a doctor on the witness stand, or try to explain a complex Rule 11 agreement, or why a counter-claim is necessary, and a doctor looks more like a patient who has been told they have a tumor.  What?  Come again?  I’ve not researched that.  I’m not trained in this area.  For this, I am not prepared.  And that’s terrifying.

We all want to feel comfortable.  Some are experts at making an Americano with two raw sugars and a dash of steamed milk.  Others can peel cysts off an ovary with their bare hands.  Others still can argue a case in front of a Federal Judge and an impaneled jury.  But put any one of them in different shoes, and there would be mass hysteria.  Vascular surgeons building houses?  Internists writing contracts? Lawyers fixing air conditioning units?  Unacceptable.  Type A people like us need to be in control.  That’s why we chose a career that only some can attain.  Multiple degrees somehow shield us from failure.   From attack.  From fear.

But to be a child of God, we must strip off the titles.  It doesn’t really matter whether you pour coffee or set broken bones.  God doesn’t give you more points for writing contracts than for fixing sewer lines.  We all simply have a role to play in this world.  Trust me – if a thoracic surgeon is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he is no better off than a gardener or a street sweeper.   Titles nor residency nor a thousand letters of reference matter.  They all just float like dead leaves to the ground.  People crunch atop them on the way to their office buildings and news stands and subway stops.  Student loans and years of education are useless, ready to be bagged up and thrown away, never to be thought of again.

Self-importance has no role to play in a Christian’s life.  We aren’t meant to find our worth in a material world.  Through our titles or careers.   Through our lineage or trust or years of service.  We are simply designed to serve.  To seek God’s truth and wisdom as vigorously as we pursue our degrees, and when we feel that we know enough, realize that we have so much left to learn.  After all – we all have scars, and bleeding incisions, and cancer that invades our purest intentions.  We are all drug-seekers of some kind, although our drug is power and control and feeling too comfortable rather than something we abuse in pill form.

Someday, in the blink of an eye, it will all be over.  On that day, we walk in tandem. The drug seekers.  The doctors.  The lawyers.  The latte makers.  We are all on the same level field, playing a role until the curtain comes down.

diamond dust

I am no stranger to eye surgery.  I’ve had so many of them you’d think it would be easier just to rip the thing out and replace it with wood puddy.  I’m sure all eye cancer survivors are familiar with this feeling. But the last one was different.  It could have been because I was at a different place.  Or used a different surgeon.  Or, quite possibly, it could have been the fact that I was awake the entire time.

It all happened in a blur – the doctors telling me that I had a cataract that simply must be removed, that my eye was dangerously close to exploding with excess pressure, that my retina would forever be damaged.   The procedure had to be done sooner rather than later or face rather ugly consequences.  But I was pregnant – over six months so – and I didn’t want to do it.  But there I was, faced with the choice of having surgery while pregnant, IV drugs and anesthesia seeping into my son’s developing little brain, or waiting as each long day stretched on to see if my eye would blow up like a defective bomb.  Did they think I’d risk anesthesia drugs when I wouldn’t even eat feta cheese for fear my unborn child might get botulism? That’s crazy talk.

So I asked the logical question.  Can I do it without anesthesia? After all, Lidocaine would numb up the eye so I couldn’t feel any pain.  Right?  “Uh, I guess,” the doctor said.  He said he had a heart patient once that couldn’t have anesthesia or his heart would stop, and that guy lived.  This was his one eclectic example.  Awesome.

But on the day of surgery, it wasn’t a joking matter. A much older nurse walked in and repeated that I was to have eye surgery with only a small amount of IV anesthesia.  “You are mistaken,” I said loudly (how did I know she wasn’t actually hard of hearing?).  “No anesthesia,” I said.  “None at all.”

Another nurse came in to start an IV, which is apparently a requirement whether you have drugs or not, and we all listened with a fetal heart rate monitor to my little boy, kicking and spinning happily in my belly, oblivious to the word outside the womb. Finally, I saw the surgeon.  But instead of assuring me that this would be fine and my decision to go IV-free was a noble one – he thought it might be wise to let me know that moving, even a slight bit, could have disastrous consequences.  I didn’t find this little lecture particularly comforting.  Does one tell an astronaut that one false move might mean he’s forever thrust into the abyss of space, never to return to the life and family he knew?  Not helpful.  But there he goes, telling me to be still.  Like moving during awake surgery would be something I planned on doing.  “Can’t you tape my head down with duct tape?” I asked.  He snickered at that, which I thought was a perfectly reasonable request.  “Won’t do any good,” he replied.  “If you were going to move, no tape would hold you.”

Then, as my face turned to the color of copy paper, he told me that since my eye was full of oil (to hold up my tired and radiation-damaged retina), which is “not like normal folks,” it was also possible that his incision might cause the oil to come rushing out like slicing a hole in a water balloon, running into places it shouldn’t.  “That would be a real emergency,” he said.  He waits until now to tell me this? “Well let’s try to avoid that,” I said, seeing my husband out of the corner of my good eye kicking the floor.

Finally, I was wheeled to the OR.  Along the way, I was lectured by the anesthesiologist that at any time he would start IV anesthesia if I couldn’t handle the pressure, or got too anxious.  “I’ll be just fine,” I lied, thinking about oil oozing out of my eye and into my brain, laughing and dancing with freedom.

The temperature in the OR felt something like Alaska in the dead of winter, so they covered me with warm blankets.  They began to strap probes to my chest and someone stuck a breathing tube in my nose.  “What the heck’s that for?” I asked, but everyone was so busy they didn’t answer.  Then, I realized why.  After wiping half my head down with iodine, they stuck a piece of plastic down around my face with a hole in it in the center to expose the surgical field.  The rest seemed to cling like saran wrap and came down on all sides.  It now made perfect sense why all the nurses were asking me if I had claustrophobia.  I think perhaps I do, just a bit, when my face is covered in plastic so that the only way I can breathe is to assume oxygen is coming in through the tube in my nose.  Huh. Didn’t see that one coming.


So there I was, sucking down oxygen, my arms secured to my side with Velcro straps, waiting.  Dear Lord.  I just can’t do this on my own.  Finally, after a few shots of a numbing agent, the surgeon went to work.  I tried to imagine I was lying on the beach in Aruba the summer my husband passed his bar exam, the night we sat on the sand and watched the moon edge into the night sky.  I used those tips they gave you in yoga and childbirthing classes, relaxing and breathing in deeply.  I told God that this effort was for my unborn child, which should count for double, so maybe this thing could just hurry-on-up.

Then, I heard my surgeon ask the nurse for an instrument (I’m making up the words of the instruments since I don’t remember the exact medical terms).

“I need a 2.75 septical,” he ordered.  Pause.

“We have a 2.8 septical, Dr. Walters,” she said clearly in response.

“I actually need the 2.75,” he replied.  Suddenly I’m ripped from Aruba and I’m back in an operating room, feeling like I’m participating in my own nightmare.  I wanted to yell at the nurse.  “He wants a 2.75!  Give him what he wants, damnit!”  I was screaming on the inside. I thought I might be shaking. Suddenly, the nurse’s voice reappeared.

“Here it is, doctor,” she said, as she must have been attempting to hand it to him.  Another pause.

“Actually,” he said, “I don’t trust your instruments.  Can you rip open my emergency kit?” he asked someone in the distance.  “That one there, right by the door?  Reach in and grab by 2.75 septical.”

Of course, the emergency kit.  During surgery where I can’t move or my eye oil will come oozing out and bad things will happen.  And I’m freaking pregnant.  Does any of this shock me?  Of course not.  That’s exactly my luck. But I am usually not awake to hear about it.

Annnnnd, he was in my eye again, doing something important.  Suddenly, I was sweating.  Why was I covered with so many blazing hot blankets?  I couldn’t find the moon anymore. And my nose had a sudden itch that couldn’t be scratched.  After what felt like an hour, I tried to speak.  Being fearful that talking might make me somehow move, it sounded more like “whaddadon.”

“Well right here, I’ve got an instrument with diamond dust on the bottom,” he said, emphasizing the word diamond like it was supposed to be really impressive.  “I’m just doing a little scrubbing.  You’ve got lots of debris in here I’m trying to get rid of.”

“I sure like diamons,” I muttered through my clenched jaw.  He snickered at that one.

Eventually, it was over.  They ripped the plastic off my face, unhooked my arms, and let me breathe good ‘ol OR air without a breathing tube.  As I was wheeled back to the post-op room, where my husband was waiting, I felt strangely normal.  “Pretty easy,” I lied.

My son is two years old now, full of energy and strength.  He is a wanderer, my boy.  He likes to be outside, exploring and running and feeling the dirt in his hands. He is strong.  He is healthy.  He is perfect.  I use my eye to wink at him, my precious son, as he runs around the back yard with disheveled hair.  I have my hand on my hip, about to stir up a batch of brownies.

“Ya’ll be careful on that slide,” I’ll yell through the open window.  My heart is filled with a surge of love as I see him.

Diamond, or no diamond, I am so incredibly rich.  I am filled with so many blessings I feel like my soul might burst instead of mere oil.  I am lucky to survive.  I am lucky to be linked with such a strong, beautiful man.  I am lucky to have two children who take my breath away on a daily basis.

But truth be told, it’s not really luck.  I’d have run out by now given the comedies of my life.  I think instead it’s grace, and a love greater than one I’ve ever known. God was there then.  He is there now.  Guiding and holding me still when my body is full of tremors and doubt and fear.

Sometimes that love is too overwhelming for me to take in, like a basket full of diamonds twinkling in the light of the afternoon sun.  I sure like diamonds.  They remind me of things that are pure, and unchanging.  Things that last forever.

lucky one

I remember the marble being such a pretty color, peachy with ribbons of coral running through it.  It was everywhere.  Marble tub.  Marble sink.  Marble floor. “That’s a lot of stinkin marble,” I thought to myself as I was lying there, half-naked, face-down on the floor with a nose that might be broken. I was only sixteen.  When it happened– the familiar burning and surging and cramping in my abdomen– I’d carry pillows with me to the toilet.  I figured that if I passed out, they would break the fall.   It never worked, and I never learned.

Once, after waking up on the floor in a public stall, I simply wiped my face off and headed back to Chemistry class.  My friends in college all freaked out in that dramatic, ohmygodshe’stotallygoingtodie way, as supportive as newly formed friends who share a common dormitory can possibly be.  The doctors never figured out why the pain caused me to pass out.  The neurologist ruled out epilepsy, although according to some probe-strapping test, something was definitely a “bit off” with my brainwaves.  That explains a lot.  But one day, I had a beautiful little girl and I never passed out again.

My life doesn’t exactly follow the odds.  I guess you could say I’m lucky.

▪               Ten years ago, an oncologist told me I had a chunk of melanoma living in my eye socket.  Eye cancer is very rare, as it turns out.  One in a million.  Who knew I’d get to travel to Philadelphia and have surgery in one of America’s oldest cities?  As it turns out, I love cheesesteak and Thomas Jefferson.

▪               When I was in the hospital after the birth of my daughter, first a week and extending to three and then four, undergoing multiple surgeries and stabbing myself with blood-thinner injections, I was told it wasn’t exactly normal.  I tried to put on lipstick to make it all better, but with a four-week-old child at home I’d barely begun to hold, Chanel can only do so much.  Don’t get me wrong – it can do a lot. But there are limits.

▪               Most people don’t pass out after having their wisdom teeth extracted and have CPR performed in the oral surgeon’s office lobby because they had some extreme reaction to Demerol. Lucky for me, they had some sort of anti-Demorol agent locked away someplace they stuck in my arm.  I remember getting to drink juice when I woke up. But then again, I’ve woken up from loads of surgeries, so I might be getting them all confused.

▪               Before the birth of my son, right after the spinal tap was placed and the medicine was slowly crawling through my veins toward the arteries of my heart, it stopped. The monitor would just so naturally flatline, because that’s what luck I have.   But like I arose from the marble floor, so too would my heart begin to beat.  After, of course, the chest compressions, the stabbing of epinephrine, and some other medication that apparently gives you dry mouth.

So it wasn’t all that surprising that our house was struck by lightning.  And instead of killing us or burning our house to the ground, it instead wiped out all our plumbing.  “That’s very rare,” the fireman said.   Yeah.  Welcome to my life.  Things happen to me.  Things that don’t happen to normal people.

I can’t help but think God has some grand scheme behind all of this, like there is some grand point to be made.  In response, I’m actively searching for what that is.  What role I need to play in the universe in return for my good fortune.  I’m open, as they say, to change.

I am truly grateful for the moments in which we are tested.  To see what’s most important.  I am grateful for a faith, true and honest, despite all reason to the contrary.  I am grateful for this body, as battered and broken as my insides might be.  I am grateful that I’m not married to some boring widget of a man, but a man bursting at the seams with heart.  I’m grateful for my children, deep in character and beauty.  I’m grateful that we are living in a rental, with Goodwill furniture and mice in the garage, because we are together. And laughing.  Last night, I fell asleep holding my husband’s hand.  And today, my daughter told me she’d give me hugs and kisses even when love got so sweet it turned rotten.   I’m a lucky, lucky girl.

I think I’m going to buy a lottery ticket.  I’d probably lose.  Just my luck.