Estrogen-positive breast cancer and alcohol are like fire and gasoline:

Food for thought…that relaxing cocktail may not be the answer to your bad day!

Kim Chaffee- My breast cancer story

Estrogen-positive breast cancer and alcohol are like fire and gasoline:

At my last medical appointment my primary MD, informed me that drinking alcohol and having a history of cancer is asking for problems. So when I went home, I researched this topic. I was stunned to discover how high the odds are ( 90% ) increase of remission when drinking any type of alcohol.

So here is a bit of a summary of Dr. Kathleen T Ruddy’s article:

Alcohol and Estrogen Compete:

Alcohol and estrogen are both metabolized in the liver using similar biochemical pathways. So if the liver is busy clearing alcohol from the bloodstream, estrogen levels will rise as they wait their turn through the liver. Therefore, women who drink regularly, like every day, will have chronically elevated levels of estrogen circulating in their bloodstream. And since estrogen is the equivalent of light, sweet crude for the breast cancer engine, it’s easy to see why regular alcohol consumption…

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New Study: Ultrasound and Breast Cancer

Next time you visit your doctor, ask about an ultrasound in addition to your mammogram. Stay vigilant! ❤ – breast health, breast imaging, breast knowledge.

Philips Ultrasound EPIQ - Breast by Philips Communications (via Flickr) Copyright Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Philips Ultrasound EPIQ – Breast by Philips Communications (via Flickr) Copyright Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a new study reported in February’s Radiology, the importance of breast ultrasound as an addition to mammography was again highlighted. Ultrasound was shown to find breast cancers in women not seen on mammography.

We know that in the case of dense breast tissue, ultrasound is a valuable imaging technique. While mammography is one of the best screening tools for breast cancer in our arsenal (along with self exams and CBEs), one problem is dense breast tissue which can hinder the detection of breast cancer. Sensitivity of mammography in detecting cancer in patients with dense breasts is less than in women with fatty breasts – an unfortunate reality researchers are working hard to address.

This is where ultrasound comes in with great strength. As an addition to mammography…

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Coming Home

photo(13)I walk down the long empty hallway of the school; it’s early… and eerily quiet.  I can’t help but feel nervous…I’ve got doubts, fears, questions.   I’m back at work after three months of living someone else’s life.  Am I up to it? Will I be too tired? The other day I stopped at Stewarts’ to grab some chips and stood in the middle of the store not knowing where to start — it was all different.  Feeling like Rip Van Winkle has become familiar…have I really been gone that long?  Will I feel as out of step here at work as well?

The hallway seems the same…after all, this school has been standing since 1959.  I graduated in its cramped gym on a stifling airless Friday night back in June of  ’79…started teaching here in as a single mom in 1988.  There’s been a few additions over the years and the individual room boundaries have been re-drawn a few times since then; the last major renovation saw the institutionalization of the rooms.  Their unique personalities and footprints erased in an attempt at sameness — real wood cabinets and bookshelves replaced by chipboard blue and green.  The same in every room.

Yet… amidst all this uniformity there is still room for magic and surprise.

I open my door.  Sunlight streaming through the bank of windows that overlook the front yard of the high school highlights pink balloons that magically hang from the white drop ceiling tiles.  A festoon of pink and white crepe paper frame the top of the windows and in oversize pink letters, “Welcome Back.”   In between the windows, two very large and very pink construction-paper ribbons.


“No man is a failure who has friends.”

Now, in honesty, I had seen this part of my surprise the day before, when I had gone in to get some copies made and get reacquainted with my room.  On Sunday, I had stood in the doorway with my bags gathered around my feet — amazed and overwhelmed with tears running down my cheeks.  In the Monday morning sun, its sheer joy and cheeriness still took my breath away.

To my left, the bobbing of pink and silver star and heart helium balloons catch my eye.  They are gaily tied to the arm of my rickety chair arm.  This was new…this had definitely not been here yesterday.  An involuntary laugh bubbles out; I feel like a seven-year old at Disney World.

And just when I think my heart could not be more full, students start appearing at my door…hugging me, showing off their pink sweatshirts and sweaters — some have drawn pink ribbons on their fresh cheeks.  They are proud…they want me to know they did this for me.  At first its just a trickle as they get off their buses and make their way to their lockers…and then more…and more…pink t-shirts, pink shirts, pink skirts…and finally, I realize, that nearly everyone is wearing something pink this morning.  What I thought at first must be coincidence sinks in as being planned…

My colleague sports a pink silk tie, I even see someone with a sign with the word “pink” written on it.  The student makes a point of apologizing to me.  Seems they didn’t have anything pink to wear and they wanted me to know they were still supporting me.  I am speechless.

And then…at my door appears a group of girls I am proud to have known, taught and coached — one I’ve known since she was a spindly elementary student in white go-go boots tagging after her big sisters.  They are a special group of girls — strong, beautiful young women who have known sorrow, yet they light up the room whenever they enter.  This morning they hand me bouquets of flowers — in beautiful shades of pink and rose — and they are sporting shirts that they had designed for this very day.  These are my magic-makers; those who had stealthily decorated my room and arranged for this homecoming.


These are my magic makers…

There are hugs and tears and then more arrive, until my girls are joined by the boys’ varsity soccer team…and there are pictures in their t-shirts.  We pose; I can’t hide the surprise and pride that fill every fiber of my being.


The Girls and Boys Varsity Soccer Teams…and a couple swimmers, too…

The bells ring…and off they go their separate ways…

I sit at my desk and I think to myself…how strange and awesome life is.  Last week at this time I would have been making my way to the hospital for radiation, returning to my quiet room, maybe taking a solitary walk downtown.  Now, here I am…almost as if I never left… like I had been beamed out of my life and then beamed back in…hardly missing a beat.

But it is different.  I am different.

Yet, the scent of bright flowers, the rustle of balloons, the steady stream of hugs and smiling faces — are like healing balm to the scars of the past few months.  My fears all seem silly at this point.

One of my favorite movies of all time is  It’s A Wonderful Life.   One of my favorite lines is when Clarence turns to George who finally realizes how lucky he really was…”Strange isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.  When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

It’s been one heck of a journey, but now I am home…among friends….and it’s going to be alright.

To borrow another tidbit of wisdom from George and Clarence, indeed I know, “It’s a wonderful life.”

 “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” - Harriet Beecher Stowe

“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

International Women’s Day 2014: Inspiring Change

Perhaps too many of us are unaware of the day…I know I was. A little reminder as we support one another on our journeys to celebrate our “sisters…”

Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

I met recently with a group of women in South Australia who are inspiring change. Pictured with members of Cancer Voices SA. I met recently with a group of women in South Australia who are inspiring change. Pictured with members of Cancer Voices SA.

Each year International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8. Inspiring Change is the 2014 theme, encouraging advocacy for women’s advancement everywhere in every way.

The history of this day goes back to  1910 when an International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. A woman named Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion…

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Hidden Jewels: Hellebores

A little taste of spring…lovely photographs and an informative discussion of these hardy additions to your garden. We all need a reminder that this snow will melt, eventually, and reveal such treasures in the warmer months. Until then….

Forest Garden

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 027

Hellebores shyly begin to grow in the middle of winter, sending up fresh new leaves and flower scapes under cover of their sturdy, evergreen leaves left standing from the previous season.    These thick, protective leaves offer cover from freezing temperatures, snow, ice, and winter winds.

January 26 2014 ice 004Hellebores in late January, finally emerging from several inches of snow.

Although they may begin to look a bit ragged by February, hellebores leaves are still vibrantly green in our garden.  It is only when these long, thick  leaves are finally cut away that the dazzling jewel like buds of the new season’s flowers finally shine.

Within just a few days of taking away the cover of old leaves, light reaches the new growth causing it to lengthen and the buds to open.  With the old foliage gone, the new flowers and leaves can fill out the display.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 011

Hellebores are hardy perennials, growing in moist…

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Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth….

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. "  John Keats

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. ” John Keats

I sat at the table, hungrily devouring warm shepherd’s pie and a hunk of salty Cabot Vermont cheese; but my spirit was in Rome…wandering amid the statues and ruins, dancing in a train of grotesque and yet-familiar revelers to the throbbing of techno-music, silently gliding beneath ancient stone bridges…gazing into the cloudy eyes of a saint, and listening in to the intelligentsia of contemporary Rome as they eviscerate one another…for sport.

For two days in a row, I had wandered downtown to the Roxy to wrap myself in the foreign film, The Great Beauty.   It is the story of a celebrity, who burst onto the literary scene as a young man to great acclaim, who, at 65, must constantly try to explain why he never wrote a second work of equal note. It is a movie of awesome images and juxtapositions; it illuminates the best and worst of human nature, the most inspirational and degrading artistic expressions of human creation, the blush of first love in the roseate glow of the setting Mediterranean sun and the cynicism of age and experience in the unforgiving wash of morning light.

Once established in my seat, wreathed with the scent of vanilla and cinnamon from my steaming tea and nibbling my cookie, I was ready to be catapulted from the blustery cold February afternoon into the golden haze of beauty so formidable that it could stop one’s heart…from beating…or loving..or creating.  Each day, tears would well in the same scenes, and slip quietly,  unabashedly down my cheeks…though I couldn’t really tell you specifically why.  I’m sure part of it was my visceral response to the aching beauty of the soundtrack and the breathtaking cinematography; but as I wandered back to Hope Lodge in the gathering dusk to the warm welcoming glow of the dining room and the hearty comfort of the shepherd’s pie, I searched for the deeper answer.  They weren’t tears of sorrow, nor tears of joy…what were their meaning?

I tried to write about it…but couldn’t find the words. I closed my laptop and shrouded it in its black travel case.

In these past few weeks of treatment, I too have fielded questions from my loved ones as to why I haven’t written lately.  And as I sit here, metaphorically scratching my head in an attempt to satisfy my disappointed friends and equally stumped self, I just now realize why.  It is the same reason that my Italian friend from the movie did not write…

The great beauty.

What is it?  I think I can describe it as the terrible beauty found in the revelation of the truth of your life as you experience it.  It is both inspiring and awful all at the same time…and when you catch sight of its bare-faced visage, in all its paradoxical nature, beaming like a shaft of light cutting through the motes of dust that dance in the still of a Sunday afternoon, it can literally stop your heart…

In these past few weeks, I’ve said goodbye to many people who have journeyed with me.  I have watched them sicken or strengthen, depending on their treatment…and as their time came to leave our nest, they have bravely gone their way. Some, like Mike the botanist, whose pirate’s name  “Scurvy Dog Watch” will be forever etched into my memory,  got sicker and sicker and then one day slipped away without a word.  I will never know if he made it back to the coast, and his beloved ocean, or saved any of the flowers he was tending, or if he ever had a day when he could finally find the warmth that so eluded him…or Rebecca, a young wife and daughter with a brain tumor, who slid a note under my door wishing me well.  She thanked me for being a good neighbor. I wish I had thanked her for bravely smiling through her many trials. But, it was too late…she was gone.  Her room now occupied by another patient, another voyager.

Fred and Irma, in their 80’s were my dining companions.  We would save seats for each other…a practice that got me sent to the corner in kindergarten.  We labored over the puzzle table…where she would sometimes write out her thank you notes in a beautiful script that is mostly forgotten now.  I knit a scarf for Irma, her favorite color — red like the flame of Methodism — and she wrapped it proudly around her neck and hugged me as if I were her daughter.  They left the next morning, Irma resolutely steering their truck back through the snow to Milton, VT  for the winter, Maine in the warmer months, and their own dining room table.  I don’t even have Irma and Fred’s address…

Debbie’s son is only 39 — a father of six boys — who is battling his cancers on a couple of fronts.  Debbie is so devoted to him, and he to his boys whom he missed terribly.  He loves the Red Sox, and baseball cards, and simply lights up when his wife comes to visit.  Debbie has known so much loss; both her parents died in a tragic accident, her brother and best friend passed away — she has survived divorce — and now she patiently and lovingly tends to her son who has grown so thin in response to the strong chemicals pumped into his frame.  She makes him eggs, and sweet tea, and plays another  hand of cards…I admire her strength, her amazing spirit, her resilience.  Enclosed in the card she hands me is an angel….and they load up the car and head for Barre.  She will fly back to Texas in a few days, Aaron will pick up the pieces of his life as best he can…and soldier on.  It will be a long and difficult fight.

There’s Jon and David — fast friends at different ends of the political spectrum — who would discuss anything but politics…wood working, their favorite fishing and hunting spots, Burlington in the 50’s and 60’s…the pastures that have given way to busy strip malls and highways, the waterfront when it was still industrial, driving up and down Church Street looking for young UVM co-eds, playing hockey and drinking beers in the snowbanks of the outdoor rinks….David waits each morning for his grand-daughter’s call as she walks to the end of her driveway to wait for the bus.  One morning, I overhear him as he says, “Do you think your father would let you come to our house this week-end?  We could do something fun — something you’d like.”  He is a magical grandfather that pulls coins from behind her ears, and dares her to do silly things like have whipped cream fights, and spray her mother with the hose. His daughter is constantly exasperated with him, but his grand-daughter will remember these adventures long after he is gone.

Jon leaves first…David will remain for another week or two.  I wonder if they will stay in touch — or if they will forget each other in the daily routine of normalcy.

Saturday morning.  My bags are loaded into the car, my room is clean and I make the bed with fresh linens. I ring the bell of hope, signaling the end of my treatment.  Angela gives me a little velvet pouch which contains a  silver angel.  When opened, she reveals three tiny hearts.  Angela hugs me and sends me on my way.   I write my letter to the new occupant of my room — I write about the love and support I have found here in a home full of strangers, and my hope for them to find the same.  I wish them health and happiness…and remind them to drink in the amazing view of the mountains from the bedroom window.

So much beauty, so much pain, so much laughter in the face of so much sorrow and loss.  The terrible beauty.  These weeks have been like lemon ice on a sweltering hot day — the sour, the sweet, the cold, the heat.  That first bite takes your breath away.  An awesome terrible breathtaking beauty.  All of us journeying toward our destination; bravely smiling, sometimes coming together to break bread, sometimes cowering in our rooms, crying for mothers long passed, sometimes turning and finding her there making eggs and steeping tea or proudly wearing a red scarf we have knitted that magically keeps us connected, somehow, someway, into the unseen unknowable future that waits outside the gift of the moment, our haven of safety and security…

Today, I let go of trying to process it all — it is impossible to take it all in.  It is the raw and rare glimpse of truth that causes the tears that fall for no reason, and all the reasons, all at once.  It is the great and beautiful truth of the moment and knowing what it means to be fully alive.

“It is all settled between the chattering and the noise,

the silence and sentiment,

emotion and fear,

the haggard inconstant splashes of beauty ,

and then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity.”

The Great Beauty.

Charles Nelson Reilly Strikes Again!



“Laughter is the best medicine — unless you’re diabetic, then insulin comes pretty high on the list.”

                                                                                                                                              Joseph Carrott


I love funny anything…movies, books, songs…but, especially, people.  I have often gotten in trouble for being funny at the wrong times; which only increases the chance that I will be a snorting – wailing -crossing my legs – wiping away-the-tears mess in no time.


Heck, my 4th grade teacher moved my desk behind the piano because I was always laughing.  She promptly moved it back out when I appeared to be having too much fun back there — no lie.


Girl Scouts was one of those places where I got the reputation as a “bad egg” because it seemed to bring out the worst urge to laugh in me.  At the end of each meeting, we would all gather in a circle, cross arms, and hold hands.  The leader would start to sway and we would begin singing, “Day is done…”  I don’t remember anyone explaining why this was the closing, what it signified or why it should be solemn.  I’m sure I knew what the expectations were…but try as I might, to me it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a belly laugh.  As we swayed and sang, the leader would start a squeeze that was suppose to make its way around the circle and end with her.  I would wait for her to start the squeeze and then naturally would start a squeeze in the opposite direction and…wait…wait….wait for it…(the anticipation would be killing me)…until the two squeezes would arrive at one poor unsuspecting soul at the same time.  When that look came across her face…that “what do I do now” look would appear — I would lose it.  I then would be asked to leave the circle until the final verse was sung.  It was even funnier if someone near me lost it too…then our mirth was double.. and no amount of “talking to” after everyone else was excused could erase that thrill of busting a gut.  And if I’m being honest, I laugh every time I tell this story and I chuckled writing it just now.  So, there…..


At the ripe old age of 11, I was escorted out of a diner for laughing so hard chocolate milkshake squirted out my nose.  As a teenager, I started a rip-roaring food fight in a sub shop with my friend Mary Beth — highlighted by the slap of ham hitting her cheek and sticking there and her chasing me to the juke box to smash a paper plate of sub-remains into my hair.  As a young teacher, I was reprimanded by an administrator for staging an irreverent parody of the Jerry Springer Show to illustrate a teaching method at an educational workshop.  I played Springer…and thought I was going to be struck dead with every withering look my humorless boss shot at me.  But, I laughed until my sides hurt…


Some people drive fast, some people snort drugs — my “high” is laughing…and the more I try to squelch that addiction, the more it calls to me.  It’s not a big scary expensive nor illicit monkey on my back, but this silly chimp certainly manages to get me through a day better than an opiate ever prescribed.  And who knew?  It’s actually considered a legitimate part of my treatment…or so says the American Cancer Society and Cancer Treatment Centers of America.


And unlike radiation and surgery…it is something you CAN try at home.


According to the experts, humor or laughter therapy is considered a complimentary method to traditional radiation and chemotherapy for cancer patients.  It reduces stress, stimulates the circulatory and immune systems, releases endorphins which can increase pain tolerance and also affects short term changes in hormones and neurotransmitters.   In short, the American Cancer Society says humor (whether spontaneous or passive) and its resulting laughter “enhances the quality of life” for both patients and regular folks alike.


(Kinda makes you wonder why so many people then use social media to bitch about things that simply fuel their feelings of anger and frustration… like the crappy weather, or that “anti-American” Coke commercial, or their need to wrestle the constitution back from pinko liberals like me.  Rather than railing at every imagined insult and liberal media conspiracy, why aren’t they instead telling jokes, sending Hallmark cards with those funny dogs — always cracks me up, or looping video clips of Melissa McCarthy outtakes or Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks?)  Seriously, people….the American Cancer Society wants you to know such posts are detrimental to your health and diminishing the quality of your life!


A few years ago, I forgot to follow my own remedy and found myself backsliding into a funk…and rather than start medication, I opted to treat myself.  Although none of the cancer experts suggest laughter therapy should replace conventional medicine, I ventured into the unorthodox laughter therapy waters.  My self-prescribed treatment consisted of rising at an ungodly hour each day before work and watching two back-to-back episodes of The Office on Netflix.  Now, I couldn’t measure the efficacy of this treatment by any scientific method and I didn’t have to submit coding to my insurance company, but I can report that after just a few minutes of watching and laughing, I felt better.  Each “treatment” resulted in an improved attitude and a little bounce in my step; ready to face my day and be a productive force in the world.  That, and two cups of coffee, helped me ride-out that particular blue period with a smile on my face.


Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been some “moments…” but every time I get a little down, riding in like the cavalry, come my best girl friends.  Thick as thieves since middle school, our friendships have withstood the test of time and the chasm of distance.  While I’ve been a guest at Hope Lodge, my friend Kim has driven the three hours from her home in Massachusetts to visit me twice.  Each time, we have laughed ourselves silly over the most inane things — raising a few eyebrows and turning a few frowns “upside down” along the way.  Like any self-respecting disease, laughter is contagious, and one young college student flashed us a toothy grin and commented  that I had a great laugh as he passed the two of us cracking ourselves up.  Not bad reviews for a cancer patient, right?  (This might have occurred around the time I forcefully spit water in a not-so-dainty arch in an attempt to avoid choking on it or having it splash my good boots).


Just a few weeks ago, Kim and I were lucky to be the only people in the movie theater.  We laughed and talked throughout the showing…as if we were in a very large and expensive viewing room that only Kardashians could own.  When we exited, we headed for the bathroom…believing we were the only folks in there.  The subject of Charles Nelson Reilly came up — my friend Normie does a killer impersonation and both Kim and I love Alex Baldwin’s SNL take on the late Match Game regular — and we, of course, started doing our best CNR laughs.  We were amusing ourselves to no end when it appeared we were not alone….causing us to fall over ourselves trying to quickly exit the bathroom and get down the stairs first.  Frankly, knowing our bladders, I’m surprised we didn’t have to make an emergency spit stop, as we Charles Nelson Reillied ourselves silly the entire 1.5 mile walk back to the Lodge.  Uphill.


What a sight we must have been.  Two middle-aged women in nice coats (mine is a brown Italian jobbie with just a hint of aubergine…but, I digress…) nearly peeing themselves, as they walk home on a dark, cold January night.  People probably thought we were drunk, drugged, or crazy — or all three!  But, that’s the point.  We didn’t feel the cold.  The dark didn’t give us a moment’s pause.  And, for that moment anyway, we sure as hell didn’t feel like AARP members.


And cancer?  Well, that was the farthest thing from my mind.  Charles Nelson Reilly therapy has a way of doing that to you.


“In the sweetness of friendship, let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures.  For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

                                                                                                                                                                                       Kahlil Gibran



World Cancer Day: Debunking The Cancer Myths

Some of the latest information….

Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

mythsToday is World Cancer Day, a chance to raise our collective voices in the name of improving general knowledge around cancer and dismissing misconceptions about the disease.  The focus of this year’s campaign is on Target 5 of the World Cancer Declaration: Reduce stigma and dispel myths about cancer, under the tagline “Debunk the myths”.

I am guessing that many of you reading this already know how to separate the myths from reality, but just in case someone is new to this, let’s get some of the most persistent myths banished once and for all.

  • Deodorant does not cause breast cancer, nor does wearing an underwire bra.
  • Most breast cancer is not hereditary – actually, only 5- 10% of breast cancer is due to a family history of the disease.
  • A lump in my breast means I have cancer – not necessarily; breast tissue is changing all the time…

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God’s Hands

stock-photo-a-pair-of-hands-releasing-a-bird-into-the-sunset-2642215I’ve always noticed hands…maybe it was because, growing up, I usually found my hand buried in someone else’s.  As the youngest of four girls, seems someone bigger and stronger was chronically holding my tiny fluttering hand in theirs.  I remember sometimes struggling to pull my hand from captivity; wiggling and straining to be free. But, truly I sought the shelter and strength offered in this simple gesture more often than not.

When I was in high school, I wrote of my father’s hands.  They were unremarkable in size or texture, but to me they had a significance and a power that I struggled to define.  He was a quiet hard-working man with a silly sense of humor, a WWII Marine who didn’t communicate strong emotions — positive or negative — well.  Despite his reticence to speak of feelings, his true softer character was revealed to me one day when a wild bird — a simple brown chickadee — flew, or more aptly fell, down our chimney and found itself a captive of our living room.  Sweeping back and forth in blind panic, the poor thing was frantically throwing itself into windows to the hapless shrieks of my mother and me.  My father, exasperated with our near-hysterical caterwauling, impatiently “shushed” and banished us to another room.  Minutes later, he emerged with the bird cradled in his two bare hands.  The defining portrait of my father releasing that bird from the security of his two simple hands is indelibly burned into my memory.

At his wake, a relatively few years later, I kneeled before his form laid out in the casket I had helped my mother choose.  I had held her hand as we walked by the open options…until we stopped before the one that we imagined most to his liking.  Her hand seemed to drink my strength like a straw directly from my grip. On my knees before him, I couldn’t keep my eyes off his hands — hands that had seldom been idle in his life — now, resting inert before me.  Just the night before the accident that claimed his life, I had stopped by the house.  Impulsively, on my way out the door, he had uncharacteristically reached out and told me he loved me.  His hand had felt warm upon my shoulder.  I swear, sometimes, I can feel it there to this day.  A simple gesture of affection that might have seemed unremarkable to so many others — but to me, it was a momentous event in its rarity.  The legacy of his hand on my shoulder would have to last a lifetime.

The morning of the funeral, in the stolen moments before he would be sealed forever from my sight…and touch… I finally gathered up the gumption to reach up one tremulous hand and softly touch that still cold  hand.  I had to.  Without my hand touching his, it would have been like not saying goodbye at all.

The night before my mother died, a widow for many years, I sat beside her bed and stroked her arm and held her hand until the wee hours of the morning.  The night finally passed, I showered and dressed… the summer dawn unfurled rosy tendrils across the cerulean blue and revealed in its palm her final minutes. My sisters and I listened to her labored breathing…and I, perched on the foot of the bed,  instinctively reached out and lay my hand on her leg.  So much transmitted through that laying on of hand — love, sorrow, and, paradoxically, release.  Touch was the only means of communication left to us as the gulf between life and death widened and she finally pulled away. Then she was gone.

But, these two hands have touched life too…as when they first put my son and daughter in my arms…I remember examining each incredibly tiny wrinkled hand with the tip of my finger.  I traced each little face…outlining sweet lips and lingering over each button nose. Memory provides timeless afternoons with sweaty restless toddler hands in mine as we  waited to cross the street or anxiously clutching hands as we walked into the lobby of the elementary school for the first time.  My hands have cooled feverish foreheads, wiped away angry hot tears and rubbed bowed backs wracked with relentless coughing from asthma or pneumonia…my fingers have swept bangs out of eyes, coaxed a smile out of a frown, and written, “I love you” countless times in equally countless games of paddy-cake.

My mind has wondered at the power of touch, even that of a stranger’s, when a few months ago I awaited surgery.  Once wheeled into the operating room, there were the introductions — faces swimming in and out of my dull vision — and then, as I began to sink into the pillow of anaesthesia…I felt the comforting weight of a hand on my leg.  A gesture that communicated reassurance, connection and the unspoken, “It’s okay to let go, we’ve got you.”  And, as I released into the ether, it was with a calm assurance that I was neither alone nor insignificant.  The touch of a stranger, whether intentional or not, conveyed great peace to a lone voyager trekking into the unknown.

Of course, the powerful need for connection is not reserved only for humans.  Pulling into the driveway last Friday, I was impressed with the ease of my three-hour drive.  Another week of treatment behind me, I was ready to celebrate my return home. I had barely dropped my bags inside the front door when I discovered that our little dog Miguel was not doing well.  Only a few minutes with him revealed a situation I knew was beyond my ability.   My husband met me at the vet’s. However, it was a situation beyond their limited capabilities as well.  On to the animal hospital we sped…another hour in the car.  All the while, both of us not speaking what our sinking hearts already knew…  After the vet and technicians respectfully left us to have a few quiet minutes to say goodbye, we stroked his still silky coat and gazed into his sad brown eyes, whispering how much we were going to miss him — yes, even the barking — and how we loved him so.  We stayed with him, and lay our hands on him while the vet administered the dose that would cause him to slip into that sleep from which he would not return.  In that moment, I reached out and held his little paw until the young vet looked up with tears in her eyes to let us know that he was gone…but, she didn’t have to…we already knew.

On the way home, I held my husband’s hand…two hands resting together in sorrow, in comfort and in support.

I glance at my hands from time to time…they look so much like my mother’s.  It reminds me I am a product of her, and though she has sailed beyond, I am a continuation of her, and yet…they are my hands, unique to me with their own history to tell.

My hands have touched both life and death…and everything in between…soothing hands, joyful hands, loving hands, worried hands, angry hands, pleading hands….hands that have sought to heal others, hands that are learning to heal myself.  Hands that have wriggled to be free, hands that have held on for dear life…hands that have gently cradled the swaddled body of a yawning newborn stretching tiny fists upward like a flower opening to the world … hands that have tenderly released the souls of loved ones like once-captive chickadees into the infinite cerulean blue.

“If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be that we’re all ok
And not to worry because worry is wasteful
And useless in times like these
I will not be made useless
I won’t be idled with despair
I will gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear
My hands are small, I know,
But they’re not yours they are my own
But they’re not yours they are my own
And I am never broken…
In the end only kindness matters
In the end only kindness matters
I will get down on my knees and I will pray
I will get down on my knees and I will pray
I will get down on my knees and I will pray
My hands are small, I know,
But they’re not yours they are my own
But they’re not yours they are my own
And I am never broken”


“Hands” as written by Jewel Kilcher, Patrick Leonard

Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing

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