Airplanes are no stranger to me. I flew all the time. For work, for pleasure, I was on a plane several times a month. But this time was different. It was the first time since being a mother that I had flown without my children. I was so excited for a few days in New York with my mom. With toddlers just over a year apart, I was due for a getaway and a full nights sleep. And it was wonderful. Walking the streets of New York, eating fabulous food, a carriage ride through Central Park and visiting Broadway to see The Color Purple. As I boarded my flight home after two nights away I was refreshed and rested and ready to get home to hug my babies.
The weather was ominous that day, dark clouds, lightening and thunderstorms. The airport prompter was full of delayed and cancelled flights and I began to feel anxious about getting home. I was relieved when the airline attendant began boarding our flight. Indeed I would be home soon. I walked to the very back of the plane, the last row in fact, and found my seat between two women and the bathroom stall. The air was thick, being that it was August in New York, and as I took my seat I was uncomfortably warm. Within minutes I heard the door of the airplane close and immediately a voice came through the speakers. “Due to severe weather all flights are delayed. We are 50th in line for take-off and should be cleared within the next 3 – 4 hours.” My heart began beating rapidly and fear took over my body. I tried to catch my breath but couldn’t. I was gasping for air and tears began streaming down my face and I went into full panic mode. I then turned into that “crazy lady” as I pushed my way to the aisle and found the flight attendant and told her that I had to get off the plane. The sides of the plane seemed to be closing in as the temperature rose and the air became even thicker. I was having my first official panic attack!
The flight attendant quickly got me a glass of water, talked me off the ledge, and walked me back to my seat. Still paralyzed with fear, I grabbed a magazine and began to read. For hours each breath was deliberate as I deeply inhaled and exhaled the fear and anxiety. And tears continued to stream down my face as I thought about my sweet husband and children and how much I wanted to get home to them. Of course, this story has a happy ending. After 4 hours on the runway we were cleared for take-off, and after an uneventful hour in the air, I finally landed safely home and to my family. And for days I recounted the story and laughed at the silliness of it all, but something was unearthed during that 4 hours on the runway and to this day it is still my biggest fear.
And now I am battling cancer. Since my diagnosis I have been putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, determined, focused. I have a plan. 6 sessions of chemo, bilateral mastectomy, radiation. It’s neat and simple and formulaic . I can write it on my calendar and check off each milestone. And at the end of it all I will be cancer free and go back to life as I know it and everything will be ok. And for months this is what I have lived and breathed and depended on. It’s been my only narrative. But this week as I was reading the blog of someone who is fighting an even harder battle with cancer, and losing, my heart began to race and I couldn’t catch my breath and panic began to set in. She talked about how 3 years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and now it has spread to her brain and she knows her days are numbered. And for the first time since my diagnosis I let my mind wander to a place I feared to go, as I considered that my neat and simple plan to get back to life as usual may not be reality. What if my cancer doesn’t go away? What if it spreads? What if it comes back? It was like I was back on that airplane, gasping for breath, just wanting to get home to hug my babies.
And in that moment I realized I had gotten it all wrong. Since that day on the airplane I had convinced myself that my greatest fear was dying. But as I sat quietly, and absorbed the words of my fellow blogger and let myself think the unthinkable, I realized that I’m not afraid to die. What I’m most afraid of is LEAVING. My biggest fear in all the world, what sends me into a panic attack, what breaks my heart in unspeakable ways, is the thought of leaving those I love. Just like on that airplane, when I first felt that panic. All I wanted to do was get home to my family. I had left them and I wanted to get back, but I couldn’t. And now, as the thoughts and “what ifs” creep into my mind, I am terrified. I’m not ready to leave. I don’t want to miss the life ahead of me.
Oh the thought of leaving this beautiful life of mine. It’s not easy or perfect but it is so beautiful. For I have the only thing that truly matters, LOVE. I remember when Madison was born, knowing, for the first time, that I had never loved so fully and deeply. As I held her in my arms I felt this sense of vulnerability because I knew that I had been given the sacred gift of motherhood. I was responsible for this fragile life in my arms, to love and guide and teach. It was almost scary to love her so much because suddenly I had so much to lose. And then along came Marc, and the moment I laid eyes on him I knew that indeed love is endless and unconditional as my already full heart over flowed.
And I just want to stay! I want to be here for the rest of my story. I want what all mothers want. I want to tuck my children into bed each night and wake them each morning. I want to see them play basketball, and baseball and volleyball. I want to go to band concerts and parent teacher conferences. I want long summers and beach vacations, and Thanksgivings and Christmases and New Years. I want to hear about their crushes and heartbreaks. I want to see them graduate from High School and drive them to college and cry as I leave them. I want to meet their loves and see them get married and see them become parents. I want to grow old with my husband. I want to wake up by his side each day. I want to see our hair change to shades of gray as we enjoy life together. I want the mundane and the spectacular. I want the laughter and the tears and the beauty and the pain. And the thought of leaving, the thought of not being here for each sunrise and sunset, the thought of missing just one minute of this beautiful life, that is my biggest fear.
I remember shortly after my brother passed away, as I sat on the beach, taking in the vastness of the ocean and the radiance of the sunset, I wept because for the first time I felt the permanence of his decision to leave this earth. And I thought about all of the people he left behind. I thought about all of the moments he would miss, all of the sunsets, all of the tuck-ins, all of the ballgames, all of the skinned knees, all of the minutes that fill up our days that we often take for granted. And with each crashing wave, as the pink sky turned to shades of yellow and orange and black, the gravity of my brothers death hit me with an unsettling feeling of grief and loss and life ended way too soon. I felt left.
And there is no turning back from it now. I have said it out loud. I have identified and named it. Finally, since that panic attack so many years ago on that runway in New York I realize what I am most afraid of in this life. And while we don’t like to talk about death, we don’t like to talk about leaving, we all know that it is an inevitable part of life. And I am left to deal with my fear as I battle daily to STAY. As I always tell my children when they come to me afraid of something, “God did not give you a spirit of fear. He gave you a spirit of power and love and sound mind.” So I am internally and daily whispering this truth to myself. And I’m realizing that allowing myself to feel and face my fear may be the biggest silver lining of them all. Because as I take stock of all I have, as I think about the ways I am loved, as I consider the sacred gift of being a mother and wife, sister and daughter. As I think about my friendships near and far. As I think about the abundance of joy and love I have packed into my 43 years, I feel grateful. And I’ll be honest, I don’t want to leave. I know there are many pages of my story yet to write, and I will fight to the end to stay. But I will NOT continue to walk in fear and panic. I will not let anxiety blur my vision to the gifts sitting right in front of me. I will no longer let fear rob me of precious time and energy. I will count each sunrise a blessing and each sunset a gift. I will be thankful for the air that fills my lungs and the love that fills my heart, and I will walk forward with a spirit of power and love and sound mind, appreciating every moment of this crazy beautiful life.