Giving Thanks

I

Hey team! It has been a long time since I’ve posted and I hope I haven’t caused any worry in the interim. My health is great – official cancer status is “confirmed complete remission” (which is pretty much as good as it gets). I am now in “surveillance” with monthly blood tests and x-rays and quarterly CT scans. Last Thursday my blood work and CT scan were clean and I should be graduating to bi-monthly blood tests soon! I suppose I will likely be posting here less and less frequently as this adventure in cancer hopefully winds down so let’s just assume no news is good news moving forward. If I do have a recurrence or a scare I will be informing you all quickly because I know I would need you with me as you have been all along.

In the past few months I have been focused on healing from the treatments. The soft tissue repair has continued apace with yoga, massage, acupuncture, and rest and as of about 6 weeks ago I was able to split wood again (my main surgery recovery milestone). I still have some pain in my abdominal muscles and tightness around the incisions from scar tissue but it gets better every day and my overall energy is back (although occasionally I do still get distinct waves of fatigue).

I have been ramping up my work / day job schedule and it has felt good to reconnect with colleagues and focus some of my mental energy on something external. Initially it was hard to relate. In part it seemed that everything was less vital and unimportant compared to the immediacy of the struggle to survive that characterizes the life of a cancer patient. I also felt thrust back in time to a pre-cancer world with all of the pre-cancer stimuli and patterns of thought and concerns. There were moments in the conference room when I would forget that I had cancer and then remember and be shocked for an instant as if I was hearing the diagnosis for the first time again.

This sense of getting the news for the first time was happening quite a bit at the end of the summer / early fall. I have been reading and learning a lot about the emotional, psychological and physical effects of trauma. Part of what happens during a traumatic event is that the reptilian brain takes over. It is that primitive part of our brain that across millions of years of evolution is responsible, in large part, for the survival of the genes in us that exist today through its incredibly efficient, physically integrated and consuming response to danger. It is hardwired into our autonomic nervous system and runs that whole “fight or flight” show, at times pumping in massive amounts of adrenaline that can let you outrun a saber-toothed tiger and at times shutting us down to play dead.

This Personal Defense Force can initiate a DefCon 1, “need to know” protocol for information (and can actually shut down non-essential biological systems or organs). In other words, the part of yourself that makes sense of things, that forms memory, that “processes” experience gets put in an idle state and doesn’t get all of the information because being able to “understand” the experience will not keep you (and your genes) out of the jaws of that tiger. So when the threat level gets lowered to green, information gets released and the sense-making apparatus comes back online, you can feel at times like you are just getting the news.

Most mammals are able to move out of danger and trauma without many residual after effects. You have probably seen a deer or a cat stop in its tracks on alert when it senses danger, then an instant later go about its business as if nothing happened once it feels safe (sometimes animals will shudder or tremble first which is a release of “survival energy”). Humans, on the other hand, have been burdened with a massive neocortex that likes to rationalize, judge, memorialize and control. In doing so it can interfere with our innate ability to release trauma which can lead to a host of symptoms including depression, anxiety, endocrine imbalance, adrenal depletion and more (PTSD is an umbrella diagnosis).

A lot of what I experienced in the past year was traumatic: the diagnosis, the experience of coughing up blood into my hand from a metastasized cancer, the ICU, 3 months of serious chemo, being cut open from my pubic bone to my sternum and having my small intestine put on my chest while all of the tumors, abdominal lymph nodes and a testicle were removed; two open lung surgeries with 42 tumor resections and cutting open my earlier scar for an emergency bowel surgery in the middle of a 6-week collapsed lung episode.

Those are the highlights and in the past few months I have been working to heal from these traumas. I want to be free not just from the cancer but from the treatments that saved me from it. We worked too hard to trade cancer for PTSD. I have been doing some talk therapy, some shamanic work and somatic experiencing therapy (SE). While they all operate on different levels and in different ways I have found SE to be very effective in integrating the emotional and physical experiences. Part of the theory is that the reptilian brain has no sense of time: it’s just TIGER: YES|NO. One of the methods in SE is to instantiate a small part of the feeling, the unresolved trauma (but not too much) and then sit with it, locate it in the body and/or in the space you are in, and almost soothe the reptilian brain to convince it that this danger does not exist, that it has passed. If you conjure up too much at once it can lead to total chaos or shut down (this happened to me in one session when I started hyperventilating and couldn’t stop). It’s like delicately and slowly opening a soda that has been shaken too much and stopping to let the gas out before opening further. I was making progress but had a lot of work to do.

II

KR’s water broke at 1:30am on November 10th. It wasn’t the gush of fluid that I had come to expect from popular imagery but a slow and intermittent release which our midwife explained was because the amniotic sack had ruptured at the top and not the bottom. We went back to sleep for about 5 hours and spent the next day tying up loose ends, gathering a few last minute supplies (our “guess date” was 11/22 so this was a bit earlier than we had expected), and stacking firewood. We were in a state of calm excitement.

Monday evening KR began to experience mild contractions with generous and inconsistent spacing and by midnight the intensity had increased with intervals that were more regular. We called my sister in northern Vermont who had signed on to play the role of doula and told her she had better start driving.

We chose to have a home birth for a number of reasons: the vision of being in our home with our child for those first moments, the data that indicates better outcomes on a number of dimensions birthing at home for low-risk pregnancies and certainly our general aversion to hospitals -having spent a month and a half of challenging time in the hospital over the past year.

Monday night was one of the most beautiful and intimate times KR and I have shared. Until the midwives and my sister arrived at around 6am it was just the two us. We spent most of the wee hours by the roaring fire with Sophie and Lily (our dog and cat). KR would stand and hold onto the rocking chair, naked by the warmth of the fire, the sky open and the stars shining bright through the southern glass wall; and she would moan.

It was the beginning of a powerful and ancient song that she would sing for the next fourteen hours. Like all good songs it contained pain but also ecstasy, celebration and rhythm. It is a song that has been sung millions of times across deserts, mountains, tundra and jungle. It was an announcement to the hunting fox, the nesting mouse and the furtive deer that life was arriving. I could hear the universe breathing through her. The raw, vital, pulsing breath of being itself pushing through -the most moving music I have ever heard.

We spent most of the day Tuesday in a calm, warm and intense dance between the yoga ball, couches, birthing pool (a large stock tank with a liner), shower, bedroom and hammock we had strung from the second floor loft. I was humbled by KR’s strength, poise and presence and the power of her body to perform this magic. And I was awestruck by the female creative spirit that inhabited the space, welcomed and conjured by KR, the midwives and my sister. I know now, in a very visceral sense, why our earth, from which all life has sprung, is called Mother.

Towards the end of the afternoon KR was fully dilated but the baby wasn’t as far along as the midwife expected it to be. She manually broke the bottom of the amniotic sack that had been sitting intact on the now fully dilated cervix. After a brief exam she declared, “That is not a head, that’s a butt. We should probably get ready to go to the hospital.”

In an instant the energy shifted. The bubble of sacred ancient birthing had been burst. The prospect of transferring to the hospital felt like giving up, like a failure of some kind and we were all deflated. A wave of emotion began to overwhelm me as I tried to calmly leave the bedroom. I walked outside and got about twenty feet before I fell to my knees and screamed into the earth. I was terrified to go to the hospital. I was afraid for KR, for our baby and I was angry. Tears streaming down my face, I literally pounded the ground with my fists. I thought, “Really? After everything, You are going to pull this shit?” I felt my sister’s hand on my back and slowly came back into my body, stood up, and went to pack for the hospital for the seventh time in a year.

The baby’s and KR’s vitals had been fine all day and birth was not imminent. In fact her body seemed to have pressed the pause button but we didn’t dally and were on the road in ten minutes. I drove; my sister in the passenger seat and KR in the back; the midwives following in a separate car. We arrived at the hospital after one of the longer 30 minute drives I have experienced complete with contractions that had lost all sense of ecstasy and were now just painful and fearful. The midwife had called ahead and a team of six or seven were pressed against the glass with the stretcher when we pulled up to the entrance.

The next few minutes were a blur. Everything felt frantic and out of control. While her clothes were being cut off in triage and an 18-gauge needle was being thrust in her arm unannounced KR was being given a vaginal exam in the middle of a contraction. We had crossed over from the matriarchal embrace of letting evolved biology lead the way to the patriarchal land of intervention and control, from moon to sun.

KR was in the OR within 5 minutes and I was in a recovery room putting on papery blue scrubs. I started to hyperventilate. I was in full on freak out mode. Every fiber in my body was telling me to run or break something. “Don’t go in there. Bad things happen in there. That is not a safe place. You might not come out of there.” My trauma and my reptilian brain were lit up.

I breathed through it and made my way in to sit by KR’s head. She was scared but not panicked. Holding her head, kissing her and stroking her hair held me in that space. I glanced over the surgical barrier once to see the incision, the spreader. I looked back into KR’s eyes and held her head close and just kept repeating, “You are safe, you are safe, you are safe.”

I froze when I saw the surgeon lifting a wet, bloody baby from my wife’s abdomen. I heard a cry and the surgeon exclaim, “It’s a girl. ” Through tears of relief and joy I kissed KR before they quickly grabbed me and brought me over to the warming table. Juniper Langdon Erickson had arrived.

I remembered the last thing the midwife said to me before I went in, “Talk to the baby as soon as it’s out and don’t stop – she knows your voice.” As I was approaching the small table with the tanning lamp setup I started repeating, “It’s okay baby girl, I’m here. Your papa’s here. You’re ok.” And sure enough, she stopped crying and calmed down.

The next five minutes are hard to describe. I was touching her head, speaking to her and singing Little Feat’s “Roll Um’ Easy” (not sure where that came from but I used to perform it. I was singing quite loudly at times I think because the OR crew looked at me a little funny). Something deep in me shifted in those five minutes. It is as if, when all of the substance of my fear and alarm was right at the surface, she spoke to my reptilian self by the simplicity of her tranquil and stunning presence, as if to say, “You are safe. You are no longer in danger. You are going to be ok. I am here. I am ok. Mama’s going to be ok. This space is safe, it holds no power over you. We are safe. The long journey is over.”

I believe Juniper did more to heal me in those five minutes than I could have accomplished in fifty sessions of therapy. As a litmus test, I had my first surveillance (non post-op) CT scan and blood work at MSK two days later and I didn’t feel the agitation, anxiety and fear I would have normally felt going into the day. It was as if Juniper directed the whole show. She decided, “Okay, we’ll do this first part at home so we can all have that experience and Mama and I can get our hormonal pathways activated (I want that colostrum yo!). Then we are going to the hospital to heal up Papa.”

Her birthday and time (11/11 18:18) suggest a balance which seems to have manifest in her arrival in a few ways. Just over a year ago, during chemo, my sister was at our house helping out and I had a neutropenic fever which can be life-threatening (103 degrees and zero immune system). The three of us had driven in that same car, on those same roads to that same ER and I spent 3 days in the hospital. Nine months before I had my abdomen opened and placental tissue removed (my cancer subtype was choriocarcinoma which is essentially placental cells gone wilder than college girls on spring break) and I had now just watched the doctors remove placenta from KR (which we buried under a Serviceberry on the island where we were married). Many systems of medicine characterize illness as imbalance. It makes sense to me that little healer Juniper would do some balancing as she came into this world.

And I totally get why people are so drawn to newborns; why every one of them is healing and amazing and precious. They remind us of the purity of experience and union with the present moment that we all once had. They help us to remember that the world can be made new, that hope can be made incarnate and that there is majesty and power in vulnerability. No wonder baby Jesus is such an enduring symbol of salvation.

After all of my treatment was done I got a tattoo in the center of my heart chakra. A mark of my own choosing unlike all of the scars. It is the Sanskrit word “jai” which means hallelujah / victory. Now when I lie with Juniper on my chest it feels as if she has almost come out of the void as a physical answer to the shout of praise and gratitude that is my tattoo. We lie on the couch most mornings and watch the dawn; she breathes softly -the other half of a clamshell- and I feel whole again.

screen-capture-18

Let us give thanks this season for all of it. For the windiness of our roads and the rockiness of the steps. Had I not gotten sick Juniper would not be here. Had we not decided to go through IVF in the middle of cancer treatment against reason and a chorus of opposing voices, Juniper, the last viable embryo from the last viable vial of sperm preserved before chemo, would not be here. Had all of the friends, family, doctors, nurses and healers that brought me along in my adventure in the last year not given so much of their skill and their hearts, I would not be here. Had all of the trillions of moments and cells and atoms not lined up in just the right way then this very second, this opportunity to give thanks would not have come to pass. So let’s close our eyes, breathe, and hold gratitude in our hearts for the wonder of it all. And let’s have some freakin’ pie.

Love,

J

 

P.S. We do not see our experience now as a “failure” of home birth. We are happy with how it all went down and, in fact, the opposite is true. It is a message that yes, things can get tricky with a home birth (even a low-risk pregnancy) and when they do you can go to a hospital to get the care you may need and transferring is almost never very urgent. Isn’t that great? Juniper was born with some trickster energy because she is what is known as “frank breech” in which she was full taco / plow pose with her feet up high, her butt feeling like a head down low and her head hidden below the feet up high. We waived the full-term ultrasound and we have zero regrets but if someone were looking to be aware of the position before a home birth it would make sense to have an ultrasound when baby is full term.

P.P.S. The hospital staff, ER and OR team were excellent, skilled and compassionate. They were especially amped up when we came in, in part, because they didn’t know exactly what they were dealing with and they had lost a mother and child a couple years back in a similar situation and they were going to do everything in their power to not let that happen again. Juniper may have even helped heal them from some of that trauma. (And to the earlier P.S. complications and fatalities happen in pure hospital settings as well. This is a huge debate and I offer no judgement of anyone’s choices, just our experience.)

P.P.P.S. Sorry for the ridiculously long post – I just had a lot to say :)

P.P.P.P.S. We are raising money again as part of Cycle for Survival to support rare cancer research – please consider donating! more info here

Comments

  1. Jay, enjoyed the story of your adventure leading up to the wonderful birth of. Your daughter, congratulations . I am a survivor of nonhodgkins’ lymphoma. I endured chemotherapy on and off for a period of 2 and a half years and thankfully just celebrated 4 years in remissions. I find it difficult at times when my checkups are nearing but I am so grateful for being able to fight the disease. Your story really gave me that good feeling result that is needed so often to help us cope. Thank you, Jay and wishing you and your family all the best throughout all your adventures. Ron

  2. What a beautiful unfolding…thank you for letting me in so closely into your journey and the birth of a new beginning in your life. Many blessings to Juniper – and Pura Vida from Costa rica to you,Jan, and KR. P.s. you are great writer!

  3. ♡♥ Wow!
    Thank you both for this post!
    Welcome Juniper.
    May you always spread joy, peace & healing to the world little girl.

  4. Amber Hares says:

    Beautiful story and stroke of thanks. There is some serious strength and poetry to this… giving life to an evergreen after a loop of parchedness. Thank you for sharing. Goodness and hearty laughs to you three.

  5. Courtenay B. Carella says:

    So much to be Thankful for, I’m thankful for you sharing your journey!! Blessings to you all!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  6. Thank you, as always, Jay. Happy Thanksgiving and beyond!

  7. Charlotte Pharr Vishnyakov says:

    Yes and yes and yes! Blessings and love to you all. May your eyes and heart be as open as they are now forever! You have everything you need. What a deeply moving story you’ve shared. Thank you!

  8. thankful to be able to send this note

    as I navigate post-cancer i like to think of such reflections as Tales From The Long Wave

    we have seen The Juniper Effect and are bleseed to be empowered to share w others

    so honored to know you and yours
    kmh

  9. Thank you for writing such a moving post, it was powerfully written and thought provoking. Love to you and your beautiful family.

  10. Love and gratitude helps us all survive. Your words say it so well. All my love to you, Katie Rose and Little Juniper. I look forward to seeing you during the sharing and caring holiday of cheer.

  11. Christie Kraabel says:

    Hi, I am a friend of Lisa’s, the Shires.
    Your writing was beautiful, it moved my soul. Now you are blessed with a new life, beautiful Juniper, and your new family.
    Blessings and enjoy your first Thanksgiving all together.
    Smiles and happiness, Christie

  12. Dave & Sue Gould says:

    Beautiful, just beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us. All our love.

  13. KirsTie BenedicT says:

    I love your writing and hold on to every word you write. You have such a powerful way of connecting each experience from second to second and minute to minute. I agree with mom about writing a book but let’s be honest here, have some pie first!

  14. Esther forrest says:

    Once again your writing moved me to tears. They were tears shed in recognition and joy for you and your family. What a lucky girl Juniper is to have you for a dad. And even though I don’t know KR, I’m sure the same is true.

  15. Birdie Condon says:

    On this eve of Thanksgiving I am grateful that you and KR found RMM and insisted that we were the right midwives for you, even a great distance. The three of you have taught me so much. All midwives should be blessed with teachers like you. May this experience of healing be a bridge for you and KR and Juniper to enjoy a rich and rewarding, healthy life together. Amen.

  16. Jane Ringer says:

    Thanks again for sharing Jay! Wishing you all a special Thanksgiving with love and good health.
    xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

  17. Oh Jay, I am so moved by your journey, so grateful to have spent some time with you, to feel part of your family. What a beautiful thanksgiving gift to hear from you. I send love
    all around- Lynn

  18. Ann Bresnam says:

    Amazing . I see a book in the offing!
    God bless you, Katie, Juniper and your loved ones!
    XOXO

  19. Linda Diago says:

    Jay…thank you for sharing your story of immense gratitude for your God-given healing and now for the miracle of precious Juniper. May God’s blessings continue to shine on the three of you. Your great strength of character and that of Katie Rose are an inspiration to all who know you. God Bless your beautiful family at this time of ultimate thanksgiving! P.s Juniper is a beautiful princesita!!

  20. My whole self has just heaved a long, cleansing, and softly joyful sigh.

    Thank you for sharing your full story, your innermost thoughts and emotions. You are a powerful and intensive and purposeful writer. You might consider allowing strangers in, through the submission of this piece to a journal, an online blog, or otherwise. Your story is unique and tender and yours alone, yet it is also reminiscent and nostalgic for many of us–between the cancer and the birth and the time in hospitals, so many of us have our own stories. And it helps me, it helps so many of is to read/ listen intently to yours.

    My thanks to you, Jay. And dammit–mazel tov to the amazing KR and Juniper.

    Big love from me, Gregg & baby Eleanor.

  21. the tears of raw joy, pure emotion, and the confirmation of why we would all take a birth (for the depth of experience) is evident right here. I love you, KR, and that Juniper for all of this.

  22. Nicky, Rich, and Hamish says:

    Jai! We love you.

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