This entry also appears on the First Descents Blog as "The Participant's Perspective - Shark Bait"
This evening marks the end of my third full day of FD1 Kayaking camp. I am loving it. Today, we had a blast whitewater rafting. Two days ago, during the skill-building on the lake, we began to see just how powerful a metaphor kayaking is for life and our cancer journeys. Yesterday, however, was not a good day for me. But because of the powerful opportunity for self-exploration and bonding that First Descents provides, in retrospect, Day 2 was the best day so far.
Day 2 was our first day on moving water. A class I river, the objective was to learn to navigate with the current and minor obstructions. Despite my great interest in mastering these techniques, I could not concentrate on Big Papa’s lesson. I felt fatigued, nauseated, and had a severe headache, likely caused from a combination of dehydration, changes in my diet, and chemo lingering in my body from the round I’d concluded fifteen days earlier. I was so out of it that I couldn’t follow his instructions and had trouble staying with the group.
When we pulled up on the shore for lunch, I walked right past the cooler and lay down in the back of one of the vans. Number Two, a staff member, checked on me. So did Mack, Brave Chicken, Junior High, and several of the other campers. Already we are a family. Ha-Chee joined me in the van. She did not feel well either, but her pain more easily could be explained. She is on a daily oral chemo regimen. Her body is working hard to fight the cancer, and her mind is working even harder to maintain her inspiring courage, grace, and wit.
While the others ate lunch in the great outdoors, Ha-Chee and I rested within the close walls of the van. I willed my headache to go away, so I could get back on the river. I do not fear the river. Being a retired competitive swimmer and rower, I am at home in H20, and so far, the threat of rocks and rapids hasn’t seemed to diminish this. My challenge is to learn a new sport, and incorporate these wonderful lessons and metaphors into my life on land. (My bravery, however, may evaporate once I’m actually staring at a Class II or III stretch of river.)
By the time the lunch break had ended, my headache and nausea had not dissipated, and so back to the cabins I went with Ha-Chee and Mia-Root, our chef. Instead of feeling the freedom from cancer in the cool of the river water, I could taste disappointment with each swig from my water bottle. I was so, so sick of being sick. Here I was, yet again, missing out on life.
But the afternoon of Day 2 proved to be anything but a missed opportunity.
First, I realized that at times, life, just like the river, will run its own course. I may want to paddle to the right, but if the waves indicate that the water is flowing to the left, then that is the route I must take.
I want to never have had cancer. I still get so angry that leukemia happened to me. But if I insist on keeping my eyes on that “perfect” life beyond the rocks that cancer has thrown in my path, I will head straight into them. There I will remain, stranded. Instead, I can paddle toward where the water flows—a life with fears and an imperfect body, but one that moves forward to great places nonetheless.
Thinking of my headache that morning as simply a rock that diverted my path made it easier for me to “go with the flow” and get over having missed out.
The second, bigger aspect that made Day 2 the best: my rough morning made Ha-Chee’s afternoon better. Instead of being back at the cabins with only our chef who needed to prepare a large meal, Ha-Chee had another camper’s companionship. Sitting in bar stools at the kitchen counter, we ate crackers and sipped tea. I tried my hardest to make wiseass comments that would make her laugh, and she cracked me up with her effortless sense of humor. The 15 minutes we spent giving our good-spirited chef some honest, constructive (and funny) feedback on her apple muffins were 15 minutes during which Ha-Chee did not think about her health concerns.
Since Ha-Chee and I had followed the same wave train that led us off the water that morning, I shared the soothing river current analogy with her. She got it before I’d finished the thought.
At the end of the campfire gathering that evening, the three award recipients from the previous night passed on their honors. Ha-Chee had won “On Water” the first night, for her admirable effort to push herself to master the basics on the lake. Who did she choose to pass her award to for Day 2? You can probably guess, though I can honestly say it hadn’t occurred to me that she would pick me. In my eyes, I’d been a failure on the water. In Ha-Chee’s eyes, I’d managed to get through 50% of the day’s boat time, an accomplishment we shared. When she handed me the yellow muscle shirt and tie-dyed shorts, she hugged me while crying. I understood through the strength of our embrace that the On Water award for Day 2 had nothing to do with water.