Almost Fearless

A Mother’s Journey To India After Her Son Beats Cancer



The needle went in. She said it would be intense. I was 8,000 miles from home and desperate to find relief. Pushed in deeper, the needle dug slowly from side to side between two bones in my left hand. It was nearly unbearable. Bitter acidity crawled up my throat as salty tears poured down my cheeks and neck. I pictured Geddy. First as a baby, then a toddler. I pictured the diagnosis, the fear, the sickness. Panic tightened my throat and I exploded in a silent scream. I choked on stifled pain. I can’t do this.

The first time I heard the story of Hanuman was about 15 years ago. I stretched my legs away from each other, and listened to my sage yoga instructor mindfully dispense the story of a wise, old man named Rama attempting to practice his daily prayers. But his loyal, pestering pet monkey, Hanuman, was chattering incessantly and winding through his legs.

“Hanuman?! What is wrong with you? What do you need?” Rama asked.

In the studio on my worn purple yoga mat, my legs painfully reached my mind’s goal, and I used the mirrored walls to covertly scan the room to see whether anyone could get as close to the splits as I could.

“I need a task, Master!,” Hanuman pleaded. My instructor’s voice mimicked that of a desperate monkey..

So the master, Rama, gave the monkey the task of climbing up and down a pole until he finished his prayers.

I listened and stretched, and began to understand the parable — giving your monkey-mind a much needed task to allow presence in your daily practice or worship. Cute.

A much more lithe version of myself then, I practiced daily yoga and left each session feeling such intense grounding and peace that I was confident my dramas in this life were over — I had no other lessons that needed learning. Blessed me.

Had I been able to glimpse the fast-forwarded version of the next fifteen years, I would surely have felt the branch of humility as it landed squarely on my throat and knocked my arrogant, well stretched legs right out from under me.

MY BOY

I had my son, Geddy, when I was 39. I’d honestly never felt enough like a grown up to have kids, but my soon-to-be husband, Jeff, and I suddenly decided starting a family was a great idea. Over the years we spent snowy winters skiing at nearby Lake Tahoe resorts, combed the beaches of the California Coastline, and made daily treks to the Sacramento River – skipping stones, watching Osprey hunt, and gazing at magnificent sunsets as they reflected off the southward flowing waters.

A LIFE CHANGING DIAGNOSIS

In April 2013, our boy was diagnosed with High Risk, T-Cell leukemia at 4 years, 4 months old. We screamed, choked and sobbed. Hearts bleeding and tortured, Jeff and I desperately held each other while Geddy drove toy cars around his hospital bed.

This rare form of blood cancer requires 3 ½ years of treatment. Daily, weekly and monthly chemotherapy infusions, weekly antibiotics, monthly cycles of steroids, and monthly spinal taps. “High Risk” means the risk of the disease returning is high, should it even reach remission.

Our lives shrunk into a steady, barely manageable suffocation. We lifted one foot at a time, and made our way along our new, very structured path.

A RANDOM PROPOSAL

In January of 2014, Geddy entered his 10th month of treatment. One Sunday, my sister, my most avid supporter, Janine, called me. I squeezed my cell phone between my ear and shoulder, measured and dispensed medication, and listened as Janine explained a plan she’d just hatched, and how it involved me. She had attended her favorite yoga class that morning and her cherished guru was offering an early sign up for a yoga retreat in Goa, India in March of 2017.

“Geddy will be done with his treatment, and this could be an opportunity to do something for yourself — to clean your slate. It’s my treat. I’ll give you time to decide. Please consider it, Sis. I know we can make this happen.” Janine spoke quickly in hopes that I wouldn’t interrupt her new dream.

India? I can’t go to India. I can barely leave the house. I didn’t know if I’d ever begin to consider stepping that far away from Geddy. My head slowly shook from side to side as the internal panic chatter went on. My day dreams at this time included white beaches and bottomless piña coladas. Even those fantasies included Geddy resting on the other side of my cocktail.

“Let me sit with this. It’s a lot. I’m so grateful, but this is a bit too much to process right now.” I tossed the phone down and reentered the present moment, doling out medications, holding my sick, yet tenacious child, and covering his shiny bald head with kisses.

Eventually, however, I began softening to the idea. I discussed it with Jeff and my mom, and hesitantly made a decision to go on this journey with my sister. I had three years before I’d need to start thinking about it.

FAST FORWARD

Those years vanished in a dreadfully long instant. My family’s roller coaster ambled up steep grades, whizzed over and around unforeseen twists, turns and giant loops; kicking the crap out of our central nervous systems.  During these years, I’d somehow get to the store for groceries, then crumble and weep in my car for an hour in the Trader Joe’s parking lot. I’d pull myself together, slide on my sunglasses and fade into the crowds, praying my presence would go unnoticed as I shopped on autopilot.

Finally in July 2016, we gingerly and wearily departed the Leukemia treatment ride. Shaken and aged beyond our years, we began a new version of life. Geddy’s cheeks and lips plumped and regained color. His new head of thick hair was an unruly mop of reddish waves, following a crooked fault line of cow-licks.  He enjoyed the normalcy of school, play dates and little league. He received a long awaited puppy complete with a similar style of unkempt reddish hair. One could barely keep up with the other, as the flash of red tumbled and zipped through the backyard. Jeff and I began to loosen our death grip from the bars of that roller coaster. Each step was taking us further away from the constance of a haunting disease, Geddy closer to wellness, and me closer to the other side of the planet.

FIRST STOP, MUMBAI

The driving in India is pandemonium. Many heartbeats share the tiny roads. Pedestrians, dogs, cows, and men pulling carts that would overburden a team of oxen. Scooters holding families of four, motorcycles, cars of all sizes, tour vans and giant delivery trucks–honking ceaselessly, weaving in, out and around oncoming traffic, and driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  After two hours of playing chicken with half of Mumbai’s population, we were off to tour a slum when my neck went into full spasm. I shrieked and cradled my defective cervical spine.

“How far back to the hotel?” I attempted to stifle my anguish.

I lost the next 24 hours behind dark curtains, rapidly shrinking my small supply of Tylenol. Not the start I expected.

ON TO GOA

The following afternoon, dazed and still a bit stiff, Janine and I made it to the airport for our short flight to Goa. We found a pharmacy with muscle relaxers and a restaurant with cold glasses of Indian white wine. That combo helped iron out the flight.  When we finally arrived at the retreat center, I was destroyed. I clutched my airplane neck pillow tightly around my throat as my sister guided me to the on-site Acupuncturist where I had my first of many treatments.

As the week went on, I’d start my mornings carefully descending a steep spiral staircase and two more flights of uneven clay stairs. One hand clenching handrails and one squeezing my neck pillow like a choker to keep my head from toppling off. The retreat center became still as the first yoga class of the day began. I’d order a masala chai and get awkwardly comfortable on a wicker chair shaded under a blanket of hot pink bougainvillea. I would sit, write, relax and enjoy my steaming cup of spicy silence. Then, I’d tenaciously try to rid myself of the pain that joined me in India. I endured sessions with an Ayurvedic physical therapist, more painful acupuncture and gentle massage. Each day I loosened just a bit. In the early afternoons, my sister and I would slowly journey to nearby villages with our cab driver and tour guide, Rama.

THE VILLAGES AND RAMA

Each small town was similar, yet different. The uneven streets were lined with vendors offering an endless array of beautiful fabrics and scarves alongside muscle shirts reading “Hunk,” or “Easy” and cheap plastic likenesses of Hindu deities. Each vendor more aggressive than the last, yelling “Girl, come here, I give you good deal!” Colorful textiles so vibrant your eyes watered, as burning piles of plastic smoldered and filled the sky with a beige tint. We gingerly dodged car sized potholes and giant sidewalk cracks that could easily swallow a human, while slurping sweet coconut ice cream as it melted down our forearms. During one journey Rama asked,

“What’s wrong with neck?”

“Tight,” I said, while glancing at him sideways. He looked at me and gave a signature Indian head wobble and said, “Hmmm…I go to Mapsa. I get you ring. You put on neck. Your neck get better.” Without hesitation I said, “Ok.” I would have tried anything.

The next day, Rama delivered the ring.

MIRACLES AND THE RETURN OF HANUMAN

It looked like it had been fashioned out of bamboo, and it came with a red string. He helped tie it around my neck, and drove away on a scooter as I marveled at this kindness. I hobbled to my next acupuncture appointment, wherein, I was a pin cushion left alone to relax while the needles worked their magic. Cross legged, and sitting tall, I watched the trees do their dance, then closed my eyes and went into a deep meditation. How long, I haven’t a clue, but I suddenly heard a voice…

“Hanuman?! What is wrong with you?! What do you need?!”

“I need a task, Master!”

I gasped and came out of meditation, wide-eyed. Good God. I did this to myself. My intention in coming to India was to be completely present, to separate from the life of cancer mom and unearth a new version of myself, and that’s exactly what I did! I gave my inner Hanuman a task. If I hadn’t been completely overwrought in physical pain I would have been mentally obsessing about Geddy the entire time. If I hadn’t absolutely needed the bodywork I received I wouldn’t have treated myself to more than one session. I wouldn’t have relaxed for hours, filled my journal with thoughts and emotions, and dusted off my inner wisdom. My trip would have been a blurred flurry of a checklist, hurrying to see everything I thought I needed to see. My pain was my task, and Hanuman was busy. Tears of joy streamed down my face and I tried to explain my epiphany to the acupuncturist. She giggled and removed my needles. I turned my neck farther than I had since coming to India.

Still a little tight, I climbed the stairs to our balcony. My sister and I held hands and sat together, sharing inner secrets discovered on our journey. We laughed and cried and sang songs that had been playing on loops in our heads since we’d arrived.  We climbed into our netted beds, and I slept harder than I’d ever slept.

I woke completely pain free, squealed in delight, and showed off my newly unburdened upper body to Janine. We walked down the stairs to find a courtyard filled with children from the surrounding villages. It was HOLI, the celebration of light, color and Spring. Little hands smeared brilliantly colored powder over the faces of surrounding adults, all singing, “HAPPY HOLI!!!” I turned my head to find Rama laughing, being covered in HOLI powder.

“Rama? What is this thing?” I asked, grabbing my neck ring that now replaced the airplane pillow.

“It’s a miracle. No one knows,” he shrugged.

Happy tears poured down my colorful cheeks.

AND JUST LIKE THAT IT WAS OVER

The remaining skoch of our trip was filled with hot curried dishes and cold Indian white wine. I caught up on yoga poses, and got acquainted with some amazing travelers at the retreat center. Janine and I went to a sandy white beach on the Arabian Sea. She led me in our own version of beach yoga while sarong-covered women swept garbage, and dark-skinned passersby took pictures of two bright white women doing yoga where yoga began.

In a blink, our 14 day trip was over and we began our journey home. My heart was heavy to leave the patient country of India and its slowed down version of time that I adopted and adored.  And heavier yet to bring an end to this once in a lifetime trip with my incredibly generous sister, and very best friend. But then I’d imagine the feeling of wrapping Geddy in my arms, burying my face into his soft neck and breathing him in. I couldn’t wait.

INTEGRATING…

As I recovered from jet lag, my memories morphed into everyday life. I immediately noticed that Geddy and I had both grown while I was away. He had a chance to experience a three week period of freedom from his mom hovering over him and protecting him from the perilous world. I had a chance to focus on me. It had been a very long time since I’d done that. We both had a chance to breathe in life a little less hindered, and gain some much needed confidence. This trip represented a bridge crossing the gap of what was and what would be. A much different version of life and an opportunity to decorate a new canvas.

And for that, I say: Thank you, Hanuman. Thank you, India. Thank you, Janine.

 

mm

Wendy Brunson

Wendy Brunson lives in Chico, Ca with her husband, Jeff, and son, Geddy. She's a massage therapist by trade, and a passionate lover of the outdoors. Two things that accompany her everywhere: worn hiking shoes, and an equally worn journal. Her blog, BugsJourney, follows a lengthy and emotional road through Geddy's intense treatment of T Cell leukemia.

8 comments