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Off Kilter, On Track

"Off Kilter On Track"

Written for Daughters Against Breast Cancer -

Finally blessed with a steady rain storm on our parched terrain, the only thing I wanted to do was stare out the window and listen to the persistent drops. But it was time to put a rain jacket on and embrace the wet outdoors. As I got back into my car from running a crucial errand, I made perfect timing to hear one of the most beautiful violin pieces I know of, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. It transports me and brings chills to my body. I had no choice but to stay still, close my eyes and take it in while the rain flowed over the windshield.

The music carries me away to a place of grace and a cocoon of safety encircles me. My spirit ascends along with the Lark. There are moments in this piece that are so astoundingly quiet, but deeply moving beyond description. I’m not a classical music aficionado, but like any of the arts, I know instantly what I’m drawn to. I’d felt off kilter concerned with finances, more tests and doctor appointments, lingering trauma, and a pervasive loneliness and depression I can’t seem to shake when this hauntingly beautiful piece ignited my soulful spirit.

There’s nothing typical in healing. It’s been nine months since my eighth surgery, but life is still off kilter. My intention is to resurrect my life on all levels, but I’m often in a state of treading water. There are many who say that I ought to feel springtime renewal and launch right back into things. Going through four-years of a health crisis is traumatic and impossible for someone outside my shoes to fully grasp. I’d like to rejuvenate by escaping to a tropical resort and receive pampering, swim in pristine aqua blue water and have a cocktail or two while strong balmy breezes attempt to blow away painful memories. It’s not possible though, as the coffers are empty from a long breast cancer journey.

There are many of us women who go through difficult, even what feels like insurmountable challenges on our own. I remain in a strict healthy lifestyle and routine while trying to find my footing again. I’ve kept my daydreams going and envision light-hearted adventures ahead. We are forever told to have hope, but much of the time I find it exhausting to meet expectations. My friends believe me to be the strongest person they’ve ever known, but I don’t always feel that way. I’m scrambling to put the broken pieces back together with only myself to rely or lean on.

After multiple frightening hurdles and surprising complications, I learned to brace myself for the next blow as the reptilian part of my brain gained dominance. It’s the necessary part of our brain that keeps us safe. The masterful tool of auto-pilot kicks in and it’s essential during crises. I believe I’m highly skilled at survival mode, which assisted me in obliterating paralyzing fear and raw emotions to keep moving forward and stay alive. I’m patiently waiting for my body to feel secure enough to allow auto pilot to shut down. It’s fascinating to ponder the intricacies of the human mind that includes innate survival skills, which I mastered beginning as a toddler.

Thriving is what I yearn for now where the all-consuming fight becomes a distant memory – a story about a warrior of another time.

The journey I’ve been on has given me pause to think about the mother I never knew. If she were still alive, I’d have the benefit of her support and nurturing. I’ve longed for her presence my whole life. She had breast cancer in a time when it wasn’t spoken of out loud. There was so little known and even less care - Often a death sentence when diagnosed. How alone my mother must’ve felt keeping her illness so private she didn’t even tell her best friend. Shame surrounded breast cancer in the late fifties. My mother was so young with two small children, and not blessed with the chance to get life back on track. She was from the south, and southern shame seeped into her since she was a child. Because I have a new understanding as a kindred spirit daughter, my heart aches for her. When I was a little girl my grandmother tried instilling fear and shame in me as she cruelly did with my mother, but she never won that battle. I believe my mother would be proud of my fierce spirit.

I admit that I find myself feeling ashamed of my reconstructed breasts and miss my ample, sensitive breasts discarded in a medical waste bin long ago. Every woman reacts differently. I’m embarrassed of my shame, and the erotic loss of sensitivity in my breasts because I know I’m supposed to be focused on being grateful that I’m alive. I wish it were that easy, but complex layers developed and I’m not the same woman. I wish my mother were here, so I could talk to her about the emotions I have running as deep as the sea, where to go from here, and will someone love me with all my scars. It’s so childlike to have these feelings, but necessary to bring them all into the light, and seek support where I can.

Cancer patients have access to so many avenues of support through social workers, therapy, Cancer Centers, and Breast Cancer Resource Centers. I’ve utilized these resources and we are fortunate to live in a time where breast cancer is out in the open and incredible advances have been made that weren’t available to my mother. We carry the torch for the women before us.

Vacillating between days of feeling on track and then without a moment’s notice, feeling off kilter again is only human. Being courageous enough to work through the trauma and find the path to life in full technicolor again is where I hold hope. In the end, it’s up to me to find my way to a goal of being healed in mind, body, and spirit. There’s no time limit on grief or loss. I accept going in and out of being on track and thrown off kilter again as I set intentions to live a healthy and fulfilled life.

To find my footing again and feel an empowered life force, I utilize secret weapons of beauty such as: “The Lark Ascending”; “Casablanca”; the blue walls in my bedroom that provides a sensation of waking up on the bottom of the ocean; dazzling colors of hummingbirds and the way they stare into my eyes; powerful singing voices; four-legged friends; Renoir and Van Gogh; a friend’s unrelenting love and support; witty repartee; splendid literary prose, the scent of jasmine and orange blossoms; or the first sip of rich, dark espresso.

Everyone has their own discovery of secret weapons of beauty that cause the spirit to soar. The key is to be sensitive and aware of the world around you and become open to connecting to the moments of grace that move you deeply and inspire chills running through your body from head-to-toe. It’s a wonderful reminder of being alive.

Keep on swimming through life,

Valerie Anne Burns

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