Fall Update: “Choices”

Having coffee in Santorini...not a bad way to start a day! :)

Hello my friends! I hope this finds everyone happy and well and getting excited for the beautiful Fall season! Neil and I recently returned from our much-anticipated trip to Greece, so I thought it might be a nice excuse to say hello and share some of our recent pictures with you.

As I’ve mentioned in past postings, the dream of this trip was born during my treatments, actually in the thick of them, as a “carrot” to finish the race and a “big hurrah” to celebrate all it took to get there. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it would also become a celebration of all it would take to become whole again in order to move forward. It has been quite the process with variables I never could have anticipated, tapping strength at times I wasn’t sure I had. I have been so blessed to have the time and support to properly traverse this part of the journey and having this trip as a bookend to all of it was a very special blessing for us indeed.

We stopped in Istanbul, Turkey for a few days before heading to our final destination of Santorini (one of the Greek Isles). We’d heard great things about the city and were curious to check it out for ourselves. Istanbul is the only city in the world where two continents meet, so half the city is in Europe and half is in Asia which makes for a pretty cool mix of flavors, people and architecture. It’s split by the Bosphorus which is one of the world’s most strategic waterways because it not only divides the city into two continents, but also connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Anyway, enough geography, a city on the water is never a bad thing in my book and it did not disappoint! It really is a fascinating city with its blend of Eastern and Western cultures. One minute you’re walking down a quaint, winding European street and the next you’re standing in front of a mosque looking at people in burkas. There’s a rich and extensive history to the city, including beautiful churches dating back to 500 AD, palaces where the Sultans lived–including their harems of women (OK…down, boys!)–and the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar that are sites to behold, in and of themselves. All and all, we had a neat couple of days and a great time exploring this fun city before heading off to Santorini.

At the Spice Market in Istanbul

Santorini….Ahhhh, Santorini… I think I might let the pictures speak for themselves as there’s not much I could say to improve upon them. I will say this and then share something with you that happened while we were there. Having looked at the pictures of this Grecian gem for many months, using it to steady myself on late nights in the Bone Marrow Unit when I was alone and scared, during the long months when I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, at times when I found myself aboard the crazy train called “Hormone Replacement” or wondering if all the work I was doing to rebuild myself and my life was worth it, actually arriving in Santorini was like walking into a living dream. As we deplaned via an exterior stairway, Neil reached for my hand just before I approached the last step, and said “It’s taken a lot to get here, hasn’t it?” And I turned up and smiled at him and said, “Yeah…it sure has.” “What a long, strange trip it’s been” flashed through my mind about the same time, like a theme song playing in the background. As our feet hit the tarmac and we took our first steps onto Santorini soil, I knew it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Walking down to a fishing village in Santorini for dinner on the water...doesn't get much fresher than that!

So, on to what happened while we were there. Well, a lot happened but there’s one thing in particular I wanted to share. I’ll begin by saying that I believe everyone who comes into our lives is meant to, that although it may seem random or trite at times, everyone who crosses our path is meant to for one purpose or another. Some reasons are clearer than others and this particular one was pretty clear to me. This is the stuff that I really get excited about, so bear with me.

There we are, once again, in the middle of nowhere (one of my favorite places to be) only this time it was in the middle of the Aegean Sea. It was beautiful, sunny and serene –everything we’d hoped for and we were easily falling under Santorini’s magical spell. My only goal while I was there was to enjoy myself and get out of my own head and just savor this long-awaited sweet spot in the world. So there we are, basking in the splendors of this perched oasis when a girl behind me at the pool asked, “So where are you guys from?” I had been reading (surprising, I know) and periodically glancing out over the gorgeous, royal blue caldera, almost as if playing a game with myself because it was equally captivating every time, like experiencing the Aegean’s magnificence again and again for the first time–or maybe I was just checking to make sure it was real, probably a little of both. I sighed silently to myself, my dream-like bubble popped, and turned to answer her question. She was a cute blonde, about my age, and we quickly got chatting, exchanging pleasantries and cities of residence. I learned she was from New York, the city, in fact, on her honeymoon with her new husband. She asked if we were on ours (we get this ALL the time and on every trip) and I laughed and said no, that we had just celebrated our seventh anniversary. The usual shocked look crossed her face and I quickly rescued her by saying, “We’re older than we look.” When she asked what we were there to celebrate my response was simple and without pause, “Life.”

The conversation continued and I asked the usual questions about their wedding and engagement, knowing this would be an exciting and expected line of conversation for her to want to talk about since their nuptials had taken place so recently and would be fresh on her mind. But her face darkened as she began to recount much of it, talking about how hard and stressful it had all been. “It just wasn’t what I thought it would be like,” she said quietly, as if speaking something aloud that she shouldn’t. She began to recount the story behind her dark shroud as she shared that she had lost both of her parents in quick succession recently. It suddenly became quite clear to me why we were having this conversation and why our paths had crossed. Her mother had died after a long battle with cancer. A breast mass that was “watched” for three years, never biopsied, had already spread by the time it was caught. She had lived longer than had been expected but her death seemed an avoidable tragedy. Her father then died very suddenly of a massive heart attack just as they were beginning to moving on from her mother’s death. As the oldest of three girls, my new friend felt all alone in the world and in her grief. I said nothing of my own story or my own experience of loss, I just listened, knowing how important that it was in the beginning, to just be heard in your own suffering. I also didn’t want to diminish her pain or steal the spotlight by sharing my own story with her, knowing that she couldn’t know she was speaking to a fellow traveler of the jagged road of tragedy, trying to traverse it’s daunting bumps and turns.

Without meaning to, I reflexively sized up where she was in her grief. She was over the shock and spoke of it without tearing up. The reality of her loss had sunk in, but she hadn’t yet accepted it. No, she was angry. And she had a right to be. She had lost so much, so much had been taken from her, and she was mad at life. I never really got angry per se but I recognized her anger was a reflection her sadness, the same sadness that mirrored my own past grief. Part of me wanted to tell her that I understood, that there had been moments after my sister’s death when I didn’t know how I would make it through the day under the weight of my sadness and feeling suddenly aged by the brunt of the load my heart carried, times when I would go to the cemetery at night and lay down on the cool wet earth where Lauren lay below, just to be close to her in the only way I knew how. But that, in time, there was happiness again, even laughter and that there was life after this. I wanted to tell her how the contrasts of our lives can transform us, awakening us to our essence and dare us to be more alive. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her that even thirteen years later pockets of grief still opened up at unlikely times when the magnitude of our loss reverberated through the years.

Grief is a process of coming to terms with what has already happened but it takes time for your mind and heart to catch up with that and still more to make peace with it. I knew she was at a critical point and she was being called to make a choice. Was she going to make peace with what happened or was she going to let it harden her heart, sealing her off from all joy? Was she going to chose to see the difference between letting go and forgetting, between surrendering to the freedom of acceptance and giving in to the bondage of darkness? I knew the choice was hers and hers alone but I wasn’t sure that she knew all that hung in the balance of that one silent choice or that there was even a choice to make. All she could see right now was what was gone, what had been taken from her and the gaping holes it had left behind. We have an instinct to fill these gaps within us with something and I didn’t think she realized that in her grief, she had let bitterness fill hers or that she could chose to fill them with something else. Not knowing if it was my place to say it or if she was even ready to hear it, I silently prayed she would and just listened.

Looking back to admire the beautiful Aegean Sea as we sailed around the island

A couple of days later we were all on a boat together. We had been told it was a great way to see some parts of the island that can only be seen from the water, so we all agreed it would be a fun way to spend an afternoon. Half way through our excursion I found myself sitting next to my new friend again, chatting. The conversation turned to work. “So, what do you do?” she asked. I kind of smiled because I get this all the time and it inevitably brings up what’s happened over the past few years. “Well, I’m a Physician Assistant by degree and worked with a plastic surgeon for about six years, but I’m taking some time off right now to do some writing.” It’s a bit easier than getting into the whole thing and I try to avoid it, if I can, while still remaining truthful. But, inevitably they ask, as she did, “Oh, what are you writing?” Yep, here we go…”Well, I’m writing an inspirational memoir about a medical experience I had that happened a couple of years ago…a couple bone marrow transplants and all that…” “…Oh…” And there it was. I always feel a little badly at this point, when the “cat’s out of the bag”, because I know they had no way of knowing what they were really asking when they asked a standard question and now they feel like they need to say something in response to the elephant that just plopped it’s butt in the middle of the room. So I find I try to quickly shift the conversation and relieve them by saying something glib like, “Yeah, so anyway…” But that’s a bit awkward too. Her eyes widened a little bit and she said, a bit shocked, “But you’re the picture of health!” I smiled and joked, “Yeah, that’s what I keep trying to tell them!” “Wow, Alyssa, that must have been pretty rough.” “So you do understand about what I was talking about the other day, how hard it can be.” “Yes, yes I do. In more ways than you know, actually.” “I also lost my younger sister when I was in college, so I know exactly what you mean.” She seemed to pause for a moment, processing all of this and we talked about how I chose to look at the things that had happened in my life for a little while before moving on to lighter topics and just enjoying the views. We had several more casual interactions before they left to go home and exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, promising that we would call if either couple was in the other’s “neck of the woods” and to forward any photos of each other. As they left I hoped again that she wouldn’t let her anger and disappointment steal the joy out of her life or her new marriage. But, as I waved goodbye, I didn’t know which she would chose or if what I had said had made a difference. Neil and I only had just a few days left of our vacation so we set about to savor each one of them.

Several days after we got back to Atlanta, I received an email from my new friend and my heart leapt. It went something like this…

“Hey Alyssa! How are you? I wanted to reach out for a couple of reasons. I’ve been thinking nonstop about you since I’ve been home and I have to share with you how incredibly inspired I am by you. I have been thinking of all you have been through in the last few years and I am overwhelmed with your fantastic attitude and impressed with the way you view life. You have been through so much and I’m sure it would be easy to get mad at life, but you have found a way to really turn that around into a positive. It made me stop and think about all I have been through and how mad I can get at life and reevaluate. Meeting you was a breath of fresh air and a true inspiration.

Being a newly-married couple, it was so nice to watch you and Neil and witness what a wonderful relationship you have. It truly heartens me, because life’s stressors can really test a relationship and the friendship that you build…”
To which I responded…

“So great to hear from you! I want to thank you for your sweet email. I’m honored that in some way what I/we have been through has helped you. I believe there are no accidents and I am so glad that our paths crossed. You have been through so much in the last few years and it is quite understandable for you to feel the way you do. It takes time to heal from such a great loss but it makes me happy to know that you are seeing that you have a choice as to what you do with it. I think a lot of people miss that.

I choose to believe that “You can’t always change the cards you’re dealt, but you can choose how to play them.” And I think that choice changes everything, it has for me. Things like this break you wide open and I believe they’re meant to. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard or sad. It doesn’t mean you don’t mourn or cry or shake your fists. It takes time to heal and reconcile such things, but on the other side can be a perspective few have. You can love bigger and better because you know how precious our time here is. You can treasure your family, husband and friends in ways others miss because they don’t know what you know. You can use it to motivate you to truly live, to truly be alive. It can be a blessing, in time, if you let it.

I believe the same is true with marriage. It’s what you want it to be and it’s what you put into it. Don’t let the nay sayers or what others do be your gauge. There is nothing you have to be, do or have that is worth being pulled away from each other. Be each other’s anchor in this world and you will always come back to each other…”
I lit up from the inside as I read her email to Neil. “This is it! This is what I want to do. THIS is why I’m writing the book,” I beamed. “…I didn’t even really say anything, I just told her my story, ya know, just what happened,” I marveled. “I know, Hun, but you have a pretty powerful story,” Neil chuckled. “No, WE have a powerful story,” I corrected, “and it’s been given to us for a reason.”

Which brings me to the question of the day…”How’s the book coming?” Well, good question. I keep hearing in my head, “You’ve got more than you think.” So I’ve decided to see exactly how much that is and am going about the business of taking inventory and organizing. I’m basically “winging it” and it’s been another good lesson in faith as I step out into this uncharted territory for me. As a recovering Type A, I am anxious to get it done, but I’m trying to temper that with my new way of looking at things and enjoy the process as I go. I’ll say there are also times when I need a break from revisiting some of the more “difficult” parts of the journey and when I find myself in one of those places or getting frustrated because I’m lost in a pile of words, wondering how I’m ever going assemble it into something that resembles a book, I know it’s time to take a step back. At those times I find myself picking up one of the many books I have lying around and saying, “OK, if all these other people can do it, then so can I. I can figure this out. I can do this. Just finish this thought, and then the next one, and then the next one.” And when that doesn’t work or I just need an extra boost that day, I say, “OK God, you seem to want me to do this…so show me how!”

It’s been an interesting process in other ways as I’ve been surprised by the reaction of my family to certain parts I’ve shared with them. When I read Neil the beginning I was going to submit to an agent he got really quiet after I finished reading it. I looked up, waiting for a response and said, “What, you don’t like it? No good??” And he shook his head silently several times before answering. “No, no, it’s good…it’s really, really good.” “It’s just so sad…,” he said, shaking his head again. “But I just told it like it happened…,” I responded, quickly scanning over the pages to make sure. “I know, Alys, but no one else saw it through your eyes and it just makes me sad to see how hard that was for you and that there was nothing I could do to stop that. It just makes me sad to know that you were all by yourself in that part of it.” I knew then that was the story I was meant to tell, the story of it through my eyes, the realities and odds I faced and the choice I made to to “flip it”, choosing faith over fear, and how that choice changed everything. It’s a choice. Plain and simple. We are given the divine gift of a mind and the freewill to use it any way we choose. We can always choose differently and begin again. I believe that the power of belief, our perspective, faith and intention are everything. And that when we chose to search for the sun obscured behind the clouds, the storms clear faster and the clouds part sooner. Our minds are the only thing we ever truly have power over and what we choose to focus on, whether purposely or not, is the harvest we reap.

I want what I do to count for something bigger than me. So my mission is really quite simple, to share my story in the hope that people might see that no matter what they face in their lives, that they have a choice as to how they look at it and that it’s that choice that can change everything. If I can do that and someone is better for it, then there’s no more worthy cause I can think of investing myself in. You see, once you’ve been on the receiving end of that equation, as I have, and you know first-hand the difference helping another can make, all you want to do is do it for someone else. Many of you did that for me with your prayers and support, and it’s my hope that I have given something back by what I have shared, I hope so. For a long time it was the only thing I could do to give back and now it’s the only thing I want to do. I think that’s what it’s really all about anyway, helping each other. I don’t want to spend any more time pushing against the world. It feels more right to reach out a hand instead.
Plus, I think the world could use more messages of hope and healing and miracles, don’t you?

Along those lines, Neil and I will be running in the “Be the One 5K” on Saturday, October 30th at 8am at Atlantic Station in Atlanta. The race is sponsored by the National Marrow Donor Program and Northside Hospital, where I was treated and worked prior to all this, is a sponsor. The Bone Marrow Group that treated me relies heavily upon the research and donor registry of this National Program for life-saving transplants and cutting edge research to save lives, like mine, where nothing else has worked in the past. So, in an effort to give back to those that have given us so much, we want to support this wonderful cause. Also, for us, it’s a pre-celebration of the upcoming two-year anniversary since my last transplant and two of my greatest loves, running and life. I know there are lots of worthy causes out there to support, so if this isn’t something that speaks to you, don’t worry about it. I just wanted to throw it out there and let you know what we’re up to. We’d love to see you, take a nice three-mile run around the city on a beautiful Fall day and support the people who are helping make miracles, like ours, happen everyday! If you’re interested in joining us the website to register.

I’ve set up a team, “Team Alyssa”, which you’re welcome to join when you log on. We would love to see you there!

Wishing you all, as always, many blessings, much love and so much gratitude,

Here’s the link to our photos from Istanbul and Santorini.

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning how to dance in the rain.”

“Whether you believe you can or you can’t, either way you’re right.”
-Henry Ford

God doesn’t give you the people you want; He gives you the people you NEED…. to help you, to hurt you, to leave you, to love you and to make you into the person you were meant to be.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
-Albert Einstein

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
-Dr. Wayne Dyer

“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” -Margaret Fuller

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