I was standing on the boat ramp as the sun peeked over the hills overlooking Lake Berryessa in Napa, California a few weeks ago mentally preparing for a race. As soon as the warmth of the sun touched my face nothing could stop the lump forming in my throat or the tear that welled up in my eyes as I thought: I’m recovering life this morning. A year ago I thought my days of triathlon were over. A year ago I could not walk 150 ft to the nurses station, but on that day, I was preparing to swim 750 meters, bike 12.4 miles, and run 3.1 miles. A few months ago I remember seeing a picture of Marne crossing the finish line of a half-marathon and it filled me with hope knowing endurance racing is possible without a stomach. Like so many others who have recently been diagnosed with CDH1, I remember starting on this journey wondering whether or not my life was over, but seeing the journey of those who had gone before, there really is hope and life after a total gastrectomy. For me, the most difficult mental barrier in this journey was not the change. It was not necessarily the fact that my diet or my body was going to be different; it was coping with the sense of loss. It was dealing with the reality that life as you know it, was gone. A few months before surgery I went on a #farewellstomachtour because I was told I would never eat another steak, enjoy a flaky croissant, or a perfectly fluffy donut. For a formerly 210 pound foodie, this was devastating news.
In the beginning, coping with the sense of loss of life (as I knew it) seemed insurmountable especially as you struggle to hold down basic liquids wondering if the steady diet of Korean short rib burritos from your favorite local gourmet food truck has been relegated to variety pack sugar-free jellos, chalky protein bars and lifeless broths. For me, it was not about the change, it was about the sense of loss.
A few Sunday’s ago, our church started a new series called, “Ebenezer” focusing on stories of God’s faithfulness and redemption in the midst of great trials. Thankfully, it was scheduled to show on the weekend of my race which meant I would not have to sit there feeling completely exposed, naked and vulnerable in the company of 1500 other people. While recalling and retelling the story was painful, it reminded me of how far I have come. If I have learned anything this year – nothing is a coincidence.
Here is my video:
After this service, I had a lot of conversations with people facing their own challenges in life. Whatever the challenge, big or small, I noticed a theme: the struggle is not so much over the change – it was over a sense of loss. Sometimes that sense of loss can be overwhelming, and the thoughts of “just getting over it” or “moving forward” seems mentally impossible and can induce feelings of anger.
“You got over it because you are mentally strong”, people would say to me, but for me it did not happen over night. I know from reading my blogs, it can sounds like the day after surgery I was already on the trainer getting ready for my next race, but this is far from reality. The distance between one blog and the next blog is a just a few pixels, but for me, in that tiny space between posts, are the untold stories of doubt, frustration, pain, grief and straight depression (although, I would not have admitted it at the time) grieving the loss of life as I knew it.
Truthfully, I do not attribute where I am today because I am mentally strong, particularly brave, or uniquely resolved. In retrospect, I think I began moving forward when I accepted what Erwin McManus points out is the funny reality about history, “it’s unchangeable, but the future? We can create the future.”
Life as I knew it is history, I cannot change it and what I found to be true in my own life is: the longer I live grieving that sense of loss, the more resentful and bitter I become, so I should step into my new reality of life and begin recovering all the beauty life still has to offer. As weeks became months, I began recovering bits and pieces of the life I knew with greater appreciation. Can I still pound 3 donuts? No, but I can savor a single melt-in-your-mouth Krispy Kreme donut. I can sit in a café, people watch, and enjoy a perfectly crafted cappuccino. I can enjoy my daughter belting out the words to “Shut Up and Dance” in the backseat of my car. I can literally feel new life kicking as we wait with great anticipation the birth of my second daughter. Do I miss traces of my old life like eating red meat? Of course, but on those rare occasions I see an irresistibly juicy and delicious looking steak, I’ll weigh the cost and savor the couple bites I can have. As I learn to embrace my new life, I have found greater contentment, resolution and peace as I begin to see that life is not over, it is just different and along the way I have been surprised at the life I have been able to recover.
I do not think I am where I am today because I am a triathlete. I believe my passion for triathlon was worth attempting again to the capacity I could compete. Life is not over, it is just different, and as far as I can enjoy it today, I will to the best of my ability. On the day of the race I was passed by half the field finishing 139th out of 440 in 1:35:20, but it was not about winning my division or beating a certain time, it was about enjoying the process and finishing in a sport I never thought I would compete in again. Will I ever be able to do an Ironman? Who knows, but I want to keep training as long as I enjoy the sport. I do not think you need to be a marathoner, triathlete, or even a pastor to get through challenges, but do what you love in the capacity that you are able, because life is not over, it’s just different.