Can Life's Challenges Be Gifts?

My Father's Gift

In August of 2008, my kids were getting ready to go to school; they were so enthusiastic. My youngest was going off to kindergarten for the first time and I was going to have all this free time. I had this bittersweet feeling about it. I did not want to return to the old design business. I wanted to do something completely different; I wanted to use my creative energy in a new way.

I joined a local YMCA and became a member of Toastmasters International and put my name of the top of the volunteer list. Whatever they needed, I was available. I needed to find some new skills and volunteering and public speaking seemed like the perfect fit. I've always enjoyed staying fit and I thought this would be a good way to make a new transition in my life. My life after raising small kids was starting to take shape... so I thought.

My husband and two children are and will always be a dream come true. I got married at 36, had a little girl at 37 and a little boy at 38. My daughter was born five days before the 9/11 attack. It was difficult and I struggled with panic for a long time after.

Four months before my son was born, my husband and I bought our first home in Morris County, New Jersey. It was too good. Everything seemed so right. The kids were a handful but it didn't matter, I was so thrilled to be enjoying the family I thought I would never have; it was a wonderful time.

In the fall of 2005, my kids had just turned three and four and the rug got pulled out from underneath us and we were not prepared. Life became challenging and stayed that way; it was difficult.

My father was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma, a tumor in his kidney. This meant that the whole kidney would have to be removed and while the doctors thought this process could be done easily, it was very complex and the surgery was major.

Three weeks out of recovery he would be rushed to the hospital with chest pain only to find out that he had bilateral pneumonia. They also saw tumors in his lungs and were concerned. He would have to go through a series of tests and scans to find out exactly what it was.

Every day I would go to the hospital to visit, help him wash his hair, shave, anything I could do to be with him and help him and my mom out. We were very scared. At night I would go home to my husband and kids and cry in the bathroom because it felt so tough.

One of the most dreadful days came when I asked one of the doctors what he thought of my father's health and what his opinion was. He just looked at me and said, "Do you really want to know what I think?"

He began to explain that he felt the tumors would eventually take his life. He thought it would happen quickly within 3 months and that we would need to get hospice.

I was devastated.

The same week my dad was in the hospital, my husband came home and announced that his company was thinking of lowering his salary; a slow firing. I thought, 'this couldn't be happening'.

How come God was making my life so difficult during some of the most important years in my kid's lives? I was so angry and so sad. I would pray for God's strength and guidance. He must have carried me; it was overwhelming.

To our surprise the doctor was wrong. Thankfully my father received a good report and the tumors in his chest were not cancerous but something they would watch. The life threatening part was over with but the emotional effects lingered for months.

I could not sleep; I could barely take care of my kids, I was so exhausted. I did my best. I would decorate the house, play at someone's house, and go to the library, anything I could think of to keep myself busy, my mind free from worry and fear.

This is why I could not return to the old design job. The idea of being alone, working in my home and thinking the same old scary thoughts and feelings was not what I wanted or needed. I needed something new.

I always believed in the power of exercise and the power of positive thinking. The YMCA was a step in the right direction and the minute I walked into the place, I was so glad. There was this light and this energy that felt so good. The exercise had a way of getting me into that wonderful meditative state, the best feeling I ever got from working out. Immediately I started to volunteer and my public speaking class began. I was on my way.

From time to time I would complain to my husband that I felt trauma, I was nervous. My security had been rocketed and I was having trouble letting go of my dad's medical experience.

I knew for the first time that my dad was not going to live forever; I knew for the first time that I wanted to be a success in life and find the things I always wanted to do and I hoped, so badly, that he would be around to enjoy that new adventure with me.

I plunged myself into the YMCA. It helped me stay physically, mentally and spiritually fit. The socialization was the biggest bonus ever and I started to feel more confident and my self-esteem grew. My foundation was getting stronger and I knew I was getting to a better place.

The truth is I knew I was moving forward but there was a message I couldn't understand. From time to time I felt such fear and trauma, but I reassured myself that it was normal, and then I'd be hard on myself and think that two years had passed - how come I was still feeling this way? Shouldn't I be over this by now?

Life was no longer enjoyable and fun; now it was serious and I felt like I didn't trust it. I had awful thoughts about death and dying. I felt grief. I would look at my husband and think, "Isn't it too bad; he's probably going to be married to someone else because I must be sick."

What was it? What was I thinking? I didn't know.

I forced myself to see a social worker to talk about the pain and the fear. Talking about the experience made me deal with it; it was torture. We would talk about the overwhelming feelings I had, the trauma, the grief, and my fear of losing my dad.

How ashamed I was of myself and my inability to let go. I wanted to get my thought life in a better direction; please help me. The social worker would encourage medication and I would say no, I have a spiritual connection I don't want to lose it. For whatever reason, I thought this must be a necessary part of my journey.

I did not want to take medication. That would frustrate her. I would stop seeing the social worker and eventually see a therapist with my husband because we needed help. Soon the therapist would point the finger at me. I needed therapy, not him. I would have the same experience with the therapist as I did with the social worker. I would leave, pay the woman, feel worse than I did when I arrived.

I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was. I thought I was crazy. The most important thing is that I stayed with it; I never gave up. I yelled at God, a lot, for the answers and eventually He helped me find my truth.

In the spring of 2009, I told my husband that I'd had enough; I decided to go see an urologist. It is important to note that at that time I had just begun training to become a water aerobics instructor and was so enthusiastic about the opportunity. There was something about water aerobics that was perfect for me. It was gentle on my body and the workout was challenging. I loved the people, the seniors, their wisdom and compassion just fed my soul.

The doctor told me that nothing was wrong; he assured me I didn't have cancer, but just to be safe he wanted me to complete two tests. I left his office and felt happy I had taken some action to soothe my mind of any serious concerns.

Coincidentally, the doctor was a member of the same YMCA as mine. Divinely planned or was it my best thinking that made me choose a YMCA to transition in life?

I completed the tests and received a call from him that there was a fatty tissue on my kidney, nothing to be alarmed about, but to be safe he ordered a cat scan.

Now I was uncomfortable. I cried to my husband. I was scared; I fell down on my knees in my bathroom and just completely surrendered. I pleaded to God to please help me; whatever is wrong with me, please help me.

In the middle of June, while my kids were playing after school with some friends, I finally got my answer. The doctor called and said "Karen I need you to come into the office. I need to speak with you about the cat scan you had today."

I replied, "When do you want me to come?"

"Now!" he said. He also said to bring my husband.

"The tumor is in your right kidney and appears to be the size of a golf ball. The fatty tissue that I originally saw on the ultrasound is actually something different. It is a hard mass and sometimes these kinds of tumors are in fact Renal Cell Carcinoma."

I was shocked! I could not believe what he was saying but at the same time I was relieved. I now knew I now had an answer. But without hesitation, I was ready to move and respond as quickly as possible; I was prepared. I had an answer to my overwhelming feelings, my grief, my trauma.

Thank God I was not crazy! There was a reason for all this and now it was time to hear what the next steps would be. My husband was in utter disbelief. He brought a pad and a pen to the doctor's office and wrote the words RENAL CELL CARSINOMA and that was it.

The doctor explained how to treat this kind of tumor and why it could not be biopsied. He also told us that typically they metastasized to the lung so I needed to get a cat scan of my lungs ASAP. That CAT scan was negative, thank God. We arranged to have surgery on June 24. I would have to wait a week; a struggle, but we did it.

I was hopeful and wanted more than anything for the surgery to be a success. I had every bit of confidence in the doctor and we got along well. He had such a great way about him and he loved my attitude and we laughed often, which made a tough situation a lot easier.

Unfortunately the surgery could not be done easily so instead I had to have major surgery. A scar under my right rib cage remains forever to remind me of this incredible change of life, a blessing and a gift from my father I was beginning to realize. My inner voice had guided me. I'm so glad I listened and stayed with it. It was not easy.

The recovery process was beginning; I was on the other side. While in the hospital I was interested in knowing what I could do to help myself. "Walking" was the nurse's best suggestion and this came with much difficulty. At first I walked with extreme discomfort. Everything hurt but I told myself I was doing a great job and after a rest, I would do it again.

I began to challenge myself. How far could I go? Could I make it to that doorway? Could I make it to the ramp? Could I make it up the ramp? Could I make it to the beautiful pictures and the elevators? Yes! I could and I was so proud! Small steps made big victories.

I had climbed the ramp, which in my mind was a mountain. As I stood at the elevators starring at the cardio unit it became clear to me that something spiritual was taking place, someone was with me guiding me. Perhaps it was God encouraging me, holding my hand, leading me.

"The Spiritual Walk" brought me so much peace. I knew I was being led not just in the hospital but in life. I had been through something major.

This would be my focal point moving forward. "The walk" will always remain in my mind; the vision and the words I heard encourage and support me, bring me joy and help move forward in life and do the things I always wanted to do. It has been a life changing experience. Thankfully the tumor was benign.

Out of 21 doctors who could have discharged me from the hospital, the one who did was the same man who told me my father would die two years prior. I recognized him immediately shook his hand and called him by name. He had no recollection of the story or his words about my father's health. We talked about that conversation and how devastating it was for me. He smiled and told me not to ever listen to him again and to keep believing in my own inner voice.

After the recovery from my surgery, my life began anew. I was able to learn from my own experiences and see how they made me who I am today. My story also serves as inspiration for others who are dealing with difficult struggles.

I have told my story to audiences of 10 or 100. I enjoy public speaking and talking about the importance of staying physically, mentally fit and listening to your inner voice. I love people and entertaining them with my sense of humor and serious side. It's my true passion.

The experience has strengthened my faith and I am enjoying my husband and two kids again. Humor has been one of my best coping mechanisms. Life has opened up in a whole new way and I feel as though I am free for the first time. It is a miracle and I feel like a miracle.

I cannot believe how much I struggled only to realize that maybe my dad's health issue was a gift. It was a gift for me to discover and respond to, so I could open up and get free again and find my true self.

The water aerobics classes are a great source of connecting with the most compassionate group of people I have ever met in my life (seniors, or as they liked to be called 'Active Adults'). In fact, volunteering continues to be so rewarding and now I conduct physical therapy classes in the water for those with physical impairments. It is wonderful to watch and see these people spirits come alive again, just as I did, feel good about themselves and their lives.

I am so grateful to my family, especially my dad and his great courage and strength he exhibits. He continues to persevere while receiving dialysis three times a week. It not easy for him but he is still charming, handsome and funny. I thanked him and my mom a lot for my awesome upbringing, my strong character and my ability to laugh often and enjoy life.

Copyright 2010 Karen Muha
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