I don't even remember now exactly how Vicky Westra and I found one another. Was it she who bumped into me first, or me her? I know that it started online, and that we were instantly and mutually attracted to each others' photos and words. Then I learned, to my surprise and delight, that rather than residing somewhere across the country, Vicky lived right across the river. Which meant our friendship wouldn't have to be limited to words on a computer screen.
And so we met for real at a lovely restaurant in wintertime, last December 2010. I blogged briefly about it here. Even though I was just getting to know Vicky, our conversation went deep quickly. One of the things on my mind: the recent death of my friend Roberta. Vicky listened to this and other concerns, and I listened as she shared some of hers, just as deep. Gazing out the window onto the frozen Red River with snow gently falling, I knew with certainty that this wouldn't be our first and last meeting. I'd discovered a friend, a kindred spirit. The kind you don't let go.
But as is so often the case, life proves itself bittersweet. It wasn't four months after our luncheon that I learned Vicky had been diagnosed with cancer; that even as she listened as I quietly grieved my friend, unknowingly, the same disease, though in different form, was about ready to announce itself in her life. In this post, I ask for prayers.
The prayers are still needed. Vicky's still fighting valiantly, yet with so much grace. But this post isn't about that so much as it is the celebration of Vicky becoming a full-fledged writer. No, she didn't train for this profession, but through avid reading and her desire to learn the craft, it's come to pass.
I've gotten permission from the On the Minds of Moms publisher to reprint Vicky's article that just came out. Through sharing it here, I honor Vicky. Because she is a writer -- a good one. And I'm proud to know her. Not just because of that. She's a good person first but she's a writer, too, and let's just call it what it is.
Vicky, you're showing us what it takes to be a writer. Step one, open your heart, and go forward from there. That's what you've done and will continue to do. Thank you on behalf of all of us blessed to read your words.
And to you who have happened by today, hang on. You won't regret staying just a while longer. I promise.
Fight on, and write on, dear Vicky. You did it! And you deserve every column inch. Not because you have cancer. Because you're you.
By Vicky Held Westra
I'm whispering in their ears a lot lately, repeating the same messages. “When you need me and I am not there, you know you can always find me in your heart.” “I love you to the moon and back forever," etc. I have such an urgency for them to know my heart.
My youngest son is nine. Our relationship has grown especially tender. He still holds my hand when we walk to the park. He brings his blanket and curls up beside me to watch “cooking shows,” watching and pretending not to notice when I doze off. He has changed a lot these past few months, in all the ways 9-year-olds do, and in ways no mother wants for her child.
My 11-year-old is changing too. He is taller and faster. He consumes enormous quantities of food and is still starving 5 minutes later. But he has turned down three birthday parties and two sleepovers with his friends. Instead he sneaks upstairs to our room and sleeps on the floor next to my bed, just to be near me. He is stronger on the outside, but it belies how soft he is on the inside. My heart swells and aches for him.
The lump in my breast appeared last December. I knew the feel, the slightly jello like wiggle encased in what I assumed to be cysts again. I kept a careful watch on them. I cut back on caffeine. I got enough sleep. And yet they grew. In March it was time to see the doctor.
I recall at that time, I feel no panic, no worry. I've been here before. The exam, the mammogram and then the ultrasound. But urgency rears its ugly head. I am sent immediately for the ultrasound. The ultrasound tech, briefly examines me, lowers her eyes, walks out to speak with the doctor. She is somber, quiet when she comes back into the room. She flips on the ultrasound image. Its then that I see the blood-red, angry splashes leaping from the screen. “We think it has many characteristics of cancer... no, we know,” she says, “its cancer. I'm sorry to tell you, you have breast cancer. The doctor agreed I could tell you. I think you should be prepared. A lot is going to happen very quickly now. Surgery as soon as next week. Chemo and radiation too.” I find myself crying. Just like that? A few seconds and you can tell? I haven't even had a mammogram yet, or a biopsy. I learn that day, you can see cancer on an ultrasound if it’s big enough. Clearly, my tumor is big enough.
The tech brings me kleenex and my phone. How am I going to do this? I am filled with regret, worry, concern. My husband, my kids, my mom. What will this do to them? She, the tech, is compassion and concern. And it dawns on me, she is brave. She made a decision to be the one to tell me, and not wait for the doctor. I marvel at how she did that. And she hasn't left my side. In all my blubbery, salty-teared sobs, she stands witness, as my heart breaks. Yet a seed plants in my head. She is also courage. And she is showing me how to do this.
Later, it occurs to me, I chose the word “alive,” this year. Each year I choose a word as a theme and watch how it manifests in my life. I went with the word "alive" after my Dad died. I simply wanted to feel "alive" in everything that I do. “Fighting to be" alive was not how I hoped to experience the word. Life is funny like that. And oddly, 6 months past my diagnosis, breast cancer has kicked open the door to feeling my aliveness in ways I couldn't have anticipated.
After much reflection, I realize I have both an urgency to live, while at that same time, wanting to slow down enough to savor every moment of each day. And the key to really doing that? Expanding your time, instead of worrying about extending your time.
I feel more and notice more in the tiny moments of my day. The sweet smell of sunshine and sweat mixed in my son's hair after playing outside in the sun. How golden the sunshine is in August. How water lapping at my feet soothes my aching soul. How joy tickles and spills over when you delight in the small. And how gratitude in everything, even cancer, leads to wanting for nothing.
I have discovered grace can be found even in the most painful and seemingly hopeless times. Like the time my youngest got up in front of his entire second grade class at sharing time and boldly told them his mom had cancer. And that she was going to get better. The seeds of grace sewn by my second grader.
That was just the beginning of a tidal wave of grace and blessings I would receive, and cancer has made me take notice. I've learned to live my moments, feel my aliveness. Put my “grace glasses” on and live my best day today. To expand. Count my gifts. I am finding you can see them in the tiniest moments. If you are open to seeing them, they are all around us.
A stay-at-home mom to two active boys, Nolan  and Colton , and the wife of Rick, Vicky spent her childhood growing up in Moorhead, MN. She graduated from Concordia College with a BS in Psychology and earned her MS in School Psychology at MSUM. After following her husband to Idaho for 10 years where she worked in Adolescent Psychology, they moved back to Moorhead in 2003 to raise their boys. When not hauling boys to the hockey arena or the golf course, Vicky loves to read, take photos and write. She was recently diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer and is currently undergoing treatment at Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo. She chronicles all of her daily life adventures at http://thewestraworld.blogspot.com.