Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dealing with Uncertainties

Black-capped Chickadee

At the end of every year, I plot out the coming year using an electronic calendar and a paper one. Year after year, I’ve always enjoyed marking in birthdays of friends and family, putting in all my anticipated speaking engagements and birding trips, and thinking how tidily the new year is shaping up.

There’s some darkness during these annual rituals, and that seems to increase as I grow older. Do I still write in my big brother’s birthday for 2017 when he died at the end of 2015? I lost three beloved aunts and two uncles in 2014, and one aunt in 2015. Leaving blank spots on their birthdays seems somehow even worse than writing them in. Calendars are a reminder both of what we think we can predict and manage in our lives, and of how very much life is unpredictable and unmanageable.

Birds don’t need planners or calendars. They’re hatched, so they technically don’t even have birthdays, and all their social engagements and other responsibilities happen organically, tied to day length, weather conditions, hormonal levels, and other things they feel in their bones. Their planning calendars are programmed into their bodies in a way no Apple Watch, smart phone, or Day Timer planner will ever do for us mere humans.

My paper calendar has space for appointments scheduled for the following year. When I got my 2017 calendar, I wrote in dozens of speaking engagements worked out many months before 2017 even began. I also wrote in a 2-½ week trip to Costa Rica for July. My plane tickets give a tangible certainty to the anticipation.

Of course, planning so far ahead is a bit presumptuous, and that presumptuousness grows as we get older. My heart attack in February 2015 was pretty clear evidence that plans can go awry in an instant, though as luck and my calendar would have it, I only had to postpone one small event. But still—at what point in a person’s life does one stop buying plane tickets seven months in advance? No chickadee would ever do that—any day can be its last.

Black-capped Chickadee

Long-term planning isn’t something that makes sense for chickadees, but neither is pessimism. They wake up each morning, do what needs to be done to stay alive and healthy, react to sudden setbacks and unanticipated good fortune with appropriate responses, cache food against future shortages, and keep on keeping on. Even with all the optimism and all the constraints that a tightly scheduled planning calendar represents for us, a chickadee’s approach to day-to-day living is pretty sound.

On Friday I got some news that put my 2017-planning calendar into a tailspin: a positive biopsy after a suspicious mammogram. Breast cancer may or may not shorten my life—that seems like one of the looming questions my diagnosis represents, but cancer does not lessen the likelihood of a freak accident or another heart attack or other surprise event killing me first. And my specific form—a papillary carcinoma that is hormone receptive and not particularly aggressive—makes dying of it pretty unlikely even in the long term.

Black-capped Chickadee

At this point, fears of mortality aren’t darkening my horizon—in that way, I’m pretty much reacting as a chickadee might. The oldest Black-capped Chickadee that we know about, a banded Minnesota bird, was alive and healthy when captured and released when it was at least 11 ½ years old (and possibly even older—it was an adult when originally banded). Most chickadees live much shorter lives than that, but they never wake up with fears of mortality crowding out their enjoyment of breakfast and the pleasures of preening in a patch of sunlight and singing or listening to that wonderful “Hey, sweetie!” song on a bright blue February morning.

At this point, my Costa Rica trip isn’t in jeopardy, but I’ll have to cancel many closer events to fit in surgery and radiation treatments. Suddenly my 2017 calendar isn’t as cut and dried as it seemed just a week ago, and I have many more question marks than certainties about how the next few months will unfold.

But when it comes down to it, question marks can be more liberating than unyielding plans. A chickadee’s whole life is filled with question marks, but she doesn’t focus on looming, dark possibilities when bright possibilities are just as likely. That’s why I look to chickadees when I’m negotiating tricky times. Their pure whistled songs ringing in my February mornings are all the proof I need that no matter what, there is beauty to be found right this very moment, as long as I can keep my eyes and ears open to it.

Black-capped Chickadee

*Surgery is set for March 2, an auspicious day because it's the anniversary of the first time I ever went birding, seeing the Number One bird on my life list—a Black-capped Chickadee!!

* I'm very lucky to have a supportive network of family, friends, and medical team here. My family has had a lot of experience with cancer, some extremely horrible, some not at all bad, and some in between. I'm not able to process other people's cancer stories right now.

*Best thing about breast cancer? My first thought when I wake up in the morning is no longer, "Holy shit! Donald Trump is President of the United States!" I can focus on a much smaller, more manageable malignancy. 

24 comments :

  1. Sounds like a good attitude to have. Adapt, do your best, have no fear, like a chickadee.

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  2. I'm so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Good luck to you, Laura, I hope your treatment is successful.

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  3. Sending positive wishes for healing and wellness

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  4. Laura, welcome to the club that no one wants to join. Just like a chickadee,you can do this. I was diagnosed in October 2014. Surgery December, chemo Jan-June 2015 and radiation that summer. I did a lot of car birding just to get out of the house. Went to RGVBF with hair 1/2" long. I would be happy to talk to you sometime.

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  5. It's so typical of you, Laura, to turn a scary diagnosis into a beautiful and uplifting essay that will bring inspiration and courage to others. The world needs the positive influence that you and the chickadees represent. We're sending lots of love and best wishes.

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  6. Email me, Laura. I also have news. Love!

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    1. Nancy!! I don't have your email! Mine is chickadee@lauraerickson.com

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  7. I love you so much, Laura. What spirit and strength of character to face this battle with such grace. As always, you are an inspiration. I know you have a loving family and circle of friends, but please know that we're here for you if there's anything you need.

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  8. Hi Laura, we are not acquainted, but would like to send my best wishes and support as you start your treatment. Several of the birders above know me. I have been through breast cancer treatment and reconstruction surgeries. I finished in December 2016. I am now in the monitoring phase by my oncologist. If you have any questions or need a friendly voice, friend me on Facebook, it would be an honor to help in any way possible. Janet Kissick Hug, Michigan

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  9. Laura, I never went into this of FB, but three days after I put my Ohio house up for sale, I was given the same diagnosis. Won't bore you with details, but as you know, I packed my binoculars, bird guides, and made the move to Pennsylvania. I had additional surgery and radiation after I settled here. I won't lie and say it was a breeze, but I am back to what I was and as you wrote, the prognosis is very hopeful. Plus, as you know, you are younger than I am, and should heal faster. Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. Mitzi

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  10. So sorry to hear this. Best wishes it all works out!

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  11. Your strength of character shines brightly in this blog post, Laura. Will be keeping positive thoughts for healing. Just a year ago I found myself in this situation. If I can be of any help-in any way, just say the word.

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  12. Hey, it's in the cards that we will meet, someday! Until then...gather your resources. You have a lovely family, myriad friends, and a sweet little puppy. Warmth, all around. I am thinking of you, and contemplating those candles I photographed for you. I'll check the blog...

    your cyber-buddy david

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  13. So sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Sending positive thoughts for a successful treatment.

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  14. I've enjoyed your blog for years, and very much appreciate this post! Of course, I hope the best for you! Yes, the one blessing of a greater sense of uncertainty, is a greater feeling of gratitude, and I think you've captured that! Blessings!

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  15. Oh Laura, I am sorry to hear this but reassured by your positive approach to your news. I have missed your comments on FB but now understand your absence. You will be in my thoughts and, although I do not know if HE listens to me, my prayers. Keep listening to the Chickadees for wisdom and strength.

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  16. Oh Laura - I am so sorry to read this but reassured by your positive outlook in dealing with it. You will be in my thoughts and prayers although I am not sure SHE listens to me. Keep the Chickadee wisdom and optimism in your heart for the strength you have and the extra you will need.

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  17. As a survivor, I praise your attitude. Take care now and when you feel better, get on with living.

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  18. As a survivor, take care now and when you feel better, get on with living.

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  19. Joining the others in praising your attitude--and your chickadee omen for your surgical date. My first post radiation checkup with my surgeon was in December and the last thing I expected to see was a Great Blue Heron, but I did. The birds have such a way of making us feel safe when we need it the most. Adding my positive thoughts!

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  20. Hi Laura,

    I just ran across your blog and site while showing my young adult daughter how to identify birds. I wish I had known about you years ago! I can tell by your positivity and spunk that you are going to be great! My Mom is 91 and had her first encounter with breast cancer when she was in her 70's three years ago she had a mastectomy and she still lives independently and goes dancing with her 94 year old dance partner each weekend. Very best regards to you!

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  21. Breast cancer is a journey! I was 35 when I heard the words said to me. I'm now 59 and more positive than ever. One day at a time, LIVE!

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  22. Laura,
    Holding good thoughts and offering best wishes for a speedy recovery from your surgery. Mammograms are a wonderful thing; I talked my Mom into finally getting one at age 60; surgery quickly ensued and as a result we were able to enjoy being together for another 33 years.
    Carl Schwartz

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