Nine weeks ago, I turned a corner I didn’t know was coming. A large brain tumor was found inside my head that might have been growing for 10 or 20 years.
Sitting in the office of the Chinese Buddhist man who would become my lead neurosurgeon, I gazed at the screen looking at my large tumor, perplexed. Dr. Lewis Hou, the neurosurgeon, said they didn’t yet know if the tumor was cancerous. He voiced my options: surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Instinctively, I knew I could trust him. His masterful surgical skills somehow stood clear in my shocked awareness, and his compassionate nature assured me that he could lead me through this trauma with gentleness and grace not always found in hospitals.
“Surgery,” I told him. My gut said, Let’s go in and get the tumor out.
Two and a half weeks later, I laid on a wheeled table and was rolled into the immaculate and brightly lit surgery room. Eight hours later, 99.99% of the mandarin-sized tumor which was laying on an optic nerve had been removed. What remained of it was smaller than a grain of rice, and why? Optic nerves are sensitive places, and mature surgical teams don’t mess with the exquisite design of the human body more than they have to.
My tumor was found to be benign. Prayer hands began lifting from my body at least 22 times a day. For every clinician who entered my ICU room, prayer hands arose.
I named my tumor Fidela. She was my friend; I decided to see her that way. She came to me to invite me to make a decision I had wanted to make for decades. She invited me to enter a new life, a second life within this one life. Near death is right in your face with this kind of surgery. There is no doubt, this is my Second Life.
Is it different here? Did the highly vulnerable state I was in for four days and nights in the ICU, have any positive impacts on the way I live? Was it worth it to take a bunch of anti-inflammation steroids and pain reduction opiates? Did two weeks of constipation and three weeks of insomnia — sleeping 2-3 hours a night because I had to stay sitting up due to intense pressure in the head — leave me with any golden gems of massive beauty?
Eighteen thousand times, YES.
Three months ago, I had no idea pain and trauma could open my eyes so big. Never, ever would I wish that sort of pain on anyone. No one. Yet, so many humans have ridden the stormy waves of intense pain and trauma, coming out the either side with much wider wings.
What is here?
Should you ever find yourself or someone you treasure in a situation of intense fear or trauma, let me share what my life has shown. What is possible, what we are free to choose rather than horror, blame, disgust and their friends in the family of fear.
My head shakes. For nine weeks now, since I laid on that table with my head cut open, my days are filled with awe.
Is this really what we’re given? Do I really get to live on this planet? One with magenta tulips and moss growing on rocks, one whose soil grows fresh tomatoes and mangoes for me to eat? One with canyons to gaze at and hike in, one with rivers to swim in, and rocks to lay on naked as the sun’s heat presses hugs against my back? Is this really the home we are blessed with as a species, sharing it with endless other fascinating species? Do I really have clean water to drink?
Yes. Awe. Mouth dropped open, heart pulsing as gleefully as all the seen and unseen stars in the universe.
Do I really have this much Love in my life? Cards, flowers, food delivered to my family as we moved through the first weeks of recovery. Text messages brimming with adoring words and offers to help in any way I need it. Was that wild spill of Love existent in my life before this? It existed, yet it wasn’t expressed to anywhere near the degree it was being shared now.
Is this really happening? Important relationships in my life that had seen conflict and had tension woven into their fabric, now smooth with that tension only a tiny memory? A whole new view on my role in making a marriage fulfilling? A daughter who was happy I was alive, and seemingly unaffected by the 52 staples keeping my head skin together?
All of this, yes. Awe. This Love is available to all of us.
Each day now, I fall in Love — I did not say romance, I said Love, the essence of who we are, emanating from within each of us when we let it — multiple times. Workers at the hardware store or farm stand, neighbors, strangers on the sidewalk. Simple interactions of connectedness, of union. Easy, Love. Available, Love. That’s what these eyes see now, plain and clear, everywhere.
Does it help to remove my sun hat or head wrap and show people my wound? Sure, sometimes. Empathetic people’s eyes often tear up easily, and we’re instantly friends. Sign of an open heart. Divine union, right then and there.
For the first part of my life, loving humanity was easy but loving myself wasn’t always that way. This body offered an easy way to cope with life’s difficulties. Sugar found in cheesecake or mint chip ice cream gave me the sweetness I was longing for. When my body said she’d had enough food and was fine if I stopped eating, I’d pile my plate higher to feed something that still wasn’t fed.
Feelings. Food isn’t their medicine. Love is.
Eating to comfort my feelings was a habit for 40 years, as was insufficient physical movement of this body, even though she felt so good when I danced or threw frisbee. These choices caused many problems including five years of monthly Pain Level 10 migraines. And when the right side of my body began losing capacity and I could no longer write legibly or throw frisbee, it was time to call the hospital. That’s when I met Fidela.
Those habits are now gone. That was the past. That was my last life.
Most humans have addiction to something. Food, shopping, screens, sex, gambling... addiction comes in many forms. When we consistently choose to look outside ourselves for the answer, we eventually find it isn’t there.
For me, and for anyone who chooses this, emotional eating is in the past. Why? These new eyes see Love more clearly than they did before. They are alive, for cryin’ out loud! I can see, I can touch, I can walk, sing and feel! My feelings are served by actual medicine. Love. Love in the form of singing. Love in the form of delectable hugs that flood my body with serotonin. Love in the form of listening. We each choose our ways.
Over and over again with these new eyes, my prayer has been spoken from a whisper in my heart. May everyone on Earth know Love like this. May we all choose to know and feel Love like this. May we all see through eyes that remember: Love is what we’re made of.
These eyes are open, fresh, and although I’d prefer to never be that scared again, and to never feel that much pain again, I sure like this life better than the last one.
YOU ARE SO LOVED.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, Love-based leader, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.