3-24-20: Jello Should Not Hurt

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been waiting to feel better before I simply whine all over the page. It’s been a hellish two weeks suffering what I call the torment of the damned. My throat and esophagus were so burnt from the radiation to my spine that I could barely dribble down some water and no food. Rick dutifully collected all my little spoons and bowls of odd soft foods that I’d attempt to eat and then abandon all over the house. Jello hurt. Milkshakes hurt. Applesauce hurt. Water hurt. Burps hurt. I told them that radiating someone’s esophagus should be outlawed. I ended up receiving IV hydration at the hospital Monday through Friday last week. The pain was like a hot pipe inserted down my throat all the way to my stomach. It felt like the little chartreuse green radioactive brick that Homer Simpson tossed out his car window on the way home from work at the nuclear power plant ended up in my throat. If my esophagus looks anything like the radiation burns down the center of my back, it would explain why it hurts so bad. The pain keeps me up but before it wakes me I have two favorite moments every night. The first is that delicious fleeting moment upon rising out of sound sleep when I’m barely conscious but there is no pain. The second moment is the one that immediately follows: just before I remember that my body is riddled with cancer.

I’ve been quarantined except for hospital visits for two weeks now. I cannot afford to get Covid-19. Rick has bleached all washable surfaces – counters, door knobs, handles, my car’s steering wheel. IBrance knocks down white blood cells and red cells leaving my immune system weakened. This mountain woman has rarely thought of herself as fragile. Alas, I am only human and this mortal flesh is getting heavily bombarded in the name of extending my life. I’m currently on my second ten-day stretch of radiation, this time where the tip of my hip screw is screwed into a cancerous chunk of bone in my pelvis and an especially painful lower right couple of ribs. They’ve assured me that the beam through the hip is not hitting any painful internal organs and the zapping of the ribs is a tangential glancing blow across the bow. I keep trying to remember that I’m investing in my future – a future where I can play with my grand babies, watch them grow and become their own unique people, and witness my children’s pride; a future where I sit by a mountain lake sharing a meal with friends; or sit in the sand by our cove in Mexico sipping a Margarita with Julie and Marty.

The radiation has left me exhausted. I can walk about 20 steps. I walk to the kitchen and put my head on the counter. I walk to the living room and toss myself onto the couch. I nap three times a day. Where is that woman pushing her way up Lucy’s Foot Pass in Kings Canyon last August? The danger in being a Clinical Lab Scientist (married to a PhD in Biochemistry) is that I know a lot of things that can go wrong and I pester my doctor about all my hunches to explain things. Thinking the exhaustion is due to frying my thyroid while zapping my spine, I had a TSH done. No, it’s fine. Thinking my red cells got too low, I had a CBC done. No, my hemoglobin’s an 11, fine. Crap. I guess I just have to weather this.

So, bottom line: I’m now able to eat some and drink, although it’s still an effort and a fight against pain. I nap my day away and wonder if this is my new normal. On a stormy ever changing sea, I’m trying to see what this journey ahead will be like and I get worried that this is it. With the preciousness of life never more evident, I feel like I’m wasting it.

But, one thing’s for certain, the cards and texts, flowers, calls, emails, and even homemade cookies! have sustained me and put a smile on my face. Thank you all. Banning and Regina, and others, are shopping for us. People are supporting Rick in ways that I don’t even know. And Rick has been there from badgering me to drink to holding the bucket when I lose it. I could not have done this alone. And even as the stock market crashes, what’s really important has never been more evident.

3-11-20: New Journey. Big Mountain. No Summit.

The Short of It:

Diagnosed in late January with metastatic breast cancer: spine, ribs, pelvis, shoulder blades, spleen, liver. It can be managed but, at this point, not cured. I will have good days and bad days. This is a big mountain I’m climbing with no summit.

Rules of Engagement:

Do not ask me, “How’s YOUR cancer?” (I’m not taking possession of these wayward cells. I’m trying to get RID of them.) DO say, “How’re you doing?” “What are they doing for you?” I’ll give you as much detail as you’d like or no detail at all.

Do not ask me how long I have to live. (I don’t know. IBrance is only 6 years old. )

DON’T say: It’s God’s will. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.

DO send cards, texts, emails, phone calls.

DO tell me about your trips and adventures.

Be prepared for hearing how shitty I feel and don’t try to fix it. (They keep telling me I’ll feel better.)

DO let me cry if I need to cry. Hugs are welcome.

DO ask if there’s anything you can do. Mostly staying in touch is the best medicine.

I thought I kicked breast cancer 20 years ago with a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation. Apparently, at least one cell survived and has decided to party. I’ve lead a very healthy active life since my initial “cure” and this diagnosis has filled me with shock, sadness, and a bit of anger.

Scans, tests, and a liver biopsy later, I’m on an Estrogen blocker and IBrance, a cell cycle disrupter for E+, Her2 – disseminated breast cancer. I recently had my spine radiated for 2 weeks to remove the ice pick of pain out of my back. Unfortunately, my throat was in the way and now I can hardly eat or drink. Imagine Chernobyl in you esophagus. I’m getting an IV of fluids here as I type.

My doc is wonderful. She remains “optimistic” and says I have years. I want at least 30.

My husband, Rick, says that our failed attempt at Lucy’s Footpass in Kings Canyon last August cannot be my last backpack trip, although there’s a spot in my pelvis where a screw tip for my titanium hip will have to be radiated and grow new bone first. The Grand Canyon rafting trip is off. Doc doesn’t want me breaking vertebrae in the bottom of the canyon. Darn.

While calls, cards, emails, and texts are my lifeline of connectivity, this will be a good place for current updates and insights on my journey – medically, emotionally, and spiritually. I told God during the initial bout that I was willing to learn ALL the lessons I needed to because I was NOT going to do this again. Well, apparently there is more to learn. Follow along. It’s gonna take a village.

Where are you from?

Little K

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am from swimming, competitive swimming
Alone but on a team. Head in the water. Chlorine in my veins.
From swimming because my mother couldn’t.
Breaking ice on the deck in winter an hour before school
And two hours after, after homework,
Because I was also an A student
Because my brother wasn’t.

I am from the salt of the ocean
Where I swam free
With waves up my nose
and crunchy salty hair when it dried
And sand everywhere else.

I am from a single white sunbeam
That pierced the hard cold glass of the big front picture window in the living room
Where I lay enveloped in warm radiant love
Lying on the waxed hard wood floor
Behind the big old overstuffed chair.

I am from Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best,
Mousketeers, Moose and Squirrel, the Twilight Zone.
The Flintstones, John Wayne, the Addams Family, All in the Family.
Laugh-In.
The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan,
A Land Called Hanalei,
The smell of napalm in the morning, and “One giant leap for mankind.”

I am from sudden loud voices.
Freezing like a rabbit.
From sudden movements and belts not used for pants,
“Everybody knows that,” and “I’m ashamed of you.”

I am from the mud of the riverbank
Where I created myself anew from what was left
And grew tall and strong like the Sierra Nevada still growing,
Held in the bony arms of my adopted parents,
Mother Maclure and Father Lyell in the Yosemite High Country
And became acquainted with my relatives up and down the 400 mile range.

I am from the tiny flame that first ignites the tinder,
The roar of the wind as it penetrates the forest only to caress me
And surprise me with its gentleness as I sway in my hammock.
I am from lightening and hail and the wildflowers they oversee.

I need to remind myself that

I am from the blood red stripes on the sides of Golden Trout
As they swim up the crisp clear stream and
Flounder in the sharp gravel beside gentle grassy banks
Laying their eggs
And moving on through the land
As if they knew how to live their life so perfectly.

Copyright Jan.17, 2014 by Karen Najarian.

Life Lesson in the Garden

She was hanging on for dear life. She’d slide backwards downhill a bit and then muster enough energy to grab onto something that I couldn’t even see and hang on again. Her head was down in defeat. Her arms and legs were motionless. I pitied her. And of, course, she was a she. She was a worker honeybee lost and spent of energy on a leaf – a leaf, a nectarless leaf – in my pre-flowering rose garden.

I knew how that felt. Many times backpacking I would hit that wall where I’d run out of calories and stand motionless asking for candy, and then, when offered it, ask my friends to unwrap it because my hands were too uncoordinated from lack of calories to function. Over the years I got pretty good at preventing that but even last year on the first day of the highest mileage (per day and collectively) trip I’d ever done, I hit that wall about a half mile before camp. Luckily, Nadia was there asking if she could do anything. It’s not pretty when this happens. I’ve shakily unwrapped my own candy and greedily popped it in my mouth like a starved animal. I’ve sat on a rock and cried, not sure what was wrong. I’ve gotten bitchy and threatened to drop my pack where I stood and make camp, even if it’s rudely in the camp of another group. There’s a joke among my guides: When she’s hungry, throw candy and back away slowly.

I’m not diabetic. I have no metabolic disorder. It’s just that when I backpack, I can easily burn calories at a rate beyond what I replace by eating. And I’m eating big calories all day long: spoonfuls of Nutella and peanut butter, salami and cheese, Cliff Bars, etc., etc. My hiking companion last year Carolyn, had to stop mid-way in Mammoth Lakes on her 450 mile hike to buy a smaller size skort. My other hiking companion, Rich, because of his shrinking posterior, was having trouble keeping his pants up. I just kept candy close at hand and tried not to be a nuisance from crashing and burning and making a scene.

But this bee had no fellow bee to offer a flower and without a source of energy I knew she would finally slide off the rose leaf to the soil below and die. I thought of picking her off the leaf with my hands and placing her on a flower but thought she might have just enough energy left to sting me. I started to walk away sad at her impending demise, attributing it to the ways of nature as much as baby grizzlies can be lost downstream crossing a spring melt swollen river. Then I thought of the worldwide tragedy of collapsing colony disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. The cause is not clear but it is clear to me from what I’ve read, that this is a man-made condition. So, suddenly feeling a sense of responsibility, and a hitting-the-wall kinship, for this bee who’d flown beyond her calorie intake, I pulled off a nearby blooming lavender flower, held it out for her to crawl onto and transferred her to the flower on a blooming lavender bush. Her proboscis soon found a tiny flower on the side of the main lavender flower and then another. (If you look closely you’ll see that lavender flowers are covered with many small flowers.) Soon her previously motionless wings were buzzing and she was flitting from flower to flower. I was glad to be the one to offer her her trail candy and walked back into the house with the sense that this world would be a gentler place if we all cared for each other in the ways I’ve found on the trail and in my garden. I wish us all happy buzzing.

© Karen Najarian, March 24, 2014.

 

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What does it mean to be a backcountry guide?

  • Returning from Costco, again, with a 4Runner full of granola bars
  • Fumbling in the garage for a screw for a pot lid knob that’s missing
  • Cleaning out bear cans,
  • Washing plastic baggies out of guilt for using so many
  • Buying new boots every two years
  • GoogleEarth shows gear drying on your driveway
  • Being asked at Walmart if you’re on a tuna diet when you buy up their entire stock of tuna packets
  • Wearing the same thing every weekend
  • Keeping a nail brush in your purse
  • Having dog pads on the bottom of your feet
  • Being asked if you’re having a party when you show up at the Sams Club register with 10, 2 lb. salames in the cart
  • Watering the lemon tree in the backyard for 2 days because you forgot about it
  • Encouraging those that need encouraging and honoring those that decide not to scale the dome
  • Modeling self-care
  • Reading body language
  • Telling stories that teach backpacking lessons as well as life lessons
  • Listening… LOTS of listening. Everyone has an amazing story
  • Having the best pictures at the end of summer
  • Hanging with the best of folks, which are your hand-picked crew of guides
  • Making new friends every weekend
  • Having your guides bring you hot chocolate in your hammock at 9500 feet
  • And having a “job” that you love, even though you’re tired and cranky sometimes.

What Yosemite has Taught Me

Barefootin' through Cathedral Meadow.
After hiking and guiding in Yosemite National Park for over 30 years I have come to learn a few things.  Yosemite, with its grand monoliths, peak-piled panoramas, and intimate gardens, holds a metaphor for every corner of the heart. These are the lessons that Yosemite has taught me as I’ve passed through her and she has passed through me.

Descending the outlet off-trail from the Mildred Lake outlet is a lot like life: overwhelming if you look at it all at once but by staying in the moment, carefully choosing one step at a time, in a serpentine fashion, one can negotiate the steep and varied terrain.

The Cathedral Lake outlet which spills over a few granite steps before it tumbles down around the side of Pywiack Dome teaches me that not all baptismal fonts are in churches. Likewise, the Cathedral Lakes Basin teaches me that some Cathedrals have no pews.  And a sunset last summer at Lower Cathedral Lake taught me that even God blushes.

The panoramic view from Glacier Point, where the roof of the Park stands out in waves of peaks like a choppy sea, reminds me that sometimes you need some distance to see the big picture.

Half Dome has taught me that sometimes what seems impossible from a frontal assault isn’t impossible at all if you find the easy way that circles around the backside.

Standing on Clouds Rest as my fellow guide, Mike, stood there speechless with his hands on his head and tears in his eyes, I am reminded of the sense of awe and gratitude that Yosemite has taught me for all things.

Yosemite has also taught me, that while the grandeur of the landscape is overwhelming, to not forget the pockets of beauty right at my feet.  I hiked the Yosemite Creek Trail for many years before I discovered the tiny pink Steershead flowers, only half an inch long, in the moist soil at my feet.

The Three Graces in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, home to trees 3000 years old, teach me perseverance through the ages.  Fire is as natural a part of the Giant Sequoia landscape as tumultuous times are in our own lives. Giant Sequoias stand tall and proud bearing the scars from many fires during their lives. In fact, they need fire to dry their cones and drop their seeds and they require freshly burned mineral soil for their seeds to germinate.  Upheaval in our own lives can feel like fiery death and destruction but we can use it as fertile soil for new ideas and new ways of being.

Speaking of destructive forces, Slide Canyon, where the Volkswagon size boulders of a landslide go down one side of the canyon and half-way up the other, and wildflowers blooming best after the hot fires in the woodland areas, teach me that some perceived catastrophes leave a new kind of beauty in their wake.

Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite Valley’s sister valley just 20 miles north and still in the Park, flooded under the lake behind O’Shaughnessy Dam, teaches me patience as she holds her breath until the Tuolumne River wanders through her meadows free again.

Snow covered Yosemite, like the lines on a woman’s face reminds me that beauty has no season and camping during winter, I learned that you can make yourself at home wherever you are.

The Milky Way over Tuolumne Meadows on a moonless night reminds me that even on the darkest night there is light to be found.

And mostly Yosemite has taught me that when I’m feeling lonely, the mountains are always standing ready, silently waiting to wrap  their bony arms around me. All I have to do is hike into them.  Join us: sierraspirit.biz.

  Copyright Nov. 2011 by Karen Najarian, links added 12-16-12.

Good Morning 2013

Half  Dome on New Years Morning

Good morning 2013.  Two trees across the street, still on fire from Fall’s flamboyance, welcome me as the cool morning air slams my face on my way out the front door to get the newspaper, my pink nightgown hanging out from under my Mountain Hardwear fleece jacket and over my fleece pants.  (My backpack clothes never seem to get any downtime.)  Birds flee from the dangling ornament-like Liquid Amber seed pods as I gingerly step down the drive.  The exposed aggregate driveway is cold, hard, and nubby on the soles of my bare feet.  The clouds hanging over our neighbors’ roofs to the west still retain a touch of pink and, as I bend over to pick up the paper tossed at the base of the rhodys, their buds pulled in tight against the cold, I see the daffodils are three inches high already.

It’s 7:48 am and Rick hasn’t returned from the search in Marin. He was called into service before our New Year’s toast with friends at midnight last night.  I don’t know any more than that.  Who gets lost in Marin on New Year’s Eve?  An autistic child?  A great grandfather with Alzheimer’s?  A despondent teen?  An angry husband who checks himself into a hotel?  SAR is hardly ever about looking for someone in the wilderness but the reasons people are missing are as varied as the wilderness of the heart.  Whatever the reason you are misplaced, these dedicated volunteers will be there.

The hummers perch and dip at my office window feeder.  I must refill it today.  A friend once told me that since they are the last item on her list of priorities, you can measure the order of her life by whether her bird feeders are full. Today, I find mine empty.

The bird clock my sister gave me chirps eight o’clock in the kitchen and I hear in response Abby-the-dog’s collar tags jangle as she jolts from repose amid the pile of blankets on the waterbed.  Yes, we’re children of the 60’s… still.

The computer has booted (I’ve been writing longhand) and as I click on the Yosemite Association web cams, which I do every morning, I see a snowy Half Dome and Clouds Rest.  Tenaya and Echo Peaks, Mt. Watkins, and Half Dome are lit on one side from the rising southern sun.  Yosemite Falls is frozen onto a brightly lit face of granite like a still out of a movie, it’s winter ice cone rising at the base of the Upper Fall.  John Muir climbed his way up the ice cone more than a century ago and fell through into the hollow rocky abyss within. He also wallowed up the steep snow-covered boulder field of Indian Canyon from the valley floor and descended in an “avalanche of snow stars,” cheating death more times than I can count.

Muir had a purpose, it seemed. And his life refused to let go of him until he achieved it no matter how much he put it at risk.  He won for us National Parks, the idea of glaciation in the Sierra, and the beginning of the conservation movement.  Even his last fight, the defeat of saving Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed and flooded for San Francisco’s water tank, solidified the future defense of wilderness as no win could ever do.

So, 2013, what have you in store for me on this new morning in this new year as Sierra Spirit Backcountry Guiding Company continues to awaken people to the comfort and joys of the wilderness?  Yep, there’s work still to do.

Copyright © by Karen Najarian Jan. 1, 2013.