Walk ther­apy

Af­ter los­ing child to can­cer, mother finds so­lace, fit­ness at her feet

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - JAC­QUE­LINE DOO­LEY

The last time I set foot in a gym (be­fore last month) was Septem­ber 2015 when, full of an­tic­i­pa­tion and a ten­ta­tive hope for the fu­ture, I was de­ter­mined to lose the 25 pounds I’d gained since my daugh­ter’s can­cer di­ag­no­sis in 2012.

The weight gain was a par­tic­u­larly hard blow for me be­cause I’d spent most of 2009 and 2010 los­ing 50 pounds through a com­bi­na­tion of diet and lots of ex­er­cise, in­clud­ing cy­cling 80 to 100 miles per week.

I’d man­aged to keep most of it off for two full years by stick­ing with a vig­or­ous ex­er­cise rou­tine. But, af­ter my daugh­ter’s di­ag­no­sis at age 11, I stopped ex­er­cis­ing com­pletely.

My en­tire fo­cus was on her sur­vival, her needs. Her treat­ment in­cluded chemo­ther­apy, oral med­i­ca­tion and, ul­ti­mately, a liver trans­plant in early 2013.

The trans­plant was suc­cess­ful in that her tu­mor was re­moved and she was con­sid­ered can­cer-free. But af­ter six months of re­mis­sion, her can­cer re­turned.

We switched on­col­o­gists, and my

daugh­ter started a se­ries of ex­per­i­men­tal new drugs in 2014. By 2015, she’d sta­bi­lized. Her can­cer wasn’t gone, but it was mov­ing slowly.

I re­mem­ber fi­nally step­ping on the scale to see how much of my weight had re­turned. I’d gained 25 pounds in two years. I was crushed.

I went back to my gym, de­ter­mined to lose it again. I was 44, but I didn’t want to look 44.

I hired a per­sonal trainer and spent more than $1,000 over the course of three months re­learn­ing how to find my core and con­di­tion my heart.

But as fall turned into win­ter, I rec­og­nized that my head wasn’t in the game. What had once been a cher­ished ri­tual of self-care and “me” time be­came tor­tur­ous.

Even­tu­ally the new drugs stopped work­ing. My daugh­ter had a CT scan that showed ad­vanced pro­gres­sion.

I can­celed my gym mem­ber­ship the very next day.

I be­came com­pletely se­den­tary as my daugh­ter’s can­cer con­tin­ued pro­gress­ing. Tu­mors were re­moved but grew back al­most im­me­di­ately, mul­ti­ply­ing through­out her lungs, ab­domen and pelvis. In July 2016, just two months af­ter her 15th birth­day, her doc­tor spoke the words we’d been dread­ing.

“There’s noth­ing more we can do.”

From then un­til March 22 — the day she died — I didn’t think about my body at all. I bought big­ger clothes. I ig­nored the scale. I ate too much. I drank too much (wine, al­ways at night, al­ways af­ter the girls were in bed). I fo­cused on be­ing with both my daugh­ters, giv­ing them my time, my at­ten­tion and ev­ery drop of en­ergy I could muster.

Ana took her last dose of chemo­ther­apy the day of that last scan. We paid our last visit to the pe­di­atric on­col­ogy clinic.

Jan­uary was the last time she was able to walk up­stairs with­out gasp­ing for breath.

She went from go­ing to school three or four days a week to one or two days. She wasn’t able to walk up the path to her class­room, then she couldn’t walk more than a few steps at all with­out gasp­ing for breath. Her ap­petite dis­ap­peared. She started sleep­ing more and more. On Feb. 28, she woke up and said, “I don’t think I can go to school right now. Maybe once I’m feel­ing bet­ter ….” She never went back.

The stress was in­cred­i­ble. I fell into bed, ex­hausted, each night. For the first time in my life, I had trou­ble wak­ing up in the morn­ing.

My daugh­ter was dy­ing. Her left lung was col­laps­ing. She was los­ing weight, wast­ing away.

My lungs worked just fine. But I wrapped my­self up in the com­fort of do­ing noth­ing, go­ing nowhere, drop­ping all ex­pec­ta­tions of my fu­ture self so that I could ex­ist in the present mo­ment with my daugh­ter.


About a month af­ter she died, I grew tired of be­ing in­side. The si­lence com­ing from her empty room felt like it would kill me. I felt hol­lowed out, as if I was go­ing to col­lapse in­ward from grief as the spring land­scape bloomed out­side my win­dow.

It be­gan to feel like an in­sult to my daugh­ter to waste my per­fectly healthy lungs on noth­ing but grief and self-pity. I felt com­pelled to es­cape the house that she couldn’t es­cape and see the new growth that she would never see again.

I live in an area blessed by a net­work of re­claimed rail trails. They run for miles through woods, along old ce­ment mines, shaded by out­crop­pings of rock, stretch­ing across rivers and streams.

In­stead of meet­ing peo­ple for lunch or cof­fee, I asked whether they would walk with me. And so, in this way, I be­gan to re­con­nect with friends — old and new — be­neath a canopy of sugar maples, birch and hem­lock trees.

Walk­ing. It’s so sim­ple. It seemed im­pos­si­ble when my daugh­ter was dy­ing. For her, it was im­pos­si­ble. And so, I had stopped walk­ing, too.

In the first two weeks, I walked ev­ery day. I watched the trails trans­form as spring brought the trees back to life. When I was alone, I wept. I imag­ined my daugh­ter beside me. I brought her tiny dog (now my dog) with me and car­ried him when he got tired.

My clothes got a lit­tle looser. I stepped on the scale again af­ter nearly two years of avoid­ance.I’d gained 45 pounds — all the weight I’d lost since my cy­cling days. I felt a surge of dis­ap­point­ment and shame when I saw the num­ber, but it passed quickly.

My legs might be fat­ter, but they worked. My lungs, hid­den be­neath a new roll of blub­ber, still felt strong. I kept walk­ing and weigh­ing my­self. The weight has be­gun to come off very, very slowly. I cut out fast food and snacks. I started lim­it­ing sugar. Still, the weight wants to pad my body, but now I don’t have the en­ergy to dwell on this fail­ure. I can still walk, so I keep walk­ing. To hell with how I look.

I didn’t in­tend to join a gym un­til Oc­to­ber, when the tem­per­a­ture will drop and the walks will be­come un­com­fort­able. But my 13-year-old daugh­ter, Emily, had other ideas. She wanted to work out with me. She wanted to go ev­ery day. So I joined, and we started go­ing to­gether a few weeks ago.

Join­ing a gym is like buy­ing in­sur­ance for good in­ten­tions. The mem­ber­ship ex­ists, loom­ing over you, en­tic­ing you to ful­fill those in­ten­tions but not re­quir­ing it.

My strength aban­dons me some­times. I’ll be lift­ing a heavy weight or sweat­ing on the tread­mill when I’ll think of my daugh­ter’s ashes on my man­tel, and what­ever I’m do­ing be­comes too hard. The grief swirls around me and my strength evap­o­rates. I hate the gym in those mo­ments. I hate feel­ing weak.

And yet I can ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that the gym is a place where you can’t es­cape your body or the pur­pose of your visit.

Some­times I look at all the fit peo­ple from my perch on the tread­mill and think about how they’re all so much stronger than I am, so much fur­ther along. But then I re­mem­ber my daugh­ter’s strength. I re­mem­ber how she climbed the stairs even when her lungs were col­laps­ing. I re­mem­ber how she held on to her dig­nity right up un­til the very last day of her life.

I re­mem­ber that we all turn to ashes and soil in the end.

I re­mem­ber how much strength it took to re­turn to the gym in the first place and think (briefly) that maybe I’m stronger than I look.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/NIKKI DAWES

Spe­cial to the Washington Post/JULIET LOFARO

was 15 when she posed for her fi­nal school pic­ture. The daugh­ter of blogger Jac­que­line Doo­ley died of can­cer March 22.

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