Commusings: My 4-Year-Old Guru by David RomanelliMay 29, 2021
Hello Commune Community,
In 1983, I spent two weeks in the pediatric ward at Sloane-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center. I had a procedure to remove a tumor from my knee — a relatively non-threatening condition. My roommate, Adam, was considerably less fortunate. He had terminal leukemia and did not survive my stay. At the metamorphic age of 13, I was admitted to Sloane a boy and discharged a man. Through its thorny thicket, against our will, grief casts the pall of wisdom upon the heart.
When I read David’s essay, as you soon will, I couldn’t help but think about my fortnight in that cancer ward, and, of course, about my own daughters. Intellectually, I have accrued a stable of life lessons, but the muscle of the mind is easier to flex than that of the heart. I cannot fathom practicing the kind of equanimity David was forced to summon. I am in awe of his grace.
In love, include me,
• • •
My 4-Year-Old Guru
by David Romanelli
It is the same advice you hear from meditation and yoga instructors every class:
“Breathe through the discomfort.”
“Let the thoughts come and go.”
I use that same language with my students.
But I will be the first to tell you that I never lived that advice until April 30, 2020 at 5:30pm. That’s the moment our pediatrician called to tell us our 3-year-old daughter, Cooper, had leukemia.
I will never forget that moment.
My heart dropped.
My wife broke down.
My world collapsed instantly.
The pediatrician told us we needed to get our daughter to the Children’s Hospital that same night. Acute leukemia comes on aggressively and the doctors want to start treatment immediately.
It took every bit of breathing and equanimity to calm my wife, pack a suitcase, keep things relatively normal for our 6 year-old son…and make that long drive to Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Carrying your child into the Emergency Room to confirm a cancer diagnosis is already tough enough. But due to COVID restrictions, they only let in one parent.
So I had to wait outside the hospital.
How many times had I practiced equanimity holding a Warrior 2 for an insanely long time? Well here I was in a moment that was every bit of INSANE. But I do believe, with all those years of yoga and meditation, I had the tools to “let the angry, fearful, anxious thoughts come…and go.”
I attribute holding it together (instead of losing my mind) to the fact that a security guard came outside and said, “We’re going to get you in with your wife and daughter.”
That was only the first 2 hours of what would become the hardest year of our lives.
• • •
I am going to take you to a pretty dark place, but stay with me because this will end in the most beautiful light.
The hardest part of the past year were the weekly visits to the clinic for chemotherapy infusions…to sit in that waiting room with the other kids and parents facing your predicament.
The nurse comes and calls the patient, “Cooper!!”
We head back to the draw station where they insert a needle in Cooper’s port and draw her blood. In the beginning, this was nothing short of traumatizing. To stick a needle into the chest of a toddler?!
But Cooper has gotten used to it by now.
Then, they send us to a room, and the oncologist comes to see you. The oncologist tells you whether or not your child “makes counts,” i.e…are there enough healthy cells in the blood.
The chemotherapy tends to knock out the cells…good and bad…and there needs to be enough to continue with the next round of treatment. If your child “makes counts,” the reward is…(drumroll)….more chemotherapy!!!!
If your child “misses counts,” you go home and wait until your next clinic visit. When this happened, it took us a while to work through the anxiety of waiting another week to get a count check.
So this has been our life the past year: week after week after week.
My daughter would come home from a day at the clinic when she might have been infused with three or four different chemo drugs. And she would run outside and jump on the trampoline.
I mean, can you imagine getting multiple chemo drugs? I’d be flat on my back!
I think part of it is, as a kid, you don’t have a sense of what “cancer” is. The treatment is just part of your day, the clinic is just something you do…along with swimming and nap time and ice cream for dessert.
We have learned that a huge part of healing is the story you tell yourself.
We never use the word cancer, nor chemotherapy.
In fact, one day the oncologist used the word chemo with Cooper and she said, “chemo… what is that?!”
Rather, we tell Cooper that she is getting superpowers in her tubes. And she believes it.
While her mind and spirit have remained strong, the chemo did take a toll.
Cooper lost her beautiful blond hair. And I don’t easily forget those moments when the meds made her nauseous as hell, gripping the sides of the hospital bed, screaming for more anti-nausea medication.
She spent her birthday and Christmas bedridden, feeling terrible from the latest round of steroid treatment.
We spent about six weeks last year at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital because there were times when Cooper had low counts. That means her immune system was taking a long time to reset from the chemo. This included one 18-night hospital stay.
Being cooped up with a 3-year-old in a tiny hospital room for 18 nights….was intense and isolating. My saving grace was and continues to be finding a quiet space to create and record meditations that I share with my community everyday. It’s a chance to bare my heart and pass along everything I’m learning along the way.
Some realizations I have shared in these meditations:
1. You can’t help but go to a spiritual place and wonder, if there’s an Intelligence in this universe, why do these innocent kids have to go through this?
One thought I’ve had is the learning process…for the whole family.
We have learned the most powerful lessons…together…as a family.
The cancer world considers the whole family to be cancer survivors. We all went through this together. And other families who are survivors have been a beacon, guiding us forward, back to health.
2. In the very beginning, one parent who had walked their child through cancer treatment said, “Don’t let your child see you cry. If you need to cry, go in the other room. Little kids respond to your love and positivity.”
We have blanketed Cooper and our son with all the love in our hearts. And it’s true what they say…LOVE HEALS!
3. We have purified the equation for happiness.
We used to let all the little things get in the way of our happiness.
Busy work schedules.
Business successes and disappointments.
Trying to find a home in the crazy housing market.
But now the focus is:
Do we have our health?
Are the kids happy?
Can we have a normal evening together as a family and put our kids to sleep in their own beds?
That’s the formula for a great day. Plain and simple.
• • •
Cooper is in remission, and very different now than before the diagnosis. Her heart is softer. She is happier. I think she feels much closer to my wife and I. She still has 15 months of treatment, but this next part is easier. Her immune system is stronger. She is going to camp this summer and back to school in the Fall.
Through it all, I am so proud to tell you…
…our family is much better off now than ever before. Our levels of gratitude and joy are off the charts.
But it took something like this to wake us up. To crystalize our gratitude.
It’s not just our family with this story to tell. 80% of kids with childhood cancer are CURED. And I truly believe part of the reason why is the freedom we embody when we are young.
One researcher told me that cancer survivors who get entangled in the diagnosis have a much harder time with it than those who say, “This happened in my past. Now it’s over. I’ve moved on.”
Endings can be the most beautiful beginnings….as long we are willing to turn the page on the past.
We just celebrated the 1-year anniversary of Cooper’s diagnosis by going to dinner as a family.
The kids were climbing under the table, going bananas, like any normal 4- and 6- year- old might.
We felt like parents who had forgotten to teach our kids manners. And with the kind of year we just survived, I must admit manners did take a back seat.
We didn’t do a lot of “eat with your fork” and “put your napkin on your lap.”
But we absolutely used a lot of that advice from the yoga teachers of the world.
To breathe through the difficult moments.
To let the scary thoughts come… and go.
To allow equanimity to reset the chaos.
What a journey…and through it all…I have a new guru: one who literally “swallows the darkness with light.”
She is a 4-year-old, living right under my roof.
• • •
A best-selling author and wellness innovator, David Romanelli produces a national series of events called DRINKS WITH YOUR ELDERS. These events create a space for isolated elders to reengage with their community and share their life experience with younger generations. His recent books, Happy is the New Healthy and Life Lessons from the Oldest and Wisest, were inspired by the advice from the wise elders among us. David offers his inspiration in a daily meditation series called MEDITATE ON.
He is currently working with Dr. Huberty at ASU and the meditation app Calm to assist with a prototype for meditation for cancer patients to be used for research. His work has been featured in O Magazine, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Food + Wine. For more, visit www.DavidRomanelli.com.
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