I Got Cancer for my Birthday.

For six weeks, I lived with a death sentence. I turned 50 knowing I might not make my next birthday. Worse, my husband and kids lived it too.

I was alone with my surgeon in the examination room. Normally Phil would be with me, but he was down the hall meeting with more people. “Be prepared for up to Stage IV.” She laid her hand on mine. “I know this is tough, but you need to put your affairs in order before this operation. Of course, we could go in and do a partial surgery before the mastectomy. You know, to stage it before the bigger operation.”

“You mean go under twice?”

“Yes, but it might ease your mind. I think it’s a good solution. I don’t want you to have to go through Christmas and New Year’s with that hanging over your head.”

I had to think quickly. Size up my options. I would rather have the question than the possible finality for the holidays. My children were still so young and I was worried about how the worst would affect Phil. They were my rock and I couldn’t bear the cracks that were already forming in their world. None of the test results looked good. I knew this. The scans showed fully involved lymph nodes. The only door still open was the intense bruising and swelling from the original biopsies.

I went home and took down the Christmas tree.

It was a long and bitterly cold winter. An operation that lasted 24 hours and a week stay in the hospital punctuated the season. My recovery was lonely and brutal. Alone with my thoughts, I spent hours watching the lifeless trees and the impenetrable gray from my window. Phil played catch up at work, the kids went to school, and I sat tethered to my little world by tubes and pain, the monotony broken by the occasional walk up and down the hallway and back, my dogs pacing with me or sinking onto the couch next to my hospital bed. I counted the hours until school was over. Mercifully, my in-laws were there to pick up the pieces of my tenuous life. They delivered the kids from school and their activities, their love and concern a lifeline in my fear. My day was not complete until everyone was under our roof and safe. The counted the hours of the day by that moment.

The day I knew I would survive was sunny but cold. “You have Stage I.”

“And the lymph nodes?”

“I took quite a lot from both sides. They were all free of cancer. Unfortunately, the original biopsies inflamed everything and gave us a picture of something worse.”

“You mean the biopsies that were supposed to be no big deal?”


“Someone should inform the medical establishment that the biopsy table is a torture instrument.”

“Yes. They know.” My surgeon smiled. I tried to curb my sarcasm with her. Her kindness and wise counsel was a balm during this ordeal.

I was still on pain medication and I still had a long recovery, but I would see my next birthday. For my birthday, Phil gave me a trip to my beloved and sacred red rock country – The Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce. There was just one glitch. It did not include my daughter and son. They would stay behind with family.

As the spring eased into summer and I felt better everyday, we finalized the trip. But I struggled emotionally. What did my life mean? Did anything have meaning? Why was I so lonely? Why did I feel so sad? I would survive, right? So why couldn’t I celebrate? There was no processing it overnight. As the trip got closer, I became uneasy.

In the end, I could not bear to go without my kids. I could not bear to be away any longer than the time it took them to go to school and come home to me.

And their faces had been getting longer by the day, too. We were not meant to be apart.

“But we only have hotel rooms for two.”

“Can’t we get other rooms?”

“I can try.”

With multiple stops along the way, I knew I was asking a lot, but I did not want to go without them. Anxiety settled like a blanket.

“I can’t get rooms at any place, Liz.”

“Then we can buy sleeping bags at Wal-Mart … at the beginning of the trip.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little crazy? There’s no time left.”

“Then we can get extra sheets and pillows and lay them on the ground. You’ll see. We can make it work. So long as we’re together.”

“Everyone will be disappointed the kids aren’t coming. We’re not ready for this.”

“We can get ready. Watch. I’ll get their stuff together.”

True to form, Phil got the extra airline tickets. He can do anything. He was and is my rock.

As we left Phoenix, we stopped at Wal-Mart where we bought sleeping bags, pillows, a cooler, snacks. We became a fully outfitted ship in the desert.

First stop. The Grand Canyon.

When we had been there a couple years earlier, not a single California condor had been spotted that summer.

I found a man carrying an antenna.

“Are there any condors yet?”

“Someone saw one yesterday. We’re looking for it.”

I kept a sometimes glancing eye to the sky. A couple of hours in and 4 appeared soaring over the canyon, their flight effortless riding thermal drafts.

My heart flew with them.

My daughter was watching too.

On our way to Lake Powell, we stopped at the same place I’ve been stopping since I was a little girl — Cameron Trading Post. Navajo tacos were on my mind. Of course, fry bread was an inventive way to deal with the nasty old weevil-infested flour the U.S. government promised as food in exchange for land. But that’s another story.

By the time we made it to Zion several days later, we were tired. Our room was spacious and everyone needed down time – except me. I wanted my quiet time in the canyon. Our hotel room was at the edge of the park and I caught a bus that picked up people on the way to the canyon. As everyone dispersed to the hiking trails, I walked to the other side of the road. The steep rock rose into a gem blue sky.

8 California condors soared over the lip of the towering rock. It brought me to my knees. There was a part of me that knew something bigger had just soared into my life. It was a spiritual moment I wanted to share.

By the time we made it to our B&B near Bryce, I felt something of a renewal, like maybe it would all be okay. August, the air was warm. Summer warm. And the night was chilled. The stars glistened against the crispness of altitude.

Bryce, the land of hoodoos, pinnacles, and enchantment, sprawled from the heights and out over the canyon of hoodoos soared 12 California condor. This time, my kids were with me.

I knew then. It’s not to say that I didn’t still have moments of doubt. THAT was answered 2 months later in South Dakota, but that’s another story.

In the land of hoodoos, I found my spirit and those who mattered most to me in the world were there to share it.

My husband, my kids, and the gift of 12 California condors.