Thursday, December 24, 2015

Noche Buena/ Christmas Eve

"You my child, shall be called prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace." Luke 1:67-79

Noche Buena (literally translated means good night), Christmas Eve, is full of so much hope and promise! God is sending us his only son to earth to be His presence on earth in order to bring us to Him! In the tiny babe we will "meet" tomorrow morning we will see the promise of eternity with Christ in heaven.

I remember as a child how Christmas Eve was just as special as Christmas day for us. We spent all morning getting ourselves and the food ready to take to Peachtree City to the home of my aunt and uncle, Tio John and Tia Silvia. All of my dad's side of the family would gather there around 2 or 3pm to spend the day playing, eating, sharing love. We used to even go Christmas caroling through the neighborhood and my older cousins would organize the younger ones to put on plays and a concert for the adults. It was always such a magical day and night. We would all go to the children's mass at their parish and upon our return we would feast on a traditional Cuban Christmas Eve meal of pork, black beans, rice, yucca, plantains, etc. Mom was always sure to make a cake so that the kids could sing happy birthday to Jesus and there was always a pinata to end the celebration! I remember watching my aunts and mom in the kitchen preparing everything and later cleaning everything. The men were typically talking and playing dominos or arguing over the politics of the day. We kids just played until we dropped. Around 10pm my dad would gather us up in the car for the hour long ride back home to Stone Mountain. I have fond memories of my dad carrying us, one by one, into the house as the four of us kids would arrive sound asleep. Mom carried in the baby.

No doubt, mom and dad probably spent another hour placing the gifts around the tree and setting things up for the morning. We would wake up around 6am and mom and dad would lovingly join us around the Christmas tree for the opening of the gifts. The tags on our gifts always said they were from Baby Jesus. Presents were followed by a yummy breakfast which always included cinnamon buns and then a day of putting things together and playing. Our Christmases were not fancy or over the top, but they were magical and full of so much love.

So, Pete and I set out to create something similar for our boys. (And Paul just woke up and came to me and said, "I'm so excited about Christmas Eve and Christmas because we get to see all of our family! My heart just exploded and I burst into tears. Wow- we have set it up right for our boys. They know that Christmas isn't just about the material gifts.)

This is a Christmas they will never forget for many reasons. One is they have received more gifts than ever from a very generous group of anonymous donors (that I think are from my office). This group actually coordinated everything with my mom and delivered everything to her house. On Tuesday as we were out watching Star Wars, mom and dad delivered everything to our house in a beautiful display under our Christmas tree. I am praying that those angels read this blog and know that we are so very grateful for the kind act of love they have showered us with this Christmas. The boys are so excited as are we! We have let them open two gifts each day since the 22nd. The majority will be opened tomorrow morning. Such excitement!

Today we focus on the expectation,the waiting for our Savior to be born. We thank God for each one of you who are praying for us and supporting us through our latest earthly trial. We pray that you will each experience much happiness and peace today and throughout the days of Christmas!

Much love from us to you! Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad!
The Zakis Family

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Rich Opportunity

"Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." - Isaiah 30:20-21

"For our light momentary affliction (this slight distress of the passing hour) is ever more and more abundantly preparing and producing and achieving for us an everlasting weight of glory (beyond all measure, excessively surpassing all comparisons and all calculations, a vast and transcendent glory and blessedness never to cease!). - 2 Corinthians 4:17

Both of these timely Bible quotes were in my morning reflection today found in the book Jesus Calling.  They are just so perfect for what I am experiencing through this journey of healing from breast cancer and I imagine it is appropriate for those of you also going through tough journeys of healing from illness or hurt.

Just yesterday as I was mentally and spiritually preparing for what is to come from treatment number 4, I was thinking about how I am the clay that God is molding through this experience. Every experience in life will mold us. If we are in tune with God as the potter then the molding will be for his glory.

I love how the first passage mentions "your teachers will be hidden no more." To me these "teachers"  are my angels. Yesterday was not lacking in angels. They were all around me, from my husband Pete taking me and being with me all day, to the nurses who attended to me, to my dad visiting again with the Holy Eucharist, and David Roman stopping by to visit. And I can't forget all of those who helped with the boys, Mom taking them to school and Christine Roman taking Ricky home in the afternoon until we got home, while Paul got to visit with the Woodrough cousins thanks to Abi. Then another angel, Sharon Nixon, showed up with a delicious dinner and Chris Wilson showed up with some homemade banana ice-cream that Kelley had made for me. (He then took Pete out for a beer which I'm sure he needed.) Not to mention that when we arrived home a package was waiting at the door for me from my mother-in-law, Valerie, with a beautiful pajama and robe combination! God truly spoils me with the many angels around us. I can't forget to mention the many angels who were praying for us all day and continue to pray for me as I go through the side effects. Many of you texted me throughout the day checking in on me. Thank you to each and everyone of you who keep us present in your prayers.

The fourth round was a little different. I had some kind of a reaction to the Benedryl that they give me intravenously each time. For some reason, this time it made my whole body restless and made me very agitated. When I mentioned it to my nurse, Carla, she told me they would give me Ativan to counteract those effects and she said she would request to give me a half dose of Benadryl next time. The Ativan worked beautifully, calming me down and putting me right to sleep. I took a two hour nap in that nice leather recliner covered by the gorgeous quilt that Mary Agnes made for me and resting my head on a wonderful pillow that Joann made for me. I am telling you, all of you angels are always around me and ever present in my prayers of thanksgiving!

I don't have any pictures of round 4 as I was so out of it I barely remember the visits I had from Dad and David. Oh well. That is one reason I am journaling, so that I can remember what happened.
I came home around 3:30 and went right to sleep again. It is amazing to me that I can sleep so much throughout the day and still go to bed at 10 and sleep all night until 4am. My body is definitely healing.

Oh, I forgot to report that we met with Dr. Peacock yesterday and he conducted an examination of the affected breast. Praise God, he could not even sense the tumors nor the affected lymphnode! He was very happy about that and said it shows that my body has responded very well to the treatments. He did still see a hint of redness on my skin which is the tell tell sign of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. Although I tried my best to have him agree to stop at 4 treatments, he insisted that research has shown that 6 rounds is most effective in making sure that the cancer is gone not just from my breast but from anywhere else in my body that it might have been lingering and not detected. I was not going to argue. I would rather go through all of this now to then have more peace of mind later about it all being gone. That is one thing I pray for daily is that when the treatments are all done that I will experience peace about being healthy and not worry about the cancer returning at some point.
Dr. Peacock did tell me that since my white blood cell counts have remained high that I am off all eating restrictions and that I am free to go anywhere I would like! Yeah!! I have missed eating fresh salads. That is about the only thing I had really restricted myself from because of possible lurking bacteria. The only place I had restricted myself from visiting is the schools. But come January, I can go back into schools. I'll still be careful as I carry around my OnGuard hand cleansing spray and OnGuard beadlets to support my immune system.

Today will be a day of feeling kind of high and revved up from the steroid I must take the day before, the day of and the day after treatment to prevent any allergic reactions. It is kind of nice to have a day where I feel I can do ANYTHING! So, I'll be at work getting some things done and having fun celebrating with my friends, as today is the last day of work for most of us before the holidays. Having friends at work who always look out for me and even take care of me has made working through this all the more enjoyable. I look forward to my time at work as I continue to make a difference in the ESOL world for Gwinnett County Public Schools, even if just from my desk.

Thank you for keeping me and my family in your prayers as I walk through the next few days of side effects. They are only temporary but they are intrusive to daily life and some times hard for me to deal with. Pete is great at keeping the boys occupied and distracted and many of you have helped with that as well. Pete and Mom take their turns tending to me when I am totally out of commission. Some of you have pointed out that you know when I am not feeling well because I am not posting on Facebook nor journaling. That is true. On those days it is difficult to even hold my head up and difficult to concentrate on anything. So, thank you for being present on those day by praying for me and the family!

That is all for now. I'll be back in touch in a few days as we near Christmas. What a glorious time of the year. I did think about this yesterday, that I am happy to be going through this trial during all of the holiday season as it provides a layer of happiness for me to focus on and to distract me. I pray that each of you is taking time experience the JOY of the season. God bless you!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Consider It Pure Joy!

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds." - James 1:2

"Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you." - 1 Peter 5:7

It is amazing how much this theme of "have no anxiety at all" comes up for me. I feel that the Lord is protecting me at every turn and encouraging me to remain calm and even happy. I am finally at a point in this journey where I can say that I am not in denial and have accepted the cross and the journey. It took me a while. For weeks I was hoping this was all just a nightmare. I appreciate all of you who have listened to me talk about how I am feeling and what the course of action will be. I think that the more I talk about it the more "normal" it becomes, which allows me to come out of denial.

God continues to shower us with signs of His love through so many of you and even through complete strangers. I would like to share a few of our beautiful moments from the past couple of weeks.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet Pete and the boys for lunch at the Mall of GA as they had agreed that they would go with me to have our picture taken with Santa. I was just determined that this was NOT going to be the year that we would stop taking our picture with Santa. Well, God blessed us with a beautiful experience once again. We showed up to have our picture taken around 1 after we had eaten lunch. We were the only people there to meet with Santa. We chose our package of pictures, the least expensive one just so that we would have a nice memory of the time together. When we sat with Santa he was so gracious. He had Paul and me sit on his lap. After the picture he took time to talk with the boys and before he would give us the candy canes he asked, "So, whose birthday do we celebrate on Christmas?" The boys proudly answered, "JESUS!" Then the lady who was running the camera told us that someone had been there earlier and had paid for an extra package of pictures and asked that they give it to someone. They chose us. We were given a much larger package of pictures than the one we had chosen. We were all very touched by this generous act! The whole experience was so much fun and created a beautiful memory for our family!

I have to share what I call a "God incident" with you. On Sunday we went to Mass and sat down to pray and prepare ourselves. A few minutes later Deacon Mike came to me to ask if I would be the lector (read the readings) since the one scheduled had not shown up yet. I never say no to a chance to proclaim God's word. I love doing it! Usually I would have already read the readings for the day during my morning reflection time, but this time I had not yet read the readings. So, I grabbed a missal as I walked to the back of the church so that I could read the readings and prepare to proclaim God's word. As I came to the second reading I was amazed at what had happened. The Holy Spirit had set it up so that I could proclaim the very reading that I often quote and try to live by from Phillipians 4:7, the one I began this blog with a few months ago, my FAVORITE passage! I must say I think I proclaimed the word with much zeal as I was sure God wanted me to be right there at that very moment so that he could use me to touch someone who was feeling anxious. What an honor! I love it when God's hand is so evident in the course of events. I do feel that God was reminding me, in front of my church family, that I needed to cast my anxiety aside and simply trust Him.

It is interesting how with each round of treatment a new twist on anxiety comes into my heart. My next treatment is this Thursday, the 17th. As I have said before, the treatment itself is no big deal. I don't feel a thing except some tiredness as they pump Benadryl through my veins before the actual chemo. The nurses and my guests make the whole experience very nice. It is day 3-10 after treatment that are the hardest, when the side effects and fatigue set in. So, this time those days will be around Christmas. I already warned my family that I may not feel well on Christmas day. But why was I inclined to assume the negative? Yesterday when Paul, our almost 10 year old, asked me, "So, mom are you going to feel well for Christmas?" I instantly realized the need to state the positive and assure him that all would be fine. So, I replied, "YES! I am going to feel great for Christmas." I know better than to dwell on the negative. I know I need to claim the positive outcome! So, it has been claimed. I will definitely feel well for Christmas!

I continue to be so thankful for the amazing support you are all providing through prayers and acts of kindness. This past week I received a gorgeous bouquet of white and red roses from a dear friend, Susan Shaw, to brighten my days and to honor and celebrate our Lady of Guadalupe. What a special treat! Then just yesterday I was "elfed" by a childhood friend, Lisa, and her friend who are going around celebrating Christmas by surprising people with gifts for 12 days. They brought us an amazing poinsettia as well as a package of smores fixings, cookies and even a gift certificate for me to get a facial. Such a generous gesture that brought much joy to our home. Another friend from church, Mary Agnes, sent me a gorgeous quilt with a lovely pattern of purple roses. It is so comforting! We also continue to receive meals from so many of you. You are spoiling us with such healthy and delicious meals! And I love receiving the cards, e-mails, texts and phone calls from so many. It truly is great to know you are all praying for us and thinking about us. We do feel so very loved and supported! I don't know how we would make it through this trial without each of you.

A group of my childhood hispanic friends gave me the amazing gift of their time as we gathered for our first annual reunion dinner. We laughed so hard as we recounted memories of growing up together in our hispanic families. (Most of us grew up in Cuban homes but one grew up in a Bolivian home.) We truly share a sisterhood, a very strong bond that has thankfully lasted over many years of not seeing each other. We decided that we will make this a tradition, to gather for dinner on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe each year. I cannot even describe the amount of joy I experienced that night laughing and sharing our stories.

Peter and I were given a great honor this past week as we became Godparents for our dear friends David and Christine Roman's son, Dominic. What a joy to be asked to become such a special part of their lives. The Baptism ceremony was beautiful and so meaningful as friends and family joined to pray for Dominic and welcome him into God's family. It was a glorious day!

Yesterday, while meeting with a friend at a local Panera, I ran into another friend's mother, Mrs. Patterson. How beautiful it was to have time to catch up with her. She is the one who recognized me and said, "I have been reading your blog and have been praying for you." WOW! How neat to see that this blog is connecting me to so many who are praying for us. She shared that she is a cancer survivor and assured me that all will be fine. Thank you!

As we get into this last week of preparing for Christmas, the coming of the Savior, I can't help but reflect on the act of waiting. When we wait we must have patience but we may also be excited or even nervous or afraid. In waiting for the coming of Jesus as a baby we typically wait with excitement and we have to teach our kids to be patient as they count down the days. As I wait for this journey through cancer to be complete I am having to exercise much patience and am relying on God and all of you to fill me with peace and happiness, especially on the rough days. Thankfully I am assured that this is just a season in my life. I will survive and be able to look back and reflect on that I have learned through this experience. Mrs. Patterson even shared with me that she has already forgotten how many rounds of chemo she endured. That gave me much hope to know that one day I will even forget some of the details of this journey. But, I do vow not to forget the lessons and how each of you have stepped up to support us through this time.

This Christmas one of the greatest gifts I have already been given is the gift of love, the love that each one of you is demonstrating by praying for us and reaching out to us. I have experienced so much love in the past few months and that is what I will focus on. That is why I will feel just fine on Christmas day!

"May the God of hope fill you with all the joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Romans 15:13

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Trust in God

"The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life's refuge; of whom should I be afraid? When evildoers come at me to devour my flesh, my foes and my enemies themselves stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear; Though war be waged upon me, even then will I trust. One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek; to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. That I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple. For he will hide me in his abode in the day of trouble; He will conceal me in the shelter of his tent, he will set me high upon a rock. Even now my head is held high above my enemies on every side. And I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of gladness; I will sing and chant praise to the Lord." Psalm 27: 1-6

I am so grateful that God sent me this reading today through a book I am reading. What is described in this Psalm is what I have been going through the past few days. I have been experiencing that feeling of an "evildoer devouring my flesh" as I support my body through the side effects of this latest round of chemo.

Yesterday the battle entered my spirit as well. I truly felt that I was simply resting in the arms of the Lord as I waited for the storm to pass. My dear friends Tricia and Nicole were there at work to literally catch me in the morning and uplift me when they saw the battle I was in. How blessed I am to have people all around me who are God's arms. They reminded me that this is temporary and that I would be whole again. They reminded me of the importance of this battle for my kids. They spoke God's words to me as I regained my strength. It worked! Their reflection of God's love spoke to my spirit and rekindled the energy inside of me to keep going.

The afternoon brought about another round of fatigue and spiritual battle. I just had had enough of feeling sick and of not being able to find pleasure in eating anything. How is a foodie to seek pleasure when she can't eat? I had to just surrender. I got into my pjs, got cozy on the sofa and stared at the empty chair across from me, right next to the Christmas tree, where I picture Jesus is watching over me and listening to me. I learned this form of meditation from the book Sadhana: A Way to God by Anthony De Mello, which my brother Gene gave me at the beginning of this journey. I remember my mom reading/using this book when I was a child. Meditation number 21 is called "The Empty Chair." You simply picture Jesus sitting in the empty chair and you talk to him and then think about how he would respond. I expressed my frustration, my exhaustion, my anger, my hopes and my fears. He said back to me, "Relax, take a deep breath and just go to sleep. I will take care of it all." Sure enough, I took a nap and woke up refreshed. But, I will admit that within 15 minutes of being awake the attack began again. I became very overwhelmed by all that I wanted to accomplish between now and Christmas. I began to worry about how I would not get to experience Christmas with my boys the way I usually do. Things will just be so different this year. But then Nicole's words from earlier in the morning came back to me, "This is only temporary. You are fighting a good fight so that next year you can celebrate Christmas any way you want to. You are doing this for your boys." THIS IS TEMPORARY! How blessed am I to be able to say that!!!!
The Empty Chair with Our Lady of Guadalupe blanket on it. Thank you Janice Givens! I talk to Jesus and Mary.

This is what "gazing upon the loveliness of the Lord" is all about... having people around you who will remind you of God's promises. When the boys and Pete returned home from school I was again reminded of the HOPE God has promised. I was covered with kisses and concern and quickly the boys began to make me laugh. Pete comforted me as I recounted the struggles of the day and worries I was dealing with. Ricky shared funny Christmas music with me to make me laugh. God even provided two customer calls that drew me out of my self pitty and gave me the opportunity to serve! Then Gene called, my mom called (for the third time), our dear friends delivered a meal to us, friends were texting me, God's love came flooding in around me. AMAZING! I resigned to drinking a protein shake for dinner, took my medications and went to sleep.

My family continues to be blessed by many of you who have come to visit, brought us meals, thoughtful gifts and have sent cards with prayers. Thank you to all who continue to pray for us. It can become quite overwhelming to think about how this journey is not any where near done. We have a long way to go. Maybe that is why the thought that I am "half way through chemo treatments" is not comforting at all. The thought of having to go through 3 more treatments is quite daunting! But I know that I wont' be alone. I know you are all right by my side and there to catch me and hold me up.

I went in to the center to have my blood work done yesterday. It was the first time that my white blood cell count was low at 3.8. But they don't really worry about it until it is down to 1.8. So, they did ask me to be careful about being around crowds and sick people. I also have to monitor my temperature in order to catch the slightest of low grade fever and let them know about it. But, I will say, I am not worried about that. I am boosting my immune system in all of the ways I know how. My brother said to me last night, "So, I guess this means you won't get to go to our family Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) gathering." My reply, "Come hell or high water I will be there!" I can live with not being able to eat my favorite foods or not do some of the usual traditions, but I will NOT miss the time I am given to spend with family! Family love fuels me! Even if they have to prop me up in a chair I will be there.

As you each continue preparing for Christmas or celebrating Hanukkah during these days, I pray that you will be given peace and the perspective to appreciate the little things, appreciate the love around you and forget about the material gifts. May you "gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple." You are each in my prayers.
Much Love,

A few pictures of Angels to share:
Treatment #3 with Gisela Polanco, a long time friend and ESOL teacher who was receiving her treatment the same day.
Treatment #3 on the same day as friend and colleague, Nikki Mouton.

A lovely visit from the Montealegre family! They brought so much JOY!
Advent by Candlelight at St. Pius High School with childhood friends who are all fellow Latinas! Nothing like reminiscing about the good old days.

Thanksgiving Day brought the chance to spend time with family including the Peek family. Fr. Kevin and I shared tips on how to care for our bald heads. I'm in great company!