Last evening Gottfried was talking about an unusual sensation in his right leg. For several days now it has felt as though cold water was being poured on his foot and calf. It sounded like some form of neuropathy to me and I told him so, but I’m not a Dr.
Not one to miss an opportunity I chose that moment to step on to my soapbox and announce, “the one thing I have learned since my cancer diagnosis is that ANYTHING can happen to ANYONE at ANYTIME.” I then went on to list the possibilities, all of them bad: car accident, stroke, heart attack, cancer, ALS, financial ruin, being caught in a hotel room as a cyclone goes through, etc.” He begged me to stop and said out loud that he thoroughly regretted mentioning his leg to me. And then we laughed.
It is however no laughing matter, because it is true. It is life, and in a single moment we go from this to that. It is not always so dramatic as the items I mentioned but it often is. Our life can change radically in one moment, through no fault of our own.
I believe that part of the shock and the pain we suffer from goes beyond the event itself, which is already enough to cope with. The disbelief we are left with is often that we could never have imagined “this thing” happening to "us.” To “me.” We can imagine them happening to others. We know that is true. But in our heart of hearts we believe ourselves to be exempt from the unacceptable.
Makes sense. We would be a sorry lot if we spent our days fretting about all the things that might go wrong. The downside, however, of not “recognizing” the reality of which I spoke to Gottfried about is that it is easy to take our “normal” life for granted, become more dissatisfied with what we don’t have, put off what is really important, fight or deny the new reality of what is, and add piggy back suffering to the mix.
I find the concept of “piggy back suffering,” which means something like suffering on top of suffering, useful. An example is a diagnosis of a life threatening disease and besides experiencing the suffering this causes, there is the additional and unnecessary suffering of the “why me,” and the “it’s not fair” part. Although it is perfectly natural and human to view it this way, it isn’t helpful.
Where I need to put my energy in these circumstances is into the things I can do something about, not wasting my precious time and energy railing against what is. And the truth is that within everything that needs to be accepted, there is always something that can be done, even if it means a change of direction, learning a new vocabulary, informing ourselves, changing our mind, advocacy, letting go, writing a blog, an opportunity for something new, and so on.
A couple of weeks ago, John S, my colleague in our Meaningful Life Therapy (for people who have or had cancer) workshop at Wellspring, asked the participants to do a visual representation of their next ten years. How do they see themselves? What is important, what counts, how do they want to spend their time?
I chose to do this assignment myself and it was a good exercise in articulating what means the most to me. What became clear is that my four headlines revolve around Family; Friends; Meaning and Memories. A friend of mine has his four F’s: Family; Friends; Faith and Fun. Attempting to reflect on what is most important helps me and those who do this exercise determine when to say “yes” to this and “no” to that. It is one way to figure out how not to squander our precious time. If something fits into those categories, go for it. Sometimes saying “no” in order to say “yes” to something more important is what needs doing.
An example from my life happened a year ago when in order to say “yes” to caring for my granddaughter for the first six weeks when my daughter returned to work meant saying no to all those things I would normally have loved to do. To say yes, meant temporarily re-locating for six weeks from Calgary to Ottawa, it meant saying no to earning a living during this time, as well as a loss of time with Gottfried, family and friends in Calgary, it was a big no to an annual Chinese New Year celebration with friends on the westcoast that I love. The experience and the memory of those six weeks with Sophie, however, is a highlight of my life and I am so grateful that I was able to and did say YES. (thanks for your support Gottfried)
The reason I do this blog is because my circumstances changed with cancer. This blog is primarily for my family and friends and me. I am wanting to record in one place what counts for me. I love my little community of loved ones and the comments and emails I receive as a result. I appreciate the emails I get from strangers who stop by and find something useful. I wanted to leave a little of myself so that when I’m no longer visible my grandchildren might have an idea of what I loved, what counted for me, and how I looked at life's difficulties. I also want my family and friends to know how they are cherished and appreciated by me. And now because of this blog I have this wonderful correspondance and conversation taking place where I am continually inspired by you. "Ah! Is this not happiness," as Lin Youtang exclaims. And since I have no idea how many years I will be here (would love at least another 30)I want to use this time right now. I no longer believe that “it won’t happen to me.” Today and everyday, no matter the weather, it is a joy to be alive. I no longer want to squander one precious moment.
PS Not squandering can mean to me taking the time to hang out in a hammock reading a book, learning to fly fish (who knows?) spending time with friends, planning a trip to Japan, getting rid of excess everything, meditating, learning to use watercolours, following my Dr and nurse Camelia's orders, writing, working at Wellspring in one way or another, calling my Mother everyday, having tel appointments with friends, going to my grandson Jonathan’s track and field events, talking on the phone to my seven year old grandson Michael Thomas, hearing about two year old Sophie’s latest expressions, discussing with my son Rob his balcony garden and all of the types of basil he planted last night, snuggling with Gottfried, being with friends, talking to my dearest cousin Bill about his up-coming heart surgery, reading poetry, listening to the birds, stopping to admire the latest bud on the crab-apple tree in our front yard, reading my email, unloading the dishwasher, reading anything by Pema Chodron and Billy Collins, walking, savouring a perfect cup of hot coffee at our dining room table, opening my mailbox (the postal one outside my front door), (did I mention how much I love getting mail???)choosing a hat to cover my sweet little bald head, (I try to treat my head tenderly) my daily chat with my daughter Meghan. Saying thanks. Noticing! Noticing! Noticing! You get the picture.
PPS The ANYTHING can happen to ANYONE scenario is also the unexpected wonderful gifts that come our way. Life isn’t necessarily fair and often it works in our favour. (mostly, in fact, in my life.) I haven’t deserved all of the good fortune that has come my way but as Jack Benny puts it so well,
” I don’t deserve this award but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.”
It is true that I would have preferred not to have cancer, but I did get cancer. And along with the cancer has come an outpouring of love, friendship and support. That is also part of my daily life, and I want to continue to be part of and appreciate the Full Catastrophe.