“You are mourning,” I said softly to my friend. “You are mourning your life.”
A cancer diagnosis or becoming disabled is a shock! The earth under one’s feet shakes. What you thought you were or knew doesn’t work. As my friend Martha said when she got her lung cancer diagnosis, “I feel as if they’ve rearranged the chairs on the Titanic.” You look around at a grey cell, doors slammed shut and not a window in sight.
I didn’t write much about it when it happened to me. We are raised not to complain. I didn’t want to become someone my friends didn’t want to run into, carrying a cloud of gloom. I know people like that and they drag you down – that I have written about.
But this time, it is not me. It is my dear friend and watching her valiant attempts to acclimatize to her new reality brings back those bad days. They need acknowledgement.
Both of us face incurable cancer and disability, so I can extrapolate some general thoughts from our experience. First, we neither of us have the possibility of coming out the other side, which makes a huge difference. One can put up with chemo if there’s life beyond. We and many others, from what I read on the blood cancer message boards, have no chance of a good future, just chemical delay.
Second, which hits hard, so many activities we used to use to cheer ourselves up are gone. Or they were for me. Crochet affects my neck. Reading only on a kindle because of the weight of the book. Cooking: nothing that requires standing and stirring. Walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, skiing: you must be joking. Sitting through a movie or shopping with friends? Not a hope.
Which is why I didn’t labour my losses in my posts. But now I see from the outside, my friend, and also many other friends, crippled with pain, patiently enduring.
Yet, as I assured my granddaughter, I am happy. There’s a deep valley to cross, but on the other side is a deeper peace than I could have imagined. And a joy like sunlight on my heart. Hard won, but secure because it is not dependent on outside events. It is spun from within and therefore priceless.
If anyone had asked me 10 years ago, how to get from darkness there to sunlight here today, I wouldn’t have known where to start. It seemed impossible and I was so afraid: I just got by because Mike was there for company and to help with the things that were now so difficult. A lonely and precarious position. I didn’t know what to do, but had to try something, anything.
So what helped? It isn’t PC nowadays to have any religious beliefs. Most of my friends are ardent atheists or just don’t care. Like so many others, I am a closet believer – but in what? Not any regular faith, but in some undefinable intelligence, a strength and surety. Every morning, before I get out of bed, I ground myself in its peace. I found a book on meditation – serendipity – that suggested four words: peace, light, love and compassion. So each day I immerse myself in these qualities: “I am peace, I am filled with peace, I am surrounded by peace – and so on with light, love and compassion. It sets my sails for the day and remains with me as a touchstone.
Then each day, I set something to look forward to, usually the evenings when we watch TV. Just to say, “Tonight, “The Good Wife”, which is our current series, gives a wriggle of anticipation. We do NOT watch murders or anything that lowers the spirits. I learned that when Mike was carrier flying: I could cope with the partings and the danger, but not misery-filled books or movies.
And every day, we frequently tell each other how lucky we are. Because when you think of it, most of us are lucky in some respects. We have each other – huge. So many are alone. We have survived to 80! Back when Mike was a navy pilot, I hardly dared believe he would be alive next year, let alone into old age. We have kids, after two major surgeries just to get pregnant. And grandkids, six of them, eager with life, even if on different continents. We can afford food and a roof. And Coronation Street is on tonight.
Yes, we are lucky. Cancer and pain recede in the face of such blessing, which brings me to the secret of living with pain – living above both it and cancer. I know I can’t change either, so where my being lives, the ME of me, can’t dwell in my body. That would be a life of fear and pain.
Where would I have to BE for my pain to be insignificant? A place so much bigger than I that my pain is dwarfed How wide a view that problems become meaningless? So that I see not my narrow point of view, but a greater whole. It was very hard at first, like pulling feet out of mud, but like desperation breeds tenacity. I inched my way to peace.
Now, with years of painful practice, I can easily move from my constricted everyday world, up and away till the world is a bright marble and my pain a small dot. Oddly, when I reach this plateau, it is familiar. It is the same place I reach through my meditation on peace, light, love and compassion.
In the words of John McGee: “I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God.”
One Minute Meditation on Four Words by Sebastian Dackow
“High Flight” by John Gillespie Mcgee, Jr