Feeds:
Posts
Comments

 “Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

(From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

When cancer or other serious illness strikes, life as we once knew it will never be the same.  In the loss that comes with the sense of self, the body we once took for granted, the landscape between those regions of kindness, does seem desolate.  But in small acts of compassion that we experience from others, hope somehow finds a way back in, solace is given, and we begin to heal and find our way back to life.  As Shihab-Nye says,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Kindness, the simple act of friendship, compassion and generosity to others, has a long history in humankind.  It was one of the “Knightly Virtues,”a set of ‘standards the Knights of the Middle Ages adhered to in daily living and their interactions with others.  Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness. Across cultures and religions, acts of kindness are valued. The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.”  Iman Musa Al-Kadhim, seventh after the prophet Mohammed, wrote that “Kindness is half of life.  Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind”(I Corinthians), while in Buddhism,  Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”

Kindness is defined as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself… “  In Aristotle’s Rhetoric.  Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche described kindness and love as “the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse.” (Source:  Wikipedia)

As many of us have discovered during serious illness or life hardship, kindness can exert healing power to our wounded spirits.  If we’re paying attention, we often discover kindness when we least expect it, from people we may not even know.  It’s in those small acts of kindness that we discover hope and gratitude for the small gifts in life, ones we once overlooked or barely even noticed.

“Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” a poem written by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan, illustrates the power of kindness.  Ryan writes about a janitor, Juan, who mopped her hospital floor at night:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…

With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”

 

Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

 (In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin B. Miller, Ed., 2001)

As Ryan’s poem illustrates, kindness helps us find our way out of darkness.  It helps us heal.  Compassion and caring, are often manifested in small acts of concern:  How’s it really going?  This is kindness, the small everyday acts that go a long way to healing ourselves and others.  Kindness not only helps us heal; we become better—kinder ourselves– for experiencing it.  The world could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?

Here’s a suggestion for writing.  First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day.  Perhaps you played it forward—because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need.  Write about how an act of kindness eased the desolation, sadness or loneliness you experienced during a difficult time.

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

(“September, The First Day of School,” by Howard Nemerov, from : Trying Conclusions:  New and Selected Poems 1961-1991)

 

It’s back to school in my family.  My grandson, packing his new knapsack the night before his first day of kindergarten, included the items he felt most important for this new beginning, his favorite action figures, a toy car, a plastic dinosaur, and three pre-school notebooks.  His mother posted on Facebook, “Tomorrow, it begins.”  I remembered her first day of school so many years ago, the tug at my heart as I stood at the door and waved (and waved) as she crossed the street, accompanied by her sister and the school crossing guard, knowing we had entered a new chapter of childhood and learning.

Now it was my daughter’s turn, accompanying her son to the bus stop and waving good-bye as he boarded the bus with the other children for the short ride to the American school on Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa.  If he was nervous, it was masked by his early morning announcement that he was invested with magical powers, necessary, I assume, to ward off any unforeseen difficulties he might encounter in his new school.  But all was well: he returned later in the day, most excited about being able to check out a library book on his own.

My husband returned to school too, working on Labor Day to deal with the administrative duties as chair of a doctoral studies program, and predictably, working late into the evening to prepare for his first class on Tuesday afternoon.  Today, a Sunday, he’s returned to his office at the university to catch up on work he was unable to complete during the week.  While many of our friends might be traveling or enjoying a relaxed day at the beach or on the golf course, he and I remain ensconced in the world of school, teaching and, despite our many years of doing so, learning a few new things whether we want to or not!

I still teach just as my husband does, despite the fact we both have moved past the official retirement age.  I do it because I love it, because I like to think it keeps me “young,” and because I am constantly exposed to new people, new ideas.  At least, that’s what I tell myself.  But this week I had to go back to school to learn how to use a new online teaching platform for my UCLA classes.  A few days in advance, I emailed the technical folks.

Would the seven and a half years of courses and content I’ve developed on “Blackboard” be transferred to the new platform, or at the very least, saved for my reference? 

I didn’t like the reply.

Unfortunately, no.  You should download and save your courses (syllabi, lectures, readings and other documents) in the next few weeks.  Blackboard will no longer be available.

I drove to Staples and purchased another flash drive and began the downloads.  I’m still not finished.  Meanwhile, my new online training began, and I logged into the site to acquaint myself with the new platform.

Of course, I got confused.  I’m fairly technologically adept, but to learn the new platform, I had to “unlearn” the old.  Worse, there were assignments to be completed, and each by a certain date.  I grumbled and on Tuesday afternoon, began the training and working on the first assignment.  Four long hours later, I finished—or thought I had—the week’s required tasks:  creating course content for the first week of the class I start teaching October.  Blurry-eyed but satisfied, I logged out and went back to my current class on Blackboard, where I had ten student submissions waiting for my critique.

Two days later, amid writing critique, hosting a student conference call, and meeting with my dentist to discuss the impending dental surgery scheduled for this week, I received an email from the administrator of the new online platform, notifying me I had not completed Assignment #1, which was now three days overdue!

“What?”  I logged in.  All my work was there.  Completed.  I fired back a frustrated email—one that has yet to be answered—complaining that I had finished the assignment and on time.  I mean really, I have always been a diligent student.  I have a doctorate, for heaven’s sake.  How dare they tell me I had not completed the assignment and on schedule?   A half hour later, I was embarrassed to discover I had to “send in” my assignment to the technical people by pressing the “submit” button.  Whoops.

I was face to face with my own inconsistencies against the beliefs I hold dear: in lifelong learning, the importance of creating new neural connections, staying mentally agile…you know the rest.  I was just as irritable and frustrated by something I hadn’t mastered as I suspect many of my students are with my “reminders” about their late assignments.  It’s good, I admitted to myself, to go back to school and be a beginner again from time to time.  It keeps me humble.  Real.  And learning.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it…

It’s funny to think about, but now that Nathan is in school, I know it won’t be long before he will be teaching me about this technological world I inhabit, he’ll surely be able to figure out a new online program or platform in a matter of minutes, while I struggle through the directions two and three times in less than successful attempts to figure things out.  But even if I’m slower at catching on to new things than I once was, I hope that as long as I am alive, I will keep “going back to school” and continue to find wonder, excitement, and new discoveries every day of my life.

But I’ll be honest, I hope that most of that new learning will happen with my computer turned off.

This week, write about a time you had to learn something new, whether in a course, using new technology, or even about yourself.  What’s it like to be a beginner at something again?

Every morning, when we wake up, we have 24 brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these 24 hours will bring peace, joy, & happiness to ourselves & others.– –Thich Nhat Hanh

“How different my life is now,” I thought as I sat in silence this morning, taking pleasure in the stillness, the chatter and chirp of the birds, my terrier’s head resting on my thigh.  I remembered a time when the morning was never still, when I rarely did anything but jump in the shower, dress quickly, stop at Peet’s Coffee and grab a latte to drink as I joined the bumper to bumper traffic in the morning rush to the office.  My outer life seemed prosperous, successful, but stressed.  My inner life was all but neglected, parched and dying of thirst—I rarely had time to “feed” it as I ran from meeting to meeting.  By night, exhausted, I re-entered the world of family, wife and mother, occasional writer, the day’s demands already growing distant.  Rarely did my various worlds intersect.

We humans are complex.  Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, our lives involve much more than basic need.  We have the unique capacity to live more than one life at a time, inhabiting several different “worlds.”  As Patrice Vecchione describes in her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life, we live our lives on many planes.  Although we may not always be aware of it, our inner and outer lives interact; affecting and informing each other as we move between the different worlds we inhabit each day.  In the busy lives we often lead, it’s easy to move through one world and another, and ignore the needs of our inner lives.  Sooner or later, it catches up with us.

Once I moved between my different worlds—professional, volunteer, friend, mother, student—as if they were separate, without giving much thought to the way in which those different aspects of my life, the roles I played each day, interacted with one another.  I was on a virtual elevator, constantly in motion, and racing between floors.  Push a button, the elevator moved up or down, stopped and the doors opened:  “Second floor, family life.”  “Third floor, workplace.” “Fourth floor, Business lunches and dinners.  Fifth floor:  Volunteer committee meetings.” There were many floors to stop at every day:  my social life, even the classroom, where, for a few hours each week, I left my family at home, changed from the professional business suit to comfortable slacks and shirts, and pushed the elevator button, and got off at graduate school.  Once in a great while, the elevator would stop at my spiritual world, but for many years, those stops were brief and far apart. In my very busy and important life, I moved between those worlds quickly, and most times, one floor seemed distinct and separate from another.

“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day,” poet Joy Harjo wrote in her essay, “Ordinary Spirit.”  Harjo was referring to her mixed race, in part, and the struggle to “unify” her different worlds.  That struggle to unify my different worlds, my inner life with my outer one, was something I truly didn’t address, at least not with any sustained effort, until I heard my doctor say “cancer,” and then again, as I was gradually slipping back into an “old” way of being, when an unexpected episode of heart failure left me unconscious on the sidewalk, my dog’s still leash in my hand.

I paid attention.  I took steps to change my life, to blur the boundaries between my inner and outer life, and the different worlds I inhabited each day. As Harjo expressed in her essay, I realized that it was “only an illusion that any of the worlds we inhabit are separate.” This “new” world, the one where I had suddenly become a heart patient, living with the knowledge of how abruptly one’s life can end, indeed, how capricious life can be, affected all other “worlds” of my life in deep and significant ways.

Any predictability and routine in my life was scattered to the wind.  Where I once felt I had some control over the course of my life, I now felt as if I was in free fall, an unwilling passenger in a wayward elevator, moving randomly between floors.  Fear and depression colored my days, despite my cardiologist’s reassurances.  I sported a bump just to the left of my breastbone, a defibrillator underneath the skin, a constant reminder of what had happened and the need to change my life.    Unbeknownst to anyone, I began praying each night, silent pleas to some higher power, struggling to find hope where fear resided.  It took time.  It took change. I was forced me to think differently about my life and what, above all else, really mattered to me.

It’s an experience I find similar to what I witness among the men and women in my expressive writing groups.  Cancer.  The crises it ignites in everyone’s life who reels from the words they never wanted to hear:  “You have cancer.”  Every part of their lives is affected.  They move, numbly at first, through second opinions, treatment decisions, treatment regimens, appointments, and always, lurking in the background, that demon fear.  All that they are—who they have thought themselves to be–mind, body, and spirit–is thrust into upheaval.  They no longer inhabit the different worlds in their lives with the same assumptions they once did.  What was once familiar now seems strange, and when the elevator finally ceases its terrifying ride, the doors open, and they look out to a new and often confusing world.  Their challenge, as mine was, is to try to make sense of it, to find the path to wholeness and healing.  For each of us, the routes are different:  faith, meditation, yoga, writing, music, art—it hardly matters.  All of us are seekers, working hard to inhabit this new world and integrate it into all the other worlds that have shaped us into the people we are.

I look back to that self of more than a decade ago,  the one for whom stress was a steady diet, caught up in the world of a career I didn’t even like and yet, striving to climb the ladder of success like so many of my colleagues.  I pushed the knowledge of my unhappiness aside, until one day, as a corporate executive with a spacious office overlooking Park Avenue in New York, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window as I walked from my apartment to my office.  Grim-faced, briefcase held tight against my body, shoulders hunched forward, stress oozed from every pore.  “Who have I become?” I remembered thinking.  It was a time when the different worlds I inhabited were as separate from one another as they could be.  But change wasn’t immediate.  I fumbled on for a few more years until cancer and heart failure delivered the whack on the side of the head I needed.  I stepped off the elevator and choose which worlds I truly wanted to inhabit in my life—but more, how I could make my life harmonious and whole.

Her first steps, though cautious, began immediately to reinforce her faith in greater possibilities.  –George MacDonald

 What about you?  What different worlds do you inhabit each day?  What are the many roles you play in your life?  How were your “worlds” affected by cancer, loss or another unexpected hardship?  What changed?  Write about how you’ve moved in and out of different worlds or the many roles you have played before and after your life was altered in unexpected ways.

 

 

 

The anchorwoman is unsmiling, even somber,
for her biggest stories are about death,
and even when she has a feature
on a twelve-year-old college student
or a gorilla who understands sign language,
there is something tentative about her relief:
she knows that the Great Antagonist
will strike again, and soon… 

I’m going on a diet.  Not a reduction in food intake, but a much less obvious pattern of an unhealthy lifestyle.  I’ll confess here:  I am a news junkie.  Every evening at 5:30 p.m., I have a date with Brian Williams and the NBC nightly news.  I’ve even been known to “compare” newscasts between NBC, CBS and ABC, which involves considerable repetition, not only of world events, but of the video segments that are so vivid, the images linger in my mind for hours afterward.

It wasn’t any kind of sudden alarm that forced my decision, rather, a benign dinner conversation with my husband, who has a “habit” of his own:  listening to BBC podcasts while he walks the dog each evening.  I’m used to his coverage of the latest research read or heard, and while I find it interesting, what he reports rarely forces me to change my habits.  Friday night was different.  He began summarizing another recent podcast, one on the impact of news reports on health.  “I thought of you,” he said.  I sat a little straighter in my chair; just a short time before, I’d signed off with Diane Sawyer, third in the news lineup between 5:30 and 7 p.m.

According to the British Psychological Society, constant access to the relentless media reports of war, violence, and horrendous tragedy, has negative effects on our physical and mental health.  Ouch!  They reported a study where people were shown footage of four traumatic events and after viewing, nearly 20% of the 89 participants reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Frequency of exposure–the number of times they viewed the media events–was a factor in participants’ reactions.  What’s more, none of these participants had experienced trauma in their personal lives. “Acts of violence erode our sense of security and create intense feelings of anger, fear and helplessness,” the researchers said.  “Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those who are directly experiencing them can impact on a certain percentage of individuals causing longer lasting effects.”

The weatherman smiles a lot,
but he is making the best of a bad thing,
for the weather is necessary… 

“Stress can be transmitted through TV screen,” The Daily Telegraph‘s website reported earlier this year, showing an image of an individual watching a segment of the television series, “Breaking Bad.” But the study they were citing involved real people, not fictional characters.

In an experimental study, researchers measured people’s stress response to watching either a loved one, or a stranger of the opposite sex, in a stressful situation.  Around one in four “observers” (26%) experienced heightened stress levels – measured by using salivary cortisol levels – when watching the “targets.”  “Whenever we’re faced with stress, our cortisol levels rise,” said Brandon Mentore, health coach, quoted in a recent Huffington Post article. “Watching a scary or emotionally draining movie raises cortisol.”

We know that cortisol serves the function of our “fight or flight” readiness in response to stressful events, but when the body doesn’t have the chance to return to normal, we begin to suffer from chronic stress, and the impact on our health isn’t good.  And my habit of nightly and extended news viewing doesn’t come without costs.

Chronic stress and worry go hand in hand.  Worry is that state of feeling concerned or uneasy about some situation in our lives.  When it gets the better of us, our bodies and minds go into high gear.  We leap beyond what is to what might happen, and as our worry expands, so do our anxieties.  I don’t know about you, but my anxiety is heightened with all the news reports of terrorism threats, epidemics, and violence in our schools and on the streets.  By the time I turn the television off, I feel agitated, even frightened, and more than once, my anger is triggered when I hear the unending reports of the inability of our government to consider and work for the constituents who put them in office.  Even Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has become a source of agitation!  I doubt—no, I know—the steady diet of news reports is not good for my health.

Only the sportscaster is happy, for sports news
is good news: money always changes hands,
and if someone has lost that day, someone else has won… 

Maybe you’re not a news junkie like me, but chances are you have a habit that doesn’t do much good for your health or stress levels.  What is it?  As you write this week, consider what triggers that raise your stress levels.  What can you do to change or rid yourself of those triggers?  What helps you lessen the stress in your life?  How do you you manage the times when stress and worry threatens to consume you?

It’s Day Two of my self-imposed diet.  Last night I took my dog for a walk during the news hour.  This evening, I’ll be in a downtown movie theatre with my husband.  Tomorrow?  Well, I’ll get creative and keep the remote control out of sight between 5:30 and 7 p.m.  I already feel better just thinking about it.

…but you can make a ball out of anything,
and then all you need is a line to get it across
or a hoop to put it through.
The sportscaster knows how the world will end:
not with a whimper, not with a bang,
but with a cheer.

 

(From “The Late News,” By David Kirby, in The Writers’ Almanac, 12/04/2003)

 

 

 

I bought a portable stand up desk last week, part of a series of actions I’ve taken to manage the bouts of pain associated with my damaged tailbone.  It came, as so many of our household accessories do today, in several pieces, along with various sized screws, bolts, a small (highly ineffective) screwdriver and a set of instructions.  Instructions I tried my best to follow, since I tend toward the “plug and play” mentality and have, on numerous occasions, put together various sections of Ieka furniture backwards before reading those instructions with a more careful eye. 

Although compact, the desk took longer to assemble than it probably should have.  I made several trips to the garage to find other tools to help me put it together, since the small disposable screw driver was only minimally functional.  But I finally succeeded, and the desk sits in my home office, providing me with a way to vary and relieve the pressure of sitting while continuing to work.

Unlike “assemble-it-yourself” furniture, life doesn’t come with a set of instructions.  I remember devouring Benjamin Spock’s books on child-rearing when my first child was born, but a year later, quickly discovered that what worked with one baby didn’t necessarily have the same results with the younger one.  Several years later, as I was “getting” the hang of marriage (or so I thought), my marital status changed so quickly from “married” to “separated” to “widow” introducing an entirely new set of life circumstances, the best I could do was “play it by ear.”  It all worked out, of course, but then my daughters’ adolescence turned my apple cart upside down again, and I discovered life rarely remained neat and tidy for long.  Fast forward another ten years, and a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer did more than interrupt life; it changed mine forever.

In her poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” Sharon Doyle reminds us that a cancer diagnosis, like so many of life’s difficult chapters, does not come with a set of instructions.  Sure, there’s treatment, but our lives are entirely disrupted and forever altered.  We are left to figure out things ourselves, hopefully with a little help from our friends and family, just what to do with this changed life.  Doyle uses the act of sketching the composition of her fall garden as a metaphor for creating new life and beauty after cancer:

There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…

Doyle plans her garden, but in the process, lets us see how loving gifts  –family, birdsong and flowers–offered hope, recovery and are symbolized in the design for her garden.  As the poem concludes, the design is completed, but among the flowers and colors, she leaves space to celebrate life:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

(from The Cancer Poetry Project, p. 52)

This week, think about your cancer—or another difficult and challenging–experience.  It’s unlikely you were handed a book of instructions for any of it.  What helped you navigate an altered body, a changed life?   Where did you find the resources, the knowledge, that offered you hope and new life?

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever… I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laugh­ing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became.  ( “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” By Jim Higley, In: Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)

 

“You’re a lot perkier since you’ve gotten your dog,” a friend remarked last night as we sat together at an outdoor concert in a local park.  I laughed and said that my husband made the same observation a week or two earlier.  She laughed too as I described Maggie’s daily antics that keep me smiling– even laughing out loud–several times a day.  When I adopted her two months ago, it was soon after I had damaged my tailbone and right shoulder in a fall.  I was in pain, unable to sit for more than a few minutes and unable to participate in the African drumming classes I have come to love.  Worse, I was turning 70 and feeling as if overnight, I had joined the ranks of the aged and infirm.  Thankfully, it was only a temporary descent into “ain’t it awful,” but my funny little terrier helped pull me out of the doldrums.

The thing is, I like to laugh.  A lot.  On a class conference call with my UCLA writing students earlier this week, someone asked about teaching online vs. the classroom.  “I miss the classroom,” I said, adding that online is great; I can teach from anywhere at any time, but “I laugh more when I’m in the classroom.”

It’s true.  Whether it’s a writing workshop for cancer survivors or a regular creative writing class, a good deal of laughter is shared between us.  Shared laughter breaks the ice; it relaxes people and builds community.  We learn not to take ourselves quite so seriously, and more, even in the midst of something as horrible as a cancer diagnosis, there can still be things that make us smile.  Laughter brightens the day and our outlook.  We feel better.

Laughter is good medicine.  Author Norman Cousins used it to cure himself of a debilitating illness.  And long before Cousins, Mark Twain wrote, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter. The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer, an over-busy and stressful life, remembering those who’ve passed on, or simply sharing time with friends and loved ones.  We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry.

It’s one reason I like being around children.  Last night I watched toddlers and kindergarteners frolic together on the grass at the outdoor concert.  I found myself smiling, laughing as they laughed, wishing my grandchildren were not as far away as they are.  Frankly, the laughter they bring to my life is  the primary reason I even check Facebook.  I love to read the funny and imaginative accounts of what comes out of their mouths.  Nathan, my five-year old grandson, offers regular doses of that particular brand of child humor  I find so delightful.  Several times a week, I read what he’s said and laugh out loud.  For example, as Claire drove her children home from a day at the beach this week, he announced: “Mommy, The Moon Master shot an egg into space, and it gave all the stars color. But it was really to send a message to Nathan, I; Nathan. He just said ‘ beee a gooood booyyy’ and so then I will get a white kitty, who is clean, and I will name her Tiger. You Mommy will put her in a basket, in the fridge but only the tail sticks out, so I can be surprised and find her and say ‘OH MY GOD, IT’S TIGER!’ Is that correct?”

I don’t think he’s going to find a white kitten in a basket in the refrigerator any time soon, but it was a good try, but what’s more, I began my day with laughter and a smile—the best medicine in the world.

There’s an old song my mother used to sing  as she did the household chores when I was a child, one made popular at by Louis Armstrong in 1929 and recorded over the years by many others, including Billie Holiday, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra and more.   And no wonder.  Even singing the lyrics makes me happier.  It’s a good reminder that every day can be a little brighter if you find something to smile about.

When you’re smiling
When you’re smiling
The whole world smiles with you

When you’re laughing
When you’re laughing
The sun comes shining through…

(Lyrics by Larry Shay, Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin)

Smiling and laughter, as the song reminds us, are contagious.  In a world so fraught with hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about.  This week, write about something that makes you smile—or laugh out loud—each time you remember it.  Notice how a little “ha, ha” lifts your spirits.  Try laughing at least once each day.  It is, as Norman Cousins discovered, the best medicine.

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)

His death was expected for these past many months, but now that it has happened, my heart is heavy as I think about my sister-in-law’s loss of her husband. Only yesterday afternoon, I drove to the airport to welcome my husband home after his long—and very delayed—flight from Okinawa, Japan, where he’d been visiting our daughter and her family.  Early morning, I returned him to the airport to fly north to Seattle to spend three days with his older sister, Joan.  It wasn’t a trip he’d planned or one he wanted to make under the circumstances, but during the long hours he was in the air, his flight already delayed by a day from a typhoon, his brother-in-law died after a four-year battle with bladder cancer.

I called Joan this morning after I’d taken him to the airport.  Her phone rang several times before I heard her voice, “Hello?”  She was crying and quickly apologized.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and…”  She began sobbing again.

“Your brother is on his way,” I said.  “He just left from the airport, and he’ll be there after lunch.”

“Oh,” she said, “thank you.”  Then, “I’m sorry…he must be so tired…”

I watched him walk toward the gate, exhausted and jet-lagged from the long flight from Japan, doing what he felt he had to do.  Although their lives rarely intersected, he knew Joan needed him, that his presence would be comforting to her.  She and Ed, her husband, were high school sweethearts, marrying early despite the disapproval of her parents.  They had sixty-four years together as man and wife, weathering hardship and setbacks for much of their marriage, yet remaining steadfastly devoted to one another.

Just weeks before Edwin learned he had an aggressive Stage Four bladder cancer, Joan was diagnosed with Stage Three inflammatory breast cancer Somehow, the crises ignited strength and determination in Joan we hadn’t before experienced.  Only in the past year or so did her newfound resilience flagged, as Ed endured surgery after surgery, one experimental procedure after another and the medical expenses continued to multiply.  Her days were spent driving to and from doctor’s appointments and the hospital.  Now and again, her children dropped by to help as they could.  Edwin seemed determined to do whatever it took to give him a chance at winning a battle already described as most definitely terminal.

Joan and their four sons and daughters were at his side when he took his last breath.  She called soon afterward. “He’s gone, Sharon,” her voice heavy with exhaustion,  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.”

 

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

 

There’s a great deal written about dealing with the loss of a loved one from cancer, and while some may think of grief as a single instance or short time of pain or sadness in response to the loss—like the tears shed at a loved one’s funeral—as the American Cancer Society reminds us, the real process of grieving lasts longer and involves the entire emotional process of coping with the loss.

It can be hard on those friends or acquaintances, even family members, to let grief takes its normal courses.  It’s painful, yes, but it’s important that those whose loved ones have died are allowed to express their grief and supported through the process.  It’s different for everyone, but most important is honoring however the bereaved person chooses to express their sorrow and grief.  John, brother and psychologist, understands that, and in this time of sorrow for his sister, he will be a source of quiet support and comfort for his sister.

After sixty-four years together with Ed, Joan may be grieving for a long time.  According to the American Cancer Society, studies have identified emotional states that people may go through while grieving. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss.

Joan’s tears finally came this morning with the realization that Ed is truly gone.  Her daughter had tended to the details, overseen the removal of Ed’s body and all the medical equipment which had become part of the landscape of his room for so long.  It was only this morning, as Joan went downstairs and entered the bedroom, now barren and empty of everything that had defined the past year or so of Ed’s life and hers that she broke down.  “It’s so empty,” she cried.

Today my thoughts are with my sister-in-law and all that she has endured and must face in the wake of her husband’s death.  I’m grateful her four children are nearby.  I’m grateful for the quiet and loving presence she will experience with my husband, her brother.  There is nothing easy in losing a loved one, even if you’ve lived with the certainty of death for months.  My hope is that she can begin, in the months ahead, to create a new life in this stage called “widowhood.”  But for now, I simply pray that she has the strength to put one foot in front of the other and go on.

 

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on.

 

This week, consider the process of grief and mourning.  Have you lost a loved one to cancer?  What helped you deal with the loss?  Write about it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 288 other followers