Feeds:
Posts
Comments

A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…

These are the opening pages to Joan Walsh Anglund’s beloved little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1958, one that sat on my parents’ coffee table for years, one I read aloud to my fourth grade class the first year I taught.  I still have a copy of Anglund’s book on my shelves, because no matter our age or stage in life, we all need friends, whether in good times or bad.

I’ve written about this topic several times before, but friends and friendship were again on my mind as I awakened this morning, no doubt ignited by yesterday’s household belongings sale we held yesterday with our neighbors.  Our tables were filled with not just the ordinary accumulations one has for day-to-day living, like plates, glasses, trays or pans, but bits of history, items that once held sentimental value.  Decorations, artwork, mementos from travels, all things that held a memory of a time and place, also occupied places on the sales tables.  I surprised myself at how quickly I was able to let them go when a neighbor or stranger picked one or two of those things off the table and murmured, “Oh, I love this…”  Things, accumulated belongings, stuff—call it what you may, but I felt little but delight that someone else might use and enjoy what I once called “mine.”

We had help with the sale.  Alecia supervised the entire process of the garage sale.  Victoria simplified the pricing process.  Sue brought muffins and smoothies to help fuel us during the day.  Carrie provided tables and transport to Goodwill for leftover goods.  Neighbors conspired to have a small “farewell” party the night after the moving truck departs.  Other friends dropped by, less to peruse our tables, but more to offer good wishes and give us a farewell hug.  There were several moments where my eyes filled with tears, and I turned to a corner of the garage or walked inside our house to let my emotions settle.  Unlike once cherished objects, letting go and leaving friends and neighbors who have been part of my life here isn’t so simple.

“You gotta’ have friends,” Bette Midler crooned on her 1973 album, The Divine Miss M (Atlantic Records).  Yes, we all “gotta'” have friends.   I remembering singing along to Midler’s recording in the late seventies, when my life seemed to fall apart, and a few close friends were there to help me through a tumultuous and painful time of trauma and loss.  Of course, not all the people we call “friends” stick by us through  hard times, whether loss, a marriage break-up, cancer or other life hardships.  As Midler reminds us in the song:

I got some friends but they’re gone
Someone came and took them away…

It’s during those difficult times in our lives that we truly discover what friendship is—and what separates our friends from our acquaintances in life.  Friends endure.  We share history and stories, laughter and tears.  They remind us of who we were and who we are.  In times of upheaval, change and transition, they provide the continuity we need in our lives, and sometimes, as many of us so painfully discover, they are “there” for us when our immediate families may not be.

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow. – William Shakespeare

Although I spent my childhood in one small town, my adult life has been punctuated by several moves, and once again, my husband and I are packing our bags and heading back to the city where we met and married, where even now, both daughters consider it “home,” despite their many travels and living in different countries.  I have been lucky to have several dear friends in Canada and the West—friendships formed in early in life, ones enduring through all my trials, tribulations, and moves to the opposite side of the country.  When I grouse about how many times we’ve changed residences, I remind myself how rich my life is, due in large part to my enduring friendships with people scattered around the world.  These are people who shared the impulsiveness and turbulence of youth, stuck by me during difficult chapters of my life, showed up when I least expected it, embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.

We all need friends.  Isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness.  Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships. Better health, a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life are just some of the benefits of friendship, including lowered risk of coronary heart disease.  Strong friendships have been shown to benefit brain health as we age and increase longevity.  In a 2006 study of nurses diagnosed with breast cancer, those without close friends were far more likely to dies from their cancer than those with ten or more friends.  What’s more, proximity and amount of contact are less important than having good friends (“What are friends for?  A longer Life,” by Tara Parker Pope, New York Times, April 2009).

The good thing about friends, Brian Jones writes in his poem, “About Friends,” is not having to finish sentences ( From:  Spitfire on the Northern Line © 1985). That’s how it feels for me when I’m with my friends.  As I have experienced so many times, and again these past many days  preparing to leave San Diego, friends not only make our lives happier, richer and a lot more interesting, they show up to lend a hand or offer comfort when we most need it.  It was these enduring friendships I thought about this morning as I gazed out at the canyon early this morning, friends whose kindness and support have meant so much in my life.  I smiled as I remembered each, my heart filled with gratitude for their continuing presence in my life.

“Good friends are good for your health.” They celebrate the good times and provide support in the tough times.  They keep us from being lonely, and we, as friends, return the gift of companionship” (www.mayoclinic.org)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about friendship this week, about having—perhaps even losing—friends.
  • When have friends made a difference in your life? How?
  • Begin with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…”
  • Or write about one important friend in your life—what makes him or her unique?

He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us…

He used to sing in the car


bought us root beers along the road.


He loved us with his deeds.

(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)

It’s Father’s Day, and in countless households in North America and the UK, eager youngsters, like my grandchildren, will be excitedly honoring their fathers, whether with homemade art, a special meal, gifts or cards. My youngest  granddaughter excitedly told me about the “surprise breakfast” she and her mother were going to serve to my son-in-law—a breakfast-in-bed that has been a ritual each Father’s Day, so while it’s unlikely a surprise for her father, he will show as much excitement as he has before.

Acting as if whatever was presented to him was the most wonderful Father’s Day surprise is something my father also did.  Our offerings were meager, given long before commercialism inundated Father’s Day with ads for a variety of expensive gifts. Instead, we made our own cards since the Hallmark supplies were meager, or we baked with our mother’s supervision—cookies, cake or a pie—and my father’s enthusiasm made us feel as if we’d created something truly special for him.

Since then, Father’s Day celebrations have become popular and more expensive. In previous years, retailers made their big push to attract consumers on Mothers’ Day since Father’s Day seemed, in some ways, it seemed like an afterthought.  (The holiday was an American invention, made two years after Mother’s Day).  In our house, Dad went to work each morning and returned at suppertime. Mother managed the household and was the primary disciplinarian of three spirited children.

Child-rearing practice have since changed from those traditional 1950’s middle class households.  Even in the 1970’s and 80’s, as I began rearing my children, parenting practices were shifting.  Since then, there have been more than a few subtle shifts in parenting assumptions between mothers and fathers, manifested as a a partnership of shared child-rearing responsibility.   Even so, Father’s Day still lags behind the cards, gifts and special dinners that have become part of our Mother’s Day celebrations. More cards, flowers and gifts are traditionally bestowed on mothers than fathers. According to a 2016 article from BBC News.com, the National Retail Federation reported an average of $186 is spent on Mother’s Day compared to $136 for Father’s Day.   According to Kyle Murray of the Alberta School of Business, retailers made a big push for a long time on Mother’s Day because demand for gift-giving was strong, and Father’s Day’s seemed, by comparison, more of an afterthought.

As child rearing is more frequently a partnership between husband and wife, fathers do more hands-on parenting and have more emotional relationships with their children than they once did. Not surprisingly then, according to Professor Murray, there is increased emphasis on Father’s Day and retailers’ promotions of the occasion.

Kit Yarrow, psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says that because fathers have a deeper and more emotional relationship with their children than in the past, it’s easier to buy presents for them (BBC News. com). Despite the fact my father wasn’t as involved in our day-to-day upbringing as my mother, he provided the emotional glue that held our family together.

My mother was a strong disciplinarian while Dad, was an easy-going, fun-loving and tender-hearted father, whose reluctance to discipline was the result of the physical punishments he endured as a rambunctious child living on a ranch in the 1920’s.  It never failed, whenever we stopped by his appliance store and begged for an after school treat at the local drugstore, that he’d produced a shiny quarter from his pants pocket and hand it to us.  And many times, just as we opened the door to exit the store, he’d call out, “Hey Kid…how about I come with you?”

Dad taught me many things, among them, the love of a good story and the joy in shared laughter.  I also learned to dance standing on my father’s feet as he moved around the living room to a favorite Glen Miller or Benny Goodman tune. He taught me how to pitch a baseball, execute a decent football pass, and fish— even though my mother might have wished I’d chosen more “feminine” activities. Raised by an exceptional cook, he never failed to praise my meager attempts to bake a pie like my grandmother did, often with a too much flour and not nearly enough sugar. Yet even if the pie bordered on inedible, he always ate the ample slice I served, flashed a big smile and said, “My, but this might be the best blackberry pie I ever tasted.”

When my father died of Stage Four lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, just three months after his diagnosis, none of his children were ready to let him go. The emptiness I felt in the wake of his death lingered for months afterward. Perhaps my father’s death—and life—is one of the reasons I gravitated to leading expressive writing groups for cancer survivors. Maybe it was the result all those afternoons I sat by his side as he prepared to die and he filled my head and heart with stories from his life.  His unique brand of warmth persisted to the end.  Even on the day he died, he managed to get to the table for a short time and share the  traditional meal with family, even asking for a second piece of pumpkin pie.  In my mind, as sad as the day was, I can imagine him smiling as and saying, “I think that might have been the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever eaten.”

This Father’s Day, I’ll celebrate my husband and sons-in-law and but it’s my father’s memory which will be foremost in my mind.  I hear the echo of his chuckle yet and remember how he loved to tell a good story.  As Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” “death steals everything but our stories.” My father’s legacy lives on in his stories,  memories even cancer can never take away.

I miss you everyday— the heartbeat


under your necktie, the hand cupped


on the back of my neck, Old Spice


in the air, your voice delighted with stories.

(From:  “Father” in Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser)
Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about your father, his memories, stories and legacy—whether loving or painful. What do you remember most about him?
  • Write about being a father—what did you learn from your own? How has your father influenced the father you’ve become?
  • Write about the holiday, “Father’s Day.” What do you like about it? What annoys you about it? Why?

To all fathers who may read this week’s post, Happy Father’s Day!

 

“It’s a surprise,” Flora told me as we sat in her parents’ sunroom together. “Can I tell you?”

I shook my head. “Oh please don’t tell me; I really, really want to be surprised.”

“Well, can I just tell you a little bit?” Obviously, she’s already excited about whatever her parents and she have planned for tomorrow, and I suspect it will be as much about her delight in hosting a little birthday party for her grandmother than anything. But that will be part of the fun—making different memories of my birthdays as I grow older.

“I’m hardly ever surprised,” I told her as she tried not reveal what was planned. Memories of birthdays past flashed in front of my mind’s eye. Memories of birthdays past flashed through my mind’s eye—the one genuine surprise my daughters managed to pull of over a decade ago, and the excitement of childhood celebrations between pre-school and perhaps, 3rd grade, even some dismal ones in young adulthood, before I had children and experienced the joy of their excitment. In each birthday memory, there is a story.

A few years ago, I read Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011), a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class. Among the many nuggets of wisdom about teaching creative writing, he described one exercise that never failed to inspire his students’ writing:

I…then burst into song: “Happy Birthday to You.” They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years. I sing it again. “Happy Birthday to You. Anyone had a birthday recently? Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

Search the internet and you’ll quickly discover that Rosenblatt and his students weren’t the only ones using birthdays for inspiration. Go to www.poets.org and you’ll find poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others who used their birthdays as inspiration and reflection. Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” captures that moment of introspection triggered by his birthday:

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Poems about birthdays reflect the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black 
to the white rind of the old and fading moon. 
The second half of my life will be water 
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

Although I am not ready to refer to this stage of my life as “desert years,”–far from it–I’ll confess that I’m at the stage in life where I’d rather the numbers are decreasing in size than increasing. Nevertheless, I’ll share in the delight of a birthday planned and hosted by a six year old granddaughter, and who knows, I might have something to write about after the celebration is over.

Writing Suggestion:

Whether you’re soon to be celebrating a birthday or waiting until 2018 to do so again, why not do what so many other poets and writers have done: used the advent of or a memory of a birthday already passed to inspire your own writing. “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you…” What memories, good or bad, does that little traditional ditty evoke in you? Write about one.

I’ve been doing a lot of it, waiting, that is.  Since we made the decision to relocate several months ago, it’s seemed like “hurry up and wait.”  Four months ago, I began sorting through books and clothing, optimistic that we’d be headed north sometime in late April or, at the latest, mid-May.  But it’s now June, and we are now waiting for escrow to close in just less than a month.  Even though I realize these next weeks will now be dominated by a flurry of activity,  our time thus far has seemed elongated and the waiting interminable.

What you do with time

is what a grandmother clock

does with it: strike twelve

and take its time doing it.

You’re the clock: time passes,

you remain. And wait.

(From:  “Mother,” by From The Plural of Happiness: Selected Poems of Herman de Coninck, 2006

Waiting.  We all do it–and often.  It can dominate our daily lives.  We wait in lines for tickets or to get through security at the airport.  We wait to be served in restaurants or for a train in the subway station.  We wait for calls or letters from employers, editors or loved ones, for acceptances to schools, or the results of medical tests.  And  we wait in doctors’ waiting rooms for an appointment scheduled an hour earlier, thumbing impatiently through outdated magazines and checking the clock a dozen times, unable to concentrate on much of anything but the waiting.

Waiting, a novel by Ha Jin, captures the poignant dilemma of a Chinese man, Lin, whose life is dominated by duty.  He is caught in a loveless marriage arranged by his traditional parents Lin lives far away in an army hospital compound, visiting only once a year. He becomes attracted to a nurse in the hospital where he works, but Communist party rules prevent him from divorcing his wife without her permission until they have been separated for 18 years.  Year after year, Lin returns to his village to ask his wife for his freedom, and year after year, he returns, still married, unable to consummate his love affair.  The irony comes at the end, when Lin concludes that he “waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting.”

The narrator in the short story, “Waiting,” by E.C. Osondu, also spends his days in wait.  War has destroyed his village, and he is one of many in a refugee camp faced with the threat of starvation.  They spend also their days waiting.

Here in the camp, we wait and wait and then wait some more. It is the only thing we do. We wait for the food trucks to come and then we form a straight line and then we wait a few minutes for the line to scatter, then we wait for the fight to begin, and then we fight and struggle and bite and kick and curse and tear and grab and run. And then we begin to watch the road and wait to see if the water trucks are coming, we watch for the dust trail, and then we go and fetch our containers and start waiting and then the trucks come and the first few containers are filled and the fight and struggle and tearing and scratching begin because someone has whispered to someone that the water tanker only has little water in it.  That is, if we are lucky and the water tanker comes; oftentimes, we just bring out our containers and start waiting and praying for rain to fall.

We are all forced to wait at many times in our lives. Those toe-tapping, check-our-wrist watches moments are minor irritations that we all endure.  But there is another kind of waiting that no one finds easy, waiting that is punctuated with worry and sleepless nights.  Waiting that could be a matter of life and death.  Anyone living with cancer knows this kind of waiting intimately.  In  the course of treatments and recovery, waiting can be torment, as writer Susan Gubar describes in her article, “Living With Cancer: Hurry Up and Wait.”

As a cancer patient, you endure “waiting for a doctor, waiting for radiation, waiting for the delivery of chemotherapy drugs, waiting through interminable infusions or transfusions, waiting for a scan or a biopsy, waiting for the results of a scan or a biopsy, waiting (sometimes starved and unclothed on a gurney in a hall) for surgery… Hurrying up to wait is, of course, the fate of most patients, whether or not they have cancer and no matter how impatient they may be. But for cancer patients, waiting entails being enveloped in heightened fears about harmful protocols and the difficulty of eradicating or containing the disease. While I’m waiting, who knows what appalling cells are conspiring within my body to destroy my being? (In:  “Well,”  New York Times, December 3, 2015)

A 2011 research study reported in The Annals of Surgery found “wait times for cancer treatment have increased over the last decade… potentially resulting in additional treatment delay…Although cancer incidence rates have seen modest declines during the last decade, the overall number of patients diagnosed with a solid organ malignancy has been increasing, likely due to an increasing elderly population.”  An extended interval from diagnosis to treatment, the researchers concluded, “adds to patient anxiety, leads to gaps in care, and perhaps affects disease progression.”

If you or a loved one has been faced with the anxious period between any test for cancer and its results, your experience may be echoed in Muriel Fish’s poem, “In Cold Dreams Before Dawn,” as she captures the fear of waiting:

…The radiologist

Enters, snaps the x-ray film into a wall unit lit with

brisk efficiency…

…the bite of the biopsy needle reminds me

most lumps are benign…

…I wait, remembering long

Bittersweet days sitting with my mother and sister,

each with their own small malignancy and dead within three years.

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

Robert Carroll, MD, is a UCLA psychiatrist who utilizes poetry to help patients cope with their illnesses and struggles.  In a 2005 article, “Finding the Words to Say It:  The Healing Power of Poetry,” he explored how poetry can help us find the words to express trauma, illness, death and dying.  Remembering my father’s death from lung cancer several years ago, I was drawn to one of his featured poems:  “What Waiting Is.”

We sit on the bench in the hospital corridor
next to the cafeteria, and we wait.
You know what waiting is.
If you know anything, you know what waiting is.
It’s not about you.
This is about
illness and hospitals and life and death…

In matters of death and dying, as Carroll describes,  we may be forced to do little but wait, but finding ways to express our pain and emotion–by writing or finding meaning in others’ poetry and prose–has therapeutic benefits.  In this poem,  Carroll captured another kind of waiting cancer imposes on us, the experience of waiting while a loved one ends his cancer journey.  As I read it, I recalled the experience of waiting while my beloved father was dying of lung cancer several years ago:

In the bathroom you look in the mirror.
What do you see?
Your father’s sad face?
Your mother’s eyes?
You catch the water cupped
in your thickened hands, splash it on your face,
and hope against hope you can wash it away—
the aging brown spots, the bags,
the swelling truth of waiting—…

you get home to see the light
flash on your answering machine…

you push the button,
and it’s your sister’s voice,
but it’s choked,
and she can’t speak…

 Waiting never seems to get easier, and there are times, particularly in the midst of illness, trauma and suffering, that the waiting we do seems never ending.  Yet, we learn, as we sometimes are forced to do, to wait.  And we hope, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The faith and the love and the hope are … in the waiting.  These words make me reconsider why life makes us wait.  I am still learning, even after all these years, to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will.  “This is life.  You learn to wait.”

Writing Suggestion:

The waiting I’ve been doing lately will, once it’s over, make me wonder why I expended on the energy on it I have.  But I, like you, have sat, worried and anxious, in waiting rooms while a child undergoes surgery, or waited, dreading the call I knew would come, when my father died, and waited, caught between hope and fear, for the results echocardiograms or a biopsy.   Think about all the times you’ve waited for something or someone.  Write about an experience you’ve had of waiting.

Today I write about a subject that I don’t often speak of, nor even give into its darkness very often.  Today I am lonely.  I wonder how many of you who also have Stage IV cancer are lonely.  I can’t be alone.

Lisa Masters, “The Loneliness of Cancer,” Huffington Post, March 6, 2014.

In “The Anatomy of Loneliness,” an essay written by novelist Thomas Wolfe in 1941, he wrote: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”   Yet, there are periods in a person’s life that loneliness, while “inevitable,” is intensified by circumstance, for example, poverty, old age, loss of a partner or spouse, or having a serious or life-threatening illness that loneliness intensifies and worsens.  The experience of cancer, especially when we hear descriptors like “aggressive,” “terminal” or “progressive,” can thrust us into that state, once described by Susan Sontag as the “kingdom of the sick,” where we feel isolated and estranged, not only from those close to us, but from ourselves.

According to Ruth Livingston, PhD, founder and direction of Living with Medical Conditions, writing in a 2011 article “Curing the Loneliness of Illness,

Being lonely can itself be dangerous to one’s health. Loneliness can double a person’s chances of catching a cold and, worse, lonely people are four times more likely to have a heart attack and, once they do, four times more likely to die from it…Further,… loneliness has an effect on the immune system: it increases genetic activity related to inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease and cancer; and it reduces antibody production and antiviral responses, protective against health risks. Such patterns of gene expression are not, according to researchers, linked to other negative feelings such as depression.  Loneliness, then —all alone — is a hazard. 

In 2014, UK-based MacMillan Cancer Support estimated loneliness put cancer patients’ recovery at risk, finding that cancer patients who are lonely are three times more likely to struggle with treatment plans than those who aren’t.  For example, lonely patients skip treatment appointments, do not take medications as prescribed, refuse certain types of treatment or skip treatment altogether.  Ciaran Devane, MacMillan CEO, commenting on the research, said, “We already know loneliness may be as harmful as smoking, but this research shows…it is particularly toxic to cancer patients.”

Illness is solitary, because suffering is something you always do alone.  It impacts phenomenally on your world view and on your experiences and on how you see the external world.

Author Peter Hobbs, commenting in a 2008 Granta Magazine interview

In his book, The Lonely Patient:  How We Experience Illness (2008), Michael Stein, MD, wrote, “health is comfortable, predictable, unnoticed.  …illness seems to come out of nowhere.  It’s become the unknown, and we’re all frightened by the unknown.”  He noticed that the effect on many of his patients was a kind of withdrawal, becoming physically unavailable for a time, and asking the question, “Why me?”  Loneliness, he concluded, “is a word that captures the inward spiritual condition…by its very nature, it excludes others.  The patient begins to feel out-of-place, lonely, and loneliness if made worse by the severity of the illness.

Loneliness is not an accident or a choice.

It’s an uninvited and uncreated companion.

It slips in beside you when you are not aware…

It takes your hand and walks with you.  It lies down

with you.  It sits beside you.  It’s as dark as a shadow

but it has substance that is familiar…

(“Loneliness,” by Fanny Howe, in Second Childhood, 2014)

Loneliness is a theme expressed regularly in the cancer writing groups I lead.  There are common triggers to loneliness often shared among the members and echoed by the National Cancer Institute:

  • Friends may have a hard time dealing with your diagnosis and not call or visit as they once did.
  • You feel sick post-treatments and aren’t able to participate in the activities or social events you once did.
  • It’s common to feel as if those around you—friends and loved ones—don’t understand what you are going through.
  • Even when treatment is over, you can suffer from loneliness, missing the support and understanding you received from your medical team and feeling vulnerable as your “safety net” of regular appointments is taken away from you.

Remember, although loneliness is common, that “inevitable fact” of being human, it’s not good for your health.  We all need emotional support during cancer treatment and recovery, but each of us has different ways of finding the emotional support we need.  When you’re feeling lonely and blue, it may seem like it takes too much effort, yet it’s important to find something that can help you diminish your loneliness, whether an expressive writing, support or art therapy group or an activity, like yoga.   Perhaps it’s a long chat with a close friend, a loved one or even your pastor, rabbi or a counselor.  Even simple activities like taking a walk or sitting in the sunlight in the garden can help combat your loneliness.  Take it a step at a time, but do take steps to re-engage with the things that normally, make you feel better.

Writing is an antidote for loneliness. –Steven Berkoff

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about what it is to experience loneliness, whether a poem or a narrative. What images or metaphors best capture what it is to be lonely?
  • Did you experience loneliness after treatment had ended? Describe what it was like.
  • What has helped you diminish the feelings of loneliness during cancer or another serious illness? What advice do you have for the newly diagnosed cancer patient or the cancer survivor completing treatment?

 

My husband and I will be celebrating another year of marriage this Sunday, a day after our anniversary date, since I’ll be returning home from Toronto. I managed, however, to surprise him by sending a bouquet of flowers through FTD with a note of affection and gratitude for all the years of our many adventures together. This time, he admitted he had forgotten to calendar the date, busy with readying our home for the stream of potential buyers who viewed it all week long. He is forgiven, because four years ago, I actually forgot our anniversary myself and had to scurry to make up for forgetting.

There have been many other anniversaries in our lives—losses of our parents, births of our grandchildren, birthdays of family and friends, and other dates that, when they arrive, trigger the remembrance of other important events in our lives—like the day I was rushed to the hospital after collapsing on the pavement with what was later diagnosed with heart failure, or that afternoon in May, seventeen years ago, when I first heard the word “cancerous” apply to my life and become part of my regular vocabulary. It was an important event, and it altered my life in ways I did not expect, opening the door to other discoveries and ways of being. I often think about how my life was changed—in good ways—in the years that followed. I’m grateful I had the chance to create a new chapter of life, grateful I had the love and support of my husband.

Anniversary dates have a particular poignancy attached to them, whether birth dates, weddings or the other events that alter our lives—cancer, a loved one’s death, a nation’s tragedy. Anniversaries serve as a reminder of who we were then, what we have endured or achieved, and how those events shaped or changed us.

In the first anniversaries of loss, trauma or tragedy, strong emotions are often re-ignited: grief, old fears, relief, or happiness. I’m a believer in rituals or celebrations to mark important anniversaries or milestones. My husband and I have one ritual, for example, we share each Thanksgiving Day, to honor my father, who died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992. In the days before his death, requested we celebrate invite all his existing family members and friends to a wake and toast his life with a glass of Jack Daniels whiskey, his perennial favorite. Now, each Thanksgiving, we remember him with that same ritual, toasting my father and sharing a favorite memory of him. It’s something that solidifies and preserves his memory each November, and inevitably, honors his life with story and laughter—just what he wanted.

Celebrations and rituals are important and meaningful in  healing, offering a way to acknowledge our experience and place it into the context of our larger lives. We remember. We’re reminded of who we were and how far we’ve come. We are reminded how much we have to be grateful for.

I no longer remember the day I heard the words, “it’s cancerous…” Mine was such an early stage diagnosis that it didn’t carry the same impact of those I now know whose lives have been profoundly altered by an aggressive cancer diagnosis. Yet, time softens the difficult memories, and some milestones even recede in importance as life goes on. The pain of loss diminishes. We discover new friends, new joys, even hope, and gradually, we move on to create new life chapters, no matter how long we live.

I often think of the words of novelist Alice Hoffman, who described her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article: “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter,” she said. That’s true of so many of the painful, sad or difficult chapters of our lives. As we heal, we have less need to mark the dates of suffering, instead, we live forward, fully immersed in life. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we celebrate rather than mourn. We honor. We give thanks.

There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives. Here are some suggestions from Cancer Net, but they are applicable to many of the milestones and anniversary dates of life. 

Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life.  Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.

Plan a special event.  One of the women in my writing groups celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing her treatment for a recurrence.   Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or plan a gathering with family and friends.

Donate or volunteer. When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” I was the interim director for Breast Cancer Connections, a Palo Alto, CA nonprofit.  I was impressed by the number of cancer survivors who, daily, gave their time to volunteer at BCC.  Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience.

Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual cancer survivor walks hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations. Communities and cancer centers around the country also celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day, which is the first Sunday in June.
Do something you truly enjoy. Celebrating can just be taking time to do something you enjoy, husband taking a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, going to a film or the theater with a friend, placing flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, as I will tomorrow, sharing a special dinner together with my spouse, grateful for this gentle man who so willingly embraced not only me, but my then adolescent daughters, weathering their storms in the wake of a father’s death to create a loving and enduring bond between them.
Writing Suggestions:

.  Of the anniversary dates are important to you, which do you remember most vividly?
.  What images or feelings do those dates evoke?
.  Write the story of that date. What happened?
.  Why was it important to you?
.  How did your life change because of it?

Dear Readers,

I am traveling this week and spending time with my eldest daughter and her daughter, my third grandchild.  I take pride in watching my daughter as a mother, and I hope that I have passed along lessons of love and wisdom as well as the recognition that mothering is both joyous and, at times, frustrating, challenging, sometimes full of self doubt, and surely the most important role one can have.  Our mothers are fundamental to the development and character of the children who grow to shape and lead the next generation.

As a mother and now a grandmother, I remember my mother and grandmothers, understanding now what I may not have fully understood about their struggles, achievements hard won, or even the lessons they strove to instill in a headstrong and yet tender-hearted young girl.  In honor of mothers everywhere, living or deceased,  l invite you to pause and remember, with gratitude, all that You’ve learned from your mothers.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(post previously published May, 2016)

WHAT WE LEARN FROM OUR MOTHERS

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point…

(From: “What I Learned from My Mother, by Julia Kasdorf, in:  Sleeping Preacher,  1992)

There’s much that I learned from my mother, just as you may have, much of it more useful as I grew into adulthood, but not the lessons she might have intended for me.  I learned less about the domestic tasks Kasdorf describes and more about my mother’s struggle with the prescribed roles of wife, mother and homemaker.

My mother had two faces and a frying pot   

where she cooked up her daughters 

into girls 

before she fixed our dinner…

(From:From the House of Yemanjá” by Audre Lorde, in:  The Selected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997)

My mother was not like the mothers  my friends had.  She was different, even difficult.  She wasn’t the most versatile of cooks, nor did she  inherit her mother’s talent in the kitchen.  In truth, she took little pleasure in producing the daily meals for her family.  She preferred physical labor, daily scrubbing and housecleaning, yard work and gardening, and in turn, she believed those tasks were necessary to build good, solid character in her children.

We were assigned daily tasks and chores which had to be completed before school or play.  Every Saturday, we protested and complained as we were forced to scrub walls and floors while our friends waited impatiently for us outside.  Of my parents, Mother was the strict disciplinarian, and she prided herself on the role.  She was quick to remind us that any successes we had in school or life were due to the discipline she imposed.  My father, naturally playful and soft-hearted, had my heart; my mother had my obedience, but also my embarrassment and rebellion.

Many years later, as the mother of two strong-willed daughters, I began to understand some of my mother’s struggles more than I had in my earlier years.  I weathered the storms of adolescence as a single mother, experiencing their affection one day and rebelliousness the next, all while I attempted to parent, earn a living and build a career.  I developed greater empathy for much of my mother’s struggles—and much greater appreciation of what it meant to be a mother.

I see her doing something simple, paying bills,

or leafing through a magazine or book,

and wish that I could say, and she could hear,

 

that now I start to understand her love

for all of us, the fullness of it.

 

It burns there in the past, beyond my reach,

a modest lamp.

(“Mother’s Day,” by David Young, in:  Field of Light and Shadow, 2011)

A dozen years ago, my mother died peacefully in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.  Her descent into senility escalated as my father passed away from lung cancer.  The woman who was always in control of everything –or so we thought—wasn’t in control at all.  My father had quietly been covering the signs of her illness as best he could.  The irony was, of course, that as the disease progressed, my mother became docile, sweet and affectionate in ways we’d rarely experienced her.  Yet out of the darkness, a moment of clarity, the mother we remembered would reappear, if only for a few seconds.  She loved her children as ferociously as she attacked life, yet she remained critical of us even as her mind deteriorated.  She was proud of what we each had accomplished, and yet she had always expected more of us.  She left a legacy of conflicted feelings among her children, wounds that were never healed, and old jealousies bred in the competition she fostered between us.  But I realize now that my mother did the best she could do.  It wasn’t ideal or even good mothering at times, but she wanted the best for us always.

I choose, on this Mother’s Day to remember that she did the best she could and that although her kind of love was difficult sometimes, it was love just the same.  I recall one of the last times I visited her, a month or so before she died.  She had, by then, lost the ability to walk, and she wasn’t aware of much, including me.  I resorted to pushing her in her wheelchair, going round and round the garden of the Alzheimer’s home.  As I grew weary, I positioned her chair by a brilliant red Bougainvillea  and took her hand.  At a loss, I began singing, “Let me call you sweetheart…,” something she had often sung to us as children.  As I sang, she slowly raised her head and looked at me for several seconds before speaking.

“Why, it’s Sha-ron!”  She spoke my name slowly, elongating the syllables.

“Yes Mom, it’s me.  Your eldest daughter,” I said, tears filling my eyes.  I squeezed her hand.

“I’m…happy,” she said slowly, smiling a little, as she closed her eyes.  Then her head fell to her chest.  Once again, she had disappeared into her darkness.  A few weeks later, my mother passed away.

It’s taken me time to sift through all that my mother was and meant to me.  The relationships we have with our mothers can be complicated as well as close.  Mine was both.  Yet she was my mother, and I am her daughter.  There are mornings I look in the mirror and see something of her in my face or expression, just as each of her three children likely do.   If I could, I would tell her now all that’s in my heart, maybe write her that long overdue letter I always meant to write, but like Wallace Stegner, writing to his mother long after her death, it’s too little, “much too late.”

 “All you can do is try,” you used to tell me when I was scared of undertaking something.  You got me to undertake many things I would have not dared undertake without your encouragement.  You also taught me how to take defeat when it came, and it was bound to now and then.  You taught me that if it hadn’t killed me it was probably good for me…

(From: “Letter, Much Too Late, in: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs:  Living and Writing in the West, 1992)

To all mothers everywhere, Happy Mother’s Day.

Writing Suggestions:

We learn from our mothers lessons of love and life, some of them not appreciated until we’re much older.  What lessons did your mother teach you?  How have those lessons or experiences influenced your life?  If you have since become a mother, do you find yourself acting in ways as you remember your mother did?  Write about the relationship you had with your mother.  Was it close?  Conflicted?  Distant?  Explore the things that made it so.  What do you want to say to your mother this Mother’s Day?