Cancer steals so much. All the time. Every day. This I know for sure.
A couple of days ago I smacked my head upon this truth and watched helplessly as my dear friend experienced this for himself. His dad died from cancer a decade ago. Ten years, yet the grief was as raw as can be, the loss as crushing as it was a decade ago.
His dad was a handy guy who could fix anything. He made a good living — and supported four kids — with his hands. My friend learned from his dad and is handy too. Although his livelihood isn’t manual, he can fix anything, like his dad. He just doesn’t always believe it until it’s done.
My friend was fixing the spring on our gate (one of the many things he’s helped with around our house). The spring on the outside of the gate had lost some of its tension, and the screws holding it in place had wriggled loose after seven years of use. How many hundreds of times has that gate banged shut as my busy little family comes and goes? When we were building our pool, the gate and the fence came down, to be replaced by temporary, orange plastic fencing (seen behind the slabs of flagstone) that couldn’t contain my dogs. My then 7-year-old chased the escaped dogs across a very busy street, unaccompanied, but that’s a story for another day.
In the process of repairing the spring on the gate, my friend broke his screwdriver. The one that he inherited from his dad. No big deal, it’s part of a set and he has several others the same size. But he was upset–really upset–because along with the screwdriver, he felt like he lost a piece of his dad.
His rational brain knows that the screwdriver isn’t indicative of his dad’s presence or absence. His intellect knows that having the screwdriver doesn’t mean that he still has his dad, or that by not having the screwdriver he no longer has a hold on his dad’s memory. But his irrational side mourned the screwdriver. His emotional brain felt that he’d lost another part of his dad. As the wise poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”
I’m very familiar with the destroying of intellect in times of grief, and I know just how my friend feels. After my mom died, I hung on to all kinds of her stuff: cookbooks, costume jewelry, unfinished embroidery projects, even her ratty old college sweatshirt. My dad has the more personal items — her glasses, her wedding ring, her driver’s license. I desperately wanted a piece of her, any piece, to remain, so I clung to her things in hopes of finding pieces of her.
Guess what? It doesn’t work. The desperation, the clinging, the hoping against hope are all for naught. Once the person you loved with your whole heart is gone, snatched away too soon by illness, there is no holding on to them. I’ve learned this slowly and painfully in the almost seven years that my mom has been dead. Her stuff is just that — stuff. It’s not her. She’s gone and that’s the brutal finality of experiencing the death of a loved one.
I’ve written before about how grief sneaks up on us, and can buckle our knees out of nowhere, even after years have passed. I know that this is what happened to my friend the other day: he was going about his business, engaged in a simple task that took little effort and yet would yield great satisfaction when done. The sun was shining, the workday was done, and a cold beer accompanied him as he unscrewed the rusty, spent screws from my gate. But once the screwdriver broke, so did the dam that most days holds back the torrent of sadness that is life without his dad. How many times has he said he wished his dad were here to help him with a DIY project, or to admire his handiwork upon a project’s completion? Too many times to count. And in the midst of an ordinary task being done on an ordinary day, the torrent rushed through.
“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.” ~Colette
“With the past I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I live now.
I’m digging that quote. Today, as most days, I woke up and stole a few minutes before hitting the ground running. I like to check my email first thing in the morning, and see what’s what before I start my day. I have several cancerbabes in blogland whose musings I follow. I don’t know any of these women personally, but we share a commonality that is cancer, and that tends to make friends from strangers faster than anything, including hard liquor.
One of my cancerbabe friends posted some really, really good news on her blog today, and it was the first thing I read this fine morning. Long story short she’s a 28-year-old dealing with Hodgkin Lymphoma who left her home on the East Coast to spend some time in my lovely H-town at MD Anderson to endure a grueling clinical trial.
Sounds pretty awful, right? As most cancers are, whether big or small, early- or late-stage. Cancer is just plain awful. But my cancerbabe blogger friend had good news to share about her just plain awful cancer: the clinical trial worked and she’s in partial remission.
Hooray & hallelujah!
Another strike against the many-faceted and much-dreaded disease that is cancer.
I read the rest of my emails with a smile on my face, and as I hauled myself out of bed, that smile stayed with me. I believe in celebrating every little bit of good news that comes our way, especially when dealing with the dreaded C. Nope, I’m not opening champagne at this early hour, before even getting my little darlings out of bed, preparing their breakfasts, making their lunches and seeing them off to school. Thought about it, but resisted. I’ve learned the hard way that bad things happen to good people, and to counteract that hard truth by celebrating all the good things that come along. Sometimes with champagne, but sometimes not.
It’s easy to get caught up in all the bad things about cancer. And believe you me, there are many, many bad things. Watching my sweet, vivacious, and much-beloved mama be eaten alive, literally, by uterine cancer was horrific. Knowing that I would have to live the rest of my life without hearing her big belly laugh, without her all-knowing guidance in raising my own kids was b-a-d bad. Seeing her ravaged body become ever more frail day by day left me wondering how much worse could it possibly get. Because as bad as it is, there’s always more. My BFF Ed tried to tell me that. He knew, from watching his dad die of pancreatic cancer. I didn’t want to believe him, and childishly clung to the idea that it was as bad as it could possibly be. But it wasn’t, and no matter how hard one “fights,” once cancer gains a stronghold, it’s devastating. No matter how much one wants to win the “battle,” there’s no guarantee.
If anyone on this Earth deserved to win her “battle” it was my sweet mama. Her own mama died when she was 13, leaving her to raise her younger sister, who my mama had to work hard to forgive for usurping her “I’m the baby” spot in the family line-up. They lived on a farm and life was hard. She was the only one of her 4 siblings to graduate from college, and she did it in 3 years. She was president of her sorority, which is how she scored this fetching necklace, and I’m sure she bossed her sorority sisters into next week. Determined to make her mark in the world, she became a teacher, and did it well. She married into a tight-knit Greek family who didn’t necessarily welcome “foreigners,” but she won them over. Every last one of them. Even the stubborn, crotchety old ones. She raised two kids in a most-loving and uber-secure environment. Everything she did, she did it well and with such love & warmth that people were drawn to her. She made this world a better place.
Yet, after a multi-year, multi-stage “battle,” cancer claimed her as its own. Not fair. Not by a long shot. But fairness has nothing to do with winning the “battle” against cancer. So much of it is luck and circumstance. So much of it is out of our control. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a Type A bossypants like me.
And that’s exactly why I live now.
Cancer steals so much from us. Big things: health (duh), time, innocence, body parts, hair, self-esteem, a good night’s sleep, healthy body image, money, freedom, time, faith, security. Small things: major wardrobe issues, range of motion in yoga class, being able to look in a mirror without wincing, missing important events, becoming fearful instead of being carefree.
The past is gone, and no matter how hard you may try, you ain’t gettin it back. You can’t change it. The future? Good luck with that one. My theory is you gotta work hard, bear down, be the person you most want to be, and hope for the best. Hope that you’ll avoid the evil lottery that decides who will be stricken with cancer. Keep on living a good life and doing all the right things (antioxidants, splurges in moderation, wholesome foods, regular check-ups and exercise, blah blah blah) but don’t for one second expect those things to earn you a free pass. Because cancer strikes no matter what.
So I live now.