Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A few more thoughts on cancer and then I'm done

I want to thank everyone who responded to my cancer post. So many emails and comments and hallway conversations. It seems everyone has a story to tell. Cancer has not left many lives untouched. I am reminded once again that behind every door in every neighborhood in every town lies a bed of tender wounds. So easy to forget.

One theme that kept arising out of these conversations was that the emotional fallout around the loss of a loved one is rarely tidy. Many people said that they still felt angry or guilty or what have you.

I had just started college when my mom was diagnosed. I was falling in love with this new world of art and literature and academia and wanted only to immerse myself in it. I felt resentful that I was being pulled away by the need to care for my mother. At the time I thought, naively, that her illness would last years and this weighed on me. Selfish? Perhaps, but it's where I was at. And then when she died so quickly I felt angry and abandoned and terribly, profoundly guilty.

I remember wheeling her into the hospital once, she was in and out all the time, and I was standing in a hallway while they were preparing a room for her and she was doubled over in pain. A nurse came over and tried to comfort her and I realized with a start that I should have been doing that, comforting her. I was just so numb to it all it hadn't even occurred to me. It turns out she never did leave the hospital. After she fell unconscious I was sitting by her bed and I remembered that incident in the hallway, how I had failed to comfort her, and I just started sobbing.  And I was so wracked with sobs that my mother actually started to rouse and become agitated and they took me from the room.  So there we were, each distraught because we could not comfort the other.

When I look back on this now I think that it was perfectly normal. Our relationships with our mothers and grandmothers and husbands are complex and it only makes sense that the breadth of emotions surrounding their death reflect that complexity. It would be so easy if we only ever felt gracious and selfless. But none of us are so one-dimensional, and thank god. How boring would we be?

So if you're still wound up about what you didn't do or say to someone you've lost, I hope you can cut yourself a little slack. Perfection is a tall order. The world doesn't need more saints, in my opinion. Perhaps just a little more compassion (including for ourselves).

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  1. Really well said. Now to live it.....

  2. My mother died of pancreatic cancer in May 1983, one month before she and my dad were to retire from 40 years on the mission field (primarily Taiwan). It was only a few months ago that I realized that my grief was focused on anger that my daughter (age 6) would never get to know my mother.

    I've now outlived my mother by a month. A strange road mark. As anniversaries occur, these thoughts arise.

  3. One of my best friends died of Leukemia 2 years ago. I still beat myself up for not being the best bedside mate...I was there to be sure, but i may not have been what she needed me to be. Death was a new landscape for me. Now I know better.

  4. Oh thank you so much for writing this. My mum's cancer was so sudden. She was looking after my grandson 1 day a week and said she couldn't use her right hand properly one day. By the time she got to the doc, had a scan and went to hospital, it had moved from it's original spot, the bowel, to lungs, liver and brain. I was realistic from the start, but I think, in hindsight, she was modelling herself on her brother and sister-in-law who each got really lenghty remission stretches. She went in to hospital in August and never came out again. She died in November. Really short now I think about it, but whilst I was living it, going up every day, washing her clothes, buying her stuff, organising her house, her stuff, it felt like forever.

    Mum was mostly cranky. The entire time. Which sucked because I hardly ever had a good day with her and eventually, I snapped. I am so not proud of myself for allowing this to happen. But I think her constant putting me down no matter what I did and never having a positive thing to say, really just wore me down.

    The next day after that blow up (which I did apologise for before I left) she was a beaten woman. I think she finally accepted the finality. She went downhill rapidly from there on in. We still go to talk and tell each other we loved each other, but I you can't get that time back. I can't get back those last 4 months where I should have just from minute dot, told her I loved her and cuddled her more. The old saying hindsight is 20/20 is so so true.

    There is no course we are given to prepare ourselves for what's about to happen in these situations, so hopefully YOU have cut yourself some slack. I'm sure you did the very best you could. xx

  5. lovely honest post. Thanks for sharing xx

  6. I needed this post today. How do you do that? I have been kicking myself for years about not trying to stop my friend from moving to Detroit where she ended up dying. Why didn't I do more? We knew it would be dangerous and instead of telling her the truth we all said "Go! Get out of here." But you are right, we did what friends do and encouraged her dreams.
    I am so sorry for the loss of your mother, but from that loss, look at what you are able to share with the world-the lessons you have learned about life. Thank you.

  7. oh, and I almost forgot. Regarding your first cancer post. Fuck Pat Robertson too. There is a special seat reserved for him somewhere he will be shocked to end up.

  8. Thank you. You are pretty amazing you know.

  9. thank you, this meant so much to me. you are also very brave!

  10. Thank you for sharing that, it pulled at my soul and unleashed a feeling I have been fighting with- guilt. I left Cyprus with my children for the UK and within months Mum was diagnosed with a brain tumour, two years later she was gone. Was it my fault? Did I do this to her? Realistically I know that can't be, but putting the course of events in order doesn't make me feel confident that I didn't play a role in her fate. Well said our relationships with our loved ones, especially our Mother's are so complicated on so many levels that grief has many stages and dimensions too. I have to remind myself that I did the best I could for my Mum, as I returned to Cyprus and cared for her in her last months. Our loved ones have forgiven us for whatever we think we have or have not done, I am sure of it ! xx

  11. Thank you everyone for sharing yout thoughts and stories. xoxo


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