The sun shines and warms and lights us and we have no curiosity to know why this is so; but we ask the reason of all evil, of pain, and hunger, and mosquitoes and silly people.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve been reflecting lately on changes and illusions and all that happens as we age (even if we don’t grow up), all that happens as we grow and change and how much of life is how we see it. In the pic above, do you see two old folks, do you see the vase, do you see the woman coming through the doorway, do you see the young people? It all changes as your viewpoint changes. So much of life is like that. So much of health and relationships are like that. So much that happens internally is like that. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately, especially physical changes and how that impacts relationship changes and all of life, or at least our viewpoint about it. I think Ralphie is right– I ask the reasons for all kinds of things, especially silly people 😉 But then even that changes.
Bodies change for sure. It’s funny—they probably change more when we are kids, but we don’t notice it. The adults around us notice it, as in, “I can’t believe how big you are getting!” (fyi, it’s not appropriate to say that to a 40 year old woman no matter what) but I think I am more acutely aware of the changes in my body now, at 40, than ever before…print seems a little smaller, hair a little more silvery at the top, those pounds I gained when I quit smoking still linger, friends throw out words like peri-menopause and talk about hormones and sick parents and getting older in whole new ways.
My longest, best-est friend and karma sister recently had a lump in her breast. The same breast that had a pre-cancerous lump in it a few years ago. A lump I went to the doctor with her to get checked because it was scary and didn’t feel quite right. A lump that we both assumed would be OK, but a lump nonetheless, considering how many people we both know who have had not-happy lumps. Her lump turned out to be a cyst, but it got me thinking about all kinds of things, got me feeling all kinds of things, got me pondering all kinds of things.
It’s a certain kind of stress when someone you love is sick or hurting, or might possibly be sick or hurting. I think it’s harder to deal with a sick loved one than to be sick yourself, thus the literal definition of compassion means, “to suffer with.” There was a study done a few years ago about caregivers of hospice patients. Researchers asked hospice patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest possible pain. On average, the patients put their pain at about a 4 on a 10 point scale. The caregivers of these hospice patients were then asked at what level they would rate the patient’s pain. Caregivers nearly always rated the patient’s pain at an 8 on a 10 point scale–the caregivers essentially doubled the patient’s pain. I believe this is because they were experiencing what is known as caregiver burnout or compassion fatigue– their own pain plus the patient’s pain. The weight of care-giving, of feeling the pain of a loved one, can be a heavy burden indeed. But at the same time, it’s a joy to really care for someone you care for, to be that present to someone you love. It’s an interesting mixed bag. It can be exhausting to be on either side of the coin, but I honestly think being the caregiver is harder in some ways. But then that changes too, as time passes and bodies change.
This sister and I have been through fire together and have been on both sides of that coin. It’s one that I suspect over time will be flipped again and each time we show up for each other, feel the feelings, face the fears, dive into the deep end holding hands and still find some giggles along the way. I was thinking about all of this stuff in the last week…sick friends, sick family, sometimes my own sick mind 😉 But how we can all do it together and that always makes it better. Not always easier, but better. I just spent an intense weekend with my mother, doing some life review and going through boxes of old stuff in closets, which I will probably write about another time. But it was deep and intense and sad and interesting and sort of surreal in a way. Boxes of stuff in closets, pictures, all of it marking the passage of time and changes along the way. I guess someday someone will do that with some of my stuff. I hope it’s a little easier for them than it is for me at times, but we all have our own viewpoint, our own places that feel tender or hard, so who knows?
My friend and karma sister have been through a lot of this together and I know as things change in life, we will just keep walking the path. We’ve done a lot of this stuff together already and we are both still young. Both sides of the coin are interesting. When my mom was in some of her last stages of treatment options for breast cancer, I ended up with a “mass” on my ovary. A ginormous, bigger-than-a-baseball size mass on my ovary. My left one. A mass my primary doc seemed rather in a hurry to put through additional testing. One that made my back hurt and upset my stomach and seemed rather concerning to her. Whoa.
My clinical, I-worked-in-hospice-for-years-and-know-the-signs-and-symptoms-of-ovarian-cancer brain kicked in, and while I understood at a very cognitive level that the signs for a cyst that size and the signs for a tumor that size are …well, pretty damn much the same at that stage of the game, I was still vaguely aware of a anxiety that was far greater than about my own happy female parts.
My mom was still doing chemo and other treatments for a malignancy that is best described as an already untamed breast cancer gone totally wild, with metastases doing the rumba all through her body…the organs and bones, the skull and the chest…it was everywhere by that point. My aunt had just finished her own surgery and treatment for breast cancer, and one of my other very good sister-friends was starting radiation for—you guessed it–breast cancer. Some of the most beloved people in my life have died from cancer and I suddenly felt surrounded by it, engulfed by it. Part of the problem when this stuff happens is that I know too much after working in hospice all those years. It’s great to know what to expect, but at the same time sometimes it’s a real bummer to know what to expect. I am not afraid of dying and long ago made decisions about what my treatment choices would be if faced with this sort of situation. I think my friends were more worried than I was, and I tried to not provoke any additional concern (or sisterly wrath, for that matter) by refusing to investigate further.
I was so not in the mood to be doing my own journey down oncology lane, but there I was… getting tests, giving blood and letting people poke and prod me. Nice people, but pokers and prodders nonetheless. I am generally not a welcoming recipient of poking and prodding and this was no exception. But off I went, swept away in a regimen of testing and waiting. I didn’t tell anyone in my family and shared it with only a few close friends. I wasn’t trying to be secretive, I just couldn’t talk about it yet. I simply did not have a vocabulary for how it felt internally….almost non-attached in a surreal way, but with this profound sense of keen interest, curiosity into this unknown journey, one I have observed from the outside hundreds of times as a health-care provider, a daughter, a sister, a friend. But not one I had ever experienced internally.
It was extraordinary in a way, like crystallized moments caught in time, this very conscious feeling of “don’t lose this, something significant is happening here.” There was depth to it, like the way it feels to be underwater in the silence, knowing there is sound and movement just above you, knowing you can break through the surface at any time. It reminded me of the way the first apples taste in the fall, crisp and juicy, tart and sweet, aware summer has passed but the cold is not upon us, trying to let go and hold on at the same time. Time itself took on this very weird quality, and I kept thinking of this mantra from Buddhism,
“whatever arises today is fresh, the essence of realization, the source of my awakening.”
I tried to practice really being with it, giving into a direct experience so visceral that I didn’t know how to talk about it, could only sit with and touch lightly. It was one of those times of feeling all the opposites and knowing it’s all One, this experience of being full and empty, having an experience that was so very personal and yet so very universal.
Two weeks seems longer than normal while waiting for results and then more weird tests. My primary physician, a very kind and knowledgeable woman whom I see only under duress, sent to me another doctor. A male doctor. A not-quite-60 looking male doctor who is an ob-gyn, an oncologist, a lawyer, and a surgeon. I wanted to ask him if he went to medical school straight out of kindergarten, but I managed to control myself. A kindly but all-about-business sort of guy, he had more letters behind his name than in his name and a large office staff. He worked at the end of a very long hallway in a very bright yet somehow drab medical building, the kind that is used to stressed out people wandering through its maze of corridors and signs, aching for news, clutching reports and desperately in need of a cup of decent coffee. The whole thing was decidedly unnerving. My good friend and karma sister went with me that time, declaring when one is off to see a physician with that many scary initials on his business card, you should not go alone. So off we went, down the brightly lit, artificial feeling hallway, not really alone but feeling like it anyway.
But I was so glad to have her come. Because while I was quite certain this was only a cyst, nothing to worry about and nothing I would treat conventionally if it turned out to be worrisome, the whole thing was unsettling and a honestly a bit intimidating. Big words in the halls and on the office door like “Women’s Oncology Center,” and “Cancer Research Center” are scary words. They just are. And I found it bringing up grief for all the other women who go through these things, and how, as Lily Tomlin said, we are all in this together, by ourselves. Honestly the thought of having cancer didn’t scare me as much as what they might want to do about it, and while he was very nice, all the testing is just unpleasant. More pelvic exams and ultrasounds (for the uninitiated, suffice it to say these should at least come with beer, cigarettes and some small talk. At one point during the ultrasound I wanted to ask him if he was looking for my ovaries or my tonsils. Again I restrained myself). Then more scary words, more medical histories, etc, etc, etc.
And even though all was well, there was still so much grief in me…as a woman, a daughter, a friend, a niece, a soul sister…so much grief for all the women and families who do this every day, alone even when surrounded by friends or family, not wanting to worry anyone else yet needing the support and feeling anxious internally…for all the women who have always had such a capacity for life, for the place in us that is so resilient and has the ability to bounce back, and yet we are also so fragile. We are all so fragile and all so strong and so resilient, and I am in awe of those among us who are aware of how much we always walk a thin line between life and death, always doing both at the same time, always making choices in one direction or another, somehow trusting the process of life to just take us to the next right thing, the next right place, the next step in the journey. Bless those walking it, and those who walk with them, those who light the path and blaze the trails.
And bless us all, and all the changes we all go through every day…