Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Up and Down: Year of Magical Thinking

by Michael

I know this is Auntie Cake's Blog, but from time to time I'm grateful to be allowed to chime in.

This past weekend, I made a comment to Kate about "insights" I've been "given" recently, thoughts prompted by watching her get sick, get well, get sick, get well, get sick, get well ... on a three week cycle.

Yes, it's awful to watch. Yes, it's psychologically draining to get to the end of one cycle only to know that it's going to repeat. Kate gets to the point of feeling well, and yet you know within days she's going to get another "treatment" and be smacked down by a wall full of chemicals.

And, yes, too, we are grateful to those chemicals for turning the "lump" to "oatmeal."

This is the great contradiction of cancer care. You need to get sick to get well.

All of us in the household go up and down on these swells as well. We work hard to maintain our normal routines, but at the moment there is no such thing as normal. This is our year of magical thinking (as per Joan Didion, merci).

All of us in the household are sick. One of us has cancer. Three of us have stress.

In general, the kids have done remarkably well. But they are tired. They let us know this in various ways. I don't want to say anything about either of them that is personal or detailed.

I wanted to write about my "insights."

First, we realized early on that we needed to cut back. Focus on the essentials. The guinnea pigs had to go. Our life became more tightly regulated by the routines of getting the kids to school and back.

"What did we worry about before you had cancer?" I asked Kate. The anxieties we used to have seemed to disappear.

The pleasures of "ordinary life" amplified.

Yes, we tried to keep the kids doing homework, completing projects, going to drama class.

While the kids' lives marched along, ours seemed to be in "pause." "After we get through this ... " many of our phrases began.

I kept going to work. The routine was stabilizing. We heard about the cancer in September and for the first two months I was in a state of shock. By November I found I wanted to go back to "feeling normal." This was not an easy thing for Kate to hear, but it was important to me. I needed to find my feet, and I did.

Strangely, while work has been stabilizing for me, helping me get away from "the cancer;" it is also true that the cancer has brought stability to my workplace personality. I can no longer get worked up about administrative troubles. The ebb and flow of workplace miscommunication and interpersonal anxieties, etc., etc., leaves nary a mark on me. I simply do not care. (Focus on the essential. Ignore the rest.)

At the beginning of chemo, I was terrified. It has not been as bad as I feared. This also hasn't been an easy thing for Kate to hear, but it isn't a diminishment of what she's gone through. It's a measure of my terror. There have actually been "ups" amongst the downs. I was afraid of down, down, down, down.

I was afraid of the kids falling apart, and they haven't. They have struggled, and struggle still, but they have shown me that they have great depths of resiliancy. This is an important lesson I must remember.

Kate's "ups" have shown her resiliancy, too. (And her writing on this blog has shown her remarkable depth.)

"Reality is not a problem," my friend Phil told me recently. I agree. We have tried to "keep it real." We don't try to pretend that this isn't happening. It is happening. It is unavoidable. Living in the real is the best life of all. ("All we really have is today," said Owen's psychologist.)

Even within the ups and downs of chemotherapy there is lots of laughter. Even (sometimes especially) within the ups and downs of chemotherapy are "coaching moments."

"What a lot these kids have had to deal with," for example, we say. "What strength they are drawing from adversity."

Yes, I have worried more about the kids than about Kate. I have worried lots about Kate, too.

And Kate has worried about me.

Yes, I need looking after. I am not immune, not a "Superman." Finding my feet, finding the "real," finding the "essentials," focusing on process and moving forward one moment at a time; all these help.

But sometimes all that helps is a long sleep.

My comment to Kate on the weekend was along the lines of, "We have tried to focus on the essentials, but when you are down in the depths of chemo hell, even the essentials are too much." That's what I witness, watching her. Even the basics of ordinary life are too much.

There are dark, dark moments in life; they are mean; they are awful; they can be gifts of reflection, knowledge, wisdom and experience also.

This is in the Kingdom of the Unwell. Per Susan Sontag. Per Kathryn Marie O'Rourke.

Isn't she great?

p.s. Only two more chemos to go! (One of them this coming Friday.)


Kate said, "Can you amend this bit? All of us in the household are sick. One of us has cancer. Three of us have stress." She wanted me to write: "Four of us have stress."

"You don't have stress," I said. "You have cancer-related fatigue!"

1 comment:

Jason said...

It never ceases to amaze me how much mundane, unmeaningful crap we see each day in our lives, and there's nothing like a family crisis to jolt us out of it. I'm glad to hear that you're all able to take something positive from something so terrible. It may not be much, but I guess it's something.