Archives for category: grief and loss

When I was a little kid, I used to love to watch Bewitched. Samantha was so glamorous. I so wanted their home when I grew up, the whole layout and the warm feel of it all. I loved all the magical things that happened there-just ridiculousness of it all.

I especially adored the madcap entourage of relatives who popped in like Endora and Dr. Bombay, and Uncle Arthur and Aunt Clara. I loved how Mr. Tate (in what was in hindsight likely an alcohol-induced haze) just ignored what was going on and went with it as normal. Good times.

I always wanted to be just like Samantha when I grew up, with her cozy and fun life.

But I find recently that I am not Samantha at all. You know who I have become?

Mrs. Kravitz.

Gladys Kravitz.

Remember Mrs. Kravitz? That spying neighbor across the street who was a freaked out witness to all the hoopla going on at the Stephens house?

Remember how she would pull back the curtains and peer through her living room window and her eyes would bug out as she screamed AAAAHHHH!? She would call her husband Abner to come to look at what was going on at Samantha and Darren’s house, but by then it was over? Remember how she was the only one in the whole neighborhood calling shenanigans?

Poor Mrs. Kravitz, being gaslighted before gaslighting was even a thing. Even Abner gaslighted her and accused her of being a little kooky when she claimed she saw Endora make a newspaper float into the house.

Yep, I’m Gladys these days. I peer out my window and scream a lot these days. My living room window, my car window and through the glass screen of my TV and laptop, doesn’t matter, there is a lot to scream about here.

Last week, after days of distancing in my house, I looked out my window to watch a St. Patrick’s Day parade go by on the street. All the parents and kids on my street decided to have a party apparently. Bikes and wagons all greened out. But with ZERO distancing for the grownups, I mean, notta lotta space between them, walking side by side down the street with beers, chatting as the kids intermingled through them on bikes for hours.

Later that day, I pulled back my curtain to see teenagers in my neighborhood going arm in arm dancing around out there, as if it was a snow day. Teens hopping in and out of each other’s cars, going god knows where, I dunno, maybe a Florida Beach.

And just like that, this kid loving, cool, Samantha like mom became Gladys Kravitz. Me, (now the same age as Gladys if not older) who usually sits out and cheerfully watches the neighborhood Halloween parade go by, now screaming AAAAHHH! and calling my son to come look. (At least he didn’t gaslight me, he texted AAAHHH too.)

I went out in my car once all week. I HAD to go to the bank before a slew of checks bounced. I agonized about this trip out. So I elected the drive-through, carefully washing and sanitizing my hands and steering wheel out of respect for the teller.  As I sat there waiting for her to do the deposit, I peered through the glass banking window. And there was a freaking line of people inside the bank! No distancing. No nothing. And I about blew a Gladys sized gasket.  I came oh so close to yelling in over the speaker AAAAAHHHHH!

I glance into store windows on my walks, and see people gathered because apparently shopping for antiques and getting your hair dyed is essential during a pandemic?

I turn on my TV and watched these idiot drunk kids on the beach in Florida and their “boomer remover” stupidity. I found myself thinking, “Won’t be so funny when the people bankrolling your spring break and providing that basement you live in are gone because of your asshattery will it?” And the rage, and the sense of being gaslit, builds.

And just don’t get me started on people who know they could have been exposed, or who are sick and are STILL going out. I found out this week that a knowingly sick person went to a concert at our arena, and walked around the floor seating all night.

Even as I watched our president do it, shaking hands with everyone stepping up to the podium at a presser standing side by side, and I realized my rage was escalating to unhealthy levels.

Let me tell you, there ain’t no rage like Gladys being gaslighted rage.

This anger has become something unlike me. I don’t want to be Gladys. I want to be happy go lucky Samantha again, or even high-risk group Endora now that I have aged into that. But not Gladys.

But my eyes are bugged out daily, I am just like, am I missing something here?  Wasn’t the idea to stay home and flatten the curve?

I am a rule follower, always have been. Sure, I have always had little flashes of indignation at people who cheat the system, who don’t merge well in traffic, who hop in line in front of you at Disney, or who take more than one of something offered like from the cookie box at the grocery store.

But that said, I have always been one to believe that rule-breakers get theirs in the end. I’m more of a let it go kinda girl. I believe that while the karma train often does take time to arrive, it always comes, and the scales are evened in some way. Hopefully in a way that teaches a lesson to the person. I mean, I fully believe Lori Loughlin will do her time one day.

My dad taught me to be a giver and not a taker, and my mom taught me empathy- to think about how your actions impact others. These too are rules of life I follow, as is the habit of making my actions pass through the litmus test of “need versus want.”

That’s how I do me. And usually, I can just shrug off how you do you.

But I can’t right now. Because how you do you could kill me and others.

Nope, I refuse to be Mr. Tate, and take a shot and go on with this as normal.

And I am mad. I am mad because I am old. I am mad because I have friends who have autoimmune disorders and asthma and cancer. I am mad because I have friends who are front line nurses and doctors in emergency rooms.

This blatant ignoring of mandates for public safety is just not fair to anyone.  The karma train won’t just arrive at their door, it will run over the thousands of undeserving people who, unfortunately, are on the same track.

And that is where my eyes bug out.

Why are people ignoring this mandate? Oh, I can think of a thousand reasons, but none of them are good. The arrogance of youth, lack of understanding the “flatten the curve” theory, lack of empathy, or just a basic inability to put other’s needs first are some of them. Selfishness and irresponsible folks who early on told people “it’s no worse than the flu and will be gone in the spring” are others.

Whatever the reason, it all boils down in a nasty witch’s cauldron chock full of someone’s inability to connect the dots of how their behavior harms others. How their behavior could harm our elderly and importantly first responders and nurses and front line doctors.

It’s selfish, it’s stupid, it’s egocentric and it’s wrong.

Like did Lori Loughlin, just not get that she was stealing slots from other kids who had the grades and who worked hard? Does the idiot in the hurricane targeted town who says, “Oh, haha, I’m gonna ride it out” not think of how he brings harm to others when he then calls first responders as he and his home is being sucked into the ocean?

Gosh how I wish that like Samantha, I could twitch my nose, and like a miracle, the virus will all go away, but it’s not going anywhere. How I wish Dr. Bombay could pop in with a cure, but not yet. We aren’t there yet people.

I think we all had hope that people would do the right thing. We admonished folks on social media with memes saying “grandpa went to war, and the least you can do is sit on your couch for a few weeks.” We tweeted “flatten the curve” charts, and hashtagged #stayhome, and #contagiousbutnotsymptomatic.

We have explained if you don’t do stay home, you will have to stay home longer. We have tried endlessly to explain what we were trying to do with distancing, that it was for the greater good of all, and that it would help our helpers there on the front lines making sure we all get help.

We even have said for god’s sake, “Anne Frank did this for 3 years people in 750 square feet with 7 people” surely we can hang on in our homes with internet and space and TV and amazon or instacart delivering food for a month here.

But it didn’t work. It hasn’t worked. Distancing and staying home is not what is happening. And when you tell people to quit taking more than one cookie from the box and they keep doing it, there is nothing left but to take the cookie box away, like Andrew Cuomo has done, and likely all of us will soon experience.

So I am gonna just lay it out. Don’t gaslight me. I know what I am seeing out my window, and it’s crazy and wrong. And scary. Stay home. I don’t wanna look out my window and see any more of this selfish behavior.

I don’t want to feel Gladys kinda cray-cray anymore, OK?

Be a giver not a taker, don’t steal other people’s health safety away. Don’t take doctors out, many of whom are doctors with wee ones at home. Understand facts. You can carry the virus and give it to others and never know you had it. Young people too can get very sick despite early reports of invincibility. Just like Lori’s kids took some other more deserving kid’s spot in that college, you may wind up stealing an ICU bed or a ventilator from your Grandma.

And then put your big boy/girl pants and do the right thing, respond to your needs in the safest way possible-preferably a way that your asshattery doesn’t kill other people for heaven’s sake. Maybe even use your “need” to get out to leave groceries for an elderly neighbor instead of going to beer pong with friends.

Practice empathy. That means you stop and think, “Gosh how scary must this be for people with cancer, for my friends with asthma, or for my grandma or grandpa, what can I do to help?”

Please, people.

Don’t be a Lori.

And please for the love of God and fellow man, don’t make me be Gladys.  Older high-risk group or not, I am far too cool to be her.

I have been trying to decide if it’s a fortunate thing that I am holed up here alone during this quarantine or if I am deeply envious friends with spouses and family who I envision, are merrily playing board games together at home.

Thanks to the internet, 98% of the time I believe I am on the lucky end of things. Already just days into this distancing at home, I am seeing frustrated family posts. And this is coming weeks ahead of what I suspect may be more days together.

But in addition, I have come to realize these last few days that I am not alone in here in this house.  And I’m not talking about social media friends, or even my little doggo Toastaroo (who cheats at Monopoly BTW.)

The company I have is not the happy, fun kind at all.

See, during cancer treatment many years ago, I picked up two traveling companions-anxiety and post-traumatic stress. (I don’t capitalize them because they don’t deserve that importance.)

These two came as a package deal-the BOGO siamese twins of emotional baggage.

Back when I was toe to toe with the grim reaper, they brutally knocked me out of my emotional driver’s seat and loaded me down with their baggage. And let me tell you, these two are crazy-ass drivers to say the least. They especially like to drive at night, do erratic donut spins, and recklessly drive down every possible road labeled, “Bad Outcome, This Way.”

For the most part though, now 15 years post-cancer, I have gotten the evil twins out of the front seat of my car.

They sit in the back seat now, like petulant children with arms crossed occasionally sticking their tongues out at me when I catch their eye in my rearview mirror. Sometimes these sleeping giants of trauma and anxiety even nap for days at a time, and it is bliss.

But occasionally, I find myself with, out of nowhere whiplash realizing all too late that they have slammed on the brakes somehow, and have taken a firm grasp around my neck and yanked me into the back seat.

And just like that, yep, they are driving again.

Usually, this happens at yearly rechecks, when all the delightful sights and sounds and feelings of days of old get replayed. The walk of bare feet on the tile in the hospital for MRI, the laying in a dark room on a bed when ultrasound goo is squirted, the hardwired in my brain sensory reminders of my cancer diagnosis. The things that my brain recorded during that frightening time not so much of what was said, but what was felt and seen and smelled. Peripheral yes, but inextricably linked to that whole cascade of yuck that comes with the trigger, with the yanking a psychic thread.

In the town where I grew up, there was a bread factory right next to our school. The smell on baking days was heavenly. Not just heavenly, but comforting, coming over me like a sensory blanket of warmth and hygge. That smell was something that was woven into the tapestry of my brain, alongside a lot of the good feelings of safety and security and my love of those childhood days.

So, here I am 50 years later driving through Goldsboro, NC (unbeknownst to me a bread factory town.) And out of nowhere, I smell it. And suddenly my brain lights up all these long untraveled pathways from years ago. Calm. Hygge. Good Stuff. The smell calms me in a way I cannot explain and pull over and gulp it in. I ignore the townsfolk who are looking at me like, “what the hell is that old woman doing?” and sit for a very long time.

What happens with good memories also happens with bad memories. In short, your brain catches a whiff of something, an event, a smell, a place and starts sniff sniff sniffing around going, “man this smells familiar.” And consciously or unconsciously, this lights up those old pathways as a result.

It’s a great thing when we are in control and can drive these triggers like with comfort food or driving to Goldsboro on baking days.

But often, with the yucky memories, you don’t like running into the trigger, you often actively avoid the trigger. And it really sucks when it blindsides you.

When traveling this world with past traumatic experiences in your trunk, you get a mental “whiff” and it feels familiar. That whiff can be like for me, something reminding you of facing a life-threatening illness or stir up health anxiety. When this happens, and you are of the anxious sort like me, anxiety likes to go, “Hey, hey remember that? FUN TIMES.”

In a broader sense for all of us, it may remind us of a time we felt insecure or afraid. When we felt food insecure, health insecure, financially insecure or when we experienced a big loss like that of a parent suddenly dying, or a sudden illness. Or when we felt our bodies weren’t safe.

These past trauma whiffs aren’t gentle or hygge or fun at all. They are akin to what feels like an unknown source pulling the marionette strings in your brain to summon terror and anxiety. It’s usually these jokers, the evil twins doing it.

The sleeping giants in the back seat wake up, and poke gnarly fingers in your back and whisper, “This is crazy, this is out of your control, we are all gonna die.” And before you know it, you are locked in the trunk of a car careening into a catastrophic death spiral, driven by two idiots with bad breath who should have never been given a license in the first place.

This pandemic is nothing short of a perfect storm for this girl. I may as well have just pulled over and put myself in the trunk and called it a day. And I suspect it is the same for so many of us who have these traveling buddies for one reason or another.

Cabin fever is less than fun with these two. The 18 months I spent in isolation during chemo with the two of them wreaking havoc in my house and headspace was a psychic shitshow. And yep, here we are again, with the isolation, the fear. Familiar whiffs and boom, they are back.

These two fools are now doing nightly PowerPoint presentations of catastrophic outcomes, whilst I am duct-taped to my bed, immobilized by my terror, forced to watch. They drive me daily down overgrown and treacherous roads I haven’t been down in years. Last night we went down the “You fit all the criteria for a poor outcome and no vent” road. The night before it was the “You won’t be able to afford health insurance ever again” road.

It is exhausting.

My mom used to say, house guests are like fish, after three days they start to stink.

Today marks my 3rd day of quarantine and it’s time for them to go. They are stinking up the place.

So today I got up and said, I have to do something here. I have to figure out how to wrangle these two back into the trunk, if not, at the very least, in the back seat.

And perhaps put a cover over the rearview mirror.

As I talk to friends, privately and look at online COVID-19 support threads, I realize SO MANY of us are experiencing the same emotional fallout. The sense of our own personal anxiety genie being out of the bottle. So many of us are up all night with these jokers filling our already taxed noggins with the stuff of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. The evil twins are eating us all out of house and home, chomping away at our ability to remain calm, to keep hope and to rest well.

It needs to stop.

So how do you do that?

Well, plot twist, I am not gonna tell you to meditate…oh I know that helps a lot of folks, but for this girl, it’s like trying to get a cage full of a thousand squirrels to all quiet down at once after dumping a bag of sunflower seeds in the cage. It just ain’t gonna happen.

What I will say is this. Start pulling a seed out at a time.

The first seed, the first thing to do is to simply recognize the source of the river. Follow the string on the marionette to find what is yanking your chain. Figuring out what it belongs to and realize it belongs to that time. Sometimes, there is great calm in saying, “Oh this feels like X, but it is not X.” Sometimes, there is great calm that comes with saying, “Oh this feels like X and now I remember that I got through X.” Sometimes there is great calm in saying, “Oh this feels like X, but I didn’t die from X because I did a lot of the right things.” It can deflate the tires a wee bit when you realize where this is coming from is all.  Once we know the source of the river per se, we can take steps to prevent falling in again.

We can also take different roads instead of the worn ones with tire grooves so deep you don’t even have to steer. We can think new thinks. We can say “No, I am not going down that road today.” When the car veers right, find anything you can do to go left. Walk, run, sing the Bare Necessities, think good thinks. Pro-tip, this usually involves summoning a thought, replacing a thought, or choosing a road that reminds us good things are to come.

Cover your rearview mirror. Put in earplugs. Figure a way to get updates about what you can do to keep yourself safe without all the hoopla. Turn off the dang TV and stay off twitter. Don’t get updates from places that feed the evil twins. Pro tip: get a once a day updates from an official, or a friend you trust.

Recognize how the sense of loss of control is something you can get control of. Part of the angst for me in this is the sense/fear that no one capable is in control. I remember the calm I felt when I was diagnosed with cancer that I picked who I thought was the smartest most capable oncologist, and I could turn it all over to him. Now, I don’t feel like that with the virus.

But I remind myself that there are very smart people in control. And that gives me control over this thought and corrals panic. There are wise, good, hard-working people doing their best this very minute to make vaccines, antivirals, and to create solutions to shortages.  There were many many people who legit did see this coming months ago and who prepared, and who rolled up their sleeves right then and got on it. Pro tip: good people aren’t always the ones blaring how great they are on the news because well, good people are busy doing what good people do, finding an answer rather than talking about it.

Remind yourself daily that there are people who WILL help us. Mr. Rogers’ helpers are out there. There are people who will risk their lives to care for us if we get sick. Remember that most folks with this virus do well at home and recover without needing these superhero people. There are also people who will talk to us online, people who will help us figure out how to get groceries and walk the dog and yep, there are people who will share toilet paper with us.

Think about this. Governments are responding. Almost everyone is in the same boat facing the same financial issues and they can’t evict us all, they can’t foreclose on us all and they likely won’t. The safety net is being woven by good people (see above) as I type. It may not make for a less terrifying fall, but I am pretty sure that net will catch many of us.

Recognize that ALL things pass. I am old and know this as fact. I have been through some awful stuff in my life, more than the average bear and it has all passed. All stages of life that we think will never pass do. Our terror after 9/11 eventually diminished, and we got through unimaginable fear at that time. Online posts remind us that things like the fires in Australia, things we felt certain would never get under control, have passed. Think back on your own worst times, they are passed am I right? China is moving out of it now, vaccines are being trialed this week in Seattle. Pro tip: Kidney stones, rotten bosses, and Dick Cheney have passed on through, so will this.

Here is a harder challenge. Think about the positives that will come. Now I will be the first to admit I have gotten a lot of crap over the years from the “cancer is not a gift” campers. But I still believe hardships launch gifts, and almost always catapult us to the next level of play. Good things come after things pass (which remember they all do.)

Lance Armstrong, early in his diagnosis, said he got an email from another survivor that said, “You don’t know it yet but we are the lucky ones.” He was like “what the F?”

But later, he got it. I get it too. We will all be the lucky ones.

I promise you. My perpetual pro tip is this: every single thing you do in the future will, as a result of passing through this hard time, feel like the lucky privilege that it is. Nothing will ever again feel like something you have to do. Every single gosh darn thing–school, work, boring meetings, and even future really hard emotional stuff, will feel like something you get to do. It is game-changing. It will be sweeter.

We are lucky now. We will all be luckier after all this is one day passed. We will come out of this with laser clarity about life and love and family and about what is really important. We will have slowed the pace for our kids and ourselves and will have been reminded of the need for downtime. Time to think thinks we don’t normally have time to think. We, our whole sweet little earth and worlds, will reset.

I woke up today to hear the news that the water in Venice canals is clear and that dolphins are swimming there for the first time in 60 years.

I imagine that a lot of proverbial dolphins will find us in the days to come. Good thinks will swim back into our hearts. And when that happens, because of all this, it will be crystal clear and it will summon comfort, like the smell of bread baking. Our brains will go, “Oh there you are, I had forgotten how wonderful and lovely and sweet you are.”

Just breathe in the good when the panic comes, catch a whiff of those good things. Let this be time we can pull over and sit and breathe it in. And let that whiff light up the way, let that good stuff be what navigates you through.

And tell those jokers to take their antics elsewhere.

My son and I were talking yesterday about the amount of trauma and loss that this pandemic will bring. He is a young adult and is often the one to bring balance to my knee jerk A or Z reaction to many things. I wondered aloud about the long term negative emotional impact of this on the young folks, as he too, was sent home from grad school, just months before finishing. We talked about how impossibly hard it must be for so many kids, missing the last months of their senior year especially, because it is a time where all the reward and fun happens. It is a time where they were preparing to say goodbye, yet now forced to do so prematurely, and in days. We talked about other losses such a friend’s wedding coming up, and about his sister who works in sports, losing her job. And how in this season of celebration, lots is lost.

He is wise, always has been. He offered his perspective that this loss would change a generation, especially a generation to whom nothing serious like this has ever happened. And he is right. It will. But it will change all of us, even those who lived through 9/11 and other wars. No one is exempt.

I am a psychologist who deals with trauma issues daily in the kids I see. Suffice it to say it’s not rocket science to recognize the high-level trauma that will result in this pandemic.

On that level, there will be a horrific residual impact and psychic toll for our healthcare workers as they are overworked and are faced daily with the existential trolley problem of deciding who lives and dies. The agony for healers who have no miracle drug to throw at this and not enough ventilators for all will haunt them.  The impact of exposing themselves to a virus that could kill them will echo for years. Trauma and its slimy insidious smoke will creep into the corners of all of our brains. Many of us will lose loved ones and lose our homes. Children will lose elderly caretakers, and families will face eviction and financial ruin.

But that trauma stuff is a story for another day. After this is over.

But, where there is trauma, there is the sentinel event of loss.

And where there is loss, there is grief.

And where there is a sudden shocking loss, there is the ambiguous loss of so many things.

I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge this right now, and spend some of our time while quarantined or distanced, talking about it. It will be, as they say, an ounce saved toward a pound of cure.

I pointed out to my son the layers upon layers of loss people are experiencing now, and how folks really don’t know what to do with it or express it this floaty/dread/angry/loss/sad/shock/weepy/pit in your stomach/lonely feeling.

People don’t understand that the complex constellation of feelings I just described is grief. Grief for ambiguous losses. We must open some talk about this now.

Imagine if you will when a bomb goes off. We hunker, we hide, we deal with the explosion. It is often months later when we come out and start picking up the pieces that we begin realizing all that was lost. This is what will happen after the crisis of this pandemic is over.

Often, it is then that we begin to grieve the more intangible losses. This happened to me with cancer treatment, during the crisis I survived. But a year later, as I began tiptoeing around the shards on the ground, I realized all the ambiguous losses I had, and which I needed to grieve. The loss of the sense that I would live a long life, the loss of school plays I had not seen, the loss of the sureness that I would see my daughter walk down the aisle. The intangibles. And with each of those very wispy losses, all the stages of grief would have to happen, shock, anger, denial, bargaining, and depression.

Today, what is happening this moment, as we distance in our homes, as kids scramble to pack up dorm rooms, as workers are told to stay home and as a myriad of joyful and fun and social events are canceled, we are in shock, we are talking about how crazy this is, how stupid this is. We are in the first stage of grieving these ambiguous losses. But we don’t recognize it yet.

We have lost so, so much already. And no one has really talked about it.

An ambiguous loss is a loss we can’t quite get our hands around. The ambiguity speaks to the loss of dreams and futures imagined-the loss of things hoped for and for feelings anticipated. It’s the loss of those wispy, hard to get your hands around yet real beliefs about the metrics of the world. The loss of the steadfast feeling of our safety, and a sense that we live in a world where things are just, people do the right thing, and rewards are fairly certain.

This loss often happens when bad things happen to good people. And right now, lots of bad things are happening to good people.

The grief attached to these things is just as real no matter if you prepared for and anticipated the losses, or if you were blindsided by the enormity of this pandemic this week. I for one had time to prepare mentally, I saw it coming.  But admittedly even I, an anxious little information junkie soul, had no idea the immensity of all that I would lose.

For others, it was a complete T-bone blindside this week when things ramped up exponentially because they had, for months, avoided consideration of loss, thinking, it’s “just the flu, people are overreacting.”

The word ambiguous doesn’t mean it’s confusing or not real, but more so, that it’s something you can’t easily get your hands around. It’s a loss that doesn’t have the defined edges and protocols, like the loss of a parent or spouse does. It’s the loss that people who miscarry children feel.  It’s kind of like walking around with a pit in your stomach, wondering why you feel like crying. It’s under-recognized. A lot of us felt this in our gut the days after 9/11, but for our young adults, it’s a first.

With this pandemic, we are experiencing these losses right out of the gates. The loss of things we looked forward to and the loss of things we dreamed about for years, over our lifetime, or even for just months. The pandemic has snatched these dreams away from us. It has stolen events like vacations, weddings, and celebrations like graduations.

We have lost the experience of human connection that fulfills us found in sports and church, where for some, it was the only human interaction of the week, and the connection was greatly anticipated.

Here is the rub. These losses are deep and hard but are considered “first world problems.” And that is where we have lost permission to grieve and to talk about it.

This is the season of reward for many, the last months of our kids’ senior year, no matter what or where, is the cherry on top of years of hard work. Special ceremonies, senior nights, parties and spring breaks. All “the lasts” have become ones we did not anticipate, they have happened when we didn’t know it. Our kids didn’t know it would be their last dinner at the dining hall together, the last time in the student union, or maybe even the last time on campus.

It is the season of rewards which won’t likely come, like a sporting event final for a hard-fought-for season and the Olympics.

And yet again we get chided if we feel sadness, “first world problems.”

The most profound ambiguous loss we are experiencing is the loss of safety/security. Some folks are for the first time in their life, realizing that the boogeyman is real. There is such loss in realizing that he can indeed get under your bed, despite what you felt were certain insulating factors.

The loss of jobs, the loss of health, the loss of a home, and the loss of sureness that this could never happen to you is profound. I wrestled hard with this when I got cancer. Security being gone is an enormous loss.

The loss of your very first world ability to go to a hockey game safely, without possibly dying weeks down the road, is a profound hit to the psyche. Yet we feel small for admitting it.

We have lost beliefs and ideals. Our beliefs about the rewards of working hard will offer us secure housing, financial stability and the ability to retire. That belief that if you work hard and pay your rent, and if you are a good employee, you will keep your job. If you diligently put into your IRA all your life, you could retire one day.

The belief about who you are is another loss. The belief that you of all people would never be one of those people who defaults on car loans, gets evicted or files bankruptcy, and yet, whelp, here you are.

The loss of your belief in the security that hospitals will be equipped to give you all the care you should need when you need it has evaporated as we watch the medical teams in Italy have to make impossible decisions about who gets treatment.

The belief that our leaders will protect us mentally, physically and emotionally is shaky right now, and that is core loss stuff right there.

The loss of the belief that you of all people, don’t have to worry about having toilet paper to wipe your kerdunkerdunk sounds funny and silly but is quite profound.

It’s shattering to lose innocence, it’s traumatic to feel things were stolen from us, and it is very sad to miss the things we hoped for and anticipated.

All ambiguous losses.

These losses are not validated, they are often not shared, and they are lonely losses. These are the kind of losses people don’t show up with casseroles for. The kind we are sheepish to admit.

My point is this. There are a million floaty wispy losses in this pandemic. There is lots to grieve here ALREADY. Recognize that, and recognize it is okay to cry and talk about it, even if you think, “gosh, I feel shallow weeping about not going to the NCAA finals when people are dying.” It’s okay.

Often the hardest part about ambiguous losses is the “compare factor.” As if somehow you shouldn’t feel sad because well, it could have been worse, or geez, other people have kids with cancer and have relatives dying, and you missing your kid’s graduation is well small potatoes honey. The notion that because “these are first world problems” we shouldn’t be entitled to feel sad about them and grieve them makes the loss complex.

We aren’t given permission to cry over them, and at times, are made to feel stupid for even saying it out loud. We even admonish ourselves, (I know I have,) telling ourselves that these things are silly to cry over.

Instead, we are quietly crying in the shower over canceling that Disney graduation from college trip cause it seems silly and shallow and first world of us. I will say it. I am sad about not seeing my son walk across the stage, I feel robbed. I am sad about my daughter losing a job she worked her fanny off to get and was thriving at. I am sad that I may not get to retire as soon as I want. And I cry about this nightly. It’s not fair.

Right now, the world is telling us, well, the bigger picture is the health of the nation and it is.  But trust me, in the long run, so are these losses, and so is the need for us to be talking about them and about our sadness. This blunting and ignoring of our grief is happening all over social media in the crisis. While keeping perspective is helpful, so is saying, “I know this is hard for you. I am sad. I looked so forward to this and am just beside myself.”

In all the memes and jokes on social media, in all the “take a walk” and “distance” and “flatten the curve” posts I have seen, I have yet to see one that has said, “Hey! You out there, missing your senior year of basketball, hey, you out there, missing seeing your kid walk across the stage, you out there, having a meltdown about making rent and facing eviction, you out there, getting yelled at by your boss for not coming to work cause your kids are out of school, you out there, hey you out there with asthma and over sixty and feeling like a target is on your back, you out there, lonely now because your only socialization was church or sports, you out there, who had to cancel a trip longed dreamed and planned for, you out there, set to retire next year and cant, you out there, feeling sad and scared and robbed and cheated out of something and in grief. Hey you, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel sad and disappointed and grief.”

So I will say it, and we all need to say it.

Hey! You out there. It is okay to cry over what others may call first world problems. It is okay to grieve these things and talk about them. You out there, these are not small potatoes at all.

I am here to say go ahead and cry and talk about it. The loss and grief are real, and it is a really sad time. Let’s catch each other’s tears in this.

And hey, you out there, remember this. BOTH things can be true!

You can be deeply sad and grieving, and simultaneously understand the need for the greater common good.

So weep, kvetch, scream and complain.

But keep silver linings in mind too. Life-changing losses and events like these almost ALWAYS hatch good things later. Forest fires always encourage young things to grow. Not “having” makes you realize the joy and privilege of “having.”  It makes it sweeter.

And as my wise kiddo noted, empathy emerges when we find ourselves in a place we have never been and walking in shoes we have never worn. Laser clarity comes with loss and illuminates what is important and not. It can be a reset. Especially methinks, when the loss is of the first-world variety.

In a pandemic, no one is immune from the loss of things we were excited for and looked forward to. No one is immune to the gutted feeling that the loss of safety and security stirs up.

So grieve. Cry. Comfort one another. Discuss the sadness and anger of these first-world losses as we quarantine.  Recognize the complex intertwining of fear and anger and loss in all this. Cry and do all the things people who lose people to death do, support, listen and drop a note. Teach our young adults it’s okay to cry and go, “Yes. This absolutely sucks and is not fair.”

Say for all to hear, “I feel uncomfortable saying this given all that is at stake with this virus, but I am sad about not going to my kid’s graduation, wedding, whatever it is.”

And listen for how many echoes your very permission-giving proclamation brings, echoes over and over, of “Me too, me too.”

 

 

Round about a few years ago, give or take some, I was going through the darkest of days.

Frankly, I was caught by surprise by how bad off I was, as I stupidly thought that the cancer and divorce which I had gone through years prior, were the darkest of the darkest days. But nope. Those things were but a candle compared to this inferno.

The inferno wasn’t made up of just one event, but a cascade of events. A death by papercuts if you will.

The things that sliced me open accumulated over time. My nest became unexpectedly empty under awful circumstances, my dad and dog died, job loss, a broken arm, and abandonment by folks I thought were my tribe. All of it added up. A tiny slice at a time, opening a gaping hole in my soul so deep and dark, I could not understand the point of the next day. I mean, what for? More of the same? I mean, how much do you get beat down to go, “Yeah, I’m down for more of that tomorrow?”

The shape I was in was a shock to my little usual Suzy Sunshine optimism. What I remember about that time is that this “Fall seven, stand eight” girl could not only not get back up, but that she didn’t want to get back up. She saw no point in getting back up. She didn’t understand why one would want to get back up.

I think that for the first time in my 50 years, I finally “got” the glaring difference between the sadness and stress and grief of cancer & divorce, and the raging yet dull edged fury of full on depression. Because in all the hard shit that had come to pass before this dark time, I had wanted to rally, to kick ass and get myself on my feet. To reinvent myself. I would never say, “Why is this happening to me?” No, I was the girl who would kick myself in the pants and say, “Well Chicka, it happened, so get a move on.”  No matter how bad it was, I saw myself with the power to change it, to do what it took to right my ship. I always wanted to get things “better” again. I always remembered how good things could be and wanted to get back to that. And I did what I could to light that shit up.

But this dark hole of which I am speaking, it was different in many ways.

I didn’t have the energy left to even ask why it was happening to me, I truly didn’t care why it was happening to me. Trying to improve it didn’t even cross my mind, because in my mind, it was unimprovable.

I forgot what better was, and what it felt like, so I had no motivation to change a thing. I was in a dark tunnel where nothing would change, nothing could hope to change. Where in the sad times in the past, I could always see the light at the end of the sadness, this was just more darkness ahead. More and more darkness. I forgot what light even looked like, or that it existed, and most of all, I forgot what it felt like on my skin.

Depression doesn’t allow you to long for something you don’t remember is out there. It hides what is out there. I couldn’t remember good times. And when you can’t remember joy, you don’t know to work toward it, or even long for it.

You can’t long for cotton candy if you’ve forgotten it exists, much less forgotten the glorious taste of it in your mouth.

All I remember about this wretched space which haunts me still, was the absence of hope or belief that things would or could get better because I forgot what “better” felt like. Better wasn’t an option that I thought existed for me. I had complete amnesia about better; a forgetting of joy.

Looking back, I realize it was a bit of classic learned helplessness, papercut by papercut, coming to believe that there was nothing I could do about these things, and that all I could expect, given this forgetting of joy, was a lifetime of more of the same awfulness.

People often think suicides are a choice made between this great life with kids and success and handbag design and all that, and death. But really what many suicides are, are people who can’t remember what better feels like anymore. It is people who are making a choice between just two things; this awfulness with no end in sight, or nothing…finally feeling the absence of awfulness.

It is for them, not the choice between death and the great life and potential that we see…no, that item, that better life is no longer on their menu of things to imagine as a choice. People who take their lives really don’t want the choice of “nothing” any more than you or I do, but they want this-the awfulness to stop. So, it is two choices, more of this, or nothing. “Better”– the better we outsiders see, is not an option.

That is what depression does, it steals better and hides it behind a dark curtain as if it never existed. Leaving you with just the choice of door number one, or number two.

It does a lots of other sneaky shit too. I remember during that time, becoming acutely aware of my sense that people were exhausted from listening to me. Or at least that was my perception. (Depression likes to tell you that too.) I remember that I just stopped talking. I lost the energy to talk. I decided to stop reaching out for someone to listen. And at some point, I simply couldn’t reach out anymore…lifting my hand to do so required a skill set that was just gone.

I started thinking thinks you just don’t want to think. I, or the depression, also started trying to convince myself that people would be better off without me to contend with, without all of my exhausting stuff.

I rose each day thinking, “All I have left to look forward to for the rest of my life is more of the same. To wake up every day feeling this way-hurt, abandoned, alone and reminded of what I don’t have.” It was a wicked kind of dull slice.

They say in biblical history, that Jacob wrestled an angel all night long. I used to up for a wrestle and frankly, I was good at it. This was different. This was a categorically, solid “Uncle.” An, “I don’t give a shit anymore about fighting.” I saw my odds of winning as zilch. And most importantly, I couldn’t remember what I was fighting for anyway.

I can only describe what I remember as feeling as if I was wrapped in a thousand blankets; muffling sound, stifled interactions and movement. And I just didn’t care about getting out.

So I laid down.

One of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace took his own life. He gave us insight into this choice before he left. In an essay he said, “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

He describes two choices here, get burned horribly or jump. This is the difference between sadness-shock and grief, and what I now know are the true blue hot flames of depression. With sadness, there is a remembering of the good times, a grieving of it, a longing for it-for better days. But with depression, there is an absence of ability to see the third choice, an inability to see that there is a plan C, or an option of “better” feelings or days.

In these last few days of this suicide epidemic, much has emerged on social media about depression and suicides. Of course the myths roll out, stupid stuff-like it’s a selfish act and about who will go to heaven. People admonish from their behind the screen pedestals that even wealth and fame and success don’t insulate us from depression’s ability to burn even the richest and brightest of us. People say some stupid shit for sure. Platitudes appear, suicide hotlines are broadcast, and people proudly post memes. “Ask someone for help, cause we love you.” “I’m here for you,” they yell from across the screen.

I am not saying these things are all for naught. But here is the rub, people who are wrapped in layers and layers of blankets can’t ask for help, and often can’t pick up a damn phone.  They don’t remember what they should want to ask for, or what another life felt like.  Just getting to you, asking you, is not an option. And when you are convinced that the person on the other end doesn’t care what you have to say anyway, you just don’t ask.

It is the equivalent of us standing on the ground, saying as Mr. Foster Wallace so eloquently says, “Don’t jump!” Or standing on the pier, while someone is going under in the water with rocks anchored to them, and saying, “Swim Lauren, swim.”  It is not helpful people. It offers little other solution to the person who thinks, “Well duh, why not jump, I am getting my ass painfully burned here?”

We don’t offer a plan C, just tell them not to choose plan B.

One of the best things I read during my dark time, was this blog where the guy talked about just getting through the next few minutes. Getting through five minutes, getting through a day, a minute at time. That is an important clue here, we forget the simple importance of elements of minutes and seconds, when we are people who want the big picture.

~~~~

I supposed if I were to go back and look at the posts I put on Facebook during that time, it was pretty clear things were bad. No, they weren’t drama filled, woe is me posts, but more like posts asking for prayers that things turn around kind of thing. A definite absence of typical Lauren sunshiney, happy posts. It was likely, very clear to everyone that life was not good for me here at the ranch, more so by who I was not anymore, than by what I came right out and said.

One day, as I laid wrapped in my layers, the doorbell rang.

I remember it clear as the bell. I tried to avoid answering it, but she saw me through the window, so I had to. I shuffled over in my bound up blankets and opened the door.

There she stood with a small pink box tied with a ribbon, waiting. Uninvited, but clearly waiting for me to let her in. She, with what I knew were her impeccable southern manners about not showing up somewhere invited, had done just that. She wasn’t going anywhere, that was clear. So I let her in.

I knew this mom since our boys were wee. She had seen the ugliness of the divorce and the cancer I had been through. But I hadn’t seen her in recent years, and certainly had never had a one to one talk with her about troubles, I think ever. She was however, a Facebook friend.

But here she came in and sat down, right dead ass between me and the flames. She simply announced that she could see that something was very wrong based on my posts on Facebook.

And for 120 minutes, maybe more, she sat on my screened porch and listened to me cry, and tell my story of all that had gone wrong. She didn’t tell me that things would get better, or even try to remind of better times, and she didn’t offer any bullshit platitudes. She just sat with me, in this space, ticking off more minutes and then hours.

And then she stood up. And because my arms were still so bound up, she stepped forward and hugged me. For a long time, she hugged me solidly and warmly. Now, a hug to most people is not a big deal. But being single, short of my kids who were gone, I had very little human touch for many years. I had felt unhuggable of late. And rarely had someone initiated a hug with me. But she did.

I cannot tell you what happened, but I remember the feeling to this very moment as I write….it was like energy transferred into me. Good solid love and light infused in me in that hug. The human touch rewired something in my brain. It reminded me for those seconds, of what “better” felt like.

And she handed me the pink box and told me she made this for me. And she left.

I opened this perfect box with a perfect ribbon. Inside was a tiny, round pound cake. The most clean and pure gesture one could imagine. So simple, moving me in ways I cannot explain.

No one had given me anything in so long, that perhaps I had come to believe I was not worthy of such random acts of kindness (or at least the depression had pushed me to believe that.) So, the notion that someone baked for me, that simple act of nurture alone, rewired and sparked anew, something profound in me. It too, reminded me of “better.”

All of this that she did, was nudging me without words, a second at a time, toward remembering the feeling of better.

Here is what I learned. You don’t feel the flames so much with a mouthful of pound cake.

It is a little known fact that pound cake, a tiny slice at a time, reminds your taste buds and your brain, no, your whole damn circuitry, of what “better” feels and tastes like.

This tiny slice of “better,” unlike the slice of a papercut, was the superglue I needed to heal. To spark and remember that there was a plan C to work for. To remember what light felt like. To remember on my tongue, the taste of better.

It was indeed, a slice of better.

~~~~

I am so much better these days. I live in better.

These days, I often question my place and my purpose on this earth, and I often find myself thinking about the term, “All that I have done, and all that I have failed to do.”

In suicides, I think the media and we, tend to focus a lot on speculating what was “done” to have caused it. Her husband left, he had a drug problem. Often, we forget to remember, all that we failed to do. No, we can’t ever stop a person from doing what they are gonna do, we can’t magically correct biochemistry.  But I know now this truth, that if we can get them through another minute or hour, and maybe give them a bead on joy, who knows how those minutes can add up.

We are scared of what to say, but it is simple. It is not the enormous glorious pontification that brings someone out of the dark, or extinguishes the flames. We can’t do that, we simply can’t buy them a fireproof suit, or talk them out of feeling the heat or even out of jumping. And we just can’t bring enough water to put it out. We think that is what we must do, but it is so less complex than that.

What we can do is this. We can hold space for a few moments or hours or even days, between them and the flames. And fill that space not so much with words, but with love and cake, and even hugs. We can choose to see our friends who have forgotten that taste of joy and better, and choose to do things to remind their senses of this feeling.

Maybe in that time where we sit with them, just maybe, we can give them a bead on “better,” on remembering a third option, and most importantly, how good that option can feel.

This requires action from us not them, to make that happen. Not a “Hey call me” not a “Call this hotline number.” Not a, “Hey reach out, you know I’m here for you,” kind of thing, where we are failing to do. No, this is a Pure Ass capital D, Do. A Show Up Uninvited at the Damn Door with a Pound Cake and Don’t Leave Until She Answers kind of thing.

We all see people going through hard times. You know this is true. It is everywhere. Social media is such a double-edged sword, as it often can make for hard times. But the one thing it does do is allow us to see what’s up with our tribe. It gives us the ability to take a pulse on our people, near and far, and see what they going through.

We know it.

We see it.

And how often we fail to do something.

So right now, today, on this Sunday, I ask this of you. Sit and think of someone this minute that you KNOW darn well is going through a rough time. Someone who has disappeared from posting, someone who has even said out loud they are struggling. Someone who, because it’s not rocket science, you can do the math of their life events and say, “Man she’s/he’s got it so hard right now.”

And today, not tomorrow or later, knock uninvited (because love trumps even the best southern manners) on the person’s door with nothing but some minutes and your version of pound cake. Or send an email if he/she lives far away. Don’t stop emailing, don’t stop showing up if they don’t answer.

Just bake the damn pound cake, or fudge, or just get a basket of blackberries. Go mail it if you have to, just get it in their mouth. And I implore you, don’t forget the teenagers on this list, because a dark tunnel for the rest of your entire life is infinitely harder to imagine and bear the thought of at 14, than at 60. Don’t just tell these children, “It gets better,” remind them what “better” feels like, and show them how to find it again and again, a bite and a minute at a time. And don’t forget the veterans either.

I promise you this truth because I know it firsthand. This simple act will remind your friends of what love and care feels like, but most of all, it will reawaken and rewire “better.” And that, begins the bridge to trusting that it is there.

And that, is a good thing. It is something. It is minutes. It is a possible option. It is door number 3.

Hold space for this person between the flames and them. Who knows, it might just be the space needed, and in the time needed, to eat an entire cake or stand in a hug, which will get them through to the next minutes. Then hopefully, the next Do-er will show up with their version of pound cake, and the next and next, reminding our sweet friend’s brain over and over of what “better” feels like, until that choice, that option, is real again.

In the end, if nothing else, you have given them better, even for just a moment. And that is a good thing.

This I believe and suggest, is how we change a world that has come to this, a bite, by buttery bite, at a time.

 

“If you know the way, light it for others.”

I know right? Can you believe it? December 12 marks ten years since I was told, “Unfortunately, you have cancer,” and 5 years since I began the blog. When I began writing, my intent was to explore (and work out in my busy buzz-buzz little noggin) the trauma and heebie jeebies of living in that precarious space that is the first five years after breast cancer. Writing, I found, was like letting the steam off a pressure cooker. Bit by bit, week by week, with each new post, the pressure lessened and the intense push of emotional junk in my brain against my skull ceased.

After Five Years in Cancerland, I indeed, had accrued a hoard of emotional junk. A friend politely said after listening to my weepiness, “Jesus girl, you have a LOT of stuff rattling around in that head of yours.” Indeed it often felt like ALL OF IT MIXED TOGETHER–a crazy aunt in the attic- a banshee screeching senselessly as she wandered.

Writing, it turned out for this scattered and exhausted looping mind, turned out to be one of those Major Organizer ladies. She efficiently walked in and stopped the hoard in its tracks. She spent weeks thoroughly sweeping through all the junk drawers, sucking the dirt out of the nooks and crannies in my brain and tidily putting things various marked boxes. Labels, like “Thigh Cancer” and “Cancer Fatigue” emerged, and it became easier and easier to toss things in where they belonged, as I wrote and wrote.

Emotions and crazy thinking were released like bags of trash to the universe, a week at a time.

And then something more magical happened. Salve for wounded places in my heart and brain came back to me, as I listened to the songs and echoes of my blog sisters in Cancerland in comments each week. My readers, mostly Cancer chicks, sat patiently with me each week (like those nice psychologists do on hoarders) as I picked up each item, one item at a time to sort.  They quietly waited as I turned stuff over  and over in my hands, and listened to what it meant to me. They heard my reluctance to deal with it. With no shaming, and in so not judgy way, they helped me dig through my trash—helping me chose what to keep, what to trash, what had value, and what to donate to the universe. I am eternally grateful for those who sat with me through that tedious sort, and for those offered labels when I had exhausted all those my wee brain could muster. “Twang arm” and “Grumblers for the Cure” being some echoed back.  I wrote and wrote each week, until finally the looping stopped as I was finally, out of gas.

I credit those women for getting me to After Ten Years. One would think the second five years would be easier to cope with and keep organized…but I am here to tell you that there are still so many lessons in that space of still uncertain, but not quite as uncertain as the first five years, space.

But I have lived.

I have lived to see things I literally begged God in the dark of the night on a pillow wet with tears, to live to see–proms and graduations and homecoming dances, just the day-to-day life of teenagers and kids fledging from the nest. I have lived to see the joy on my wee ones faces for 5 more Christmases and 5 more birthdays. Disneyland, San Francisco, Niagara Falls….are all now off the bucket list.

I lived to see losses great and small. I have lived to lose the most important people in the world to me– to death, and in other intangible ways. I have lost my dad and my beloved Scout the Wonderdog, and while not rocket science that people and dogs don’t live forever, it is still deeply sad. But I am glad I lived, to hold their hands and paws, as I walked them home.

This last year, the year I was sliding into year ten, has turned out to be worse than Cancer. Yet, I find, I have now lived my way into perspective. Because I lived, cancer has been talked down to size; an itty bitty dot on the horizon behind me at times. See, I once thought (like say, five years ago) that Cancer was the worst thing, the hardest thing, the cruelest thing that ever happened to me. My handy yardstick, attached to my hip, used to be, “Well, it’s not Cancer.” That yardstick has been replaced now. I am glad.  Cancer is not the worst thing that can happen to you, losing your Pop and sweet, sweet dog in a month are, as are losing people you love in other ways. But still, I lived through it. I am lucky.

I lived on and learned how, even after ten years, cancer and PTSD still change to this day how I deal with illness– in anyone, dad, dog, friend, myself or my kids. How “illness” still has the power to flip that switch, to set off old familiar alarms and anxiety and make me kind of cray-cray. The smell and feel of hospitals is overwhelming to me still, stealth, like carbon monoxide seeping into my cells.  It’s invisible to others, but inside the medical doors I am in constant anxiety; feeling sick and dizzy. I have lived to learn that even being put on antibiotics, being around someone with a bad cold freaks me out, as do routine doctor visits. Thigh cancer also still looms in the rear view mirror, bouncing around in the back seat like an unruly kid, sticking its tongue out at me from time to time.

I have lived into the wisdom that PTSD is worse when anxiety robs sleep. It is completely paralyzing when I am on the losing end of the battle. And it rears its ugly head as I insist that ALL BE DONE to help, because I realize at one time, I was a lost cause and had I not insisted that ALL BE DONE to kick my cancer, I would not be writing this.

After ten years, I have learned a big lesson though. To forgive myself for the cray cray.  As far as other people forgiving me, not so much, but that’s understandable and okay. A veteran recently said to me, “I don’t have PTSD, I earned my PTSD.” I don’t know that anyone can or even should be expected to understand the nuances and horrors of however you earned yours and how it shows up–which makes it mine to navigate, not theirs. I won’t beat myself up for it leaking out here and there. New cracks develop as you age and LIVE, like wrinkles on the skin.

I have realized too, that gentle and kind people recognize it for what it is and catch your tears (even though they are sometimes caustic and burn smoky holes through their hands.) They will still hold you in their now holy hands; a blanket of warmth as their words surround you like a nest. I have lived to see how lucky I am. In blogging, I heard a chorus of, “You too? Gosh I thought I was the only one.” And that is helpful. It makes you feel less cray-cray.

I have lived on these last five years, to feel the cognitive dissonance of recognizing how lucky you are, being juxtaposed with depression.  How can a person who survived cancer be depressed for God’s sake? But I have lived on these last five years to feel so beaten down at times by life– the very life I begged God to let me live. I would be a BIG FAT liar if I didn’t admit that coming off this year, I was often plagued with thoughts of “Why go on?’ when everyone I loved died. This creates quite a fucked up dichotomy in your head, when you have been given the gift of more days, and now feel like they don’t matter, or are too painful to endure. But I have lived through this too.

See, we always think about and bargain with god about the fabulous things we want to live to see when we are diagnosed, but forget we will live through these hard things too. I am grateful to have lived through both.

I have lived to find inside me an endless font of compassion, created by the tears I have cried. I am less judgy of others, realizing fully for the first time very deeply these last years, the walk in the shoes thing. I reach out more. I always was built this way, but now, it bubbles out to the tenth degree. This empath has become even more empathic, and better so, even more empathetic. I am glad that I lived to have my edges smoothed, and to have lived my way into laser clarity about why I am here.

What else?

After ten years, I have lived to reflect and realize how much people did for me in that space and time, to see not just how cancer affected me, but others.  How kind people laid their bodies down to make bridges for me to walk on through cancer sewage, so that I can be here writing this. I get weepy when I think about how much my Pop did for me; he was my Wingman and my North Star. I am standing, fully and solidly, physically and mentally, because of him. In the quiet of my house, I weep too, when I remember a friend who saved Christmas. I have lived now five more years to decorate at Christmas with sock snowmen made when she arrived, bringing in her bags of joy to a house of a single mom with two wee little kids where cancer came knocking, blowing its toxic black smoke over everything that sparkled, just two weeks before Christmas.

I have learned that in the first five years, life is lived with a wide-angle lens, capturing a whole lot more than you would normally capture. Statistics dictate that there is a valid need to capture a bigger picture in those first five years and that is not necessarily a bad thing.  But in the next five years, I have (mostly) gone back to living life with a normal lens. Yes, I still have a perpetual colored filtered lens that makes ALL things more vibrant, but life is more normal in scope.

Cancer offers less permission these days. In the beginning, Cancer was quite manic and reckless as it yelled, “Go ahead do it! You don’t know how long you have!” Nowadays, cancer shrugs its shoulders and says, “It seems like a great idea, but don’t do it on my account.”

Cancer is less of a taskmaster. Where once my life was lived with weekly chemo for a year, shots to myself in my bathroom, surgeries, daily radiation and endless re- check appointments…now we are whittled to once a year where the Big Guy (my oncologist) is thanked annually for saving my life. And I while I get a little cray-cray at those visits, cancer doesn’t rule after ten years.

I sleep soundly now.  In the first five years, it was routine for Anxiety to jab its gnarly finger at me until I woke up yelling, “What? What is it?” for it to yell with its windy, halitosis-y breath, “CANCER, THAT’S WHAT!” Now, occasionally, it wakes me and whispers “cancer,” and I say, “Oh that’s all? Go back to bed, monsters aren’t real.”

I have learned that after the first five years of recklessly driving the car, CANCER has now acquired operative equivalent highway hypnosis. Its eyes drift shut periodically, nodding off as life moves down the highway. But at times, admittedly, just when there is sound sleep, its eyes snap wide open, re-righting the car back into the Cancer Lane. But mostly, after ten years, cancer has finally moved to the back seat Some days, I don’t even see cancer in my rear view mirror, and suspect it has even moved to the trunk. Some days though, there it is in perfect focus, as I glance back; it sticks its tongue out at me with its arms crossed, sullen that I don’t engage it anymore.

I have lived to fully grasp that what Scout the Wonderdog tried to teach me every day of his life was so very true–that you don’t have to be whole to be whole.  That we aren’t what happens to us, we are what we make of it.

I have lived into wisdom, becoming wise to the Wiley Coyote ways of cancer with its anvils and bombs. Cancer has simply become one of the many, many merit badges on my sash. It has been lived down to size. I have lived to gather more badges, infinitely harder ones to earn, since then. Perspective comes with years of survival.

The point of all of this is that I have lived. Something I never thought I would do literally (or figuratively) after the initial “all clear” was given.  I never thought I could mentally live life again, and have moments of joy again where Cancer wasn’t photobombing an otherwise idyllic moment.

Cancer hasn’t died, but has finally hibernated. Cancer has mostly left the building that is my head. Five years ago, I wondered if that would ever happen. I am happy to say that reports of cancer’s death in your head after ten years, have NOT been grossly exaggerated. Years ago, I wrote a blog called Outlive It. It didn’t mean outlive the cancer and survive, it meant, outlive the ability of cancer to haunt you, to define you. I have, after ten years, outlived cancer.

I have lived on to notice in every moment, the feel every last drop of life on my skin. Still after ten years it is there. That feeling it. In a speech at a college commencement called, “This Is Water”  David Foster Wallace tells the story of two goldfish swimming along, and an older goldfish coming upon them saying (to their confusion), “How’s the water boys?” I feel the wet every day. The water is life that is not taken for granted.  After ten years, I am still wet. That never goes away. This is a good thing.

But what next? This year, sliding into year ten, I suddenly realized that I only had a ten-year plan. That I never got beyond “seeing my kids graduate and not leaving wee children motherless.” Both kiddos are launched now into life plans. I never dared to consider life after ten years, perhaps thinking I would jinx it, and after all, I only asked for ten.  I saw a quote today I love, that perhaps will be my motto from here on, “You didn’t come this far, to only come this far.”

I don’t think of these last ten years as a journey, but as an adventure…where initially I burst out of the gates like Carl and Russell in the movie Up, with the mentality that Adventure is Out There!  My adventure began ten years ago, and continues, even after ten years. Life remains definitely sweeter. Every minute and second is still recognized and given its due honor as something I could have lost. Something I am damn lucky to have. As something I get to do, not have to do. In the first five years I felt a little like Russell—now I feel like Carl. Wise about what was given to me, wise about the need to keep looking forward to what will be, instead of getting stuck in what was, and in what happened to you.

Indeed, I have come so far after ten years, and still have many more to go, because after all,  I did not come this far, to only come this far.

Thanks for listening all. You all have become my adventure, and my world.

(My dad passed away on February 23…this was his eulogy)

A couple of weeks ago, after endless weeks of setbacks and difficulties and trials, my Pop told me this story. He said there was this farmer who hired two little boys to do some work. Their first job was to move a huge 8 foot tall mountain of manure. The first little boy dejectedly picked up a shovel and was crying as he shoveled.

The second little boy ran up and quickly picked up his shovel. He started shoveling away, eagerly, scoop and after scoop with excitement and a big smile. The farmer looked at the kid and said, “What the heck are you so happy about?” and the kid looked incredulously at him and said, “With all this poop there has to be a pony in here somewhere!” Classic Howard, I know.

A few days later, I was trying to encourage dad through yet another setback, and said, “Look for the pony Pop, look for the pony.” He said, “You know Lauren, I am starting to think I might find a zebra in all this.” This of course launched one of our discussions about life, and about how answers and gifts don’t always show up looking like you want. And that sometimes what we find, is even better than what we ever imagined.

Our conversation, this joke, highlighted that wonderful thing about my dad, his eternal optimism and humor, his belief that we must always hope for, and actively look for, the positive. He said a thousand times these last weeks when encouraged about outcomes, “I hope so, I hope so, I hope so.”

I believe my Pop has found his zebra.
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My brother Tom, also noted last week that it is in adversity that someone’s true character reveals itself. When we see how they conduct themselves when their chips are down, when they are in pain.

Dad had lost his left side. He knew deep inside he would never golf again. But even when faced with adversity, Classic Howard remained class act. Indeed, it is what our family saw in my dad throughout the last months and days that confirmed really, what we already knew about him our whole lives. That he was one heck of a guy.

When nurses, or Sheridan or any of us would do the smallest gesture for him; he said, “Thank you.” Even on the day he passed, as people were doing things to make him more comfortable, still it came out, that kind and now soft and gentle voice, “Thank you.”

He remained concerned with how his illness had impacted others, telling Jenna he was sorry he missed most of her 5th grade year, telling me over and over how worried he was that Sheridan had sat for hours with him on a folding metal chair every day, and expressing concern about us coming to visit when there was bad weather. He was insistent that we send Olympia chocolates and get vouchers for golf lessons to the nurses in the ICU in Baltimore. Classic Howard.

About 3 months ago, dad was lying on a gurney in pre-op in Baltimore, ready to go in to get a PEG tube put in. It was quite a serious procedure actually, and we had asked Father Colin to call and pray with him before the procedure. Father Colin nicely said a prayer over the phone as we held it to dad’s ear, and we waited quietly for a response from dad. And dad blurts out, “Fr. Collin we still are going to organize a St. Mary golf tournament and I bet I can raise 25K for the church the first year!”

Classic Howard was always, and remained about the other guy; about what you can do for the other guy. About gratitude, being considerate, and manners, and humor, and kindness.

How lucky we his kids were, to be the “other guy” our whole stinking lives.

He called me a few weeks ago in the middle of the night and announced, “Lauren, I decided that even though I may never be half the man I used to be, half of me is good enough and I will be grateful and take it.”

He quoted endlessly of late, a line from an old John Irving book, “This can’t change the me in me.” And it didn’t. The stroke, and age really, never stole a single ounce of the Howard in Howard. And every time he repeated that line to me, I thought to myself, “Thank God, thank God. Lucky us.” Because having just “Half the Howard” still left us all… way ahead of the game.

My brother Tom called Dad “The George Bailey of Hagerstown.” So the astonishing part to all of us through these last months, was witnessing his internal struggle, not with the stroke and losses with it, but with the thoughts that I suppose we’ll all have as we sense we are in our sunset years. “Did I lead a good life? Did I do the best I could with this life? Was I a patient and good father? Could I have done more?” Those nagging questions baffled us because they seemed to convey that he didn’t grasp what an astonishingly good life he had led. Not just as a friend, or a husband, or a civic leader, but to us, as a fantastic dad.

It wasn’t until my long drive home to NC that I realized what it was that those questions really highlighted. It occurred to me that it is only a truly, humble man who sincerely asks those questions. It’s not that he wasn’t sure that he made a difference; it was that it was always so important for him to always challenge himself to do better or more, so much so, that those questions never went away.

It is no secret that I think my Pop hung the moon. The depth of our relationship now resonates in a lyric from his favorite show Les Mis. As Marius sings, “You would live, a hundred years, if I could show you how.” And Eponine replies, “And you will you will keep me safe…and you will keep me close…and rain, will make the flowers grow.”

It wasn’t that my dad was perfect or that he never did anything wrong-he would be the first to tell you that. His honesty about his own flaws was a lesson in itself.

But he got an awful lot right. He taught us how to handle the hard stuff and take inventory of our actions. But most of all, he taught me the quite-perfect lesson that life is easier when you look for ponies, and happier when you understand that rain, does indeed, make the flowers grow.

That’s classic Howard. He’s the guy who told his kids, “Keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole.” The guy who reminded us over and over, “That turtle didn’t get on the fencepost by itself.” The guy who nudged us to always, always take the high road. Classic Howard was the guy who told us repeatedly as kids, “I would cut off my right arm for you;” and the guy who played endless games of Monopoly to I suspect, teach us investment strategies.

He was the guy who threw endless bags of baseballs to my brother each night to teach him to pitch. The guy who turned jump ropes for hours for me, and the guy who talked cancer down to size for me, sometimes twice daily for 42 weeks. He was a guy with an innate gift for knowing what we needed to feel loved and nurtured and supported and cherished. And he did those things, every day of our lives. We had the happiest of childhoods, and that gift, has lasted us a lifetime.

My Dad absolutely adored the Legend of the Starfish. His favorite part of the story, the closing line, was a line we heard him say many times in our lives, “Well, it made a difference to this one.”

My dad was a man who walked the beaches of life and with every single step forward, paused to fetch a starfish, and with love, toss as far as he possibly could out into a new life. When others might be too busy moving forward, dad actively kept his head down seeking them. Yes that slows your forward movement in life, but gosh does it improve the width of your life. Even in his last days, I witnessed him bend to pick up, the last lucky starfish.

He liked to say he still had it in him to change one more life for the better. Everything he did, it seemed, was about making a difference for just this one. It was about big things, like adopting the apple of his eye Jenna later in life. It was about stopping what he was doing to talk, whenever we kids needed advice or solace, and tossing us out to where we could swim and breathe again.

It was about making a point of choosing to play golf with the people who really needed partners. It was about helping someone solve a financial problem, or giving someone a mulligan, or signing up to volunteer for United Way board at age 81. It was about quietly and anonymously saving someone’s dignity. It was about teaching other men to fish, and feeding them as they learned. Giving buoyancy. It was about jumping right in and shoveling with a smile to help someone else, find their pony.

It was about always reaching, to change one more life for the better. That was our dad. That, was classic Howard.

I was a starfish. Pam was a starfish, Tom was a starfish. Jenna was a starfish. The grandkids were all starfish. We feel so lucky.

So, I am going to ask you now, if you were a starfish, if you knew of one of his starfish, if you were taught to fish, or touched by Classic Howard in some way….If you were one of the ones he was talking about when he said, “Well it made a difference to this one”…I will ask that take a moment, and think of him, and lift him up now, as we walk him home.

This week Marie, from Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer attempted to stoke us bloggers who had fallen into a blogging funk. Her “Mojo Monday” writing prompt: “If you could have an hour on a bench with someone from the past, who would it be?” I will admit, I saw the prompt and thought, “Oh come on now, give me more than that!” But then, here and there, my thoughts began to roam. “If I was to write about this,” I mused, “What would I say?”

Of course without a doubt, the person I would pick would be my mom. But my read of the question went beyond the who it would be, to wondering, “How would I spend that hour?”

My mom died when I was 30; she had just turned 60. The events of her death punctuated immediately for me what my life would be like from then on; an empty space in a pew in the front of the church. Always, forever, an empty space where she was supposed to be. For 22 years now.

You hear people kvetch about their moms; moms interfering in their adult lives, moms telling them how to parent. So you need to understand that my come-from is absent this peripheral view. I did not have many years to grow into an adult-adult relationship with her. No, my vision tunnels into a wonderful childhood and memories of this unbelievably supportive, nurturing mom. She was so loving and fun–naturally emitting the things that feel and taste like love to a kid; undivided attention, magical Christmas seasons full of traditions, the smell of food cooking after school, waiting at the bus with me on really cold days, baking, crafting and giving hugs for no particular reason.

Things I realize, now as an adult, are my infrastructure; the stuff my bones are made of.

So, I can’t imagine that if she had lived she would have ever been bossy about my kids or negative about my life choices. I imagine that she would have been simpatico on my parenting and quite supportive in fact, but I really don’t know.

My mom got diagnosed with cancer three weeks before I was to be married. We cancelled the wedding without a second thought, as she was to have surgery that would keep her in the hospital for several weeks. And besides, who wants to get married without their mom there? The wedding was pushed out six weeks, after being assured by the docs the new date would be a safe bet post-op. Yet, she died suddenly 3 days before the new wedding date and I found myself instead on that day, standing in a cemetery in Western Maryland, burying my mother.

So from the get go, the big hard stuff of adulthood has been done without her-with her inside me and watching over me, but not physically here. My wedding, childbirth, postpartum exhaustion, colicky babies, unanticipated divorce, cancer and chemo, job loss and even now with the sharp painful loss that takes you down after putting your best out there as a person and parent and lose.

I am certain that all the good stuff has happened under her watch as well-wonderful trips with my kiddos, special Christmases where we repeated her traditions, and the successes my kids have experienced. Oh yes, I am quite certain she has giggled along with us in those magic moments that we three have shared and that further, she had a hand in them-too many inexplicable good coincidences have happened in our lives to believe anything other. I know she has cried and cheered and prayed and felt proud with me and has delighted in my kids every step of the way. I know this because I knew her heart and what made it delight…as she knew mine.

So, on this bench, given an hour with her, I wouldn’t feel the need to catch her up because I truly believe she is caught up.

Perhaps it is because of where our relationship was when she died, but I think in that very parent-child, selfishly lopsided way, I would only need something from her; to simply be held and hugged. For just one hour, to absorb like a little dried out and forgotten sponge, 22 years worth of unspoken, absolute and without-a-doubt assurance that I am lovable and am loved. Loved unconditionally despite my foibles and faults.

What I have craved since she has been gone is the very sure feeling that I am not alone in this world and that I am believed in. I have ached to feel her steadfast belief in the goodness of my heart’s intent without having to convince her as I often have to do with others, because she knew it as real from its infancy. I have weeping sore places that need her salve, her mothering, to calm the questions that have looped endlessly in my head for 22 years now- Am I a good mom? Am I a good person? Why is life so hard? Why did all these things happen?- -the weighty, adult worries that only a mother’s unconditional love can vaporize when she hugs her 52-year-old daughter, even if just for an hour.

To be for an hour, simply, a child who is loved by her mom.

So maybe Marie, the person from my past I would also want to sit with for an hour is actually me, that child like me who felt so loved and sure and cherished. But of course, it would take two people to make that happen.

Just one person? I am sure Marie, you can give me more than that.

“I love the kind of hugs where you can physically feel the sadness leaving your body”

Anonymous

Of note, this post was in response to the Keller’s negative op-eds regarding a breast cancer survivor tweeting her cancer. It is a tongue in cheek letter to them, regarding the topic of blogging/tweeting about your cancer.

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