Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thought on starting my third year without Jeff

I am feeling rather as though my mind is a kaleidoscope. I look through the kaleidoscope – I see images of Jeff, the man I fell in love with, the man I married, the stepfather of my daughter, the life we shared. I rotate the kaleidoscope – I see images of the pain and sorrow that followed his death. I rotate it again – I see images of my daughter, when we were a family of three, as she has grown up during the last two years without her dad, as the wonderful and successful adult she has become despite being forever scarred by her dad's death. Another rotation – I see images of some of Jeff's friends who became my companions in grief and then my friends. Yet another rotation – I see images of my journey of grief, of hope and healing, of the slow rebuilding of my life, of the people I've met and the experiences I've had since Jeff's death, of my "new normal," of my commitment to embracing life all the more because I am keenly aware of just how fragile it is. Another turn of the kaleidoscope – I see images of my new life since this time last year.

I looked it up – the word "kaleidoscope" is derived from three Greek words meaning "beauty," "shape" and "instrument for examination." And that seems oddly apt. Because through the kaleidoscope of my mind I am able to see, to examine if you will, the beauty of my life with Jeff as well as the beauty of my life as I have rebuilt it; I see the people and events that have shaped my life and continue to shape it. The kaleidoscope reflects the patterns of my past and my present. It hints as to the possibilities of the future. The images tumble and combine to form the ever-changing patterns of my life.

For me, the anniversary of Jeff's death will never be a "normal" day. I think the experience of his death imprinted itself so deeply in my mind and my being that each year the awareness of the approaching anniversary flows through me unbidden, bringing the past back into sharper focus.

And yet, unlike the first year when I determinedly set the day apart and tried not to allow the reality of the present to intrude, there is a certain balancing of past and present that now comes with each anniversary. It is part of those ever-changing patterns in my kaleidoscope. This year I found myself alternating between, on the one hand, images of Jeff and memories of the past I shared with him and, on the other hand, how I live my life in the present, between the sorrows that will never fully subside and the joys of living. And that's okay – that's part of this journey, part of the ebb and flow of life. In these days which lead up to the anniversary and on the anniversary itself, I gave myself the quiet time I needed to reflect, I allowed myself certain rituals, I honored Jeff's memory. And around those times I will continue to live my life as it is now.

And so, as this second anniversary of Jeff's death approached, I found myself once again looking back at the man he was, at the life we had, at the love we shared. Yes, there is a sense of sadness and melancholy. But there is also a strong sense of gratitude, gratitude that he was part of my life, gratitude that he loved me and that I loved him, gratitude for the lessons I learned from him while he lived and in the aftermath of his death. I know that I will always love him, that I will always remember him, that he will always be part of me. I know that the life and love we shared will always be part of the kaleidoscope of my mind, part of the patterns of my life.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Coming up on almost two years ...

Martial words reflect illusory mind-set against illness

Finally, this morning, enough -- I read one too many journalistic references to someone's "beating" cancer, as if cancer was an opponent to be defeated, an enemy to be conquered, a battle in which courage often wins the day.

It is a lie. Cancer is to be endured, that's all. The best you can hope for is to fend it off, like a savage dog, but cancer isn't defeated, it only retreats, is held at bay, retires, bides its time, changes form, regroups. It may well be that the boy who survives an early cancer lives a long and lovely life, without ever enduring that species of illness again, but the snarl of it never leaves his heart, and you'll never hear that boy say he defeated the dark force in his bones.

Use real words. Real words matter. False words are lies. Lies sooner or later are crimes against the body or the soul. I know men, women and children who have cancer, had cancer, died from cancer, lived after their cancer retreated, and not one of them ever used military or sporting metaphors that I remember.

All of them spoke of endurance, survival, the mad insistence of hope, the irrepressibility of grace, the love and affection and laughter and holy hands of their families and friends and churches and clans and tribes. All of them were utterly lacking in any sort of cockiness or arrogance; all of them developed a worn, ashen look born of pain and patience; and all of them spoke not of winning but of waiting.

A great and awful lesson is contained there, it seems to me, something that speaks powerfully of human character and possibility. For all that we speak, as a culture and a people, of victory and defeat, of good and evil, of hero and coward, none of it is quite true. The truth is that the greatest victory is to endure with grace and humor, to stay in the game, to achieve humility.

I know a young man with brain cancer. He's 16 years old. He isn't battling his cancer. He is enduring it with the most energy and creativity and patience he can muster. He says the first year he had cancer was awful because of the fear and vomiting and surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and utter exhaustion. But he says that first year was also wonderful because he learned to savor every moment of his days. He met amazing people he would never have met, and his family and friends rallied behind him with ferocious, relentless humor. He learned he was a deeper and stronger and more inventive and more patient soul than he had ever imagined.

He also learned about fear, he says, because he was terrified, and remains so, but he learned that he can sometimes channel his fear and turn it into the energy he needs to raise money for cancer research. Since being diagnosed with cancer, he has helped raise nearly $100,000, which is remarkable.

I met a tiny, frail nun once, while walking along a harbor, and we got to talking. She said no one defeats cancer; cancer is a dance partner you don't want and don't like, but you have to dance, and either you die or the cancer fades back into the darkness at the other end of the ballroom. I never forgot what she said, and think she is right, and the words we use about cancers and wars matter more than we know.

Maybe if we celebrate grace under duress rather than the illusion of total victory we will be less surprised and more prepared when illness and evil lurch into our lives, as they always will; and maybe we will be a braver and better people if we know we cannot obliterate such things, but only wield oceans of humor and patience and creativity against them.

We have an untold supply of those extraordinary weapons, don't you think?