all of the selves we Have ever been
I arrive for my appointment to get measured and marked for the start of 16 sessions of radiation therapy. The busy scheduler apologizes for the crazy schedule as she tries to find a consistent time of day for my appointments, appointments that will span four weeks from start to finish if all goes well.
“Do you have far to travel,” she asks me.
I am aware that people drive hours each way every day to get their treatments in this world class treatment facility. “I live three miles from here; schedule me at your convenience and the convenience of those who have to travel.”
In the treatment changing room, I don a lavender gown and take a seat in the waiting area where I sit with other women in matching lavender gowns. We each wait for our name to be called. Some days, things go smoothly. Other days, things happen like the air conditioner breaking down in a treatment room. The schedule backs up. The staff is so apologetic, kind, and hardworking that no one would consider complaining.
Some of the women wait in silence. Others stare into their phones or up at the television screen, a few feel compelled to share their stories; they are containers about to burst. Their trauma needs to be revisited. The re-telling helps to break through the shock and disbelief, and it helps to make it manageable. The only similarity among us is the matching gowns. Each cancer story is different. Each story re-defines bravery: the misdiagnoses, the years of treatment and recovery, crossing the finish line at the ten year mark only to have the cancer return in the bones seven weeks later, women holding down demanding jobs, mothers trying not to frighten their children, expectant women trying to keep their hopes up as they navigate breast cancer and pregnancy at the same time.
I sit across from a young woman. I see her bald head and tired eyes, and my heart fills with grief for her. I think of my own daughter about the same age. And I think this woman is someone else’s daughter. And I think that she is too young for this. I want to open some tap in my own body and fill a cup with the good health I have enjoyed. I want to give it to her and say, “Drink.”
The women come and go from the waiting room. In quick exchanges they share their fears of losing jobs, and not just their livelihoods, but their precious health insurance. They continue to mask up while the rest of the world breathes freely. COVID will never be over for them.
There is a loneliness in the experience of illness that cannot be understood except by a fellow traveler. It does not matter how many people love you. It does not matter how much support you have. There are stops on the road where others can wait, but they cannot go into the dark and frightening spaces they don’t know exist. They can only carry the load and stay with the pain for so long.
Family and friends remain optimistic. Often they don’t want to hear about that which is hard. Treatment professionals are quick to diagnose “depression,” when, in fact, it is coping. Others cannot stay awake to the pain and fear for as long as the patient must. And, to be fair, they cannot. That is what makes these moments in the waiting room so precious. Perhaps someone receives a gift on the day the air conditioner breaks down.
And yet, with all of this said, it is a cheerful group of women with more to share than their woes. There are grandchildren and great-grandchildren, travel and restaurants, birthdays and anniversaries. We all come here for the hope--the hope offered by treatment, and the hope in each story. In this place we can relax with the truth without judgment or self-consciousness. In this group I am grateful for the health I have, for my strength, for the optimistic outlook for my own disease, and for the people and resources in this remarkable treatment center.
I reflect on the beams of light that will penetrate each of us who come to this waiting room. I think of the human genius that harnessed the power of the sun to cure cancer. And I think of The One who said, “Let there be light,” and made order out of the chaos. It is the same One who made man, and seeing that man was lonely, He made the rest of us.
We are the cure. We were made for each other. If only we could remember this in both sickness and in health, that would be paradise.
I’ve lost my edge. And my bounce.
After a lifetime of rolling with the punches, my figure can only be described as “round,” and my squishy, inert orb rests on the playing field waiting to be kicked into play.
I thought it was my age, but many people of different ages are complaining of a brand of inertia that has become the new long COVID even for those who never contracted the illness.
The op-ed columns are screaming with commentary on “quiet quitting,” and yesterday, the mailman shared that he has been delivering mail for 30 years after a stint in the military. His days are getting longer because the post office is short on help. “There used to be a waiting list of people who wanted to work for the post office. It was considered a good job,” he tells me as he fills the mailboxes that line the lobby walls. “No one wants to work anymore. They don’t want to work weekends or long days. They don’t want to deal with the weather…” I feel for him as I rest on the steps watching him work and listening about folks who haven’t quit because they’ve never even taken the field.
As if the news media were reading my mind, a headline pops up: Coronavirus Linked to Personality Changes in Young Adults. According to a Florida State University study, the pandemic “may have fundamentally changed the personalities of young people.” The long periods of social isolation seem to have made them moodier, more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible. Researchers speculate that these changes may be due to a disruption in the completion of specific and normal developmental tasks and in the maturing process in general.
My mind wanders to a Holocaust survivor I have known. He was herded off to a concentration camp when just an elementary school boy. He recalled standing in the morning line-up as wagons passed by the long rows of captives. The bodies of those who had died overnight or in the gas chambers filled the carts and hung from the sides. “These were our loved ones,” this survivor told me. “We were an emotional people, but we couldn’t even cry.” In his eighties, he now wept, grieving the loss of his loved ones along with the temporary loss of his own humanity at that terrifying and tragic time.
While our lives in no way resemble the tragedy of the Holocaust, I can appreciate the point of view of the shell shocked, those individuals who have faced intense, life-threatening circumstances that produced feelings of helplessness, fear, inability to reason or to carry on with the normal tasks of daily living. How especially true this must be for children with wild imaginations and limited life experience, perspective, and power.
In the last three years, we have been bombarded, not by bombs, but by disasters. First, COVID made its way into our awareness. There were the terrifying unknowns and dire predictions. The lockdowns. The disruptions to travel, daily life, work, school, and supply chains. There were loss and death, exhausted caregivers, and no end in sight. Anger and outrage were directed at the very people trying to assess the germ and protect us from its harm. And while we were trying to find a balance for living, we were inundated with news reports about climate change, wild fires, and shortages of every kind. Our government came under siege as our representatives attempted to complete the ceremonial task of certifying a presidential election. An unprovoked war broke out in the Ukraine, and new horrific war crimes were exposed each day on the news. That was soon followed by threats of a nuclear power plant disaster or the use of nuclear weapons. Fuel supplies were cut or sabotaged.
We continue to struggle with skyrocketing inflation as the world teeters on the edge of financial collapse with the British and Chinese currencies in trouble. We have argued long about immigration, and now we are treated to political stunts on the evening news even as the entire world is struggling with mass displacement due to famine, disease, hunger, human rights disasters, war, violence, and climate change. New germs threaten to get us: monkey pox is on the rise everywhere; Ebola cases are increasing in Africa; and polio has been found in the wastewater in New York. Devastating mass shootings and frightening political upheaval are daily news fodder. We learn that we cannot trust people in leadership to reach solutions or protect us even as violent crime increases. And this week, we were served a new poison--a once-in-a-lifetime weather event that has devastated Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, and parts of Virginia. And continuously humming in the background of all of this is the media shame machine. We have so many new labels to discredit people that we can no longer speak to one another in the civil manner needed to solve problems.
No wonder young people are quietly quitting. We are all weary and frightened. Like overstimulated two-year-olds, we just want to take a nap and wake up when the world is all better.
My mind wanders again, this time to the people aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11. When it became apparent that terrorists had hijacked their airplane and intended to do grave harm to the country, these passengers decided to take action knowing they would likely lose their lives in doing so. “Let’s roll,” Todd Beamer is credited with saying. The plane went down but spared the much larger disaster in the making.
This morning electrical workers and Red Cross volunteers here in Columbus, Ohio and in many states both red and blue, started their engines. Their wheels began turning. Small armies of the tired but determined left home for disaster zones in Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia.
Hang in there, kids. We may be weary, but when it matters, this is how we roll.
I’ve got gas!
And I’m not embarrassed to admit it. In fact, I am celebrating. Living without gas proved to be much harder than living with it.
On a recent Friday morning, I stopped at a local gas station to fill my tank only to discover that my car’s fuel door would not open. I pulled the lever, but I did not hear the affirming pop. I tried again. And again. But no matter how many times I tried, the little round door would not open. I squeezed my fingertip into the narrow space surrounding the door and pulled, but I could not get the fuel door to budge. I resorted to reading the owner’s manual, confident there was a back-up system. Eight chapters later, and with no alternative, I returned to the cashier to secure a refund, and then I headed straight for home. I called my regular auto repair shop to make an appointment: “We can get you in on Wednesday,” the manager said. It was going to be a long five-day weekend.
Feeling vulnerable without my wheels, I realized that I needed to preserve the remaining gas to get to the repair shop on Wednesday. Immediately, my mind began a thorough exploration of all of the emergencies that could arise between Friday morning and Wednesday evening, crises that would require a full tank of gas. Topping the list was something awful happening to one of my children. I mentally lived the horror and the shame of not being able to get to one of them on some dark and lonely road or in a busy emergency room, and what if one of them was abducted and I needed to join the search?
Shaken and grief stricken from all of my vivid catastrophizing, I reminded myself that I was a trained therapist. I took some deep breaths and began the process of cognitive restructuring. I made a conscious decision to be positive. I would use the time to catch up on chores around the apartment, do some deep cleaning, and get in a lot more walking. By the time I fully committed to positive thinking, I was exhausted, and it was time for bed.
I awoke Saturday morning to the sounds of heavy equipment in the parking lot just outside my window. A crew from the electric company was busy replacing some tall light poles. I went about my morning business until I noticed the faint smell of natural gas. The electric workers had hit a gas line. A gas company representative arrived promptly to shut off the gas to the entire building. They would be back to deal with the issue sometime on MONDAY. Now, with no gas in my car, no gas for cooking, and no gas to heat water for bathing, not only would I be helpless in an emergency, but I would starve and be stinking when the authorities came to recover my body. They would look at my fetid condition and my empty refrigerator and charge my children with neglect of a senior. All of the evidence would point to the conclusion that I should never have been left alone.
Despite my resolve to accept my circumstances and look for the positive by spending this very long weekend on self-care, chanting words of peace and love, and sniffing essential oils, I continued to wander out to my car to try to open the fuel door. It’s hard to say how many times I tried, but I am sure it was enough to arouse suspicion, and all of my comings and goings were caught on camera by my neighbor’s RING doorbell. The authorities would have more physical evidence to prove their case.
I was torn apart by what this behavior might do to my children’s future, but I just couldn’t help myself. I really did try to stay focused on the cognitive restructuring plan, but let’s face it--peace and love will only get you so far, and then you need gas.
After innumerable trips to my car, it finally happened--the fuel door opened! Was it a miracle? The fruit of obsession? A never-say-die attitude? Who knows?
In any case, I immediately got gas. The peace and love came much easier after that.