By Linus Mundy
I still have dream about my good friend Pat. Once in a while in those dreams he survives the cancer-as so many people do today-and lives happily ever after. But much of the time in my dreams, Pat doesn't survive. And I have to wake up fully before I know he's still "happy ever after," even though he died shortly after a bone marrow transplant.
Whether we like or not, cancer puts us into this "ever after" kind of world, a world of spiritual questioning, as we grapple with the destiny of someone we love, and our own destiny, too.
Working Your Way Through
Many people today fully recover from cancer. Vast numbers of people experience life-and, yes, physical life here on earth-beyond cancer. But statistics done help us much when it comes to dealing with all the uncertainty ahead, and uncertainty that can itself seem like an eternal "ever after. " This uncertainty applies to the person with cancer as well as family and friends. As so many people have come to realize, individuals don't get cancer alone; their families, their friends, their loving communities are also deeply affected.
We're all in this together. And so I hope the ideas that follow will help you and your loved ones together cope with a hard new reality in all your lives.
There is a saying that goes: "Pity sees and says, I'm sorry; compassion sees and says, How can I help?" How can we truly help? The most frustrating thing is that we feel helpless to do the very thing we want to do the most: to take away our loved one's cancer. The lyrics from Bob Dylan song from my youth come to mind: "Now I do not feel that good when I see the heartbreaks you embrace. If I were a master thief ... I'd rob them." Most of us would do about anything to rob our loved one of the suffering and uncertainty ahead.
We cant' do that- except that we can remove one of the largest fears and uncertainties of all: that we will stop loving and caring for this person. Words of reassurance help, of course. But showing our love is the best way: with our presence, our phone calls and messages, our help around the house, our clipping from newspapers, our uplifting quotes from books, our small gifts, our touch. We also help when we become advocates for our loved ones, helping make sure that they receive quality medical and comfort care.
Listening is not something most of us do very well. I know I don't. I'd much prefer to create the agenda and start acting on it. But to be truly loving, sometimes we need to be truly listening. That means being sensitive and aware-knowing, for example, when our loved one wants us to be talking or visiting or bringing things or bringing good cheer. But it also means knowing when our loved one doesn't want any of the above. "Sadness needs its own time to be," goes one hard saying. There is "a time to laugh, and a time to cry," says the Book of Ecclesiastes. And there is also a time for "in-between," a time to just be.
Don't Dismiss the Small, Simple Things
A cancer "verdict" is often a "wait a and see" verdict. The hardest part may be the waiting. This becomes the new day-to-day reality, as tests are awaited and administered, and then the results are awaited, one after another after yet another.
It's easy to underestimate the value of simple things thorough all these waiting times. One of my fondest memories is of my dad and me having time together during his recover from cancer surgery. A cup of warm broth became a banquet we shared. "Ohh, that's good!" was his simple, heart-felt comment. It meant the world to me as I held the cup and straw for him.
With my friend Pat, it was my regular phone calls to him in the weeks and moths of his illness that were a gift to him-and to me. Yes, we spoke of eternity once or twice, but mostly it was the stories of his little daughter, Andrea, my godchild. And, oh yes, we often asked each other that most "eternal" of all questions, "How about those Cubbies?"
Cancer gets us asking and trying to answer deep questions about our God and ourselves. The innocent suffering we witness has us asking new questions: "What do I believe now that I didn't before? What don't I be live anymore?" Only you can answer these questions.
As my mother recovered from a very serious form of cancer more than 30 years ago (she was only 51, and she lived into her late 70s), my prayer for her was a simple one: "God, let her live." My prayer for her today, now that I'm older, would be the same, no doubt. But today I would make sure I told Mom I was praying for her, too. And I'd pray for myself-for courage an strength and peach and understanding. I now know that we, the families and friends of people with cancer, need spiritual healing, too.
This is a time for the big and the small of life. It is a time for honesty, and a time for not knowing everything. "The greatest freedom is the freedom of not needing to know what is going to happen next," wrote one wise philosopher. Cancer will try to make philosophers out of all of us.
Yes, things have changed- for the one you love, and for yourself, too. But one of the greatest consolations for the one you love is seeing that not everything has changed. As a matter of fact, he or she needs to see you living, talking, acting, carrying on in much the same way as before. Life does go on, no matter what happens, and there e is no small consolation in knowing that the school bus still comes by at 7:05 to pick up Emily: John still reads the funny papers first thing in the morning: and you still have that quirky sense of humor.
A sense of normalcy and routine, a normalcy and routine that exist despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary, can be tremendously healing. By the same token, when we are with the one we love, someone who has cancer, we need to remember that we are not all of the sudden now talking with, laughing with, crying with "cancer-victim Anna"; we are still sharing our lives with "plain old" Anna. She is not to be confused with the disease. Anna will appreciate us remembering that.
Embrace the Changes
Cancer changes things dramatically. It changes cell structures, blood counts, energy levels, and the list goes on. Even more it change hears, minds, our very souls and lives. We hear stories of how it can even change some things for the better.
"I've take more than I've given," says one husband whose wife has cancer. "And I've given more than I thought I had." In our own family, we witnessed our mother giving more than we though she had. We were all completely surprised by her during Dad's illness. Frequently overwhelmed by the smallest of crises in the past, Mom was the model of kindness, understanding , and courage when we all needed it most.
Tell Them You're Fine is the refreshing title of an award-winning video for people coping with cancer. While I'm not an advocate of being stoic about life's tough breaks, I firmly believe in the power of hope. Even Earnest Hemingway, a fatalist as most critics would have it, has the "Old Man" of The Old Man and the Sea declare in his darkest hour: "It is silly not to hope, and besides, I think it is a sing."
And what should we hope for? For a cure, surely. But while a medical cure is not always possible, healing is-for our loved ones, and for our own hurting hearts. Most of all, we can offer the hope that believes in happy "ever after's," not matter what.
Someone-a friend, a relative, a healthcare person, God, perhaps even you yourself- will surprise you, too. IN the days ahead, you will be learning more than you may have ever wanted to learn about the world of medicine, disease, and treatments. But you will also be learning more than you ever expected about relationships, the human spirit, and the spirit of God. May this be a time of healing-and new beginnings that lead to the best of endings, now and ever after.
Linus Mundy is director of One Caring Place. He has written a number of CareNotes, and the books Prayer-Walking, Grief-Walking, Slow-Down Therapy, Grief Therapy for Men, and Finding Peace of Heart. He is married to Mikie and is the father of Mike, Emily, and Patrick.
Sources of Additional Help
Books: Dear God, It's Cancer-A Medical and Spiritual Guild for Patients and Their Families by W. A. Fintel, M.D., and G.R. McDermott, Ph.D., Dallas, Word Publishing, 1993; Cancer Lives at Our House-Help for the Family by Beatrice Hofman Hoek, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House Company, 1997.
CareNotes: Facing Cancer as a Family by Melissa Kelly, 1989; Talking With Your Kids About Cancer in the Family by Lisa Engelhardt, 1999; St. Menrade, Indiana, Abbey Press.
For a complete catalog of all our caring publications, call Toll-Fre: 1-800-325-2511 or visit www.carenotes.com.
Address correspondence to:
One Caring Place, Abbey Press, St. Meinrad, IN 47577.
Revised ©2004, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, IN 47577. No portion of this publication may be reproduce without permission from the publisher.
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