Monday, May 09, 2011

It’s a Little Harder if You’re Actually Dead

Lately my mother gave me a compliment that I appreciated. She observed that I was doing some new things, and doing some things better. “It’s largely due to your cancer,” I told her. “Thank you for getting cancer. That was excellent parenting.”

So, yes, my mother very graciously did get cancer and is now, thank goodness, free of it. The diagnosis was early in February and successful surgery—no radiation or chemotherapy required afterward—was late in April, on Good Friday, but my mother did better than Jesus by twenty-four hours, rising from her bed the very next day. It took Jesus until Easter Sunday. Of course, he was actually dead, so credit where credit is due.

I am not a Christian. I don’t believe in any deity (though I do believe in the kindly presence of my grandmother in heaven), but because I’m a trumpet player, I’ve spent any number of Easter mornings in one church or another, and I do love a rousing Easter sermon, with its themes of redemption and rebirth, another chance and more chapters to come.

There were some snags along the way, including a medical complication that threatened to prevent surgery, and required several tests. I’ve been dreading losing my mother (and father) since I was four (i.e., when it occurred to me that they would die, ditto me), so when the positive cancer diagnosis came, I was utterly and completely beside myself, grief-stricken and sure I was soon to be half an orphan.

One thing became clear immediately: my usual way of coping with crisis was not going to do. That usual way is to line up the amount of emotional support and comfort I think is required and avail myself of it freely. However, this was going to require so much of both those commodities that after two weeks, there would probably be no one left willing to offer either, at least not on a pro bono basis. I was going to need a new plan.

It is also my custom to tell everyone everything, but this was kind of a big deal, and my mother has the opposite approach, so I didn’t feel right about sharing her news with every soul on earth and was selective in my disclosure. I never told any co-worker, for instance, even Emily. One day, I received phone messages of concern from Amy and Sally. I made a mental note that I needed to call them back, and then realized I could have made the exact same mental note 40 years ago! Those are my friends from when I was seven, still here in one case, and here again thanks to Facebook in the other case.

I was driven back into therapy by this, and that has been a good thing. I’m making better use of it this time around. (Which therapist? Both! Sorry, therapists, I know you don't like it when people see more than one of you at once, but I need you both.) I also realized I needed to make haste and read the two books my mother most often cites as helpful before she died: Handbook to Higher Consciousness, by Ken Keyes, and the aforementioned Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress. I’m just starting the former, but the latter has been ridiculously helpful. It has changed my life, actually.

(Of course, every time I mentioned some helpful tidbit I’d gleaned from it, my mother cited the other: “Yes, well, in Handbook to Higher Consciousness, it says … .”)

In addition, I went to see Patricia Meadows, a wonderful Somatic Experiencing practitioner in Novato, one of the teachers of the class I took at the Zen Center. I saw her only once—I love her, but getting to Novato is a bit of a trek—and it was exceedingly helpful. I left understanding completely that while 48-year-old Linda might have a coping skill or two, it was four-year-old Linda who was completely distraught. Patricia said I would need to build up the emotional muscle to stay with the feelings that arose. That idea has stayed with me, and I also have made a practice of going back in time to reassure that younger self. These imaginary journeys can be kind of distressing, because I can’t tell that child it’s all going to come out OK. I find this work very helpful in my current life, but revisiting how anxious and lonely I felt in 1966, how chronically hungry for attention and affection, makes me feel kind of heartbroken for that little girl.

So, all of these things have been extraordinarily helpful: therapy, reading the book, seeing Patricia, identifying some changes I needed to make, the mental trips back in time to provide attention and comfort. And I’m seeing the fruits of this work, and I’m delighted. Plus my mother is fine.

Early on, it was clear that that would probably be the case, though you never know with cancer, but it still took a while for my initial upset to abate. The day she was actually having surgery was a hard, kind of horrible, almost surreal day. People die in surgery! My father provided great, detailed updates and spent the night with her in her hospital room. She was able to go home the next afternoon.

Tests performed on the matter removed showed that the cancer had been the earliest possible stage and was now therefore gone.

All is well. Which means my mother is never, ever going to die!

Right?
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