It is easy to get swallowed up in the drama of our own lives, especially when you’ve suffered a series of setbacks. Over the past few years a combination of spiritual and physical practices have tenuously kept the seeds of disillusionment from blossoming and overtaking my spirit. At the same time, the state of my personal life has been in precipitous decline, coming to its nadir in 2012. I have to confess, it’s been a particularly diffident struggle to go beyond my safe bubble of neuroses to look for a bright side beyond those comfortable edges.
The year 2012 opened with the demise of my marriage to a woman I’d been with nearly nineteen years. Leaving the home I shared with she and my twins for the last time felt like the beginnings of a steep, treacherous climb over a mountain to an alien existence that awaited me on the other side. It felt as though I had to make the trek with missing limbs and an obliterated heart.
In late Spring I learned I was to lose my job. The ousting of dozens of colleagues who gave their lives to public service saved my skin, for now at least. It was all part of a purging by politicians harbouring a pathological disdain for civil servants. These ideologues are still my masters, at least in the abstract, and they crack the whip at the backs of my eviscerated co-workers and I who are left to tend our hollowed-out departments. I’m a black man, and I should have serious misgivings about working for a cadre of angry, craven white men who despise what I stand for. But it’s a paycheque, so I bury my head and plod on.
In late 2005, both of my twins were diagnosed with a developmental disorder with no known cause or cure. The diagnosis forced us to move away from a city and lives we loved to the city I grew up in so we could affordably access behavioural therapy. It was an uprooting predicated on the faint hope the non-medical therapy would pay off in the future. With that move I left a dream job in a city bustling with opportunity for a hometown I was all too happy to forever leave behind seven years earlier. My career has stalled ever since; it is a small, provincial, working-class place where a graduate liberal-arts education and experience in international affairs are as in-demand as butter knives in a butcher shop.
The strain of so many setbacks, so much hardship, and so much uncertainty about the future was too much for my marriage to withstand. I became detached and ambivalent; made so by the shabby circumstances that cast a cloud over my perception of what life had become. I shut out the world closest to me, maniacally pursuing one distraction after another to bury my anger and sadness in the haze of constant motion.
In my absence, my wife looked to others for support and we weathered the storm mostly in isolation, fortifying our castles of resentment and dredging deep moats of hostility along the way. Our focus was on getting by; attending to the kids’ special needs to forge a better future for them. The strong relationship we built over so many years was left unattended, and after years of steady decline it eventually crumbled from the neglect.
There is no silk purse to be made from the sow’s ear. In 2005, life burnt my happy house down. I took some embers from the ashes of my blissful existence and held them in my bitter heart. In the years that followed I scattered them far and wide until the earth all around me was scorched and those closest to me were singed by the inferno.
I contrast the path of mental destruction I chose to confront my setbacks to the tack taken by two women my age who have been diagnosed with cancer. One of these is a personal friend, the other an old school mate I knew several years ago, who I greatly admired and respected for her heart, her supreme intellect, and the fact she could play a mean bass in a punk band.
Catherine has taken to sharing her story about her treatment and the disruptions caused by her disease in candid, lengthy e-mails with her varied networks of friends. Over the past two years she’s undergone aggressive chemotherapy for a type of leukemia that rarely strikes forty year-olds. Initially she had it licked, but over the past half-year it has made a comeback and has forced her into a second round of chemotherapy. At the same time, she lost her job, got cut off by her long-term disability provider, and her mother passed away.
She writes with such frankness and humour about her ordeal, and I relish the chance she’s given me to be a fly on the wall through her experiences, even if it has been tough reading. Tough reading. It seems ridiculous to even write it out. I’m not the one throwing up and changing sweat-soaked sheets from a perpetual fever. It’s striking how active Catherine keeps herself, and how neither anger nor bitterness seem to trip her up as she goes. She’s not opting out of things, in spite of her sickness, and in spite of the people who’ve run away from she and her cancer. I assume her story is too difficult for some; maybe they don’t know what to say. It seems like the wrong approach.
Catherine’s had more of a life in recent years than I have; she is less dragged down by negativity. It’s an embarrassing reality given she’s had to overcome aggressive chemotherapy, anemia, fevers, nausea, all-encompassing fatigue and dozens upon dozens of tests, appointments, drainings and proddings. My only excuses are laziness, self-pity, dispiritedness, and apathy.
About a year ago I noticed some of Lisa’s facebook updates alluded to cancer, but the turmoil in my own affairs turned my mind away from social media, and I did not fully grasp the specifics. As I pulled out of my haze in summer I noticed regular updates of bike trips and other active adventures throughout Europe, which I took as encouraging news. If she had cancer, she must surely have it licked, and was savouring the normalcy re-gained. What a relief, I thought. A true champion in the battle against the world’s misanthropes had been restored to good health.
I was mistaken. In November Lisa decided to share her experience about the Stage IV cancer that has caught her in its grasp. She refers to herself as being in ‘Stage V’ cancer – “not just palliative, but writing a blog about it.” Wittiness and good humour, even in the face of such trying circumstances.
So there it was, in my facebook newsfeed. Lisa was gravely ill and in the fight of her life. She writes:
It’s been one year slash 12 months slash 366 days of cancer. It’s been simultaneously the fastest year of my life and the slowest. Words that I never knew existed have become part of my everyday lexicon: pleurodesis, chemotherapy, gamma-knives. My bathroom and bedroom are filled with medicines whose awkward names now roll easily off my tongue: metaclopamide, dexamethazone, cyclazine. My previous life of teaching and libraries, conferences and abstracts, has been eclipsed by clinics and CT scans, second opinions and canulas. And an existence that was previously metered out in words per page has become one where writing, and even reading, has faded into the background.
I was despondent after reading her blog post. Lisa is thirty-seven, which is too young to be suffering from Stage IV lung cancer. It was the first time in a long while my sadness wasn’t brimming from the well of self-pity. Nothing in what I had faced this past year, or the years’ prior, was of the life-threatening variety. For now at least, I can count on the relative certainty of being alive to wallow in my misfortunes.
Well, enough of that, I should think.
At least I don’t have to face cancer like Lisa and Catherine. Not yet anyhow, and I shouldn’t squander the good fortune to have my health intact. My problems aren’t small, but they aren’t, relatively speaking, as grave as life and death.
With eyes open I can see the scale of my problems in their proper light. It isn’t a competition, but it is a fact that alters my perception of things. It makes me slightly ashamed for all the brooding I’ve been doing, for the volume of time that’s been gnashed away with angry teeth and spit out. I wish I could take it all back and give it to these two courageous women fighting cancer – or to the millions of others doing the same. They would put it to better use than I did.
The magnitude of the developments in 2005 was conflated in my mind because of all the changes it wrought. I am ashamed to admit my view of things until then had been remarkably self-referential. My eyes were gazing far into my navel when my troubles came, and I wasn’t habituated to looking for the positives when things got off track. It’s a vicious cycle that taints your worldview.
When you veer in this direction a resignation sets in your mind to the idea that you are a powerless victim of omnipotent forces. You tread water and leave your fate to the four winds instead of finding the determination to work with what life hands you. It’s taken time to come to the realization that, with focused effort, you can at least shape the direction of things. Sometimes you get to a better place, other times you end up somewhere else. The virtue is in the honest attempt to swim with the tide.
The truth is, the world is indifferent to your feelings about what unfolds; nothing happens to smite you or better your station. When calamity strikes, you’ve still got some control over how to approach things in your mind: with anger, denial, and bitterness, or acceptance and determination to prevail with dignity. It’s the lesson I take away from these women sharing their tumultuous cancer journey with the world.
The energy they put into living their lives to the fullest extent possible, to finding the positives wherever they can be found, is a genuine source of wisdom and truth. There is no boiling over with indignation at the hand they’ve been dealt. Instead it’s a business-like moving forward day by day. The outlook resonates at a time when the struggles in my own life have been intense. My heart wants to reach out in a meaningful way to embrace these women in their journey, and that spirit is a source of inner-strength for me. It’s what I need to pull up my socks.
Nothing in the world is meant to go right or wrong and nothing lasts forever, try as I might to hang on as if it were so. Things will go as they go, and I’ve got to go with them or end up in a haze of denial. It’s no way to live; with a mind resistant to reality because things didn’t go as expected, according to a blueprint sketched out by a blind man with lofty, unrealistic ideals. It’s easier, I think, to throw away the master plan than it is to keep coming to blows with a world that never seems to fall in line.
I’ll leave it to Catherine to remind me of a more fruitful approach to living life, however it comes:
Waiting is a BIG part of Cancer Life. A tremendous amount of patience is needed. I live day by day. I will admit that some days are better and easier than others. For my own overall health and happiness, I do my best not to worry about tomorrow. I have more than enough people in my life that do the worrying for me. I continue to take on each challenge, setback, and struggle as it comes. I mindfully pick and choose my battles. In the meantime, I embrace every aspect of Life. Even in moments of crisis, I can and am allowed to find reasons to celebrate. After having personally been to Cancer Hell, the good moments – no matter how big or small – are all worth a celebration. Life is a constant blessing. I have learned to celebrate and enjoy the little things in my Life; one day I may look back on all of this and realize they were big things.