Friday, August 12, 2011

Being Sick: Lessons on Illness

Etsy Print Art
day 84
I don't look at sickness and death the way most people do. I see it as inevitable, the shadowy breath on the nape of my neck that never evaporates, even in spring.

Chalk it up to the deep cut and scarring myomectomy  performed when I was 25. In the middle of a demographics class at the Kennedy School, I stood up and fell faint. Then it happened: blood gushed down my legs. A large tumor was rearing its head.

Forty eight hours later, my surgeon, a chivalrous ob gyn named Jerome Federschneider stared at my mother. She had rapidly left my dad at home in DC and flown up to Cambridge. Dr. Federschneider's intense plaintive eyes paused on me, then her. He said, "She will have 60% chance of recuperating well enough to have children. There may be miscarriages along the way."

What that surgery taught me is a lot of what I have had to learn over and over again. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, when my mother died at 65 of a massive heart attack. When our first child was diagnosed with diabetes, type one insulin dependent. And yes the preordained miscarriage, the loss of a child between the first and second  Now with dad's cancer. I know some things for certain:

At First, You Can't Breathe ....And then you're not sure you want to.  You can't bear the news but you do. You go to sleep grateful to stop thinking about it. You awake begging: "Please God, just let me go back to sleep. Let me forget this; let none of it be true." But it is true and somehow you manage to rise. You go back to grapple, to slug it out, to fight.

The Body Betrays
Suddenly, the body parts don't work. Yours---your parents'--your child's. They are supposed to work, and perhaps they have, but now they don't. The uterus won't hold; bad cells migrate; genes betray. Witnessing the body's disrepair and disintegration can be such a rude awakening. Recognizing its capacity to embarass and betray is painful. But the truth is these occurrences, these realities, are simple stepping stones to final endings. The body is a shell. The soul prevails. 

True Friends Shine. The Fearful Recede.
The story is always the same. Serious illness strips veneers. No matter what, it shows you who your true friends are. Some people are eloquent; some bumbling but the eloquent and the bumbling have the same spirit. They are twins harboring a desire to tell you: "I want you to be well. To survive this suffering. I love you. I'm sorry for your pain."

The fearful, however, disappear. Like cotton candy on a hot summer tongue, sweet, then poof! Gone. They are unable to exist with the merest application of life's heat. Beyond awkward, they are invisible when you are reeling. They are the ones who often think, if I have all the right tests and eat all the juiciest healthiest things it won't happen to me, but of course it will. Things happen; they always do.

Support comes; love surrounds
Out of no where come bands of angels: the neighbor who never really speaks suddenly does, the old friends from high school find you, the sibling who hates sickness steps up, the nurse on her 11th hour of a grueling 12 hour shift says "hang in there." 

So often when you are suffering, another human being will come and stand by you. She will tell you of her own father's illness or say, "I am pulling hard for you," or bring a big yellow cake like your mom used to bake and that tastes better than anything you've eaten all week.

Never forget to tell those you love
how much you do, never underestimate the power of small gestures.

Good night friends,

copyright 2011


Elizabeth said...

Your eloquent words have gone deeply to my very soul. I lost a child 5 years ago and I know some of these people you write about. I also know it always hurts, but you do come out on the other side. The ability to survive pain so deep that we truly believe it will kill us can be summed up in one word. Faith.

Wanda Fleming of River Girls Soap said...

Thanks for the kind words Elizabeth. I am very sorry for the loss of your child. The loss of a parent is its own grief but grief expected no matter how harsh. The loss of a child is a different kind of suffering that gratefully most will never endure and many, despite genuine wishes, cannot comprehend.

Be well,