I have two friends who have lost a parent in the last year. We are that age, after all. One of them was a friend prior to her dad’s illness, the other was merely an acquaintance, prior to her mom’s.
Liat’s dad had stomach cancer. When he found out, the doctor’s said: “We’ve caught it early. We’ll go in, take it out, you should be fine.” Upon ‘going in’, they discovered they were mistaken. He lived less than a year. She’s in her mid-twenties, unmarried, too young to lose her dad. Not a child, but her children won’t have a grandfather, her dad won’t walk her down the aisle. She’s athletic, a bright eyed optimist, a bit of a Berkeley hippie-chick in the very best sense of the word. She worked for me at Levi’s and taught yoga on the side.
Meredith’s mom passed away from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This rare illness overtook her swiftly, faster than many sufferers. Meredith was with her the entire time, from diagnosis to her passing. Meredith is sensitive, beautiful, thoughtful, a striver, a bit of a compulsive; she is forever changed by this experience. She is at once grateful for her friendships, her family and surprised by people’s inability to be ‘there’, to be in this with her. We are not a culture that handles death very openly. Forthright and understanding strangers can become our friends when faced with death.
My mom was also sick this year, from lung cancer (no, she never smoked). This is what brought the three of us together. Each had a parent suffering from a serious illness. My mother is the lone survivor, just one year later. She is the lucky one. She is not better, more worthy, more loved. Just luckier, if length of life can be equated to luck. I’m not sure I believe that it should be. Other things seem more profound – life experience and appreciation, for instance. Alas, I believe my mom to be lucky because she has another chance to develop an appreciation for her life, something at which she has not always thrived.
When I found out my mom was possibly ill (she was in the hospital with fluid in her lung), I hopped a plane to Philadelphia. I thought, “this is likely nothing, a bit of pneumonia, maybe TB.” By the time my plane landed, my brother called me to say, “It’s cancer.” It felt like a rock was dropped on my chest. And my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I was flattened. Lung cancer. She would die. People don’t live from that. When I was a teenager, I had a close adult friend – my hairdresser during my competing days – who died of lung cancer at the age of 39, the same age as I am now. Lung cancer is a death sentence. My mother is going to die, I thought. I didn’t think, I knew. I knew I’d have to make the most of the year or so we had left. I’d move to Philly, spend every waking moment with her, enjoying, repairing past grievances.
By the time I got to the hospital, the doctor said it was a late stage cancer. They likely wouldn’t treat it, other than to ease her pain. What? How could this be? Our year wasn’t even going to happen, the year I’d come to treasure in the short car ride from the airport to the hospital. It must be my fault. I’ve been a horrible person. I’ve been so caught up with work – obsessed – in the past year, that I am being taught a lesson about what really matters. I’ve given this horrible disease to my mother because I am an awful, disgusting person. I was short of breath with this realization that I shared with my husband as my mom slept fitfully, knocked sideways by truckloads of meds.
“This isn’t about you,” he said. I laid with her the rest of the night, in her hospital bed. Head on her shoulder, while tears streamed down her face, my face, soaking the pillow.
Liat was one of the first people I called for advice. Her dad was in the throes of his disease, very near death. They’d given up hope that he might live, had moved through that phase into making peace with dying. She gave me advice about cancer centers, homeopathic treatments, yoga. Another friend - a doctor - whose dad had had cancer five years earlier offered advice on books (Bernie Siegel) and alternative treatments if chemo wasn’t prescribed.
And there were others: Karen K, the mother of a friend who’d survived cancer years earlier, offered weekly emails of love and support. Total strangers, on-line, shared their stories, treatment approaches, feelings about losing a loved one. It all helped.
Meredith and I became friendly when I returned to work, after seeing my mother through her surgery. The cancer turned out to be not quite as far along as they’d assumed; it hadn’t yet spread to her other lung, making her a viable candidate for surgery and chemo and radiation. Meredith reached out to me about a job, but we bonded over having a sick mom. Over having felt to blame, having felt the shameful need to maintain some sort of life outside a parent’s illness, over how to best care for our moms whom we love deeply, over our compulsive over-achieving natures. Many months later, we are still friends. Building a tentative closeness based on the horror of losing someone (in my case contemplating losing someone) that we love.
I am so grateful that people are willing to share their stories. Whether on-line or with me in person. They are generous givers, willing to reveal their darkest and, at times, most selfish moments. I felt less alone in my parents’ basement, unable to sleep, for the two months I stayed in Philly nursing my mom back to physical and emotional stability, when I trolled the cancer bulletin boards, blogs and support groups. I felt I should’ve been handling this better, but I wasn’t. As a nearly 40 year old woman, shouldn’t I have known this was coming? Shouldn’t I have been prepared? And yet, I had not predicted this nor was I prepared to deal with the imminent loss of a parent, one who I’d had a contentious relationship with throughout my teens and twenties, wasted years now shaded with unbearable guilt. I was grown, old, some might say, and had enjoyed a lifetime with my mom. How greedy and selfish was I to be rendered helplessly catatonic with four decades of mom-time under my belt? What, did I think I should have a mom AND a dad forever? And, with my mom in such emotional distress, how could I even contemplate leaving, going home to my family because I missed my children. I was torn up with contradictions.
Through others sharing their stories, I realized it is never easy to lose a parent. It’s a cliché, I know. But talking with others in my situation made me feel so much less alone. I didn’t feel less unique or sad, I felt more understood, more loved. More a part of the human race.
Sharing personal experience of any kind can serve this purpose. I gobble up memoirs about addiction, though I’m not and never have been an addict. But these former addicts share horrific truths about themselves – self-loathing that leads them down unimaginable paths. I read them not with ‘There but for the grace of God…” gratefulness, rather with heartfelt empathy. They hurt too. We are the same.
I am especially moved when people share ugly, vile stories about themselves or things that cause them shame. When they are unkind, selfish, mean or weak. We all are sometimes, I’d venture. The guilt that can take over upon realizing we’ve behaved badly or without the strength expected of us, can be all consuming. Prompting even more self-indulgent behavior (what is guilt, if not self-indulgence?). But hearing from others, sharing in experience, helps one to move on with it. It happened, I did it, I feel it. But so did she. Or he. I can keep going. I will keep going. In fact, I will share my experience without shame or embarrassment or guilt or fear. I will share. The good, the bad, the humiliating, the shameful. I will share.
Thanks Meredith. Thanks Liat. For sharing with me.