30 March 2014

Loss and becoming

It is day 7 of chemo. Today I woke after fitful sleep to my body hurting in the most unusual way—throbbing pain in my back and legs. I pulled my body out of bed and discovered that I couldn’t sit or lie or bend without some pretty serious pain. I had to shuffle slowly around the house, mostly miserable and feeling sorry for myself. I have meditated and showered and breakfasted and taken the mostly-forbidden pain killer (these mask fever which is the most important sign of the most dangerous side effect of chemo—what the doctors call lifethreateningbacterialinfection as though it’s one word). But now I am human again and able to sit without much pain.

Mostly, this has been a fairly easy first week. I’ve been tired and a little foggy, but I have been in very good shape, considering. The mouth sores have begun which is a real pain, and now this bone pain, but I am mostly feeling very fortunate.

As I’ve been trucking through these last months, I’ve begun to notice that there are some thoughts that have a level of toxicity that they become Forbidden Questions.  As I have danced with them and pushed them away, I’ve been noticing that they’re probably forbidden for all of us, not just during times of cancer. I’ve figured out some questions that I find much more helpful and thought I’d see if you find them more helpful too. Here’s the one that tends to hurt the most:

How can I get my life back?

During times of change we did not seek, this question must be with all of us, even when it's most impossible. It first roared into my head nearly 22 years ago when my cousin MaryEllen died. The thought that pounded over and over again was, “When do I wake up from this nightmare and find that things are back the way they were?” This must happen to you too when life brings you something you hate: when your relationship goes bad, when your job gets cut, when the doctor takes a deep breath before telling you about the test results.

In the last months, I have looked at my poor battered body and wondered again and again when I will get my life back. And as I begin this chemo period I trip into wondering the same—do I get my life back on 16 June? And I have friends who talk about when things “return to normal.” But many of these changes are irreversible—I will never ever be the way I used to be. I have crossed into new terrain, and parts of the old world are long behind me. I am learning that I do so much better without looking backwards. I think lots of our changes are like this—our deep desire to really go through unscathed, unchanged, to have the life we were used to. I feel that urge deep in my bones (especially today as my bones hurt so much) and I have come to find that question more poisonous than the chemo, and with no appreciable benefits.

At first the thing that holds us in these changing times is just the loss that piles around our knees. Every memory is the death of a life we weren’t choosing to alter. And instead of seeing the possibility of the newness around us, I think we focus on the losses that are so obvious. I watch it happen to me. Instead of liking this new haircut, I miss the curls I used to love. Instead of appreciating the open space of these next three months, I feel sad about the class at Harvard this week that will get taught by a video of me instead of me in person. My eye gets drawn to the hole in my life and not to the possibility of something new.

I am so much healthier when I ask instead, “I wonder who I’ll be next?” I can look at the losses scattered around me and face the changes in new way. I am in the middle of a Great Becoming. I’m not sure how it ends up. My life is transforming around me, my body is sloughing off its cells, my immune system is starting fresh. My changes have changed others in unexpected and unpredictable ways—I have clients who are spending more time with their children, friends who are exercising and taking better care of their bodies. We are all in the middle of becoming something new. I wonder who we’ll all be next.

When I begin to ask this question, instead of the focus on the brokenness of what has been (and is not coming back), I reach into the new emerging of what seems to be being born. I am more in love with the world than I have ever been, more tuned into the arc of a wave blown by the wind. I live in gratitude for my friends and family. I feel deep and enduring compassion for those who are sick or in pain. I have been those ways before, but they are growing in me each day and are shaping the new form of who I am becoming and what I will do next.

I will not be who I was. I will not return to normal. I will not move on and forget about this time. And if I could do all of those things, wouldn’t it be sort of tragic? Because boy has there been pain and misery on this path, just as there are on the paths of all of those who face changes they did not choose (which is all of us, right?). Wouldn’t it be a shame if this path of pain was a kind of loop track, dumping me off at the beginning of the journey, undisrupted and pretending I had never left home as I waited for the scars to fade? This path is taking me into a new place, and each loss is a sign of a piece of me I cannot carry into the future world. And I believe—I really believe—that each of us will be better next than we used to be.  This is not in a blind “everything happens for the best” sort of way, but in a deep belief in the human spirit to take pain and loss and metabolize them into development and compassion and love. Right now, my body is working overtime to be new; it is nearly a full time job. I will try to be present in the unfolding of it, holding the amazing delights of the moment when the pain stops and the world feels peaceful again, the joy of laughing over a cup of tea with a friend. I am becoming something new and unexpected. What are you becoming next?


Anonymous said...

moved and grateful for your sharing Jennifer....I feel brought to the edges of life thank you
sending my love and prayers to you x

Anne Sautelle said...

Dearest Jennifer,Thank you for sharing so deeply and beautifully your experience of breast cancer.Your reflections move me to the core.Know that I am thinking of you and sending immense amounts of love to you, your family and all those who are so lovingly caring for you day to day. xox

Anonymous said...

That was my first post! I didn't know how to do it other than anonymously but I figured you'd know it was me since Michael only has one sister!

Sorry- just excited that I sort of figured out how to do something techy!