December 29, 2016
“Stay strong!” These are the last words my son says to me as he and his wife board their plane back to LA after their holiday visit with us.
“Stay strong,” and of course he is right but immediately the questions arise. Others have also used this phrase with me. It’s so easy to say, such a short and concise edict for behavior in the face of…. what? My husband’s illness and debilitation? The obvious loss of the life we once knew? The sometimes overwhelming physical, emotional, and mental tasks that this involves?
What does it really mean to stay strong? My husband is sick, really sick, and in chemotherapy for the next 10 months or longer. I have watched the effects of the last four months of hospitalization, a stem cell transplant, and massive doses of poison, and I think, what does being “strong” look like now?
Does being strong mean that you don’t cry? If that’s what it means, I’m failing miserably. I’ve cried and cried, usually just a few tears but sometimes by myself, I wail. I mean that literally – I wail! I wail with grief and stress and sadness and frustration and pain. And there’s really no way that I could do this otherwise. So I don’t believe that staying strong means not crying. In fact, just the opposite. If I wasn’t crying, I’d be going insane. I’d be suppressing very real emotions that must be expressed, that must find the light of truth, that must be loved and accepted for what they are – the simple and complicated sorrow of a loved one’s mortal illness.
My son is not comfortable with my tears and I don’t blame him. I mean, who really wants to see their mother cry? And I wonder if all the people who exhort me to stay strong are also uncomfortable with tears. Or is this exhortation something else?
I’ve been struck over and over by the “happy face” that people put on in the chemotherapy unit. It’s upbeat in a bizarre and shallow way. Can this be what is meant by staying strong?
People chat about little things, unimportant things – what they got for their birthday, what happened on their drive to the hospital, what their daughter said to their mother, the TV show they watched last night. So much talk about the inconsequential and the mundane. It is this happy talk that is the most disconcerting to both of us because it feels like a denial of the harsh reality we are facing.
Clearly it would be worse if everyone came into this unit complaining and focusing on the negative forces that surround us here. But surely this happy talk isn’t what is meant by staying strong.
Every now and then someone talks about the effects of the drugs they are ingesting, about how hard it is to sleep or eat, about how weak they feel. But this is said with a laugh and a smile, and is immediately countered with more laughter and a happily resigned statement of acceptance. “Oh well, it will be fine.”
Sometimes the chemotherapy effects are talked about with obvious depression and hopelessness. This is harder and is met with silence or negation. “It will get better. You’ll see. Just hang in there.” In either instance, the underlying message doesn’t get acknowledged. It’s just too hard for most of us to hear! We don’t know what to say in the face of this pain and suffering and so we slip into deflection and denial. We tell the sick person how good they are looking and we focus on the latest medical discoveries or the next holiday or who is coming to visit soon. We certainly don’t talk about dying.
Meanwhile, Michael and I sit in our chemo cubicle in relative silence. We meditate or read books or listen to podcasts. Anything to distract us from the reality of the poison that is entering Michael’s body. But really, is what we are doing any better than what these other people are doing? It’s different, yes, but we’re all just trying to get through something that is simply awful.
As I think about it, staying strong must mean continuing to face into the truth of what is happening to me, to my husband, to us. We’ve lost so much already and of course we are looking at the possibility of losing more. Clearly, things will never be the same again and our old life is gone.
But that’s true for all of us. Every moment of every day things are changing and our old lives are gone. Not all of us are facing into the truth of mortal illness, but all of us have our own truths to face. Certainly that must be part of what it means to stay strong – to face into all of the hard truths as deeply and clearly as possible, the hard truths of all of our feelings, all of our thoughts — and to face them with courage and love.
Michael made a card for me for Christmas around the theme of Dante and Beatrice saying that I am his Beatrice, journeying with him to Paradise. It ends with a quote: “Do not be afraid; Our fate cannot be taken from us; It is a gift!” And perhaps this is the strongest place for any of us to stand — squarely facing our fate and realizing over and over that it is a blessing and truly, it is a gift.