20 August 2011
Life's a Shit Sandwich Sometimes - Deal With It
What do you do when life deals you a shit sandwich? I mean, really. It isn’t like it is always fair. Or that it should be.
A couple weeks ago, I made my second trip to Boise this year to spend a little bit of time with my niece, Megan, who was diagnosed earlier in the year with Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma. At 26 years old. Life had really dealt her a shit sandwich, and I knew it was going to be a long year for her. I wanted to reach out and take it away from her. I wanted to kiss her on the forehead and say, “It’s okay. You’ll be fine.” I wanted to grab my magic wand and make everything better. I couldn’t do any of these.
Now, I’ve been in active recovery for 26-1/2 years. I came to terms with powerlessness over the disease of addiction a long time ago. I have had to recognize my own limitations time and again but this was different. This was one of the kids I’d gotten to see come into her own in the past several years, a young person with incredible promise, astounding personal strength and a heart so full of love that is was frightful at times. I never get enough time with her. As I sat on the sidelines, all I could do is be a cheerleader. Here is just a little bit of what she has taught me.
First, it isn’t worth it to get pissed off about the little things. This is huge, really. I spend a lot of my time worrying, fretting, raging a the world, tilting at windmills and in fear of not getting my way, not having control of any situation and angry if things don’t work out the way they “should”. Well, life just doesn’t work that way all the time. True, if I work hard, if I do the right thing, if I treat people the way I want to be treated, if I live according to my own spiritual principals, things usually work out pretty well, but there are still a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, and when those little mouseturds of life wind up being in my path, I still tend to find the longest pole I can to vault over them. What Megan taught me the other day was that it just isn’t worth yelling at somebody because he didn’t do the laundry exactly how she thought he should. Interesting concept. Especially since I know HOW everything should be done……my way!
Well, my way wouldn’t necessarily include walking into the doctor’s office at 25 years old and having him tell me I have cancer. My way wouldn’t really include having my whole world tipped over on end just as I was starting into a new marriage. My way wouldn’t include trying to brush my beautiful red flowing hair in the morning and watching it come out in handfuls. My way wouldn’t include a 6-month series of treatments that left me sick and weak and not knowing if I was coming or going. My way would be to rage against this kind of news. My way would be to pick up a coffee cup, throw it across the room and hope that it crashed and banged and made a huge mess, because it is only in making a bigger mess than I feel, that MY WAY works. Only it doesn’t.
What Megan did with that diagnosis, was use it against itself.
Megan grew up with a dad who is a little bit like me, and even more extreme in some ways. When she had left her childhood home and made a home with her new husband Tommy, she began to experience some of the same rage I have dealt with my whole life. What she has done with it fills me with a much deeper understanding of what it is like from the other side of the relationship, that of a loving child who grew up has internalized the rage of a painful childhood. By integration of the emotional upheaval and directing it into positive healing processes with her father, Megan has begun not just to heal from the cancer, but insisted upon healing emotionally at the same time. Through the process, she is coming out of the treatment process not just cured from the cancer, but with a more wholesome relationship with her father and better able to deal with all of life's other challenges.
Hearing what she has put into place took me back so many years to when Pop was first diagnosed with lung cancer and a little bit of the process he and I were able to go through, only here was a 26 year old kid, just starting out in life and it wasn’t the old man dying but her need to do emotional healing as she was preparing to live. I have been reminded the past several months of that line from Shawshank Redempion, “Either get busy living or get busy dying” and Megan’s drive has been pretty incredible to watch.
Another thing Megan taught me was just how critical it is to be able to be true to our own values and stay involved in the process of life, no matter what. And she taught me what a blessing it is to continue to give, even when it seems like we should be the ones reaching out and taking. Both visits I have made, here we were invading her home which she shares with her husband and another 30 somethings single guy with whom both Megan and Tommy have a very close relationship. What does Megan do? Does she expect them to wait on her and take care of her? Hell no. She is up and about, DOING stuff. Keeping her body active and her mind engaged. She is up making dinner, playing games, making sure “the boys” have what they need. Now, to someone from the outside, this might seem incredibly selfish on the boys’ part and foolish on hers. A little watching, though, and I was able to see how important it was for her. It was about normalcy. It is about maintaining the routine that is comfortable to her. Sure, there have been “those” days. And I’m sure on “those” days, Tommy and Marshall have been there doing what it took to make sure Megan had what she needed, but when she’s up and about, she is all about taking care of other people and to take that away would be unthinkable.
Then there is the dedication to a dream, coupled with the need to either give up or let go. Now, I’ve said for years that giving up and letting go are two very different things. Megan certainly helped to reinforce that for me and prove my point. Here is a young woman who was forced to drop out of culinary school because she was about to go through 6 months of intense chemotherapy. Tough to manage class schedules around chemo appointments, especially with very limited course offerings and the extreme discomfort brought on by chemo. OK, so what does Megan do? Well, she goes out and gets a couple of jobs. Working in restaurants – not a field of employment known for their generosity and flexibility. She is so good that they work with her to allow her to work around her doctor’s appointments, allowing her a pallet for her developing artwork of cooking new and exciting things. And she excels.
Well, of COURSE she does!! We would expect no less.
Through letting go without giving up the dream, new worlds have opened to her. I have so much to learn.
It’s kinda funny – not a funny ha-ha but a funny aha – I set this article aside for almost 2 weeks and what happens? I receive my own cancer diagnosis. So, now I am going through much of the same thing Megan went through earlier in the year. I called her, reluctantly because I knew it was going to really hurt both her and me when I did. Sure enough, the first few minutes of the call were about tears, cussing, shock, anger, frustration, rage, pain and I’m sure for Megan, some pretty unpleasant memories of her own process that has to be still fresh. But what was the first thing she said when we wiped the tears away and started to talk again? “You know, an airline ticket to Seattle is only $110. I can be there any time.”
I’ve now been through the first round of consultations, have scheduled an appointment with a mental health therapist to deal with mood swings I haven’t experienced for many, many years, set a process in motion to be able to take several months off from work so I can get my body back to its good old way, and am amazed by the comfort I now get from watching my young niece deal courageously and with purpose through cancer treatment. Little did I know how much I would need her strength. Little did I know how valuable her teaching would be. I can only hope that I am able to face the next several months with the determination, drive and courage that Megan has taught me.
I think the major lesson here for me is that when life deals you a shit sandwich, you just need to slather on a little more mayo, close your eyes and with faith that everything will be alright, and take a big old bite. If that sandwich doesn’t kill you, you’ll be stronger for the experience.