Monday, June 4, 2012

Private Lives

Anyone going through a medical crisis will tell you that one of the most frustrating things about it is that people don’t know how to act around you while it’s happening. It’s not a surprise. While we spend thousands of hours a year discussing the latest reality show with our friends and family, we almost never talk about things that are really important like our health. Of course, it’s because these discussions generally aren’t pleasant or fun. We complain about our aches and pains, compare our allergies and talk about how exhausted we are but we don’t really go beyond that….it’s just not what we do.

Then one day we find ourselves diagnosed with cancer and nobody knows how to act around us. People stop calling, call too much, ask personal questions, offer unsolicited advice….in general act as awkward as is humanly possible. It wasn’t until months after Brennis was well recovered from his heart attack that this fact became crystal clear to me. A good friend who had been very supportive of both Brennis and myself during our crisis was diagnosed with cancer. I was shocked and saddened but despite the fact that we had just been through a similar drama I had no idea what I could offer her or do for her. My first reaction was to leave her alone….I reasoned that if she wanted or needed help she would ask for it. This solution had nothing to do with my own recent personal experience where Brennis and I had to ask for virtually NOTHING for months. It was probably partly selfishness on my part - not wanting to commit myself to being intimate with another health crisis…..I was barely recovered from the last one. The truth of the matter, however, is that I really just didn’t know what to do. Did she want me to make her laugh, hug her while she cried, research treatment options? I didn’t know what I could or should do.

Fortunately, my friend told me. Shortly after she was diagnosed she sent an email to her friends letting them know about her cancer and told us in a clear language what she needed, what she didn’t need and that she understood that we cared about her but were out of our element as friends. It was such a relief. She told me what she needed like she was writing her Christmas wish list….it was so easy. There would be no awkward conversatoins (“How are you feeling?”…..said with a cocked head and pained expression on my face), guilt (me waiting by the phone for her to call me and ask for help while I felt guilty not offering help), or feet in my mouth (“Well, of all the cancers to have that’s the good one!”).

Somehow I knew that this was needed while Brennis was in the hospital but wasn’t really aware how to address it. Many people came to visit him in the hospital which was very kind. It wasn’t always the best timing but just knowing that they cared enough to give up time from their busy day was very heartwarming and touched us deeply. Many, many people sent cards, called, emailed, posted on Facebook….generally kept their distance but wanted to be sure we knew that they were praying for us. That was such an amazing feeling…..knowing that so many people cared and it was something that we could almost tangibly ”feel” every moment Brennis was in the hospital. Some people disappeared. For whatever reason some people just vanished. We didn’t take it personally because we might have done the same thing in a similar circumstance. What we knew was that those people were probably thinking about Brennis and maybe even praying for him….they were just quiet about it. It didn’t make them any less friends…it was just what they could do.

The morning that Brennis was scheduled to have his open heart surgery we waited nervously after a sleepless night for the nurses to move him to another room and begin to prep him for surgery. Instead everyone was very quiet and nobody had been in the room for longer than usual. Then his surgeon entered the room and informed us that they were going to have to postpone the surgery for a day because one of his team members was ill and not able to do the surgery with him. The Doctor was very kind and apologetic and really there was nothing anyone could have done to make things any better but it was still terribly upsetting news for both of us who wanted so desperately for this part of our journy to be behind us. I tried to make Brennis feel better but he was silent and reflective. The more I tried the more I knew it was best for me to just leave him alone. I told him I was going to go out and call our families and let them know the news. He asked me to tell them that he didn’t want any visitors that day….he was too upset. I understood and left the room and made the necessary phone calls. By the time I got back up to the room he had changed his mind. He realized that another twenty-four hours of loneliness would be terribly depressing…..I left the room again and made the same phone calls with different news. It was one of the few truly funny moments before the surgery that I remember and God knows after that major disappointment we needed something to laugh about. As it turned out that was one of the nicest days we had at the hospital. Some great people visited, we laughed about Brennis’ rapidly changing moods and we found ourselves more relaxed about the next day’s surgery than we were the day before.

I wonder how often we miss an opportunity to let people know what we need or how they can be helpful to us….especially people who are there always asking us if we need anything. We try to be strong and independent but really we all could use a little help sometimes…..advice, companionship, someone who will just listen to us. And yet we plow on alone…thinking that this is what makes us strong individuals. It doesn’t. It makes us incomplete. The greatest part of the human experience is the quality and depth of our interactions with other people. Some people like to be surrounded by people all of the time, others would rather spend most of their time alone but at some point we all desire the intimacy of friendship…..we learn from it, we grow from it and we are better people because of it. Part of intimacy is being honest with those closest to us about what we need and what we want from our relationships.

My friend was honest with me when she was diagnosed with cancer and I was grateful. She was also kind enough to let me be among the first to know after her surgery that the doctor said that she was cancer free. Now she and I share a bond that can never be broken. We both have gone through a harrowing medical crisis and have come out on the other side. We feel we understand better the value of life and the importance of speaking your needs while you are still able. The fact that Brennis had to have a heart attack and she had to have cancer to understand that is merely a footnote now. The gift is that we know it separately and we know it together and we appreciate each other more because we didn’t try to go through it alone.

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