Thursday, July 19, 2012

Against Invulnerability

There are many women in my BAYS support group who are mothers of young children. A common thread of conversation tends to be not so much the logistics of this, but the emotional force and impact of being a mother who is ill. It is not only the first consideration when debating treatment options and the primary worry when thinking about being even temporarily incapacitated, but it dictates how we let ourselves process the experience. One woman at a recent meeting—her first—said she came prepared to cry because she hadn’t let herself do that at home, not wanting her children to see it. A friend of a friend told me she never let her children see her even once without a wig. Afraid, overwhelmed, mothers want to shield their kids from anxiety and the brute force of strong emotions—but this comes at a great cost. I don’t think it does us or our children a service to maintain this veneer of invulnerability.

From the beginning, we spoke to our children very frankly and directly about my cancer and about what they could expect to happen. Nathan, almost eight now and relentlessly inquisitive, has asked constant questions, “How did you get this? How long will you be in the hospital? Are there any other side effects of chemo that you haven't told me about?” Still a preschooler, Theo's understanding is more limited to the practical effects, “Who will pick me up from school?” and “If you had an operation on your chest, how do you eat?” (It seems he thought I’d been cut in half at the level of the upper torso). When I first came home from the hospital after surgery, they relished finding ways to be helpful; they even gave me a whistle to blow from bed if I needed anything, and when I blew it, they would come running (“I really should've gotten one of these things earlier!” I thought).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Trouble with Expectations

A few weeks ago, Micah and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I use the word "celebrated" loosely, because it was not at all the anniversary we'd planned. For the last couple of years, we'd been plotting to take over all of a boutique hotel in Palm Springs (as we did on our original wedding weekend) and invite a bunch of friends to come spend the weekend there. Some would have been at the event the first time; others have become such close friends in the intervening years that it's hard not to photoshop their faces back into the reception photos, difficult not to see them there in the mix of that wild, forty-five-minute hora! We didn't plan on renewing our vows or anything. We just wanted a weekend in the pool. And a really good party.

You'd be surprised that this plan was one of the things we thought about very early on after my diagnosis--would we be able to complete treatments in time and still go ahead with it? By this point, I had a contract in hand with the place we had selected, and I'll admit, some stubbornness about going forward come hell or high-water. But, not long later, and on the advice of some friends who would've been the first ones on a floatie, martini in hand, we reluctantly cancelled the deal. Everything was just too unpredictable.

It was the right decision too, because come June 9, I was in a wretched state. The day before was a Friday, and it was my worst day yet: throbbing head, aching body, could barely climb the stairs in my own house, I was a basketcase. Intuitively, mid-morning Micah called, and I fell apart on the phone; we were supposed to have people over for Shabbat dinner that night, and I was useless. Micah cancelled his appointments and came right home; he drove me to a massage and later put me in bed; he found someone to fill in for him at services that night (bless you David Malman!), cancelled with the guests that were to be coming to dinner, and prepared a wonderful dinner for our family himself. On the cusp of what I wanted to be the best anniversary party ever, I had been approaching total misery; instead of that, I got one of the most beautiful and memorable Shabbat dinners in a long time.

More importantly, I got to deeply appreciate that I really, really married the right person. The one who knew what I needed before I could ask for it, before I knew what I needed myself. He showed me so much devotion on that day. That was a celebration of the deepest values of marriage. So much more than a pool party would've been.

And what's clear to me in telling this story is something about the nature of time: how hard it is to plan for the future when so much can change so quickly. How hard it is, and perhaps misguided, to try to recapture an occasion from the past. "You can't stand in the same river twice"--right? It's no longer the same river. Or as Rabbi Alan Lew once put it, "The truth is that our lives are a constant flow, utterly devoid of stopping places." We try to cling to the past, instead of facing the onrush of what is to come.

Ironically, a few weeks later, on June 23, I was indeed in Palm Springs. At the site of our wedding, no less. I was there to officiate the wedding of my youngest cousin, who had chosen the same spot as we had, the Palm Springs Art Museum, for her reception. Yes, I did say officiate (civilly, of course). The Museum was designed by our grandfather, E. Stewart Williams, who named a skylight within it for my grandmother, who filled his life with light, and both my cousin and I feel a great bond with this place and with the symbolic resonance of the architecture. It was an unexpected honor to be asked to perform the ceremony for her and her husband, themselves both architects. I was feeling as healthy as if nothing were going on. I got the opportunity to inaugurate a new marriage, a new stepping out into that onrushing stream. It was infinitely more momentous to be there at that moment of inception than to try to grasp back to ten years ago. We are somewhere else now. And it's rich and full too, even if it's not what we possibly could have predicted or desired.

But for our 11th anniversary? All bets are off!