Monday, July 29, 2013

Life Lessons

It's been two weeks since I got the news my friend Laura has cancer - lymphoma to be exact. In those weeks she's undergone several tests, had her lungs repeatedly drained of excess fluid, had her first chemo treatment, and if that isn't enough,  developed a blood clot in her shoulder.  Laura lives in VA and I'm in FL. If you have read enough of my blog to know anything about me, you know I've been pacing the floor, fearing the worst, wanting to help and holding myself back ftom making the 9 hour drive to see for myself how things are going. I sincerely care about what's happening to Laura and her family. Even though 13 years have passed since I answered when a little one called me Mo, Mar Mar, or Cherry, I still feel like part of their family.

Someone else with a little distance might say my motives are egocentric. And I admit, I do sometimes have a bit of a Jesus complex. I forget that my super powers are limited to deep caring. For real, sustained healing the people I love and want to "fix" need to call on the Divine. At the risk of sounding like it's all about "me," I've had to come face to face with my limitations. It makes me a tad anxious.

I've heard it said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Maybe my discomfort makes me a prime candidate to learn some things about myself.

Lesson #1:
A recent O Magazine article* might have been written with me in mind (hmmm, a little more ego, cause Martha Beck doesn't know me from anyone).

"Want to become a spirit-lifting, mood elevating, cheer-engineering dynamo?" is the headline that caught my eye.  "Want to be?" I retorted to myself. Dynamo is my middle name.  
The article goes on to list 7 ways to make someone else's day (without getting up, i.e. without losing yourself).  #5, "Stop worrying about everyone," hit a bit too close to home for me.

What? Me worry?

According to Beck, "love and worry are not the same thing. Think of someone you're worried about. Now replace worry with something else: creativity, perhaps or singing or sudoku. It will truly make that person's day."

I think her point is this. It's hard to be sick ... Cancer sick. The last thing the person with cancer wants to do is wonder how to keep loved ones from worrying. Let's face it, lying in a hospital bed surrounded by people (husband, son and mother are excluded from this scenario) wringing their hands, and begging to do something - can I fluff your pillows? pour you some water? make your dinner? - is stressful. What a sick person does NOT need is more stress.

On a similar note, I remember after my father died, that people didn't know what to say to me. I found myself trying to comfort them. It's hard to know what to say to someone after a loved one has passed away. It's hard to know what to say to  aperson who is facing life and death situations and feels like shit on top of it.  Perhaps something as simple as, I'm here, is better than another pasta casserole.

Lesson #2
I read an LA Times article (on FB) about supporting a friend through a crisis. Here's the first paragraph

"When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan's colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn't feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague's response? "This isn't just about you.""It's not?" Susan wondered. "My breast cancer is not about me? It's about you?""

When I substituted Laura for Susan and Merry ME for colleague, I got a pretty clear picture of how my wanting to stand by Laura's bed (making small talk, but trying not to wring my hands) could be interpreted.  Laura's family has asked that well-meaning, caring friends not visit until she is feeling better. They've put a very capable woman (Laura's BFF) in charge of handling dissemination of information.  The way to help Laura at this time, I instruct my caregiving self, is to respect her wishes and not appear on her doorstep. While I'm sure, they'd welcome me, I'm also sure this is not the time for surprise visits. 

The authors of the article came up with the circle theory to keep from saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma.  Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma.  Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. 
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, "Life is unfair" and "Why me?" That's the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you're going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn't, don't say it. Don't, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don't need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, "I'm sorry" or "This must really be hard for you" or "Can I bring you a pot roast?" Don't say, "You should hear what happened to me" or "Here's what I would do if I were you." And don't say, "This is really bringing me down."If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that's fine. It's a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring. 
Comfort IN, dump OUT. 
Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn't do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient. Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring. Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don't just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own. Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you're talking to someone in a larger ring than yours. *

Chain stretched across my living room, twice!
While I worried, the Universe plopped two pretty good lessons right under my nose. While Sweetie might tell you I'm not the calmest person around, I've put my hands and heart into a creative endeavor [see Beck's suggestion above].  I asked my FB friends to help me with a Kick Cancer's Butt campaign of positive affirmations, quotes, jokes, etc As of today I've collected over 250 and printed them out on fancy paper. My sister (she introduced me to Laura so it was good therapy for her as well) came over and helped me cut printed strips then string them together to make a gigantic paper chain.  
Lesson #3
To my surprise, and delight, I discovered that as I worked with the paper, got glue on my hands, and read each affirmation over and over again, that stress-filled, icky feeling in my stomach went away. Somehow when I wasn't looking out, but in, my paper-strewn dining room turned into a cathedral. Each paper I looped into another became a prayer for the Divine One to surround Laura and her family with love and healing Grace. 
My favorite loop in the chain.
Okay, we all know I want to be the one to deliver this gift to my sick friend. I want to see her face when she sees the love that went into it. I want to wrap her in positive thoughts like wrapping a Christmas tree in twinkling lights.  But I will put aside my wants. I will find a box big enough to hold a 30 foot chain. And I will let the mailman do the delivering.  I've done what I can do for now. I trust that is enough. I trust when the time comes that I can be of service to my friend, her husband, or her son they will tell me. I trust that all be well...without me.
To paraphrase one of the aforementioned affirmations:
May the lesson you learn today, be the one you needed most.
Merry ME

PS More information on the Kick Cancer's Butt Chain later
PSS. The formatting appears to be all screwed up. I'm too tired to mess with it tonight. Hope you can read it and it makes sense. 
* "Spread a Little Sunshine," Martha Beck, O Magazine, July 2013, pg. 38-41
*"How Not to Say the Wrong Thing,"  Susan Silk and. Barry Goldman ,LA Times, April 7, 2013


jack said...

There is no doubt in my mind that Love Heals. Even long distance Loving. I wonder how many times a 30' chain of good will could wrap around Laura in Love. I would enjoy seeing a picture of that.

Marilyn said...

Mary, What a wonderful message. And so true about what people really need in times of crisis. And how helpless and awkward we feel trying to help. I agree with Jack. Just love, close or far away. Love heals.
Thank you.

AkasaWolfSong said...

Have you sent the chain yet?
I've been very lax in reading over here and am just now catching up...but perhaps if you haven't sent it yet I'd pass along a little inspiration, healing and love as well?

Actually I can send that along thru the ethers too.

Bless You Laura and Mary!