I’ve had some rather frank discussions recently with my eldest sister who has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
She is a marvel in stoicism and a master at understating how debilitated she truly feels. By most medical accounts she is a miracle. No one with this type and advanced stage of cancer should still be alive – never mind shopping at Costco and going to church most Sundays.
Not to say her life has been a bed of roses since her diagnosis. She is on her third round of chemo in three years, as they try to manage the size of the tumors, since they can’t make them go away.
Anywho, now when I call her the conversation starts much like this, “Hi Sis, how ya doing? Cuz’ I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty shitty!”
She invariably laughs, because I have headed off her pat response of “I’m fine,” with the bald truth.
We’ve swapped some war stories, her and I, and revealed our least favorite comments from truly well-meaning people. She the cancer riddled patriarch of our family and me “the baby” who was the first to lose a spouse. It’s a small club we have formed that no one with a brain cell would choose to join.
I continue on the phone with my standard monologue in a fake Southern falsetto. “Oh Anna, you’re so strong! I could never handle this as well as you. Why, I’d just pull the covers up over my head and never get out of bed!”
She snorts into the phone, 600 miles away.
Again, folks mean well. But looking through these life altering events from the blackened end of the telescope, it translates this way: “I could never get through this because I’m not strong like you, and so therefore it would be a lot harder for me than it is for you.”
It negates and dilutes how truly hard it is. We are not so much strong, as we just don’t feel we have much choice in the matter but to get out of bed.
Anna and her husband watch a lot of tv. The big set in the den is on pretty much 24/7. I get it. She doesn’t sleep well anymore and the background noise is a distraction, a comfort.
Television has become a big part of my life this year. It’s electronic therapy that keeps the bad thoughts at bay. It’s a distraction, a comfort.
It’s difficult to know what to say, or what to do for someone like Anna, who is a proud and independent human being.
So I’ve composed a short list of dont’s and dont’s from my own experiences:
- Don’t say you’re going to stop over often to check on someone if you’re not.
- Don’t say, “let me know if there is anything I can do,” because we won’t. Just do it or make the offer specific like, “let’s go to dinner Friday at such and such restaurant.” They may not always accept but appreciate the offer and your taking the lead to plan.
- Don’t wonder why they don’t continue to call you to express their grief after the first few months. They know you are there for them. But they also know you can’t fix their situation, and don’t want you to feel bad about that. Hence, sometimes it’s easier not to reach out and avoid the awkwardness.
- And most importantly for those who have already lost a loved one, don’t stop talking about the person who has passed. Share stories that keep them alive and prove their life had meaning.
I myself have some doosies about Anna when the time comes. More than half a century of time together lends itself well to a treasure-trove. However, I hope to keep them close to my heart for a long while to come.