Cooling Off: A Look Back

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Only a few days ago I finished saying Kaddish, and today was the day my mother would have turned 56. In a few weeks the family will gather in Chicago for the unveiling of her gravestone. I feel almost as if this is the triathlon of grieving that we’ve all been preparing for all year. Within a few weeks, everything rushes to the surface, and then, on Friday night August 28th I light a yahrzeit candle, and say Kaddish, and it’s over.

I’ve been wondering a lot about what I’ll take away from this year. My last blog post struck a chord with a lot of people, I think, and I got a lot of phone calls and emails from old friends and strangers who wanted to check in and said all kinds of nice things. As I was reading the emails earlier today it struck me that the number one lesson I’ve learned about this stuff is that it’s always better to acknowledge someone else’s grief than to ignore it out of fear of saying something inappropriate. Maybe this is petty, but there are some people who never got in touch with me after my mom died, and though I’m almost certain it’s because they were worried about saying the wrong thing or just repeating clichés, their absence is something I will never forget, and may never be able to get past. When people who I wasn’t really in touch with anymore made contact to tell me they had heard and were sorry, it was really powerful. People showed up at our house during shiva who I never got to speak to because there were so many people there, but just seeing that they made it was really important to me.
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Shortly after I moved to Nashville I went on a date with someone who I didn’t know very well. While we were out he told me that his father had died a few months earlier, and he was visibly upset about it. Later on he brought it up again. And I remember thinking it was kind of inappropriate that he was bringing it up, and—this really makes me cringe—I remember so vividly thinking he should just get over it. I don’t think I even said anything to him about being sorry. I have thought back to that moment literally hundreds of times since then, and my regret is just—well, monumental doesn’t really cover it.

The way that cancer (or any disease, I’m sure, but my experience is with cancer) can devastate a family is something most people my age haven’t dealt with, and I do think there’s something about being in our situation that you really can’t comprehend until you’re in it, too. But I don’t think that matters as much as people say it does. Even if you can’t sympathize you can empathize. You can just say, “I’m really sorry this crappiness is happening to you.” The difficult part is really getting over yourself to the degree that you’re going to be comfortable either repeating a cliché, which is almost unavoidable, or risking saying something stupid and/or hurtful. Acknowledging someone else’s grief is more important than feeling good about yourself. Keep repeating that until you believe it.

The other thing that’s been on my mind today is a very specific feeling of dread. My mother died when she was 55, almost exactly a year after she was diagnosed with cancer. She was the fourth woman in three generations of her family to be diagnosed with breast cancer. It seems inevitable then that breast cancer will again be a major presence in my life, likely only 25-30 years down the line.

It’s hard to convey what it’s like to walk around all day feeling like you have a ticking bomb strapped to your chest. In a very weird way, I find it almost reassuring. If my fate has been set, then I really better get to work to accomplish what I want to accomplish in my life. It’s sad, of course, but in a very abstract way. It’s also frightening. But more than anything I feel this dread that I used to feel before exams, or conversations that I knew weren’t going to go well. I feel like my breasts have said to me, “We need to talk.” But we’re not actually going to break up until I’m in my fifties. Because however it happens—to my sisters, or my cousins, or me—I just know that it’s going to be bad. (Please spare me the talk on how everything is going to be cured in 25 years. I don’t buy it.)

I think a lot of my trauma this year has been related to knowing that even though the rest of my life is probably not going to be as hard as these past two years but that at some point I will be dealing with similar issues. I want a get out of cancer free card. I want to know that this won’t be chasing me for the rest of my life, but that’s just not an option.

Life is hard, is what I’m saying. I know that’s not a secret, but it’s something I didn’t take very seriously until cancer became a part of my life. And now, every day it’s a new revelation. This is hard. I am ready for it to get easier.

(The photo is my mother on mother’s day a few years ago. My cousin Abigail is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of my cousin Joe Nicholson.)

(Cross-posted at Blogging the Kaddish)

Posted on August 3, 2009

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