January 17, 2013
rosemary published this at 3:18 pm
Editorial Note: This post deviates from our regularly scheduled programming because I thought it was timely as Liz kicks cancer’s butt. ~Rosemary
By Ric Dragon
Life plays math tricks on us.
First is diminishing time. Each hour and each day is still an hour and a day, but as we age, that passing day represent a smaller part of our lives. At two days old, 24 hours is half of your life. At 50 years old, it’s 1/18,250th.
When we were in high school four years seem to linger on interminably, whereas those same four years of our child’s high school seem to flash by. Tempus doesn’t simply fugit, but takes on the exaggerated swiftness of the Keystone Cops in a silent movie.
Another lesson in arithmetic is that in time, it’s only natural that we come to have more memories of people who’ve died. After living in my rural neighborhood for over 25 years, a drive down the road can be marked with remembrance of deceased neighbors in a house there, and another yonder – like a monk counting out prayers on rosary beads.
Of course, all life ceases, so certainly if you live to the outer rings of average life expectancy, you will experience many losses. Some people experience death early in life. I was fortunate in that I recall very few deaths until my twenties. The passing of a great uncle afforded me the opportunity to witness a genuine wake in the Deep South of Alabama. As the man was a stranger to me, my impressions are marked most vividly by the chicken farm and kudzu-covered forests.
Occurrences of life-threatening illnesses increase. Before your own chess game with the grim reaper, you’ll come to know many, many people to suffer from illnesses such as cancer. As you gather with any other two people, consider that there is a great chance that before you die, one of you will develop cancer. Before 50 years, though, only about one out of 36 men, and one out of 21 women. As we age, it’s only natural that we’ll know a lot of people to develop cancer, and so many more that are touched by it in their close circle of family and friends.
Sitting With Friends
When you’re given anesthesia for surgery, it can be the deepest dreamless sleep. Once, when I was under for a minor operation, I woke up for a few seconds, and saw my mother sitting at the bedside chair. I fell back asleep, but seemed to feel comfort that she was there.
In many cultures, it’s commonplace to visit sick people and sit with them. In Judaism, it’s called bikkur holim. In the very different world of the deep South, it’s just called sittin’ up with someone. I’m aware of the practice, but it wasn’t really passed on to me – it’s not something I did. As people I have known became sick, or experienced great losses in their own lives, I haven’t been a good friend. Death and sickness make me uncomfortable, and I’m overcome with a feeling of awkwardness.
I’m reminded of this sick-people-avoidance tendency as I have a front-row seat, visiting a friend in the throes of chemotherapy. I’m reminded of my own youthful reticence to encounter the ill. No one deserves to be alone in his or her struggles. But I can see that it isn’t easy for my sick friend to reach out.
People are social creatures. Other species may prefer to go off and hide in the tall grass when sick, but we humans draw sustenance and power from the presence of others.
Often though, our sick friends don’t ask for us. They might feel miserable and misanthropic. They might be restrained by the hundreds of unspoken cultural niceties, which we don’t even remember where or when we learned. As my friend said, “it’s poor form to show weakness, even with cancer.”
Yet another friend reminded me, though, that someone who is ill and depressed is going to have trouble reaching out to even her closest friends. She added that you shouldn’t wait for her to call you, but be proactive. “If you’re going to the supermarket, call and ask what you can bring her – not IF you can bring her anything, but WHAT you can bring her, because otherwise she may say, ‘oh that’s ok, I don’t really need anything.’ Call her and say, ‘I’m in the mood for a chick flick tonight – if you’re up to it, I’d like to bring over [fill in the blank] and watch it with you – it’s so much more fun to watch with a friend.’”
She said, “Don’t offer to be there when needed, just go and be there. If we can’t handle your visit, if we don’t want to watch a movie, if we don’t want your leftovers, we can tell you. It’s easier for us to do that than to reach out.”
I know that to pull away is only human. It’s frightening to be reminded of the inevitability of mortality, and of the fear of losing someone. But it’s human, too, to reach out and touch – and to let each other know that we’re scared, and that we’re here.
A recommended site: Invisible Illness Week