During treatment, we are thrust into an uninvited, relentless Present Tense. We put aside our plans and obligations and focus on our health. We take leaves from jobs, renegotiate our commitments, garner support from people who care about us.
The future becomes necessarily more tentative. You may not be there to meet it. Or maybe you will, but who knows in what condition. How will I feel next week? Tomorrow? An hour from now?
When you are healthy, it is easy to plan your life with some confidence. When you are ill, there is hesitation, particularly if you are used to being dependable.
Time changes shape. Horizons shorten. The Present Tense of crisis is fueled by adrenaline, colored by anxiety. There is so much to worry about. Health. Money. Health. The inevitable dramas with family and friends.
As if cancer was not enough strain, imagine throwing young children into that mix. Their needs are perpetual. They are, by design, dependent. This is their childhood.
Despite the insistent, unwelcomed Present, a mother makes an effort to create a semblance of normalcy and joy.
But the strain is always there. A child, naturally, wonders about the future. “When I get bigger…”A mother pulls back, reluctant to imagine a time that she may be robbed of sharing.
My family has been in this state of crisis. Like a person huddles over an injury to protect it from the world, we have been doubled over in the wake of my cancer. We have been wounded. The primary injury has been tended to, but the peripheral problems have only been uncovered, including this unrelenting sense of crisis.
In addition to the physical devastation of treatment, patients and their families must also contend with a new financial reality. On average, American cancer survivors pay $5,000 more a year in medical expenses than people who have not had cancer. That takes a lot of options off the table for the typical middle class family. Vacations go. Summer camp, music lessons –– winnowed down. That certainly has been our experience.
Last week, we got a reprieve. We participated in a beach retreat with a new non-profit called Little Pink Houses of Hope (LPHOH). Founder Jeanine Patten-Coble, herself a breast cancer survivor, recognized that women are not the only ones impacted by breast cancer. An entire family is affected.
LPHOH gave my family use of a beach house, donated by a couple in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. LPHOH hosted several families last week. All of us arrived at these homes, stocked with groceries, armed with gift certificates to local merchants and restaurants. Jeanine told us that her goal was to keep our wallets closed for the whole week. Just hearing those words brought our stress down a few notches.
Jeanine and the other “volunstars” provided us with a schedule of optional activities, from kayaking to jewelery making, all designed to give families quality time together. They wanted us to feel comfortable and cared for. Our challenge was to open ourselves up to receive.
It took us a few days before we realized just how tightly wound we were. You don’t realize you are hunched over until somebody lays a hand on you and reminds you how it feels to stand up straight. Midweek, the tight knot we were started to loosen a bit. We breathed more deeply. We smiled more easily.
We shifted into the pleasant Present Tense of a lovely vacation. The no-watches-needed Present Tense of an afternoon by the ocean . The wake-up-and-see kind, as you lazily peek back at the sun through the curtains and anticipate another adventure.
I was able to go on a Ferris wheel at a fair with my children, teaching them how to be brave.
I played in the waves with my son, sharing the awesomeness of the ocean.
I collected seashells with my girls, seeing beauty around us.
My husband sang as he kayaked down a river, while his punctured boat slowly sank, requiring the occasional bail out. A perfect metaphor for life with cancer, to be sure.
As we left the cocoon of the retreat, we came back restored, finding more joy in each other and our lives, together. Our time seems lighter, even in the ordinariness of our daily lives.
Along with seashells and sandy shoes, we have brought home a bit of the pleasant Present.