I’ve been reflecting all day about whether or not I have any habitual responses to hearing about yet another cancer diagnosis. There’s anger, and sadness, and ultimately resignation – the normal stages of processing. I realized that cancer no longer scares me. It just pisses me off, and then I get realistic about odds and outcomes and go into caregiver mode. (That’s a big deal, as the fear around cancer used to overwhelm me.) Physically, I realize that I tend to store a lot of the stress and tension in various parts of my body when I’m worrying about other people’s health. Right now, my shoulders are locked up, and I’ve got a wicked case of indigestion. On the other hand, I’m trying to write this in a doctor’s waiting room with HGTV blaring in one ear and James Taylor going to Carolina in the other. Excuse me a minute while I close my eyes, breathe, and see if I can let some of that go. Ah. That’s a little better.
Eighteen years ago, in 2001, I know that my reactions to loss, cancer, and death were far more heightened than they are now. My divorce was final in 2003, although my husband and I had separated right before 9/11. Once we decided to divorce, we made plans to sell our last house we’d owned together. It was too big for either of us to afford alone, and as a 100 year old house, it had looming expensive repairs that we knew that neither of us could take on. So with great sadness, we put it on the market. Buying that house had been a great move for us, as the value had doubled in the 3 years we owned it. Because of that investment return, we could each afford a smaller home once it sold.
My mother’s father, my Pops, was an incredibly important person in my life. After my mother died, he became the living substitute for her in my life. We adored each other. I confided in him, and he in me. When my grandmother passed away unexpectedly in 1992, we drew even closer. He had been a bank vice president, and he served as my personal investment advisor for years. In 2000, one of the last things we did as an intact family was to throw him a surprise party for his 90thbirthday. He’d never had a surprise party before, and he was astonished and delighted. We joked that it was lucky that the surprise didn’t kill him!
I started asking my grandfather to consider moving in with us. I thought that if we sold his house, between the income from both house sales we could get a house in Baltimore with an in-law apartment for him. He refused, citing getting lost in Baltimore in 1937 as a reason he never wanted to move there. So, I bought half a duplex for Anne and I, which was what I could afford. The traveling continued until he was finally hospitalized for dehydration and kidney failure. He couldn’t go home afterward, so he went to rehab for several weeks. Finally, the crisis point had arrived. A family meeting with my dad, stepmother, grandfather and I resulted in his deciding to move in with my dad in North Carolina. I was relieved that he wouldn’t be alone in New York anymore, but very sad that he was not moving in with us.
I continued on doing all that needed to be done to keep his house afloat and his bills paid, in addition to rehabbing my own house, dealing with a non-driving teenager and all that good and bad that entailed, working my full-time job and feeling oh-so-alone. An old boyfriend from college resurfaced and began to help me out around my house with repairs. I was thankful to have someone to be with on occasion, to talk to and to lean on. I remember this time as a period of never stopping, never having time for myself other than my weeks at Alexander School.
If you’d asked me at that time what the most difficult thing was in my life, I would have told you “loss was my issue.” Even hearing the word Loss was enough to make me cry. I knew my grandfather would not live forever. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to deal with his passing. Already he was slipping away from me mentally, descending into paranoia and fear of losing his mind. It was awful. And then, finally, came the colon cancer diagnosis. We didn’t tell him for a long time, because we knew – as soon as we said the word cancer, he’d be gone. There was nothing he feared more. At ninety-two we were not going to be treating this disease. Finally, after months of regular blood transfusions, he figured it out. He asked my stepmother point blank if he had cancer. What could she do, other than answer him with the truth? He was gone in 3 weeks.
It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be. I realized that to a large extent, I’d already lost and mourned him months before he passed. I orchestrated a lovely memorial service, where the entire family gathered to celebrate a long life well lived. We could finally put his house on the market, and after weeks of cleaning out dumpsters full of unneeded stuff (a life lesson for me, Anne and my dad) we loaded up a trailer full of furniture and returned south. The days of traveling to New York were finally over.
Dave and I on our wedding day in 2007.
What losses have most impacted you in your life?
How did you deal with them?
When faced with transitions, do you realize that you have options?
At the end of that long year I met Dave Marcus. A multi-year courtship ensued, culminating with us getting married and my moving to Atlanta in 2007. That summer, before I moved, I was driving to the supermarket one morning while listening to NPR. The commentator was talking about loss. She listed 7 areas of loss that cause people to lose their center, to fall into depression. I sat in the car in the parking lot and burst into tears. There was my life. Death. Divorce. Cancer and other serious illnesses. Kids going off to college. Moving. Life transitions, even happy ones like a new marriage. Leaving a job. Well, well. At least I knew what was going on, and at least I had my Alexander Technique skills of awareness, pausing and choosing different ways of looking at things to fall back on. I knew how to restore myself physically as well as mentally. Exciting and positive times were ahead. I dried my eyes and went grocery shopping.