Cancer sucks. In fact, if I were honest, and willing to be profane, I would give Cancer a solid tongue lashing right now. I would fling multiple curse words at it because it has burned its hot branding into the lives of my loved ones far too much in the last three years.
In 2008, Cancer began an endless stretch of its slimy paws so close, so encroaching, and so frequently into my life, it felt like it’s sole purpose was to greedily rape my soul and break my heart a million times over. As of just a few weeks ago, Cancer has touched, and killed, six close loved ones in three short years. All but one of them were under the age of 52.
But (yes, there’s a “but!”), with time, I was able to take Cancer’s “Pandora’s box” of pain-infested manure and work it compost for my life’s flower garden. For me, this practice brings purpose to pain.
At the time that my fifty-year-old Aunt (my Dad’s younger sister) was diagnosed with Lung Cancer in ’08, we were not very close. She had been a solid, staple figure in my life, but I had always ached to truly know her at a soul level.
Even in the midst of her chemotherapy treatments, biopsies, and a brutal battle for survival, my fears of the unknown – of death and despair, and the discomfort of trying to get to know her better – kept me from making time to get to know her. I am ashamed to say, I didn’t visit her once that entire year.
But, in early 2009, after a short remission period, the Cancer returned with a vengeance and finally kicked me square in the rear, hard enough to knock the fear right out of me.
Suddenly, I was overbearingly reminded of the all-too-familiar taste of regret – a feeling I had known too well after my two-year-old nephew died. I hadn’t seen him for two months before his sudden death – a regret I would live with for eternity.
What Would I Regret More?
I was scared to see my Aunt suffering, but the question of regret tormented me daily. I wondered, would I be sitting at her funeral thinking, “I wish I had known her better,” or would I be weeping in the back corner because I had, well, finally found a way to know her?
I didn’t have much money, and I had a two-year-old in tow, but I threw out all my excuses, and finally went to see her several times before her death. The gas money to drive two hours to see her just magically appeared, and bringing my daughter with, which I thought would certainly be a terrible idea, actually created the best memories I have with her.
We only had three months together, but that was what her Cancer gave us…time. Death can come in so many sudden, inexplicable, horrific forms that leave us filled with questions and regret. But, Cancer almost always gives us at least a little time with our loved ones.
When she did pass in March, I made another choice to push past my fears, and go be with her, and her family, in her final hours. I whispered in her ear, “It’s ok, you can go be at peace now,” and when I finished the sentence with, “We will miss you,” it had a new meaning it wouldn’t have had a few months before.
After she died, I spent a week putting together a photo slideshow of her life for the Memorial Service – it was my small way of trying to honor her.
I grieved her deeply, and tortured myself slowly through the placing of the photos of her life.
But, as I sat in the back of the Church, making sure the slideshow went off without a hitch, a pipe burst in my hardened heart. I wept profuse puddles of tears for what I had lost. I had found a way to know her – my only regret, was waiting ‘til the last minute to try.
I HATE Cancer, But…
I hate Cancer. I loathe it, despise it, curse it, bemoan it. But, it has swept me to the death beds of five souls to make last-ditch memories, swear my unending love, unleash my tears, and relish in final shreds of joy with each one.
I can’t really say Cancer has been a gift in my life, because, well, this is Cancer we’re talking about. But, I can say, with a great deal of inner work, I was able to transform my hate in Cancer’s aftermath. For those of us left behind, that’s about the best we can do, I think.
“Sorrow, fear, and depression are all a kind of garbage…You can practice in order to turn these bits of garbage into flowers. It is not only your love that is organic; your hate is, too. So you should not throw anything out. All you have to do is learn how to transform your garbage into flowers.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh, “You Are Here”