Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On being selfish

Cancer, people tell me, means I need to change the way I view the world. Now that I have cancer, people tell me, it's all about me. I need to stop worrying about everyone else, and focus exclusively on myself.

In other words, it's okay to be selfish.

I'm having a bit of a problem getting my head around that one. Oh sure, I've dropped out of several time-consuming activities I was involved in; I've let go of some peripheral people in my life, whose needs were beyond what I could offer them right now. But that's as far as I'll go with this selfish thing.

See, the trouble is, the wheels of the world don't stop turning when you get diagnosed with cancer, and the people around you don't stop having emotions, and to shut yourself off from all that static and white noise you'd have to hide in a cave and roll a rock across the mouth. 

(And presumably emerge later unscathed, like Jesus. Or not.)

All around you, life is desperately trying to chug along as though nothing happened, and the people who care about you are hitting brick walls left right and centre and bouncing off bruised and broken. Instead of clicking into the works and travelling along as a functional part of your community, you find yourself identifying as the random spanner dropped without warning into everyone's agenda.

I see that I'm that spanner. I need to make sense of that, and I need to somehow make the shared experience of my cancer transcend chaos.

Twenty five years ago, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I saw and I felt what happens when access is denied- when the experience is wrapped around the sufferer alone, and nobody else has their needs met or their emotions accepted, and acknowledged, and dealt with. 

It's not pretty. It's not kind. The fallout lasts for years.

My friends and my family need to take part in this experience, even if that sometimes makes things a bit tricky for me. Being shut out because it's too hard for the sufferer is just not an option, because I know what that feels like. I was, at a very deep level, shut out of my mother's experience by my father. Information was not shared. Comfort was not offered. Participation was not allowed- not even in her funeral, FFS. 

That was a deeply scarring experience for me. I will not allow that to happen to my friends and family.

Everyone has their own stuff to deal with around my illness, and much as I'd like to be a hermit in a cave until this is over, I know that seeing me is part of dealing with it. Face to face, the inner circle of people who care about me can reassure themselves that I haven't suddenly been transformed into the cliche of the cancer victim- gaunt, pasty-faced, defeated. Seeing me is necessary to give them hope.

Take my son and my partner. Face it- they don't get on. One's a man of words, the other's a man of deeds, and they simply don't get each other at all. They're separated by culture, genetic makeup, vastly different life experiences and a massive generation gap. They've had words in the past; they've come close to blows. 

They both love me to bits.

Last week they managed to put their differences aside so that my son could visit me. Setting that up was not without tension for me. I had to have clear and direct words with each of them. I had to set some boundaries. Even just the prospect of a visit from the Grim Reaper can bring out the absolute worst in families; I'm not the first person who's had to juggle sensibilities from a sick bed, and I won't be the last.

Did I want to do it? Of course not. I wanted to lie back and let them sort it out for themselves. Or not. I had test results to worry about, and I had the prospect of being chopped open to consider. In fantasy land, my partner would have floated out the door ten minutes before my son floated in, and everything would have been lovely without me lifting a finger.

As if.

Thankfully, they both were the very best person they could be for those few days. And that gives me hope that they'll maintain civility in the future. But I had to prepare the ground to achieve that- there was no way I could have dodged the tricky conversations. 

It's not all about me. I can't just lie here and ignore everyone's feelings. If things go wrong, I don't want to leave a minefield behind me. That's a terrible legacy.

For my son, it's the first time my mortality has thrust its ugly face into his field of vision. It's confronting. Nobody in the world loves you as unconditionally as your mother does, and it's not until the connection threatens to be severed that the magnitude of losing your mother hits you in the face with a chair. My son needed to look me in the eye and reassure himself that I wasn't out of here yet.

For my partner, it's the third time round, and he's sitting on a powder keg of old hurts. The last thing he needed right now was to have to play nice in his own home. He does just want to sit in a cave, with me, and howl. What he needed to cope with this visit was to see my son's experience through his own eyes- to be taken back to when his own mother was diagnosed, and find his compassion for someone other than me. 

And bless him, he did manage to do that, with me holding his hand.

That's just the people closest to me. There are scads of others who just want to look me in the eye too, once they've mastered their own shock enough to face the reality of the situation. I will receive them as graciously as I can. I'm part of their journey, just as they have been part of mine. My personal responsibility for others' welfare didn't evaporate when Dr Adnan opened his mouth to tell me the test results. 

If anything, I have an increased responsibility to clear the way for my loved ones, for as long as I can. The Freeloader has given me a flashlight as well as pits of darkness. It would be churlish not to shine it on the path.

It's not all about me. Other people's stuff matters too, and I can't- I won't- be selfish about that.

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