You may think you were talking about ice cream last week on the post titled, An Unexpected Anniversary, but you also reinforced a thread that's been common here since I first wrote about my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer two years ago.
Readers use such words as “honesty,” “insight,” “inspiration,” “courage" to describe my attitude. They reference “Superwoman” sometimes. They admire my efforts to “beat” cancer (which I try not to do). And they have all kinds of other ways to praise how I deal with this serious predicament. You can imagine, I am sure, how I preen when I read them, even sitting alone at my desk.
Maybe my lack of anything more than a passing response - a "thank you" here and there - has been brought on by my inability to find an adequate group of words to express my pleasure and gratitude but that's not a good enough reason or even excuse.
Such kind thoughts and words as yours, especially uttered in obvious sincerity, should not go unacknowledged and certainly not for two whole years. Yet, here we are in that situation of which I hope to remedy at least a little bit today.
Let me start in my childhood, my parents. Both were orphans with no siblings who came of age in the middle of the Great Depression. There were times they went hungry. They had few material goods and not much love from the adults in their lives.
Sometimes they related stories about their childhoods but never, ever complained. To them, it was what it was and you were expected to observe, accept and carry on. My parents believed it is up to each of us personally to do the best with what life throws our way – you cannot expect others to help.
This came to them, I think, naturally from their early circumstances and both probably would have been surprised to know that their “observe, accept and carry on” attitude was closing in on being Buddhist-like.
I didn't realize that until I spent a year or two in my twenties studying Buddhism – not particularly to become an adherent but to understand something so different from what (little) I knew then of western philosophies.
No one much loved either one of my parents when they were children. They were not hugged or kissed often if at all, and I realized as an adult that neither were my brother and I because our parents didn't know how.
They found it mildly embarrassing to express loving emotion, as I still do to a degree these many years later, although I've tried to shed it.
In my parents' early lives, I'm pretty sure that when you are scrabbling for adequate food every day, emotional issues don't matter much. And I doubt you ever forget going to bed hungry.
All that baggage my mom and dad brought to parenthood teaches you, as their child, a great deal of independence at a young age; you realize that you must rely on yourself for whatever emotional sustenance and well-being you need.
I've tried to change this mindset in a variety of ways over many years but mostly I've done "it" – that is, living - my way all these 78 years much, I guess, as my parents did. (The apple falling not far from the tree, etc.)
How far have I gotten with this exercise? Well, I'm pretty good, finally, at accepting gifts but not so much gifts of personal time as I received so much of from friends and neighbors during my months' long recovery from the Whipple surgery.
One thing that gets in the way is that I always, always worry that I will not be able to repay the help and kindness, so I had better to do without than deal with the shame if I cannot reciprocate.
But blessings on those wonderful people who force their help on me when they see the need. They are saints to get past my resistance.
To those of you who would tell me I'm being foolish, I don't disagree. I just haven't been able to change these things in my 78 years.
Although I tried to sort out some of my issues in a couple of short bursts of therapy long ago, I don't much believe in psychology, at least not to get past such emotional problems as I inherited. I've tried to be self-aware day-to-day and monitor what's bothering and not bothering me. Sometimes it has helped and just as often not.
Life is what it is. Nobody ever promised you a rose garden. Or, as my mother often said, “Into every life some rain must fall.” Just as frequently, especially when I was whining over something that had gone wrong, she would recite, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
Maybe more than anything else in this post, that paragraph sums up the philosophy of life that was instilled in me way back when: Buck up, life isn't easy.Deal with it.
So. I am good at absorbing the slings and arrows life flings our way from time to time but quite practically, what else is there to do? I keep going without much thought about why. It is who I am and, as far as I can remember, always have been. I was born this way.
When tough things happen, I go off somewhere alone and wallow in it. I don't want to talk. I don't want advice or hand-holding. I want to be alone with whatever the current problem is. To wail and weep can be part of the process and you would be amazed at how well that works in brightening one's days.
By the time I crawl out from under the quilt – hours or days later – I've reached acceptance. I don't claim any Buddhist influence but my pattern seems to follow their “observe, accept, carry on” belief and it has worked that way for me.
What flowed from that routine this time is a deep curiosity about what the end-of-life is like when you know it is coming relatively soon. It has become a kind of purpose for me, to chronicle these weeks, months, years(?) and I would be doing it for myself alone if I did not keep this blog.
Now, apparently, I have been granted extra time beyond what statistics suggest which I see as a gift to learn even more about life and about death. I have come to believe in these two years and since my psylocybin session last December that life and death are one but that's another story.
If some of you who read and write all these lovely words like bravery and amazing or inspirational along with other kind words, I am so pleased if I can help you on your personal journeys. Thanking you for your messages seems too little for what you have come to mean to me so perhaps this explanation is a bit more I can offer to keep with my genuine gratitude.
On that ice cream post last week, reader Carol Leskin had this to say:
”What continues to amaze and inspire me is your ability to find some ray of sunshine even when it is almost dark. In this case, ice cream. Some say a positive attitude and hope are critical to successful outcomes and prolonging life. Others think that is malarkey. You have made a strong case for the former.”
Until recently, I had spent a lifetime living the “malarkey” end of that dyad. Without feeling any need or desire to give up my atheism, I'm admitting to myself these days that maybe, just maybe, there is a little piece of the ageless universe somewhere that I belong to and am part of.
Perhaps the extra time the good medical treatment I have been receiving is that universe's way of telling me I have a bit more to do before I go. (I cannot believe those sappy words came out of me just now but there you are – strange things can happen when they tell you you're dying.)
Or, as reader Cathy J quoted author, Thornton Wilder:
"My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate."
Thank you all for the good words and kind wishes with which you enrich my life (and death).