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Grieving Stephen

The son of a friend died last week. He was 21, the age at which I felt like I had just earned my freedom. Stephen was a tall kid, I mean really tall, with deep red hair his mother and I envied. I’ve known him since he was five and sometimes now he flashes before my eyes as he was then, a skinny, quiet boy with serious eyes and a slow smile.

Is it karma that loads onto one child burdens others don’t receive? Stephen suffered from ADHD so severe that if he didn’t have his medicine, he’d fall off his chair at the dinner table. Whip smart, he’d often forget to do his homework or a science project, or if he had done them, he forgot to turn them in.

He liked music. He was good at drums, African ones, usually. I have a hazy mental picture of seeing him play drums in a jazz recital in grade school, standing out paler than pale amongst children of darker skin.

Despite the fact his mother moved away to California several years ago, we are close, really close. She and I have many interests in common: hiking, flowers, nature, books, writing, feminism. We met because of our children. Stephen was in my daughter’s class for nine years, but it was on ten-hour hikes that I grew to really know and love his mother.

What can I do for her now, my friend whose heart is empty and who cannot sleep?

My friend knows I am here for her, for whatever small use I can be. I witness her loss and then go off, guiltily and gratefully into my own life where I can shop with my daughter, yell at her, and take a Pilates class together. How my friend bears her pain, I do not know. I feel the devastating echoes of it and it knocks me off my feet.

If you have losses you’ve lived through, if you have anything to offer Stephen’s mother, sister and father, please leave a reply.

Seeing and Believing

I was in a group of women on Friday. One of them had the same exact color hair as Stephen. She was his age. She had the same red-haired fragile skin. I watched her from across the room. I knew she carried burdens too and her life was not easy, though the scars didn’t show on the outside.

Neither did Stephen’s. You couldn’t tell by looking that he battled demons like alcohol and drugs. He was privileged by gender, race, education and social class. Sometimes I get so mad at him I want to shake him. What were you thinking, I want to cry. Heroin? You stupid boy, what were you thinking! Look at the pain you’ve caused your mother, your sister, your father, and all the rest of us.

But a wise woman, another mother from our kids’ class, works with heroin addicts. She says they are some of the bravest people she knows.

It’s too easy to judge, from the outside looking—ignorant—in.

I walked across the room to the red-haired young woman and told her a bit of Stephen’s story. She let me touch her hair. She let me hug her. In her bright face, her light blue eyes looking toward a future, I saw Stephen smiling out at me. I swear he was there, for a moment or two, saying goodbye.


To Worry Or Not To Worry—That Is the Question

My liver counts have been high, randomly, ever since I had breast cancer, chemotherapy and Tamoxifen. The first couple of times this happened, I worried like crazy that I also had liver cancer.

Now I’m able to manage that fear, unless something unusual occurs —like my primary care physician calls during Thanksgiving vacation to tell me I should see the gastroenterologist because, now that I’m a normal, healthy person she needs to treat me differently. Then the cancer terror runs through me like a jolt of lightning.

Why Worry?

blue purple horizontal several strands lightning istockMy mother died of pancreatic cancer, 16 years after her mastectomy. I never thought there was a connection. But somewhere along the line, one of the many oncologists, radiologists and surgeons I saw while trying to decide what steps to take myself after my diagnosis, said, “Hmm. Pancreatic. Could have metastasized from the breast cancer.”

“After 16 years?” I asked her.

“Yes,” was the uncomfortable answer she gave.

This bit of history explains some of my anxiety around high liver counts. But for me, like many cancer survivors, any new development triggers the fear: Is it cancer? Though I don’t like it, the fear, I know, is natural. The body remembers even when the mind prefers to forget.

Putting the Worry Away

But I have become better at compartmentalization—a gift from cancer I never expected. I used to be champion worrier. Days after the initial jolt, the fear still gnawed my innards. And when people tried to make me think positively about the potential outcome of a growth or a test I had to wait for results on, I growled at them like a dog guarding a bone.

Let me feel what I feel, I said, perhaps because as a child I wasn’t allowed to, perhaps because it gave me something to do while I waited, perhaps because I believed that pre-worrying would reduce the post-worrying, even though it actually never did.

casey and alysha far away on cape cod beach, dunes to rightI’m different now. Now I let myself feel afraid for a little while, just to allow the feelings some room to play themselves out. I express them, then remind myself that if the test results come back bad, illness is going to take over my life. These days or weeks before the results come in could be the best time I’ll have for a while, maybe a long while. Maybe forever. I’ll be damned if I’ll use them up worrying.

I tell myself it’s probably fine. Even when I think I might be lying. Why not? What’s for sure is that there’s next-to-nothing I can do about it, except pray to the Goddess, or exercise, or write in my journal, and those things I do.

The rest of the time, I try to live my life, up, down and sideways—however it comes—till the verdict arrives.