Something much harder than cancer will happen.

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“You have cancer”

More than once in my life I have heard these words. Everyone from my beloved grandma with breast cancer to my father with Hodgkins and finally the day it was said to me.

I know it is terrible and difficult news that your mind is railing against while repeating it on a never ending loop inside the part of your skull that can carry words in an echo chamber. It really is shattering. But it is not the worst thing that is going to happen. Not by a long shot. No, something far more horrible is within reach.

You will lose friends and/or family.

Take a deep breath.

Every article, essay or story about cancer starts with this warning. It should be added to every chronic illness as well. No matter how many times I read these words, I am still unprepared to deal with the reality of someone either openly or covertly ending their relationship with me because I have cancer.

It had happened to my first husband when he was diagnosed with end stage pancreatic-liver cancer. It is never the people you expect to ditch you. Nope. It’s some of the ones who you felt sure about. The ones who swore at sometime, somewhere, to be with you through thick or thin. Like many things, oaths, the life blood of my Celtic heritage aren’t what they use to be. It will hurt when the relationship withers and dies. There is nothing you can do about that. Except to acknowledge it and live through the deep sadness and betrayal of abandonment. Oh, you will feel betrayed, hurt and angry. I recommend singing soul wrenching music, sweating out your emotions through dancing if you are able and take up drumming. All three of these give you a physical outlet to pound something without hurting anyone. The anger moves on. The betrayals, I am still working on.

For anyone contemplating leaving a comment about forgiveness, please stop yourself. I won’t publish the comment. When a friend or family member walks out on you, it is normal to be angry and hurt. You should not give them a free second chance to hurt and abandon you. I loathe “forgiveness culture” where the ultimate absurdity is to forgive yourself. I have a litmus test for “pop” psychology and New Age-isms. If my grandmother never used an idea like “self forgiveness” and would have called it ridiculous, it is just that. Ridiculous. Getting cancer is NOT something I need to forgive myself for. Having a lousy friend or weak family member is not about me either. It’s on them to find forgiveness. It is not on me to pass out “I forgive you’s,” with the bizarre notion that it is beneficial for ME to forgive THEM. It’s long overdue to call BS on that practice. I have not once, not ever, felt better, freer or more loving after forgiving someone who hurt me without any effort on their part to correct the transgression.

If they want to ask for my forgiveness, that’s a whole different thing. It always starts with fourteen words, from them, “I was wrong. I am sorry. What can I do to make this right?” Just so you know, these are the words I use when it has been me who hurt someone else. It is only the start. Forgiveness should be earned, just like trust. Mostly because trust has been broken when you hurt someone.

Also for anyone who felt the need to leave a friend or relative who got cancer or any other illness please don’t leave your reasons on this post. I won’t approve those either. There are a minuscule of necessary exceptions for when leaving is appropriate. Sometimes Dementia and Alzheimer’s fit that exception. But, please, they are exceptions, not the rule. You may have had equally difficult problems or worse things going on in your own life when your friend got sick or when they had yet another complication to their serious illness. We all get overwhelmed. Here’s the thing, my cancer really is all about me. I own it. I share when I am asked by my Neuroendocrine cancer/carcinoid community or an individual asks about it, or I need to vent. I vent infrequently these days. So, when I hear, “I can not handle your cancer, it’s just too hard for me. I can’t be your friend anymore,” I want to know in what way are they handling MY cancer. I checked. It is impossible to give anyone else my cancer to handle for me.

Last are the ones who will say they are only interested in relationships that are reciprocal. Well, WOW. Not once in my life has any relationship been completely reciprocal at all times. Sometimes I am giving more time and energy and sometimes it is the other person doing that, cancer or no cancer. Life does not balance out every second of the day. Sometimes it doesn’t balance out for months or even years. I am not a good score keeper on this front. Perhaps that is one of the secrets of success to my beloved husband’s and my marriage. We never keep score and we are co-conspirators for life, facing the world together with our hands intertwined shoulder to shoulder. Not once have we ever talked about reciprocation or equity. We each do our best for us everyday, however much that is.

What do I or anyone with an illness want? How about just stick around. We may be gone for long bouts of time and that can be annoying and frustrating. My cancer is rare, slow growing and currently incurable. With my current standing, it is possible for me to live a long time. I could also be sick in varying degrees of seriousness for much of that time due to my cancer or other diseases. I have more than one illness because…well…the universe is not fair. We who are ill, want to be welcomed to join you when we physically can. We want to know that you have the resilience to let us be gone when our ilłness forces us to be unavailable. It is the ultimate gift you can give us. My best example is this: We don’t walk out on life because winter lasts longer than we like. When spring comes we are happy to just have it visit us once again. My illness is like that winter that can drag on for too long or reappears after spring has started. It is very inconvenient and unsettling. I know the vast majority of my friends stick out those wintery days with the surety that spring will come and put an end to winter, hoping that summer will be even sweeter and easier. I would ask for the same patience regarding the weather of mine or anyone’s illness.

For every friend and family member who has stuck it out with chronically or long diagnosed sick people, I thank you with all my heart and soul. You did not demand reciprocity. Instead you gave real love, compassion and the open understanding that welcomes us when we are able and gently waits for us when we are unable. Being this kind of friend is rare and wonderful. I believe it reveals the best part of people and life.

Blessings,
Bridget Robertson

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January 2,

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Let me assure you that my current husband offers me unconditional love and support as I write this very difficult post. I love you John.

There are few events that make clear dividing marks between before and after. There is no bridge that can be constructed to get back to, or even visit that before. A select few life events will change your very core in irrevocable ways. My soul was and still is altered without my ever having given consent.

January 2, is the anniversary of my first husband’s death. He had been diagnosed nine weeks earlier with pancreatic liver cancer. Oncologists kept calling it very serious. My mother, a retired nurse and my stepfather a retired doctor were both given access to his records and used the words “end stage” from the beginning. My mother, in full nurse mode made sure I could give insulin injections, change bile bags on a liver stent that never quite worked, give medications, ask for hospital equipment, change out IV’s, check the line flow that included anything from from antibiotics to feeding bags. She had everything scheduled for me and there was a visiting nurse allowed by my insurance to stop in for fifteen minutes twice a week. I had a full handle as his needs changed very rapidly. I had worked out getting him to daily chemo and every other horrid test and surgery they proposed and did.  I knew none of these would help him. But, it was his life and his decision. From love, I supported every one he made.

I still remember all the people I had to console during those weeks as they did not accept the reality of his mortality.  In many cases these were people he had never invited into our life during our decade of marriage. They were old friends that had lost touch and now wanted unlimited access.  It angered and annoyed both him and me as they took up precious time left to him.   And many believed that it was my burden to stop and help them get through their denial.  I make strong boundaries in general with people. During that time I was the gatekeeper and the bad guy when necessary. Please, if you lose touch with someone who once mattered to you and are now dying, do not attempt to insert yourself into their lives to ease your pain. That is yours to deal with.

When you midwife someone through death who you lived and loved every single day for ten years, reality changes. Forever. Death moves in with you, without invitation and pulls up a chair at the breakfast table and never leaves. It initiates you ruthlessly,  dragging your heart, making your mind come to full attention. I was and am acutely aware of it beside me for all my remaining days in this world. Death serves a purpose. Life is suppose to have a beginning, middle and ending. While he was older than me, he was young, too young to die. His mother and great aunts and uncles survived him. It is out of the natural order and death will not be held accountable when that happens. It does not have to explain anything. Your world, their worlds being shattered, is simply the way it is.

That theory, that floats the idea that denial is an absolute first stage when someone dies is crap. I called bullshit on that, in the one and only group “grief session” I attended. I fully felt every loss that deadly cancer takes, every emergency, every complication, every feeling as he moved further and further away from this world .  I acutely experienced his leaving “us” on the day of his diagnosis. He could not participate in our relationship as married partners. We were now patient and caregiver. I was fully on, as his only caretaker for what I knew would be roughly two months. It’s a heightened awareness and raw feelings that move like daggers through your body and they leave scars.

If I believed in a devil it would be grief. It pays no heed to it being more than a quarter of a century later. Nor that I am very happily remarried. It made that demarcation of before and after. It runs a course that has very nasty timing. Rogue waves would be easier to navigate. The only sure thing is, that it will come every January 2. The body is how grief keeps score. Time does let dates slip from your mind, but the body will not. If I am lucky, unexplained tears will be limited to this one day. Other years,  it starts sometime in December and goes into February. As I search for the cause of this body weeping, eventually I consult a calendar and from deep in my soul the date of his death will bubble up. Grief is tenacious. It grips you at will and nothing will hurry it, until it has completed this round. I have learned to sit back and let it run an emotional roller coaster in my body. And it is my body that bears the brunt of these visits. There is a crack somewhere inside me, between before and after, that allows entry and both generates and receives the blast of pain, loss and a sense of drowning. None of this is about my first husband. No, it is about what happened to me as I focused solely on his death assuring myself I could figure out my own health problems and my new future that would no longer include him…later.  There was too much on my plate, in the immediate to stop for me. It was a horrible bargain to make. If you ask me then or now, my pragmatism will still assert that reality demanded that bargain. I had no time for me during those weeks.  The consequence would be a recurring one. One I have accepted, yet, I do not like,

Grief does eventually move on. All emotions do. But it’s course is spiral, not linear. I find myself stuck in some strange dark mud that demands tears, quiet and endless patience as it racks me with an odd pain mixed with emotional agony that has no basis in my current life. There is no treatment other than deciding to head straight through it. Everything else only makes it worse. Grief also has many faces. In the midst of this pain I can find myself feeling a strange invincibility. It is a dangerous yet necessary task to let that pass through as well. Other “insignificant” life chores will pull at me. In some absurd perception, I could refuse to do them with a daring, demanding them to attempt their worst. This part of grief knows nothing would be worse than what has already happened. It is a boldness born of living through a terrible event that causes strong urges of recklessness that I have learned to not act upon. I did during that first winter. In retrospect, everyone took my words and actions with many grains of salt for the first year. People who will help and understand in the beginning will move on. They will not understand when it still happens decades later. We don’t like being or watching real vulnerabilities. Things that we can’t control or decide our way out of, things that must be felt and allowed to exist until they don’t.

Honestly, there is No One. No seminar. No therapy, herb, essential oil, no spiritual guide, book , technique, meditation or wisdom that will make this better.

It’s January 2, and this is what is.

Bridget