When someone tells you they’re having chemo they have told you nothing

Here is one more post on cancer stimulated by my friend Steve Buttry.

Between his Twitter account @stevebuttry and his Caring Bridge entries Steve is, as I said on his Caring Bridge account, “the patron saint of transparency.”

Steve is convinced he can help people by explaining his struggle. Obviously, as someone who has just written a candid book called “Some People Even Take Them Home:” A Disabled Dad, a Down syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance, I also believe the power of our personal stories are the best teachers.

This week Steve wrote a fascinating post on the drugs that fight the drugs that fight the cancer. The post reminded me of a major truth I learned during my late wife Jean’s encounter with cancer: When someone tells you they are getting chemo, they have told you nothing.

I share this truth in the hope it will educate and edify friends and loved ones. Do not assume anything when your friend tells you they are getting chemo.

Jean and I used to sit in a chemo infusion lab for six to seven hours while she received two really tough drugs and an antidote three times a month. Right next to us would be a man who was getting thirty straight days of chemo and next to him would be a woman who was getting a monthly treatment. And then there are people like Steve who have in-patient chemo treatment.

The chemo drugs are very different too in their side effects and their potency. Some people suffer intense pain and discomfort. Others find themselves consumed in a battle between hope and despair. Not to put too fine a point on it, but chemo sucks.

When Jean and I started her chemotherapy regimen I admit I naively believed the process was much gentler than it turned out to be for her. I guess I had a false faith in how far the science of chemotherapy had come.

I lost Jean despite the chemo and I am sure that is why when I hear someone is undergoing the treatment a little piece of my soul chips away. I now have an empathy that comes from being the spouse of a chemo patient who couldn’t defy the odds. Of course, that makes me sad, but even more important to my personal character is now I can truly feel for the chemo patient.

My only point here is when you hear those words “I have to have chemo,” don’t assume a walk in the park, but don’t assume a horror show either. Be gentle in your assumptions, cautious with your questions, complete in your empathy and pray like hell.

Some people handle life’s quirks with resiliency and some don’t

I was talking to a high school classmate the other day and the subject turned to people from high school who have thrived and those who haven’t.

I will never forget the high school counselor who, in a conversation about my daughter, told my late wife Jean, “Mrs. McGuire, High School has NOTHING to do with real life.” Absolutely true but sometimes life seems so arbitrary about who excels and who doesn’t.

Navigating the challenges of adulthood looks different to every person and academic intelligence or high school success isn’t always a good indicator.

Surviving high school is usually about wearing, saying and doing the right thing and academic success usually goes to the students who do what they are told, when they are told and how they are told.

That’s not the way real life works. Real life depends on performance, savvy, self-starting ambition and compassion.

I occasionally meet young people who are so self-absorbed it is actually mind boggling. They really do believe the world revolves around them and are stunned when you don’t agree with their assessment.

Let’s face it, “me” is the organizing principle for all of us. Yet, most people who make life work for them understand that there is an interdependence among all of us that prompts us to be kind, thoughtful and accommodating.

So many of the folks who can’t “handle life’s quirks” are people who see their frame and lens as the only possible lens from which to view life. When things don’t go their way, they get angry, sad, frustrated and often just surrender. I guess the word I am searching for is resilience. The people who make life work for them have that special gift that allows them to bounce back from adversity called resilience.

I hope that when you order your copy of Some People Even Take Them Home: A Disabled Dad, A Down syndrome Son and our Journey to Acceptance you will find a story of resilience. Obstacles rise up in front of all of us but resiliency separates us.

Looking at the world from two sides

The woman  settled into the seat next to me on the airplane with a friendly greeting and a big smile. “I just love the holidays,” she said, “everybody is so friendly.” My first thought was, of course everybody is friendly with you, you’re a happiness carrier.

We exchanged small talk with each other on the flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas where she lives until she blurted out, “Why does anyone go to Las Vegas  for Thanksgiving?” I explained that my wife had died in June and my son and I were meeting there to avoid past traditions. I mentioned that my son was going to be about three hours late. The news of the death of my wife made her pensive and she vowed she would give her husband a much bigger hug when she landed in the airport.

By that point I knew her name was Gretchen and we shared more details of our lives. Suddenly she reached for her purse and pulled out a business card. “Now if your son doesn’t make it tonight, you call me and come over for Thanksgiving dinner. One more hungry mouth won’t hurt a thing.”

Gretchen’s invitation was sincere and moving. I did not take advantage of it but I will remember her kindness for a very long time.

On Thanksgiving, Jeff and I had a nice Turkey dinner and we grabbed a cab to the show we were attending that night. The cab driver was a grizzled veteran and immediately launched into a schtick about being married seven times. He had a well-practiced repertoire of misogynistic jokes about wives and women that would make some passengers laugh but they were cringe-worthy and totally unworthy of reprinting.

Jeff and I agreed after the ride that the monologue may well be false but it really does not matter. The cabbie’s cynicism and bitterness is an indisputable fact even if he hasn’t been married seven times. If he hasn’t, his belief that his schtick is going to get him more tips is an even sadder commentary.

Gretchen has chosen a path of kindness, joy and generosity for her life and the cabbie follows a far more cynical path. We all face a similar choice. How do we want to be remembered from our chance encounters?

Being Thankful as a very bad year comes to an end

Friends and family are concerned about how the holidays are going to affect me this first Thanksgiving and Christmas after my wife Jean died. Since right after the funeral well-intentioned friends have warned me that the “holidays will be the hardest.” That is not helpful, but again, few are mean-spirited when they say things like that.

Within weeks of Jean’s death, my kids and I moved to change things up from the traditions Jean had led for so many years. My son and I are going to trash all past practice and escape to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving. All of my kids are going to come to Arizona for Christmas rather than the usual Minnesota celebration.

I really have no idea if those basic changes will make anything easier but it has to be better than the inevitable tears that would flow from reliving all of Jean’s traditions.

I do believe I have the prayers of Thanksgiving for both events worked out. I am terrifically grateful for the 39 years I had with Jean and exhilarated by what she did for my children. I am going to urge all three of them to be thankful for what we had. I am going to urge them not to get hung up on what’s gone. Jean is most certainly not coming back, but I am convinced if she saw us crying at her two favorite holidays she would slap every one of us up side the head.

My default position these days is that Jean would desperately oppose sorrow and urge us all to move on and to be thankful for new things and new people in our lives.

Is that going to work? I have no clue. I only know the journey has to be walked and I will walk it with all the prayerful optimism I can muster.

McGuire on life, disability and grief will take the next week off. Happy Thanksgiving to all.



Rounding the corner on grief

Grief is like no other journey I have ever taken. It’s a bit like going from Minneapolis to New Orleans by way of San Francisco, New York and Florida. It is not a straight-line, north-south trip.

I am also convinced that during the trip it is mighty difficult to assess your location but I am going to make a stab at it. I think, believe, sense, suppose, postulate, assume, understand and any other speculative synonym you can conceive that I have turned a corner on grief. I can’t tell you when I turned that corner. I am convinced the grief journey seems clearer in reflection, but I can tell you five things about why I believe I have rounded that corner and what it is like.

1. Rounding the corner on grief is not a place. There is not a mile marker or a sign that tells you that you are done and have completed the journey. I certainly have not. I still grieve often. Just ask my close friend Bob Brown who held my shoulders as I sobbed in church on All Souls Day or that driver on the highway the other day who stared at me as I cried. I suspect I will cry over the loss of my wife Jean for the rest of my days but those tears are now punctuated with a sense of genuine celebration over what we had.

2. It is not forgetting. I still find many things that cause me to think fondly of Jean and even a few things that tick me off. And then I wonder why I let something so small tick me off. Then I grieve again. Remembering Jean fondly and respectfully is, in my mind, a crucial part of my journey.

3. Rounding the corner on grief is realizing I am not feeling consumed with overwhelming sadness. The pit in my stomach, or perhaps it was a hole in my heart, that I felt from the moment Jean died has grown dramatically smaller. It even goes away for hours at a time.

4. I realized I had rounded the corner on my grief when I started finding great joy in other people. For a time most people just pissed me off. Happy people, sad people, well-intentioned people, mean-spirited people, innocent bystanders, and especially happy couples, they all just really honked me off. That’s gone now and people usually make me happy. I let some people make me happier than others. I have even started thinking about and making plans for the future. Several weeks ago the future was an abyss that I needed to avoid thinking about at all costs.

5. I have become comfortable with the fact that my grief is ever-present. But it has softened over time. It no longer over shadows my every moment. I have recaptured vitality and joy when teaching, watching a college football game or having coffee with friends. I don’t think there is a set time-frame for grieving. No calendar pin points the arrival of acceptance and hopefulness for a future without the one I loved most in the world. I believe the time spent in deep grief is as unique to each individual as DNA. For me, being sad, angry and hopeless are suits that just don’t fit.

I still grieve Jean. If she wants to come back I would welcome her. But she’s not coming back and grief will not consume my soul. Instead Jean is a celebratory memory for whom I will still cry, but I know Jean would want me to be happy so I am off to do her will.