~A Commentary on Romance, Life and Cancer~
Cancer statistics grow boring. Anyone can look around and see its prevalence: magazine covers, blog articles, a relative’s unexpected diagnosis, a friend’s predicted one, a coworker takes leave off work, a distant acquaintance mentioned in a conversation, “Oh did you hear? She died last year of cancer.”
Not a hopeless zombie apocalypse—just reality, though the odds of beating cancer increase each year. My own mother’s diagnosis left our family in shock, never moving past the bargaining stage of grief up until her last hours. Only later and with time could I reflect on her passing, and wonder if I’d dealt with it the best way…
In the aftermath of her death, cancer brought new ways of looking at relationships. Having witnessed the struggles and strain illness put on romance, I can say I was astounded and awed at the love my father showed my mother during her six month battle. It’s not that I developed higher expectations; I just learned how tough and unromantic romance really could get. Involuntarily, new curiosities about future love interests arose: Would you still love me when I’m bald? Love me when my eyes are watery from chemotherapy? Love me when I’m shaking cause I’ve a low white blood cell count? Do you know how much a funeral costs?
I think of these questions as I’m on a date, my gaze in a far-off place as he compliments my hair, “Is that your natural hair color? It’s stunning,” he says. I snap back to reality, “Um…yes,” I lie. My natural hair color is dark brown, heavily streaked white. Not grey—white. But if I tell him, I feel like his love might…grow old, and not in the enduring way. To be honest, for the months following my mother’s death I became preoccupied with cancer, using it as the filter and perspective of which I processed reality and people.
But then I realized, cancer is really just an early reminder of what’s inevitable anyways: death. Although mortality doesn’t take away from the pain of a life cut short, the reality is; cancer isn’t the only thing terminal—life is terminal.
Although many voices of our time, morbid authors, poets and filmmakers address how to live with the notion of death, not many give advice on how to love someone who’s death is imminent. According to Philip Hebert, when someone knows their terminal prognosis, “The right response to this [person] is the exercise of compassion—“to suffer with” the person—to not abandon him or show him indifference, but try to see what life is like for her, at her life’s end…” His advice is meant for professionals dealing with patients, not for loved ones dealing with a family member’s death. But I wish I’d read his advice before my mom died. I don’t think my mom felt abandoned by me, no, but I had no idea how to behave, especially in the six-month period leading up to her passing. Although I consider myself a passionate person, unreliant on conventional structures and scripts…I wish I had a formula to fall back on, to ensure I was doing everything I could.
Honestly, I was reluctant to be fully emotionally present with my mother, for many reasons. I know I am not alone in this reluctance. It’s natural to reach out for life in response to death. I remember drowning myself in the dumbest pop music and over-indulging in anything that’d take me, anything that’d make me forget. There were so many reasons at the time to resist the practice of empathy. I didn’t want to believe my mom was really dying and she didn’t want to either; empathizing with her feelings of death was like accepting defeat, like giving up the fight. The complete opposite of denial. What’s more, like many others, my capacity for empathy had been exploited by someone in the past, by someone I used to be close to and loved very much. Many people are jaded in this respect—empathizers learn to shut down their empathy lest they be abused and meaninglessly absorbed into a vortex of vanity, ego, self-pity and drama. In a recent article in Psychology Today, Robin Stern outlines the pitfalls and even dangers of empathy.
Lastly, showing empathy requires getting past your anger, anger at not being able to follow your loved one in death, the feeling they are abandoning you.
To be honest, I don’t think all of these road blocks to empathy are an entirely bad thing: they’re coping mechanisms helping us deal with reality. But I can say when my mom was dying…I wish I had known earlier to recognize I don’t need them.
Death of a loved one can easily make you very morbid. Speaking for myself, I know I went through a period of wanting to constantly remind people–strangers even–not to forget about death. I just wanted to yell “WE’RE ALL DYING! SO STOP PRETENDING LIKE YOU’RE GOING TO LIVE FOREVER.” But death doesn’t have to have an angering affect on our lives.
Luna Dunham writes that preoccupying yourself with morbid thoughts is really just a way to avoid the present—the reality of our lives, the struggles, the challenges, the endless possibilities, the idea that really anything can happen.
Bonnie Rose Marcus, a poet obsessed with death, found her inspiration in a hospice. She writes “Thinking about death can actually give more meaning to life and help you set your priorities. You can ask yourself, How do I want my life to be? How do I want to spend my time?” Bonnie trained to become a hospice volunteer and she learned to live close to the terminally ill…
“What I’ve learned is that people are so much more than their dying. That’s why accompanying them through death is not completely depressing, as some may imagine. Rather, it is intimately inspiring…”
When people ask me how I deal with death I say “It is my only definition of life–that which will die.” And it’s not necessarily a sad thing, I don’t get sad about the rising and setting of the sun…it’s all I’ve ever known and I know no other definition.
It’s how to live forever in a moment….that’s the question