Tag Archives: cancer treatment

That homesick feeling

The farm in Upstate New York that I loved to visit as a child.

At six years old, most of us don’t have a great grasp of the world around us. Life revolves around parents and family. The rest of life is a mystery until we experience it.

During the summer after my second grade year in school, my favorite aunt and uncle traveled from their farm in Upstate New York to visit our family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When the time came for them to leave, I begged my parents to allow me to go with them back to the farm. To my surprise, my parents agreed.

A half hour later a bag was packed and I was plopped in the back seat of their car for the trip north to Bainbridge and the farm that I loved.

But the next morning, I woke up with a horrid feeling in my gut. I was homesick. If you’ve never experienced that feeling for yourself, it can be best described as a deep combination of longing and loss that penetrates your whole being. All you want to do is go home.

Confession: I was always an anxious kid. Already at that age, I chewed my nails. Looking back through a life of dealing with aspects of anxiety and depression, I realize that homesickness was a product of who I am. Learning to cope with anxiety is a lifelong job. I don’t blame myself for it, and these days I know myself well enough to function healthily. It wasn’t always that way.

The morning of my homesickness, I recall my aunt making a phone call to my parents, who drove up from Lancaster that day to fetch their anxious, homesick son. Apparently all involved had pity on me. Perhaps they knew those feelings well enough to realize there was no cure except to send me back home. Sometimes good caregiving is a matter of listening to the people involved.

Keeping me on the farm a couple days might have cured the homesickness, but I must have been a sorry sight with all those aching tears. I guess I can be grateful that adults had compassion for my condition.

The giant elm that once stood in front of the Nichols family farm where my mother grew up.

I looked up homesickness on the Psychology Today website. It had interesting things to say about homesick feelings. “A number of studies have suggested that homesickness can be associated with psychological difficulties such as lonelinessdepressionanxiety, difficulty adjusting to new situations, and psychosomatic health problems. Given that being away from home can be accompanied by the sadness of missing it, one wonders why we form such powerful emotional bonds to our home. Surely, attachment is at least partly the product of all the wonderful experiences we enjoyed during our childhood.”

It goes on to say, “As poet Robert Frost famously explained, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Our bond extends beyond enjoyable experiences. It encompasses unconditional love, commitment, loyalty and enduring connectedness.”

Still, no specific mention of fear as a cause of homesickness. Perhaps there’s no reason. That emotion is woven into the DNA of anxiety and depression. It is both the cause and a symptom of those conditions.

The PT article continues,” Efforts to prevent homesickness must contend with a paradox. Although research findings have been inconsistent, homesickness seems to be more likely when children have had prior experiences with separation from home as well as when they had had little or no prior periods away. If homesickness is the price we pay for attachment to a strong loving home, would anyone want to diminish the quality of a child’s home to prevent the possibility of future homesickness?”

Like many children in that day and age, I lived in a home that was both loving and at times, a conflicted place. My father lost his mother to complications of cancer treatment when he was just seven years old. He went to live with an uncle and two aunts because his own father experienced profound depression at the loss of his wife and also brought on in some ways by The Depression.

So my father’s upbringing was at times gruff. His pain at losing his mother at such a young age was probably never adequately addressed. No doubt there were feelings of homesickness after being shuttled from his family home to a life with a tough old uncle and two unmarried aunts. The sense of loss must have been profound. Thus despite his largely caring character, he bore an anger within him that spilled out at times. His four sons tried to meet his approval but there was an exasperating and sometimes frightening tone to certain aspects of our upbringing.

So that feeling of separation from home as a place of safety and comfort is both a physical and emotional reality for all of us. Yet to this day, I still view our Lancaster house and yard as “home” in many ways. We moved away when I was twelve years old. A type of homesickness has traveled with me all these years. We’d have never left that place if I’d had my way.

A Google Maps photo of the family home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Yet that would have denied me all the experiences that were to come and those were good. So while homesickness is real, it is also not permanent and is no way to define or limit one’s time in this world. We have to rip off the bandage at certain times in life, and move on.

All of us have some sense of home that lives within our souls. Sometimes it’s just the smell of a room when the windows are open… or the curl of a pillow as you roll over to face that person whom you love. It can be heard in the song of a bird calling in the trees, or the sound of a car pulling into a driveway.

Take in those sensations and indeed, you’re home again. That’s the right kind of pride.

Note: I’ve shared impressions about homesickness before on this blog because they symbolize so many other aspects of life. May you find that sense of home wherever you are.

Six years on and beyond

Linda and Chris.jpgDuring eight years of cancer caregiving for my late wife Linda, who passed away six years ago this day on March 26, 2013, I grew to understand many things about other people. How some have such a heart for others. How giving they could be. How friends willingly took on chores too difficult to imagine. All of it done without judgment. These things came true in our lives.

There were also mysteries that were beyond explanation and should remain that way. During one period of time when I was out of work to take care of her needs, we sat together at our dining room table and added up the money needed to cover our bills. We’d already paid the $2000 COBRA monthly premium for health insurance. That was absolutely vital or we’d be broke in a minute from a running list of medical bills that came our way. These included chemotherapy treatments and surgeries that cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the days before the Affordable Care Act and protection from  pre-existing conditions, clinging to your health care was a life or death matter.

Somehow we made it week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year. But sometimes we just turned to prayer for help. So it was that we determined the need for $3500 to cover the rest of our bills. During periods when I had to be out of work to take care of her, I’d hustle up freelance work to cover our bills and more.

LInda and Chris.pngBut it was stressful. Sometimes we’d be pressed financially, and it was on one of those nights that we added up the bills, said our prayer and got her into bed to rest.

The next morning I came out to the kitchen to make her oatmeal and heard the front door mail slot creak open and shut. Whatever fell through the door made a solid thump on the floor. I walked out to check on the delivery because people were often bringing us food and other requests made through our caregiving website.

This package was different. The envelope was thick and bulging. I picked it up and opened the tab. Inside was a wad of money. $3700 worth.

I broke into quiet tears and stood there looking out the door. Whoever dropped off that envelope and collected that money was already gone. To this day I have inklings about who might have gathered that cash but in many respects prefer to leave it as a mystery. That’s what the folks who gave us the money apparently wanted. We used it wisely and gave a prayer of gratitude in response.

Yes, it’s been six years since my late wife passed away. But the kindness and grace of others that sustained us has never left my mind. I know it never left her mind either. In so many ways the support of others kept her alive during all those years in and out of remission after her initial diagnosis. We drew on that support for strength and hope during periods of both sickness and health. Our children felt that support, and in the ensuing years that remains an important part of our collective grieving process. Last year we held a memorial gathering in her honor. Rightfully so.

She and I met in 1981 and were married for twenty-eight years. Yet in many ways, we were also married to the world around us. It was that bond of vulnerability and hope that drew on the strength of others and became our main source of pride. The Right Kind of Pride. 

 

 

 

For all those parents saying goodbye to kids headed off to school

IMG_1299It’s a gut-wrenching moment, saying goodbye to a child on a college campus. But some colleges really know how to handle it. To their eternal credit, I recall the method by which the University of Chicago manages that transition for parents and students. The entire crowd present for the opening remarks from the college president is marched around the block toward the Quad, where the kids are siphoned off and sent through a set of arches to be greeted by upperclassman who cheer their welcome. The parents are shunted off to a consoling feast of food and alcohol at the center of campus.

Tears dry quickly when the chords are so suddenly snapped. And the process is inevitable if you want your child to succeed. We work so hard as parents to teach them to be independent and then blubber like fools when we finally succeed? The world is so full of contradictions.

Facing challenges 

The more difficult transition for our family during my son’s freshman year in college was coaxing my wife through the initial rounds of chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. She’d already been through procedures of hysterectomy and excision in the abdomen earlier that summer. We did not know what the results would be, or where the next steps would lead us. It would entail eleven rounds of chemotherapy, and it was tough. The poison drugs gave her a swollen face and a reddish complexion as if she were perpetually blushing.

Parent’s Night

Yet she was determined to attend Parent’s Night at the college. So we drove into the city with her mother and father sitting in the back seat of our car. Her father was a big fan of the entire University of Chicago experience. Years before my son became a candidate for admission, my father-in-law wandered Hyde Park and studied its history. He felt genuine pride at the fact that his grandson had worked so hard in high school and gotten accepted into the prestigious school.

So the trip down to UC was supposed to be a passage of joy. But my wife was sick as hell from the chemo treatments. She was so stubborn that I knew she could not be convinced to stay home. So I kept watch on her in the passenger seat as we drove down the Eisenhower Expressway into the city.

Her lip quivered a few times, and she had every right to be scared and exhausted from her treatments. But I still felt she needed to get a grip. I whispered to her quietly. “Evan needs you to be strong,” I told her. “This may be one of those times when you have to just suck it up.”

Tough love

It sounds cruel, but the message worked. She sailed through the evening like the trooper she was, keeping a smile on her face and dishing out hugs to the new friends and parents we met at the University. Evan was thrilled we could attend. And then it was time to go home again.

A few weeks later my son came home to visit the family over Thanksgiving, I was driving him back downtown when he confessed to a tension inside himself that he could not fully describe.

I asked: “Is it mom? Are you worried about her?”

“Well yes, but that’s not it,” he said. “I feel like I have this anvil on my chest.”

Coming home and coming out

That evening he did not attempt to describe what was going on. But I knew he’d eventually come to grips with whatever was vexing him. It took a couple months, actually. But during his trip home in mid-winter we went out to dinner with our family and shared the news that he is gay.

The news and perhaps the timing was a shocker to my wife, who was in the midst of eleven cancer treatments that were slowly eating away at her health. Ultimately the chemo drugs would clear her of cancer for two full years. The doctors would proclaim her cancer free. The treatments had worked. For a while.

Revelations

In the moment of our son’s revelation, my major concern was family stability in the face of all that challenge and change. My wife turned to my daughter and asked, “What do you think of this?”

My daughter was quick to reply. “I think we both like good-looking men.”

That evening after everyone was in bed, I reached out by phone to a gay friend for some perspective on my son’s coming out. My friend arrived at my door a half-hour later with a look of deep concern on his face. I shared the night’s events and told him about my son’s orientation. He smiled at me and said, “Oh, I was worried it was something serious, like Linda getting sicker.” That was a welcome show of assurance. I’d had hints that Evan might be gay over the years. The first showed up as early as fifth grade. I called my brother that day and told him, “You know, I think Evan might be gay.”

“If he is, he is,” my brother replied. That was the attitude of our entire family as the years went by. “Evan is Evan,” we all repeated. He’d grown up loving music and excelled at cello, earning top honors at the Illinois State Youth Music camp at University of Illinois. He ran track some, and played soccer a couple years. But he was ultimately drawn to acting and theater, an interest that carried all the way through four years of college. The roots of his being were there all along, in every respect.

Perhaps you understand the roots of your particular child as well. Sending them off to kindergarten or middle school, high school or college is however an admission that it takes more than a set of parents to help them become who they eventually will become.

Freshman year went generally well for my son. As for us, those quick tears the first day of school hardly affected our vision of what we wanted for our son going forward. His grades were good. He’d signed on to join a fraternity. He loved living in the city and would take off on a trip to China that next summer.

What it’s all about

Every step along the way is about more than just about going off to school. It’s not even about kids leaving home. It’s about growing to learn, and learning to grow. That’s true for the parents saying goodbye as well as those eager, perhaps frightened students.

You may feel split to the core at the feeling of loss. All those years of raising them around the house, hosting their friends and feeding them sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with lemonade on hot summer days. Time passes. We wipe the counter of their messes. Memories of diapers and bottles and pacifiers fade. They are replaced with smelly sneakers and college duffle bags tossed in the entryway on the day they come back home from school… and disappear again with friends to convene late into night. It can make you wonder if you matter. And you do. But you can cry all you want, this is life.

Wipe those tears and be glad for the normality of all that pain and loss and joy mixed together. Take pride in the fact that you help make it all happen. And thrive.

 

Love on steroids

A friend on Facebook recently posted a meme about what to do when a woman says “Do what you want.”

It then says, DO NOT DO WHAT YOU WANT. Stand still. Do not blink. Do not answer. Don’t even breathe. Just play dead.”

Ah yes. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

But three years ago this week, I was living through a different brand of experience. My late wife was deep in the throes of treatment for a brain surgery stemming from ovarian cancer that had somehow circumvented the supposed brain-blood barrier and made its way into tumors that needed to be surgically removed.

That was in January 2013. Then the treatment was followed by a bit of radiation. And then steroids. That was when things got really interesting.

You’ve all heard of “roid rage,” which is when athletes get so hyped up they have no control over their emotions? Well, it’s real. And while my wife on steroids was not subject to steroid-induced rage, she did become absolutely fearless.

And let me tell you something, an absolutely fearless person can be a very scary thing. It was impossible in some ways to tell when she was being serious or not. We spent some money we did not really have. We bought a new vehicle when I wasn’t even working (thank God for my 960 credit rating at the time) and bunches of other things. I thought the money was coming from some unknown source, perhaps a gift from her very giving parents. But no.

A wife on steroids also cleans a lot. A whole lot. And then cleans some more. Entire shelves of formerly peaceful dishes were offloaded and wiped clean and put back in their places. Rooms got painted. She could not lie down for more than 10 minutes. “I feel great!” she’d enthuse.

The steroids also bulked her up. This was a bit disconcerting on a couple levels. She was already a tall, big-boned German girl. I felt like there was no room in the bed. And then she started snoring too. So I moved to the front room and slept there. No choice. It was like a freight train coming through the bedroom.

None of this do I blame her for. She was a wife on steroids. But it had a cost outside the home. Her judgment was impaired on many levels. Aggressive driving, for one thing. And her work as a teacher at preschool ultimately had to end. She was too spacey to do her job properly. Our close friend and her preschool manager called me one afternoon. We talked quietly about the fact that it was time to give it a break. Linda was simply too charged up.

And then the prescription for steroids ceased and she wound down like a clock. Peacefully with friends and family around she passed away in March of 2013.

But that month with a wife on steroids had its gifts as well. We purchased a painting by an artist whose work I’ve grown to love. Now I work in the same studios that artist once did, and it reminds me to take my work seriously. Yet joyfully.

In the long run, there was no way for go out of this world other than the way she did. But it was like an intense tryst with a powerful spirit, those 45 days with a wife on steroids.

Women have always seemed like intense creatures to me. It does not pay to mess with disrespect or lack of trust. But I do have to laugh when thinking back on what it might have been like to try to continue living with a wife on steroids. I really don’t wish it on anyone.

Most women don’t need steroids to be strong. They’re strong enough already. And if you think you’re tough, just give it a go. Push them to the point where they say, “Do what you want.”  See how far that gets you. But I recommend the advice in that Facebook meme first. “Stand still. Do not blink. Do not answer. Don’t even breathe. Just play dead.”

When I was very young, perhaps 14 years old, I loved the song by Cat Stevens called Hard Headed Woman. Something in me recognized the virtues of a woman that could both encourage you and hold you accountable. I’m dating a woman like that now, and grateful for it.

I’m looking for a hard headed woman, headed woman
One who will make me do my best
And if I find my hard headed woman
I know the rest of my life will be blessed, yes, yes, yes

Yesterday I also spent 45 minutes talking with my mother-in-law, who is a hard-headed woman in her own way. Her life has been spent exploring the difficult path of following Christ. Her search was so intense, she has crossed over the bridge to Judaism and back. This has been an illustration to me of the fact that normalcy and expectations are not adequate measures of a person’s true heart.

Nor the desire to love, and be loved. I wish that for all. My children. My friends. My family. My readers. If love were the thing on steroids, perhaps the world really would be a better place.