Life Is Going To Get Us: On Close Calls & Gratitude: Everyday Magic, Day 361

In the past few days, I’ve heard from two friends who lost close friends, another diagnosed with cancer, several facing financial despair and one in great physical pain. Then I woke up this morning to several friends’ postings on facebook about gratitude, not the kind of mild satisfaction at getting a check in the mail, but gratitude rooted in vast appreciation and understanding of what it means to be alive against the backdrop of close calls.

When I was going through chemo and bouts of fear storms about mortality, I had a realization that stayed with me: surviving anything means being around to survive or not survive another. Life is going to get us, one way or another whoever we are, whatever dark leafy greens we do or don’t eat, and whatever we believe: our beloveds will endure hardship, pain and eventually die, and so will we.

Yet at the same time, life is going to “get” us: show us who we really are stripped clean from our stories of why we are this way or that. Even the “this way or that” will fall away in a moment: sitting in a doctor’s office, trying to take in a surprisingly diagnosis; answering the phone to discover an old drinking buddy and sweet conspirator has died; running into someone we haven’t seen in decades and who only knows us long before however we clothed and accessorized our identity.

That moment, one that comes more often for me after rounding the half-way point of what I hope will be a long life, when a close call cleanses us free of any illusions is also a moment to land in gratitude. Not to say there’s not sufficient or overwhelming pain, grief, loss, betrayal, anger and despair also, but being shaken alive so often shakes people into gratitude for this life. I think of funerals where I hear, “At least she’s not in pain anymore,” or car accidents when so often the talk is, “We were so lucky to be hit on this side of the car instead of that side.” I think of the writing groups I lead for people with serious illness who, even when facing years ahead with Parkinson’s or very limited years with late diagnosis cancer, the writing and talk is both “Life sucks” and “I’m lucky to be alive.”

I remember especially a woman from an advanced metastatic disease group I facilitated last summer. She had late-stage pancreatic cancer, and wrote about how thrilled she was that her young children could now ride their bikes on their own to the mailbox and back, down their long driveway. She was happy because that showed her they would be able to get around some after she was gone which, sadly, came to pass within months. While I doubt her children will ever be grateful their mom died, I hope they can feel some of what she felt: a gratitude for life cycling itself forward.

It seems the flurry of close calls and losses comes in waves, and many of my friends are riding such a wave now. While there aren’t words to made up for whatever is gone, whoever has died or however the next medical scan turns out, I hope we can all get the gratitude on the backside of the close calls, which opens our tender, breaking hearts to the song of life.

Writing Into Mortality & Beyond: Everyday Magic, Day 13

Today I had the joy of facilitating a mid-summer writing retreat for people living with serious illness at Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing in Kansas City (actually Shawnee Mission, KS). While this is something I’ve been doing  for years, each time is new, giving me a front row seat to witness courage, curiosity and the power of how we create (even and especially in the face of mortality). Many of the eleven people who participated are carrying long-term progressive illnesses or stage four cancer diagnoses, years of trying one new medication or another, weeks that stretch into long deserts of moving through chemotherapy or grief, and other assorted hard stuff. One woman just lost her beloved to late-stage cancer two weeks ago; another balances late stage cancer treatment behind her and heart surgery ahead of her; yet another watches her strength and balance ebb and flow due to Parkinson’s.

Whatever the story, it’s a story about facing mortality: our own or our loved ones. As such, it’s a story about loss and grief — even if we’re lucky enough to only lose a few body parts and a false sense of immortality. It’s also a story of the joy found in being present for whatever everyday magic life gives us, whether it’s a glimpse of a red bird singing to one woman from a rooftop, reminding her someone is watching over her, or a hanging out at a family beach party for another woman, a welcome respite from cancer treatment.

In these workshops, I use writing prompts that aim us not so much toward the hope of returning to the old life, pre-illness, but the hope of finding meaning, connection, love, acceptance and strength in the current life. This necessitates also facing, and sometimes writing or talking through, the times meaning evaporates, connections dissipate, friends and families don’t know how to show their love, and it’s hard to not feel betrayed, weak and lost. I tell the people in such workshops to try to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and kindness for whatever comes up in their writing, to treat their responses or even moments of not being able to respond as they would a dear friend. I also encourage us to witness each other: listen carefully. In doing so, we open the ears of our ears and then can better figure out what our own lives are saying to us. I also bring snacks, and today, that included cherries because even if life isn’t a bowl of cherries (or a chair of bowlies as Mary Engelbriet writes), we can still find sweetness that replenishes and nurtures us.

We laugh a lot. We cry (and always, there needs to be a handy tissue box). We talk about struggles, breakthroughs, fears, and great loves. Yet I’m also amazed by how quickly people make a circle of support together, offering each other not just resources, but a kind of understanding that helps everyone in the group look into the issues tipping out when their mortality is stirred. In these workshops, we often speak of how to live, especially when the days are numbers and yet no one knows what those numbers are. There’s something about facing the hard stuff of life, whatever it is, that rips the veil of whatever-ness off, and lets us see clearly what matters, who we are, and how to live.

Photos from workshop used with permission of participants. For copy of My Tree of Life: Writing and Living Through Serious Illness, a book I edited of past participants’ writing, go to the Turning Point store. I also encourage people with serious illness or who are caregivers in the Kansas City area to check out Turning Point, make contributions, and/or take some classes. See a blog by one of the class participants.