Aren’t you interested to see how I am going to tie something as self-centered and vain as my hair into prose from John Donne? I know I am. I have an idea – we shall see if its execution lives up to the essay I’ve written over and over again today in my head. But before I start, further proof American values are disintegrating more rapidly than ever: My library has multiple copies of each season of “The Sopronos” on dvd and no copy of Love in the Time of Cholera. I can’t even get it through library-loan without paying about what I would pay for the book.
Two co-workers I am quite close to lost people they love this week. K., who sits in the office next to me and is one of the most talented employees we have here at the cancer hospital, lost her aunt (age 52) to brain cancer and J., who is just down the hall from me, lost his 28 year-old-brother-in-law to rapidly advancing pnemonia (his immune system was already compromised from an autoimmune disorder). The air around the office, as you can imagine, has been quite somber and because of these losses, I am sad. I have felt sad, all week.
And it’s so weird, isn’t it, to feel sad about a loss that doesn’t directly involve you? In so many ways it seems inherently selfish, to feel sad because of someone else’s suffering, but if we didn’t…if we couldn’t tap into our stores of empathy, maybe we wouldn’t reach out. I’ve felt sad because both losses seem so premature…certainly 28 is much too young to die but even 52 to me seems too young, too soon to leave this world and move onto the next one.
These events were bookended with two survivorship events I had to attend for work. Immedietely before K.’s aunt passed away we participated in Race for the Cure in downtown Detroit, and yesterday, after J.’s loss, I had to attend a celebration of cancer survivors. For the nearly two years I have worked here I have found these events and others like them pretty hokey – the Race for the Cure even has the ability to anger me, belong hand in hand as it does to our crass consumer culture. But this year, something in me changed. I’m not sure what. This year, when Sam and I walked the 5K leg, I found myself touched by the Race, not minding the elements that before have bothered me. Last year, I complained about the amount of people bringing strollers, wagons, dogs on leashes…this year, it made me a little weepy. I suddenly LIKED the fact that so many people donned on various shades of pink, packed up their families and their dogs, and came to Detroit to say “This is me. This is my family. This is who we’ve lost and, oh, how much we loved them. Today, we will celebrate our mother/sister/wife/daughter – who left us too early.” I found it remarkable so many people would come out on a predicted blistering hot day to carry posters with pictures of the ones they loved, the ones they lost. This year, the Race seemed to carry such a tender message about survivorship, and what it means to move on from loss.
Last night I attended a celebration for survivorship, and I was surrounded by women in wigs, all kinds of wigs – long ones, short ones, trendy styles and one was even flourescent pink. For this celebration, all different kinds of cancers were celebrated…people had survived kindey, liver, lung, breast, prostate, sinus, osteocarcinoma, leukemia – they had been sick, and are now on their way to becoming well. I chatted with these women, these women who love my hospital, and we even traded some recipes, and the whole time I kept thinking I can’t believe I complain about my hair. I have…this head of incredibly curly, blonde hair. It breaks bobby-pins, it is so thick. It dreds up by the end of the day. It needs a list a mile long of taming agents to even begin to be presentable, and I complain about it ad nauseum to almost every one I know. Last night I began wondering what I would feel like, though, if I had to lose my hair, had to watch it come out in clumps because I was sick and the medicine I needed meant this loss as a side effect? I’m quite sure I’d lose my freaking mind, at least for an hour or so. Last night, I vowed to love my hair. I have it now, but someday I may not.
That’s the way it goes, after all, isn’t it. We are well, until we get sick (or hit by bus, but you get the idea). We have our health and then we don’t. We may recover from illness or we may not and for the most part, we don’t have a very good idea of how long we have in this world, and we don’t really know what’ s waiting for us. Certainly we hope it’s some kind of lovely afterlife, but most thinking people have considered at some point, no matter how faithful they are, that it may be nothing. We may not be met with trumpets and angels and all you can eat seafood buffets. We may just end.
It makes you wonder why we spend so much time at war and avoiding carbs, doesn’t it?
I think sometimes we forget the inherent beauty found in just getting through this life – in falling in and out of love, in overcoming illness, in finding forgiveness for someone who angers us. Despite what the newspapers and cable news stations report, we are surrounded by a wealth of startling beauty and sometimes maybe we need to walk with strangers and trade recipes with hospital workers to be reminded we can overcome anything, at least until we can’t, anymore.
People sometimes tell me that I am oversensitive, that I internalize too much of the world and can be easily injured by others even when the intent isn’t there. I know S. has been wondering why I’ve been so quiet at night when I get home from work but I don’t want to seem like I’m co-opting my co-workers’ sadness. I don’t feel their loss like it is mine, but I do feel a little something has been chipped away from our world by the losses they are suffering. I do love this portion of Donne’s work from Devotions upon
Emergent Occasions, no. 17 (Meditation) –
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of the
main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory
were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or
of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes
me, because I am involved in mankind, and
therefore never send to know for whom the bells
tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The idea that any man’s death diminishes because of our intrinsic role in mankind I find really beautiful and true, and reminds me it’s okay to hurt not because of any loss of my own, but because those I love are hurting. I remember reacting this way even as a little girl – if my grandmother was mean to my dad in front of me I swear I felt it all the way down in my bones.
It’s a fine line we walk. A certain amount of sympathy reminds we are human and to stop and smell those proverbial roses…too much and suddenly we are wondering about our own deaths, and whether we have progressive pnemonia and just. haven’t. realized. it. yet.
This week has reminded me once again how very short life is, and how lucky I am, to have people I care enough for, to care on behalf of them. And I am blessed to live in a world where people gather together, to walk and to celebrate, to hold hands and to sing – to praise God for wellness in the moment, for the ability to just go on.