Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Supportive Family—or not

I have become a stranger to my own kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.
Psalm 69:9, Book of Common Prayer

            I know that this verse has been applied to Christ, but when it was written, it applied to the life of the writer. We can’t know what the situation was; I’m fairly sure it wasn’t cancer, though cancer has been found even in dinosaur fossil remains. But the sense of being a stranger, an alien—bald heads, anyone?—is very much part of my experience of cancer. The disease separated me from the land of the well and gave me a whole new vocabulary, as well as an empathy for people’s sufferings that I’d not had B.C., before cancer.
            Until I got a part-time job at a place where almost nobody knew about my cancer, I didn’t appreciate how lovely it would be to have a cancer-free zone. I know people who have made their homes into sanctuaries where no one speaks of cancer. One friend said she’d come home from treatment, go to her bedroom and close the door—maybe for a day or two. Her kids and her husband coped, and just said, “Mom’s in her room.”
            I know other people who have relied on the excellent care and strength of family members. Another friend had a sister who, with her husband’s blessing, took the sick woman into her home for the last few years of her life. For many people, family is a compelling reason to stay alive. A third friend wanted to see her last child graduate from high school; others want to be here for grandchildren.
            When I received my diagnosis, my first thought was, Thank God my mother is already dead—this would kill her. I had left home at 18 and never returned for longer than vacations, holidays, and summers of grad school. So I didn’t feel close to the rest of the family. I bungled telling my brother—I found out, after all, the week before Christmas, and he already had multiple stressors at work. That was how I rationalized asking his wife to tell him. They sent a lovely care package and called regularly, rejoicing when things went well.
Assisted by Hallmark and other greeting card companies, we put a lot of freight on families. We may have expectations of them that are unreasonable, given our particular set of circumstances. We may be reluctant to be a burden, relying on a willing rota of friends or a system our faith community has instead.
            There is no right, wrong, or normal when it comes to cancer and the way our families respond.
We’re all just doing the best we can.

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