Walking Each Other Home
Guest post by Jacinda Reitsma:
It has been a tough month for our family. On May 12 our daughter finished radiation treatment after 6 months of chemotherapy and we were ready for it to be over. I struggle to talk about anything that does not involve cancer. Maybe we’re stuck, maybe we’re tired, maybe we’re resentful that she had to go through this again. In a self-help world, it would seem easy to fix the problem. Maybe I need a gratitude journey, maybe I need to remind myself of all the good that has come from this, or maybe I need a manicure, a shopping trip, and some “me time”. The problem is when you have faced your biggest fear and waited to hear about whether the cancer has spread in your little girl, those sorts of coping mechanisms don't seem to cut it anymore.
Having been through a difficult cancer battle two years ago that was ridiculously intense but ultimately successful, we recovered in a way. This made the news of a relapse that much worse. While we getting our lives and hearts and minds back we were so quickly knocked down again. Treatment time is easier in some ways because there is something to do. It's not until it's all over that you realize the difficulty of the challenge. Then you begin to wonder why. By all accounts, our daughter is in a good place. Her peach fuzz hair is growing back, her energy is boundless, and she cherishes every moment of every day. She will continue to undergo tests to make sure her cancer is entirely gone, then we will hope and pray for the best.
There is a new type of pressure. I see the mothers who are outspoken advocates for their children and the diseases they face and I wonder why I can't do more. When the kids run the Terry Fox run at school why am I madly writing a donation cheque that morning? Why didn't I make more of an effort to raise more funds when it is my own child who needs the research to live? So the expectations and pressures mount in a different way. Of course, there is the guilt that my child continues to beat the odds by surviving a relapse with a positive outcome when others do not. For the grieving parents out there my heart breaks.
Yes, it has been a tough month as we figure out how to be ourselves again. We have our family, our faith, our neighbours, our church community, and our friends. These are lifelines. Recently I heard a TedTalk by Ann Lamott that changed my perspective a bit. She said that some losses you aren't going to recover from and you aren't supposed to. That took the pressure off a bit. While I would love to be that amazing cancer mom who came out of adversity stronger, well, I’m just not there yet.
I have also reflected on what it means to be helped in a time of need and what it means to be loved. If I had a choice between the two, it would be love every single time. Asking for and receiving help remains difficult in some ways but receiving love even when it is not done perfectly is a beautiful thing. Another Ann Lamott gem: “Helping is the sunny side of control”. As someone who likes to do things that feel helpful for other people, this one was tough to hear.
Last year our neighbourhood sponsored a refugee family. In May 2016, a happy and tired family of three arrived and we were thrilled with their long-awaited arrival. We helped a single mom, her teenage son, and younger daughter make the change from Africa to Canada. So many people helped in so many ways and the family thrived. It became evident after a few months when the mother secured a job that they didn't need us as much, the kids adapted to school incredibly well and we continued to reach out. There are some people in our neighbourhood who worked incredibly hard and sacrificed so much to make this happen. This month we celebrated with a BBQ and the mother of our sponsored family radiated joy. She dressed up in a beautiful dress and brought along two bottles of wine. As we proposed a toast to our special family in plastic cups, she stood up to speak. Overflowing with gratitude, she thanked us for changing her life and changing her soul. Then she said with tears in her eyes "God bless all of you". It was beautiful and humbling for me. Over the course of a year our helping had inexplicably changed to loving. We loved them deeply and we could tell that they felt it.
Later on in the evening, the mother and I sat together. We watched our daughters playing together. Mine with the skinny legs and bald head and her with the huge smile and bright patterned dresst. They were running, smiling, and laughing. I thought about what the past few years had been like for our two girls, each one facing hardship and difficulty that we don't want our kids to face. I said to her quietly, "sometimes we need to do things for our kids that are really hard". "Yes we do" she replied confidently. I continued, "sometimes we need to watch them do things that are very difficult ". "Yes" she said with a nod of her head. For the first time in a long time, it felt that someone understood perfectly the pain of watching your child suffer and feeling helpless. Then we just sat quietly for a moment and watched them together. I could not comprehend the tragedy and difficulty she faced in life but her quiet understanding and love helped me that night.
Turning the attention away from ourselves was so important. Connecting with others always seems to help. We will be forever grateful for the help we received from others but we will always remember deep in our hearts those who loved us when we were difficult to love. Our family of five has faced cancer this year but we continue to battle the feelings of anxiety that can be tough to handle. Our connection to others has created a way to handle these difficulties. I wonder at times if some of these angels were sent at just the right time without knowing it.
As we live and love and have and lose and wonder and cry, it is so vital to connect with each other and to continue to give and receive love: that really deep, messy, complicated love. I continue to ponder the experience of our past year and reflect on the refugee family our neighbourhood has come to love. Ann Lamott's words about the beauty of the journey of life speak to me the most. "In the end we are all just walking each other home."