“Friendship needs no words – it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness.”
It is said, by I don’t know who, that our best qualities are, at times, our worst qualities. That which makes us good, happy and wonderful can be the same which brings us to our knees. Lately I have been brought to my knees.
My parents shared with me recently a story whereby every time we would go out for dinner, I, at the age of four or five, would “work the floor” as if I was running for office. Weaving in and out of tables, I would walk up to complete strangers, smile, and ask them how their dinner was.
Fast forward to forty years later where I have begun to realize that some of my gregariousness is actually masking a profound insecurity and an insatiable need for attention and approval…from everyone. The problem? Such focus and attention steals me away from the ones closest to me, the ones who truly know and love me and who will be at my bedside when I take my last breath.
It was over twenty years ago when I was having lunch at an outdoor cafe with a friend in Burlington, Vermont. As I sat there pretending to listen I was distracted by the pedestrians walking past. More than a few times I would recognize someone or vice-versa and interrupt the conversation to chat. Finally she had enough “Mark are you even listening to me? I feel like you are not even here. You are someplace else.” I was caught off guard by her honesty and bluntness. She had called me out. I sat there, stunned. Hurt. Embarrassed. She was absolutely right. And even though we have not been in touch since that time, I still recall this moment like it was yesterday. Or today.
A few years ago I went out to lunch with a colleague whose job I now hold. It was a wonderful afternoon and the French-styled bistro was brimming with energy. I knew most of the people in the room but sat content, wanting to get to know this acquaintance. But I was immediately irritated as nearly every time he recognized somebody walking in the door he got up to say hello. He had never been to this particular restaurant. He was like a kid in a candy shop. He must have gotten up nearly a dozen times. I had met my match. And looked in the mirror. How rude. How off-putting. He wasn’t really there and yet I was.
I have always had difficulty saying no. I have never wanted to disappoint anyone. Years ago my former wife shared that my time spent in search of the newest friend or thrill was pulling me away from the relationship most important to me, or the one that should have been so. Thus the “former.”
And I have been repeating this pattern to no healthy end.
This cancer has amplified every character trait in my body both good and bad. When I was first diagnosed, steroids being taken for the surgery created a monster: while I was not aggressive nor angry, I was not sleeping more than a few hours a day for weeks on end. I wrote endlessly, with what one therapist shared, a manic demeanor.
Cancer is so much more than the disease itself.
The shock of the two brain surgeries combined with the cancer diagnosis scrambled my soul. Only now, as I face some very challenging emotional moments after overcoming most of the physical ones, am I beginning to realize the deep and damaging effects of the way in which I have sometimes handled this calamity. And the way in which others, most with good intentions, want more than I can give, as if my illness is their illness. Cancer has been both profoundly enlightening and at the same time isolating. In the end, no one, not even those I love the most, who are closest to me, can possibly truly understand. The same must be said for anyone with a disease, physical or psychological limitation
I recall a scene from the Sopranos in which “Livia,” the shrewd battleaxe of a mom to Tony Soprano, shared with her grandson Anthony, Jr. her stark, cynical view of life and death. My parents and I love this scene as it recalls a few relatives long since passed. We have all referred to this piece more than a few times as we grimace and laugh simultaneously.
AJ: What’s the purpose?
Livia: Of what?
AJ: Being… Here on our planet. Earth. Those kids are dead meat. What’s the use? What’s the purpose?
Livia: Why does everything have to have a purpose? The world is a jungle. If you want my advice, Anthony, don’t expect happiness, you won’t get it, people let you down. And I’m not naming any names, but in the end, you die in your own arms.
AJ: You mean alone?
Livia: It’s all a big nothing. What what makes you think you’re so special?
While cancer can indeed be an opportunity for profound emotional and spiritual growth, it can also rip families and friendships apart as the one “without” can never possibly understand, no matter how hard they might try, what the one “with” is really experiencing on a constant basis. When I was in DC I met another fellow brain tumor/cancer survivor whose fiancee left him three months after diagnosis, surgery and radiation. She couldn’t deal.
When I was 16, I took my mother’s new car to drive to a friends house to lift weights. Mom was asleep at the time and while I asked to borrow the car, her response was not made with cognition. The car made it less the three miles before I, being inexperienced and driving too fast, lost control on a turn, went airborne, over-corrected and hit the gas instead of the break. I had no idea why the car would not slow down and in fact thought I had suffered some major mechanical malfunction. The car continued to swerve wildly, taking down a stop sign, blowing a tire, careening down a side street, traveling up an embankment, taking down a pine tree, rolling back down the hill until finally landing upright, facing the opposite direction on all four blown tires.
My reaction was puzzling. I immediately started to pull everything from the car and place it all under a tree. My Aiwa silver “BoomBox” which had been blasting the German Pop Group “Trio” had flown out of the passenger window and was lying in the pine duff, still playing. I continued to empty the glove compartment and anything else I could find and run back to the tree. My glasses were gone, I couldn’t see anything, the damned German pop music was still blaring and a little girl on a bicycle came pedaling up to see a very bewildered man, bleeding from his nose, blood spattered on his white polo with the sleeves cut off, sitting beneath a tree with all of his belongings set neatly in a pile.
Why did I empty the contents of the car? What was I thinking? I was in shock. Perhaps I thought the car was going to blow up. I had no idea.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately went into shock. What I realize now is that I am still in shock. I went into overdrive, planning parties, reunions, etc. In an obsessive-compulsive bit of bizarre behaviour, I planned my own memorial service. What started as a “living will” became an obsession, right down to the selection of music, (“Amazing Grace, Nearer to My God to Thee,” songs from Appalachian Journey) flower arrangements, (wild) wine (Napa Cab, Oregon Pinot, food (local) and program. The only thing missing were the directions to the venue, also preselected.
By this time I had amassed over 1,000 Facebook “friends” many of whom I didn’t even know. And yet I was the loneliest one in the room. I was losing sight of what really mattered. I wasn’t reaching out to the ones closest to me but to the greater world beyond. What was I looking for? What did I need? I still don’t know and I suppose that is part of the adventure of discovery, trying as that may be at times.
The road to recovery is littered with potholes, roadkill, broken glass and soft shoulders. Drift too far in one direction and you will either collide head-on with an oncoming car or get pulled off the road and roll down the hill. If you are not paying attention, the bones from a freshly killed raccoon may puncture your tires. Or you may never see the tiny fragment of safety glass which has unknowingly cored its way into the rubber.
For the first time in my life I have admitted that not only can I not do “this” alone, but that I need some extra help. A coach. A lifeguard. (but not a “life-coach,” a term which makes what little hair I have left stand on end, with all due respect and apologies to my life-coach friends. I just loathe the term, not the practice) When cancer arrived at my doorstep everyone recommended a therapist. When I was in the hospital, a social worker sat quietly in the corner until she had room to speak with me. With her notepad she scratched down a few notes and called me a week later with the names and numbers of a few people she suggested I contact. I had told her then that I did not feel like I needed anyone and if I did, I wanted nothing to do with a “touchy-feely,” new-age form of treatment. Nobody in flowy purple linen. speaking in hushed tones, asking me “how does that make you feel?I wanted straight-talk and I did not want to commit for any extended duration. I met with someone as a “prophylactic” for a few sessions but bailed quickly. I didn’t “take” to him, nice and experienced as he was. He himself seemed to be rather unhealthy physically and this concerned me greatly. Was this an excuse to avoid? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Now, I have found someone I respect and can work with who is not afraid to ask tough questions. The goal is to heal. To heal the wounds from past lives, this current one and anxieties about the future. One sage bit of advice offered by the former therapist was when I declared that I “didn’t need to see anyone because I have my partner Barb, my family and close friends.” He shared that it was unfair to expect them to be able to handle everything and that it was healthy to have an objective outlet. I agree.
So I am making steps large and small. I joke that I am ready to undergo a “spiritual high-colonic.” I have quit Facebook cold turkey. (Barb has set up a “page” which can be “liked” but I no longer have an account: Mark R Green) I must admit I don’t really miss it. For many it is a fun, useful, healthy tool. For others, Facebook represents the Evil Empire, designed to extract critical data for the sole purpose of mining marketing opportunities and dollars. As a parent I have seen it tap into the darkest side of adolescence. It’s also fun to see what your own kids are up to. But for me it had become a detrimental distraction from the things that mattered most and the people closest to me. It wasn’t that I was “on” for hours, it was the constant drone of distraction feeding an addictive personality. A source of escapism and immediate gratification.
I am coming clean. My writer’s cottage is nearly finished. I am trying to learn and embrace the art of meditation. I need to calm the noise in my head. I am pushing stress-inducers off the cliff as much as I can. I am playing guitar, mandolin, banjo and ukulele again with passion. I have a book to write.
I have miles and miles to go before I sleep, but I am ready for the trail: rocks, roots and all.
I need to get back to the start.
The Scientist- Coldplay
Come up to meet you, tell you I’m sorry
You don’t know how lovely you are
I had to find you, tell you I need you
Tell you I set you apart
Tell me your secrets and ask me your questions
Oh, let’s go back to the start
Running in circles, coming up tails
Heads on a science apart
Nobody said it was easy
It’s such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh, take me back to the start
I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling the puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
But tell me you love me, come back and haunt me
Oh and I rush to the start
Running in circles, chasing our tails
Coming back as we are
Nobody said it was easy
Oh, it’s such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be so hard
I’m going back to the start