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Voices of Hope & Healing
A Lesson in Humility
Watching someone you love fight cancer is a lesson in humility. You may be strong, resourceful, and possess a high pain threshold. You may raise your loved one's flagging spirits and hold their hand each step of the way. Yet whatever you bring to caregiving, it only goes so far. You can't loan them your resolve, you can't suffer their pain for them, you can't live or die in their stead. That can be incredibly hard to accept.
It certainly was hard for me to accept when my mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2003, endured multiple chemotherapy protocols, and then had an autologous stem cell transplant followed by weeks of radiation. I was several thousand miles away in graduate school at the time of her diagnosis. I first thought it was the distance that made me feel impossibly, depressingly helpless. However, when I moved home to be her caregiver through the transplant, I realized that even in the midst of treatment plans and caregiving tasks that sense of helplessness was pervasive, an uninvited tag-along who dogged my every move. I'd like to think I was an excellent caregiver, but one of the strongest feelings that lingers through my mother's heroic recovery and her years of remission is the sense of my ultimate inadequacy.
Rather than trading helplessness for hopelessness, however, I've found that inadequacy can be a powerful bringer of perspective. The cancer journey is one that encourages many of us to put our faith in something larger than ourselves, and to grow from that humility. I won't pretend I can speak to the diverse faith experiences this journey can bring for people. I will share, however, that my mother's journey inspired me to find faith in a rather surprising place: the body itself, the very vessel that betrayed us by developing cancer in the first place.
In the week following her transplant, I stood helplessly by and watched my mother's temperature and heart rate soar as her lungs filled with fluid. She was in congestive heart failure. There were some incredibly dark days of watching the woman I loved so very dearly struggle through pain, incredible discomfort, confusion and fear. She lay in her cyborg cocoon of EKG leads, IV lines, and O2 mask, too tangled in life-giving machinery to always make it to the bedside commode. I wished with all my being that I could relieve her of those burdens, could make it more bearable for her, could somehow make any of it go away.
It was several days later—when her lungs were clear of fluid, her heart responding to medication, her brand new white blood cells beginning to heal the sores in her GI tract—that my mother told me she had no memory of the EKG leads or the portable commode at all. Those dreadfully dark days were, for her, just dark. All the pain, discomfort, confusion and fear I so desperately wished I could make go away were, for her, effectively gone.
My mother may not remember those days, but I do—vividly. And yet the ultimate effect for both of us has been the same; we are less afraid of dying, less afraid of extreme pain or suffering, more believing that the body protects us from that which we cannot endure. What a beautiful gift of faith to receive!
Like many survivors, my mother and I both live with cancer as a part of our lives: a shaping and shared experience, a call to serve others, an ever-present reminder that life is fragile. So often I still feel—in the ultimate life or death arena—utterly helpless. But I can accept that now; I am less afraid of acknowledging how little control I actually have. I may congratulate myself on my resilience, but I know that ultimately this acceptance is about humility. I've realized that my only true inadequacy as a caregiver comes when I put my faith in my own abilities to affect a "cure," or blame the failure to achieve that cure on my own actions. My mother's continued life is a miracle far beyond my making, and I am still learning the many lessons of faith, perspective, and humility it has to teach me.
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