The Heavy Wet Coat

3 Feb

I’m beginning to realize that I write about cancer a lot—probably way too much. This is something that I can’t really help though. Since my daughter Isa was diagnosed over four years ago, I’ve become increasingly surrounded by cancer. I read about cancer; I blog about cancer; I post on Facebook about cancer. I talk endlessly about cancer. Before Isa got leukemia I never knew that there was so much cancer around me! It’s like when you buy a new car, you keep seeing the very same make and model all over the place—everywhere you go, there’s that same car! That car must have always been there, driving around in front of me—why did I never see it before?

I now have a whole new set of friends from this “cancer” realm whom I’ve come to love dearly. Many of them are parents of children who have cancer right now or have had cancer, or they work with kids who have cancer. These are people who I admire most in the world because they are the strongest and most courageous people on this earth, even though they don’t realize this about themselves. And most of them are really funny, too—because when you face something so hideous, you have to learn to laugh a lot because it helps take away the pain for a little while.

Now, you may like to read what I write about this crappy disease, because 1) reading about other people’s pain and suffering is always interesting in itself, and 2) it may make you very much appreciate that you or your child does not have this crappy disease and therefore you may try to live your life in a manner that is conducive to allowing the joy in and letting the fear out. I hope your reason for reading is the latter, but both reasons are legitimate and acceptable.

My mother asked me the other day why I write about so many sad topics in my blogs. Sadness has always made her uncomfortable. I told her that I felt it was important to feel sad sometimes—it’s healing for the soul. Crying often and noisily is something I highly recommend to everyone. I do it almost every day. I did the opposite for most of my life and after stuffing my pain down deep inside for so long, I’ve finally realized that it doesn’t work too well. The pain will eventually find a way to work itself out, often in unhealthy ways.

My mother did not jump on board with this idea of embracing pain as she’s not a big believer in unhappiness—she spent much of my childhood trying to convince me that everything was wonderful all the time. And sometimes it was wonderful, but often it was not. But God bless her, she has a hard time dealing with painful feelings, and she has a good reason.

When she was only ten years old, she had a fight with her little brother Johnnie. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just a silly fight between two siblings. But immediately after the fight, Johnnie ran out into the street and was hit by a truck. He was killed instantly. To this day, I don’t think she’s dealt with that pain. And who can blame her? How does a little ten year-old girl get over the fact that her younger brother died so suddenly?  In her child’s mind, she probably thought it was her fault. Weeks after his funeral, which my grandparents made the mistake of not letting her attend for fear it would be too upsetting, my mother asked them for a Dalmatian dog. Her argument was that she no longer had a little brother, so she should have a dog. It worked—she got her Dalmatian. And now guess what she does over sixty years later? She breeds Dalmatians. We do what we have to do to work through our pain, even if it takes a lifetime.

Pain is something that we all wear like sodden wool coats after a rainstorm. We hunker down under that heavy material and think that we’re protecting ourselves, but in reality, the coat just gets wetter and heavier and eventually starts to smell bad like a dank, wet dog (sorry dog lovers—I don’t mean to offend—I just hate the smell of wet dog.)

Every single one of us carries painful baggage around from our life experiences. Because we’re afraid to show others that we’re scared and vulnerable and that we need help, we walk around pretending that we’re not immobilized by that heavy, stinky coat. This is where childhood cancer can sometimes work its magic.

Please understand that I would never try to climb into the heads of every parent whose child has cancer and presume that I know what they’re thinking and feeling. But I know what has gone on in my head, as well as talked to many parents who’ve been through it, and I’ve come up with the conclusion that you just can’t wear a heavy, stinky coat when your child gets cancer.

You have to take it off because your primary focus now becomes the life of your child. And in order to take care of a very sick child who might possibly die, you have to allow others to help you. So you have to show your true self—that real person that’s been inside of you all along but was just burdened by that heavy, wet coat of fear. Even if you’ve never asked anyone for help in your entire life, you have to do it now. Because nothing else matters except that your child is okay.

The most astonishing thing is that people want to help you. They will do just about anything to make you feel better—they will cook food for you, they will give you money, they will give wonderful presents to your child. They will hold fundraisers so that you can stay with your child and still be able to pay your bills. They will love you unconditionally. And I’m not just talking about people you know! Even perfect strangers will reach out to you. Through their actions, they will demonstrate that deep connectivity that we all share with each other as we travel together through this crazy journey of life.  They will rise up and prove to you just how good human beings can be. This is the magic of cancer.

The remarkable thing is that it doesn’t take a child getting sick for you to remove your stinky wet coat. You can take it off anytime you wish. When cancer (or any tragedy, for that matter) affects someone you know and love, it dawns on you that every single moment of our lives is a treasure. There will be times when see the dark clouds on the horizon and you will want to put your coat back on. Don’t do it! That wet, heavy coat was only stopping you from moving around freely.  By taking it off and leaving it off, the love and forgiveness and gratitude that you experience will allow you to stand unencumbered in the sunshine and be warm for the first time in your life.

7 Responses to “The Heavy Wet Coat”

  1. Becky Green Aaronson February 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    Wow. Wow. Wow. This is an extraordinary post. So profound and exquisitely written. Thank you for the beautiful reminder. Dumping the coat!

    • Allegro non tanto February 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      It’s lucky we live in Santa Barbara as it makes it much easier to dump our coats!

  2. Carrie Crocker-Aguirre February 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    What a wonderful display of love and commitment to your daughter, your family and to others who need to grieve. Grief isn’t only for those who lost someone, it’s also for those who are living with pain of any kind. Jessica, I always felt that you had a great prespective on things. I too have had a surprise with cancer, last year my oldest sister, Lee, died of uterine to brain cancer. Our way of moving through it –talking about her all the time as we always did! Beautiful keep going!
    Carrie Crocker-Aguirre

    • Allegro non tanto February 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

      Carrie, I had no idea you lost Lee to cancer. I’m so very sorry. But you’re right–it does help to keep everything out in the open and talk about it–it really does keep them alive in our hearts.

  3. Deborah Batterman February 5, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    You have my admiration, and my heart, Jessica, for lifting this life story of yours to place that honors the nitty-gritty (and pain) of it all and also reminds us that what we choose to do with that ‘stinky wet coat’ is something we have control over.

    • Allegro non tanto February 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

      Deborah, we all wear those coats at one time or another in our lives. The hard part is taking it off and keeping it off!

  4. Kristin March 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    I somehow missed this post. What a great one, too! I actually got through this post without a large lump in my throat. Pfew! I didn’t know about the tragedy in El’s childhood though. Poor little thing! Anyway, great job with the writing!

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