I’ve had a couple of different posts written and ready to go in the last month, only to pull them out of my drafts folder and trash them. It seems that I can’t write anything until I write this. So stay with me, I’ve just got to get this out.
A few weeks ago, as water cooler talk drifted to beach vacation planning and local pool openings, I was at work when I received a call on my cell. I stepped into an empty conference room for some privacy and in the next moment heard some terrible news. My mom has cancer.
Getting that dreaded call should have stopped the Earth from spinning. But in real life nothing stopped. People bustled outside the conference room. I could hear the clock ticking on the wall. My feet ached from my heels. In real life when I heard that my mom was sick, my world shifted while everyone else’s kept going.
In that moment I let my head fell back, closed my eyes, and exhaled a long, slow breath.
The thing is, my parents have always been invincible to me. Beautifully flawed, for sure, but unbreakable. Of course I know that they aren’t actually indestructible- I’ve just never seen any evidence to the contrary. It was a convenient deception, really, and one that came crashing down in five words when I heard Mom say, “Honey, it’s not great news.”
Mere moments after hearing the diagnosis, we launched into conversation about biopsies and surgery and radiation. This isn’t unusual; I often rely on details and action as my saving grace in a crisis. I want to know the how’s and when’s and where’s of everything. I want the plan.
And it turns out, the plan involves lots of waiting and even more uncertainty, which is like kryptonite to us doers. The impossible truth is that I can’t do anything, really. I can’t make my mom well or make her journey painless. I can’t take away my dad’s worry or promise him everything’s going to be okay. I feel totally incompetent in this new normal where cancer has invaded the walls of my family. I feel useless. Terrified.
Some people don’t go to deep dark places with their feelings – I envy them. I know lots of folks who seem to be able to get news like this and immediately get to, “It’ll all be fine. I’m not worried.” Whether that’s a lie or they are emotional superheroes, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’m not one of these people.
My process does take me to deep dark places emotionally and what I know now is that the only way out is through. I have a friend who often says, “If you’re going through hell – KEEP GOING.” So that’s what I do. When faced with tough news I take an extended tour through every emotion. I start the journey with a trip through Shock, take a detour through Fear, make a pit stop in Anger, spend considerable time in Grief, circle back to each town at least once more, and finally mosey on to Acceptance. The journey is hard and takes a long, long time. It’s messy and circuitous and feels like it will never end. But it does and eventually, weeks after everyone else has moved on, I am able to adjust to the new normal.
I’ve learned that my path is long and winding and folks don’t want to go with me. I mean, if you are one of the emotional superheroes that can board a direct flight to Okaysville, why would you want to take my bumpy, scary detour?
I get that my reaction to Mom’s cancer seems dramatic. I mean, it’s not like I have cancer. Some days a grimy, suffocating layer of shame settles around my shoulders. It tells me that I’m self-centered. Indulgent. After all, they caught the cancer early, it’s highly treatable, and everything is probably going to be fine. Why the all the big feelings? Why not just accept it and move on? Get over it, Ryan.
But shame locks me in isolation and silence. And questioning my journey doesn’t honor who I am.
So instead of wishing I was an emotional superhero, I’m honoring my process and doing the very last thing on earth that I want to do. Once again, I let my head fall back, I exhale long and slow, I turn my palms up and I surrender.
Weeks after Mom’s diagnosis, my white flag of surrender is just starting to take shape. I accept that I’m going to be OK 90% of every day. I also accept that the uncertainty and fear finds me in the quiet moments, when I’m driving, or standing at the sink, or putting on makeup in the morning. That’s when I feel a grief that is so big it could swallow me whole. The grief isn’t specific; it’s not about any one thing. I just get bowled over by a faceless, fuzzy-edged sadness; as though I’m grieving the loss of my parents’ invincibility. Instead of resisting these surges I now surrender to them. I don’t have to understand my emotions to accept them. The feelings swell, wash over me, and then I move on.
I’m acclimating to a new reality where worry and hope and confidence and fear and injustice and acceptance battle it out in an epic emotional cage match. And that battle royale is largely invisible to the outside world. I get to practice self-care by surrendering to my own exhaustion. Because of course I’m exhausted.
I surrender the fact that right now it takes extra energy to live my normal life. Not because life is so hard necessarily but because it’s intense. Showing up for that intensity means I don’t have time or energy for extras right now. And I accept that today. I am saying no to commitments that aren’t absolutely necessary. I’m taking breaks. I’m taking walks. I’m breathing.
The irony is that surrender is what gives me the strength to show up for my life today. I’m hopeful that my deep dark places will give way to bright new hope.
Until then, I surrender.