Monday, May 25, 2015

Hell Together

He held my face in his palms.  He does that when having my attention is of utmost importance.  He learned about eye contact in school.  Most of us just get it--when you want to show someone that you are paying attention, you make eye contact. But my son was not prewired like that, Finn had a specialist who taught us all to say, “find my eyes.”  He practiced so often, that he learned—finding eyes is what you do when something is important. 

He held my face. He found my eyes. He asked me, “Your cancer is not going to make you die, right?”

The gap between hearing his question and knowing how to respond was as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon.   In a mere second, a rush of thoughts flooded me.  I have stage IV lung cancer—the number one killer of all cancers.  I know anything is possible.  I also know this is a crappy diagnosis.  This is an important moment.  I know what I say next matters.  This feels like hell. 

I thought I was sick all day today.  To be honest, I’ve been sick a lot lately.

I started coughing last week.  Not very much, but when I do, it is a cough like I am a smoker.

My hip hurts again.  I get out of breath easily. 

I tell myself that this could all be because I am more active.  I tell myself that this could be an emotional manifestation of fear because it is the week of my bi-annual brain scan and quarterly chest scan.  No matter what I tell myself, I also know, I might be dying of cancer. 

At the same time, something profound is happening to me.  I am living.  Feeling love.  Saying yes.  Showing up.  Making art.  The joy of repeatedly having the freedom to say “fuck it,” and, “Yes!” I am blessed with living so actively present in the moment that I spend very little time pondering the future. 

I want to believe beating cancer and miracles are possible.  I just don’t want to be a fool full of false hope.   I want to answer honestly, but this is so complicated. 

There are many paths out of hell.  If you aren’t careful, most of the lead you right back.  The problem is, there is no way to know what is the best way to go when hurt, deception, and false hope, are the only choices you can think of.  I’m not sure if this is right, but I choose hurt.

“Some day I will probably die from cancer.” 

When Finn gets sad, his eyes fill with tears before finally falling.  After they came, he sobbed and sobbed.  I held him and gave this shitty information time to be felt.  I tried to comfort him.  I told him that I might live until he is a grown up.  I told him that some people believe in miracles.  I was back peddling. He was so solid and so broken at the same time.  He said, “Have you been keeping this secret from me all this time?” That hit me.

Maybe playing everyday and having fun and only sometimes stopping for homework—is just what you say it is—secret keeping.  Finn, you deserve as much or more than anyone to be going through this with me.  Instead, I tell you a little and let you watch Tom and Jerry (far more often than you should).

Honestly, I can’t remember what he has been told exactly.  I know that we have been committed to telling him the “truth”—but the only thing I know about the truth is that it doesn’t really exist in our human construct.  We are all telling stories that hold nuggets of truth to map together our mythology. 

What I have learned about cancer (much like life) is that we all have to build a story—a mythology for survival.  Cancer has shown me that my mythology is different and does not work for many others on this same path.  I am engaged with the prospect of death.  I am here with my beloveds as they sob over the possibility even though it might not be true.  This might not be the easiest path out of hell. 

The next morning, Finn sat as close to me as his body could allow and said, “I want to sit close, because some day you might die.” In this solid, broken moment I feel grateful to put my arms around this precious soul.  I am sorry to cause this hurt, but I am glad to be here in hell with him. 


  1. Courage is revealed when faced with the impossible and one responds with honesty and integrity. Courage is when you find your truth to an impossible question while staring into the eyes of a trusting beloved. My heart aches for your continuing hell.

  2. Mythology is someplace where fantasy and reality meet one another and courage becomes what is necessary to overcome fear. The image of the Phoenix came to mind as I pondered your message. And the Spring. Life and death and life again. Hope and fear and hope again. In it all you are facing your mortality while understanding invincibility through your children. Your ability to be honest with express the truth of his fear...and still rise like a phoenix each day--from the ashes of fear into the magnificence of each breath you are able to take--you are living your myth. You are writing your story. Thank you.

  3. Beautiful writing, brave parenting. I am awed and now am added to the list of those who grieve at the idea of this cancer taking you.

  4. Thank you Colleen,

    Simple and beautiful

  5. Thank you Colleen,

    Simple and beautiful