When your parent gets sick with cancer there are two options: Either they get better or they don’t. The diagnosis is similar to the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. She finds herself in disarray, staring at a variety of doors, with not the slightest clue of what lies behind them.
Even if your parent gets better, which is, in fact, a door, your world never goes back to normal. At least, I assume it doesn’t. Obviously, that isn’t the door I received.
This hasn’t kept me from identifying with the newcomer. The ones who find themselves dizzy and petrified at their new reality. But if and when their parent recovers, enter remission as we say, I am no longer able to be their conductor on the ‘Your Parent Has Cancer Caboose.’
My soulmate is someone who found herself pushed through the same exact door as mine. We’re best friends and I sometimes worry that if both our mothers hadn’t passed away when we were in middle school, we wouldn’t be as close.
But despite being a writer who spends significant time in the imaginary world of possibilities, I try not to dwell on this non-existent reality because it is a moot point. Our moms got cancer and they did not get better.
I believe a piece of me died when my mom did. I was eleven, which means I’m not quite sure which piece of me broke off, but I identify with amputee patients who experience phantom limb. I know a piece of me is gone. It hasn’t been there for awhile, yet I can experience extreme pain where the part of me went missing.
I think that feeling has been gifted to everyone impacted by COVID-19 and it has no gift receipt attached.
After getting sober, I heard lots of slogans, one of which was, “Identify, don’t compare.” Everyone I know, have spoken to or connected with via social media, has lost something or someone in the past few weeks and there isn’t a comparison. Not really.
I had a bad habit of being aggressively angry at people who broke apart after their parents passed away, peacefully, in their nineties. How dare they be impacted by the loss of their parent who experienced a long and full life when my mother died at forty-two when I was just eleven.
I realize now that grief is not comparable. Loss isn’t a measurable percentage we can log into an algorithm and divvy out according to a series of variables. This is why some of us have, what I’m pretty sure mediocre therapists title, inappropriately sized reactions to situations society has deemed minuscule.
Just recently, many of us have lost our sense of normalcy; our rightfully earned moments of achievement, that trip we planned months ago and/or our regularly scheduled cleaning with our dental hygienist. And I’ve watched as some of us have become aggressively angry that we can no longer cancel plans simply because we don’t want to go to them, but rather due to the safety of ourselves and others.
We often try to make sense of things, add order to chaos. This is why we’re taught time and time again, physically and metaphorically, to place our own oxygen mask on first before assisting others. Except, this isn’t an aircraft that hit some bad turbulence, this is a full-on crash and there isn’t an incorrect reaction during a state of panic.
There are common responses and suggested ones and abnormal ones and damn-right annoying ones, but there isn’t any way of knowing how you’ll react until the aircraft is nosediving.
When my mother got sick, I remember one of her doctors said that we were taking the worst-case scenario out of our vocabulary entirely. The new worst-case scenario was that the cancer simply didn’t go away and my pets did not die, but rather went to Neverland. So, when it spread to her spine – and she became wheelchair-dependent – and then her brainstem and she forgot who we were, her dying still wasn’t an option, not to me.
In my mind, we were living through the worst-case scenario. So, when she died, my world became unfathomable.
I think March of 2020 turned unfathomable for this country. I’ve noticed that grief, while it has five stages, can look very different from person to person. I’m not sure this incomprehensible time we’re living through was immediately felt by everyone. But I’d hang my hat on the fact that most of us feel a level of discomfort we’ve probably never experienced before.
What’s worse, we don’t have a next. We have a stay-in-place plan, literally. We’ve been tasked with the insurmountable burden of sitting through this discomfort on our hands and doing what feels like nothing.
I’m not saying suddenly becoming a teacher despite never having attended a college class on Education 101 isn’t cumbersome. Additionally, many of us are quite literally risking our lives and those around us to meet what we’ve deemed essential needs. But the majority of us are at home, unaware of when this will end, wondering if and when we’ll attend the jury duty or get a professional haircut or graduate amongst our peers.
This is allowed to feel bottomless (or honestly insert any emotion here) and I invite you to look at it like the bottom of the rabbit hole Alice herself fell down.
Will a children’s book solve the vast and multi-dimensional problems that have surfaced in the wake of COVID-19? Absolutely not. Can you take comfort in treating this like the in-between? The literal physical manifestation of the “Jeopardy” theme song? I hope so.
We’ll wait, together for a door to open. Until then, try to find bits of joy in the in-between. Watching my mom battle cancer was not a party, to say the least, but that didn’t mean there were no birthday candles and full-belly laughs. Try to soak the coming days in love, even as we sit in grief.