Thursday, March 12, 2009

Elephant in a Tsunami

"There but for the grace of god go I."

I met an old friend for lunch last week. In the back of my mind this phrase surfaced. She is in a battle with breast cancer. For the third time.

I cannot say I’m overwhelmed with pity for her — partly because we’ve not been in each other’s lives very much over the years. So there is some distance. But she also looks good and has a positive attitude. For what it’s worth, I’m optimistic for her.

Still, I would not want to be in her shoes.

And there but for the grace of god go I, I hear myself say.

The funny thing is, in recent years, I’ve realized people may be saying that about me, or more aptly, my family.

How strange that has been to recognize.

Before that, life seemed pretty charmed. About as charmed as any life can seem from the outside. We all know nobody’s life is perfect. But things were good.

Then in 2001, a convolution of events occurred, a kind of tsunami of health issues, mostly engulfing my mother, but others, too. Suddenly my family was overwhelmed with one thing or another…. It was really rather ridiculous.

I named this blog Only the Half of It for two reasons.

First I wanted a sense of fun. To say: Hey, sometimes things happen that are so ridiculous, you wouldn’t believe half of it.

The second reason for the name was to reflect the madness I felt I — or we as a family — have had to deal with. That it’s been bad, but even worse than you knew and I just didn’t feel like telling it all because I didn’t want to see jaws drop or looks of pity reflected back at me.

Perhaps I wanted to deny a little bit, just enough to keep my spirits up. And that’s not a bad thing.

I read after 9/11 that psychologists discovered something that ran contrary to the popular belief that you have to talk about and purge the horrors you keep deep down inside lest they fester like a cancer and ruin your life. They found that some victims of 9/11 were in fact better off, maybe healthier and better able to cope and get on with their lives, by not talking about what they’d been through. That some denial was healthy.

I thought this myself some months before 9/11. I remember looking in child-like horror into a sterile hospital room as my mother was being dialyzed for the first time, just days after she was diagnosed with sudden, unexpected kidney failure.

She looked like a mummy swathed in layers of thin white hospital blankets, her eyes tightly shut as if she was in pain. Maybe she was, and maybe she was also trying to escape the reality.

And that was this: Her kidneys had shut down. She would die without dialysis. That entailed getting a central line, something more akin to surgical tubing than an IV line, stuck into her chest so they could pump her blood out and back in as the dialysis machine did its job of cleaning her blood. This would happen three times a week, three to four hours each time. For as long as she lived. Unless her kidneys recovered or she got a transplant.

As my mother lay there, eyes tightly shutting it all out, that’s when my mother’s new doctor-by-default, a kidney specialist who did not know her at all personally, told my father and I quite bluntly and with an air of criticism: “She’s in denial.” As if she needs to not deny what is happening to her.

The doctor’s words made me angry. Later I told my dad: “Of course she’s in denial. I don’t blame her.”

I’ve spent so much time in hospitals and dealing with one health issue or another affecting my family that I’ve come up with my own ideas of how to cope because I’ve had to.

It helps to remember things could be worse. It doesn’t always help to look to someone less fortunate, but I do try to remind myself, and my mother, of the bright side. I thought that with my girlfriend over lunch, that thankfully that wasn’t me. So many people deal with so many bad things you can’t even imagine it. And so in some ways we are lucky. Very lucky.

For instance, my parents are reasonably active. My mother has a transplanted kidney (mine), and despite some rejection discovered last year, she is doing okay. We are managing her other health issues. My father, on dialysis himself now, also does well. Better than my mom did. There is more but I won’t go into it. (You wouldn’t believe me anyway, as I like to say.)

So I give thanks. And I mean it.

I also believe a healthy dose of denial comes in handy. Maybe focusing on the positive is a way to deny the negative or, at the very least, get away from it so you can cope. Try not to drown in it. Even try to outrun it. This is where the elephant comes in.

I’d like to be like an elephant in a tsunami.

If you recall, when the tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, elephants in Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Thailand moved to high ground before the storm struck the shores. They knew something was coming and saved themselves. The cool thing, too, is they trumpeted loudly to bring their kin, to keep them from what would have been certain death.

Call it a sixth sense. Call it a heightened awareness. Call it hypervigilance. I call it prevention.

I do not have a sixth sense. But in times of tension and terror, I want to be present. For me that means don’t assume the doctor or someone else has every answer. I’ve learned this firsthand too many times. My friend, with whom I began this story, discovered her cancer herself this third time around — not the doctor.

That’s what I want. To stay ahead of the tsunami. And trumpet as loud as I can.

NOTE: The amazing image above is from a show titled "Ashes and Snow." I saw it in NYC in 2005 before it traveled the world. See it if you ever get the chance.


Anonymous said...

Ellen, this is a powerful post... and the beautiful photo is perfect along with the elephant story and metaphor. I knew you'd been through some serious health issues with your family, but I didn't know "the half of it." I can relate to what you're going through. My father died when I was 38, after a sad bout with diabetes and heart disease. My mom has struggled with health problems ever since, and lately they've been more intense. As an only child, I do what can, but like you, try to remain as grounded and strong as I can. Sometimes I'm better off not to think about any of it too much...I wish you continued strength.

Only the Half of It said...

You certainly learn what you are made of when you deal with tough stuff. It's really been an amazing learning experience.
You just reminded me to add a credit for the photo -- from my beloved Ashes and Snow exhibit. I saw it in NYC in 2005. See it if you ever get the chance.
I'm often told how lucky my parents are to have me. It makes me feel sad for so many parents whose children are just not there for them.
I feel I'm just doing what I need to do. Hopefully with as much grace as possible.

Sharon said...

This post is rich with images and insights. We often do not know how others have struggled, survived, and triumphed. I appreciate your comments about denial because they shed new light on something I have questioned for years. I like the idea of staying ahead of the tsunami and trumpeting as loud as we can.

Anonymous said...

Ellen, beautiful post. Thank you so much for writing this. - Lori

Rock Star Mommy said...

Ellen, I just had time to read this today. I have not been much of an elepahnt lately--more like a chicken with it's head cut off--as I go from one job to the next. Being self-employed is hard work!

Your blog put my own life in perspective and has given me some directions to stay positive in tough times.

Thank you. It's beautiful. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

Only the Half of It said...

Thanks for stopping by Mommy. :-) I'm sure you would be an elephant if you needed to be!!

RHuber said...

Ellen, I was very moved by your blog. I remember those days when we all thought you led a charmed life and we even poked fun at you about that (remember Timmy)? Anyway, as someone who has lived though family health issues and loss of loved ones, I can relate to what you're dealing with and think you're doing a wonderful job keeping sane and grounded. These things tend to reveal what is truly important in life and what is not worth the effort to worry about. Being grateful for what you have is important but it is also important to keep aware and listen to your inner voice (and elephants). Hang in there Ellen--it sounds like you are focusing on the right things and letting go of what you may not have control over.


sa93555 said...

You inspire me Ellen. Your mom is a dear friend and your very special gift to her is one of the most amazing things I know. Thanks for sharing more about the kidney. I sincerely do care and will read all you care to share.

Debra Darvick said...

Ellen, What a terrific column. Like Cindy, I love the elephant story and the photo is amazing. I remember the exhibit and missed it in NYC by days. I wonder if denial is not the complete ignoring of the "elephant in the room" but accepting whatever is facing us in portions we can handle. Your mother submitted to dialysis, the ports, the hours in the hospital.... Took a whole lot of courage to do that. And so if she spent the hours on dialysis with her eyes screwed shut, was that denial or a self-protective barrier gainst any more reality for the time being?

Only the Half of It said...

Thanks Debra. I love your elephant in the room analogy.
As for denial, and specifically in my mom's case, I agree... I mean, real denial would be not going through with the dialysis or complying with treatment or drugs. I never quite grasped what that doc was saying when he said that. In reality, it could also have been a cultural/language difference. But I think he meant what he said.
As you say, self-protective... just like the elephant in the tsunami.
No wonder elephants have always been one of my favorite animals!!