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Waiting to Exhale

For past couple of months, I have been unsettled, unable to focus, to work, to write, anticipating yet another shoe to drop.

In early January, I lost a dear friend—a cancer patient I mentored and befriended, with whom I spoke, or saw, multiple times a week for years. She would introduce me to her friends and family as “a sister from another mother” for though we had such different lives, had suffered through different traumas, we shared a sense of energy and adventure, self-determination and perseverance, impatient with all that was wrong with the world. Her life was challenging and when her cancer came back, her inability to get the care she needed in a timely way led to a rapid deterioration that ensured her death. It seemed unnecessary and preventable, which only added to my grief.

But as I sit at my desk now, I find myself wondering how many other friends and family members I might lose in the coming months. Part of it is the nature of my work. I mentor patients through cancer, many with advanced gynecologic malignancies that tend to be diagnosed late and not always successfully treated. And part of it is my age and the age of loved ones around me. 

Heartache and Sorrow

My aunt, an important source of love and hope in my life, particularly when I was young and vulnerable, is in her final months, her physical decline chasing the mental decline that has already taken so much. Another dear friend is in conversation with hospice, vacillating between the hope that another round of treatment—if her body can withstand it—and the recognition that she may not have as much time as she wants. And several of the women I mentor have had recurrences or complications or just plain old bad news recently. One dear friend and her husband are splitting, likely precipitating her move out of state. Another received an unsettling diagnosis that is bound to change her life. I am awash with loss and its potential, balancing current and future grief, reflecting on past loss, and adrift.

Grief is a funny thing. Not that it makes us laugh—although sometimes laughter is part of the release people experience when grieving—but that it is unpredictable and unknowable until upon us. For some, it is felt like waves on the beach, gently lapping or violently crashing, seemingly at random. For others it unspools like a long path through the dark woods, slowly leading to a horizon with open vistas and renewed hope. And for others, it is locked away, like the evil humors in Pandora’s tightly lidded box, waiting to be unleashed when least expected.

While the prospect of a pleasurable event can animate us, leaving us restless and squirming with expectation, the dread that descends on us when we foresee the inevitability of misfortune, like the anticipation of cancer test results or the certainty of a bad outcome, can be paralyzing, making it difficult to move. Cancer is all about loss and grief, so this torpidity is familiar. 

Courting Disaster and Hope

And that familiarity helps me know that I will regain my energy and optimistic outlook on life. Resilience is a way of life. The animal instinct to survive drives us all to find ways to deal with dashed hopes, overcome sorrow, recover from pain, even process trauma. Seasons change. Winter becomes spring and life blossoms again.

Back in the fall, I injured my knee on the tennis court when—aided by a fine mist on a slippery court—my ambitious drive to return a long, fast ball overcame my sensibility and balance. After months of absence, I tested my rehabilitated knee on the court this weekend and felt moments of joy as I swung the racquet and ran for the ball. My timing was off, and my strokes need reminding of when to drop, to rise, to roll and to turn—nothing that can’t be fixed with a few more hundred hours of tennis.  But the joy was pure.

As I gentle my way back into regular exercise and sunshine, healthy eating and social interaction, I know that I am likely to face more grief in the days ahead. But I am hoping that the increasing sunshine and promise of spring, with its lure to be outside, will help me pull myself out of this directionless drift and back into the focused productivity that has driven my life for 65 years. Deep inhale, deep exhale. Anyone for tennis?

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