I went on my first trip this week for work since Dan passed away. It was fine, other than my complete inability to focus in 3 hour meetings :) As usual, I picked up a book to read in the airport. It looked harmless enough... there was a dog on the cover, and it seemed like a light-hearted story about a dog, Enzo, & his family, told from the dog's point of view.
Well, wouldn't you know... about 20 pages into the book, the dog "smells" something weird whenever he is around his human mom, Eve. Turns out, she gets brain cancer and dies. Despite the "are you kidding me????" reaction, I finished the book. The remainder of the story for the dad, Denny, is much worse than anything I will ever go through (hopefully). But in the end, he triumphs.
Anyways, there was a line in the book that I thought was pretty spot on. When Eve passes away, Enzo writes "Eve's death was the end of her difficult battle. And it was the beginning of Denny's." Simple, but so true. The cancer battle doesn't end when someone's life does. There are many people, just like the people that still come to this blog, that are battling the emotional and mental scars left by the disease after their friend or loved one is gone. I think we forget about that sometimes because it's normal to be relieved when someone's death brings an end to physical suffering. We can be too quick to think that cancer has left our lives for good. As if death was a good solution. But it hits us- months & years later. However, although we love to celebrate cancer survivors, we don't really know what to do with those left behind who are still dealing with cancer.
I am continually surprised that every single cancer survivor who talks about their relationships during cancer say that it is harder on the partner or loved ones than it is on the one going through treatment. Dan thought so... he was the first to admit that he could talk to anyone with a personal diagnosis, but had no idea what to say or do for someone in my shoes. When you're the person next to the person that is sick, you don't really focus on anything in your own life, other than how the decisions you make might help or hurt an already difficult situtation. Of course the easy thing would be to say that all the attention is on the person who is ill, and the partner is just left to hold work, home, family & friends together all while living in fear that the person they love the most will be in pain or worse, leave them. But the thing I always struggled with the most is that I didn't know how Dan felt, in his life as a cancer survivor and as he neared the end of his life, someone facing death. There were things I couldn't possibly understand no matter how much I tried. There was no solution for that.
I never minded being in Dan's shadow. But aside from his cancer, Dan's personality was so magnetic and energizing, that it was also easy to be over-shadowed by him in everyday life. But I didn't mind that either. Because he had many qualities that I admired and could learn from... which is pretty rare in life. So when he died, it definitely marked the beginning of this battle for me. The battle to maintain my sanity and to make sense of what happened. The battle on his behalf to be part of the solution for many of the problems with cancer. And the battle to figure out who I am. Because if I know anything, it's not who I was.
So back to the work trip... prior to going away, we had to take one of those touchy-feely personal strength tests. I've taken them many times before, and I usually get the "analytical/intelligent/competitive" traits. So when I got the results this time, I was really surprised.
My #1 strength... positivity. My #2 strength... belief.
We were joking at the meeting that I should have become a social worker. My boss asked why I spent so much money on business school. I laughed, but it's pretty significant to me. On the one hand, I was pleased to see that after all this, my greatest strengths reflect those things in Dan that I admired. I didn't feel quite so screwed up. But on the other, uhhhhh..... maybe I am in the wrong line of work. And maybe I have a long battle to figure out what that is in a way that I can take care of myself financially and still want to go into work everyday.
It is a battle. Sometimes to the outside world, Dan's battle wasn't as evident because for a long time, he didn't look sick. He still went to school, worked full time, ran a foundation, golfed, dated, got engaged... but it was a battle for him. Shortly before he died, he said that people didn't realized that even with everything he was able to do, he didn't feel right for the last (almost) 4 years. He was sick, and he felt sometimes people forgot it. As with me, I've done pretty well. I've gone back to work, picked up Dan's foundation, gone back into life... but's it's still a battle. The tools I've always used to cope with life aren't the same, and maybe some don't exist. But it's also a battle armed with new strengths and a guardian angel.