Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone. … ~David Whyte
Last year people I love and who count on me got sick. Really really sick. One was young, too young to deserve a cutting-edge 13-hour surgery with a chance of staying in a children’s hospital for a month. The medical team said, “We trust this procedure,” then added, “We’ll have to wait and see. This treatment has risks.”
Another loved one, 90 years older than the child, slipped enough to need assisted care, then skilled nursing. Uncertainty defines this one’s longevity and health. Ours, too, of course. As poet Mary Oliver says in Summer Day: “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?”
A third beloved received a cancer diagnosis. When I heard “tumor,” the word landed like the thud of a gut-punch. A skilled surgeon removed the mass. Then came weakness through 6 weeks of daily radiation and 6 months of chemotherapy. The oncology team hedged, “You could live from a few months to ten years. Maybe longer. We don’t know.”
I hit the floor with each blow and I wobbled as I stood up again. But stand I did, with what my father called my “sand.” Remember those blow-up plastic kid-sized clowns we bopped in the nose? They would lean, lean, lean and then bounce upright because of the sand-weighted base. My dad warned us, “No matter what the fight, don’t ever lose your sand.” I didn’t lose what grounds me, what steadies me, what gets me up again and again. Yet I yearned for sure footing and got only shaky ground. I craved real answers and heard only more questions.
I wouldn’t say I hit bottom. I’d say I hit basics. I dropped out of senior college classes and said no to many worthy causes. I stopped teaching. I couldn’t write. Knocked down, I couldn’t afford to be weary-to-the-bone knocked out so I showered, brushed my teeth, put on cuddly sweaters. Meals? No; it was easier to peel and chew a banana. That I could do.
I ran to meetings with doctors, drove to sessions with physical therapists, consulted occupational therapists, sped to the ER, phoned on-call doctors. Nothing extra. I sidelined huge chunks of life. In that stopping, in what meditation teachers call a sacred pause, in the long nights when I paced the floors, opened and closed the fridge, and looked at the stars, Mary Oliver’s final line in Summer Day whispered, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Wouldn’t I die at last, and too soon? How do I want to spend these care-giving, appointment-filled days? The answer flashed like a mantra, “Connected with others who are attuned to me and I to them. In love.”
I scribbled the names of “my people”: neighbors, friends, family, a few Invisible Sources. When I held that piece of paper, I too felt held whether I talked to my pals or not, whether or not any of them showed up with Thai take-out. Often I’d text them, or they me. Sometimes one would pop in bearing chocolate. Yet the list itself expanded my shrinking life and fed me with vital social nutrients. Reading those names showed me something larger than my rounds in the ring. Even as the note crinkled, I savored the nourishment of humankind, humankind-ness, as if outstretched arms hugged me, as if soft eyes caressed mine, wide open hands supported my back, and sweet smiles warmed my living room. As I sensed them cheering for me, I didn’t crash into the ropes so much.
With the love of others and my own sand, I shifted into deeper inhales with longer exhales and delighted in more space to breathe. With love and sand, we can bob and rise again and again for the people who need us. And we can know for sure that we are not alone. Ever.