Friday, May 31, 2013

The Triumph of Tragedy

“The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.” John F. Kennedy

Our culture seems to have the habit of marking time by the occurrence of tragedies. The question “Where were you when . . ?” is meant to point out how powerful the imprint of disasters, natural or man-made, is on the human psyche. The series of traumatic events that make up that list has grown quiet large, even over my own relatively short (relative to human history, that is) life span. Sure, on the positive side, there was the  Beatles landing in America, men landing on the moon, the Star Trek series landing on TV, and Cabbage Patch dolls landing in every store in the country, but what springs to mind are events whose lasting effects were not due to a sense of triumph; but a sense of fear, panic, and despair.

People touched by cancer, and other illnesses, have a similar way of marking their personal histories. Very few will ever forget what they were doing when they received their diagnosis. The start of chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgeries also become memorable benchmarks. Some are so devastated by these events that they will even attach a previous historic marker to the experience. I have heard a number of people refer to their illness as their own 9/11 or Tsunami.

I have to confess, that as a cancer pacifist, I try not to mark the passing of time by tragedies. I also have to confess, however, that the whole period from 1991 to 1994 is forever etched in my mind as the time that my beloved Buffalo Bills tragically lost four consecutive Super Bowls, thereby creating, The Years of Whines and Woeses (Apologies to Blake Edwards). The problem, going back to the cancer experience, is that there are a myriad of traumatic happenings associated with life-altering illnesses. While throwing away the calendar and living without time certainly has its appeal, it makes keeping doctor’s appointments even more challenging.

One of the tricks my wife, Kathy, and I came up with was to neutralize the event by refusing to give it more attention than necessary. It is surprising how quickly something will slip from memory when not attached to a mental Post-it Note. Another trick was avoiding telling stories around each new twist and turn. This rule was altered, due to my chemo-brain and age relate memory problems that resulted in retelling stories, to telling the story in a light-hearted manner. Then there was the blog that I started once I could feel my fingers through the haze of pain meds. Putting our experiences into neat little essays helped to encapsulate the week’s events and send them off to the caring energy fields of friends and family members.

The most powerful method for cleansing our calendar was to keep track of, and celebrate, the triumphs. Early on, these were not as easily identifiable and required a little "thinking outside the box." For instance, the day that we were freaked out by the horrific bedside manner of the first surgeon who was scheduled to do my surgery became the glorious, Day We Chose to Have Open Heart Surgery Somewhere Else. Later, there were true victories: discharge from the hospital, negative results on the biopsies of lymph nodes, the ending of radiation therapy, the ending of chemotherapy, and the first signs that my hair was not only growing back, it was coming back without the gray.

Whether one adheres to pacifist philosophy or not, marking time with events that buoy the spirit rather than sink it, is a good practice. Let’s face it, we live in a world where the tragic not only catches our attention it captures it and holds it hostage. So why not try and about-face, and hold our attention and awareness on the mystery and miracles all around us?

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