Get over it or get past it (or both)?

No! I didn’t get over it already. What’s more realistic is I’ve gotten past it. Trauma is like flowers that bloom, go dormant, and bloom again. Get over it implies the impact ended. Get past it implies overcoming the impact. Overcome and end have different finish lines. I’ll get over the cancer experience once there’s a cure.

Here’s evidence I’m past it:

  • Less intense panic attacks
  • Fewer decisions I’m too paralyzed to make
  • No need to explain that quadruple mastectomies dictate my wardrobe choices.
  • Haircuts are haircuts, not flashbacks about being bald.

What’s the ‘it’ I’m past?

The radiologist, who I’d never met, entered the room, stared at the screen, and declared with certainty the abnormalities on my breast ultrasound were benign. The ultrasound technician looked shocked but didn’t contradict him. The radiologist missed the cancer. When my doctor did follow up, one year late, I was four months from dead of advanced breast cancer. Treatment left me exhausted, underweight, brain-fried, and angry the cancer wasn’t diagnosed before it required heavy artillery.

They made mistakes where they’re supposed to be experts. But, most decisions rely on imperfect information; even experts can’t know every variable. My diagnosis was in time, if not timely.

I’m grateful. I’m past it.

Is peace a reward for patience?

German Israel lapel pin

Photo from thegalileeexperience.com/

Is peace imaginable even though it isn’t yet within reach? Is there a vision of what the other side of our current age of turbulence might look like?

The entwined German and Israeli flag lapel pin surprised me. Bigger shock; the lapel pin was on a German army officer’s uniform. I accosted the officer in our hotel lobby. Smiling, the officer explained.

“Israeli and German troops are colleagues. Training in Israel was the highlight of my career.”

Imagine. 70+ years ago Germany exterminated Jews and now they train together. Later, I hiked on the red soil of East Africa’s beautiful, peaceful Rift Valley. Imagine. 40+ years ago Idi Amin Dada took power and slaughtered Ugandans. 20+ years ago Rwanda was riven with genocide. Tourists on safari now watch big game roam where people once ravaged the land and each other. My mind whirled at the passing time and effort that healed three massacres with three reconciliations.

Peace isn’t evenly distributed and there’s never a guarantee of permanent peace. Peace is too big a miracle to expect in a world of escalating violence. Transforming societies post-genocide is not an overnight miracle. It’s many people working hard and forgiving the unforgettable.

Here’s my belief – no, more accurate to call it a prayer – as expiring 2014 bequeaths expanding war zones to incoming 2015:

History is dynamic; the future undetermined. People get exhausted with war, money for munitions dries up, governments change, dictatorships collapse, policy catches up with new realities, evil runs its course, and peace gets a chance. Unknowables include how long it may take and whether it’s minimal peace, or social justice with a real future.

At a personal level, would the cancer treatment that saved my life have been available if I lived in a war torn country? Probably not when resources are disproportionately budgeted to military over healthy people and environments, and education. Headlines in the global news include child soldiers, abducted girls, death from curable diseases, poverty, food insecurity, and many barriers to health and education. World-wide hatred, fear, distrust, and anti-Semitism abound.

And, in these amazing months of travel, I’ve seen resilient peoples rebound and offer a vision of what peace brings. Peace in East Africa has meant healthier children, opportunities for universal education, and awareness of environmental needs.

Since no war lasts forever, what sustainable vision of peace can we work for, each in our own way?

red soil

Queen Elizabeth National Park’s red earth, Uganda

Healthy Child Uganda

Healthy Child Uganda is an NGO helping mothers help families thrive.

Girls go to school, women in cities attend university and achieve high positions at work.

HCU clinic

Dr. Ida reviews the Impressive child immunization rates with Decker at a Healthy Child Uganda District Clinic.

Dr. Ida shows Decker the data

Trust the tail, the truth is there

“This little guy will save your life.” Between diagnosis and my first mastectomy, my partner Decker put his trust in a ten-week-old puppy named Trail to keep me alive. How’d that go? Well, Trail’s living large, having figured out my operating system*. Wow, imagine replicating Trail’s job style:

Self-written job description.

Trail lifted a rear leg on our pet expectations.

White Westhighland (Westies) need plenty of exercise and playtime … excel at agility, obedience, flyball, and other canine sports. These activities stimulate his bright mind and channel his boundless energy.

2013-09-24 09.29.21

Grey face

Yup, playful, agile, energetic, obedient White Westies. So says the website. Trail clarified our delusions starting with his breed’s name. White? Trail rejects White.

Trail hurtles himself hedonist-style, buries his nose and rolls, talking non-stop to the dirt, grass, or snow. He emerges joyfully, his coat drenched in goop, chlorophyll, or icy pompoms.

In a competition between a brilliant-white dog and a joyful dog, I relinquish roll control to Trail.

2012-11-11 15.11.33

photo: Cat Harbord

Be useful.

Trail matured with an unusual attitude and a secret identity, Rescue Dog. Trail’s rescues include:

2011-10-31 18.53.16

• Waking us to help a disabled house guest who’d fallen during the night.
• Diving into the water to help when someone toppled out of the canoe.
• Waiting at forks to guide laggard hikers on the right path.
• Running a black bear thirty feet up a tree in our back yard, where it clung while Trail barked and tried to climb after it.

When it seems he’s all about him, he accommodates himself completely to others.

unsure tail

Read my tail

Speak heart to hearts.

His responsive tail, bendable to his mood, telegraphs Trail’s emotions with an honesty that wrenches my heart. If I misread hisarticulated tail tail’s meaning, he’s kind and forgiving.

I want that collaborative heart in all my relationships.

 

scared tailalert tailneutral tail

Find fun everywhere.

Trail ignores me prance about with dog toys to entice him. “Poor pathetic human,” his eyes say. “So sad she can’t entertain herself sniffing.”

He retrieved ball and stick – one of each. The first ball I threw, Trail brought back in his little mouth and dropped at my feet. Trail stroked the lake until the stick I tossed was drawn to where he could reach it without getting wet. Both times I unplayful tailpraised, rewarded him, and threw it again. Both times he tilted his head as if saying, “I already brought it back, you get it.” I tug a toy and he walks foward holding his end.

So, he misses out on play or sport; he’s endless fun of his own kind. Avoiding one kind opens space for others.

Take my time.

Other humans spell w-a-l-k or their dog explodes. We excitedly say, “Walk”, and Trail lies down, chin on paws. “Okay,” he seems to sigh, “if you insist.” We ‘walk at a Trail’s pace’, more pulse than walk – shuffle, stop, shuffle, stop. Repeat.

An eighteen pound anchor on a rope, he’ll sit to watch any activity like his personal television, leaving me on standby until his program ends. happy tail

We should’ve named him Speedy since ‘Trail’ became destiny.

His nicknames include: Trailer; Trailing; and

Trail Mix (from his friend Cat, if Trail were trail mix, he’d be the premium kind with all sorts of great surprises hidden in each handful); and,

Trail Thunderpaws because he runs to catch up; and,

Trail Houdini when we backtrack to find him; and,

Princess Trail in kayak Princess Trail prefers human powered rides like stroller, kayak or bicycle basket;

Princess Trail

photo Beth Lawrence: Marcus ‘walks’ Trail

and finally,

Yoda Trail      Yoda Trail, for oh so many reasons.   Yoda

It’s our particular compromise, Trail’s and mine. He’ll eventually arrive, and I get to practice patience.

Live an authentic life.  

curious tail

Trail learns concepts incredibly fast, and, when inclined or not distracted sniffing every petal of every flower, he obeys the dozens of words he understands – eventually.

Maybe Trail is too smart to waste his boundless energy. He waits until we’re committed to a direction, in case we reverse and can pick him up on our return. He walks 4.5 kilometers to my five.

We’re sure he solves problems, counts at least three, and understands basic geometry and connectivity. He studied a cattle grid and then trotted across, each paw set confidently.

For errands and time sensitive walks, Trail tolerates a leash. He’s clear what he won’t tolerate. Trail intervenes like a mediator between dogs playing rough. If Decker and I split to do separate errands, Trail refuses to follow either of us.

Trail couldn’t fake it if he tried. His tail tells his truth.

concerned tail

Would it be helpful if people still had tails?

 

TKI preferences (Collaborating, Compromising, Accommodating, Avoiding, Competing).

 

I got news that trumped Fear with Optimism

I met the man who owns my left breast. I chatted with a stranger who said he’s a Medical Researcher studying what breast cancers spread to bones. I said I’d donated the tissue formerly known as my breast to his research project. He said my breast’s in a petrie dish in his lab freezer, and I asked if that’s next to the vegetables.

He said he owes me because without tissue donations he has no research. Now that I’ve had time to process the encounter, I owe him more.

Fear of meaninglessness

I’d searched for the disease’s bigger meaning, overlooking I’d donated my breasts to science. Quadruple mastectomies, chemo and radiation hid the memory. So long as I got my breasts off my chest before they killed me, I didn’t care if they froze or incinerated. They weren’t coming home in a jar.

Now he’s given me hope my tissue can help, especially since the cancer was rare Triple Negative. Unintended, but he reduced my Fear the cancer meant nothing.

Meaninglessness of Fear

Like so many with cancer diagnoses, I experienced numb shock, waves of terror, and masses of esoteric information. Daytime, distracted and busy, I almost forgot Fear. But at night, or when tired, oh, Fear roared.

Where’d Fear’s dizzying power come from? How’d I let Fear dominate me into I’m-gonna-die, world-gone-nuts, paralysis?

Turns out, Fear, you don’t act alone, you get help. Lots of help.

Fear rides with powerful friends

Fear, you shape-shift as Triple Negative Breast Cancer or a herd of stampeding horses, or whatever terrifies. But you boost into big time with government, media, and corporate injections of Fear into anxious mortals. Election cycle, news cycle, and economic cycle – there you and they are, with thin explanations, replaying your message du jour.

Fear, you’re sometimes effective when people feel they lack power in uncertain times. Negative campaigns rely on you – Boo – we’re scared into voting your way, buying a product or service, believing a stereotype.

horse7

What’s the opposite of Fear?

The Medical Researcher invested me with Optimism in the best sense of the word: curious, and informed. Take that, Fear, and negative attack ads. I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer; I gotta have game. Fear, you’re a cycle in need of breaking. And I’m breaking up with you.

Now, I want a name for the state of non-fear. Dictionaries offer antonyms: courage, fearlessness, bravery. But those can co-exist within a stew-pot of fear, stress and anxiety. So they don’t fit as names for non-fear.

How about curiosity or optimism? Research suggests Optimism is both genetic and can be learned to shrink Fear, so I owe my grandparents too.

I’d welcome suggestions: what’s the name of this tentative state of being that’s the opposite of Fear?

 

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s Valentine’s Day simple rules for love and loyalty

photo credit: City of Toronto website

photo credit: City of Toronto website

I nominate Toronto Rob Ford as Valentine guru of the year.

No, seriously, he could teach Cupid. Buffoonery aside – and that’s a huge aside – his ability to keep voters willing to vote for him defies credibility. It’s what I find most astonishing – his self-imposed implosion and dizzying public unraveling hasn’t deterred his Ford Nation from believing in him. That means he has something to teach.

Had Mr. Ford behaved and been competent, no one outside Toronto would know his name. Now he’s stratospheric famous, enjoying status as a late night joke and top ten list attraction. How does he foster such devotion? Are other politicians paying attention? 

Clearly it isn’t his charisma and charm attracting such loyal and loving constituents. Then what, I ask, accounts for it? 

Rob Ford’s simple rules for finding and fostering love and faithfulness.

What I uncovered from Mr. Ford’s musing are life rules to follow for conflict management and living joyously. Surprise – it turns out Mr. Ford’s good, bad and ugly behavior all conceal useful lessons. It’s a shame Mr. Ford subverted these to the Dark Side:

The Good

1. Respond to people, such as return phone calls 

When his loyal fans and constituents explain clinging to his failed leadership, their refrain goes: “He called me back.”

2. Get involved in small problems people care about

Sure, people seek to save the world, but it’s problems on our doorstep that relegate the world’s problems to second billing. When asked about their loyalty, Mr. Ford’s constituents said: “He had an interest in my problem and tried to help me.”

3. Show up

He had an important title and lots of staff, but when he got a call from a constituent, Mr. Ford rang the doorbell. Those who plan to vote for him in his re-election bid maintain: “I needed a solution and he came to my house to discuss it with me.”

4. Have a clear message

Without more evidence, devotees believe he’s great because Mr. Ford says he’s wonderful and does his job well: “I don’t want to toot my own horn here but I’m the best mayor this city has ever had.” (from NewsTalk 1010, November 3, 2013).

The Bad

5. Pay attention

When Toronto City Council held a vote on honoring Canada’s Olympic athletes and the late Nelson Mandela there was only one vote against – Rob Ford. Upon noticing he was on the wrong side of no-brainer issues, he requested a revote to rectify what he claimed was a mistake. Consensus appears to be he voted ‘no’ because he wasn’t paying attention. People have compassion so long as we’re trying our best. Ford’s theory is that if experts urge you to get fit, eat better, pay attention, and be honourable, he’ll purse his lips, curl his tongue, expel a burst of air, and go ‘pthut.

6. Strive for a goal and then share successes and failures

We know 90% of New Year’s Resolutions are broken before January ends, but we make them anyway. We cheer for milestones along the way, and, most important, we tolerate slippage if we believe the person is striving to achieve the goal. We forgive failure if there’s a perception of effort.

The Truly Ugly

7. Be consistent

Toronto still functions despite the gong show at City Hall, but each exhausting eruption of bad behaviour and expiatory explanation drains its energy. The ups and downs keep everyone off balance.

8. Keep expectations reasonable

Communicate boundaries as well as openness, because people react badly when their expectations are disappointed.

9. Apologize as soon as you’re sincere

If Decker apologized to me so insincerely, one of us would sleep in the guest room. No one except die-hards in Ford Nation believes Mr. Ford’s delayed, vague and hollow apologies. Sincerity matters as much as the words.

10.  Hone good judgment

The questionable company he keeps can’t be justified with noble theory such as, ‘I don’t throw my friends under the bus.’ What’s being judged is that those people are his friends in the first place.

 I want my oncology team to adhere to these rules and earn my undying (especially the not dying part of ‘undying’) appreciation. And, this Valentine’s Day, these rules apply to Decker and me too. 

Bogart’s character Rick in Casablanca: an optimist or pessimist?

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Humphrey Bogart as Rick

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Humphrey Bogart as Rick

Rick says to Ilsa: I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world[1]

Then, Rick gets noble and becomes a bean that matters on a hill of beans. He leaves Isla and strides into the fog to fix the craziness in his little corner of the world. Cynical Rick? A hero? What the …? 

Today, Bogie leans against my kitchen wall; his eyes smolder in the shadow of his fedora; he snarls at me, “Sweetheart, if you can’t do much about how crazy the big world is, pick some little problem nearby.”

“Bogie,” I say, “That’s not nobility, that’s optimism.”

Pick a hill of beans

Like most people, I want a life that matters. Having come so close to dead, my quest to live that life has some urgency. Quick! Where’s the accelerated search engine?

Okay, it’s not my destiny to win the peace prize or cure cancer. But, what if Rick was right at Casablanca’s conclusion, when he focused on one little local problem with one small impact? The movie ends before we learn its bigger consequences, but it implies he made a difference. Or is that the optimist’s view? Rick changed his pessimistic outlook and affected – the audience is audacious with hope – the outcome.

Optimistic / pessimistic ambidexterity

What next? Chemotherapy imploded my natural optimism into a pessimism so deep I couldn’t recognize positive action if it stroked my face. I entered one Friday treatment believing the best would prevail. Sunday exhaled a swirling pit of panic and despair; a chemo-induced brain makeover in thirty hours that clung three years.

The upside is my brain now operates as ambidextrous, functioning in optimism and pessimism with equal dexterity. To paraphrase Sophie Tucker, I’ve been optimistic and I’ve been pessimistic. Optimistic is better.

Risk management is a conflict competency

Guess I should thank chemotherapy for the opportunity to live as a pessimist so I can weigh both options and opt for optimism.

Optimism is more than hope, or what I call the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude. It’s also risk management, which is a conflict competency. Recent research suggests that pessimism is an advantage because optimists depend on happy endings. Is this a fair categorization of optimism? Not all optimists treat lottery tickets as a retirement plan, just like all pessimists aren’t good savers for retirement. I seek to mitigate risk whichever outlook I use. Where optimism has it over pessimism is belief in my ability to make a positive difference in outcome. I’m more motivated when my outlook is that my actions might matter. So go ahead, buy the lottery ticket AND save for retirement. Integrate the inner optimist and pessimist.

Adapting to change is a conflict competency

And that’s a conflict competency; integrating the two outlooks is more adaptive than their competing for mental bandwidth. I had an example in conversation with my bio-daughter Beth.

“It scares and saddens me,” Beth said, “that my generation is the last able to do whatever we want. My son won’t enjoy that freedom.”

Pessimism reality check. History and experience suggest that Beth’s correct, everything we enjoy won’t continue. Optimism alert. Other enjoyments await.

Optimism doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to leave my grandson a better world but it’s relief from pessimism’s paralyzing fear and sadness.

What’s next? Well, which problem should I prioritize for 2014: climate change, social upheaval, or 2013’s leftover personal turmoil?

Bogie tips his fedora, glides through my kitchen wall, and is gone.

Wonderful words from optimists: (or, words from wonderful optimists)

“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” ― Desmond Tutu

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank

“Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” ― Nelson Mandela

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese Proverb


[1]Casablanca is a 1942 film about an American expatriate owner of an upscale club and gambling den in the Moroccan city of Casablanca who meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Casablanca_(film)

Changing piece of mind to peace of mind

Oh, I was naive to believe my life’s path led straight to graduation and some career. In a blind turn I should’ve but didn’t see coming, the path suddenly dropped off a cliff. Desperate, I clung to roots and branches, terrified of bashing my brains out. I crash-landed, survived, yet couldn’t imagine salvaging a meaningful future. 25-years later that particular cliffhanger had an unexpected happending.

Change seems to breed retrospection and paradox. My past is as big a surprise as any future. I’m in wonderment that I got from then to now. I’ve craved and feared change. Sometimes what I craved transformed into what I feared or what I feared became what I craved. Some big changes left small impacts; some small changes left huge impacts.

I’ve never yelled: “Bring more change. It’s so restful here in the rubble of what used to be.” Change steamrolled ahead anyway. I hung on tight, trying to anticipate impacts, manage risks, adapt as needed, pray it ends well. After profound change came the fun of post change syndrome (PCS), getting used to whatever’s new. I credit four qualities with surviving life’s cliffs I’ve tumbled down – Resilience, Mindset, Optimism and Discipline. I posted about Resilience. It’s Mindset’s turn.

Most of my life I craved courage to write. Writing is hard. I could fail, face rejection and ridicule. My school’s vice-principal selected me to enter a writing contest (“you’re good enough”, he’d said). I never completed the entry form; afraid I’d disappoint him and he’d judge me

Mindset book cover

Now I take the risk of writing online about – of all things – breastlessness. Writing’s still hard. I fail, face rejection and ridicule. Somewhere craving overcame fear and writing happened. Carol Dweck’s research on Mindset [i] didn’t change my life. It did pinpoint what in my life changed. My fixed mindset morphed into an open mindset. Sure, I want to write better. When I fail I learn what I have to do next time.

Dr. Dweck explains that small change can change minds: “mindsets are fostered by a focus on theperson (e.g.,talent or ability) as opposed to a focus on the process (e.g., effort, learning)”.

“Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”
“Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”
That’s all we did, but the results were dramatic… Intelligence praise, compared to effort (or “process”) praise, put children into a fixed mindset. Instead of giving them confidence, it made them fragile…[ii]
 

In my conflict management practice I draw attention to growth mindsets, assuming even exchanging vowels from piece to peace can foster change.

… the brain was a dynamic, malleable organ and that every time they learned something new their brain formed new connections. … These interventions were relatively modest, but had rather immediate and striking effects.[iii].

Having my breasts amputated (twice) wasn’t entertaining. Was cancer a huge or small change with small or huge impacts, or maybe huge change with huge impacts? I’ll be optimistic and suggest small change with small impacts. Even small change matters but impacts vary with mindsets.

Since August, it feels like I dropped off the path into The Matrix, a simulated reality where my next crisis emerges from my last post.

Chronology of coincidences: 

  • August 22, 2013, I blogged resilience, mindset, optimism and discipline got me through cancer and chemo.
  • September 18, the double mastectomy needed a do-over.
  • September 30, the post about resilience ended: “Now, I’m thinking about Mindset. I’m hoping for no adverse opportunities to put it into practice between this post and the next.”
  • October 13, brain MRI showed an unidentifiable spot. I named it Macbeth[iv]. The neurologist has decreed it benign. Whew.

Yikes, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything about optimism, my next topic.

Two and counting

image001 Two years since this wild cancer ride started. With Triple Negative, I’ve another six years before the highest risk is reduced. How hard can it be to stay alive six more years?

Meanwhile, year 2 carried thrilling changes.

MR900234753

My mind made a token reappearance from chemo fog. It’s nice to think again, even superficially, although my mind and the sun operate as a coupled network. Sun down, mind off, bedtime.

I’m able to write a bit of fiction and reading is a joy once more, albeit very slowly. Just for fun I wrote a poem, non-fiction in verse. It isn’t quite like getting the university degree in creative writing I anticipated for 2013, but so much better than being dead.

MR900215311The inspiration for this poem was the “beauty industry” focus on symbols of femininity – hands, breasts and hair. Those were the bits that cancer and treatment most affected, temporarily or permanently. I’ve replace those with symbols from ancient Heraldry that speak to me of courage, vigilance, love, and joy – all better’n being dead.

So, here’s the conflict management connection: when I couldn’t be or have society’s ‘ideal’ whatever, in this case ‘beauty’ I adapted my own ideal that’s makeup-less, breastless, and less chemical. I’m adaptable. I’m alive.

image001

Hands, Breasts and Hair
I solved the markets’ problems with Visa
And it co-created mine with debt;
Advertisers offered for sale
Woman parts at cost plus
R & D, technology, and enhancements
Packaged in smooth hands tipped red
Long hair tipped blonde
Perfect breasts tipped upright.
No two breasts are identical
So one breast flying solo
On either side
Or no breast left or right
Mismatched as any two are.
Better none than dead because of them.
I bought a non-shedding dog
While my own hair
Floated to seed the earth
And clog the drain
My head had pit stops
At bald, crew and curl
Oh I craved that curl
Almost as much as to be alive
To grow it straight and gray.

Passing the Regret Test

Hallelujah. I graduated from the Breast Cancer doctor. Hugs, dancing in reception and NO next appointment. Bring on the morass of disability insurance forms. Do I regret my failed attempt to return to work? No, I love my job as a conflict manager and wanted to be there, though every day was a struggle and every walk home was tearful. If I hadn’t tried, I’d have wondered if I could, and I’d like to live life without such regrets.

Rubaiyat_cover

Omar Khayyám wrote in the Rubaiyat attributed to him: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line; nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’

Sometimes it felt like the moving finger was a steamroller. There probably isn’t a mistake I haven’t made and tried to rationalize as the only thing I could’ve done under the circumstances (yikes, I fit in Self-Serving Bias). I thought to reach out to someone, speak a kind word, apologize, express love, and then didn’t do it, or didn’t do it well. I figure the moving finger ought to be more pious and witty in the first place. Then maybe I wouldn’t regret what I did or didn’t do.

270px-Murray_Gell-Mann_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_2012

And for those times I’m at a bifurcation point, where once the decision is made it can’t be reversed, I’ve created a Regret Test, when there’s no eraser or do over. The decision becomes a ‘frozen accident’ (Dr. Murray Gell-Mann’s phrase). We should all be fortunate enough have such decisions that change the course of our own and others’ lives: the freedom to decide who to love, where to get an education, whether to take a gap year traveling or go straight into a job. Those decisions set a course where people meet who would never otherwise have met, live places never otherwise visited, and experience life in transformational ways. I’m always aware that it’s freedom and good fortune that allow these bifurcation points.

To take the Regret Test, I find a quiet comfortable mood. I imagine my deathbed at 120-years-old, my few remaining friends and family around me. With my last strength, I say: ‘I’ve had a good life, doing everything I wanted to do. The only regret I have is … ‘ Then I fill in the decision I’m trying to make. If it feels like I’ll regret doing or not doing it, that makes my decision clearer. It’s my form of penny spinning that the wonderful poet scientist Piet Hein grooked about.

A Psychological Tip

Piet Hein

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,

and you’re hampered by not having any,

the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,

is simply by spinning a penny.

No – not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you’re passively standing there moping;

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Living without regret should be easier than it is. All the mistakes and learning are the legacy to me from that person I was and will be. The moving finger doesn’t leave behind a band-aid so my conflict competence first aid kit contains a penny and a Regret Test.

Breastless Love, The Man Who Stayed with the ‘Sick’ Woman

image

In my posts, the fact I stumbled upon the love of my life at age 58 was an aside, like Decker guided me through the cancer swamp as expected of an old stalwart. Reality check: we’re a new couple. He didn’t have much invested in ‘us’ when my breasts tried to kill me.

My choice was between breasts or death in four to nine months. Easy peasy. Decker got to decide whether to stick around for the medical crap. Whew; he chose to. Cancer support groups are filled with women whose partners left. Heartbreak on heartbreak. Like piling on in football without penalty for being last ‘man’ on the guy down. As if getting cancer was being unfaithful: “What – you went to bed with Cancer? How could you betray me with Cancer? Well, now that you’ve chosen Cancer over me I’m leaving.”

Women (or men, or children – cancer is so democratic) have to deal with threatened lives, medical uncertainties, activities disrupted, hideous side effects, and bodily insults. Then the person we count on gets a free pass on the blood, vomit, infected sutures, bulbs of sloshing lymph fluid, low blood counts, shakes, tears, pain, physical scars, and emotional turmoil. Jeez, how could anyone willingly give that a miss? So no one had to tell me Decker’s a gem for staying.

Diane and Dave, 1989

Our father stayed. My lovely sister Andria and I had a disabled mother who underwent countless medical procedures for multiple medical conditions and a constellation of physical complaints. Mom and dad’s mutual verbal abuse was so miserable some relatives refused to visit us. Yet, our folks stayed together until they passed away and, in Andria’s version of the story, they loved each other.

So I asked Decker, ‘what’s the reason you stayed?’ and his expected response: ‘I love you.’ Too simple? He said, ‘sometimes simple is true.’ Yet, an Internet search ‘men leave sick women’ reveals women are six times more likely than men to be left after a cancer diagnosis.

There are also same-sex partners, families, neighbours and best friends who are too busy or can’t accept the neediness of the woman who once did everything and now needs help. In support groups, I listened to abandonment SLS (Shitty Life Stories) and wondered how I was so blessed, in addition to Decker, with friends, family and neighbours who brought food, offered to shop, helped walk puppy Trail, and called to say hello.

There were delightful welcome surprises – my dear cousin BonnyBonny Gold-Babins and I became much better friends. She’d done her stint twice over nursing her lovely parents through chronic illnesses, and still had a soup pot of caring for me.

But other women similar to me weren’t so lucky. It’s easy to blame; we all have villains, victims and heroes in our SLS. BUT, I practice Appreciative Inquiry and I blog at the intersection of what Conflict Competence teaches about Living Breastlessly. Conflict Competence speaks to the quality of relationships we want whether we’re well or sick, or are the friend, neighbour, or significant other to that sick person. How do we make and maintain the loving, trusting, there-through-thick-and-thin bonds that sustain and nurture us even at our worst?

An Internet search for why people stay to help sick partners and friends turned up – wait for it – NOTHING. The focus of the research is on the negative, the losers, the leavers, and the lovers who abandon. They don’t have a name. The people who stay get a name that’s more a label: caregivers. A search about caregivers led to how to become a caregiver, government benefits for caregivers, products for caregivers, and managing caregivers’ strains and stresses. Staying with a sick person is both an act of love and a profession.

We could ask Appreciative Inquiry questions, and research men’s reasons for staying to learn how staying can be an easier and higher quality choice. What made my father stay with my mother, particularly since they fought just about all the time about almost everything? What did Decker see that made the love worth hanging on to? And let’s get to the real heart of it: What can I do, every day with every person I treasure, to let them know I love and value them, appreciate their qualities and forgive their shortcomings if they’ll please forgive mine?

here’s more Decker celebrating the 60s at his 60th:

Decker at his 60th in a wig copy