Kintsugi

On a small table in my front hall, sits a lovely handmade pottery vase. The vase, pleasingly curvaceous, caught my eye and I was reasonably sure it was meant to be mine the very second I saw it. It was glazed in the shades of earth and sage that soothe my soul. Wrapped perfectly around its surface was a large oak leaf, gracefully rendered in natural, unglazed clay. This vase all but spoke my name. However, as is my habit, I didn’t buy it right then in recognition of the fact that I have way more than enough “stuff.” And, because it’s always possible the lovely things-I-see-but-really-don’t-need might be meant for someone else who would appreciate them more. The surest sign, for me, that a lovely thing-I-see-but-really-don’t-need is truly meant for me, is to find it still there when I pass by again at the end of the day. And, sure enough, the lovely oak leaf vase was waiting for me as I was leaving and so I knew, with certainty, this striking one-of-a-kind piece had been meant for me.

A year or two later, I had the unforgettable experience of welcoming to my home my best friend I’d never met. It’s a long story, how I came to be the best of friends with someone I’d never met, but regular readers will know that this was the woman I met online, in the early days of the Internet, while researching my options following my terminal cancer diagnosis. She and I spent hours sharing our thoughts, fears, hopes, and horrible gallows humor first by email, then by instant message and finally by phone. She also generously used her resources to find research and medical journal articles for me. Suffice it to say, I loved her as much as any friend I’ve ever met in person and, because of what we both went through together, I loved her more than most.

Well, you can guess where this is going. My friend, her sister and daughter all came to meet me (and my husband) as they were passing by on a road trip. We had a high old time actually seeing each other for the first time. We laughed uproariously, we cried with joy and relief, and generally went gonzo. When she was leaving, my friend (who may be an even bigger goofball than I am) decided that she would dip me as we hugged goodbye. She’s a pretty good-sized woman, probably six feet tall, but I’m a pretty good-sized chunk of ol’ broad myself. And, while her whim was absolutely hilarious, it became instantaneously clear that she didn’t have a lot of practice with dipping and, in that moment, things went   awry and the lovely little oak leaf vase on the hall table, which I accidentally kicked with all the leverage but none of the grace of a Rockette, was – thankfully – the sole casualty.

My friend was so aghast and apologetic, even though it was also outrageously funny all at the same time. In the end, I glued the vase back together so well you can barely tell it has been broken. Yet, despite its already unique nature, those cracks are what make that vase truly priceless to me now.

But, I wish I’d known then what I know now. Only recently have I read that Asian pottery craftsmen have a tradition of restoring handcrafted pottery (known in its Japanese iteration as “kintsugi,”) which, rather than take the impossible approach of hiding the damage, seeks to find and enhance the beauty in the irreparable harm by re-joining the pieces and filling in the lost fragments with gold or other precious metals. How perfect is that?

Image And, what does it have to do with the Happy LIFE? Well, because of the “happy habits” program we started at Life University, I received a call from a woman who helps organize a support group for grieving parents. She’d learned about The Happy LIFE from a student’s t-shirt advertising the program and asked about it. When she heard the activities included positive journaling, she was interested in having someone speak about the “happy habits” as a way to deal with grief. Even though I’ve experienced the loss of children through miscarriage and the loss of my only grandchild in the same way – along with what appears to have been my only possibility for grandchildren – I was uncertain I’d have anything meaningful to offer these grieving parents. They’d lost children after birth, or after their first few years, or as teenagers, or as adults. I was particularly uncertain because it seemed like a mockery to present the activities of The Happy LIFE as “happy habits” to people who had experienced something as traumatic as the loss of a child.

It was fortunate that I’d never really liked our use of the word “happy” in referring to activities and actions we can take to increase the meaning and satisfaction in our lives. While it’s a catchy concept, happiness is really too transient a state for any of us to expect to be able to hang on to it all the time, especially in the world in which we live or after something as traumatic as losing a child. I can imagine, closing my eyes and recalling my own intense feelings of a different grief, how hollow the word “happy” can sound. Still, making time for the five acts of gratitude and mindfulness that are part of the Happy LIFE has helped me find and build on something deeply fulfilling and meaningful for which I don’t even have a good word. Perhaps it’s resilience. Perhaps it’s optimal performance or authenticity. Or, perhaps it’s simply hope that there really is more good than bad in the world.

All of these thoughts turned out to be the perfect opening to speak with these brave parents. They were generous and receptive and it was an honor to be part of their group that evening. And, in the end, the thought of kintsugi – filling in our broken parts and missing pieces with shining memories of love instead of trying in vain to hide the damage – provided just the right closing for our conversation.

What’s the difference between a parent who suffers the loss of a child and learns to go on and still love life, and a parent who suffers that unspeakable loss and then goes on to lose everything else, too? The possibilities are infinite, of course, but each and every possibility is first directed into a binary stream, at a simple “yes” or “no” junction, and then a new binary stream results from each of those “yesses” and “noes,” and so on, each unto its own new infinity. I know that might sound hippie-dippy or loopy to some, but are you with me so far?

Now, sometimes, as a result of primal grief, a deeply instinctual response to tragedy, most of us don’t have much choice. We simply have to find a way to live, moment to moment. But, sometimes, our responses are purely a matter of choice and when that’s the case, the first binary yes/no stream is created based on “conscious” or “unconscious” decision.

If we want to have a fundamental choice about how we respond, or be able to make a conscious decision that will affect a situation’s outcome, we can prepare ourselves to direct the flow of what happens next and whether we will do harm or provide help. In our grief, there will eventually come a time when we can decide to continue to hurt or begin to heal. We can get better and better at asking ourselves what river of time we want to enter from this point forward. Do we want to create a stream that flows from wonder or one that flows from judgment? Do we want to come to the fork in the river and step into a stream of fear? Or into a stream of hope?

If we direct that flow into a stream of fear, we can be said to be “living in scarcity.” Our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going to protect what I have because there won’t be any more.” If we direct that flow into the stream of hope, we can be said to be “living in abundance.” If we can do that, our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going share what I have because it could create more of it for everyone involved.” The thing that people who think this way sometimes forget is that both love and hate can be created in abundance. It’s as if they’re stuck on the law of attraction while forgetting (or ignoring) the equal and opposite law of repulsion. Still, a sense of scarcity can create a stream of hatred or one of compassion, but I think only a sense of abundance can create a stream of nurturing love.

Now, clearly some things are always in scarce supply based on their rarity. And some things are temporarily in scarce supply because of the inevitable ebb and flow of nature and its forces, which are far outside our control (no matter how much we want to believe otherwise – just look at the weather, if you don’t believe me). Natural forces are both creative and destructive and we mere mortals can’t always tell the difference from where we sit on the cosmic consciousness food chain.

At first, in the initial loss of grief, we are focused on scarcity. We are only able to focus on the gaping hole that has suddenly been created in our lives. It’s all about what we’ve lost, what we can never have again, and it’s overwhelming. Something fundamentally defining about who we are as a person has been taken away from us. A parent who has lost a child is no longer “a mother of two” or, perhaps with the loss of this child, learns that she will never be a mother at all. Or a husband who has lost a faithful marriage can longer think of himself as “happily married” with a sense of pride and security. And, for a long time, it seems there will never be another moment when it doesn’t hurt.

After a while, it becomes possible for us to begin to notice and appreciate what we still have instead of focusing only on what we’ve lost. We can begin to have a sense of hope that there is life after loss. We begin to see that there are still people and things to love in the world. We begin to experience hope again and it can be said that we are learning to live in abundance. We may even begin to learn that the void created by loss is filled more completely when we’re able to share our pain with others who have suffered in the same way, transforming our loss into compassion for others. We may learn that each new joy we experience in life is sweeter when we’re able to think of a lost child and how much he or she would have enjoyed the experience, too. Or perhaps we are able to discover that the more forgiveness we find within ourselves for those who’ve hurt us, the more we are able to dampen our own capacity to hurt others.

In our loss, our hearts become that broken vase. Through our grief, we begin to mend our broken hearts. We can choose whether we try to mend our broken hearts so that the damage doesn’t show, but there will always be voids created by the missing fragments that are gone forever. Or, we can choose to fully acknowledge our loss, understanding that we are no longer untouched by its sorrow, and fill our broken hearts with that which is precious to us, no matter how much work it takes to discover, mine, and refine it. In the end, and with enough time, we can choose whether our loss is something preserved in its pain and sorrow or whether it is transformed into something beautiful that makes us more compassionate toward others and more aware of each moment as the gift that it is.

 

 

The Other Side

Now that I’ve passed the ten-year mark for ending up on the right side of the dirt in spite of a terminal cancer diagnosis, it’s easier to see the positive things that came out of it – especially since the “terminal” part of my diagnosis turned out to be mistaken.  Still, the cancer part was real enough and I went through the experience being treated as a goner, based on my doctors’ prognoses.  S**t, as they say, got real – and it got real right quick.

 

As it happens, I get complimented on being real and I take a bit of pride in that because I didn’t always get a lot of reinforcement for being myself when I was young.  It appears, however, that I simply can’t help it.  And, happily, getting real when you’re facing cancer – and death – may be the single best ability you can have.  Another thing I had going for me is a trust in the wisdom of life, in spite of having maintained the outrageously contradictory smoking addiction to which I had succumbed in my youth.  I had to get real about my responsibility to my own health, illnesses and – finally – my own death. While I was going through it, though, there were a lot of things I know now that I wish I’d known in the beginning.  With hope that these things will be helpful to someone in the middle of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, here are:

 

The Top Ten Things I Learned About Being a Cancer Patient

 

  1. You need to partner with someone to deal with cancer because one set of ears isn’t enough to hear everything the doctors are telling you. Call Gilda’s House or another advocacy support organization if you need to.  Then, learn all you can to educate yourself and your advocate on how to look out for you every minute before surgery and every minute after surgery until you’re out of the hospital.
  2. Some doctors will respect your right and ability to learn as much as you can about your cancer and its treatment and communicate with you accordingly.  Some will be astoundingly oblivious to you as a thinking, feeling person.  If they have the expertise you need, just remember that their considerable expertise may be the very thing that blunts their emotional intelligence.1
  3. It will break your heart to hear this – but you can’t rely on all doctors to put your best interests before theirs.  Some of them will provide outdated, unnecessary, or incorrect treatment because it’s what will profit – or be easy for – them, not you.2
  4. This is putting it too bluntly, but people want to be able to find a reason to blame your cancer on you, your actions, your environment, or your genes – because it makes them feel safer.  If you’re a smoker, you’ve made it real easy to do.  But, remember that true compassion doesn’t judge.3   
  5. If you’re a smoker, some people (even doctors) will rub it in, not realizing that we smokers with cancer are excruciatingly aware it’s our own fault.  Still, it’s never too late to quit smoking and, if you do, you stand a better chance of living – or a better chance of dying with dignity.  And it’s going to go one way or the other.
  6. The Internet is a blessing beyond price in educating yourself and connecting with others who have experience with your cancer.  If you’re as fortunate as I was, you will find that it’s possible to deeply love people you’ve never even met.
  7. Some people will think they know what’s best for you and will insist on doing things that are unwelcome or even downright stressful. Be grateful for their intention but trust your heart.  If it’s not something you want – and it really matters to you – now is the time to claim your power.  Seriously, if not now, when?
  8. When people start to call you after your diagnosis, accept sincerely caring and supportive calls from those who love you as the blessings that they are.  And, do your best to be polite to callers who speak to you in hushed, mournful tones as if you’re already laid out at the mortuary, and get off the phone as quickly as possible.  They’ve done their duty at that point and probably won’t be calling back.
  9. People will tell you that having a positive attitude or sufficient faith are the main keys to surviving cancer.  There’s no doubt both are important but, think about it.  If that were all there is to it, there would be a whole lot more dead mean, faithless people.
  10. Prepare to be surprised at what you can get real about once you finally have to. You’ll be surprised by who brings you comfort.  You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about your cancer and current treatment options in a short time – perhaps more than some of your doctors.  You’ll be surprised by how much love and compassion people can have.  You may be surprised at how much passing through your dwindling days can distill gratitude for your life into its very essence.

 

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Footnotes:

 

1.  OMG – there were so many examples of doctors’ insensitivity that, as stunning as they were at the time, finally became funny (and, perhaps, what I perceived as stunning insensitivity on their part was actually their version of getting real).  The first doc told me how hopelessly agonizing my death from cancer, in 6-18 months, was going to be and then told me to get a flu shot.  Yeah, like dying from the flu didn’t sound like a far better option at that point.  Another doc (head of the university oncology department) immediately told me I had not just the one metastasis (which turned out, after surgery, to have been benign) in my lungs but five (reducing my five-year-survival chances from 20% to 0%).  That doc then sent me on my way to the next doc for a bone scan to see if they could find more mets.  And then, that doc told me, yes, they’d found metastatic cancer in my rib cage (which turned out to have been a false positive).  At this point, I finally broke down and cried (but, I’m proud to say, only a little) at which point he asked, “What’s the matter?”  Like, godamighty, man – did you not hear what you just said?  I sure did.  And, finally, adding outrageous paternalism to the mix, the laparoscopic surgeon who told me during his consult not to worry my pretty little head about the surgery; he’d have me back on the beach in a bikini in no time.  Like I was EVER a candidate for sporting a bikini or that being bikini-worthy was my motivation in pursuing non-disfiguring surgery that wouldn’t leave me with a bulge on my side that I would brush with my arm with every step I took for the rest of my life (however short it might be).  I know all of that sounds like I’m just carping but my point is this:  get real clear that some of what docs “know” may be a very well educated guess – but it’s still just a guess.  

 

2.  There were many examples of doctors putting their interests above mine.  First, the internist who first diagnosed me with terminal kidney cancer referred me to an oncologist, from whose practice I later surmised, he benefitted financially (and I suspect this is common).  The oncologist, in turn, referred me to a urologic surgeon to whom, as I later discovered, he was related by marriage.  The urologic surgeon provided the best evidence that not one of them was – foremost – looking out for my best interest.  Since I was facing kidney removal as part of my treatment, I had read all about nephrectomy before my visit with the urologic surgeon.  Let’s just say that the traditional procedure for kidney removal severs tissue, from the navel all the way around to the spine, in a way that can be most succinctly described as “the magician’s accident” that might occur just after he says, “Watch me saw this lady in half.”  However, a newer and far less invasive method, laparoscopic nephrectomy, had been in use for several years and was available in the area.  When I asked this particular surgeon about having this kind of surgery, he said, “Why should I have to work through keyholes?”  Clearly, not to spare me from ending up with a permanently protruding bulge that results from traditional nephrectomy.  God forbid he would have to inconvenience himself by staying current in his field and learning to perform procedures in a way that produce far less disfigurement.  Again, I’m not trying to complain but rather explain how real I had to get when thinking about recommendations based on how much it would profit the people making them. 

 

3.  Yes, smokers are second-class cancer patients.  Have you ever seen a fundraising event being held for a lung cancer patient that doesn’t include the phrase, “non-smoker?”  I never have –and can’t image a jar in the minute mart with a sign that that says “Lifelong smoker with cancer needs your help – please donate.”  In fact, if you ever see a fundraiser for someone with lung cancer, it will emphasize that the person is a non-smoker.  It’s hard for people who’ve never been personally touched by a tendency toward addiction or compulsion to understand that not everyone can overcome their tendency toward addiction.  Please pray that you will be able to have strength and compassion – for yourself or for others – to give or to receive, as needed.

 

It is my prayer that anyone reading this who is experiencing a cancer diagnosis also discovers deep reservoirs of strength filled with the help of old friends, special family, compassionate doctors, attentive nurses, and the people you find through the Internet, going through what you’re going through, who become best friends you’ve never met.