Of MacQueen and Mullins

Friday, February 12, 2010

The tragic suicide of Alexander McQueen, on the eve of his mother’s funeral, has surprised and shocked his family and friends. What breaks my heart even more is the difference between McQueen and one of his most famous models: Aimee Mullins, whose TED talks have made be both laugh and cry.

When we lose something in life, we sometimes convince ourselves that we cannot be happy without it, that life will simply not get any better. It doesn’t matter if it is our breasts, our mothers, our homes, or our jobs. We convince ourselves that without this, we will live a lesser life, a sadder life. A life, some think, that is just not worth living at all.

It is this refusal to belief in a future that could be worth looking forward to takes lives, as sure as random acts of violence.

Aimee Mullins, a double amputee at age one, is a world-class athlete, model, actress, and motivational speaker. She was in one of MacQueen’s shows, famously wearing a pair of intricately carved wooden prosthetic legs that everyone thought were wooden boots. In her first TED talk, she detailed the story of her climb from beginner athlete to Olympic competitor in 15 months. Despite (or maybe because of ) her challenges, Aimee is funny and resilient, and has an amazing ability to see the possibility in things where other people see only dead ends. “A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore,” she said in 2009, “It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space….so that people society once considered to be ‘dis-abled’ can now become the architects of their own identities and continue to change those identities.”

What is it that Aimee Mullins can do, that MacQueen couldn’t? What is it that I can do that my own mother, who took her life following her mother’s death, couldn’t? It can’t just be that one of us is more resilient, that one of us can move on. It must have something to do with imagination, with this ability to let go of one story we’ve been telling ourselves and create a new story, with a different ending.

I think, it is not the things, the people, the jobs we lose that break our hearts, but the future that we imagine is impossible without them, that is so hard to get over. It’s not as simple as, “If I have a mastectomy, I’ll never have cleavage again.” It’s about the children you’ll never breastfeed, isn’t it? We’ve taken something as basic as an appendage, a lump of skin, and turned it into something so much harder to lose: motherhood. Can I be a mother without breasts? Can Aimee Mullins be a runner without legs? Of course. Of course.

Perhaps what saves lives is something you say to yourself, when the world you were supposed to be heir to is turning to dust in your hands: You can go on. You can be happy again. It’s possible.

Missing My Father

Friday, July 3, 2009

Reading an excerpt from Bliss Broyard’s book, One Drop, I suddenly tear up. The book is about her father, literary critic Anatole Broyard, who, on his deathbed, confessed his greatest secret: he was part black. My own father was Filipino, and reading about Anatole watching Bliss’ brother run a 5K, I suddenly felt sad, wishing he was still here with me.

In the book excerpt, Bliss says that her father once wrote, of the “critically ill, ‘it may not be dying we fear so much, but the diminished self.’ He reasoned that by developing a style for their illness, a stance that incorporated it into the ongoing narrative of their lives, sick people could ‘go on being themselves, perhaps even more so than before.’

Is that what I am trying to do, by repeating a challenge I met five years ago? Recapture a me I used to be, that, it feels like, cancer has tried to “diminish”? Perhaps… perhaps my 40-by-40 is a kind of reincarnation, this effort, this journey I am embarking on. I am also willing to explore the idea that it may be this exact effort that heals my illness, moreso even than the drugs I’ve been given. Medicine comes in all forms.

My father was a runner. He ran every day, rain or shine, and when I was 12 and got a D in Pre-Algebra, he sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “Do you want to work at McDonald’s?” I shook my head, holding back tears (oh! the wrath of a disappointed father!). “I mean,” he said, “I don’t mind you working at McDonald’s; it’s an honest job, but at 18, you are out of my house, and it’s hard to pay the rent on minimum wage.” I told him I didn’t want to work at McDonald’s. “Okay then. Go upstairs and get your sneakers on. You’re coming running with me.” I was suddenly confused. “What?” He stood up, looking down at me. “You need some discipline, so you are coming running with me until these grades get back up.”

At 12, you are still in that vague area of adolescence where you do what your parents say. At least, that’s the way it was when I was 12. In the 80s. So I put on my sneakers, and I ran with my dad. Every day, rain or shine, until I was 16 and, of course, occupied with Drama Club and Track and various other afterschool distractions. I never ran with my father again, sadly. I Rollerbladed with him once, but his pace was much, much faster by the time I was in college, so I always ran on my own after that. Later, he took up cycling, but he died of runner’s heart, ironically, when I was 21 and about to graduate. I think now, he would have gotten into triathlons eventually (he was a swimmer in the Army), and probably surprised himself.

It’s not the present that I think we miss when we lose someone we love, but the future – the future they were supposed to be a part of. I miss my father most, not when I look at old pictures, but when I think of something I wish he could be there to see: my first solo marathon, my wedding, my first child. I’ll miss him at every one of my 40 finish lines, I know, because without him, I think, I would not even be a runner.

My favorite quote from the excerpt? “[A] person’s identity [is] an act of will and style.” I totally agree. :)

 

The Top 3 Things Cancer Patients Can’t Stand Hearing From Their Loved Ones

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Attention all caregivers! Please read on if you *really* want to be there for someone you love who’s fighting cancer.

The Top 3 Things Cancer Patients Can’t Stand Hearing From Their Loved Ones

1. That we somehow caused our cancer. This includes reminding us of “bad” habits that we have or haven’t given up, or implying, via “The Secret” mythology, that we somehow attracted it, or, via something like Catholicism, that cancer is some kind of punishment for our sins.

2. That there is more we can be doing to fight our cancer. Once you have gone through surgery, chemo, hair loss, and radiation, then you can gauge your threshold for dealing and suggest something more we can do. On second thought, don’t even bother then. We don’t want to hear it.

3. What we should do post-treatment to keep our cancer from coming back. Please don’t tell us how to keep our cancer from coming back. Tell the American Medical Association, or the National Institutes of Health, or the Centers For Disease Control. Rest assured, they’re dying to know so they can monetize your miracle advice.

Why do people we love tell us these things? Because they love us, and they can’t bear the thought of losing us. That, and they really do think, perhaps because they’re not the one with a chest port, that we can have some measure of control over our cancer. Or, rather, that they can have some measure of control over our cancer.

Try as we might to convince ourselves that life is predictable and logical, the fact is, we live in a world of complete uncertainty. As such, our first response to the unexpected is to seek out logical, rational conclusions based in causality. Why? Because we need to believe that things happen for a reason, and if we reduce cancer to an effect with a cause, then, in a twisted way, it gives us the illusion of having power over it. If I caused my cancer, then I can cure it! Even better, not only can I cure it; I can keep it from coming back! See how that works?

This is the height of insanity, and trying to convince someone fighting cancer of it, while it might give you comfort, is a backhanded compliment at best, and a hurtful insult at worst. Most people with cancer have already struggled with staying positive in the face of relentless unpredictability. Give them some credit for STILL BEING ALIVE and stop sharing your opinion on how they can manage, survive, or prevent their disease better.

My Sister, aka General Patton

Monday, May 25, 2009

I often say that my sister “is not a nurturer.” If you need warm and fuzzy, Rachel is probably not your gal. In fact, I once went to her in need of comfort and had her say, rather helplessly, “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

Where Rachel excels, though, is getting things done. If Cameron Diaz and General Patton had a child, it would be my sister – full of boundless energy, huge grins, and ruthless, take-no-prisoners self-determination. This is why, inevitably, my “she’s not a nurturer” statement is quickly followed by, “but if we ever go to war, I want her in charge!”

Faced with prepping my dream house for sale – the house I thought I would get married in, raise my children in, and grow old in – I was immobilized. I had just started Adriamycin and Cytoxan – two of the least fun chemo drugs – and my heart was breaking watching my dreams sink to the bottom of the Pacific. My realtor told me I needed to “de-clutter” the house as soon as possible, and all I could see when I looked around were the hundreds of dollars I had spent shipping hundreds of dollars of knick-knacks that would inevitably end up on a garage sale table, at the local Salvation Army, or packed in bubble wrap for storage until I could afford to ship them back to the mainland. I was overwhelmed with grief, and didn’t know how I was going to do it all.

Thankfully, Patton arrived, and with her, order and comfort. Not the comfort we want when we’re wounded – the Florence Nightingale-ish, soothing kind of comfort – but the structured, decisive comfort that is the other side of mothering. My sister took charge, “Rachel-izing” the house in barely a day, saving me the heartache of de-cluttering it myself. It was the first time, or maybe just the most significant time, that she was able to do something for me, and I was able to appreciate what she did. It sounds so simple, but how many times do people with different definitions of “support” find themselves unfulfilled? Had I insisted that the only way she could make me feel better was the way I made others feel better, I would have missed out on the gift she gave me.

We forget, when we’re sick, that caregivers often feel just as helpless as we do in the face of illness. They are not (usually) doctors or nurses, and can only watch lamely while someone they love suffers. I am reminded of rescue dogs after 9/11, who kept finding body after body, growing more and more discouraged, until officers planted faux “victims” in the rubble for them to find, to keep their spirits up. My sister was listless and depressed watching me go through chemo until I asked her to please do this one thing for me because I can’t do it without your help. I literally threw her a bone, and it allowed her to feel empowered in the face of my cancer.

When someone loves you, and sees you in a weakened state, all they want to do is help you feel strong again. Never getting the chance to help can be discouraging and depressing for a caregiver. Even if you have to muster up the last of the strength you have, find a way that someone who wants to help you can.

The most wonderful thing my sister has ever done for me (and, truth be told, she is a very loving sister who has done lots of wonderful things for me) was to throw me a surprise Welcome Home party after I moved back from Kaua’i. For a week, she had been all over me about keeping the house clean, and my friend Anne had come up to visit another friend further north. I hadn’t seen many people since coming home, as I was self-conscious about my appearance, my unemployment, and my lack of confidence in my future. Who wants to have lunch with a bald, broke girl who surfs the Internet all day? Turns out, a lot of people. Rachel’s friend Pynkee had suggested a surprise party to welcome me home, and my sister, in true Patton fashion, mounted a covert op with military precision. She contacted my friends through my Facebook account and old Evites, and even hid the party food at a friend’s house up the street! When Anne and I came back from breakfast, I was welcomed by dozens of friends and family members, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a year, others who drove an hour or more just to be there and show they cared. At a time when I felt so alone and in need of comfort, it was my sister – General Patton – who called in the troops for me, and made me feel supported and loved.

Everyone has a role to play in your journey to healing. Remember that not everyone is capable of giving in the same way (some people offer shoulders to cry on; others make Bundt cakes), and many may not feel comfortable giving without your permission. We’re not all psychic either, so if you notice a friend acting like a depressed rescue dog in your presence, find one way that they can be of service to you during your time of need, even if it’s picking up your mail or bringing you a Starbucks. Don’t dismiss your needs (and yourself) because you “don’t want to be a burden” to others – those “others” may be waiting for an opportunity to lighten your load, if only you’d let them! Giving someone a way to help makes them feel less helpless in the face of your struggles.

And, most importantly, if someone you love says, “I don’t know what you want me to do,” cut them a little slack, or better yet, throw them a bone. Not everyone can be Florence Nightingale. Sometimes, you don’t know you need a Patton until you ask.