How do you carry on when the love of your life has been diagnosed with a terminal illness?
When my stepmom found out she had Stage 4 cancer, her initial reaction was one of guilt rather than of concern for herself. She immediately conflated cancer with a burden my father would have to carry.
That she would be the one bearing the brunt of it didn’t register at the time and it still doesn’t.
To cope, she dissociates, as do many cancer patients.
My father was destroyed by the brutal diagnosis. He collapsed onto himself and aged dramatically in the space of a few months as his natural happy-go-lucky disposition turned sour.
But instead of embracing helplessness, he immediately set out to manage my stepmom’s care and medical appointments with dedication and unfailing attention to detail. He’s fiercely organized and documents everything, attending every medical appointment with a briefcase containing her entire treatment history.
When I got to Paris last December, he was going out of his mind with anger, fear, and grief. And because I had been away for 6 years, stuck in the US as a result of major depressive disorder and resulting hardship, he was mad at me.
Not only did he feel I had abandoned him but he was also convinced I’d walk away from him for good once my stay was over.
As a result, he complained incessantly about everything, yelled at me frequently, and reduced me to tears a couple of times.
My father’s pent up frustration desperately needed an outlet and I provided it.
In a roundabout way this gave my stepmom a break because he snipes at her a lot too so I became a buffer between them.
And yet, she and I know this man isn’t the man we both love but a human in the throes of the worst distress imaginable and fighting daily to keep going. Sometimes, he acts out because he’s at the end of his tether and terrified of losing her.
My stepmom is the one with cancer but if my father could take it away from her and be sick in her place, he would. He has always been a sensitive man, keenly receptive to human pain, and will sometimes tear up at something on TV.
If I take the verbal abuse it’s because I know there’s no malice in it and I know it will eventually pass. After all, I am here to help.
When Dad finally understood this and I told him I was moving back to Europe until the end of the year, the vituperative vocalizing stopped for a while and he relaxed a little. The atmosphere at home became lighter and we started laughing a lot more, just as we always used to. My parents are very funny bons vivants, as evidenced by their extensive circle of friends.
Defiant optimism is what keeps my parents going. Dad might be a complainer true to France’s international reputation but he’s always run on bulletproof optimism.
That’s how he’s wired while my stepmom is a lot more pragmatic.
Her oncologist grasped this right away about Dad and has been emphasizing the positive, which is quite a feat in such a situation. Having a cheerleader like my father can make all the difference in how a patient faces the many indignities of cancer treatment.
As a result, the oncologist only discloses information on a need-to-know basis and my parents weren’t initially told how bad things were. When the second PET scan showed notable progress after chemo, he informed them the metastases on my stepmom’s skull were no longer visible.
My parents’ jaws dropped in surprise and relief because they had no idea about those metastases, they only knew about the ones on her pleurae and hips.
The oncologist’s goal is for my stepmom to focus on leading as normal and as stable a life as possible without ever losing hope.
Adversity has forced us all to step up.
It was a cosmic wake-up call that rattled my chronic depressive brain.
Having someone other than my person to focus on meant the illness has taken a back seat even though it still throws me for a loop on a regular basis. But every time it does, I shoo it away as I need to remain functional for my father and stepmom.
She made me promise I’d be there for him.
This is how love expresses itself in our family; we hold one another’s hand.
While my stepmom’s future isn’t great and I’ve read too many medical journals to pin my hopes on her bucking the trend, we can make sure her present is as full of love, pleasant, interesting, and fun as can be. Even when she’s too weak to go out, there’s always something we can do.
Apathy and inertia are the enemies of optimism. For example, it would have been so easy to give up the moment the diagnosis hit and surrender. Some people do and die shortly thereafter as a result, despite treatment. But we’re all as stubborn as one another.
This, too, is how love expresses itself in our family; we don’t quit, we don’t relent, we forge ahead.
Our optimism isn’t delusional, we nurture it with myriad tiny actions every day and we make sure to always celebrate small victories. Our optimism is mindful confidence; we trust that things are as OK as can be under the circumstances and we’re grateful for every moment.
And when you have optimism on your side, going through the motions even when the situation is heartbreaking and painful becomes a lot easier.
Whatever the nature of the difficulties you may be facing, take stock of all the goodness in your life and do something, no matter how small. Then do something again tomorrow, and the day after that.
Action keeps you going and eventually you’ll realize your mindset has changed and you’re a lot more grounded and confident, sometimes against all odds.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.