Getting it

So, clearly getting a serious cancer diagnosis that can’t be cured is a bit of a mind fuck. You start thinking about your mortality, your legacy even, what it means to be alive and *gasp,* not alive. It’s scary stuff.

What is also scary is how those around you react. A slight downturn of the mouth, a softening of the eyes, a furrowing of the brow when they look at you. For some, your illness serves as a reminder of their own mortality, that someone in their age bracket could be facing something so dire. For others, it may bring up past trauma. For still others, your illness galvanizes them to action. The reactions vary, with often the most unpredictable of results. A close friend from the past may find the whole experience, your experience, simply too much to grapple with, leaving you to add ‘manage Friend’s behavior’ to a growing list of tasks. An acquaintance may show up at your door, bearing a homemade cake and elevate their status to your inner circle in the span of one evening.

I was one of the first in my friend circles to lose a parent. I was 33 when my dad died of cancer. It all happened very fast and I think his experience informs mine, despite multiple doctors telling me about the differences in our diseases and the breakthroughs made in the last ten years. My father was 70 when he died, which felt way too young for me but not unheard of. Since that time, I have made more friends that have lost a parent, although the vast majority of my friends are still working with a two-parent system. When you suffer your first loss-of a parent, a sibling, a close friend-that loss ultimately informs how you respond to others. I can tell rather quickly who has been dealt such a loss by how they respond to my circumstance. You are newly initiated into a club you were not looking to join, but once a member, the club’s bylaws somehow seep into your consciousness, influencing more of your life than management of your loss. It is not by design, it just is. You may still make mistakes in comforting others, it is certainly not a map of another’s emotions nor is it a handbook of what one might need at the moment. But I think it helps avoid some of the pitfalls. If you look at me straight on, I immediately sense you get it. Maybe not in the exact same way, maybe not even in a remotely similar way, but that underlying “it” that became a part of my heart when my dad died recognizes a piece of itself in you.

I hope I have more opportunities to be there for other people in their time of need. For the last few years, the focus has been on me and my health issues (and that of my mom, because why not get diagnosed with cancer at the same time as your mom?). I’m certainly not wishing loss on those around me but I’m more hoping to return the favor. Because when someone gets it, it can make all the difference.

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Michelle T

Sometimes funny lawyer-writer person battling breast cancer in NYC