Last Saturday (February 21) I took my next door neighbor, recently diagnosed with cancer, to The Wellness Community in Redondo Beach for a morning of guided journal writing. I had taken a writing workshop with the leader just a few weeks before so I figured this was a good time to introduce my neighbor to TWC and to be in a safe writing space. I hadn't been to the facility for quite some time but knew it well -- as its first Development Director and then member of the Board of Directors.
Little did I know what a confront the session would be for me.
The leader designed the workshop for cancer patients and their families, and since I'm not either, my first thought was I need to get out of here -- and fast. The morning looked like it was going to be way more heavy than I was prepared for. Plus the writing prompts came on fast and furiously -- we wrote five minutes on eight different topics.
But, I stuck it out -- I wrote a little bit about cancer in my life, but mostly about how I was affected by my son's mental illness and death. I was able to turn the prompts around as they related to my life. Here's some samples:
2. What I’ve learned or not Learned from Being Around Cancer
My brother, the guy I always looked up to, the guy who was my role model, was diagnosed with lung cancer in the late 1980s. in those days lung cancer was a death sentence – less than 10% survival rate. But, after the doctors took part of his lung my brother was pronounced cancer free, and he went on his way. Well, you guessed it. The doctors were wrong and the less than two years later the cancer recurred and this time it was inoperable. Still he wasn’t daunted. He took the heavy doses of radiation and experimental interferon for a year, all the while working full time and doing the traveling his job required. He never gave up. He never believed the cancer would kill him. He never thought the doctors would find anything wrong at any of his 6-month check ups. And, he was right. He lived for 20 years after his diagnosis. His optimism was my lesson.
4. Having Gone Through Hell or Going Though Hell
it was just an ordinary morning. I wasn’t working full-time then, so I lazed around in bed ready the paper. Then I went down to the laundry room to fold some clotheres. The door to the bathroom – next to the laundry room – was closed, and I thought Paul was in there getting ready for work. But 20 minutes later I realized there was no sound coming from in there. I looked in his room. It was empty and dark. I looked in the garage, and his car was still there. I was too nervous to try the bathroom door, so with my heart beating so hard I felt it would break my chest, I went upstairs to tell my husband that something was very wrong downstairs. He went down and called out to Paul. Paul, open the door. Nothing. No answer. He tried the bathroom door. It was locked so he went to the garage and got a screwdriver to open it. Bob opened the door and went inside, closing the door quickly behind him. I waited on the stairs. Bob came out. His face was red, his body was shaking. He took me in his arms. Paul is dead, he said. Call 911.
6. What Has Been Lost/Found in My Life
It’s interesting how a loss can turn out to be a gift. When my son died I thought it was all over, that I had nothing more to live for. Not even my husband or surviving son made me feel like going on. Then I found writing and used it as a way to get my feelings and story out. I found empathetic teachers and listeners who never told me stop with all the gory details already. I found the gift of writing and its healing quality after the loss of my son.
8. What Music Helps Me
The Dixie Chicks – their openness and optimism and the proof that girls can make it
Neil Young – he has a soothing voice and his old guitar
Barbara Streisand – the singer I grew up with, she brings back good memories of Broadway tunes that I used to know by heart
Leonard Cohen – his poetry inspires
Some more old friends, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez – they give me hope that there is life after 60
Songs to walk and exercise with from Billy Joel, the opera, Italian lessons, Enya – it just depends on my mood
But, I avoid jazz. It brings back too much sadness and memories of Paul, my lost jazzman.
So, it goes to show -- take every opportunity to write your story. You never know how it will turn out. Plus, my neighbor did some pretty good writing too.