Inside Access Into Tough Spots

14 Dec

“You aren’t allowed to think negatively!” F said.  “Right now, he needs us to be strong and supportive and incredibly upbeat.  You cannot cry, you cannot despair, you must be tough. Do you understand?”

My plan had backfired.  When I learned my favorite coworker was diagnosed with cancer, I fled to my friend’s office, he who is the REAL favorite of my favorite.  I thought we could commiserate together.  Actually, I’m not sure what I thought.  Except that I didn’t expect to be talked at this firmly.  F spoke to me like I was one of his Southie friends growing up in the tougher parts of Boston, or like I was one of his comrades during his many military tours in the Middle East.

I was resolute after that. I would be tough but caring, determined but concerned.

Two weeks later, my favorite employee was in my office, Christmas gifts in hand, to tell me he was taking an extended leave of absence to fight the cancer.  I know it is the right thing for him and for his family.  I tried to be resolute and positive and talk about “when he comes back to work” although I am not sure if he ever will.  I thanked him for the gifts, I thanked him for the joy he’s brought me these past few years, I was cheery and upbeat.  Then he said “I really am going to miss you, Liz” and I nearly cried.

How does one handle goodbyes when you don’t know if it is goodbye for a month or goodbye forever?  Goodbyes in general, are something I am terrible at.  The word itself gives me a pit the shape of a clenched fist in my stomach.  But I didn’t cry, I didn’t despair, I was tough.  And I started praying.

That was Monday.

On Tuesday, F was in my office.  He is very sick and the treatments have not cured him.  And the treatments have reached the maximum allowed by the FDA.  Its time to venture down that scary road of alternative medicine – scary both because it is not covered by medical insurance and because there is no guarantee that you won’t be causing yourself more harm.  But it is not right for someone to be in this much pain.  For a guy my age, who has built a beautiful house with his own two hands to now lose all feeling in his hands for days on end.  For a guy my age who served our country for years and finds his worth in doing his job to be unable to move from his bed for days on end.

And when doctors begin saying “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go from here” and you have to take your medical journey and a legal battle into your own hands and there is no guarantee that you get the Reader’s Digest “miracle recovery because I fought” story and, even if you do, it will not be delightfully condensed, well, at that moments, it is hard to stay tough.

Watching men cry is horrible.  Watching men try their best to not cry is even worse. I don’t like seeing pain.  I don’t like seeing fear of a lifetime of pain.  It’s hard for my mind (this person is at the end of his rope, in extreme pain, and needs help) to take over from my eyes (he looks just as strong and athletic and tough as ever).  It’s hard to imagine the guy who has always promised to beat the crap out of anyone who even looks at me funny (and trust me, no one messes with a Dorchester boy!) unable to make his hands grasp objects, unable to get up from a sitting position, unable to eat.

At the end of our discussion, as we both neatly lined up our action items and prepared for the next stage of this fight, he said “I’m so proud of how tough you are being.”  And I said, “Well, someone once told me, only two weeks ago, that I am not allowed to think negatively.  That right now I need to be strong and supportive and incredibly upbeat.  I cannot cry, I cannot despair, I must be tough.”

“That person sounds like a badass” he said.

“I used to think that,” I said. “Now I understand that person was in a unique place to know exactly how our favorite person wanted to be treated because he knew how he himself needed to be treated.  Badass or not, if you need me to be the positive to counteract the negative in your mind, I can do that.”

And that is why my job stays with me, even when shopping in The Container Store and buying root vegetables at Roche Bros.  Because I get trusted with inside access into people’s tough spots.  And that is why my job stays with me, especially at night when I sometimes lay awake praying.  Because I have a responsibility to these people.

When I was three, and my Mom was sick, my brother was quick to offer help and comfort and words of concern.  Me, not so much.  As I walked across the living room, I am fairly certain I didn’t stop, didn’t speak, didn’t even look at my Mom.  But I did hurl my favorite possession, my blankie, at her.  Which I believe was a fairly classic-inarticulate-child-Liz way of saying “I don’t know what to say and this whole situation makes me feel uncomfortable but I do care enough to want to share my most prized possession with you.  Maybe it will make you feel better.”

Weeks like this make me wish I had a collection of blankies to throw.  Instead, I will share my adult-prized-possessions: time and energy and toughness and prayer.  It will have to be enough.



One Response to “Inside Access Into Tough Spots”

  1. Bridget December 14, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    beautifully written. I’m praying for your favorites as well.

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