The gong

“Hi, how are you?”  This is a disarming question for me right now.  I’m scared that people are going to ask me how I am, because I can barely keep it together.  It is hard for me to casually say that I am fine.  My mind answers first: “Terrible.  Mayday!  [Expletive, expletive.]  This woman needs a hug!!!!”  But my voice, only slightly high, says, “fine” with just a bit of a waiver, and “how are you?”  Because that is what we are supposed to do.  It’s an automatic response to a polite question.  But it feels robotic, when you don’t mean it.  Like a boilerplate interaction.  Disingenuous and small.

When we get bad news, that shakes us to the core such that our bones reverberate like a struck gong, we are still but a small part of the system of life.  Unless we tell people what is happening, they are excluded from our pain and emotional turmoil.  And if we do tell them, there is a mixed reaction because the news does not pierce them in the heart in the same way that it does for us.  They are removed from the situation and the source of emotion.

Many people have empathy, but that can only extend so far.  Some people’s empathy is limited to their own personal experience and situation; if they cannot relate your situation to something in their own life, they cannot empathize.  But some people’s empathy can allow them to be in your shoes and feel your pain.  I have the latter type of empathy, and to a certain degree, it completely sucks.  If I allow it, I cannot separate myself from a loved one’s pain.  I suffer for what they are feeling and bear some of their particular situation on my shoulders because I can see it weighing them down.  But there’s not much that I can do to help, and so I merely support.  I am not able to do more.  The role of support is beyond invaluable, but empathy and love can create a yearning to contribute in excess of one’s ability.  It’s frustrating and makes me feel powerless.

A common thing that people told me in the first 24 hours after I heard the news is that they wished that they could do something to help.  I responded simply: me too.  I wish I could do something to help.  I wish I could do something to reverse the situation.  I wish that the doctors were wrong, and her cancer stayed gone.  But deep down, I knew this would happen at some point.  My empathy puts me in her place and I experience fear, denial, anger, and hurt.  But I also selfishly feel my own pain in response to the situation and how it will affect me, and my life.  Even though I anticipated this news, my heart is breaking, and my thoughts and emotions are shards of sharp glass scattering in all directions.  I feel that I should avoid them, because much like broken slivers of a mirror, they will hurt me if I acknowledge and handle them, but the shattered fragments inescapably cut into my consciousness.

I’d known for a little over 24 hours when my brother called to check on me.  And when he asked me how I was, I didn’t lose my shit, but it was close.  He said that he was having a hard time too, but that we needed to be strong for the team.  After we hung up, I couldn’t get that out of my head.  And it upset me.  Because it was true.  But I wasn’t there yet.  I was still torn between trying to bury my feelings so I could have some semblance of meeting my daily responsibilities, and randomly crying.  I took deep breaths that somehow felt shallow.  And, of course, I frequently hugged my dog, who was very confused but happy for the extra attention.

I’m not ok, but I have to get my feet under me and keep walking.  If I can’t support myself, how can I help support anyone or anything else?  I plan to use my time at the beach, and my solitude, to get my head on straight.  To put on my game face, and prepare to face a struggle which only she can fight but which echoes through our family.  We can’t unbang the gong, but hopefully we can at least muffle the aftermath of its crash by facing and dealing with its effects.  One second, one minute, one hour, and one day at a time.

I sound like I have it together.  But, I’m lying.  I haven’t figured it out at all.

– Your huckleberry

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