D is for…diagnosis

Watching dad fade away was one of the most horrific things I’ve endured….and I’ve had a few!

It’s 2005. I’m living down in Tasmania working as the State Youth Director for the Baptist churches.  I’ve been delivering leadership and development training to an amazing group of young adults and preparing for a state youth camp. 10 years on and it seems like a blur, but this is vaguely how I recall things unfolding.

Unbeknownst to me my youngest brother and dad were scheduled to fly from Melbourne to surprise me for my birthday.  The fact that dad was going to go out of his way was significant in itself. Since the age of 12 dad had never been a regular part of my life. There’d been numerous disappointments, broken promises, seeming disinterest and times I’d wanted to disown him.  Thankfully over our adult years we’d talked openly, robustly about life choices, failure, feelings and forgiveness and established a healthy adult-to-adult relationship. Dad was no saint, but we’d buried the past. For that I’m forever thankful.

The news came through from my brother: “Dad’s had a seizure, had a fall, and they’ve identified that he’s got a brain tumour.” A million thoughts raced through my mind. Memories flashed before my eyes.

I put in motion to handover the running of the camp to my volunteer leaders – all now professionals of influence in their respective spheres – one  a minister, another a Clinical Psychologist, the other a state manager for a cancer-related organisation; and promptly flew to Melbourne.  As I sat with dad and his partner I learnt the enormity of his grade 4 inoperable cancer. The air was thick as we sat on that bench in the foyer of the Austin hospital.

We talked openly, shedding many tears as we awaited his exploratory surgery, having been warned that any brain surgery was risky. They weren’t hopeful of being able to access the primary tumour, lodged between the two hemispheres of his brain. I recall vividly dad’s comments that he loved me and was proud of me – one of the few times I’d heard him say so. What mattered now wasn’t what had happened, what mattered now was what mattered.

The post-op diagnosis was ambiguous. There was simply no way of knowing how long he had. Radiation treatment began and for months we endured the 6 weekly meetings with his oncologist to find out the latest MRI results.  Each visit brought its own anxiety and apprehension. Result updates were pushed out to every 3 months until…until the day dad had another fall and another hit to the head.  This time however his ocassional respite hospital visits became a permanent bed. He’d had a stroke and this time wasn’t going home. The next couple of years were horrible watching his slow decline.

Before this we’d talked almost daily on the phone and caught up in person often several times a week. Most memorable to me was the time he rang me as I’m sitting on a 12 seater tour bus travelling beside the Dead Sea in Israel. “Dad, what are you doing? This is going to cost you a fortune!” His reply, “I don’t care, I want to see how my son is.”  Dad knew that when I returned from this month long trip I was returning to an unknown future; we both knew my marriage was over and that life would change forever. Neither of us could foresee how big a change that time would reveal.

The day I discovered dad’s body I’d had this overwhelming urgency that I needed to go and see dad. I’d loaded my sons into the car having dealt patiently with frustrations of boisterous delays. Normally we’d meander through the nursing home that dad had lived in for the past few years, but for some unexplainable reason I’d suggested the boys wait in the car this time. I think deep down I knew.

I walked into the room to see a sight not unfamiliar to me. I remember being thankful that I’d been the one to find him. Relieved it wasn’t any of my siblings and glad it wasn’t his wife. I didn’t want them to see him like this. I could cope.  I’d conducted funerals, and seen death up close on many occasions. But this was different, this was my dad. And now dad was dead.

I know I was relieved in that moment, thankful his suffering was over. Seeing someone you love fade away is horrible. I remember one time I’d sat with dad for about half-an-hour. The TV was on some random channel and we’d sat in silence, he was no longer communicative; hadn’t been for a long time. As I leant over to say goodbye I said “Dad, I’m so sorry that life is like this for you.” With a clarity not seen for months and months his eyes fixed on mine and he mumbled “It’s horrible isn’t it.” He knew precisely what was going on and I will never forget that look he gave me. It was as if his soul spoke to mine.

Saying goodbye to dad was deeply personal and I won’t go into the full depths of this. Divorce, disease, death – it’s common to our humanity.  How we deal with these heart-breaks not only testifies to our own resilience and capacity, it showcases our values.

I’ve read that the top 5 regrets of the dying are:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends;
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I find it valuable to check-in on these 5 really important values every so often, you might also. Or perhaps you have some other values to tune-into life. ,

I now wear dad’s signet ring, something he’d pledged to me for my 21st. The day his wife handed it over to me saying “This belongs to you and your dad wanted me to promise it would be the first thing I’d give you.”  I balled my eyes out!  It’s a symbolic reminder of all that transpired.

It’s important to have closure; it’s good to have hope for a better future; and it’s good to remember how we got to be where we are and who’s played a part in shaping us. What mattered now wasn’t what had happened, what mattered now was what mattered.

Living in the moment is way too important to simply let happen. Living in the moment requires intentionality and decisions that reflect our values.  What matters to you?

D…is for damn, where does time go?

Confession and explanation time, particularly to those who have graciously chosen to follow my blog.

I’m new to this, and oddly I feel conflicted between wanting to blog in order to somehow offer something of value to you the reader, partly to disseminate so many of my random musings and eclectic (some say extensive) experience(s) – and feeling bad (a false guilt thing going on) because I strangely feel like I’m letting you down (whoever you are); and at the same time knowing that it’s been a somewhat busy season of life and finding time to write consistently on top of work, study – and the deadlines for assessments, running a home, juggling shared parenting, coaching my eldest sons basketball team, trying to keep up with friends who are likewise juggling and balancing life’s often competing demands; and so telling myself that I can’t do everything…and that’s ok!

There are times & seasons in life when cutting myself some slack is important (for those who know anything about being a first born, a Leo (if you’re into that sort of thing), with an over-developed sense of responsibility and an ever-unfolding, but still ever-present perfectionist streak, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

So, I’m back. I’ve completed the last of my assessments for my semesters study (woohoo!!) and now have some head and time space to catch up on my blogging.

Before I do get back into it and pick up on my previous blog…in my travels I’ve met some incredible people over the past month or so.

I met one woman who spoke about hope in the midst of a battle zone.  She was a Palestinian Christian living in East Jerusalem. She was inspiring and full of laughter as she spoke about what life is really like without citizenship, living under suspicion and constant conflict.  But I was saddened when I asked her how she was going to go transitioning back into ‘home’ after travelling Australia.

After her 4 weeks here, she said I was the only person who’d asked how she was, and was going to cope.  Way too often, people are seen for what we can get from them, including guest speakers, and we de-humanise them into a commodity and our interactions become transactional, often without intending to and realising that’s what we are doing.  I’ve worked in public non-for-profit education/awareness/fundraising roles for over a decade and know the delicate tightrope of this dynamic.

I met an incredibly vibrant young woman working in the medical field.  As we chatted over coffee (ironically she doesn’t normally drink coffee and this 5pm catch up kept her up until after 3am…for those avid coffee drinkers, what an amateur! lol – we did laugh about it!) she told me a story that nearly flawed me. I wasn’t expecting it and 2 weeks on find myself still reflecting on it.

She was diagnosed with cancer 5 yrs ago, a rare cancer. As she shared a little of her struggle through chemo, including how her cat would sit on her lap while spending hours on the toilet throwing up (and now gets ticked off when toilet breaks aren’t nearly as long!); and it reminded me of way too many people (including my own dad) I know who’ve battled the many murderous malicious and bastard strains of cancer – if you haven’t picked it up, I hate it!  But this woman, her courage, her tenacity, she was, no, is inspiring. Her goal whilst receiving treatment came to her through a picture, she would live to walk the New York Manhatten climb. She is well on her way to achieving this goal. She’s so aware that she’s been gifted a new lease on life, but she needed a goal, a reason, to help navigate the darker days.

There’s a saying that I love “Shit happens, keep living anyway”. Finding hope is so important in the face of adversity.  Having something, or someone, to pull you through the dark night of the soul (keep an eye out for an upcoming blog on this) is critical to simply surviving times of trauma, tragedy, and even terror.

The final conversation was one with a church leader, a pastor.  Someone I’ve known for years who recently has gone through his own dark patch. He inspires me because of his perseverance, patience and prayerful disposition in dealing with difficult (massive understatement!) people and political dynamics in which he works – I question whether I would be as tolerant. As we chatted he made a couple of remarks that both saddened and amused me.  The first was this: “I don’t see the point in counselling, always talking about things of the past, just get on with life.” And yet he recognised that at this point, for reasons he couldn’t identify, he was stuck. The second comment came immediately after: “But funnily enough perhaps I should see you.” The irony wasn’t lost on me.

As someone undertaking a Masters in Clinical Counselling this was encouraging, but not a new thing. I’ve had people make similar comments over the years in all sorts of different contexts. In a recent essay I referred to research that showed that most people don’t have a friend that will sit and listen to them for any more than 20 minutes. Having a listening ear, someone to share life with, who genuinely takes an interest and tunes in is a rare thing. I hope that you have someone who listens to you.

When (not if, I assume most people have had to deal with something) you’ve had your own battles with life, what have you found has got you through?

This week is brought to you by the letter D….

D is for…Doctor: I’ve just walked out of a conference looking at the issues of resilience and healthy longevity.  More specifically, in terms of dealing with stress and looking at the impact on biological functioning and its subsequent impact on emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.

Our presenters, Dr Allan and Helen Meyer, shared openly about some of their own struggles and gave glimpses of personal and leadership challenges and the subsequent insights they’ve learnt and have shaped much of their work with Lifekeys and other resources they produce.

The guts of what Allan shared was based around the following points.

  • 4 major impactors on the Limbic system (with emphasis on the impact due to work related dynamics):
  1. Stress
  2. Fear / bullying
  3. Feelings of inadequacy
  4. Not wanting to disappoint
  • Effects of chronic stress:
  1. Depleted endorphins (physical pain)
  2. Depleted Serotonin (depression)
  3. Depleted Immune  (illness)
  4. Depleted  adrenaline (fatigue)
  5. Dysregulated dopamine (anhedonia)
  6. Depleted benzos (anxiety)

As our table discussed the impact of some of these realities and how we managed our own wellbeing, an older wise man shared the following quote from Henri Nouwen:

Anger is the emotional response to the experience of being deprived.

This resonated as I’m aware of feeling deprived across many important arenas of my life at present. This sparked for me several thoughts. The scariest of these was recognising that as I went through the above lists I could go tick for nearly all of them and see how over recent months my own capacity was being diminished across most of these bodily functions, both in part to cumulative work/life balance pressures, but largely due to triggers related to shared parenting issues that I’d not had to deal with for some 7 years.

Over the next few blogs I’ll unpack some of these thoughts and my experiences around…

  • D is for…diagnosis.
  • D is for…disappointment.
  • D is for…depression.
  • D is for…dirty grief.

For now, I’ll finish with…

D is for…disclaimer: I’ve been grappling over recent weeks how much I self-disclose through this medium.  I’m consistently told I have much to offer, partly because of what I’ve been through, and partly the subsequent insights this has given me.  Not that I think my experience and insights are especially unique per se, but I do recognise that I may be able to give voice on some topics that may assist others.

Part of my grapple is recognising that my professional, parenting and personal worlds overlap and I’m mindful that whilst I need to be able to give voice to my own experiences, I also need to do so in a way that respects various relationships, most importantly that with my two sons.  I will seek to hold these in tension ensuring I don’t disclose anything that may create difficulties for them or that I may feel concerned about them reading.