Thursday, May 14, 2009

An Encounter

I took the dogs to the Woodland Park off-leash area after my Gyrotonic today, before leaving them at home while I went to my infusion. When I arrived at the park, the parking area was practically empty, just two other cars along the road. I usually park under the trees at the east end of the strip, but for some reason, today I drove on. I almost pulled in one other time, then finally brought my car to rest about 4 feet to the west of the second car in the lot, a rather nondescript blue sedan.

I glanced over at it as I put on the brake and turned off my lights, and noticed first that the man sitting in the passenger seat with the window down was black and wearing a white do-rag, and that the woman behind the wheel was also black (not the minority normally seen at Woodland Park). I then noticed that they did not have a dog. I am embarrassed to admit that my reflex response was fear and concern that my car would be a target when I took my dogs in to play. I told myself I was being racist, though, and stepped out of the car.

I caught the man's eye as I was grabbing the handle of the back door, to change from my wool clogs into my rubber park boots, and I said "Hello." He said hello back.

I pulled a boot out of the car, and, balancing on one foot, folded my pant leg around my ankle and stepped in.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" the man said.

"Sure," I replied, neutrally, glancing at him then reaching for my second boot.

"Do you have any experience with cancer?"

"Uh, yeah," I said, and pulled off my hat, revealing my chemo-calico peach fuzz.

"Because I just found out yesterday that I have pancreatic cancer."

He paused, and I put my boot back in the car and turned to face him. "I am so sorry," I said.

"I'm only 35 years old," he went on, "and I don't know what to do. There's just me, and my fiancée, and, I just don't know. Can you tell me anything, give me any advice, help me? I'm sorry to ask, I just . . ."

I could see the naked fear in his face, and the tears of the woman in the shadow past him in the car, and I thought what can I say? What have I distilled over the last 10 years that could offer some comfort to this man?

"Well," I said, "I've been dealing with this off and on for ten years now, since I was 26, so it no longer feels like a death sentence to me. I've lived with it, so I know I can live with it, and it's taken me a long time to get here, but for the most part now I can accept it." I thought about it for a minute. "One thing that helps is to stay in the moment. I know," I said, "that telling you not to worry is pointless." He nodded a little. "But worry doesn't do any good, because all we know is this moment, right now. This moment, the people we love, the trees here, life, that's all we have: right now. So when you do find yourself caught up in worry, stop and remember to be here, now."

"Yes," he said, "when I was 25 I didn't think about it at all, but now I feel like all my life is made up of moments, that I need to hold on to."

"Exactly. So take a deep breath and remember: 'I am here. These people love me and I love them. This is a beautiful world.'" I looked around at the light filtering through the trees, and was glad that they'd chosen this place to sit together and talk. "Another thing I've learned, I guess, is this," I went on. "Everyone has something hard that they have to do. We all have a struggle. We all have things like this cancer, and we can't know, really know, how anyone else is feeling about their hard things. There's no point in being jealous, or angry, because we all have something. Not to say that I'm not ever angry—I was, a lot, and I still am sometimes. I don't know," I continued, "if this cancer is going to kill me. Something will, and it may be this. But I don't have any control over it."

"I know!" he said. "I've been in bad situations, in gunfights, I mean, really bad situations, and I never felt like this, like it was this bad!"

"I know," I said, agreeing wholeheartedly. "You have absolutely no control over this, and it's scary!"

"Yeah, it is. It is."

"I'm not religious at all, but the last few years at least I've been thinking a lot about my spirituality," I said slowly. He nodded for me to go on. "I've come to think that there is a reason, or a purpose perhaps, for everything we experience--but that we, with our limited view, just don't have the perspective to know what that purpose is. We're too intimately involved in living our lives to step back and figure out why things are happening, what we're supposed to learn from them. We do learn, though, simply by living through the events. And we need to trust that what we have to deal with is only what we need, and only what we can handle."

As I stood there thinking of what else I could possibly share with him to help, I remembered something I'd read in a book by Malcolm Gladwell, several months ago, about class differences in talking to doctors. Basically, upper middle class parents encouraged their children, from early on, to feel comfortable asking their doctors any questions that they might have. Minorities and poorer mothers, though (usually the mothers in those families), taught their children that doctors were authority figures who should be respected without question. This man has so many strikes against him already—socially, as well as having virulent pancreatic cancer—that I wanted to try and give him as many tools as possible.

"When you talk to your doctors and nurses," I said, "don't be shy about asking lots of questions."


"When I first started out, I thought 'Gosh, my doctor's from Harvard! He must know everything!', but the thing is, even the best, smartest, most dedicated, nicest doctor, is not you. Only you are an expert on you. You must look out for yourself. Ask questions, ask for what you need. You can keep track of you—they are all keeping track of lots and lots of people."

"I knew something was up yesterday when, all of a sudden, the nurses started being really nice, like 'is your blanket warm enough?' and 'can I bring you some water?'"

"Yeah," I said, "I know. But they are nice, and they do care about you. One last thing, I guess, would be this. Trust the people around you. Trust their love. Allow them to help you. Allow them to show you their love."

"Okay, I will. I will do that." He reached out and we shook hands.

His fiancée leaned closer to the window and nodded, tears on her cheeks.

"Thank you," he said, and I smiled and went to get my dogs.

They were still there in the car when we got back, and after I put the dogs away, I noticed that his window was still open. "One more thing," I said. "Do some visualization. When you go to bed at night, picture yourself surrounded by light, being supported by light." He nodded. "We're all part of one thing here," I said, somewhat clumsily. "We're all made up of the same atoms. So picture yourself as a part of that greater whole, not alone, but cradled in light. It helps me."

"Thank you so much," he said, then, "Thank you for parking there."

No, thank you, Universe, for allowing me the great privilege to help someone begin his own healing.


Anonymous said...

Umm, hard to be productive at work when blinded by tears. Thanks for sharing that experience.

allyson said...

wow. what an amazing experience. The universe really does work in incredible ways. Thank you for sharing.

threedee71 said...

Truly amazing, Calin. Thank you so much for relating this story. And yeah, for making me cry at work. But mostly for the story. :)

Recorder Joe said...

Living about 1/2 mile from that park and seated between you and the gentleman in the parking lot (my wife is 1/2 way through chemo for her breast cancer therapy) I find myself on equal footing between you both.
His fear is palpable. Your wisdom is within reach.
Thank you for the brief recounting...and for getting over your fear and helping him with his.
Really wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Calin, well done. Well done. Bravo. Thank goodness you parked there.