I asked a friend last week how she was doing. She answered that she was fine, and mentioned some things that were going on in her life. Then I asked how she was doing with "my story." A look of utter sorrow darkened her face, and her voice trailed off. I let it go at that, but a few days later, with some other close friends, I felt moved to bring the subject up again.
I care about the effect my illness is having on those closest to me. So on Monday night, as we hosted two of our closest friends for dinner, I asked them the same question. How are you processing what's happening to me? What has your journey been like? How do you choose to think about it? Suddenly, it was important to me to know the answers to these questions.
The first one I asked was our friend Deanna. The second was Nikki. Two women I've mentioned many times before in this blog. Both are members of what I call my Inner Circle. My wife and I have been close friends with both of them for at least 25 years.
Deanna started with her typical bluntness. "It sucks," she replied. It sucks having a friend who's gonna die of cancer. Nobody could argue with that.
She added that she can't conceive of a time when I won't be here. She just can't go there, so she tries not to think about it. But then I go and write a blog post and force her to think about it. So she feels the need to take breaks from reading my blog. It's just too much for her. But she always catches up later.
Nikki simply said that it doesn't seem real to her yet. This surprised me a bit, because she's been one of the most realistic of all of our friends regarding my prospects. But at the same time, she said that, since I still look and act like myself, and I can still greet her at the door, and we can still do the things we've always done when we get together, it hasn't hit home for her yet. When I can no longer come to the door when she rings the doorbell, and she has to come sit by my bed for us to visit, then it will all become real. Another loved one who's coping by choosing not to think about it, at least for now.
Then my wife chimed in. She said that, most of the time, she's fine. She's thankful for the time we have now, where I'm the Mark I've always been, and we can still do things we enjoy. But I also learned that she does sometimes allow the reality of all of this to overwhelm her. I've never seen that, so I asked her when that happens. She smiled and said, "When you're not here." She doesn't want to put that on me, so she saves her emotional outbursts for when I'm not around.
Since she's my wife, she doesn't get the luxury of escaping all of this by choosing not to think about it. Not very often, at least. It's too present in our everyday lives. But as much as we can, we go about our days as though nothing has changed.
I felt I should come full circle and give the first friend I asked a chance to give a real answer. She was the only one I asked who didn't know me before I had a terminal illness. For her, my condition has been a given from the start. So she seems more prepared for the eventual outcome than those for whom cancer is a recent development in our relationship.
I'm sure you've noticed that all of the friends I've asked these questions of have been women. My male friends tend not to be that introspective. If we are close, I may ask you these questions. I'll ask my family the next time I talk to them. But my Inner Circle is small. If you're one of those people, you know it, because I've told you. If I haven't asked you these questions yet, it's probably because I think I already know your answer. But it may also be that I don't think we're as close as you think we are. I hate to say that, but it's true.
There is one couple that I feel closer to than just about anyone on earth, but I probably will never ask these questions of them. They've made it very clear to me how they want to handle this, and I will honor their wishes. They are more in the "try not to think about it" camp.
I didn't ask any of my prostate cancer friends. They have their own stuff to deal with, and hopefully, their own inner circle to help them deal with it.
After hearing one after another of my friends say they prefer not to think about my cancer and its inevitable outcome, I understood more clearly the effect this blog must be having on them. They're trying to cope by putting my condition out of their minds as much as they can, and I keep reminding them of it. By doing so, I'm taking away their main coping mechanism. As soon as they manage to get a few days where they don't have to think about my travails too much, up pops another blog post. Another big red sign in front of their face.
I know this blog helps people. I know it helps me. It helps cancer patients and their loved ones not to feel alone. It educates people about what it's like to have this disease. And it's very therapeutic for me. But until Monday night, I didn't understand the effect it was having on those closest to me. My openness about all of this and my attitude about it may be inspiring to you, but it's troubling for those who see me often.
In spite of this, not one of these friends would ever tell me to stop writing it. They keep reading it, even though it causes them pain. They do it because they love and support me. They know it's my passion and my calling. What I write often bothers them, but they keep reading. They keep loving. They keep supporting. That's why they're my Inner Circle.
I hope you have an Inner Circle like I have. Actually, nobody has an Inner Circle like mine. All of these people are freakin' amazing. But your inner circle is going through your tough times along with you. So take a moment to ask them how what you're going through affects them. Ask them how they're processing it. You might be surprised how deeply your difficulty impacts those closest to you. When you're the cancer patient, it tends to be all about you. But it's our Inner Circle who often pays the highest price. #waroncancer #bearingwitness