Strange Gifts

My handsome sweet smart 44 year old history professor brother of mine gave us all a scare this past weekend.  He had a stroke.  Actually, he had two strokes.  They were small and he is alive, thank god, but a bit shaken.  We all are!  The doctor’s believe a blood clot was released from his heart, blocking the blood flow and cutting off oxygen to his brain.  To confirm, they are putting him through all kinds of tests to find out exactly why such a young and apparently healthy guy (he hikes the Grand Canyon once a year for god sake) had a stroke.

Eric hiking the Grand Canyon

That was Saturday.  Today, he is at home, coherent but tired, nursing a horrible headache.  While on the phone with him earlier, I asked him how he is feeling.  He said, slurring his words a bit, “His head feels like someone hit him with a baseball bat.”   He is unsure whether the pain is from the stroke, or the concussion he got as a result of falling and hitting his head; on what, he does not know.  There is currently some blood on his brain due to the fall so he cannot take any blood thinners until he stops bleeding.  Anticoagulants are prescribed to prevent another stroke.  I think this worried him a bit but he seemed most worried about his kiddos, his work and the fact that the doctor said no driving for three months.  Or, maybe I was the one that worried most about this last fact.

Even after all the tests, they still do not know “why.”  His cholesterol is good, his blood pressure good, he is not overweight and although he enjoys his green chile burritos and occasional martinis, he is in good health.  Statistically, about 30% of young stroke victims never learn the reason why.  I hope the tests will give him an answer.  I truly do.  It is horribly difficult to live with a disease or trauma of some sort, without knowing the “why.”  You can speculate till kingdom come, and yet, the lack of answers will still haunt you.

Why me?  Why now?  Why this?  Why that? Why? Why? Why?

I asked myself that a thousand times since I was first diagnosed with cancer.  I still don’t have an answer.

But this ambiguity can be turned into something very positive and meaningful, I have found.

Take Elie Wiesel for example.   When Elie was a teenager in Transylvania in 1944, he and his entire family were taken in the middle of the night to the Auschwitz concentration camp.   In his powerful and terrifying narrative, Night, Elie writes, “There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text.  I am not convinced.  I don’t know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself.  A miracle?  Certainly not.  If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself?  It was nothing more than chance.  However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival.”

I so get this.

Why did Eric have a stroke?  I have no idea why.  Why did I get cancer?  I don’t know that either.  Was it my dense breasts or because I started my period when I was very young?  Was it the birth control pills, my 10 lb. babies, not enough vegetables, bad genes, lack of Vitamin D, chocolate covered almonds, Sam Adams, deodorant, that damn black bra with the underwire, stress, negative thoughts, polluted air, or acid rain?  Was it fate?  Did I have a lesson to learn?  The list goes on and on and on.  It’s exhausting.

Again, I don’t have an answer.  But, I do know, it was not useless.  I know that much for sure.  Why?  Because I gave it meaning, my own meaning perhaps, but meaning. And, so will Eric.  Joseph Campbell explains it this way:

“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be…”

And how does one do that?  How does one ascribe meaning to something so horrible, so difficult, so… Well, if Elie did it, I certainly can.  I can’t profess to know what Elie did to give meaning to surviving that terrible night at Auschwitz or his stay at Buchenwald.  But I can guess that his writing helped him profusely.  I can also guess that his writing was just one piece of a very intricate puzzle.  Although my cancer cannot in any way be compared to what Elie went through, my experience has helped me learn a few things along the way.

First of all, I have learned to look at difficult events that happen in my life from a different perspective.  Shining a new light on things, I have come to understand that trauma, difficulty, pain or suffering can be a gift if you choose to see it from a more meaningful viewpoint.   Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t wish cancer or a stroke or a concentration camp on anyone.  There was no “Woohoo, Eric had a stroke, he is one lucky dude!”  It’s not that kind of gift.

No, when I first heard that Eric had a stroke, I was devastated.  I was shocked, I cried and I was scared.  But, I am optimistic and have full trust in his “kicking ass” capabilities.  I know he will turn it around and pull himself up from his manly bootstraps.  And, like me, I believe not only will his stroke open new doors and new paths full of fresh opportunities for him, it will close doors that lead to dead ends.  Therein lies the gift.

A nice big door opened to me at the Susan G. Komen Luncheon where I was a guest speaker! These lovelies are all breast cancer survivors!

Secondly, I have learned compassion at a much deeper level than before.  And this compassion has helped me to understand others so much more.   It seems to me that one needs to suffer to understand someone else’s suffering.  You know the whole “walk in my shoes” idiom.  When we see someone else feel the pain we felt, our hearts open to their pain.  We feel empathy.  Well, most of us do, anyway.   And this empathy, this compassion opens a whole new world of understanding, one where judgment, anger, bitterness and resentment no longer dwell.  One that is much more peaceful than before.

The Venerable Maha Ghosananda, Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia,explains this well.  He saw that to unify the nation of Cambodia, it was essential for Cambodians to put aside their anger for the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.  He described it like this:

“The suffering of Cambodia has been deep. From this suffering comes great compassion. Great compassion makes a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart makes a peaceful person. A peaceful person makes a peaceful family. A peaceful family makes a peaceful community. A peaceful community makes a peaceful nation. A peaceful nation makes a peaceful world”

Does it sound overly optimistic?  Maybe.   But simply believing that it is possible to have world peace brings extraordinary meaning to one’s life.  I know that it’s a work in progress.  I am a work in progress.  We are all a work in progress.  But, I have hope.

Do you know that when Elii first wrote Night, every single publisher turned him down?  They didn’t think anyone wanted to read a book so depressing.  Or, read a book written by a Jew.  That was years ago.  Things have changed.  Elie’s book is now read by students everywhere as a part of high school and college curriculum.  What do you think of world peace now?  Is it possible?  Maybe.

I do not know all the answers.  In fact, I never will.  But, I do know that my cancer, Eric’s stroke and the Holocaust were not by some obvious universal extraordinary numinous pre-planned design.  The Universe did not have a vendetta against me, or try to teach me some lesson.  Cancer just happened.  It sucks!

But since I did get it, I might as well turn it into something less “sucky,” more significant, more meaningful and maybe, just maybe, not only bring a little more compassion and peace to me, to my family, and to my community, maybe in my teeny weeney little way I can be a contributing factor to bringing more peace to the world.  A tall order?  Maybe.

Eric, what do you think?

2 Responses to “Strange Gifts”

  1. Angela Says:

    Lovely :)

  2. Clare Says:

    I am SO with you on this thought path. I cannot stand it when people say, “It was meant to be.” Or even worse, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” If so, then his plans suck! It is far more comforting to accept that horrible things just happen, rather than to feel that the cosmos intended to single me out for particular suffering, or that God wanted to use me. It is far more comforting to be the one in control of creating meaning and productivity out of an ordeal. I have a particular loathing for the “comforting” words in movies when something devastating has happened, and those who have not had to endure it pat the other on the back, saying, “It’s OK”, when it is clearly NOT. Drew will now hug me when I’m distressed and say soothingly, “It’s not OK, Mom, it’s not OK.”

    For what it’s worth, see if Eric was tested for Factor V clotting agent. It makes one more vulnerable to Deep Vein Thrombosis. My equally fit sister-in-law had a pulmonary embolism as a result of a DVT and was found to be positive for Factor V. It made us check Isabelle before her major chest surgery would immobilize her for 4 days and she is also positive, so they were able to take extra precautions against clotting. Have them check Eric’s kids, too, especially girls, because it will mean they should not use the pill and could mean they need extra care during pregnancies. That knowledge would really be one real gift to come out of this.

    Thinking of you

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