I was well-taught by my mother in the precepts of courtesy. This is why, until today, I have felt increasingly guilty.
Monica and I have been receiving very encouraging and important-to-my-well-being, notes, cards, e-mails, letters and phone calls expressing wishes for my health and inquiring about our progress in addressing the cancer that is so much a part of our attention lately.
A family experience
I am particularly grateful for those notes that recognize that it is Monica and our children—far more than I, alone—who bear the weight of this disease. While I, as “the patient”, must contend with the physical, emotional and real consequences of being ill, my family and other loved-ones experience the same illness in ways that can always trump my personal challenges. It is because they possess the curiously human quality of “empathy”. Empathy, which is a “sharing in” or “living with” another person’s experience, seems inevitably to do so with a heightened intensity. In the case of illness, with greater regret, greater sensitivity, greater anger and greater objectivity… therefore, with greater experienced sorrow. Those messages that succeed in recognizing this reality are particularly appreciated. They reflect an understanding of how an illness can affect the dynamics within any family, and particularly within our family. They help me articulate an awareness that my illness is not, and can not be, in any sense, solitary or isolated. They help me realize I cannot be selfish about these received communications of encouragement that so assists me in dealing with my cancer. Properly speaking, each of these messages assist every one of us, Gryczes, in dealing with our collectively experienced cancer.
Several notes contain creative ways for friends to provide day-to-day respite, one of my favorites being an offer of occasional dog care or dog walking if we were unable to easily fit that into our schedules. In our case, our dog, Gracie, deserves such pampering. She is, herself, contributing a great deal to the recuperation from my Christmas operation. Gracie regularly sniffs and checks my bandages to make sure things are mending properly, and she reliably curls up warmly beside me when I take my afternoon (or at whatever time) naps. Despite the presence of cancer in our lives, Gracie is unabashed in expressing her exuberance for life in the moment. She reminds us all that we must revel in the same joy of life, however we might be experiencing it in the moment. She seems to be saying: “Life is always an amazing grace. Acknowledge it.”
Many notes express appreciation for what we (the author of the missive and we, ourselves) have enjoyed and experienced together. Such notes underscore that none of us live our lives in isolation (recall John Donne’s memorable line: “No man is an Island”, and the meditations of Thomas Merton on Donne’s pithy observation.) Reflecting on happy communal experiences is always a good antidote to the annoyingly necessary self-attention required by recuperation and self-aware health-care.
I can hear my mother’s admonition: “Each of these notes deserves an individual, personal acknowledgment and reply.”
For a while, I kept the correspondence (along with the enclosed prayer cards, bookmarks, Mass cards and other remembrances) in a pile, to answer them, properly, as my Mother taught (and, indeed, as I was inclined to do). Somewhere along the line, I realized I’d probably never get around to acknowledging them, individually. It made me feel a bit depressed to have drawn such an unworthy conclusion.
An honored place for blessings
On the delayed Christmas festivities our family joyously celebrated in the middle of January, this year, I received from Monica a precious gift. It is a beautifully-decorated, hand-plaited basket from Palestine which was described as a “blessing basket”. Into it, Monica had placed sample printouts from among the e-mails she and I had received over the past 18 months… ones that have done so much to buoy our spirits and have helped keep us in a state of emotional equilibrium, however delicate.
My “blessing basket” now rests in an honored place in our home. Today, I slipped into it, the cards and notes I had piled up to respond to, individually. All those prayers, thoughts and wishes represented by the scraps of paper are blessings, indeed. They are efficacious (I would dare say, essential) to healing. They are certainly required by us. They help us maintain a proper perception towards this stubborn illness. We are greatly indebted to the writers. We also appreciate, very much, the salutary effect we feel on receiving each of them.
A Spiritual two-way wormhole
There was a delightful “Frank and Ernest” cartoon on the comics page of our newspaper this week. Frank claimed that Ernest was living proof that Descarte’s maxim: “I think, therefore I am” is not reversible. (This is quite true; a truth to which (I can’t resist observing) our Congress almost daily distressingly attests.) Fortunately, its not true of our blessing basket. When our family recites Grace, or mumbles a prayer-in-passing, we now specifically include all those who are represented by our “blessing basket.” The blessings we’ve welcomed, thus rebound to all those who so kindly continue to bless us. Thank you! Know that you are blessed for your thoughtful graciousness and that, on “down days” we gratefully re-read them to regain our “good day” composure.