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At first she was untouched by my presence. The way cats often are. But gradually she allowed me into her world, greeting me with a meow and presenting her furry cheeks to me for a rub. When she spent one night on my bed, at my feet, I was ridiculously pleased. Then she moved up to my knees, then thighs, and finally the hollow of my arm. Right now she is lying with her head on my foot, the quiet purr in her throat vibrating through me. That purr is like a drug to me, creating waves of pure bliss.
The truth is, I need Kitty’s comforting presence in this house of death.
My mom has been rendered bedridden and virtually catatonic by the brain tumour stealing away her life, while my dad merely struggles from day to day in a bad-tempered daze, battling the colon cancer and chemo alike. I have seldom seen them united like this, both aiming for the end of life through terminal cancer. Strange.
On a public holiday like today, I am the primary caregiver. And I am exhausted before I have even started.
Yes, I need Kitty’s warmth and unconditional love.
For this job I really need to keep my sense of humour. Unfortunately, same said sense disappeared a long time ago, along with my energy. Evaporated. I am the eldest bitch daughter from hell. Not only am I the bitch, I am the one who does not cope anymore. The one who wants to howl like a wolf when I have to change my mom’s soiled diaper. The one who wants to fall into bed by seven in the evening. The one who drags herself through every day, simply wishing that it were all over. Humour? Long gone, baby.
The irony is that I so much want to be all Polyanna about this whole experience. I want to see this challenge through with beauty and courage, inspiring people, showing them that it
possible to live through the hell of your parents' cancer and create a beautiful experience from it. I am the one who always says, "Everything for a purpose," and "All is well." I am the one who says, "Thy will be done." But that's just half of me. The other half is human, and desperately fallible. I am Janus, looking at life through heaven and hell.
Perhaps it is fitting that I am Janus. God of doorways, beginnings and endings. My life is all about endings right now. But endings bring new beginnings. Always, thank goodness!
So, though this particular ending is as painful and drawn-out as birth, it will bring a new beginning, a new life. I stand in the doorway, looking back at the life that is over, and looking forward at the life that will become.
Doorways have always been magical places, the realm of the faerie. I don’t mind being Janus or a faerie.
Yes, I can live with that.
It's actually strange, considering myself as living in a doorway. If you know me, you'll know that I am literally not a happy camper. Camping, sailing, hiking, running, these things all feel so transitional. Put me in a tent and I always feel as if I’m hanging in limbo. Not at home at all. Waiting to arrive at the final destination, the nest. Sailing gives me the same feeling. I can’t wait to reach the harbour. And even then, I still feel uprooted, ill at ease, really yearning for just one thing: to be home. Contentedly at rest.
I feel the same about Heaven. It is the final destination; everything else is just temporary. I am an uncomfortably ill fit as an Earthling. I know I am only passing through. A gypsy who tries to create home wherever she places her feet, fully knowing that Home will only be at the end of this life journey. I’m just camping out here, and not making a success of it. I look at other people, and it amazes me how some can be perfectly content wherever they are. I envy their faerie ease, living in the doorway like this.
At the moment, I live like a gypsy in any case. During the week, my home is at my parents’. Over weekends I return to my cottage to spend time with my son. I've been living out of bags since the beginning of December. I can pack in 5 minutes by now. The one thing this nomadic existence is teaching me is how little I need in this life. I don’t miss the stacks of stuff at my cottage. There are only a few things I need. This part of the gypsy faerie life appeals to me: travelling lightly.
And perhaps living lightly is the answer to journeying as a nomad faerie gypsy. Perhaps I can stand life in the doorway if I remember I only need a few things to make me feel happy here. After all, what I really need is that quiet core within myself, that endorphin filled sense of tranquillity, of being fully me. The rare times I am aware of this core, I need nothing else.
I can hang in the current and still find rest, as content as a turtle. Carrying my home with me, I can live in the doorway of change.
I have never viewed sea turtles as gypsies or faeries. Yet they are nomads in the greatest doorway of all: the coast, the seam between ocean and land.
As mascots go, there are stronger choices. They face extinction, struggling to adapt to a crazy Earth.
Yet I feel myself drawn to them. I, too, am a slow, gentle being, needing time to ponder things before I act. I have been criticized for this slowness, but this is simply who I am. The slow sea gypsy who needs to learn to feel at home in her own shell, riding the current.
If life is such a strong ocean current, dragging everything along, then my course of action as sea turtle is clear:
(1) Develop muscles strong enough to swim against the current to my destination.
(2) Develop a shell I feel safe and at home in.
Remarkably, I have neither much muscle nor a sense of inner safety. Is it any wonder I feel so adrift most of the time? Heck, my white blood cells attack my thyroid because I usually live in a state of defence! I am 41 and I desperately need to change this part of my personality.
How to change something which has been ingrained in me ever since I formed my first conscious thought? I have no idea. But sea turtles don’t research how to be turtles. They simply
. They simply
At a guess I would say I always feel unsafe because I fear I'm incapable of handling the stuff life throws at me. I always feel at a disadvantage.
I know, through experience, that this is untrue. My parents’ cancer, for one thing, is teaching me that, though I might not know the hows, I
figure it out.
I am able.
Being able is a powerful feeling. It doesn't take away any of the uncertainty.
How will I deal with it when my mom’s intestine loses control, I asked myself a while ago, wringing my hands. I’ll just deal with it, my wiser self replied. And that's what I did. I learned that I'm able to clean her up when it is needed, pulling on gloves and sticking my hands in right there where she couldn’t help herself. Because that is what she needs. Fun? No ways. But perfectly manageable.
I am able. And that makes me safe.
What a thought: I'm safe inside my turtle shell. If I can handle my mom’s bowel movements, I can handle my tax returns, my car’s insurance, my credit card, my divorce. I have been putting off many of these things for years because I felt so incapable, so overwhelmed by the logistics of it all.
But I don’t have to enjoy everything. Life doesn’t have to be one huge hedonistic pleasure. Dealing with all these forms of responsibility brings pleasure in itself, putting them behind me, having them under control.
Making my shell a safe haven.
The best way to internalize learned wisdom is to act on it. I need to tackle the things I know will grant me a sense of safety within my shell. It is imperative that I start to create a safe haven while building my inner muscle. I am making an action list of little things I can fit into the tiny time slots between caring for my parents and working two jobs. So far I have ignored these responsibilities, claiming that I have neither time nor energy. But it is time to
time. I need to be more creative.
My action list will take me right into October, and that's not even counting the unplanned for events like my mother’s death. A long time to focus on chipping away at all the niggling responsibilities which have been weighing down my shoulders. With every task completed, that weight will lift. My world will become a safer place, a shell around me containing only the necessary. Smoothed out on the inside, strong on the outside, it will protect me as I slowly make my way through the currents of this ocean. Am I afraid I won’t accomplish everything? Definitely!
You see, procrastination in the face of uncertainty is my huge failing. Just admitting that makes me feel disloyal.
I am great at planning, terrible at executing.
My fear is very real that this action list will simply remain on paper. That I will fail myself once again. But I cannot continue living my life in such harsh self judgement. Such disbelief in my own ability is paralyzing. And paralysis exacerbates procrastination. Not good!
I have to change. I have to start being my own best cheerleader, believing in my ability to grow, to accomplish, to create.
And I will!
It's amazing how much of my life I have lived with the criticism of my parents ringing in my mind. I have internalized that critical nature well. I can conjure up my dad’s voice in an instant, with those faintly disapproving, definitely disappointed undertones ringing through it. “You'll just fail again, why try?” is a common saying of his.
To be fair, this is his idea of
, to goad me into proving him wrong. He doesn’t realize that it simply discourages me. It is up to
to change my inner voice to the encouragement I need.
What encouragement do I need?
The still, soft voice that says, “I believe in you. You can do it!” The confident support reminding me how I have scaled seemingly insurmountable peaks before, how I have faced my fears, and how I have trudged on through bitter darkness. And how I have always come out the other side, victorious! Even the experiences in which I felt I failed could not conquer me. Through it all I have grown.
And the person standing here today is a better person, purer, more beautiful ... and even more capable of tackling her challenges head on.
Wow, that would be pretty amazing, right? Having somebody as superbly encouraging as all that by our side ...
What would we be able to accomplish if we had all the encouragement we ever needed? If, no matter what happened, we had a perpetual supporter who said, “Yes, you can do it! You can take this idea and make a resounding success of it!”
If you had that kind of support, what would you attempt? If nothing and nobody could derail you from the intent you have set, because you had someone who irrevocably believed in you, what would you do?
Even more importantly: If you had this rock solid belief in your own tenacity and ability, what dream would you reach for? It is a familiar question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” But failing is OK as far as I am concerned. Failing does not signify the end. Lately failure is an important teacher I welcome into my life. So, for me the question is rather what would I attempt if I knew I was strong enough to see it through. The difference might be subtle, but it is an important one to me.
Here is my own answer.
If I had this solid belief in my own tenacity and ability, I would:
(1) Get my weight down to 55kg and keep it there.
(2) Become a well-published novelist.
(3) Make my life in a new country, in Europe.
(4) Keep a daily sketch journal, honing my skills.
The clear knowledge of these dreams comes with surprising ease. This is what I want. Reaching those dreams is fraught with uncertainty. I have no idea how to get published, or how to emigrate. But I am able to progress and learn, step by step.
Those sound like big dreams, but not out of my reach.
Would I need to stretch myself beyond my comfort zone? Absolutely.
Would it require working harder than ever before in my life? Totally.
Would it ask for tenacity and passion as never before? Definitely.
Can I do it? Of course.
Heck, I managed to push a child into life without painkillers! I am managing to keep moving through life with my parents’ cancer!
No, I’m not doing it perfectly, but perfectionism is for procrastinators. Jumping in and just doing it is what this life is all about. Living!
The more we simply
stuff, the more fully we live.
Life is like the story of the two groups of pottery students, one group required to submit quality work and one group required to submit quantity. Who learned the most in that year? The students focusing on quantity, not caring that some of their pieces were failures. They learned through attempting. As an art student for the total of one year, I know this to be true. Yet so far in my life I've attempted very little. I am too scared I will fail. I’m a poor student.
I have often wished that I could have a do-over for that year of failed art studies. I just wasn’t ready. It has taken me up till now to realize that this is OK. And that I can create that repeat year through what I'm facing right now in my life. Living by attempting! I can sketch every day. Obeying the discipline of sketching every day (focusing on the quantity) is much more important than creating one ‘good’ sketch a month, focusing on the quality. But it's not limited to art. It is applicable to my whole life.
What would happen if I created 31 crappy sketches in the next month? They might all turn out horrid, but I’m positive I would have learned something. What would happen if I tackled my action list (those things I desperately need to take control of in order to feel safer in my turtle shell) one crappy task at a time? Individually they might suck and I might look like an idiot, stumbling along, but at the end of 31 days I'm sure I would have a calmer environment. The same for writing that novel, 100 words at a time.
Even if I only wrote my novel 100 words at a time, by the end of next month I could have 3100 words under my belt. And that would be exactly 3100 words more than if I had waited for the ‘perfect’ opportunity to write a chapter at a time, finding the ‘perfect’ words and plot. I needn’t paralyze myself with the thought that ‘other writers’ achieve more in their day than 100 words. Because we’re talking about me. My life. My focus. And my focus needs to be here, on my own life. That's my only responsibility.
Perhaps it sounds conceited calling my life my only responsibility. Where is the philanthropism, the Christian outreach to others? That has an important place, too, I say. But I cannot take responsibility for any other life than first for the one given me here and now. If I don’t treat this life as a valuable treasure, how can I be trusted with anything else? I haven’t always realized this important truth. It has taken my parents’ cancer and this month of navel-gazing to bring me to this insight. And for that, it is an ultimately valuable experience.
Not only have I learned this month to take responsibility for my life and live it imperfectly, by simply
it every day, I also understand my place in life better.
I am the sea turtle, swimming in the current of change, inhabiting the doorway of the ocean. It might take months of attempting, living imperfectly, conquering the niggling little responsibilities in order to make my shell a safe haven in this sometimes hostile sea, but that’s also fine.
Sea turtles live slow lives.
The important thing to remember is that each day can take me forward, however slowly.
Kitty lies against my thigh, purring softly. She has no idea that the being she rested against at the beginning of this month doesn’t exist anymore. In its place is a new being, with a clearer identity and greater courage. A being filled with the new perspective that just doing it, however brokenly, is what this life is all about. That the quantity of attempts will eventually lead to a quality outcome. There are storms ahead of this new being. It won’t be easy. But I find within myself greater tranquillity and the belief that I will succeed.
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