Doing Better

Today is better.  It’s amazing how much difference a couple of days and a little sunshine can make (and an hour-long chat with my shrink and several hours spent crying.)  Here’s the phrase of the day:  “Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.”  It’s a variation on the theme introduced in the Viktor Frankl classic “Man’s Search for Meaning“:  even the most senseless, painful, absurd situation has meaning and, for those caught therein, the search for that meaning is the key to staying sane.  To me, it seems most applicable to situations where the illusion of control in one’s destiny has been shattered.  How much I get tied up in knots and start losing my grip on reality is directly related to how much I attempt to steer our little boat against the current, refusing to let go of the illusion.  How about a little story?

(Roll camera)

Picture a beautiful spring day in the country.  Add a lovely but large stream with banks lined with fruit trees.  Now add Maggie and me in row boat floating in the stream, basking in the sun and enjoying each other’s company.  The stream’s gentle flow is pulling us down the river.  We each have paddles which we use to direct our small craft according to our whims with a mere stroke or two as we float.

When hungry, we guide the boat toward the shores to pick our fill of tasty fruit.  Apples, oranges, pears – every fruit tree imaginable lines both banks. Fruit is plentiful and accessible.  Better yet, extra effort invested in paddling is rewarded by handfuls of the most tasty fruit otherwise just out of reach.  Once near the trees, we have to quickly seize our opportunity to pick our treats or lose the it forever because the river’s current is unwavering and makes staying in one spot impossible all but for one instant.  Blink and the fruit has passed us by.

All is wonderful with the world.  We have each other, all the food we could eat (assuming we put in the required paddling), and we’re winding our chosen path down the river.  All we could ever want is within our grasp.  We settle in for a lifetime of comfort and happiness.

After some time soaking up the sun, paddling for fruit and enjoying our time together the water begins to change.  Waves begin to roll and our paddles become less effective as the pace of the river picks up.  The change is dramatic and sudden.  Soon, the plentiful fruit trees lining the banks become nearly impossible to reach, no matter how hard we paddle.  Our ability to selectively chose fruit is gone.  We have to settle for grabbing an occasional fruit from a protruding branch as we rush by.  Juicy, rotten, plump, or small – our options are up to the river and the trees now.  Anxiety builds.

But we are fighters.  We remember how it was before (a.k.a. “the way it should be”), with the floating and the eating and the sunning, back not long ago when we were in control.  With the right never-give-up attitude, we can get those days back.  So we rally and develop a plan.  Up ahead we spot a fruit-covered tree on the bank.  We can’t tell what type of tree, nor to we care.  It’s the path we chose and now we both paddle like hell.  Sweat pours, muscles tire, and the boat, while surging with each paddle stroke, doesn’t budge from its river-locked trajectory.  Despite the effort, our fruit tree passes by far out of reach.  Now we are angry.

With anger fueling our efforts, again we chose a path and paddle furiously.  Again we fail.  Now we are hungry and tired.  And even more angry.

Blame starts to fly:  “You’re not trying.”  “You aimed for the wrong tree.”  “It’s your fault we didn’t get a motor for this stupid boat.”  Guilt follows quickly.

A few more times we try.  Soon despair begins to replace the anger.

Ahead of us we can hear a thunderous roar and the water is starting to churn.  Our arms are weak from our flailing.  And since we can’t reach the shores to replenish our supply, we’re running out of fruit.

(Freeze frame.  Pan camera way, way out to show The Big Picture)

Now we have a choice.  We can choose to paddle.  Inside us both there is an inextinguishable flame of stubborn optimism that says we can change our path if we just paddle hard enough, hold the paddle the right way, paddle on the right side of the boat, hold our mouth right, paddle in the right sequence, say the right words….  There’s a formula here somewhere.  And we are just to ones to find it!

Or we can sit back, be thankful for the fruit we’re able to snag along the way, and enjoy the cool breeze as the boat is hustled down the river.  After all, the scenery is breath taking, the company is great, and we have a front-row seat to something mysterious and fantastic that lies ahead.

Hmmm… maybe the phrase of the day should instead be “Quit rowing, Stupid!”

16 thoughts on “Doing Better

  1. Keep fighting, but instead of fighting the ever relentless currents, fight for each other. Fight to keep the peace between yourselves. Fight for every moment you get to enjoy each others company. And remember, life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

    Sending love your way….

  2. The lessons in this story apply to so, so, so many parts of life, and the truisms are very, very hard to accept. Many of us have had to learn these lessons over and over. So … my point is … regardless of what situation sends you down this river, always know that you’re not going down that river alone. And it always helps … even just a little … to share your journey.

    Keep that psychologist close by and stock up on Kleenex. Using them is a strength … not a weakness!

  3. Your story is beautiful and many of us interested in your story, who don’t know you personally, have lived up to and through this very moment. The moment you change your focus and direction and choices. I remember the day we decided to stop “paddling so hard”. I just want to share with you that our only regret was that we had not done it sooner. So many missed opportunities to share kind words and memories…but it was a beautiful time. It did not mean giving up – it meant changing the focus and eliminating all the “stuff” that just does not need to be present every day. It means opening yourself up to accept daily acts of kindnesses and support. It meant more pain control. God be with you.

  4. Remember:

    Even if the outcome is predetermined, what matters is the trip, and not the destination.

  5. So many powerful messages – it is truly humbling. Thoughts and prayers for you and Maggie always.

  6. Yesterday is history
    Tomorrow is a mystery
    Today is a gift from God

    That’s why we call it the present

  7. This brings to mind a quote by Martin Luther King Jr, although maybe not exact word for word, “sometimes life is like walking down a long stairway in pitch dark, we just keep walking and trust there will be a step in front of you.”

  8. I may have posted this already, but I think it’s worth repeating. I have heard this a couple of times before: God promised us a safe homecoming, but did not promise us a smooth journey.

    Love to all

  9. As a kid, I canoed the Connecticut River from near Canada almost to Massachusetts. I had a canoeing merit badge, a fearless youth counselor and the remembered rough water instructions of keep paddling, the bow calls the course and whatever happens… stay together and with the canoe.

    Hold Fast
    Don MacLeod

  10. Maggie and Chris: I am thinking hard about you both. Chris, you do have a wonderful knack for always finding the right words. Just keep working on the happiness part (always the most important part–though I think we all forget that almost every single day).

    Love, E

  11. This post hit me really hard- because your story so vividly describes what this experience feels like. I know this blog is mostly for your friends and family, but for those of us- same age, same stage, different cancer- who are also floating down this raging river in another boat, your blog has been a great comfort: a voice of honesty and candor for the reality of treatments, pain, hope, fear, and love through the good and bad, a voice that makes us fellow travelers feel less alone. Thank you Maggie for your inspiring strength, amazing attitude and your smile- and thank you Chris for honestly sharing your feelings in such an eloquent, powerful and moving way.

    1. Thank you.

      This blog is for anyone who gets any meaning out of it, including our friends and family and you and me. I’m glad that it has touched you while I’m also sorrowful that you can relate so directly to what I’ve had to say.

      You are definitely not alone. Know that when you are sad, there’s someone else out there that’s sad with you. And just as scared.

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