Monday, December 1, 2008

laughter and strength

A couple of people have directed my attention to a book of cartoons entitled Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics, by Miriam Engelberg, who died of breast cancer in 2006. The title alone makes me smile, and the cartoons (at least the ones I've seen here) make me positively cackle.

In a week when a positive attitude has seemed as far out of reach as the moon, it's heartening to see someone poke fun at the tendency people have to describe their cancerous loved ones as being so "full of life." A caption showing two people standing over a coffin reads, "You'll never hear these comments at a funeral ... 'I still can't believe it. She was so blasé about life!' 'I never met a more lackluster person!'"

I wonder if she skewers the whole notion that cancer survivors are somehow stronger than the rest of us. That one gets me sometimes, when people tell me, "You're so strong. You'll get through this because you're strong." Well, no. I am not strong. I cry over my breakfast cereal like the weakest ninny. I feel sorry for myself. On bad chemo days, I spend nearly full days in bed sometimes. I alternate between hating God, not believing in God, hoping God can carry me through this and shamelessly begging God to let me live. I do what I do because I have no choice in the matter, and so would anyone else. I get through the day not because I am especially strong but because there is nothing else I can do.

Do I draw upon reserves of strength that most people don't have to tap? Maybe. But I think of other people who have undergone tremendous ordeals in their lives: losing a sibling, losing parents, losing a child, having one or more miscarriages, not being able to have a baby at all, having multiple sclerosis, having a marriage fail, having no luck finding love, struggling with depression or alcoholism, losing a home or a family in the midst of war. I think of what Steve is going through as he watches me try to cope and contemplates a life without me. Everyone bears crosses. Everyone has to summon up some extra strength sometimes. My ability to endure this cancer does not make me any more remarkable than the next person. I am just someone who is sick and trying not to let it beat me down, even if some days it does feel like it's beating me. If strength is trying to live my life in spite of how much I hate what's happening to my body, then maybe I'm strong. But I happen to think the will to live is part of the human condition. If I'm strong, everyone is strong.

I have to admit, though, being able to laugh at something as nasty and unfunny as cancer makes me feel a little stronger. So I'm definitely going to add this book to my list.

(Edited to add: There have been some interesting comments here, so if anyone wants to continue this discussion in the comments section, please feel free.)


Agape said...

Great post, Emilie. You are right.

Amy said...

Emilie - Your post was so honest. I finished reading it and said "wow" - it was powerful.

It's so true that we all have crosses to bear and at times, it can be difficult to keep that in perspective. So, thank you for reminding me of that.

Laughter some days can be the best medicine. I hope you enjoy reading the new book.

As always, I send you my best.

Megan Thomas said...

Emilie -

Beautifully written -- you share your humanity so well in writing. And you are just, well, Emilie!


Kir said...

that was a beautiful post and so honest (in fact it was a "strong" post because it takes a trult strong person to recognize that even if you look strong on the outside that inside you're weak and afraid.) I believe you, we all get through our "Stuff", no matter what is, the best way we know how and we can look at it on the other side when it's done.
You don't have to be "stong" for us or even yourself. We all know what you are capable of .


Susanne said...

Em, I was almost moved to tears over your list of problems and tragedies that can happen to people. I, myself, certainly fall into a couple of them. One of them especially - it really gripped me when I read that item.

The whole "strong" thing; I think most people think it's dorky to say "you're so strong," but they say it anyway... who knows...

Sue said...

I think we're all just trying to make it from one day to the next and it has nothing to do with being strong. People said the same thing to me when I was struggling with infertility. You're absolutely right about enduring. What other choice do we have? I'm so glad you were able to get some laughs - good for you!

Not on Fire said...

What a great post! It is so true that we go on because we have to. I loved the cartoons too!

Unknown said...

First of all, Emilie, I'm reminded strongly (heh) of a conversation we had together in the car last summer. As then, I totally agree with you that "strong" is a curious compliment. However, it really is a testament to a certain something that you have. What, though? Well, here's definition number two of "strong" on the Merriam-Webster site. I think it fits you.

2: having moral or intellectual power

You have moral AND intellectual power, and that's what I think people recognize in you.

So there. You can no longer deny it. Now, go sit on the couch and listen to Bonnie Raitt... (yes, the cartoons are funny).

--Laura S.

Nissa Nicole said...

Emilie, I agree that everyone must be strong and must carry the weight of hardship, but I think you're stronger than some for one reason: you've chosen to write about your trial (even the ugliest parts) for all to read.

Maybe it's that you are using your given talent - writing - and it feels like something that you should do, but simply producing this blog takes incredible courage and strength. Most people could never find it, in pain, anger and sadness, to tell their story with such eloquence.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Thanks, as always, for sharing a piece of your spirit with us.

Christina said...

Thanks for addressing this. I have to admit, like many others, I've labeled those fighting cancer as "strong," and if I'm really honest, that can almost be an excuse to assume they're more OK than they are. They're forced to be strong, yes, but they also feel weak and frail and frightened. It's really important that you pointed that out.

I also agree it takes a truly strong person to admit weakness.

Christina said...

This reminds me of a famous quote by St. Francis de Sales, who seemed to understand strength is, as you point out, more nuanced than we often define it.

"Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength."

empy said...

I think most of us look at someone who is facing such a struggle and think, "I could never do that." So the natural thing that spills out of our mouths is, "You're so strong." Of course, you're right, we could do it. How many of us would choose to lay down and give up if we could have another day with the people we love?

So, naturally, if you're gonna have another day with people, you may as well do your best to enjoy it. I think that is what people see as strength - the fact that you keep trying, keep caring, keep smiling. But that is LIFE and why stay in it if you can't keep trying???

There is also a pretty good, creative book of poetry and prose called, Surviving Cancer Has Made Me Crazy. Some of it is SO powerful.

I'm so sorry about the bad days, but they are totally understandable and don't have to be judged as weak or strong. They are just days when Emilie is tired and sad. I'm glad you're looking for things to laugh about too!


P.S. I hope this message is okay - my back is hurting so bad it is hard for me to put my thoughts in order! UGH I think I busted a new disc.

Allison said...

I had to de-lurk for just a minute to tell you that you really got this just right. I am not in your shoes, but six years ago, my son was diagnosed with leukemia. My all time biggest pet peeve is that people would always say (and sometimes still do), "I could never do what you are doing. You're so strong." Which is ridiculous because, of course, everyone would do it if they had to! And I didn't think that people would think me so strong if they saw me cry the entire drive home from the hospital where I had left my 3 year old because I needed to go to work to keep my health insurance (argh!) Anyway, great post! I don't know you but I think of you often. Modern medicine is pretty darn amazing (as I know when I see my healthy robust nine year old survivor) so there is always hope.

Heidi said...

I also hate the "you're so strong" comment to people who are suffering. Like you're being penalized for being a strong person by being given all this pain and trial.

I will say you probably are more open and honest about what you're going through (cancer and other things) than some people. That makes you pretty special.

So maybe people sense that you are somehow special and don't know what else it is, so they say you must be stronger than others.

Victoria said...

I got the "You're so strong." too after my first husband died. I didn't feel strong - just putting one foot in front of the other to raise our kids. I think people do make that comment when they don't know what else to say and want to say something positive, and also when they fear they couldn't do what one is doing - survive what one is surviving. Your post really spoke to me.

Barbara Marincel said...

Well, to be brutally honest, I would love for people to tell me they admired me for being strong. No one ever does, outside of my family, despite my struggles with sexual abuse, rape, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, infertility, chronic pain and illness, and the loss of my parents.

I would argue that many days it takes a tremendous amount of strength and courage simply to get out of bed in the morning. It takes a lot of strength to be willing to open ourselves to love despite the knowledge that making ourselves so vulnerable inevitably leads to loss of one type or another.

There ARE people who give up on love and growth and even life itself. Strength gives us the courage to persevere despite our fears and knowledge of our own weakness. Although to be theologically accurate, I would say that strength comes to us from God--God's grace and our co-operation.

That said, there's nothing more healing than laughter. I'm glad you found that book!

Janet said...

I also heard the "You're so strong," comment a lot...and the "I don't know how you do it. I couldn't do it." You are right...we all do what we have to do. However, it is HOW we do it that makes people take notice. I've seen some people curl up and give up. I had a roommate on the oncology floor in the hospital once who had totally given up in spirit. She was my age & had the same cancer. I tried to lift her up. I thought it was sort of a test for me. I tried. I really tried. She ended up dragging me down with her for a day or two...and I realized I couldn't let that I had to stop trying. I still think of her and wonder...

We are not supposed to be "strong" all the time. There will be others there to be strong for you when you don't feel strong. My DH was the strong one when I felt weak, hopeless, or terrified of what the future would bring. It is OK to take turns being strong. Certainly cannot keep that up all the shouldn't have to.

Love the cartoons you shared here. What a funny woman...and YES, it does feel good to laugh...sometimes even at cancer and certainly at ourselves.

Emilie said...

Thanks for the additional perspectives, Barb and Janet and others. I have to confess, I have had those days when I've curled up and wanted to give up.

I wonder - is that what we use to define a person's strength? If a person appearing to "give up," she is not strong, but if she "keeps fighting," she is strong?

That makes me a little skeptical. I sometimes imagine we deal with our suffering in a cyclical pattern, or maybe like a pendulum. Like the four seasons, do we tend to go through periods where we feel determined and upbeat, and other periods where we feel so low we just want to give up, and then back again? It seems like that has been the case for me, and I happen to be in the low part of the cycle right now.

EDH said...

Beautiful post, as always, and how thought-provoking.

I find the "you're so strong" comment to be a mixed bag, too. Apparently I put on a very happy face, because some days just plain suck and no one thinks to ask because I'm strong and must be doing fine. I sometimes think if I appeared a little less strong and a little more thrown by my brother's death, I might get more support? (Which is not to say I haven't been supported, but you know what I mean. Being strong is sometimes a burden.)

One thing is certain, it's amazing what people do because they have to. If someone told you you'd be dealing with this in 5 years, you'd think you couldn't handle it. And yet, you do. We handle it - what other choice is there?

I think "giving up" and "keep fighting" must be terms unique to people who struggle with illness, because I've not heard them in reference to my own loss. There is no giving up or fighting. There is only coping, one foot in front of the other. How aggressive I am, or not, in dealing with my life is not going to matter at the end of the day. It is what it is.

Barbara Marincel said...

I should probably clarify what I mean by "strength" here. I don't think that struggling to cope with suffering--crying in your breakfast cereal, Emilie, for instance--is a sign of weakness. It's merely a sign of being human.

Emilie and Liz, because I know both you personally, I'm going to refer to your struggles here. Liz, I have some idea of how devastated you were, and still are, by your brothers sad and tragic death. But I remember how you spoke at his funeral. And I know, also, how you have helped me deal with the loss of mom, as only one who has "been there" can. Your empathy and support has meant more to me than I can ever adequately express.

And Emilie, I know you really struggle to cope with your illness and the repeated setbacks. But I also see you being a loving mom to Ben and Daniel and a generous and warm friend. You have shared the story of your ordeal with so many of us, using your talents to help us all realize how short life can be, how important it is to make the most of every day we are given, and to be grateful for the many gifts God sends us.

Both of you have handled your respective trials with tremendous grace. And, most important, you have become even more loving, more generous, and more compassionate women as a result of them.

To me, that's what strength is. It's about HOW we cope with our suffering. It's much easier to withdraw into bitterness and resentment, or excessive self-pity, or to decide not to love again because it's too painful, yet neither of you have chosen to do that. Rather, you have responded in life-affirming ways to your losses. Sure, we all keep going. But only the strong choose (and it IS a choice) become more open and loving in spite of the risk and the pain. Let's face it: love takes courage.

You are both an inspiration to me, and I want you to know that.