I am on the porch with the dog, immersed for a moment in an idyllic spring day, when a neighborhood young athletic couple comes walking down the sidewalk. This is not uncommon, but what was uncommon was that the man was leaning heavily on crutches. We yelled hellos, and I asked in passing, “knee surgery?” They started to say yes and move on, and then she remembered reading the article about our tee shirts. She stopped and walked a bit closer to the porch. “Not actually,” she said, “Frank has been battling bone cancer, and he has a prosthetic bone from his mid-thigh to his calve where they amputated the diseased part.” That’s amazing, I commented, adding that I had a friend who had had a leg amputated below the knee for cancer. We continued in an everyday tone about the progress in amputations in the last decade, the rounds of chemo, our “chemo commando” tee shirt, and his need to learn to walk again. It struck me how companionable it can be to discuss the facts of an illness with someone who does not feel shock or pity or dismay at the unfairness of it all. It is interesting to wonder whether real empathy means “feeling with” another, or sitting calmly with another. Certainly. it does not mean denial or empty reassurance, or morbid curiosity….but rather an openness to hear, reflect and accept what a person is dealing with just as it is.
The truth is such a powerful tool, when we are ready for it. The truth is always a great comfort and sanity-generator. For the unvarnished truth on living with a chronic illness (and disability), check out Richard M. Cohen’s book, Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness - A Reluctant Memoir. He is Meredith Vieira’s (ABC’s, The View) spouse, and details his ongoing struggle to “lift a life above illness”, in this case, MS and colon cancer. His book is a companion piece for anyone currently living with illness, a ray of light for caregivers, and a story of the strength of the human spirit.
Cohen discusses the role model that his father served for him (also with MS) in learning to control his inevitable fear and anxiety. His father instructed, “Adjust after the fact. Do not simply react to possibility.” In Cohen’s view, it is mastering the self that dictates the quality of life.
After a long bout of denial about his illness, Cohen admits:
Later, as Cohen’s disability became visible, including partial blindness, he described an ordinary day, and the deal he had cut with himself in staying active and involved:
The power of laughter. The eventual setting aside of denial. The gift to others of telling the truth. Cohen is a reluctant role model for us all.
- Diane Fisher, Ph.D.
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