SECOND SKIN

“…the human being to lack that second skin we call egoism has not yet been born, it lasts much longer than the other one, that bleeds so readily.”
― José Saramago, Blindness

Robertson, Carol; Second Skin; Bodelwyddan Castle Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/second-skin-178299

 

I’ve arrived at a place of discomfort.

Every day I’ve lived since last July has in some way been about me getting through the day, getting to tomorrow, and then the next day; and by extension, everyone around me has been caught up in helping me get through to a future beyond now, beyond this week, or this month, or year…

Making good meals for me when I’m useless (an all too frequent occurrence); shuffling schedules so that I’m not alone at chemo; remaining open and patient with me when my filters break down and I’m whimpery, and discouraged; adjusting their lives around my needs…These are just some of the things that my sons (especially), wonderful friends and family do for me every day.

How self-centred I have become.
Forced into it to some extent, perhaps, but indulging myself too.

And all of these words I’ve poured out to you—more than 35 000 so far—have they not principally been about me highlighting me?

Higgins, Tony; Skin Deep; University of Stirling; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/skin-deep-127895

While my own skin is showing the battle scars of cancer treatment, a second, invisible one is slowly enveloping me. It’s the skin of self-centredness. At least, this is an apprehension of mine that’s been there from the very beginning of this unchosen journey.

In part, I think, this withdrawal into myself is a survival mechanism. I’m not sure how much I can do. I’m not sure what will happen to me. I’m not sure what it means when I suddenly have no energy and my legs start to shake beneath me, or tears pour from my eyes as easily as I breathe. Self-absorption, my second skin, is in part controlling the flow of what life demands of me. But still… It has made it all too easy to hide away in the two-week (one in chemo, one off) life cycle that I live inside.

***

Last week was spring break for my grandchildren: Penelope, now 7, from grade school, and Graeme, who turns 5 in April, from pre-school. It was study week at John Abbott College, so Simon had more free time to enjoy (though he still had tests and lab reports to mark and things to write), and I was not in a chemo week. Jeremy  was away on business in Hong Kong and Japan, leaving behind an unfillable gap in his young family, in spite of the fact that Anne is an extraordinary life partner and mother. For Christian, unfortunately, it was business as usual: work –work—work—work.

This created an opening. They were home! Anne was happy to have company and support. And so, she and Simon busied themselves making plans to fill the days with activities the kids could look forward to.

Early in the week, we would go play with them all day at their house. Then, on a different day, we would take them to the movies. Next, they would come to our house in Hudson and play all day (from 8 am to 7 pm!). Finally, upon their papa’s return from Japan, we would go celebrate Penelope’s birthday over pizza at a local restaurant.

Our love for Penelope, Graeme and their parents is such that just being near them makes us feel happier. And yet, I see how I have pulled away from them since my diagnosis. Or maybe it’s truer to say that circumstances have made it hard to be with them the way I used to—circumstances which include my cancer and treatment, but also the simple fact that they are both at school and have busy, happy lives and a full calendar, which doesn’t always match up well with my physical highs and lows.

It’s been as though an invisible chord snapped when I learned how sick I was. They say that dogs can smell cancer in a person; I wondered if perhaps young children have a similar sensitivity to things that are going wrong. I didn’t want Penelope and Graeme to sense this…decay when they were around me, and I was feeling so changed and so damaged.

unknown artist; Old Lady with Two Children; Bradford Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-lady-with-two-children-22343

Last week, I played with my grandchildren with pure joy—something I  hadn’t done for weeks and weeks, because these experiences opened up a melancholy spot inside me: the whisperings of uselessness; of being superfluous and unable to follow the stream of their lives (while everyone else entered and exited their daily existence so effortlessly). I’m speaking of the loss of the kind of intimacy one can create with children that is tender and trusting and of such honesty that it replenishes the soul and reminds us of a different world—a minute by minute world—in which all good things are possible.

On the day they came to play at our house, for some weird and frustrating reason, I was exhausted and having trouble keeping my eyes open, almost from the time I woke up. It was as though magnets were pulling my eyelids shut. This has never happened to me before and all I could think of was going to take a short nap—maybe that would snap me out of it!? But Graeme was by my side, wanting to play and do all of the fun things that are possible here, and I would have been mortified to disappoint him, and so I reverted to closing my eyes for a few seconds at a time–taking the sneakiest, shortest micro-naps every chance I got. And at the end of one of them, there was Graeme, staring at me intently with the most accepting smile (given the circumstances), saying: “It’s okay, Grand-maman, it’s just your sickness.”

 ***

The love and well wishes that have rained down on me since last July, and especially because of this blog, have been a daily source of strength and inspiration for me. I cannot overstate this. Maybe it’s the magnitude of it that has alerted me to my unworthiness. It is love overwhelming. It is kindness and support beyond reason.

Thank you.

Thank you.

 My life depends on the willingness of my loved ones to do all of the thankless, repetitive and life-invading tasks that cancer throws in their path.

What can I do besides accept their love and attempt to return it to them in gratitude whenever I can, and understand that we are all called to love in every way possible?

Making amends…Making it up to them…

These turns of phrase that come to mind imply indebtedness. If their love has left me in debt, then I may not live long enough to repay each and every one of them.

Still, a way to lighten the weight of my second skin must surely be found in being kinder and more forgiving of every perceived wrong, no matter who it involves; being generous of heart and letting go of past slights and hurts; practicing more empathy every day, so as not to forget those dark moments that I am responsible for; and being more open to accepting love that I may never be able to return in equal measure.

It’s a wonderful feeling to owe one’s life to so many.

The Evening of all Days, the Day of all Evenings by Anselm Kiefer, 2014

MY INCREDIBLE EXPANDING LIFE

No one tells you this, but a human life, just like the universe that cradles it, is always expanding.

One of the ways we experience this extension first hand is through the social connections we make. My teaching life has accelerated this, and in the past ten years or so, I’ve come to know so many people that I could and want to call friends; people I don’t want to lose…not wanting the flow of time to sweep them away, beyond my reach.

Last week, my student Mira reached out and pulled me into her life.

In late 2016, Mira left Toronto to come live close to her daughter and grandchildren. In our quiet conversations after class, she had mentioned having just found her new place, which she described in such ecstatic, giddy language that it seemed unreal. She said it was beautiful, surrounded by woods and birds; that her new neighbours were wonderful; that they planted flowers and perennials at the foot of the trees for everyone to enjoy; that she had found a haven. That she was immensely grateful and happy.

And then she invited me to dinner. Her home was exactly as she had described. Sitting on her patio that’s enclosed by a screened gazebo, we listened to the sounds of the birds and the breeze and of a piano tuner next door, who arrived not long after me. As he worked, he played. Beautifully. Every note bouncing off the sparkling light of approaching dusk.

Everything about our evening together was enveloping. Despite a long day at work, Mira had put together a bounteous meal that left me speechless (because I was at a loss for words and because my mouth was always full).

 

I felt like a funambulist in our first hour together, trying to find my way from the interactive dynamics of being Mira’s teacher to being her friend. It’s a subtle thing, because of course in adult education, we’re equals who are simply playing different roles. And yet all my teacherly reflexes were there: asking questions, steering the conversation and adjusting my language (we were speaking English, Mira’s third language after Ukrainian and Russian—French is her newest challenge).

I’ve spoken elsewhere of the pain of letting go of my students at the end of my teaching contracts. The obverse of this requires a different kind of energy and thoughtfulness.

We all know this. We learn it as we move through time, shedding friends and making new ones in grade school and high school; opening our lives to new colleagues as we enter adulthood; merging the social circles of people we love with our own.

This pulsating movement continues for decades. Our neighbours become friends and through our children and all of their involvements, new people enter our lives constantly. There’s always the possibility of friendship and attachment, but there also comes the moment when we realise that it isn’t possible to maintain each connection—that there just isn’t enough emotional energy to go around.

Every time I choose to stay in touch with a former student, I think of this and have to take it into account. I’ve sent and received many enthusiastic Facebook messages to and from former students expressing the wish that we see each other again: “We should have coffee!” “We have to meet!” “Are you free in March?”.

The desire is sincere. There’s only good will. But of course, it can’t always work out, and so I/we settle for whatever time we manage to carve out of our overstuffed lives.

It’s enough, because it has to be. It has meant breakfast with Patty and supper with Karen. It has meant an evening at the pub with Kathryn and my best friend Louise who joined us so that Kathryn could get some serious French conversation practice (there could and should have been so many more such evenings—sigh).

It has meant the unexpected joy of finding emails from Will, then Yan in my Inbox; both engineers, one a British bachelor and the second, a devoted father of three, catching me up about their lives.

One time, it was coffee at Tim Horton’s late in the afternoon with Neshat and Maryam, while their children emitted happy sparks of mischief at the next table. There was phlegmatic Thomas, fresh out of university and a long way from home; elegant and thoughtful Saran, a kindred spirit who has officially joined our Best of the Worst soirées, and there was exuberant, endearing Hatem, whom I met at his five-year-old daughter’s school, where he had joined the French for Parents class I was teaching. Though he was with me for just a few weeks before finding work, he still sends me email updates that are a study in gratitude–he gives thanks for every part of his new life–and an inspiration.

And there’s Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, and its limitless tentacles, for which I’m so grateful.

Mira at home

But Mira isn’t on Facebook. She simply cut through all of the potential barriers to friendship with her extraordinary emotional energy.

Mira’s brilliant: she’s an engineer who specialises in systems, processes, efficiency and ergonomics. One way of understanding her profession is that she has a talent for observing people and their systems and seeing all of the ways these aren’t working properly. She connects people by removing obstacles that hinder functionality and their ability to work well together. Things flow better when she’s around.

Our shared meal in her new condo provided the setting for a long heart-to-heart. In French class, I had witnessed Mira’s brilliance, competence and will, and caught a glimpse of her creativity—she’s a talented painter—but in her new home, where she claims to have found, at last, a space to simply be herself—woman, mother, Baba (grandmother), artist and engineer—she radiates gentleness and incandescent plenitude.

Speaking of her grandfather (Mira was an only child), with her soft voice and Slavic accent, she told me: “When I was small child and sat in his arms, he would stop breathing, he loved me so much. Everyone give me so much love”.

Except that she pronounces it “law-ve”, which sounds even more beautiful.

“The universe is full of doors.”—Frank Herbert, Dune

Painting by Mira