Brown Bear, Black Bear
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. – Winston Churchill
Frailty, thy name is cancer.
One moment, an oracle, another, a despot; it’s wedged its way in the crevice of each day – lurking, threatening to erupt if I give it too much attention.
Or too little.
Six months ago, I burst out of the oncologist’s office with an uncontainable laugh. I’d just found out the philadelphia (ie. leukemia) gene was at the lowest it had ever been. When David pointed this out to my doctor, he acknowledged with a smile that yes, you are doing very well, and several other words that I somehow understood to mean I was past the goal line and I was out of danger and this was as close to remission as CML gets.
I don’t know what I was thinking.
I’d been too scared to ask questions.
I always am.
I asked too many questions at the beginning and got too much information.
Too much information can be like an extra disease. I can’t shake it. It eats at me much like the cancer about which I have the information.
So last week, when I exited the hematologist’s building, his words clattered in my head like an unwelcome hand bell choir. Are you sure you’re taking your medication – every day? You’re not skipping? (to which I’d answered yes, of course, and no, of course not) No nausea or vomiting? (other than the flu last week) Diarrhea? (also no) Shortness of breath or chest pain? (no again).
He sighed – heavily. Well, your numbers are the same.
David and I had exchanged a look.
That’s what we want, right?
David always has the guts to ask the questions I don’t.
Well, its not getting worse.
Ah. It’s not exactly what we want.
Seeing my barely masked alarm, my rather, erhm, understated doctor tried to settle me.
You’re… satisfactory, I guess.
David mocked me most of the way home. I know you’re Lana Meredith, therefore you must always exceed expectations. But for right now you’ll just have to settle for being satisfactory.
But it wasn’t that that bothered me. (Though I admit he’s right. It’s the curse of the over-achiever).
What bothered me was written on the papers in my hand.
On each of my lab requisitions, under reason for request, were the big, black words:
2009-Jan-07, CML, not in remission.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Perhaps it was that I wasn’t thinking, which is, occasionally, an excellent coping technique for those of us with long-term illnesses. Perhaps it was that I hadn’t researched CML enough. Perhaps it was that I didn’t understand. Or didn’t want to.
Just outside my frame of focus lies a vortex in which I have no intention of being caught. I actively fight to stay in the circle, to breathe in the moments teeming with life.
I don’t want to know how I will die.
I don’t want to understand the steps to getting worse – or even getting better, unless its simple, bite-size, comprehendable pieces, like take this drug or avoid this or check this or if this doesn’t work, we’ll try this.
I tell my patients every day to take charge of their health care and be informed and fight for what you need and yet in the face of these papers, in the presence of these three pervasive, dark words, I realize just how impossible that can be.
Sometimes there are just things you can’t know.
So those who want to understand the intricacies of what’s happening to me, feel free to consult Dr. Google. It usually gives horrible information, but you can consult it just the same, because I have no intention of doing so.
Here’s what I do know – now:
CML can be cured. CML has a remission. It usually comes when the Philadelphia chromosome is at an undetectable level in my blood. Right now I’m at -3.05. According to my doctor, that’s in the zone where it tends not to do bad things.
It’s not in the remission zone.
So I keep taking my drugs. I keep checking my levels. And I see him again in 6 months.
So really –
nothing has changed.
But that’s not what it felt like last Thursday.
Last Thursday I realized I have no idea what lies around the bend.
I’m still in that #(*$%&#^ bend.
Maybe you should go to bed, David suggested when we got home.
No, I said, emphatic. I go to bed now, I don’t get out.
It’s okay not to be great all the time, he says.
It’s okay to rest.
You can put down your weapons for awhile.
Nothing bad will happen.
You mean, its okay to let this be a brown bear? I ask.
My husband has these moments of brilliance.
One of those moments came only a few weeks ago.
I was discussing – at length – some of my relationships with David, who, admittedly, is probably one of the better listeners I’ve ever met.
At that moment, however, he seemed to be in another world. Assuming his mind to be on programming and user interface and scrum masters, I gave up and reached for my book.
I get it, I said. Too much to listen to right now?
David snapped to attention. Sorry.
I let the silence sink in a moment. Perhaps I was over-thinking things. Just as I’d settled into my current novel, David interrupted me.
To answer your question, I think you need to decide if it’s a brown bear or a black bear.
Brown bears are more threatening than black bears. If you see a brown bear approaching, you should play dead, or they will eat you. But black bears are likely more scared of you than you are of them. If you see a black bear coming, you should get in its face. Push back.
Turns out that situation involved a black bear. I pushed back a bit, and it resolved. The relationship in question is now at peace.
But David’s words sat with me.
Some weeks ago I wrote about the importance of being gentle.
Gentle souls are free. They accept all things as good, if not good now, good eventually.They understand it is those who accept the process with an appropriate amount of surrender that live well.
But there are things to which we should not surrender. There are moments where we are not to lie down. There are situations we are not to call good.
There are brown bears, and there are black bears.
(Bears. Beets. Battlestar Gallactica.)
(still grieving the loss of The Office.)
Last Thursday, I didn’t lie down. I went out. I sat in the presence of women who know how to use their swords. I soaked in the wisdom of a woman who’s been at this so much longer than I:
We are not called to respond to life’s tragedies by crawling into a hole.
I can’t crawl in a hole.
Call it Carpe Diem. Call it fighting back. Call it pulling up our bootstraps. Call it whatever you want.
I call it faith.
Friends, many of you are living in the threat of something. You may not be sure what it is. You may not understand why its come to you. You may not quite grasp what its doing here.
But you have to decide if its a brown bear or a black bear.
Surrender, fight back.
Play dead, charge ahead.
Brown bear, black bear.
Brown bear, black bear.
Brown bear, black bear.
Some hours after his original suggestion for me to go to bed that Thursday, I returned home, exhausted, but smiling.
This isn’t a brown bear, I said to David.
Of course it isn’t. I was just waiting for you to figure that out.
It’s a black bear.
You bet it is, he said, and reached for an air-high-five.
(yup. we really miss The Office).
Some days, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve fought something. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. Some days it just comes down to a choice:
Crawl in a hole
Pick up your sword.
The hole is for cowards, my friends.
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. – Mark Twain
Resist the vortex.
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ – Eleanor Roosevelt
I can’t tell you whether each of your threats are brown or black. But I can tell you –
Fear is almost always a black bear.