What is reality?

Thank you for your prayers and good wishes. I had chemo last week, Tuesday through Thursday, with no vomiting during my at-home time. Woo hoo. To top it off, usually Friday is a recovery day, but this time around, I was able to walk and pick up my son from school. I attribute that to your prayers and positive energy around no side effects.

Last week also carried a Joni Mitchell theme, specifically her song Both Sides Now. Friends on Facebook would post pictures of clouds – storm clouds overhead, clouds during a sunset, clouds below their airplane. Each time, the lyrics, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now….”  popped into my head. Then a friend posted those specific lyrics. Another posted a picture of himself with Joni Mitchell.

In the meantime, chemo was done and I was feeling better. I reflected upon some point years ago, right after my diagnosis, when I was struggling to process all that was happening. At that time I thought, “What is the difference between the day before I got my diagnosis and the day I got it?” My body felt the same. The primary change was that someone else told me something they thought about my body.

Their words influenced my reality. They shifted how I thought and felt about myself and my life. So, I worked to form my own version of reality, and when I am feeling good, I like to think and act as though I don’t have cancer, and that makes me happy.

But then, sometimes, a different side comes roaring in: A friend sharing her experience on hospice, another experiencing a scary phase, a third who passed away. I felt deeply honored that they let me into their very personal experiences, yet my heart broke each time. I didn’t know how to handle all this, how to be a friend without layering my own concerns for them on top of it all.

You do that all time for me, and my gratitude expanded.

It is winter here, grey and cold. Driving to church on Sunday, the boys started to talk with each other about death and heaven. They discussed whether there is a point before you are really dead where you get to decide whether or not to die, who you might see there, what it would feel like. They seemed to have a pretty comfortable handle on the afterlife, and I was glad they were having this discussion. But it also reminded me that our family needs to have discussions like that, and I felt more and more of the darkness.

Once in church, the topic was about Jesus being a light in the darkness. When in the dark, look for the light. If opening my heart to my friends can have me feel heartbreak, it can also let in the light.

The day felt better now. Looking at it from a different side helped. Which is reality? I don’t know, but I like to think that it all is, regardless of the side we see.

Both Sides Now
Joni Mitchell

Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way 

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all 

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way 

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all 

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way 

Oh but now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all 

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Do you see what I see?

It has been fabulous to have an extra week away from chemo. I feel like my mind has some space to clear away the fuzziness I can get from the drugs.

Coincidentally, I’ve been talking with quite a few people about the anti-nausea drugs that I take and don’t take. One of them turns me into a different person. When I take it, I know that I am not thinking the way I usually do or acting the way I want to act, but I can’t help it. If someone were to tell me that I am being irrational, or that what I see isn’t really true, I become even more irritated, angry or sad, but it doesn’t change my view of reality. I can’t “snap out of it” or use logic. I just am where I am at that time.

That experience has helped me to see how thin the line can be that divides the way we each see the details of life and the feelings that drive our behaviors. It has also helped me to understand that maybe others cannot help what they are doing or saying, and maybe that it all makes sense in their version of reality. I hope it makes me more patient, though I suspect not as much as I would like to believe.

Regardless, I’m always glad when I don’t have to take that drug – I like the version of reality to which I have become accustomed.

In this version, I felt lucky to go to Mass at my parents’ church on Christmas morning with my family, my sister and niece and my parents, taking up an entire pew. Looking around, I noticed a woman in the pew to the left of us holding a baby girl who appeared to be sleeping. The woman was of the age where she could have been either an older mother or a younger grandmother. The baby’s head rested on the woman’s shoulder, on the other side of my view, but her arms lay limp at her sides in such a way that I assumed she had problems with her muscle tone.

I didn’t watch them much after that, though the woman caught my eye when she left the pew and headed to the back of the church, carefully carrying the baby and a diaper bag.

She returned a few minutes later, sat down, then held the baby face-to-face, nuzzling noses. I tried not to stare but noticed the baby’s perfect face.

Turning to my seven-year-old son, I told him, “Look at that perfect little baby. She looks like a doll.”

“She IS a doll,” he hissed at me, indignant at being in church at all and now annoyed to be with a mother so daft as to believe that could be a real baby.

I squinted to study the pair. Yes, it was a doll. But the woman was clearly interacting with the doll as though she were a baby, supporting her head as she held her, and making loving faces at her. She even glowed with the happiness of having a new baby.

I asked my mother, “Is that woman always here?”

“Maybe. I never noticed her before.”

At this point, I made up a story in my head. The woman always wanted to be a mother, I thought. Maybe she got this baby doll for Christmas and, for her, it is as real as any other baby.

As Mass came to a close, she carefully put a warm coat on the baby and lovingly wrapped her in a blanket. As for me, I directed my boys in a different direction so that they wouldn’t helpfully blurt out something like, “Don’t you know that is a doll?”

Who are we to interfere with her reality and her happiness? She clearly wasn’t bothering anyone, the baby (doll) was making her happy, and she got to share her love. We all have our own little version of reality anyway. This is evident when I mediate a disagreement between the kids, each of whom fully believes their own version of the truth. I am reminded of this when someone has the same values as me but their point of view differs radically from my own. And I live this when I take a new drug that shifts my version of what life is like. Through this experience, I hope that I am becoming more able to embrace the variety of views we each carry and meet each person wherever they are at that time. And I appreciate your embrace and good humor along the way!

Lots of love in this new year,
Marie