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Learning to Show Up While Staying Away

When cancer and a pandemic collide, the list of what's essential in life becomes crystal clear.

Photo by Megan Wood on Unsplash
Photo by Megan Wood on Unsplash

Around the same time my state (California) battened down the hatches and enacted its shelter in place mandate last month, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. Sure cancer is rarely convenient, but lung cancer during a respiratory-specific pandemic? Seems unreasonably cruel. 

My parents live in another state. Not a terrible drive, luckily, and a quick flight; under normal circumstances, I would have been able to head there right after my mom got the news. I could have traveled in that same day and stayed a while as she segued into her new routine of never-ending doctors’ appointments and medical tests. I’d have been there, tag-teaming her appointments with my dad, making dinners and watching movies and pretending to have a crystal ball that said the future looked bright.

But, as we know, these are not normal circumstances. 

This week, my mom starts her first of many rounds of chemotherapy treatment. Next week, she’ll begin radiation. Instead of being by her side, in person during her treatment or watching re-runs of “Friends” alongside her on the couch, I’m here, one state away, working from home and social distancing in a cocoon of Clorox. 

I can’t visit her because I’m afraid to risk getting her or my 81 year old father sick. 

I can’t visit her because I myself am in the high risk category for coronavirus, thanks to a chronic health condition that I’ve thought about more in the last month than in my entire lifetime; these days I can barely leave my house to pick up the newspaper at the end of the driveway, never mind board an airplane.

I’ve spent some time being angry about this. Being confused and overwhelmed and wondering why in the world this could all be happening right now, like this. Bargaining, because couldn’t we at least get thrown one at a time? A pandemic, plus the illness of one of my favorite people… individually, those will knock the wind out of you. Together? Well, it’s a lot. 

While I’m certainly not done processing all of this (still at the beginning, thank you very much), nor naive enough to think I’ve felt the worst that I will throughout this journey, I’ve at least come to realize more than ever what’s truly, no questions asked, most important in life. The essentials.

It’s not how much money I’m making, or whether or not my husband put his laundry away. It’s not how many minutes I spent exercising in a day, or whether or not we’ll make it to Italy for our (delayed) honeymoon after all. 

Nope. 

It’s loving the people in our lives, and maintaining our health. That is it. That’s the list, full stop. 

That’s what we need to remember now to not take for granted, and what we can still achieve right here, right now — even in the midst of a historic public health crisis. Although I won’t be able to physically be there in person for my mom this week, nor for who knows how many weeks into the future, a pandemic means I’m home, and able to be on the phone with her throughout her appointments. It means I can call and check in on my dad anytime I want, instead of hunching down in my cubicle, using a hushed voice to whisper, “How’s it going over there?” It means I can cry if I need to, and my husband and dog are both — quite literally — always around to help lift me up. 

And at the end of this month, this year, this decade, will I remember this time as a period of my life that was really, undeniably uncertain and scary? Possibly, but I hope I’ll also remember how it made me better at showing up for the ones I love most dearly, even when physically being there wasn’t an option. 

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