I’ll be honest, I was brought up soft.
The youngest of 4 siblings, by the time I came along, my parents had enough disposable income to spoil me in a way that my elder sibs could not have dreamed of. I drifted through school, and only pursued what interested me. In short, I had a ‘typical’ middle-class upbringing: violin and piano lessons, education at an independent (private) school, an electric train set – when my brothers only had a clockwork one, and so on.
Family life was also insular, in that apart from the usual visits at birthdays and around Christmas, I didn’t see much of my cousins, I didn’t develop a close circle of friends around me, and in particular, I had no male role models outside the family; my Dad was my male role model. Dad was always quietly in the background. He took me to my school rugby games and showed me how to sit in an upturned wheelbarrow to sip his tea, after he sweated over burning a pile of leaves. We did have fun sailing a 14’ dinghy he had built in the backyard, but that was pretty much it.
It wasn’t until I was 13 that that cosy life was turned on its head.
Dad became seriously ill with cancer, and almost died.
Mum first got cancer in an eye, and then progressively suffered liver, then brain cancer. By the time I was 19, Mum had passed away, at home, after a long and courageous battle with cancer. More of my families’ history of cancer here.
As the decades of my life have ticked by, and realising I wasn’t making a good fist of this ‘life’ thing, lurching from one relationship & marriage to another, it wasn’t until I became a Dad for the first time that I realised that I will have to do a lot better than letting life pass me by. If I drift, what does that do for my children? How will I react when the chips are down, and I need to be strong for my kids, and maybe for my partner? Specifically, what does it mean to be resilient, and am I capable of courage?
When I turned 50 a couple of years ago, my mid-life crisis wasn’t to have an affair, or to buy a Harley Davidson. I wanted to test myself, physically and mentally. So I registered to run a half marathon, and a week later to participate in Melbourne’s annual Around The Bay In A Day cycling challenge. With very little – and I mean very little – training, I completed the half marathon within 3 hours, and I rode 210km in one day. The blood blisters on my butt were a bit much, though.
I guess those things don’t really prove if I have either courage or resilience.
Resilience is what you can do every day, when the alternative to drifting or doing nothing, is to do something, to actively challenge and deal with the difficulties one faces.
I’m a Registered Nurse by profession, and for nine years I was a case manager in a youth mental health service, providing community-based care to young people and their families. Some of the young people I worked with showed amazing resilience. No matter what tricks their mind was playing on them, no matter what horrendous side-effects they experienced from the medication, no matter how many friends drifted away, some of these kids displayed absolutely amazing resilience & courage.
If the chips were ever down, for me, could I do the same? It’s been an ongoing puzzle.
Earlier this year, when my Dad was diagnosed with cancer in his neck and at the base of his tongue (and after I’d had my own brush with the big C, in the form of an SCC on my neck), I subscribed to an online cancer support forum, Cancer Connections. Even though I don’t currently have cancer, I’ve found the support and courage shown by some of the forum contributors absolutely amazing.
None more so than Deb who recently posted about facing terminal cancer. This is what she wrote:
Early this year I was found to have a very advanced colorectal cancer, stage 4, with no possible cure. I had ended up in the A & E department of our local hospital after my bowel had perforated and now had gangrene, emergency surgery was done to remove the primary cancer and 23 lymph nodes, 10 of which were cancerous, my liver was found to have extensive secondary’s and also one tumour in the lung.
I mean, what would you do, faced with the news out of the blue that there was no possible cure for what you were experiencing?
Deb commenced chemotherapy, as she was advised that it would help contain the disease, and possibly buy her more time. The chemo was horrendous, and excruciating, and her quality of life actually plummeted. She needed to change tack. She needed the courage to stick up her hand and say: “excuse me, this is shit, I’d like to try something else please”. So, with a new oncologist, she thought through the options.
Deb went on to write:
To start with my new oncologist told me that I was the boss here, she would give me all the information, offer treatment options, answer questions but in no way would I be told what I should do, that I was the only one who knew how I felt and what I wanted to do, based on being given facts, no guesses about how long I might have doing this or that, why? Because we are all different, our cancers are all different in as much as we are at different stages, no two people have the same side effects and we are all different when it comes to what we want from our last months of life.
Read again that last phrase: we are all different when it comes to what we want from our last months of life.
I believe Deb’s sentiments are truly heart felt, but I don’t think – when faced with how we might approach being caught between a rock and a hard place – some people would actually know what they want. That is, only some people actually would have the courage to say: “hang on, I know I don’t have long to live, but could we try something else, please, this isn’t good enough?”
Courage, and its foundation, resilience, comes from the capacity to not be overwhelmed in a situation when we could easily just give up and do nothing. As Deb went on to say:
I have not as some people might think given up the fight, what do I fight is my question to you? I am taking back control here, I want to be able to do the things we all take for granted, I know and accept that my time is running out, but then so is everyone’s, mine just a bit sooner than I would have liked but I have to say there are far worse ways to die than this one and for that I am grateful.
So I have chosen quality over quantity, never think for one moment it has been an easy choice but it is mine and only someone who is in this situation can understand how it really feels.
When I finished reading her post, I was overwhelmed. I wanted to honour her courage, to say something, to acknowledge her bravery: so I posted a comment along those lines, but still felt in awe of what she was doing.
Deb replied to my comment, and this was telling, and makes a point about courage very eloquently:
I don’t consider myself to have much courage, more like I have limited options and have chosen the one that works best for me.
Courage is believing there will always be an option. Courage means making a choice to do something. Courage is a form of action, not acquiescence.
People who are courageous develop resilience from an early age. Resilience develops because a child has an older role model to look up to, and because a child learns it is possible to face challenges, and to deal with them – no matter how big or small the challenge – with courage, grace, and drive.
As I left for work this morning, the kids were on the couch, getting their morning dose of ABC 4 Kids.
With Deb’s reflections in mind, and in the knowledge that our youngest, Gracie, has a chromosomal disorder that will affect her for the rest of her life (even though my partner and I, and both Grace & Max are getting on with life, and trying to tackle Gracie’s difficulties head-on, every day), if I don’t have much courage or resilience, could my kids have some please?
They’re going to need it.