Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lighten up, Candide, it'll be okay.


It's been a long time since I first made that joke. When faced with grim circumstance, sometimes the best we can do is to simply ignore whatever dire outcome may result, and just keep on trying.

Denial gets a bad wrap. It absolutely can become a very dangerous tool in a life, we've all seen that happen around us at times. Sometimes though, there is no action that can be taken to head off disaster, and that's where a goodly dose of denial can be a sanity saving device.

I made my now oft used Candide joke to my orthopedic surgeon. Following a car accident, which had not been my fault, I needed to have a fair amount of surgical reconstruction performed on my right heel in order to stand much of a chance of walking again. My surgeon was a funny, placid sort of man. Unlike most stereotypes of surgeons, he had a dry wit. A gentle personality completely missing the cliched arrogance associated with surgeons. If there was a man you could trust to cut you open, he would be it. A bomb could go off in an operating theater and he'd mildly raise an eyebrow in the general direction of the disaster, and get back to the task at hand. It was my misfortune that this accident had happened just prior to Christmas, and that surgery would be performed on New Year's Day. It was not a particularly festive season that year, but all things considered, I had been exceptionally fortunate.

My surgeon was telling me, in his completely unflappable way, of the many and varied things that could go dreadfully wrong, as he was required to do. Informed patients aren't merely easier to treat, it helps head off future lawsuits. When he got to the part about the myriad of terrors associated with having a tourniquet just below my knee for hours, while I was completely unconscious, I told him to lighten up, Candide, it would be okay.

We got each other. We both understood grim humor, and in what was actually an amusing fifteen minutes, we took every possible dour outcome to a hilarious end. If I lost my leg due to the tourniquet, I'd just get an eye-patch and a parrot, while adopting a Salty Dog persona. That sort of thing. My surgeon knew that I really did understand the risks.

Why be so cavalier? I had no choice in the matter. Don't get me wrong, I could have skipped the surgery but my ability to walk would have been severely compromised, and the likelihood that I'd have severe circulatory issues was rather high. It was surgery or bust for me.

Everything turned out well. I was lucky then, and I tend to be lucky. My troubles right now aren't even really mine.

Voltaire's Candide never really had much turn out well, but he kept moving forward. If he was on a ship in the sea, he would naturally be swept overboard, but plucked from the drink. If he was foolish enough to drink to the health of a king, he'd end up being conscripted into the army and nearly flayed alive when he tried to do the sensible thing and desert. Candide had some rotten luck, epically so.

We all feel a little bit like Candide, at times. It's a very funny book, by the way, if you are a fan of satiric humor. If you aren't, it's fairly appalling, I suppose.

My mother-in-law reminds me of Candide. That poor woman, she once wanted to be a Rockette but instead she married my husband's father, and together they followed the Catholic family planning that led to seven children. This has been an adventure fraught with much peril. When her husband was suddenly killed seven years ago, on she carried. She just kept going forward. I'll spare you the many calamities that have surrounded her voyage through the sea of life, but the seas, they have been rough. Two children currently suffering from severe drug addictions. Some mental illness that are equally pronounced. One grandchild born with grim prognosis, predicting an early death from a condition for which there is no cure.

At the end of this week my mother-in-law will have surgery and later that same day she'll find out how far her recently diagnosed breast cancer has spread. It hardly feels like a time to make merry and a person less deserving of yet another crisis I'd have a hard time naming.

When we asked her what we could do, anything, name it! Her reply was simple, "I just want to act like everything is normal. Give me your Christmas Lists. I love the holidays, I love to shop!" and she genuinely means it.

My mother-in-law, a good soul who keeps stumbling forward into life, hoping everything will eventually work out. I truly hope she gets a good outcome this time, and I thought back to that time when there was no choice but to await whatever grim outcome may or may not be.

All she wants is a healthy dose of denial for a bit. She deserves it. Since there is nothing I can do but hope against hope for her, my husband and his family, it's time to embrace the denial. Slight problem: I had no idea for what to ask. None. Nada. Zilch. My mind was a yawning chasm and my list was due today.

I was standing in the shower, staring off into space, thinking of Candide and wondering what to tell my mother-in-law, whose request is so logical, and kind, "Please distract me. Give me something to do. Treat me like all is well. I love the holidays."

Hemingway, a writer I don't particularly admire, used to refer to a blank page as something like "The White Bull". Most of the time I want to commit Hemingway's prose to flames whenever I think of it, but a blank mind feels much the same. Having been given a task, the one thing that could genuinely help, I was covered in what my son would refer to as "epic fail".

All she wants is to have a happy holiday, I thought, think of something! Anything at all. Something that would make her feel festive and capable. Distract her, for the love of all that is good and decent. I couldn't think of a thing. It was vaguely amusing in a horrible sort of way, what in the world was wrong with me?

When someone actually tells you what you can do for them, it would be awfully nice to actually do it. Ease her mind a bit, but my own had seized like an overheated engine.

She just wants to celebrate the things she can. She just wants to wrap presents, and take care of the people she loves, I thought. I have a nimble mind, I've always had a nimble mind, what was wrong with me?

And then the blogs saved me.

I went tearing out of the shower, grabbing a robe as I went, and emailed my sister-in-law with the list my mother-in-law had requested by today.

You saved Candide, Jo, Kathryn, Jennifer, just to name a few. There are many more.

"Tell her I need Christmas decorations, please. Anything, the brighter, the cheerier, the better. Go nuts! Scottie shaped Santas, plaid snowmen, CDs of Christmas music. If it sings carols in an electronic voice? I want it to be mine."

If you wonder what good you have done in the universe recently, I will tell you: You helped a widowed mother of seven grown children, staring down the barrel of a bad luck once again, forget her troubles. Blog after blog talking about the season, featuring pictures of ornaments, and trees, talking about who made what, and from where your ornaments, and memories came.

She'll be able to surround herself with decorations, perusing them for hours, and looking them over carefully. I can't think of anything that will make her happier.

"That's perfect, I knew you'd think of something. That will make her so happy." My sister-in-law almost immediately replied.

Actually, it wasn't me. It was you. Yes, you.

May the blessings of the season be yours. Thank you all so much. What good do blogs do?

Today they helped poor, beleaguered Candide, indeed.

37 comments:

DUTA said...

There are times in our life when we feel so helpless, that we badly need someone to stretch the arm towards us , help us with a good word, an idea, a suggestion - anything that might ease our helplessness.

May God help your mother-in-law get a good outcome ,and strenghten you and your family in this difficult hour.

Nancy said...

What a terrific post. Yes! Ornaments! What could be more festive? And it will take lots of time surrounded by them to make a proper choice. So glad you gleaned just the right information to make a great choice.

Blessings to your MIL. I hope this outcome is a good one.

Jennifer D said...

God Bless her and her family.

Sometimes denial is in order. The other option is too much to bear.

I think the spirit of giving(fun from shopping)and the resurgence of memories that ornaments can bring are "Happy Accidents" caused by the commercialization of the birth of Jesus.
I mean... one of my favorite Christmas memories is going to South Coast Plaza in Orange County CA. I don't remember wanting anything. I didn't care that we couldn't afford to shop...much.
I wanted to see people shopping and I needed to see the window displays. Santa's Village was magical to me. I miss that.
If I was a small part of the Christmas Magic that happened in you, I am grateful. I think your idea is fantastic.

Viva Candide!

PS- I have no idea who that is... I am going to look it up right now.

Amy said...

Alane, A very touching post written by someone who obviously cares about others - a selfless soul you are!

Isn't it great when a great idea comes to you in the shower? I actually read an article not too long ago that points to the scientific reason that happens.

This time of year is stressful regardless of whatever else is going on in one's life. I think the way you describe denial (and, yes, I know it well), is right on. Sometimes you just have to go with it. Your MIL is very fortunate to have you in her life.

Thoughts and prayers coming your direction for a good outcome and peace along the way.

Jo said...

You know what, Alane? I had little goosebumps all over my arms when I read this. It is beyond wonderful, just for starters...! As long as we are alive, we can celebrate life. Someone with cancer crosses over that invisible line that separates the people with cancer from the people without cancer. The people with cancer don't want to be there. They just want everything to be normal, and they want to celebrate life. That is the best gift you can give your mother-in-law, and the best gift you can receive from her.

Would you please tell her Jo says, Merry Christmas...!

Cheers!

Hilary said...

Aww what a wonderful post. Your mother in law may have more than her share of bad luck but she hit the jackpot with her daughter in law.

The Bug said...

I remember buckets of denial when my Mom had cancer (with not the happy outcome I wish for your MIL!). She just would NOT discuss the future, and she put makeup on until the week before she died. And that worked for her. She cleaned houses (her job), did the black Friday thing, played bridge, until the moment she was too sick to do those things. I could never decide if that was the best thing for ME, but at the time it was appropriately all about HER.

Land of shimp said...

Thank you, DUTA. I don't really have adequate words to express how grateful I am for the good thoughts for my MIL, so I'll settle for a heartfelt "Thank you."

We do sometimes feel helpless in life, don't we? Something that unites us all. I think that's why it's especially important to try and do what we can do to offer support to someone in those circumstances. Empathy will always kick the butt of sympathy.

Thank you, Nancy. That was my thinking about it, "Hey, this will distract her! Immersion in festive things!" and I was so grateful to find out that the answer that seemed to have been eluding me, wasn't actually elusive. It was there all along, I just hadn't realized it.

I was also really grateful that my MIL knew what would help her. That's such a gift to others, too. "Here's what you can do, and it will help." She does feel helpless, but I was really caught by the fact that in asking for specific help, she made us all feel much less helpless. Like I said, she's a very good soul.

Jennifer, yes, there is something magical about the season, and that feeling of being included in joy that isn't necessarily directly ours is a wonderful one.

One of the most remarkable things about Candide is the circumstances under which Voltaire wrote it, by the way. An appreciation of absurdity can really help people overcome.

Amy, thank you so much. I think what's wonderful about people is how much we really do extend ourselves towards others. I see that in the people around me all that time.

I wish we were closer, and that's a worry. My MIL is in Ohio, and we're in Colorado. There are likely to be logistics to work out when she needs help. We'll figure it out, I'm sure.

I just thought it was really sort of special that the thing that helped me bridge the miles, was something that helps us all bridge miles.

I will tell my mother-in-law exactly, and precisely that, Jo! I frequently tell her tales from the internet, she's not online, and she finds the internet to be sort of a magical kingdom, complete with possible dragons but also, many wondrous tales :-) Thank you so much, sincerely.

Thank you, Hilary. My husband had a wonderful childhood, thanks in very great part to his mom. He'll tell the most marvelous stories, all true, about his mom, particularly memories surrounding the holidays. When she would make pies, all the seven kids got their own miniature crust, to make their own little pie. New Year's Eve was Fondue and noise makers.

She created wonderful memories, that's for sure.

The Bug, I know exactly what you mean. Is this the best thing for her kids? I don't know, what I do know is that I'm really not kidding when I say my husband has idyllic memories of his childhood, and that is thanks to his mom (and his dad, but his dad traveled a great deal for his work).

He'll tell stories about the time, back when his mom only had four kids, pulling them around the furnace in a huge basement, telling them Ghost Stories for Halloween.

She made raising kids about her kids and she was a very mom-like mom. She catered to her kids to an almost amusing extent. Seven kids aren't going to like the same foods, so for years she made two entrees for dinner!! (I mean, holy cats, that's a ton of work).

Now she wants something from them, and if anyone deserves to have something be about HER first, foremost and all importantly? She does.

I think that's why I froze almost solid, sort of dazed by the importance of trying to get this right. It is so, so rare for her to make anything about her...and it still isn't, when you look closely at it. She still wants to create lovely memories, and do for others, as her means of coping.

I know your mom didn't have a good outcome, but it's very clear how much you loved her and still do. Just that little story you related makes it so clear why :-)

Miss OverThinker said...

You are absolutely right, sometimes denial does wonder. I have had numerous examples in my own life where I have had to rely on denial until I had enough strength to handle what life was throwing at me.. ofcourse my perils pale in comparison to what your mother in law must have gone through but a dose of denial once in a while deserves more credit than people give it..

Your MIL is truly lucky to have someone like you in her life..I hope she recovers from this surgery fully healthy like she's recovered from all of her life's struggles..

Kyle said...

Alane, what a terrific holiday message!

If you wake up, that is a good reason to celebrate life and move forward. If you see someone in need of something, give it to them if you can.

Empathy, perspective, compassion, and love, they are all free and they are all we need.

Nicole said...

A great post! I send prayers your mother-in-law's way.

The Bug said...

Is your MIL anywhere near me? I'm in Xenia, but work in Cincinnati. This is sounding VERY familiar - have we already discussed this?

Barry said...

When faced with a dire fate we have to be careful what we deny is that we are still living.

And Christmas is coming.

I'm with your mother-in-law all the way.

Excellent post, by the way.

Land of shimp said...

Helloooo, MOT. I think we all have examples of a good, protective uses of denial within our lives, and bad ones. "I'm going to deny that right now, put it on the back burner, and continue on so that my life does not fall apart. My system will overload if I look at this head on, therefore I'm going to have to take it in very small doses, and wait for some system recovery."

Denial starts out as a coping tool, and it is a really necessary one at times. It turns into a tool of destruction within a life if it becomes our only coping tool though.

It's kind of a fascinating concept...the very things that save us, when used in the wrong way, can really bite us in the backside.

People: We're all beautiful messes, you know?

Kyle, thank you. I really, really agree. A great deal in life is solved when we make the attempt to actively access our better selves. To choose our better impulses over our lesser ones and simply treat one another with kindness, compassion and decency.

It is a struggle, but thankfully, it is one we can choose to win, action, by action. Word by word.

And it's okay that we fail sometimes, as long as we keep trying to do better. It's funny that the most important things in life have at their core a stunning level of simplicity.

Heh, kind of obvious that I'm a behaviorist, isn't it? Start by trying, and all that :-)

Thank you very much, Nicole. I really do appreciate the good thoughts being sent her way.

The Bug, she's just outside of Dayton -- although, my husband once told me that there was more than one suburb with the name of hers, she's in Centerville. I'm pretty sure that's the one he told me that there are multiples of in Ohio, which is funny, and ironic thought. "Centerville...implying that it's at the center...and yet? Not so much."

I think that's closer to Columbus than Cincinnati, but I confess to not being overly familiar with Ohio.

Barry, I'm going to admit that when she first told us this news, you were one of the people I thought of first.

Who's really in denial, you know? She musn't deny that, no matter the results, at this time, she is still living.

But there is some truth to the notion that we are, all of us, engaged in the business of dying, every moment of our lives. That's part of what living is...moving, hopefully slowly, towards our ends.

And...again...that's an instance of the good form of denial for all of us. People can get really caught up in the "I'm not sure there is a point to all that we do." Sure there is. We are each others point. Experience and feeling, just being around each other.

I think she made a very good choice to simply enjoy what she has right now.

I'm also truly, incredibly grateful that when I thought I couldn't think of anyway to help, it actually turned out that others had been showing me the way to help. When I say you were one of the first people I thought about, it's true, and it's also precisely how I was able to say, "And I think that's a good decision." because on your blog, whereas you don't deny your cancer, or your fight against it, you aren't choosing to define your existence by some bad, really bad, cells.

You're fighting the bad ones, and making sure you live to your darnedest with the good ones.

That's basically what Sharon is already deciding to do and you are one of the people who made that immediately click for me. You also helped me make my husband understand his mom's wishes.

Thank you.

Frances Tyrrell said...

My attempted replies to this very evocative post are getting far too long!
(1) I hope your MIL has a good outcome, she certainly deserves it.
(2) "Lighten up Candide", so true, and you are making me laugh (having had to deal with Dr's and a minor cancer recently).
An even longer note is on my reply to your very lovely comment on my blog,for which I thank you.
Blessings,
F

Amy said...

Glitter and Be Gay was my constant song that I used to audition when I was in college...Great Show!!

Great post thanks for pointing those things out.

Let us know how it all turns out.

Amy

The Bug said...

We're going to Centerville today! (Yes, there are SEVEN in Ohio - guess they're all the center of something - but only one near Dayton). There's a really good bbq place there & I've been craving it... It's about 20-30 minutes from us depending on traffic.

Land of shimp said...

Hi Frances, thank you so much for the good thoughts. We're still in waiting mode here, but should know more by Friday. A day we sort of dread and anticipate at the same time.

I'm glad I made you laugh! Really, I know doctors pretty much have to do that -- "I now must impress upon you the potential gravity of this situation...for legal reasons more than anything..." It's just that sitting through some of those "You understand this is a cover-my-butt, worst-case-scenario talk that we must have..." Ends up sounding like some really dour prognosticator, as if you've accidentally walked into the office of Dr. Eeyore.

I'm not familiar with that one, Amy, but it sounds quite cheerful!

I hope you had a lovely time in one of the seven Centervilles, The Bug!! (Good lord, who thought that was a workable idea? "I need directions to Centerville!" becoming quite the lengthy answer, I guess). I've been there, and really, it's a rather nice place. Bit flat, but pretty. Really good Indian Food place, which is always appreciated.

Brian Miller said...

i do hope that your MIL comes through everything ok...so sweet you were able to grant her wish...congrats on the POTW mention.

Sandi McBride said...

I have a feeling that this amazing woman will have a wonderful Christmas surrounded by her family and friends. Recovery often depends on one's attitude and she seems to have just the attitude it will take to overcome a lot of obstacles. Medicine has so advanced in the past decades that much has been done to make sure the survival rate is higher now more than ever. Our prayers go out and up for her! Because I truly believe that Prayer works.
Sandi
ps
Congratulations on Post of the Week!

Land of shimp said...

Hello Brian, and Sandi :-) Thank you for the visit, and thank you very much for the well wishes for Sharon.

Sandi, you are absolutely correct -- she will have a Merry Christmas, regardless of whatever life hands her. That is the sort of person she is.

Thank you so much.

LadyFi said...

She sounds like an amazing woman, who may well win out over her situation. I know it's a cliche, but it's not our disasters that define, but rather the way we face them.

I think both you and your MIL have faced this situation with love.

ds said...

Here from Hilary's to congratulate you on your POTW nod and also your courage, determination, and inventiveness. Ornaments! Perfect!

I hope that your mother-in-law's situation has a positive outcome.She is so lucky to have you.

Land of shimp said...

Thank you, Ladyfi. You know, I'm not quite sure what to hope for my MIL at this stage. She's got a very tough road ahead, and I just wish she could be well.

That's not within my power, but she's a funny person, with a fighting heart. Thank you very much for the good wishes for her.

Thank you very much, ds both for the well wishes, and for the visit. I really appreciate both a great deal :-)

Margo said...

so well said. Thanks for putting words to this part of life which we all at some point share. Hope your MIL has a great outcome! You are all very lucky to have each other (you were even more lucky to have dry witted, kind surgeon :)

Dianne said...

I came here from Hilary's place

you're blessed with supreme story telling abilities

I saw so much of my own life in this story

I wish you and your family all good things

smiles4u said...

What a great post with great messages for all. Wow! I pray your mother-in-law gets good news. Congrats on POTW mention! Blessing to you and yours.

gaelikaa said...

I don't think it's so much denial as defiance in the face of disaster. Good for her. She may very well beat that cancer. Congrats on the POTW mention.

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