Vanessa is retreating more and more to her own place in her head these days. Even if she is sitting with us in a room, it doesn’t mean she is participating in, or even aware of, whatever conversation is going on there. Her desire to talk at all is slowly shrinking (while she certainly still has her chatty and story-telling urges!). In many moments I feel more and more disconnected with her, like we have less and less to talk about, or less and less we can process at the same level. It feels as if we are drifting on separate rafts in a big ocean. I have to work really hard to keep up conversation, ask questions, and engage. If I am not doing this (and I can’t be doing it all the time), there may be no conversation at all, for long periods of time.
While I know that silence isn’t inherently bad, I do often worry when we sit silently in a room together. As I’m working at my “desk” (a tv tray at the couch) in her living room, while she scours Facebook looking for “live sincerely” sign pictures (and occasionally making her own!), I worry that she is feeling alone or sad or tired or whatever. I wonder if she feels abandoned when I am unable to think of anything to say and we are sitting in the same room but working on different things. Vanessa even sometimes leaves the room I’m in to go watch TV downstairs or something, and then I worry that my presence is of so little help that she doesn’t care if she is sitting with me, at all.
Last Thursday V and I went to Thai Taste near her house for lunch. We had the usual nice meal there, not really talking about much on a deep sense, but keeping the conversation going the whole time, which felt like a success. After we ate, Vanessa did her traditional posed picture with the palms-together lady statue near the front door, which we take every time we go there.
As we took the picture, I for some reason stepped out of my own head for a minute, stopped my worry about how V was feeling, or what she was thinking. I just listened to Vanessa. She pointed out that she wasn’t exactly like the statue lady she was posing with there, because her sweatshirt was smooth while the statue lady had bumpy clothes. I hadn’t noticed her “bumpy clothes” before, despite having taken and later looked at many pics of this exact same statue. Together, Vanessa and I took 3 minutes to really check her out, our Thai lady friend. How she seems to be carved out of a single log. The high bun in her hair. The rich texture her clothes sure do have carved in there, the intricate details of each different item. I saw the level of the world Vanessa’s brain looks at, while I am usually out there having complex thoughts, sure, but staying oblivious to much of the world still.
After lunch that day, we made our customary post-lunch stop for a little bit of craft shopping, and then, we started the drive back to her house. Every time I am with Vanessa, often when we are alone, I try to ask a “deep question” – this isn’t anything really deep you may think of, but it is deeper than we’re usually going, with V, these days. It can be “So are you worried about anything?”, “What are you looking forward to next?”, etc. I try to purposefully do this, as V on her own won’t really bring up this sort of thing herself, but she does answer my questions easily if I ask. Thus I like to prompt that level of shared interaction, when I can.
This particular Thursday last week, the question I asked her was: “How are you feeling, just one word, this exact moment?”
Vanessa didn’t have to think for even a second. She looked over at me in the driver’s seat, and answered in one word, just like I had asked for: “Awesome.”
I was somewhat shocked by that, so I just dumbly grinned, as I desperately willed my eyes to stay focused on the road. And then after a beat she followed up her one word with “Just, awesome. And, you know why?”
Vanessa: “Because we are together!”
To keep from crying, or my heart bursting out of my chest, or wrecking my car, it was all I could do to reach over and set up for a high five, which she gamely delivered as we both said “I love you!”
Here I was, worrying about her feeling alone, and me worrying about not doing enough or not reaching her, and she was sitting there, silently, but feeling, in her words, awesome. And, because she simply was with me, doing nothing in particular, just being, together. In the silent moment before I offered my question, I had been worrying, and she was content. Still dying, still hurting, still confused, still losing so much… but comforted by being with me.
I was reminded, in that sweet exchange that I will never forget, of 2 things we all need as part of this trying to live sincerely:
(1) To talk to each other. Ask questions, really listen to answers, and earnestly share our thoughts. When we don’t talk, we speculate, worry, and assume – often incorrectly. We may base major decisions and life choices on guesses instead of information – and that risk seems extra pointless when in order to know the truth, it’s sometimes as easy as a conversation. What are you worrying about, dreading, figuring? What relationships do you have that would benefit from a solid give-and-take conversation? (From my perspective: all of them!) What can you ask of someone and immediately then have real knowledge to go on instead of assumptions and unsure concerns? What are you biting your tongue on, not saying, but wishing you would? In the case of Vanessa, I can’t probe or offer anything very deep any more, and I so very much miss that – but I can still draw her out as much as I can, to know her heart as best as she can share. However, most of our relationships in life don’t have this communication barrier, so nothing should be stopping us from sharing, asking, telling, listening.
(2) To believe in our power. Let’s be done with the perfection quests. How often do we over-think things? How often do we do nothing because we are afraid of not doing enough or not being perfect? How often do we compare ourselves to others, or some arbitrary standard we think is expected of us? How often do we lose sleep wondering if we are doing enough? I offer the suggestion that we all would be better off if we gave up trying to do it all, give everything, be perfect. Sometimes the littlest things ARE the best, and the easiest things we can do are the most worthwhile to those we love. Don’t forget to notice the good you do, the impact you make, just being your imperfect self. By all means we should continue to try, to strive to be our best selves- but we shouldn’t let fear or doubt stop us from doing the good we are capable of.
As I tried to fall asleep later that night, I kept thinking of that word, so confidently delivered: Awesome. That wonderful slang word from our childhood in the 80’s. Of all the words Vanessa could have chosen, she chose that one; out of the depths of her confused, tumor-riddled brain, that word had jumped to the top as the easy answer to my question. I had worried about her the whole morning for lots of other things: her inward isolation, some new chest pain she has been mentioning, her slowing walk and comprehension. But she didn’t answer my “How are you feeling?” with any of those words I worried about: Lonely, tired, worried, alone, scared, sick, hurting, frustrated. V was, instead, in her mind, simply feeling AWESOME.
And in that word, she evaporated my self-directed worries too, the worries that I wasn’t doing enough, or was doing the wrong things. Suddenly again I had trust in our 31 years of togetherness, the millions of shared moments, all the conversations, the experiences we’ve had as sisters and friends… to believe that just being with her was helping her. How sad I had doubted that, and what a testimony to love that one simple question asked, and the loving, pure answer, was all it took to restore my faith in it.
I still feel like Vanessa and I are on separate rafts in a big ocean. I guess we all are. But now I am remembering the strong and short rope of love tied between our rafts, keeping us close, no matter where we drift, together. Even in silence, even in darkness, I can pull on that rope, and feel her tug back. We can drift apart a little ways, but the rope lets us pull back in close whenever either of us needs it.
Cancer has taken so much from Vanessa and us who love her. But cancer will never be able to take our awesome love.