A backpack filled with stones

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By Caitlin Kelly

Had a conversation this week with a friend facing some serious health stuff. She’s not getting the support she needs and someone who should be there for her is instead adding to her very considerable stress by not being useful and making needed changes.

No one wants a backpack filled with stones.

I won’t be more specific but it was clear to me — as someone who’s had health issues (that oh-so-American euphemism for cancer) since June 2018 — that the minute you get a shitty diagnosis (or lose your job or face the loss of a loved one), your life is now weighted down in ways that may appear invisible to others but are very, very heavy and something you (mostly) alone are carrying.

Shame — especially in the U.S. where being “unproductive”, ill and needy is somehow taboo — adds yet another damn boulder.

Unless you can drop the backpack — and ask for help and count on getting it — having to listen to anything stupid, thoughtless or callous (and there’s plenty of it out there, from friends, family and medical staff) only adds another few stones.

No one wants that pack.

No one wants to carry it, sometimes for months or even years.

In tough times, their pack is already filled with grief and fear and physical pain and exhaustion and guilt and anxiety.

Carrying it isn’t much of a choice, even as others call you “brave” and “tough” and call out “you can fight this.”

If you know someone facing tough times, please do anything you possibly can to lighten their load.

Diminish that pack.

 

Do not add one more stone.

 

It’s called growing up

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Been standing on my own two feet for a long, long time

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I read this story and wanted to weep….at how crazy this is:

Bribing SAT proctors. Fabricating students’ athletic credentials. Paying off college officials. The actions that some wealthy [American] parents were charged with Tuesday — to secure their children a spot at elite colleges — are illegal and scandalous. But they’re part of a broader pattern, albeit on the extreme end of the continuum: parents’ willingness to do anything it takes to help their grown children succeed.

As college has become more competitive and young adults’ economic prospects less assured, parents have begun spending much more time and money on their children — including well after they turn 18. Modern parenting typically remains hands-on, and gets more expensive, when children become young adults, according to a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.

A significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life, found the survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,508 people ages 18 to 28 and 1,136 parents of people that age. More than half of parents give their adult children some form of monthly financial assistance.

 

I often wonder how I might have turned out if this sort of behavior was normal in my life.

Here’s my college experience:

— Lived at home in Toronto with father and his girlfriend, 13 years my senior, for my freshman year. No additional responsibilities, got terrific grades.

— In November of sophomore year, father announces I need to move out and find a place to live as they are selling the house to live on a boat in the Mediterranean. This is many decades before email or cellphones.

— I get $350 a month from my grandmother to live on. This pays my rent on a studio apartment ($160/month, terrible neighborhood), tuition ($660/year), food, phone and answering service, books. Everything, basically. The monthly income from my maternal grandmother wasn’t enough so I started freelancing at the age of 19 to supplement it.

— My mother was traveling the world alone for years, also far far away. I saw her maybe once a year when she flew me to wherever she was. Sort of fun, mostly weird.

— During my university years, I lived alone, was attacked in my apartment while taking a bath, moved, moved again, suffered some health issues, started writing for national magazines. And attended and graduated from the most demanding  and least nurturing (53,000 students) school in Canada.

— In those three years, I had no relatives to check in on me. Just friends. That established a lifelong pattern for me; friends as family.

 

So, you know, this kind of intense parenting strikes me as completely nuts.

 

The only reason I was able to get people twice my age to give me ongoing well-paid assignments was being responsible, meeting deadlines, delivering excellence. Was I mature enough to handle all this alone? Well, I had to be. I had no choice.

The New York Times quotes a survey finding that 74 percent of American parents are making medical appointments for their college-age children, the same percentage reminding them not to miss deadlines for tests and classwork.

I mostly loved my independence in those years. I dated all the wrong boys, made some great friendships, wrote a lot for our weekly student newspaper, led a student exchange with UNC-Chapel Hill that was life-changingly great. Jump-started my career.

Neither parent attended my graduation.

 

What do you think of this relentless parenting?

 

Do you do it?

 

Have you experienced it?

When estrangement feels right

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It’s not an easy decision to make

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s still a social taboo, to cut off contact with a parent or child and/or a sibling, sometimes for months or years, and sometimes forever.

Divorce is now almost banal in many cultures — but not estrangement from your family of origin, held up in most cultures as sacrosanct, the place they have to, and always will, take you in.

But that’s not true for many people, and I’m one of them.

My mother and I gave up our strained relationship in 2010 — 2011? — and while I send an annual Christmas card and letter, no reply. Having run through a large inheritance, she lives in a charity nursing home a seven hour flight away. I’m her only child, but a local woman my age made sure to be cruel to me, and triumphantly replace me.

The details are too tedious, and yes it hurts sometimes, but how much energy can you keep wasting on a relationship? Alcoholism and poorly managed mental illness, both in my mother, destroy many relationships. If one person isn’t willing to work with the other toward a tenable relationship, it ends.

And the break may come when things don’t look that bad to an outsider — but there’s been one final straw and decades of forbearance just explode. With the agency of adulthood, you’re done.

I recently had yet another fraught phone encounter with my father, one of too many over the decades. We’ve had years when we simply don’t speak or visit.

There are calm and affectionate periods when it all looks like it will be OK….and then it’s not.

Again.

 

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When every encounter feels like incoming warfare, flee!

 

I know why. I’ve read books and done therapy.

It’s difficult to dismiss your parents for good. They’re the only ones we get. As it is, one of my two half-brothers cut me off 11 years ago and didn’t invite us to his recent lavish wedding. (There are four adult children in our “family” — from four women, two wives, two affairs. It’s no Hallmark card.)

The damage that prolonged estrangement, if you wish otherwise, can inflict on one’s self-confidence is considerable — but no matter if you’re at midlife, being ignored or subjected to abusive language and anger are also corrosive and toxic.

I recently read a truly harrowing book whose author, badly abused for many years (emotionally) by her parents and siblings, also chose to cut them off — Tara Westover, author of the best-seller Educated. 

She grew up in rural Idaho and now lives in England.

I actually found her book re-traumatizing, between her family’s relentless verbal (and often physical) abuse, gaslighting and her unwillingness or inability to break free from all of it.

 

Have you ever been estranged from your family?

Did you resolve it?

 

19 years together — 19 reasons why

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy Valentine’s Day!

It was a chilly March evening when I first met my husband Jose at a long-gone French bistro, Le Madeleine, a midtown New York Times hangout — since he was then working there as a photo editor.

I’d been divorced since 1995, after a miserable two-year marriage, and seven years together, to an American physician I met when he was in his final year of med school at McGill in Montreal. We had no children and I didn’t want any.

I’d since been dating men I met through crewing on sailboats or online, with mixed success. One shattered my heart. One proposed at a Benihana. One wanted me to move with him to Houston.

I was writing an article about the then new world of online dating, one most people were too embarrassed to admit to needing. I did, and signed up to compare four services for Mademoiselle magazine.

Jose answered my ad — one of more than 200!

 

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Here’s how we’ve made it through 19 years:

 

PEPSI. Not the soft drink, but a helpful acronym when dating to determine potential longterm compatibility: professional, emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual. You don’t have to hit all five, but it’s a useful way to analyze an attraction.

— Shared professional ambitions. We’re both driven, successful, award-winning journalists.

Shared goals. We want to be as financially secure as possible, so save as much as we can. I’m more of a saver, but he’s the one who knows when it’s time to throw out 30-year-old kitchenware or to book a vacation.

— Shared work ethic. Huge. I see smart, hard-working women who put up with lazy men unable or unwilling to get shit done. Get a job! Keep the job! Clean the damn toilet!

It’s not a competition. Journalism is a brutally competitive business and it has been hard for me, at times, to earn barely a third of his Times salary. But now we’re both full-time freelance, hustling hard every month to find and keep clients, and whatever we win, we win and celebrate together.

— Lots of laughter. He doesn’t strike people as hilarious but he is. We laugh together every day.

— He cleans up well. Sue me. I really appreciate a man who smells great, (1881 cologne on our first date; swoon!), is well-groomed, whose trousers are the right length, who knows how to rock a vintage trenchcoat.

— He comes to church with me. I’m not a devout Christian by any stretch, but he’s the son of a Baptist minister, aka a PK (preacher’s kid.) He knows that having a spiritual life can be really helpful to life and to a strong marriage.

— I appreciate his Buddhism. I’ve met his lama, Surya Das, and members of his sangha, and we did a week-long silent Buddhist retreat the summer before we married.

 

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— Mutual respect. We say please and thank you all the time, for the simplest things, like taking out the garbage or buying groceries, all the tedious admin. of life. When we’re both working at home, in a one-bedroom with no office, we know to ask: “Can I talk to you?” in case we’re interrupting.

— Yes, we’ve fought. We fought hard and mean for the first few years, so much so that various couples counselors warned us to chill out or we would surely destroy what good we had. It took us a long time to settle down and trust one another, after our own bad/brief marriages, and after years of professional stress and emotional betrayals.

Travel.  A major source of shared pleasure. We’ve been to Paris many times, to Ireland and Mexico and Ontario and Quebec and British Columbia and D.C. and to his hometown, Santa Fe, and much of New Mexico.

— Calm. On 9/11, Jose was supposed to move from Brooklyn into my apartment some 30 miles north. Not that day! Instead, he helped the Times win its Pulitzer for photo editing those images. He does not freak out.

— Resilience. We’re both strong people and resilient. We don’t whine. We don’t indulge one another in pity parties. Shit happens and we deal with it. He accompanied me to every cancer-related appointment, sitting in the room with me and the doctor. He does not crack or flee.

— Food. We do love to cook and eat and eat out and eat well. Sometimes it seems this is what we talk about most, (except news.)

— Asking for help. We’ve done couples counseling and it’s helped. No marriage is going to be 100% conflict-free. Individual therapy also helps sort out whose demons are whose.

— Forgiveness. A cliche, but a powerful element. We’ve done and said hurtful things and, no doubt, may do more, although much less often than we once did. When you (re)marry at mid-life, you can arrive with a fair bit of baggage.

— Accepting our very real differences. He craves security and routine, preferring the known and familiar. I long for novelty and new experiences. I’m a prog-rock girl and he grew up loving heavy metal. I’m more social, but we both love to entertain at home.

— Knowing our time together  is always limited. My breast cancer diagnosis and his 2018 new use of insulin were a wake-up call to our mortality and fragility. We try not to waste a minute.

Bonus:

He’s just great company! Also, the most loving and giving person I’ve ever met.

 

Where do you find community?

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This was the Fireside Conference, three days in northern Ontario, with the most fun, smart, eclectic group I’ve ever met. I miss that!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Many people opine now about how lonely we are, staring into our screens alone at home instead of bowling with friends or joining a choir or a knitting club or…

I grew up in a Toronto boarding school, ages eight to 13, which was, technically, a community in one respect but I rarely felt welcomed and was often in trouble and shunned accordingly. Finally in Grade Nine, I was told not to return.

Ages 8 to 16, I attended three summer camps, the last one being perhaps the closest to my ideal community, combining a lot of personal freedom to explore, to test my athletic and artistic limits (and thrive in both), to make deep friendships, some of them still strong today, and to feel completely valued even though I was a quirky little thing.

The nostalgic scent of sun-dried pine needles, the typical smell of camp, to this day soothes me deeply.

Today, finding mid-life face-to-face community feels elusive. I attended little formal education in the U.S. (a few years part-time at design school) so I have no alumni networks. We have no kids.

My right knee is now bone-on-bone, so I’ve been forbidden to jump or run, (foregoing my coed softball team of 15 years.)

I can’t read music so unable to join a choir. (Yes, I could learn.)

My passions are specific and nerdy — like antique textiles — so other than online, where to find fellow enthusiasts? I am completely enjoying my Instagram feed, where I follow textile designers, collectors and dealers, learning a great deal from each of them.

I belong to at least a dozen online writers’ groups, but none offer what I deeply crave — really smart high-level discussions of craft, great ideas, inspiration. It’s often a moan-fest/brag-fest, and too many are just too young and inexperienced.

 

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Church? Not really. I love the physical space (our church was built in 1853), but I’m not a good fit within a wealthy, clique-y crowd.

Politics? Journalists are professionally expected to stay out of politics.

Neighbors? We live in an apartment building where (I counted!) I know almost half of our residents, by face or name (there are 100 apartments) but socially…No. Most are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, many quite ill and frail.

The rest, as is everyone here, obsessed with work and family.

I’m very grateful for a husband who is excellent company, but he’s not my everything, nor should he be!

So it’s a challenge…

Oddly, or not, the closest I’ve got is my three-times-week spin class, where I’ve made a good friend and know I am welcome and known. I like our town very much, and I “know” many locals by sight, (and vice versa), certainly independent businesses like the third-generation-owned hardware store and a few local restaurants. But to me, that’s not the same.

Where do you find true, lively, inspiring community?

 

Why it’s great to have friends of all ages

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In 2017, this was part of a fun Montreal afternoon I spent in the company of a young business-owner I met at a NYC conference and stayed in touch with

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story from my first employer — The Globe & Mail — about a terrific inter-generational friendship between a Kiana Eastmond, a young black entrepreneur in Toronto and Paul Copeland, her older Jewish landlord, that began thanks to $8,000 in her unpaid rent.

She finally managed to re-pay him, but the relationship was much more than transactional:

Falling $8,000 behind in rent, which seemed to her an insurmountable sum to pay back, she simply avoided him. When she finally ran into Mr. Copeland, who lived in the building, “I almost felt a sense of relief that he was finally going to evict me,” she says. “At least I wasn’t quitting. I’m not a quitter.”

But Mr. Copeland didn’t react the way she expected. “What’s going on?” he asked. She opened up and told him the truth. “I cried,” she says. He didn’t offer advice or a shoulder to cry on. He tossed the ball back in her court. “Figure it out,” he told her. “I want you to do what you told me you were going to do with this space.”…

The two ultimately became friends, hanging out and going to movies and concerts. He enjoyed her youth and energy. “I taught her about music,” he says. They both laugh. “No really,” she says. “He has this insane music collection, with slave hymns and gospel music.” He would drop by the studio and chat easily with whoever happened to be there.

As someone with friends who are decades younger, this doesn’t strike me as odd, but it is for some — why on earth would a 20 or 30-year-old want to hang out with someone “old”?

What would we have in common?

You name it!

Work, music, politics, travel, family issues…all the things that people just talk about. My father, at 89, has friends decades younger as my mother always did. I simply don’t buy the notion that being older or younger eliminates all the other reasons you might enjoy someone’s company.

And some of my much younger friends have already faced some really bad shit — like paternal or maternal health issues, mental and physical — that prematurely forced them into care-giving roles. I faced that myself, so I get it, and the complicated stew of filial duty and resentment it can create.

My younger pals are often those I’ve met through journalism and initially on-line. I make sure to have lunch with them whenever we’re in the same city, delighted they make time for me.

Another is 21 years younger but every time we’re in the same city, we end up talking so long that a lunch date turns into dinner.

 

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I’d never been to the amazing orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx — until a younger friend took me. So gorgeous!

 

True friendship is a meeting of minds  — and people who are curious, adventurous, smart, kind, fun and resilient are usually someone I want to know.

It’s not just me, of course.

American advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, writing for The Cut,  recently described  her friendship with  a woman who’s 93; she’s 48.

 

Speaking of which, I went to go visit that 93-year-old woman I met on the plane, the one I wrote about a few weeks ago. She had told me her birthday was coming up, so I brought her a birthday card.

But it was difficult. It made me feel dumb to show up at her house with a card. I felt embarrassed for some reason. I even felt a little stupid calling her earlier today, asking if she needed anything. I don’t have a ton of free time. I have a long list of things I should be doing. It feels dopey to call someone new, someone who is much older and probably has other things to do.

But this woman, I like her a lot. She is extremely interesting. She tells long-winded, wild stories. She plays poker and has a lot of friends. She even sang me a song that she wrote in 1968. She grew up during the Prohibition, motherfuckers. She’s had a lot of experiences and she’s made a lot of mistakes, and she doesn’t mind talking about them. She’s a very honest person.

 

Do you have any friends much older or younger?

 

How did you meet?

What do you enjoy about these relationships?

“You’re normal”

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Fragility is humbling and frightening

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a rough week, slowly recovering from my last radiation treatment — October 15 — and still fighting its cumulative fatigue and insane itchiness on my left breast. I was at my wits’ end, crying in public, (I almost never cry anywhere), just done.

I had a follow-up meeting with the radiation doctor, to be told I’d gained (!?) 10 pounds in six weeks and now needed blood tests to see why. This despite seeing my clothes fit more loosely and gaining compliments on my apparent weight loss.

Our GP, thankfully, saw us an hour later and did the tests; (I’m fine.)

But I started crying in his office, weary of all of it.

I apologized for being a big blubbering baby, ashamed and embarrassed by my inability to control my emotions.

“You’re normal,” he said, calmly and compassionately.

Jose, my husband, sat in the room with us, listening as I absorbed this pretty basic fact.

What, I’m not made of steel?

I’m…vulnerable?

Human?!

Kelly’s tend to be (cough) ambitious and driven; three of us won major national awards in the same month, when I was 41, my younger half-brothers then 31 and 18; I for my writing, they for business skills and for a key scientific discovery, (yes, the youngest!)

We tend to aim high, compete ferociously for as long as it takes, (each of my books, later published by major NYC houses, were rejected 25 times), and usually win, dammit!

We keep our emotions very close to the vest and keep small, tight circles of intimates. I don’t really do acquaintance.

 

Being weak, scared, in pain, exhausted and, even worse, letting others see us in this condition?

 

Terrifying.

I’m slowly getting used to it.

Compassion for my fragility is my new oxygen, as much for myself as the gratitude I feel for that shown to me.

 

 

Amid California’s hellfire, he saved a horse

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Welcome to hell — and Augie, a horse with, for the moment, nowhere safe to go. But read on…

All images in this post — NO REPOSTING! — courtesy of photographer PeterDaSilva.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

As anyone watching the news knows, parts of California have been devastated by wildfires, causing thousands to flee their homes and, so far, 71 to lose their lives — with more than 1,000 people missing —  the state’s deadliest fire in 17 years.

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

 

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

 

First responders and firefighters are helping residents flee to safety.

Including many pets and animals.

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

Members of the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team, Ashley Nola (left) and Catherine McFarren (right), tend to burns on a dog that was brought in to the Butte County Fair Grounds where large animals are being sheltered during the Camp Fire, as it continues to burn through the region, fueled by high winds in Butte County, California.

 

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

 

Redding policemen who promise to return, found a trailer to rescue Augie the horse after his owner had to leave him in a shopping center parking lot, as fire grew closer and she had to leave him since she had no way to get him out as the Camp Fire burned out of control through Paradise, California.

 

But so are some amazing journalists, one of them a dear friend, San Francisco-based photographer Peter daSilva, who I first met in 2012 when we worked on a New York Times story about Google together. He is a kind, gentle, meticulous professional.

I’m honored that Peter has allowed me to share his story here of helping a fleeing California woman save her beloved horse —– he’s been inundated with media requests, almost all of which he’s refused — but said I could tell it here, and to include his images, all of which were shot on assignment for the European Press Agency.

With his permission, I’ve reprinted the story (slightly edited) from his own Facebook page:

To Hilary Johnson and Augie of Paradise, Calif.- I just wanted to let you know that the three Redding law enforcement officers and myself kept our promise.

I met Hillary and Augie in a shopping center parking lot on the afternoon of Nov. 8th. She had just escaped the flames of the fire that burned through Paradise, CA with just the clothes on her back, riding Augie to a safe place.

Hillary lost her home and everything to the fire.

As she stood watching the impending movement of the fire with other residents of Paradise, law enforcement were encouraging all of us to leave, as the flames were just burning across the street.

While standing in the lot, Hillary in tears walked passed me. I stopped her to ask what was going on.

She had made the decision to set Augie free since there was no transport for him and she could not just leave him tied up in the lot.

As concern grew, three Redding officers who had rescued dogs left behind in abandoned homes talked her out of this decision. They were not going to let this happen…as instantly a brain storming session started on how to get Augie a ride. Aided with the help of locals, they were directed to a U-Haul location where they might be able to commandeer a trailer.

So off they went, setting off on a quest to save Augie.

So Hillary said her good byes, Can’t tell you how hard it was to watch that.

 

And yes I kept my camera at my side.

 

I promised her that I would stay as long as I could, to then cut Augie loose before the fire took over the area, as she and the other residents prepared to drive off to safety, with Augie tied to a shopping cart cage moved to a opening in the lot.

 

So there we were, Augie and I, standing in a parking lot ALONE with flames visible in the near distance, smoke turning day into night. Hoping for the officers to have found a trailer.

Funny what goes through your mind when you’re standing with a horse with hell surrounding you…

 

I put a blinking red LED light I use during protests on him, so he could be seen in the darkness of the choking smoke, if I did let him run.

Smoke continued to thickened darken the skies, when a truck with a utility trailer drove near — those three Redding officers!

With smiles on their faces, seeing we were still there. They spent no time getting the trailer opened. It took a little bit of coaxing to get him in to the trailer. About 5-10 minutes. Augie was amazingly calm and did what he needed to do.

Now it was time to leave, with three trucks, one with a utility trailer and myself. We convoyed through fire-lined streets of Paradise where I left them to continue to safety as I went back to work.

I have no idea if Hillary was reunited with him.

But I know I did the right thing.

 

Then the great news!

 

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Hillary and Augie have been reunited!

Law enforcement officers from Redding were able to contact Hillary shortly after rescuing Augie, now being cared for at a ranch near Gridley.

Hillary is OK, banged up from a fall she took with Augie as they navigated four miles of fire and others fleeing, which spooked Augie the whole way from their home to the parking lot. She told me that she was sleeping in the back of a pickup truck somewhere in Chico.

First, I want to thank the true heroes…the first responders, firefighters and law enforcement officers from all over the state who put their lives on the line to save the residents, their animals, property and to protect what is left of the greater Paradise area.

I’m honored that you think I’m a hero, but it’s them you should honor.

As a member of the Press, not the “enemy of the people”. I and fellow colleagues  bring you the information of what is happening in and around the fire area, the voices of your community when you are not there to witness it yourselves.

Please remember, we understand your heartbreak and sorrow, sometimes we are victims of these tragic events themselves, and that includes the first responders who are also affected by the loss of homes and lives. And they still have to continue doing our jobs.

We are all human when it comes down to it.

Sorry we ask hard questions and make images in seemingly the worst moments of your lives. We are your eyes and ears when you can’t be there. So please bear with us.

 

I can’t speak for my colleagues, but every time I cover events like this, it changes me. Sometimes for the better and some time for the worst. Just glad I can share my experiences through outlets that inform the world for the better of all mankind.

 

 I just adhered to my personal moral obligation, to comfort a stranded new friend — it was not heroic.

I’m still working, doing 12-14 hour days covering the fire, working in the communication dead zone of the fire area most of the day. And then commuting back and forth to Sacramento for the night since all the available rooms are taken up by the displaced residents.

Augie and other animals are being taken care of, but their loved ones who care for them on a daily bases are VERY much in need too.

If you do care and want to be part of this moment, find an organization and donate to help the survivors of this tragic event.

Here are some places to donate!

Who’s your rock? And gravel…

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re going to somehow get through a frightening time in your life — whether it’s health, work, family, marriage, kids’ issues — you need a rock, someone you can turn to who’s as firm and solid as a boulder, something steady and calm to lean against and take shelter behind, a fixed point you know will be there the next day and the next and the next, no matter what happens.

As I got my breast cancer diagnosis — ironically, sitting on rocks at the edge of the Hudson River in the New York town where we live — my husband Jose had just left for work in the city on the commuter train. I sat in the June sunshine alone absorbing this news, delivered by phone by my gynecologist.

 

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Those vows include, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health…Sept. 2011

 

Since then, as he has been throughout our 18 years together, Jose has been my rock. For which I’m so damn grateful and so damn fortunate. He came with me to every meeting with every doctor, (and there have been five MDs), listening and taking notes as a second set of eyes and ears. I’m not a person who cries easily or often — maybe a few times a year — but in the past five months, have done a lot of that. He’s stayed steady.

There’s an old-fashioned word I really like — character. Jose has it. I’d seen it on multiple occasions as we were dating. I wanted it in my second husband, that’s for damn sure.

 

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So lucky to have had the kindness of this fantastic team!

 

Then there’s gravel, a poor metaphor perhaps, for the pals and acquaintances whose love and sweet gestures have also proven hugely supportive, through letters, cards, calls, texts, flowers and even gifts. None of which I really expected.

Some live in distant countries. Some are editors I’ve worked with for years and have still never met. Some are women I went to school with decades ago. All of whom stepped up.

There were several putatively close friends I assumed would check in — and who proved wholly absent. That hurt. But it happens, and you have to know, especially with this disease, some people will flee and totally abandon you.

The most depressing thing I heard this summer — and it truly shocked me — is that some cancer patients have no one at all to turn to. No family. No friends. I can’t imagine facing the fears, pain, anxiety and many tests and treatments without someone who loves you sitting in the waiting room with you, driving you to appointments, holding your hand.

I recently got a call from a younger friend facing her own crisis, and was so honored and touched that she called me. I try to be a rock for the people I love. Sometimes I’ll fail them, I know.

But that’s what we’re all here for.

Be the rock.

 

Or be gravel.

 

But be there!

Life in cancerland: 18 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Some reflections on my having entered — as of June 2018 — a new and sometimes overwhelming world; if useful, please share!

 

You are not alone

You may certainly feel it as you reel with shock and try to make sense of what will happen to you next. My early June diagnosis of DCIS, (a sort of pre-cancer, even though the word carcinoma does mean cancer!) is one shared annually by 44,000 American women.

 

You will likely be in shock and feel utterly disoriented

Even if your prognosis, as mine is, is excellent, you’re stunned.

One minute, you assumed you were healthy, the next…you’ve entered cancerland, filled with sights and sounds and sensations both foreign and unwanted, that you may never have experienced.

What the hell is an aromatase inhibitor?

What are my eight tattoos for exactly?

How tired and ill will treatment make me feel?

 

You face a learning curve

Until you’ve had a biopsy, you don’t know what it feels like, during and afterward. Same for chemo and radiation and other things likely to happen. It’s all new and unfamiliar and a lot to process, physically, emotionally, intellectually — and, in the United States — financially.

 

Ask as many questions as many times, of as many medical staff — including technicians — as you need, and take notes

It’s complicated stuff!

Don’t ever feel stupid or intimidated or rushed or that your concerns are unimportant. Health care includes feeling cared for, not just surgery and medications.

 

People who have never had experience with cancer may behave in hurtful ways

Even with the most loving intentions, people may say things (oh, it’s not that bad!) or do things (send you books about cancer, unasked for) that can leave you even more anxious, scared or disoriented.

They may also tell you to “fight” and “battle” — when (if they don’t know the details) this might not even be necessary, or might not be possible. Ignore them!

This is not what you want!

 

Get off the Internet and listen to your MDs

The first advice my gynecologist gave me — who told me the news by phone — was to not start reading about this on the Internet.

I didn’t and have not and will not.

But I make my living seeking and processing vast amounts of complex information as a journalist — how could I behave this way?

Because I’m human and had to process enough new information as it is!

I also have avoided any detailed conversations about this unless with fellow patients, and not even a lot of that.

 

Some people will flee

This can be painful. It’s them, not you. As one friend (whose wife died of lung cancer) said: “You don’t know what their vulnerabilities are.”

 

Some people will step up unexpectedly

This is a great gift.

 

You will need to let some new people in, even when that feels weird to you

I find this difficult, as someone who’s always been quite private. But without allowing others to know the details of your situation and to comfort you, it’s too hard.

 

Some people will over-share and overwhelm you with their medical story

Shut them down.

This is not the time for you to hear, process and empathize with others’ details and fears. This is the time for you to focus on your needs. That may feel unkind, even brutal. Just do it.

 

If at all possible, find a medical team and hospital you like and trust

You will be spending a lot of time in their offices, possibly daily, weekly, monthly and for many years to come. If you like, trust and respect them, you will feel safe — literally — in their hands.

If you have doubts, find a team you feel good about; this is more difficult if you live in a rural area or have poor health insurance, I know.

 

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You’ll be seeing, and see and be touched by, a lot of people you have never met

That’s another stressor right there.

So far, I’ve seen more than a dozen different MDs, multiple technicians and been to two different hospitals. It’s a lot of new people, and different personalities, to cope with at once — in addition to your diagnosis and treatment.

As one friend told me, you’re spending a lot of emotional capital.

 

Ignore (most) others’ advice!

People will rush to give you all sorts of advice, leads, insights and tips. Everyone’s body is different. Everyone’s tolerance for pain is different.

Just because they or someone they know had a better/worse/horrific/painful outcome, this may not be your experience.

Don’t let their possibly frightening, unhelpful or inaccurate data bombard you while in a weakened physical or emotional state.

 

Educate a few people about your cancer — and let them do the talking for you

It’s time to conserve all your resources, especially time and energy. People who have not faced cancer, and your specific kind of it (what stage, where are you in treatment, invasive, recurring, metastatic, ER+, etc.) have no clue.

Having to keep explaining things to them can be too tiring and upsetting.

 

Do whatever comforts you most deeply

That might mean withdrawing from most social events to save your energy. Hugging your kids or pets. Knitting or playing video games or binge-watching TV, prayer and meditation.

 

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Rest as much as possible

Your mind and body are under assault. Naps are your best friend.

 

You don’t have  to be “brave”

People will tell you how brave you are.

You’re just doing what you have to to stay alive, even if (as I have) you might be fearful and crying a lot to a few people. Even a good diagnosis is enough to shake you hard.

 

Ask for help — and don’t think twice about it!

You may need help getting to and from medical appointments — tests, bloodwork, chemo, whatever. Even if you’re not feeling tired or weak, it is deeply comforting to have a friend or loved one waiting for you when you emerge from whatever it is you faced that day.

Having someone to drive you there and back is a real blessing. Ask for it, and accept it with relief and gratitude. Same for dog-walking, babysitting, food shopping, cooking, laundry.

Love is action.