When I first heard that my mother’s ovarian cancer had not been removed by surgery as the doctors led us to believe but had spread throughout her abdomen, I did an emotional nosedive. I’d been through life-threatening cancer twice before with my partner and had just begun accompanying a dear friend on his journey with brain cancer. I knew how devastating treatment would be. I knew my mother would likely never be cancer-free again.
Immediately inside me an old battle revved up: Keep hope! screamed one voice; Be realistic! screamed the other. Hope buoys the spirits, motivates, and reminds us to stay open to possibility—all of which I wanted, for me and my mom. Reality, however, is real. Ovarian cancer spreads like glitter. My mom’s particular brand of cancer is platinum-resistant, meaning the traditional chemotherapies don’t work. But miracles happen, I told myself—the doctors don’t have the last word.
When I felt hopeful I had the sinking suspicion I was engaging in wishful thinking. When I was realistic I worried that my glum outlook was detrimental to my mother’s well-being. Hope tied me in knots.
As soon as I recognized the fight, I stopped. What was going on? I most wanted my mother to be well. I prayed for this, I wished for it, I hoped for it, and still do. Nonetheless, something felt wrong about setting my heart on hope.
Then I stumbled across this passage from Kathleen Dowling Singh’s extraordinary book, The Grace in Dying. “For the mental ego faced with a terminal prognosis, hope typically signifies one thing: the continuance of self. … Hope and fairness are sourced in the mental ego. … Hope is a clinging wish for something other than what is.” Exactly. I want my mom to continue. I want to continue as my mother’s daughter. I like the form and content and nature of this living relationship. I am severely attached to it. “When hope evaporates, we are left with here and now. Hope, a posture of the mental ego, is transformed into presence, a stance of Spirit. Healing, automatically and naturally, unfolds out of presence.”
Ah. Today I’m immensely grateful for Singh’s insight, that presence and not hope is the source of healing, because it’s freed me from any obligation to be hopeful. Instead my job is to be present—to my mother as she struggles with pain, to the various emotions that flood me an inconvenient times, to my hope and despair, to what is. This I can do, and with a peaceful heart.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Please join me for any or all of these upcoming events:
Fourth Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions
Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
April 22: Describing the Indescribable
May 27: Perspective and Insight
June 19-23, 2016
The Inner Life of Stories: Writing as Deep Listening
The Christine Center
September 12-16, 2016
Alone Together writing retreat
Madeline Island School of the Arts
NOTE: MISA has extended the Red Barn Special until mid-May–get $100 off lodging.