Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Spider, Joy and Roger
The other day I watched a spider crawling up the shower wall. The walls are solid marble or fake marble, but nonetheless, slick when wet. The little thing would make a little progress, slide back down and then start over at a new spot. The same behavior over and over. It was still struggling away when I got out of there and moved on to the next part of my day. But the image of its efforts remained in my mind. An epiphany popped up. I realized that I’ve essentially been doing the same thing as the little spider since Michael died. Making some progress in trying not to drown in grief, slipping back down the wall, and then trying another spot that might be less slick.
While pondering this little metaphor, I realized that long ago I’d unwittingly set myself up to have a particularly terrible time with grief. As a teenager, I somehow got myself into the mindset that the really good times were the ordinary moments that a person experiences in everyday life. I saw lots of momentous events come and go. Many of them were overrated and disappointing. There was so much pressure in trying to create a perfect event. In my life I saw people fighting over lackluster parties, weddings and funerals. Nothing ever turned out according to plan. I remember the graduations which were so fraught with expectations that fizzled as the graduates had anxiety attacks and family members jockeyed for a place of importance in the success of the graduate.
On my eighth grade graduation day, my baby cousin died and my parents couldn’t even attend to see me march in my sister’s prom dress, with my honor roll pin in the middle of my dangling blue and white ribbons. I’d barely turned thirteen. But I was thinking away, trying to figure out how to squeeze a little joy out of every day, rather than counting on the big life events for happiness, for joy. I was going to demystify the big deals and go for the small ones.
I became skilled at finding the nuggets of good, some tiny, others larger. How about a cloud? A flower? A painting? Perhaps a bird or a beautiful insect. Putting my feet in waves at the beach. Eating when I was insanely hungry. A song. An unforgettable line from a book. A scene from a movie. An embrace. A dizzying kiss. A loving pat on the ass. This was the stuff of true joy. Not all those things I was taught to wish for, to dream of, to set as my goals. My joy was inexpensive and easily accessible. Sometimes a few seconds were enough. An hour was stupendous. I developed my theory about coping skills. I knew that life was constantly challenging, that everyone had to cope with unexpected or unanticipated problems. So what was logical to me was that the people with the best lives were the ones who’d developed the best coping skills. I would be one of them. And the little daily joys were paramount in helping me cope. I spread the word to my family and anyone else who would listen. The itinerant lecturer, as my beloved son wryly tagged me.
And the truth is, I was right. That skill set served me well the bulk of my life. I could adapt fast and twist a negative to a positive just by glancing around my environment. I made a great first responder to all bad news. The queen of silver linings.
During Michael’s five years of the cancer rollercoaster, we squeezed what we knew would be our limited retirement into every moment of good health. We traveled as much as we could and saw grand geological vistas and beautiful oceans. We saw wild horses running on the beach and dolphins leaping into the air. We ate delicious food. We savored holding hands in the movie theaters while we shared popcorn.
We listened to live music and ate funnel cakes at funky festivals. We went to museums and saw powerful art. We worked in our gardens and read books next to each other. And we lay in each other’s arms every night. All the coping skills which made the tough stuff of life more manageable. We did the best we could.
Since he’s been gone, I’ve felt flattened out. I’ve done some fun things. I’ve spent time with my loving children and grandchildren. I’ve had my close friends get closer and be present for me. I’ve traveled and appreciated natural beauty. I’ve taken classes and gone to concerts. I’m out there in our garden which still looks so beautiful. But I haven’t felt joy. All those small things I found to create havens on the darkest of days added up to what joy felt like to me. I stopped looking for the big events long ago. Putting my feelings into such weighty and tenuous events was the opposite of joy to me. And I’ve missed the feeling. Michael’s constant presence was the underpinning to my zest for life. I didn’t really understand that. I knew we had what we called big love. From our very beginning to his end, we were enveloped in each other and nothing, not the worst of times or disagreements, ever touched the powerful intensity of what held us together. I still ponder that bond every day. I even stole the title of a book about Claude Monet I read recently, which accurately described how we felt for each other – the mad enchantment. That comes close to the description of us. But that lives in a private space in me. I can go there when I want to and I can feel us. But what about now?
I have many passions and interests. I like spectacles. I love the Olympics. I love the Triple Crown even though I worry about the horses. I love awards shows.
I also love Roger Federer, the GOAT, the greatest of all time.
I’ve watched Federer play tennis since he was a boy, mostly because I’ve been watching tennis for a long time. There are few sports I don’t like. Over the years I’ve had so many people tell me they think it’s odd that I’m so interested in all the competition and negative energy that’s so often present in the sports world. I get it. I see it. But I love sports anyway. I got started by loving to play sports myself, even though I was embarrassed and humiliated by some of my skills. When I was a kid, I was teased about my ability to hit a softball and toss a football. The boys called me “moose.” The Chicago White Sox had a lefthanded player named Moose Skowron – hence the terrible moniker. In eight grade, a lot of kids wrote to me as moose in my autograph book. When I showed it to my son, he cried at the meanness of people as he imagined me as a young pained girl.
But I stayed interested. I sat with my father when he watched sports on television and I learned a lot about all of them. And I went further and found favorites of my own. I was so happy that my kids were both great athletes and spent happy hours watching them excel.
But Federer. As he evolved and matured, I marveled at his athletic grace and beauty. So light on his feet and so natural. He worked on himself and erased his early bad boy behavior and became a calm, contained presence on the court. A welcome relief from some of the “enfants terribles” who are so prevalent among the many players. Best of all, he grew a social conscience. With the millions he earned he started a foundation which is dedicated to educating impoverished children. This year alone he’s started over 80 schools in Zambia. If you look him up online, you can see pictures of him sitting in the dirt with children crawling all over him. He plays with them and stands in front of chalkboards teaching them. Federer.
My family and friends tease me mercilessly about my devotion to this famous stranger who exemplifies so many good qualities to me. They call him my boyfriend. I know who my boyfriend was and still is – my Michael. But…
During Michael’s last months in 2017, Federer was returning from a six month layoff because he’d had knee surgery. In January, 2017, he was returning to competition in the Australian Open. He is considered old for tennis now. He was 36 then. Michael had gotten clean scans from the doctors but I knew he was sick. After 45 years of living together, I knew him well enough to recognize a problem. But I couldn’t prove it. We were arguing. At odds. During the Australian Open, I sat up late through the nights to soothe myself by watching Roger play. And miraculously he won. My happiness carried me through the beginning of Michael’s end which began at the end of that month.
Michael died in May, 2017. Suddenly I was alone in our home. But coming up in July, there was Wimbledon. Federer pulled off another miracle and won that tournament too. His success helped bookend the hardest months of my life.
This year, I was casting around for something to anticipate, some pleasure to distract me from my absence of joy. On a whim, I thought, what if once in my life I could see Roger Federer in person? What would that feel like? I decided to buy tickets for the Western Southern Open, a run-up tournament to the U.S. Open that Roger had won several times. He’d skipped it last year but I figured, what the hell? If not now, when? A four hour drive from home? You bet.
I anxiously waited to see if he would decide to play the tournament. He’s picking and choosing, now 37 and not likely to take as many chances with his body as he did years before. It could be this one or Toronto. He chose this one, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I arrived here on Saturday night and Sunday went to the tennis venue to watch a few early round matches, but also to see Roger practice. I’d been told that the practices were almost more fun than the matches. I carefully found his practice court and planned my strategy of arriving early enough to be close to the fence which keeps the public at bay. With knees due for replacement, I needed a strategic plan.
I arrived at the site to get near the front and experienced the hot, sweaty crush of his many fans, jostling for a good view. I spent over 2 hours on legs that felt like lead. But I was determined that this was my one shot and that mind over matter is a thing. I kept my eyes on the entry gate. And it suddenly swung open and he appeared.
Is there such a thing as levitation? That’s how I felt. There he was, in my real life, breathing the same air as me. And then I had the pleasure of watching him swing his racket and float on the court which is what he does. I have photos and videos to prove it. I was there. And I felt joy.
I still feel it. Tomorrow I’ll get to see him play a match right in front of me. I’ll keep that with me the rest of my life.
And more importantly, I’ve learned from a little spider and a famous tennis player that I can modify my skills for life as its demands require me to do, in order to experience more of that joyful feeling I thought was gone forever. Different joy. But joy nonetheless. I don’t know what comes next. But a little more hope has inched through my internal seal, through the door I thought might be closed forever.The Colors of Joy – Arran Skyscrapers – Penny Gordon-Chumbley