In the spirit of the holiday, and to show my patriotism, I thought I would write a special posting today about independence. Since being diagnosed with cancer six years ago – and having gone through months of chemotherapy – the notion of what it means to be independent has changed rather pointedly for me.
I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As such, I am a part of the latch-key generation. Although that term was not intended to reflect a positive reality, looking back on it now some 30 years later I think that there were indeed some useful aspects to the underlying genesis of the characterization. Chief among these would be that those of us who grew up during that period, if I may generalize a bit, were rather independent sorts.
This reality has come into sharper focus in recent years, and for me in particular as a parent. When I consider how I interact with – and entertain – my children as contrasted with what my parents did with me it is quite the eye-opener. My father worked very long hours and my mother was similarly a whirlwind of activity, in no small part because she had to balance the roles of sole homemaker, part-time worker in my father’s store, homework overseer and full-time chauffeur. Plus, my sister has cerebral palsy, which necessitated my mother spending tremendous amounts of her time getting my sister to and from therapy, doctor appointments and generally assisting her. I now understand why my mother would, when she could, sneak in a 20-minute nap in the afternoons.
At the same time, we kids just had less to entertain us. There was no Disney channel, much less Disney XD and Nick Jr. and on and on. We also had no Netflix nor Amazon Prime. At best we had a VCR that had a “remote” control, which only meant that it was a primitive two-button affair attached to a long cord to the machine itself. And even that was a late arrival in my youth, so entertainment was not so much at one’s fingertips as it was the product of one’s imagination. Admittedly, I did on occasion lament to my mother that, “I’m bored,” but I quickly realized that such complaints resulted in at best nothing and, at worst, a chore that I had been avoiding.
Consequently, I learned – as did my contemporaries – to keep myself occupied. I read books, which are pieces of paper bound together with many words on them and that together form a story of some sort, I rode my bike, and I explored in the woods. I walked myself to and from school and knew how to use both a key and the telephone, which at the time was actually connected to the wall and was only rented from AT&T (until Reagan decided to bust that up thereby ruining the high-quality sound of phone calls). Unlike many children today, my household did not revolve around me and my desires. I never wanted for anything (other than the many items I circled in the annual Christmas editions of the JCPenney and Sears catalogs in the forlorn hopes of receiving them for Hanukkah), but the focus of life was just different. I do not say that as a criticism of either parenting then or now. It’s just an observation of how things have changed.
In that sense, I guess I was somewhat unintentionally well-prepared to be diagnosed with chronic cancer. Since it had never really been all about me, I was not of the mindset that it could now become so simply because I had this awful diagnosis. We had two children under four at the time I was first given this most unwelcome news, and their needs still would have to come, if not first, at least generally a very close second. Fortunately for me, most of the first few years with leukemia there was not much to be done other than worry, which is an excellent independent activity.
When I began chemo last year – and tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the worst day of the experience (I will spare the details other than to say the nurses had to move post-haste to pull that little “privacy” curtain around my booth, which of course does nothing to muffle the sounds of misery emanating from within) – matters only changed slightly. I mostly suffered in silence – except loudly to Melissa – and we all went about our business basically as if nothing changed. And speaking of business, I could not very well let on to clients that I was being treated for cancer out of concern that they would not think I was there for them (which I really did not want to be anyway, truth be told). So although I didn’t seek out work, I didn’t avoid it either. But naturally the amount I could work suffered and with it another component of my sense of independence.
Despite everything, including the face I was able to put on what I was enduring, having cancer has made me acutely aware that I am not as independent as I once was nor, more importantly, that I would like to be. In addition to the insidious physical ramifications of cancer, it has a profound psychological impact: It makes one realize that no matter how much one takes command of her or his life, there are some matters that are beyond one’s control. And because of that, even those of us who flew cross-country by ourselves as children (while changing planes in Charlotte of all places) have had our sense of independence somewhat eroded. Fortunately, I am blessed to have a wonderful and supportive family and a terrific oncologist, on whom I somewhat ironically depend to help me stay less dependent. And, of course, to live in this great country of ours.