Give and take

Earlier this week, the Globe and Mail published a collection of people’s insights on having cancer.  Were I asked, this is what I’d have said.

For me, cancer’s biggest challenges have been giving so much less and taking so much more than before. From day-to-day help, emotional support, and financial assistance, I have been blessed with a loyal and generous social network.

This shift is oddly unsettling because I’m not so used to relying on others. Before I met J., I managed on my own for years, supporting myself while parenting a dog or two. I didn’t need much help then, and I supported other people as I was able. And as a psychologist, I supported people at work too. I have always encouraged others to do the needing.

I have a lot less energy to give to others now, although I do what I can. I can still listen, although my attention span is shorter (and no 3 a.m. crises please). I can’t babysit ’til the wee hours or walk your dog. With less to give to clients, I see fewer of them so I can be attentive when I do.

I’ve been tormented by how much I need to take now. I’m terrible at asking for help, but since my cancer diagnosis, I have to, a lot. I admire others–J. included–who can seek help when they need it without the guilt or discomfort that I often feel. These people know things will balance out in the end.  They will, won’t they?

Cartoon of woman vacuuming with broad smile.

Note joyful expression.

Who has borne the brunt of these changes? J., of course. Nothing feels worse than greeting J. after her long, hard work day, knowing she’ll have to walk the dog because I’m not up to it. Or leaving dirty dishes in the sink or not making dinner because I lost steam that afternoon. Or watching her clean the house on the weekend so I can save my limited energy. She actually thanks me for walking the dog so she can clean. What’s wrong with that picture?

J. always did more than her share, but our role imbalance has become much more pronounced since my leukemia diagnosis. Somehow she has picked up the slack–and I can assure you there’s a lot of it–without resentment or frustration. She supports our family singlehandedly, and not just financially. In exchange, I offer the odd errand run or emptied dishwasher or laundry load (often forgotten in the dryer) and, I hope, listening ear. I thank God for the other people in her life who support her since she has so much on her plate.

Will I ever adjust to these shifts in my relationships? I really hope so, because it’s wearying to feel so indebted all the time. I remind myself how good it feels to be asked for help. Or maybe I’m just deluding myself and I was always this needy and demanding. If so, please don’t tell me; let me hold on to my distorted recollection for now.

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