“I came back to my mindfulness practice. I closed my eyes and focused all of my attention on the storm of emotion raging in me. I gave myself permission to feel what I was feeling and be open to it.”
– Tim Desmond
Tim Desmond is a psychotherapist, author and student of Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and his book, How to Stay Human in a F*cked Up World brings his experiences in psychotherapy together with the techniques he learned in spiritual practice. The basis of the book is also tied with his wife’s terminal illness, and what the experience of an early cancer diagnosis brought to their lives. This section, from the chapter Finding Beauty in Life, describes Desmond’s revelation about the way in which his deep love for his wife was manifesting as anxiety, and because of it he was missing the beauty of the moments he had together with her.
My wife, Annie, is being treated for stage 4 colon cancer. She was diagnosed in 2015, just after our son’s second birthday. Since that time, we’ve been through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, recurrences, and dozens of late-night trips to the emergency room.
One of the most difficult parts of this whole experience for me is waiting for results from scans. I don’t mind waiting in the lobby, but once we’re called into the doctor’s office, we’re often sitting there for twenty minutes or more before he arrives, and it’s torture. I know that the doctor could walk in at any second with news that might change everything. I brace myself at every sound of footsteps in the hallway.
Annie and I always hold hands during this time. I pay close attention to my mind, doing my best not to get carried away by the stories running through my head. I want to stay present so I can be there for her.
“Every part of me was rejecting the reality in which I found myself, as though I might be able to change it through pure force of will.”
A few weeks ago, we were in our doctor’s office waiting for scan results, and I was aware of a powerful thought arising in my mind. It was saying, simply, “No.” No, I don’t want this to be happening. No, I refuse to accept it. Every part of me was rejecting the reality in which I found myself, as though I might be able to change it through pure force of will. I wanted to be present for Annie, but I was lost in my own suffering.
Thanks to my training, I came back to my mindfulness practice. I closed my eyes and focused all of my attention on the storm of emotion raging in me. I gave myself permission to feel what I was feeling and be open to it.
“I was so lost in pain that I couldn’t celebrate this real moment of being together.”
After a few minutes, it occurred to me to ask myself why I hated this experience so much. The response was immediate—”because I love my wife and I don’t want her to die.” Obvious, right? Yet, with my mind and body slightly more grounded, it was a revelation. I looked at her and felt her warm hand in mine. I could see that I was in such pain because I didn’t want to lose her, because she’s so precious to me. Yet right in that moment, there she is, alive and here with me. What am I doing grieving? I was so lost in pain that I couldn’t celebrate this real moment of being together. From this new perspective, it seemed like such a waste of time.
When I teach about mindfulness, there’s an example I often use to show how the best intentions can go horribly wrong if we’re not aware. I ask people to imagine a man who gets cut off in traffic and then sticks his head out the window shouting obscenities and maybe even throws a plastic water bottle at the other car. If we could pause in that moment and ask the man why he’s doing that, he might say, “Because that jerk cut me off!” Going a little deeper, we could ask why that upset him so much and he’d answer, “Because it was really unsafe and disrespectful.” Oh, we’d say, you want to be safe and respected? He’d say, “Of course.” So he was looking for safety and respect by screaming out of his car window and throwing things.
“Right here and right now, we are alive, and I refuse to waste a minute of this precious time.”
In that moment with my wife, I felt as misguided as the man in this story. There we were, alive and together. The intensity of my emotions was entirely based on how dear she is to me. The only thing that made any sense was to celebrate that moment of being together. I began crying tears of joy. In that present moment, we were alive and the only thing to do was to feel grateful.
When the doctor finally arrived, we got good news. That scan showed no progression in her disease. However, we’ve had enough good scans and bad ones to know this doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. In a few months, we’ll be back in that same room with no way to predict what the doctor will say. Yet that moment belongs to the future. Right here and right now, we are alive, and I refuse to waste a minute of this precious time. This experience is teaching us to celebrate every moment of life we have.