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Reclamation
Photo by Ilona Pollack Levine

Reclamation

Part I

I woke up today, just as I had the day before. The only difference now is that my husband has cancer. He looks the same and says that he feels the same. Okay, so maybe he is more tired than usual, but otherwise there are no big warning signs. No bells or whistles to signal the onset of this awful disease. The tumors were discovered by accident, and they have been growing and spreading quickly. It is aggressive. And it is rare.

What else didn’t I know about this man that I have shared life with for the last 35 years? There is a language being spoken now that I have never heard before. Words that I can barely pronounce. I hear voices talking, and I cannot process what is being said. I am a foreigner in a foreign land. Orphan mutation. Bone marrow transplant. Clinical trials. Infusion therapy. This is a new vernacular in the conversation that had not existed before now.

It is a couple of weeks until the first treatment begins. We are waiting. And we are trying to go on with our lives. It is like waiting for a tsunami to strike while folding laundry and cooking dinner. This mundane life will soon be missed and replaced by another life. I have no peer group for this. I have childhood friends, and college friends. I have work friends and friends that I have made through our children. I have family and their friends. But right now, I am completely alone. I accompany my husband to his appointments. The waiting room is huge and set up like a big comfortable family room. There are couches and computer stations. There are book shelves and snack areas.

I scan the room and think, “Okay, so this is my new peer group.”  People glance furtively at one another. I believe our thought processes are a variation on the same theme. Where do we fit in?  Are you receiving your diagnosis? What stage is your illness?  Are you in remission? What is your place in this horrible land?

Each appointment lasts for several hours. Not the waiting around for several hours kind of appointments, but actual direct care. After all, we are in a renowned teaching and research hospital in the heart of New York City. We meet phlebotomists, nurses, fellows, residents, researchers, and pharmacists. The principal doctor glides in somewhere in the middle of all this. She is young, but not too young.  She is soft spoken, kind, and reassuring. But most important, she is smart, really smart, and she knows her business. This rare, aggressive cancer is all that she researches and treats. There is no cure for this illness. Instead, remission becomes the prize; the carrot at the end of this long and sickening stick. The doctor exudes confidence. She announces that the mean length of remission is five years. Five years may seem like a long time to a five-year-old, but when you’re sixty, it’s the blink of an eye.

Not enough.

I cry all the time. It’s spontaneous and triggered by everything and anything. I worry a lot, too. But I, the designated caretaker, show no one.

Part II

It has been nearly a full year since diagnosis and treatment. I have stopped crying. We have achieved a new stability in the context of instability. Besides cancer and chemotherapy, it has been a year filled with the typical ups and downs of middle aged life. There have been sad events, such as our friends’ broken marriages, serious health diagnoses, and sudden deaths, always the creeping reminder that none of us is impervious to the randomness of life.

But there have also been life affirming events. One child is newly married and planning with his new wife their future together.  Another child moved from the West Coast to the East Coast for medical school; she’s about to complete her first year. Our third child is striking out on her own, and building a career. All of our children are traveling the world every chance they get. I would like to think that their father and I have instilled this sense of adventure and wanderlust into their souls. But probably not.

Either way, this aspect of their dreams is something we take great pride in, because it has always been part of our dreams too. To work hard, to strive for wonderful life experiences, filled with interesting people, is its own reward.

But to my surprise, in this challenging year, lined with blessings and difficulties, I find that the most transforming part of this past year has been “the purge.” Simply put, I have been on a steady path of clearing and organizing.  Perhaps it is because I am home more this past year and have been able to focus on these things. Maybe it’s more psycho-dynamically driven, in that I am seeking control or a fresh start without clutter and distraction.

Whatever the drive is, the result has been positive. We have shredded irrelevant paperwork from our parents’ estates.  I have given a lot of things away to friends and made many donations to those who are less fortunate.

All of this has felt great. But, like peeling an onion, many layers remained.  The soft core, the part that makes one weep, waited still.  Discarding paperwork and distributing miscellaneous items is one thing.  But what to do with belongings once cherished, things that elicit memories of good and bad times?  Somehow, packing them up and sending them away to anonymous recipients did not feel right. I needed a new plan.

And so, I listed our more valuable (both emotionally and materially) belongings for sale.  That way, I would be sure that whoever receives the little pieces of our lives, really want, and maybe come to cherish them.  I felt uneasy, as I wrote descriptions, prepared photos and priced items for sale.  Was this the right thing to do now?  I didn’t know.  I also didn’t know then that through this process, I would reap rewards far greater than money or good will.

The first memorable sale was of a large lot of tumbled marble tiles, left over from a design project completed years ago. I held onto these tiles thinking they would be used for another home project.  But that project never happened, and I had come to realize, would never happen. Brutal honesty is sometimes necessary.

I ran the ad, which received a good response. One reply, from a woman from New York State, really stood out to me, but I could not pinpoint exactly why.  We agreed on a price online and set up a meeting time. It was a rainy weekend night when she arrived at my home. She looked weary and disheveled. She told me that she was coming off of a long week, working two jobs to make ends meet. When I showed her the tiles, she smiled.  Yes. She definitely wanted all of the pieces.

As I was helping her to load the tile into her car, she started to tell me her story. She had been married for over twenty-five years. She and her husband had scrimped and saved, and had finally bought their dream home. It was a fixer-upper, and they excitedly planned to do the work together; it would be their project.  At the time, it seemed romantic, a shared goal, which would surely draw them closer.  Once the work began, they started to argue over simple decisions.  The arguments and resentments grew bigger, until it was clear that they had grown apart, rather than together.

A few months later the woman came home unexpectedly to find her husband with another woman. She told me she felt angry and violated that he would bring another woman into their home. She left immediately and never returned.

She is now divorced and living alone in an old run-down house.  She wants to refurbish her home, starting with the bathroom.  She told me that before discovering her husband’s affair, they had just finished remodeling the bathroom, which the woman had personally designed.  So she never had a chance to enjoy the new space.  But with the help of these new tiles, she planned to create a new beautiful bathroom for herself.  Being on a tight budget, she had worried about her ability to afford nice tiles.  But then she found my ad.

She must have sensed that I was about to refuse payment for the tiles when she said how empowering it felt to be able to take care of herself, and to do the things that she wanted to do.  We finished loading her car and hugged goodbye. Standing there, teary-eyed in my driveway, I imagined that tumbled marble in her beautiful new bathroom, and watched as her car disappeared into the rainy night.

A few weeks later, I posted for sale a sterling and turquoise/lapis necklace I had inherited. It was a big bold statement piece (much too big for me), crafted and signed by a Navajo artist. Once again, I received many responses. One inquiry was from a person living near the casinos in a far corner of Connecticut.  She asked many questions, and wanted to know specifically the dimensions of the piece and where it perched on the neck. She was very polite but somewhat pressured in her emails.

There was something about her questions and her interest which appealed to me. We agreed on a price, and decided to meet in a public place on a Sunday afternoon. She became caught in traffic on her way to our meeting, but remained earnest, calling every 45 minutes to let me know her status.  She arrived three hours later.

As she approached, I realized that she was in the process of transitioning. She was over six feet tall, with masculine features, which she was apparently attempting to feminize.  When I showed her the necklace, she smiled widely.  She put the necklace to her throat.  “It’s perfect!”

Her father had died a few months ago, which for reasons she did not explain, freed her to search for her authentic self.  Part of this journey involved embracing her Native American roots. She had been looking for a statement piece that would fit her size and budget; the necklace was just what she was looking for.

She glanced at her reflection in a mirror nearby, saying quietly, “I just want to look pretty.”  While I stood there looking for the right words, the woman smiled, placed the cash in my hand, turned, and was gone.  She went back to her world, and I was left to return to mine.

I am still purging.  It’s a process I had at first dreaded, but one which has become a poignant gift.  It has provided me a glimpse into the lives of others, who like me, are going through difficult times, who are also experiencing sorrow, fear, and confusion.  They have revealed themselves to me in such intimate ways that I feel a renewed connection to humanity in a way that makes me feel less alone.

Part III

My husband’s cancer is in remission: in a sense, his cancer has been purged, at least for now.  Humanity experiences joy and sadness, and I realize that I am part of humanity, just as humanity is part of me.  The 17th-century English poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island unto himself . . . Any man’s death diminishes me / Because I am involved in mankind.”  I am forever changed by the experiences of this past year.  And, for that, I am grateful.

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. I’m going through this very process with my husband right now for different reasons. One very recent memorable purge was a vintage travel trailer project that we just didn’t have time for. Yesterday it rolled out of the driveway after a month of payments to be a young man’s first home on a slice of land that he purchased. It was great to see someone (it was clear that our buyer had seen some tough breaks) and something get a second chance. Thanks for your timely story.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. Your words soared off the page and into my heart, where they will continue to inspire and support me as I, too, seek to find meaning in a life that has been forever altered by a cancer diagnosis.

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey. I applaud you for pursuing these encounters as you help your “things” find new homes, and wish peace and lightness for you along the way.

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Ilona Pollack Levine

Ilona Pollack Levine

Ilona Levine, LCSW has over 30 years’ experience as a Clinical Social Worker in both New York City and Connecticut. Currently, she is a Primary Clinician in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale New Haven Hospital. Ilona holds a Master's Degree in Clinical Social Work from New York University and a B.S. in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. She lives in Fairfield County, Connecticut with her husband Aaron, two rescue dogs, and a twenty-one year old frog who seems to thrive on benign neglect. Ilona and Aaron’s children reside in Boston, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York.

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