Working Through #1: “Tell Me This Isn’t Happening”

It’s 2pm and my legs hurt. I push myself up from my office desk and head down the hallway to the waiting room to see my next patient, not exactly limping but not exactly steady on my feet either. I bear the ache with a sense of pride: it’s the result of a hard run through the Arboretum during a free hour earlier in the day. I capped it off with wind sprints up a flight of outdoor stairs not too far from my office, the sum of which has left my legs feeling wobbly, worn out, and weak. Good, I think to myself. That proves just how hard I pushed myself, how powerfully I ignored my body’s protestations and transcend its limits with sheer willpower. The weakness in my legs is evidence of my true strength. This thought fills me as I gingerly reach the end of the hallway and open the door to the waiting room.

Sherman sees me but does not move. We make eye contact and I silently hold the door for him. A moment’s pause, and then he slowly begins to pry himself from his seat. I can hear him quietly groan as he begins his slow shuffle to the hallway that will take us to my office. I walk slightly ahead of him, and though my legs are hurting I find I still have to deliberately slow down so as not to speed away from Sherman: his obese and short frame make it hard for him to keep up. We arrive to my office and he drops his full weight into my couch and lets out a stiff “Ooh!” as he settles his body into the cushions. I take my seat and there is a brief silence.

Many of the sessions we’ve shared over the past five years begin with Sherman chit-chatting to me about the goings-on of his morning, his week, his life. But not today: “I was lucky I went to the hospital when I did. They found two new tumors in my lungs and bladder, all primary cancers. Not even related to the main cancer. They’re each their own deal now. So, the rollercoaster continues.” He trails off, closes his eyes, turns his head. Sherman was diagnosed with a very advanced form of cancer about three years ago, and though the initial prognosis was very grim he has defied expectations and continued to function fairly well since that time. His ongoing chemotherapy precludes him from working, a reality which frustrates and relieves him all at once.

I’ve heard many details of his cancer treatment and its progression, but often it has felt like Sherman doesn’t have many strong and present feelings about it. He has often said things like, “Well, I don’t really have any control over where this thing goes, so why bother thinking about it? It’s a rollercoaster, and I just need to strap myself in and enjoy the ride.” For a time these comments struck me as the flippant utterances of a terrified man, and I tried fairly hard to help Sherman connect with the feelings – fear, doubt, sadness – that I figured were underlying his defensiveness. But as the years have gone on I have let these comments slide by without comment. Perhaps he needs them to make it through this terrifying ordeal, I’ve told myself. Perhaps I’ve needed them too, and for very similar reasons.

But something feels different today. Sherman continues to tell me about the week he spent in the hospital over the recent holiday break, having tumors partially removed and being informed of the unavoidably intense course that his cancer treatment will have to take because of these new growths (“They’ll put me on the harder chemo now, and I know for sure I’ll lose my hair this time”). As he continues, I begin to notice how the flippant tone in his voice has disappeared and that now, for the first time, he sounds truly frightened to me. His heavy frame is unmoving, but his head falls back against the couch and tilts towards the ceiling. From that position, he speaks: “I just don’t know what my kids are going to do. I don’t know what my wife is going to do.”

Hearing this, I find an unexpected pang of desperation shoot through me. I want to inject the session with some optimism. I want to say to Sherman, listen, you were diagnosed with stage four cancer three years ago, and no one thought you’d be alive today. And yet here you are! So keep up the fight, and the hope. As I hear these thoughts permutate in my mind, I dimly register that Sherman is still talking: “I’ve tried staying optimistic for everyone around me, especially my wife. But I feel like I just can’t ignore the fact that this really feels like it’s different.” Well maybe it is, I reply inside, but then again you have responded so well to treatment thus far. Maybe this won’t be any different at all and the new treatment will get your cancer back under control, just like it did before. I don’t say any of this and a brief silence emerges, but he breaks it: “These new cancers are a bad, bad sign. I was telling my wife the other day that I think this might be the last Christmas I actually feel halfway decent, physically. I mean, I don’t know, but there’s a decent chance that it might be my last Christmas period.”

A memory pops up as I hear this. It is 1990, I am six years old, and it is nearly Thanksgiving. My little brother and I join my mom and dad in the living room, and we are all seated on couches encircling a small coffee table. My dad hasn’t changed out of his work clothes: his white shirt and red tie, and his ever- present beard and glasses, all stand out in my mind. He is a strong daddy, but he looks tired. I do not remember what my mom wears, but I can immediately tell she is on the verge of tears. I can see a deck of playing cards upturned on the table, diamonds and hearts scattered about. My mother then subdues her tearfulness long enough to tell my brother and me that my dad has been diagnosed with kidney cancer. I am aware of how serious this news is, even at that age, but my brother isn’t. He is registering unfamiliar emotion in all our faces, trying to orient himself. He looks frightened. I do not recall my dad saying anything.

I then ask both of them if he will die from this kidney cancer. My memory of what happens next doesn’t quite

make sense to me now, because I remember the subsequent trips to the medical center, the sun coming through the windows of his hospital room, the staples in his abdomen after his surgery, the lone photo my brother and I took by his side as he fought his cancer. All evidence of the fact that it wasn’t, it couldn’t have been a foregone conclusion at that point. But in my memory, my mother tells me that yes, Jeffrey, he will die from this. I immediately begin to cry, and repeatedly blurt out this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, tell me this isn’t happening. The playing cards are spread wildly over the coffee table. My brother begins to sob. And my dad remains silent.

Suddenly I return to Sherman. He has continued speaking, though I have been far away. The session, somehow, goes on and we both survive it. In my memory, it is a good one: I am aware enough of my own personal history and how powerfully it is shaping my response to what Sherman is telling me, first in my denial of his words, and then in my slow and painful embrace of the terrifying reality of what he is facing. The more I return to the present moment, the more that he and I talk about the need to face his fate honestly, my mind briefly returns to my mother and her capacity to be honest with me about my dad’s disease. I am deeply grateful for that now. And Sherman is too, though he might not know it.

The session ends. I stand up and know that Sherman will need help getting up from the couch. I put out my hand and he grabs it. I have to lean far back in order to get the leverage I need to lift his body, but after a moment he rises from the cushions and begins his shuffle to my office door. “I really appreciate that you did that, thanks.” I tell him I’ll help him get out of the waiting room chair too, next time I see him. He says that won’t be necessary, though I silently tell myself I’ll offer it anyway. He leaves: his steps reverberate down the hall.

I close the door and prepare to take a seat at my office desk. My legs, having been immobile the last hour, are creaking with pain again. And, for now, I don’t find that I am beaming with pride about it. What was the point of pushing myself so hard this morning? I wonder inside. I’ll need at least a few days to recover from this. All that

willpower, all that supposed strength and mind-over-matter, where has it gotten me? Is this what my body is meant to be, an object of domination for that terrified six-year-old in me? And what am I trying to dominate, really? Why am I living against my mortal body, and not with it?

I don’t like the answers to any of these questions. I lower my body into my desk seat and I let out a soft groan. Jesus, I think to myself, it’s already 2:57 and I need to hit the bathroom downstairs before my next session. I quickly get up again and gingerly shuffle off to the stairs, knowing I’ll need the handrail to make it down this time.

Jeff Grant, PhD, received his MA in existential psychology from Seattle University and his PhD in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. His dissertation was entitled “A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Father Death and its Impact on the Adolescent Ego- Ideal.” He is currently a board member at COR and maintains a private practice with adults and adolescents in Madison Park.

Categories: Working ThroughPublished On: January 1st, 2022Tags: