Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy Anyway

In April 2001 I went to see a neurologist about some headaches I'd been having, some with visual distortions. He didn't think much of the headaches. Headaches, apparently, were a dime a dozen and not truly indicative of a more serious condition. But the facial numbness I had? That was important. As a matter of fact, though he didn't tell me this then, the numbness ran right across my third facial nerve. He ordered an MRI.

One moment I was standing in my kitchen trying to get my five-year-old son to eat his breakfast while dodging the cereal my one-year-old daughter was throwing from her highchair tray, and the next moment I answered the phone call from my neurologist. Calling on a Saturday. He told me I had a brain tumor and that it was pressing on the third facial nerve. And then I sat down.

Even though I don't mind talking about this at all, I try not to bring it up. The problem is that it's impossible to mention casually; it stops every conversation dead in its tracks. And how would the topic come up, anyway? When people are talking about back pain, neck pain, am I supposed to mention my brain tumor? Who wants to be this big of an expert in anything?

Here's the deal: when you say you've had a brain tumor, even cancer patients feel sorry for you.

But this is what I realized right after my diagnosis: nothing had really changed. Yes, I had this really scary diagnosis, but not a bad prognosis: the tumor was benign and operable and would be removed in June. So the question was, what was my life supposed to look like between now and then? Was I supposed to moan and wail and be tragically afflicted every day of that two months? Or should I just live my life?

Since Momalom's Five for Ten writing topic for today is "Happiness" I thought I'd write about something inexplicable: I was happy anyway.

For the first time in my life, a life of secrets and privacy, of hugging pain and shame and medical problems close to me, I let people know what was wrong and, by doing so, an amazing thing happened to me. I let people care. Me, the person who had suffered through miscarriages in silence, not even telling my sisters or mother. At forty-one I finally understood that I had to allow myself to be both weak and strong, to be both sick and well, in order to be human.

Yes, there was quite the curiosity factor when I showed up at work again, everyone wondering why I was there when I had a brain tumor, but after the initial shock of seeing me look fine, seeing me laugh, seeing me work, seeing me okay - and sometimes seeing me not quite okay - things got back to normal. They could ask me when the surgery was, how long I'd be off, was I nervous? What could they do to help me and my family?

There was so much to be happy about, after all. I'd finally broken down the wall between me and the world and let people come in. And after the surgery and the, yes, grueling recovery, I went back to work and resumed my life with one addition: I started taking writing classes. Still alive.


Do you isolate or accept help and care? Have you ever suffered through something in silence, afraid to reach out? Have you ever been able to see that the situation is temporary but the happiness is permanent?


  1. ack.
    I think I would have peed my pants.
    I am so glad you pulled through. I am sure you are as well.
    Miscarriages..I only had one.
    It was enough for me.
    The worst part wasn't necessarily the was all the people I had told who didn't see me for a while and didn't know...the people I had to explain things to.
    Like about a month and a half after my miscarriage, i ran into an old friend at walmart. I am in the fruit miscarriage wasn't on my mind..the first time in a long time.
    She says
    "Hows the baby'.
    I would like to say I got through that with some dignity.
    I didn't.
    I start crying and say I miscarried.
    That poor woman. lol.
    it was telling everyone over a long period of time.
    It was like it kept on happening over and over again.
    I can see why you kept it to yourself.
    After I miscarried I vowed that if I got pregnant again, I wouldn't say a thing until I was in my second trimester. I can see how you could have miscarriage after miscarriage with no one knowing and the isolation and grief just getting bigger and bigger.
    That must have been worse than the brain tumor.
    Good post linda...and hugs.

  2. Thanks, Chris. With my first miscarriage everyone knew I was pregnant and I didn't think I could bear people asking or whatever. I didn't know they might have offered comfort or their own miscarriage stories. That would have helped, actually.

    By the time I had all my miscarriages who could tell? I was eating as if I was pregnant woman to stuff my pain.

  3. Happiness is such a relative term. When looking back at things, I often realize that that was happiness then, and I did not know it. It is amazing how the human spirit can overcome. You really have such an inner strength that is remarkable. Where do you think you get your strength? I hate to quote Shrek but, remember when he says he is like an onion, with many layers? Well, Linda, you have so many fascinating layers, what a privilege it is to know you if only in written word.

  4. Wow! Wow. I have seen other people on TV shows talk about serious illness and how it changed their lives for the better. I wonder if I could have done what you did with the spirit in which you did it.

  5. Linda, this is amazing! You let people care, and like you said, a door opened up. What an inspiring message...even in the shadow of something very scary, you let the light in.

  6. I'm pretty amazed by your story. What an incredible example of embracing the happiness that is there for the taking, but hard to see when we can't get out of our own way sometimes.
    So glad you're taking life by the horns :)

  7. Wow. You are constantly throwing me surprises about your life. What an awesome post about happiness.

  8. I am trying to picture you standing in your kitchen, hearing that news with your oh so young son and daughter. Amazing. I did what you did, when I had my miscarriages the only person who knew about it all was my husband. It was a huge mistake looking back, and marked the start of my journey down the long dark road.

    The fact that you learnt so much from doing the same thing and were then able to adopt such a totally, helping and healing approach when confronted with the news about the tumor speaks such volumes about you as a person. The more I learn about you the more intrigued I am. I a so glad things did work out well. What an amazing post and an amazing journey.

  9. What an incredible story, and life lesson (among many, I realize). Speaking up, reaching out, taking it in stride and also "happy" that it would be a healthy outcome, even with the risks associated with surgery.

    The older we get, the more we realize we can handle (whether we like it or not). Reaching out does help - and for some of us - it is hard.

    And yes, I believe happiness to be fleeting, to be a matter of moments, and I tend to prefer more specific words that capture greater nuance - content, nostalgic, jubilant, relieved.

    And greatly relieved to know you are fine!

    (PS - still fighting the nasties. Visit my blog only if your AV is on. Hope everything is cleared up by tomorrow. NOT happy about that damn Murphy who won't leave my house. Where's my Latvian good luck charm???)

  10. Amazing, Linda. Thank you for sharing this with us - because it teaches such a great lesson about happiness. "The situation is temporary but the happiness is permanent." Yes. I need to remember this.

    I'm not one to ask for help, and that takes a toll. I love giving help to others, I love feeling that I can contribute at their time of need - so I just need to let them return to the favor.

  11. I'm so glad you've recovered. I think once you've gone through a serious illness or been close to someone who has, you do see the happiness that is THERE, everyday, in your life (and we all some difficult days, I know :-) - happiness that you used to take for granted. The simple things are the best. Feeding your kids cereal without the call from the doctor that you have a brain tumor, right? I mean, one minute, it's just any other day - one phone call and your world changes. I do have a hard time accepting help from others - I do suffer in silence a lot. It was how I was raised. After hearing stories like yours, however, I am trying to change....

  12. My father had a brain tumor, too. It was quite the experience. I love the lessons you learned from it. (By the way, after they removed the tumor, they filled the empty space with fat and we called him fat head for a long time. We often reminded him he was lucky they didn't take it from his butt or the nickname would have been worse!)

  13. Wow! As a nurse, I know (sweeping generalization here) most brain tumors are a lot better to have than cancer, but they do shock the hell out of people. And it is a hell of a thing to go through. You, my friend, just become more of a rock star the more I find out about you! You're brave and clever and frankly, awesome!

  14. Joely, thanks so much. I like the Shrek quote! I think that after a lifetime of having asthma I was just kind of philosophical about the nature of suffering - that everyone had a cross to bear and that we're mortal, not immortal creatures. When I was a kid I'd go to these pulmonary doctors who treated kids with cystic fibrosis who were in wheelchairs and I remember, even though I couldn't breath AT ALL, that I was amazed at how lucky I was becaue once I got the asthma under control I was indistinguishable from any other kid. Those kids would never be. It was a great way to be taught empathy.

  15. Karen, it's true. I know that if I'd never had the brain tumor I never would have felt my mortality and I never would have thought "why haven't I written and I'm 41?" I think I'd still be laying around reading romance novels and making excuses for not writing. I think it's a horrible thing to want to do something and never do it.

  16. So glad to have found you as I am a mother to a Bar Mitzvahzilla -- October is the date. I now need to go back and read all your past posts.

    But this one was pretty spectacular. I have found in my 41 years (too) that people who are given scary diagnoses tend to rise above all the mundane nit picky things that aggravate the rest of us. We who tend to sweat the small stuff are so very lucky to have the space in our brain to worry about being 5 minutes late or who did the dishes. I think we all need a similar wake up call - although I would not wish a brain tumor on any one. But reading your words, I am reminded again about what happy really is. Thank you for that.

  17. Linda,

    I firmly believe that when you offer love and support to others, you have to be willing to accept the same when offered to you.

    By opening yourself up to others, you embraced happiness. Because sometimes, really painful, scary things are the catalyst for us to analyze, prioritize, and more importantly, change what needs to be changed.

    I think this post could double for the Courage one too, friend!

  18. TKW, I had to first be exceeding dumb and in overwhelming pain to learn these lessons! Someone smarter than me wouldn't have isolated that much, thinking she was such a rock!

  19. Corinne, I had just gotten in program eight months prior to that time and, honestly, I don't know what I would have done without a program. But, yes, getting out of my way, ignoring my instincts (which are usually wrong) and learning to pause before reacting to something has been some of the greatest gifts I've received. Quick to act, slow to react, I think they say?

  20. Amber, It's so embarassing having this ridiculous dramatic life. All I can think is that God was giving me a lot of writing material...

  21. It's so easy to keep everything in, isn't it? Even when it makes things harder in the end. Is it embarrassment or denial or fear or something else entirely? I ask myself this all the time, as I tend to not ask for help also.

    I'm so glad you did reach out ... and (re)found your love of writing. What would I be doing at 2 a.m. if there was no Bar Mitzvahzilla to catch up on?? =>

  22. Linda - I am so glad you let those walls down because your writing shows there are not walls. I would miss this writing if it were different, more guarded.

    This could have been a double post - courage and happiness.

  23. I am so glad your story had a happy ending.

    I am not one to reach out. It is very hard for me. I have always prided myself on being self-reliant and a "rock".

    During my secondary infertility years, I would cry not because freinds were pregnant, but because they feared telling me. Then I would cry.

    When I was overwhelmed with my twins, I told no one. With my husband gone all the time, and no help whatsoever, I would just go into the bathroom at night and cry. Sometimes I would cry in front of my oldest (because I could ot help it), and it would scare her.

    And to be honest, there was no one to reach out to. All of my friends had returned to work FT, so my village was gone.

  24. The more I let people in the happier I seem to become.

  25. Linda, seriously, I tweeted this mid-read. This has touched me to the core.

    "I finally understood that I had to allow myself to be both weak and strong, to be both sick and well, in order to be human."

    Without one there is no other. Sick/Well. Happy/Sad. Weak/Strong. We are human. Why is it that we can live for years pretending to be otherwise.

    You are fantastic. And this one is gold. !!!

  26. Just beautiful and such strength you have. God bless you.

  27. Wow, your post really opened my eyes. I tend to keep people at bay, to protect myself, but I'm realizing that I need people, they will help me through the toughest times. Thank you for your beautiful post. I'm so glad that everything turned out OK with you.

  28. "Still Alive."

    What a perfect way to end this courageous post. Your perspective has filled me with hope today. Thank you.

  29. Linda, thank you for sharing this piece of yourself in your characteristic no-nonsense style. I remember when I first learned this aspect of your history when you posted about it in a comment somewhere. I admired the way in which you have allowed this detail, which could have become your story to remain just a part of it. And now to reflect on it as an aspect of your happiness? Well, that's just pretty amazing, lady.

    Wonderful piece. Thanks again.

  30. Wow, thanks, Linda. Write on!