While we’re sheltering in place and trying to maintain that magical 6-foot distance whenever we leave our homes, I’ve been experiencing a little Déjà vu. Four years ago, I spent more than three weeks in a hospital room at the University of Maryland Medical Center preparing for and receiving a stem cell transplant. That was followed by nine months of at-home confinement with the occasional outing, wearing a face mask and gloves. Sound familiar?
So staying home feels not-quite-so-uncomfortable for me. Here’s how I coped then and how I cope now.
Grieve and then be grateful. I’d barely stopped grieving the loss of body parts, my hair, and relationships when the cancer returned. Now my doctor was advising a stem cell transplant, which meant more. More radiation. More chemo. More hospital time. I could not begin to imagine what nearly a month of being sequestered on a hospital ward would look or feel like. Fear surrounded me. But one day, faith punched a tiny pinprick of light that showed up in the form of gratefulness: someone, somewhere in Europe had agreed to donate his stem cells. I had husband who advocated for me when I couldn’t speak for myself. I even appreciated another patient’s spouse who donated more puzzles than I could possibly assemble during my stay.
COVID-19 restrictions makes us keenly aware of what we’ve lost, if only temporarily. And we’re grieving because of it. But if you’re at the point of acceptance, it’s time to open up to the possibility that cultivating gratefulness can also make us aware of what we have. I’m still grateful for the people out there fighting for our health; having a husband, who has stepped in to help more around the house; and although my family mysteriously disappears whenever I mention the word “puzzle,” I am thankful that they will accept my invitation to play UNO or poker.
Set an intention. At the beginning of each class, my yoga instructor would ask everyone to set an intention for that morning’s practice. I planned for yoga to be a part of my hospital stay until a friend admonished me not to lay on that “nasty” hospital floor. So I dumped my mat and instead, carried the practice of setting an intention. For three days I maintained a focus of peaceful during morning and evening full-body radiation therapy. Other times, I failed to show up in my vulnerability because I was more concerned with making other people comfortable.
Setting an intention takes your thoughts and shapes them into the way you want to show up. And it’s important that you make that decision, especially in the face of COVID-19. Tonight, I will be attending a memorial service via Zoom. A sweet woman I once worked with recently lost her son. I knew and like him. It’s been heartbreaking to read the posts of a grieving mother. I’ve written her a letter trying to bridge the distance with words of compassion and connection. Tonight’s intention is very much the same: show up in love.
Embrace the new normal. A life-threatening disease of any kind can fissure life into parts. For me, it’s BC (before cancer) and AC (after cancer). I’ve lost things that I will never fully regain, but not without a fight. No matter what we endure, life does not wait. Battling an invisible enemy intermittently for seven years didn’t stop the invention of the iPhone or slow the global population from surpassing 7 billion. Life never rewinds to the “old” normal; yesterday is the old normal. The “new” normal is constantly being ushered in. Go ahead and make peace with that!
Our collective new normal may not resemble the old way of life until we have a vaccine for this current pandemic. What will that look like? I’m not quite sure. But whatever it looks like, we humans have a huge capacity to create, learn and adapt. The reality of our time spent quarantined, self-isolated or under stay-at-home orders is how we chose to use those moments within our negotiable limits. None of us has as much control as we would like, but when we chose to live with gratefulness, intention and acceptance we will all be better prepared when we finally reintroduce our new selves to the world.
Like I said: it feels like I’ve been here before.