After receiving my bachelor’s degree, I worked at several different agencies as an assistant social worker to see if this would be a career I’d want to pursue. One job I had was in a nursing home, which paved the way to my future because in graduate school I pursued the field of geriatric social work and spent several years exclusively with senior citizens. At the nursing home, I would make my rounds on the floors and say hello to all the residents. I learned so much about life, and aging, in those greetings. For one thing, I learned that seniors love to give advice. I would say, “Hello, how are you today?” One lady I visited, Esther, would frown and say, “Oy, don’t get old!” I would smile back and say, “I’ll try not to,” then sit with her to listen to her life story. Another woman I liked to greet, Vera, would reflect for a second or two and then respond with a smile, “Well, I’m still breathing, so I must be having a good day!”
Both ladies had medical conditions that made nursing home placement necessary, but their respective attitudes about aging are what stuck with me, even to this day. Their views on life were like looking at a glass half-full or half-empty. I don’t remember their individual life stories but considering their outlook on life made me think of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, and the last stage of adulthood in particular: integrity vs. despair. Looking back on life, did these ladies have a sense of fulfillment and/or acceptance? Or was there a sense of dissatisfaction? Esther, I imagine, had a difficult life with a lot of regrets, while Vera seemed to accept the obstacles that came her way.
I think about them now, having been diagnosed with cancer and struggling with the side effects of chemotherapy. I think I relate to both women. When I was first diagnosed I firmly believed that I would beat this awful disease. It helped my overall attitude as chemotherapy began taking its toll. I took it all in stride and at times was able to look at the brighter side of chemotherapy. Losing my hair during Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise because hair salons were closed, and, when I had hair I needed it cut regularly or else it would get wide and bushy and difficult to control. When I knew I was going to lose my hair, I thought it would be fun to dye it pink before losing it, but then I never got the chance. So one of my dear friends bought me a pink wig instead. It’s fun wearing it and having a whole new look. It’s even fun being bald; I like the feeling of air on my head and not waking up with hair all over my face. It saves me time and money. I like being thinner but I don’t like that I always have a bad taste in my mouth or that eating is a chore instead of an outlet for my difficult-to-deal-with emotions. I like being a size 8 but I can’t go shopping, so everything I own is big on me. I order stuff but deliveries are slower than usual and I have to wait. Waiting is a constant in my life right now.
I can see both ladies in me. Like Vera, I know that life is definitely easier with a positive attitude. There are things to laugh at all the time and knowing that everything will be all right is very reassuring. People I talk with are gratified by my positive attitude, that I am learning life lessons, and making lemonade out of the lemons I have been handed. More importantly, I am gratified that I am able to look at this experience and see the lessons it is teaching me about my own resilience. I am genuinely gratified to realize how comfortable and compassionate I have become with myself and others. All these qualities are strengths that make the ordeal of cancer and Covid-19 easier to deal with. I see the Vera in me who wades through the muck of life with a smile because she knows she will get to the other side. She can pass through the muck with a sense of humor because she knows that, no matter what happens, everything will work itself out in the end.
But then there is the Esther in me. I am tired all the time and it’s too hard to stay motivated and even harder at times to focus. I wake up at odd hours and can’t go back to sleep but desperately want to because there is too much time on my hands and I don’t feel like sewing, writing, reading, meditating, or watching motivating videos on YouTube. I used to sew bags and sell them at craft shows. At one of the fairs, there was a man with his mother selling their crafts next to me, and on this particular day neither of us made any sales but I won a ribbon for my very unusual and creative neck-tie bags. I was happy. This man next to me was not. He asked me why I was so happy and when I told him his face was sour, he said, “I HATE happy.” I feel like that sometimes. I hate having cancer and feel like I have been patient enough and just want it to go away now. I don’t care when the news is good that chemotherapy is working because I am still struggling with a plethora of annoying symptoms, and what if they don’t go away when I am done with treatment? What if, after all this, cancer comes back anyway?
But then there is the Vera side of me that takes one day at a time and tries to smile because she knows life is more manageable when it is lived with an open heart. With an open heart the glass is always half-full and, like Bob Marley said, “Everything will be all right.”
I understand that both of these sides to my personality are real and necessary. The Esther part of me is as real as the Vera side of me. When I remember these two ladies now, I see both were strong and resilient for living through the obstacles they experienced, but I like knowing that I am not either/or, and that there’s a yin/yang balance of positive and negative in me. The grumpy side of me remains necessary because those difficult-to-acknowledge feelings need to be identified and expressed. Then there is self-compassion, nurturance, and a little indulgence that help soften the edges so that the Vera and Esther in me can walk together toward the sunrise of a new day.