Days Two and Three

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

APRIL 25, 2018

  Living with Cancer is the name of this blog, but the meaning of that phrase has been demonstrated here at WonderWell over the past few days. In spite of their very challenging experiences, these Wonder Women are living their lives in technicolor. There is no time or patience for delay or wasted moments or giving in to sadness or fear (although everyone is entitled to some moments like that). As I wrote yesterday, one woman ran last week's Boston Marathon; another does triathlons; a third recently went sky-diving. Remember: these are women with serious, mostly metastatic cancers. And they are living!

  Living is not only, or even mostly, about dramatic achievements. We have talked endlessly about the important things in life, and we have been reminded of them by our teachers here. Liz, the Managing Teacher, gave us a truly wonderful talk and meditation session yesterday. One of her comments that really resonated with me what that language can get in the way of experience. We see something, immediately label it with our words, and then don't see it without that filter. Her example was a tree. Looking out the window, I see and think tree. Then my mind moves one. If, instead, I don't name it, but look at the bark and the movement in the wind and the colors of green, it is much bigger. I don't want to sound like a sap here, and I surely appreciate that kind of noticing is not always possible in our lives, but the point was well made. She led us through a wonderful mediation called Benefactor. The instruction was to imagine a person or a place or a pet who, in a moment, has made us feel truly loved and accepted for who we are. With that image in mind, she then softly talked us though the feelings. I have done this practice with her before, and my image has always been a person. This time, the totally white face of my beloved 13 year old Golden Retriever came to mind: her dark eyes focused on me, her intense yet soft gaze, the benediction of her presence. It was lovely, and, of course, made me cry. I have always had dogs, but have never had one who lived so long, and this experience of loving an elderly dog is intense and bittersweet. The Wonderwell lesson is in the noticing and acknowledgement and appreciation.

  Lunch was everyone's favorite tomato soup and grilled cheese. There was even dessert, but I managed enough calories without it. The afternoon, after time to take a walk or sit in the spring sun, was more conversation. I had planned a Journaling session, and the goodie bags for each participant included a small journal and a pen. But, instead, the discussion went on all afternoon. I opened with an invitation to talk about anything that had not feel safe the first day when we knew each other less well. That opened hearts, and we shared our lives in very intimate ways. One woman was laid off from her work, along with a few others who also were dealing with medical issues. She has engaged an attorney, and it is clear that the illness and insurance costs and maybe time away from work (although that has not been an issue for her) were the reasons. Her lawyer is encouraging and positive, and one of the women here is an experienced trial lawyer and had all sorts of helpful comments and suggestions. The bigger part of her story, though, was about her feelings, her distress, and then her incredible resolve and resilience. We talked about the need to stay alive to raise children, the wish to make our eventual departures as gentle as possible. We talked about funerals and wills and cleaning out closets in advance. We talked about the days of illness and pain, and the darkness that can surround us. And we gloried in the community we have created together.

  And we laughed. A lot..

  The appetizers and wine came out later, and there was even more laughter. The staff here has told me that they especially love our retreats because of that laughter. Many of their retreats are silent (there are a lot of signs around about Noble Silence), and hearing us brings life to these walls. Dinner, of course, was delicious--zucchini stuffed with pesto and several cheeses, homemade bread, salads, the rest of the appetizers and cookies and fruit. Some of us went to bed not too long after dinner, and some stayed up late talking. With more of that laughter.

  This morning's breakfast is going on now, and listen to the voices with intense pleasure and gratitude. We will have gentle yoga and more meditation and conversation and lunch. And then we will head back to our lives--but we will head back enriched by these days and by each other. The magic of Wonderwell goes with us.