We continue to be incredibly grateful for your concern and follow up on my mom’s cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in November and moved pretty quickly into surgery and radiation. She now has regular scans, so we live in three-month increments praying for the all-clear each time. We are in Cancer Maintenance.
I’ve mentioned before that as adult children, when one of your parents gets sick, everyone reverts to their standard roles. You hop into your lane and peddle furiously along familiar paths because you don’t have time to innovate; adrenaline only leaves room for you to do what you already know how to do.
In our case, I am the oldest child, so I jumped into procedures and systems obviously. (The middle children constantly monitor everyone’s feelings, and the babies are free to get clingy and fall apart. How nice for them.) As the oldest, I immediately started planning to keep this thing on the rails. We couldn’t go willy-nilly into Cancer Mode without defining the mode. What was our mode? We needed a mode. (No one ever voted me “Most Fun” in high school.)
So six months ago, five hours before my mom’s surgery, some of us prayed, some assembled snacks, some set up a care calendar. I wrote an essay. (I am a first-born, controlling, career writer; I had no alternative.) I penned the following manifesto and sent it to our family. I wonder if it might be helpful to you? I believe these guidelines apply to any family in crisis and those who love them. Obviously, cursing is allowed when your person gets sick, so feel free to use our swears in addition to our rules. (And FYI, readers: the following is simply our family tone, so even if you are less…salty…the approach works across all family brands.)
The King Family Cancer Manifesto
Well, I told cancer our family was off limits, but cancer is an asshole. I already have a death plan for Mom and Dad: they are supposed to die peacefully in their sleep forty years from now on the same night holding hands.We need to get our cancer rules together here on the front end. Mom goes in for surgery in five hours. Obviously, we hope the surgery will be the end of this, and Mom will kick cancer’s tail and we’ll get back to our important issues like Lindsay’s grilled pimento cheese recipe for her new menu and…whatever it is Dad does at the ranch (is it hay? Alfalfa? Are the calves born in the spring or fall? It’s all so unclear).
Amy H gave me this idea. It goes like this:
- We have concentric rings around Mom’s cancer, and she gets to be in the bulls-eye, because well, she has the actual cancer.
- The second ring is Dad, because he said “in sickness and in health” 45 years ago and so now he is stuck.
- Us four kids are third, because we are the fruit of their loins (gross).
- The people we married or “are hanging out with” (side-eye to Drew) or birthed are in the next ring, because Mom is their Grana or mother-in-law or “mom of the guy she is hanging out with” (Drew, land the plane, we like her so much).
- The fourth ring includes all our best friends. The real ones. The ones we ask to help us move and crap like that. The ones who walk into our houses without knocking.
- The outer ring includes our work friends and church friends and neighbors who like or even love us, and they will get swept into our cancer vortex by proximity.
- Everyone else in the world is outside of those rings.
The way this works is that stress can always go out but never in. Mom is in the bulls-eye, so she can say and do and feel whatever she wants at all times. She gets to act straight crazy if she’s in the mood, but at no time does she have to deal with our psychosis or anyone else’s. No other rings can dump their worry, fear, or burdens on Mom. She is the Cancer Queen and zero drama can reach her on the throne. She can be calm and measured like she normally is, or she can be irrational and hysterical. It doesn’t matter. In the bulls-eye, crazy can go out but no crazy can come in. We have to be strong and steady at all times for Mom. I don’t know how we’ll manage as this is not our skill set. Maybe there is a YouTube tutorial.
Dad is next. He can’t give Mom any fuss ever, but he can give it to anyone outside his ring. We have to absorb Dad’s junk too. We know him: this won’t look like fear or panic, it will mostly just sound like a lot of words. Dad gets to say all the words in all the world and everyone outside his ring has to listen patiently, because the only person who gets to shut him down ever is Mom. Gird your loins.
The family is next, so none of our crazy can go in toward Mom or Dad, but it can absolutely go out to the other rings. Our outer people have to deal with us without so much as a raised eyebrow. If we want to completely overreact and flail into a quagmire of tortured exaggeration (we are not a stoic people), we get to do that and our outer people will let us. If we decide on a bad day that our doctor is a quackadoo with a degree off the internet, they should confirm our theory and google replacement doctors. Our best friends are the recipients of all melodrama, inflated enthusiasm, and emotional outbursts. They can give us exactly zero of those things. Outer rings can only send in the good. Absolutely no crazy. If an Outer Ring Person consistently makes an Inner Ring Person panic by, for example, telling lots and lots of dead people stories, his or her ring career is over. Crazy-senders get booted from the rings immediately. We police the rings like Martin Riggs.
Mom, we have no idea what the doc will find today, but let me tell you this: if it is worse than we think and you are looking at mastectomies, feel free to get a nice new set of knockers when this is over. It will be your silver lining. You’ll look like a 16-year-old cheerleader. While you are under that knife, we can add on any other treatments you want BECAUSE YOU HAD CANCER AND NOW YOU GET ANYTHING YOU WANT FOREVER.If people outside our rings want to help, they can pray. Remember? We believe in God! How lucky for us. And for Mom. You know she has filled, what, a million pages with her Scripture and prayer journaling every morning for forever? Mom doesn’t do a lot of talky-talking about her God feelings (that is Dad’s territory), but she is all filled up with the goods. We know how Dad prays, because he constantly makes us bawl by emailing his prayers for us. We know God loves Mom (the prayer journals alone are a straight ticket to heaven, plus all those times she bailed us out of jail) and if we are not one of His favorite families, then God has no taste at all. He’s got us. I know it.
So no matter what comes later today and next week and this whole next year, we can handle this. We have each other and we have God and we have good rings. We can always default to inappropriate humor, and fortunately, Mom’s cancer is in her boobs, so that gives us instant material to work with. We’ll all do what we do: Dad will talk about it, I will make rules, Lindsay will wail, Cortney will diagnose, Drew will gripe at the sisters, and Mom will be the calm Cancer Queen in the middle of this crazy family she created, probably acting like the sanest one of all.
We can do this.
Six months on this side of the manifesto, I can tell you that the ring system WORKS. If the rings are maintained well, the bulls-eye person gets to sit in a soothing emotional spa of calm and serenity and love. Oh sure, her people have plenty of fear and crazy, but they only send it outward, never inward, so she is shielded. Good outer rings constantly strengthen the inner rings. For my mom, this looked like a stocked refrigerator for weeks, an usually calm family, gifts for every single day of radiation from her staff, a cleaned house, rotating hand-holders on radiation days at the oncology office, anointing her with oil and prayer, baskets of lotion, tons of emails and texts.For us in the innermost rings, this looked like a billion calls checking in on us, friends meeting us at the doctor’s office, a steady supply of patient listeners, well-timed distractions, invites for fun stuff, treatment strategy partners, encouragement galore, helpful research, laughter. Our people absorbed all our fears so we were free to absorb Mom’s and Dad’s. Our rings served us so well.
God was and still is so ever present, so ever near, so ever good. And we are taking our turn as outer rings for other folks right now, because that is how the community thing works. When someone staffs the outer rings of others, she need not worry when her day in the bulls-eye comes. She’ll be surrounded by good people who love her and know the rules:
All the fear and worry can go out, and only strength and goodness can come in.
If you are in crisis with your people right now, you have all my love and solidarity. Life is hard, but God and people are good. Set up your rings, explain the out-but-not-in Crazy Policy, and remember that God loves you and is for you. I am for you too, and your pain is always safe here. Consider me an outer ring: I will gladly, patiently absorb it all for you here today.
**Quick update: My friend “Amy H” (mentioned above) who gave me this idea read it from another article! I’m sure she mentioned that but the details completely fail me. This was six months ago and we were in Cancer Crisis. All I can remember is her great idea about “stress out, never in.” I would never borrow a concept without crediting the original author intentionally (that has happened to me before and it blows). I am super glad to link you to this one she’d read in the LA Times by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. I hope the “ring wisdom” is useful to so many of us. May it be a comfort and guide when our people are sick and we are all struggling.