The Perils of Expectations

Once again, I am wondering where the time has gone since I last posted. In my last entry, a lifetime ago, I described the shock of finding myself in the hospital as the ship sailed on the eve of a three-week adventure I’d been dreaming of for over a year, while my beloved partner struggled with acute kidney failure. The part I didn’t add was that the kidney failure was caused by blockage from newly discovered cancer in his prostate.  Advanced. Incurable. Highly virulent.  Quickly invasive.

I guess we all know we aren’t going to live forever, but learning what is likely to kill us or someone we love, and in roughly how much time, is brutal.  Fortunately the prognosis is still measurable in plural years, but that’s about all I know.

I forced myself to finish a first draft of novel number five, THE INTUITIVE, just so I didn’t have an uncompleted story hanging over me, then without any of the usual fanfare, I just set it aside.  I’ll get to it sometime. Priorities.  I need to keep my head clear.  I need to live up to my own expectations of myself as a teacher.  I need to be there for Jim, whatever he needs.

I often catch myself wishing some event in the future would come more quickly–the end of the semester, a much anticipated event, a visit, a piece of news.  Then I pull back on the reins of my desires and remind myself how finite time is and how quickly the clock is ticking.  Why should I possibly want it already to be mid-December?  Don’t I want all the time in between?

Especially now.

This isn’t the first overwhelming crisis I’ve dealt with, and I’ve noticed two basic ways people respond to their own problems and those of others.  The first is catastrophizing and the second is rosy denial.  This doesn’t correlate to simple pessimism and optimism, though, at least for me.  I am one of the most sunny and cheerfully optimistic people you’ll ever meet, but I still fall into the first category, at least initially.

It works well for me to imagine the worst.  It enables me to preview my emotions, think of strategies and plans, remind myself what grief feels like.  I envision Jim’s treatments not working, I picture the markers of his decline. I place this in concrete time–next summer, next fall, next year. I picture the end.  I think about life without him. I imagine my own end, and know that unlike him I may face it without a loving partner. I hate every minute of all this, but I stay there as long as I need to, just to keep myself oriented and rational.

Then–and here is the important part–I tell myself it’s highly unlikely to be as bleak as that.  I dial back the catastrophe.  I tell myself the worst is almost certainly not what is in store for either of us.  Some things we can control.  Others we can assume won’t happen, or won’t be as awful as they could be.

That’s why it can be hard to deal with all the sweet and wonderful people who try to help  by saying that the treatments designed to keep the cancer at bay for several years could give scientists enough time to find a cure, those who tell me about all the exceptional cases, all the “miracles,” all the people still alive after ten or twenty years. I know it’s done out of love for me, mingled with a large dose of their own fears, but it’s very draining.   It’s a bit like when I lost loved ones and ended up spending my limited energy listening to things that might have made other people feel better but only exhausted me.  Things that, in an odd twist,  made me feel like the consoler rather than the consoled.

I have on occasion called myself an optimistic fatalist, and though that might sound weird, to me it makes perfect sense.  I can’t change what will be, but the one thing I am confident of is that I will weather it somehow.