The Buddy System

I’m sitting next to my mother as she receives her first round of chemotherapy treatment.

I can honestly say that as I was flitting around the world on our grand 6-month adventure, a chemotherapy clinic is just about the last place I imagined I’d end up upon my return home. We were in Thailand just a couple of days before our return to the U.S. when my mom experienced what she thought, at the time, was a heart attack. One test led to another, which led to another, which led to another – and in the end here we sit with a diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer.

Shit…

While her cancer is not curable, they say it is treatable and she has decided to undergo chemotherapy in hopes of extending her life by what feels like only a handful of months. I am completely devastated. Aside from Glenn, my mother is the singular most important person in my life. She is my everything. My absolute everything.

Adventuring with my mom - a day of dogsledding on Mt. Bachelor (Oregon).

Adventuring with my mom – a day of dogsledding on Mt. Bachelor (Oregon).

I have no idea how I am going to navigate through the world without her cheering me on and helping to celebrate my accomplishments. She won’t be here to chuckle and roll her eyes at me when I tell her about my next grand scheme. I’m going to miss that, and so much more. But I can’t focus on what the future holds right now…otherwise I will miss out on the precious moments with her that remain.

When we set out on our around-the-world trip, I had imagined that I would have some grand epiphany. I’d discover the meaning of life, maybe. Or, I’d be so profoundly moved by some experience that I’d quit my job, sell my stuff and move to a remote village in a far-off land to save elephants or something.

In the end that didn’t happen. At least it didn’t happen in the way I had envisioned. Instead I was blessed with a much more subtle, yet profound, realization. I learned how very important the people in my life are and what a vital role they play in my happiness and wellbeing.

I’ve always struggled with social anxiety.

It was particularly crippling for me when I was a shy child. Through various life experiences I have gained coping skills so that I appear to have things well in hand when I’m in a group of people in a social situation. But on the inside, I am a hot mess. As a result, I tend to avoid social interactions with groups of people whenever possible – even with people I know reasonably well.

This dynamic is one of the things I miss the most about weighing over 300 pounds.

It may be hard to imagine, but when you weigh 300+ pounds you are able to navigate through the world as if you are invisible. I found that my obesity made others uncomfortable. Strangers would rarely talk to me and they certainly didn’t look me in the eye. Most people were nice enough, but few sought out meaningful friendships with me. People looked past me, which enabled me to blend into the background – a wondrous thing for someone battling social anxiety.

My weight created a warm and cozy barrier that insulated me from the world because it deflected social interactions. Now, as a result of my weight loss, that barrier isn’t there as much to protect me. People tend to see me now; I’m no longer invisible. I now walk around feeling raw and exposed…panicked that at any moment I might be expected to chat with someone in the elevator or make small talk at a social gathering, even with people I know.

But over the course of our trip around the world I have found my perspective changing.

While traveling Glenn and I spent an inordinate amount of time as just the two of us. Even though people surrounded us everywhere we went, we were unable to speak to them (even if I had wished to) because of the language barrier. As such, I often experienced a profound sense of loneliness while on the road which was new to me. I longed for the daily interactions I used to have with people back home. The chats with the charming corner barista while getting my morning coffee, the stories from a beloved co-worker about her kid’s soccer practice the night before, or brainstorming with a dear friend about a topic for the paper he needed to write for his graduate class.

These, and countless other social interactions, make up the rich and vibrant backdrop to my daily life.

I didn’t realize how important they were to me until they were absent while I was on the other side of the world. My internal narrative has always been “I don’t need a sense of community. I’m perfectly happy having just Glenn and a couple of close friends, thank you very much.” But now I realize that the sense of happiness and fulfillment I feel each day comes from interacting socially with the much broader group of funny, creative, sincere and inspiring people I am lucky enough to be surrounded by.

I’ve always had this community, I just didn’t realize it was there. My extended group of friends and family, both near and far; my amazing co-workers; folks from my neighborhood that are daily fixtures in my life; even strangers I met while traveling that I now call friends.

These and countless other people fill my life with joy. They make me feel whole. They are worth every bit of anxiety that comes from my social interactions with them. My connections with these people – forged in good times – have become my foundation of support during this difficult time.

That’s what the “buddy system” means. Looking out for each other, especially when the going gets tough.

With the news of my mother’s diagnosis my community has circled around me. Sending heart-felt wishes, offering help, giving hugs, sharing their own experiences with cancer or the death of a beloved parent. Before our trip I would have been inclined to rebuff that attention because it would have made me uncomfortable and elevated my anxiety.

But now I realize how important these relationships are in my life. So I am trying to take down my barriers – allowing myself to be raw and exposed – and letting their love and compassion wash over me like a warm embrace.

And in doing so, I have found the strength I need to sit beside my mother and support her through the challenging journey ahead. After all, she and I are the very best of buddies. Forever and always.

20 comments on “The Buddy System

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  2. Hi Michele,
    It has been a long time since I have heard from you. Hope you and Glen are doing well and that modern medicine has been able to help your mom.
    Gwen

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  5. Michele, thank you thank you a million thank you’s for how you put such words to this. Seems you learned in 6 months of travel what I have learned in 6 months of putting down roots. Though I have friends far and wide, I had limited my actual community through constant travel. Building that now, 2.5 years after losing my mom, my everything – aside to Keith, to pancreatic cancer has been a tremendous eye opener to just how much I need that community. And on a very deep and connecting level. I suffered, but never alone. And I heal, surrounded by people who deeply love me. You are such a passionate, loving & brilliant woman. You are your mothers gift to our whole world, we are so very lucky. And I know you will find light in this darkness that is coming. So sorry for you both, for the whole family, I’m sorry this is happening. And I thank you for sharing, for being so transparent & vulnerable and present. Love to you all!

    • Thanks Paula. I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, as you can imagine. Trying to find and lean on that inner strength you seemed to have in this same situation. Your light has burned so bright, through it all. I’m so thankful that my travels taught me that it is important to turn toward my community right now. A year ago I would have been inclined to turn inward instead. Much love to you and Keith.

      • You are so welcome. Much of my strength came from my mom, I cherish it daily. Blessed to spend every moment possible, until the very last just being with her. Enjoy alllll those moments, they are what get you through. Big, warm, loving hugs!!!!

  6. Oh Michele. This sucks. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts on such a complicated set of emotions you must be experiencing. Sending lots of love your way. Xo

  7. I will never forget the experiences with your mom! What an awesome lady! I’m so sorry you guys are facing this terrible disease. Jana and I also faced this with our mom. Always our thoughts and prayers are with you all!!!

    • Thanks Jodi. I too will always remember fun experiences with your mom. I’ll never forget the dinner of sloppy joes when she informed me we were eating “Binoculars” the cow (that we named as a calf because of the black circles around his eyes). That was the first time I learned that hamburger wasn’t just something you bought wrapped in plastic from the grocery store! I rarely eat beef without thinking of your mom. 🙂

  8. Michele, I am so sorry to hear this news! I think of you and your mom often and all the fun things we used to do together when we were younger. This is the very same thing my mom had. I was very fortunate to have her with me when my first son was born. She was in remission for three years after she went through chemo. It has been 12 years since I lost her and I still remember how I felt when we found out about her diagnosis. I am praying for you and your mom and your family. Enjoy all the precious time you have with your loved ones.

    • Jana – thanks so much for the kind words. I think fondly back on our childhood times as well, especially Girl Scouts.

  9. You are so lucky to have your mom and she is so lucky to have you. We love you so much and are sending you both strength and peace. Brian and I learned the same lessons while traveling- nothing like being stripped of your support system to show you how much you have. It might be a subtle lesson but I think one of the best I have ever learned. Also, your baby picture!!!! You look the same!! XOXOXO

  10. Hi Michele, I’m so sorry to hear about your mom. Cancer is seldom kind. I’m sure your success, happiness and presence are a real comfort to her.
    Gwen

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