Ordinary Time

It turned out to be at its coming in and not at its leaving when March was actually the lamb; it left us yesterday with the lion, and lions, it turns out, can kill you. Even the warning of the soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” seems more foreboding when you think about what went down and how it started around the middle of the month. It’s April first but the usual pranks seem irrelevant and cruel, no fooling. We startle easily these days. We are long on scary surprises.

It’s kind of heartbreaking to look back before a big loss, in the last moments or days that become, in retrospect, the ones Before It Happened. The happy photo snapped just before the unexpected loss, the son excitedly tearing into the rejection letter. The patient laughing in the exam room just before the devastating news. I always want to protect the person in question, as if by waving my arms, I can change the way the story ends. It seems so heartless not to warn her, to not give her a chance to brace herself for what is ahead.

This is how I feel about all of us when I remember us, just a month ago, heading into March. We didn’t see it coming; none of us could have known all we were about to lose.

There are important and obvious losses that wear on us in broad swaths of grief, clear to everybody: loved ones and jobs are the main ones. Lesser but also present are the graduations and weddings and school friendships and budding romances and meaningful relationships with teachers that were just about to come into being and now are lost forever. Even our sense of national pride is further fractured as we wonder how it can possibly be true that nurses are wearing bandannas and trash bags, that field hospitals are set up in parks, that elderly people are dying alone.

The losses are impossible to account for in their entirety because they are so many and so different for everyone, but in part because they are still coming. We know this, and though we know we are just getting started, we are already exhausted by a vague anticipatory grief; our bodies ache from bracing for impact. It is hard to know which losses matter enough, which are ok to acknowledge and to grieve in the face of so much suffering.

But because we have so much more to go, and because we are already so worn out, I want to point out that there is one thing that all of us lost in March, one that it might help to name and grieve together on the path forward.

We lost the ordinary.

Fourteen Aprils ago when I started chemotherapy for breast cancer, I got treatment on Mondays. My treatment team warned that the third and fourth days after treatment would be the worst, because that was when the steroids and other drugs that managed the side effects wore off. But in the days after the first treatment, I was pleased to find that this didn’t happen for me: Wednesday and Thursday and Friday came and went and I still felt pretty good, considering. Sometimes on those days I wondered if they were giving me the right chemo, or if was maybe just going to overachieve my way through the whole thing. I thought I was home free.

And then, Saturday hit. It would be weeks before we would figure out that the steroids wore off of my body on day five, later than what was expected, that I would come to count on Saturdays as consistently “not good” days after treatment. But in the beginning, I couldn’t explain why on Saturdays, the day when I was supposed to feel good, and had hoped desperately to enjoy family time, I felt tired and achy in a way that was difficult to explain, weak and vulnerable in a way that felt like an omen. Any sense that I would survive had disappeared abruptly, leaving in its wake a sense of defeat and depression and impending doom. On those Saturdays it felt, in ways both metaphorical and literal, that life was surely leaving me behind.

It was one of those early Saturdays, before we had it figured out, when my husband came into the laundry room to find his wife, partially balding and completely hysterical, crying while heaving laundry somewhat violently into the machine. “What is it?” he asked gently and I turned toward him, letting the tears and snot run down my face. It was hard to say exactly what it was and for a while I just looked at him. “All I want in the whole world,” I said finally, “is a normal Saturday.”

I gestured defeatedly with my one arm before wiping my nose on my pajama sleeve. “Like the other families,” I went on, “who are doing normal family things, like soccer, and errands, and running around…” I squeaked sadly, “like we used to have.”

I couldn’t finish. He took me in his arms as it all tumbled out, the grief for what I’d lost and the fear that I would never get it back. The guilt for not appreciating what I had not noticed and now might never regain. In midst of larger, more visible, more important losses, there is always the easily-overlooked loss of the ordinary.

So much of that time is hazy for us now, the many years between then and marked like the liturgical calendar: joyful holidays and celebrations separated by endless weeks of Ordinary Time. But that day is one we both remember; to this day, we still often point out, with a newfound and lasting gratitude (and often over empty-nest cocktails) that “it is a normal Saturday”.

I don’t know all you’ve lost to coronavirus; I’m not sure I know yet what Ive lost, or what each of us might yet lose. But the ordinary? We will get it back. It will be different, as things always are in the days After It Happens, but we will have it again, and we will embrace the gift of the ordinary, again, with a newfound and lasting gratitude.

But for now, I just want to acknowledge what March took from you, from all of us. And to say:

I am so sorry for your loss.

19 thoughts on “Ordinary Time

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up: Coronavirus Part 4 Edition | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  2. Beth,
    I am only two months past my final chemotherapy for breast cancer and am now three weeks into a medically ordered quarantine. I SO resonate with your experience and am deeply moved and encouraged by your reflective wisdom, gleaned by direct confrontation with your vulnerability and mortality. One breath at a time is the only way that I can maintain my serenity these days. Thanks for sharing your gifts with my cousin who sent them to me!
    Maureen Aarons<3

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    • Maureen, I am sending you love and light especially in the early days of survivorship. One breath at a time sounds like the perfect approach! Wishing you many, many normal Saturdays in the years to come xox Beth

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  3. Beth,

    Thank you for sharing this, my friend! My normal self, the one who takes great pride in being Pollyannaish, is struggling in ways as never before with this virus and the uncertainty it has brought our collective world. Everyday I feel trapped in some weird and very unfunny version of Groundhog Day. If you needed proof, all you’d need to do is Zoom me right now, and see me still in my pj’s and bathrobe, unwashed hair (red-scaly hands, though, from over washing.) I was down and couldn’t put my finger on why, but you are right, it is that lack of normal. Even my personality is not “normal.” I feel prickly and sad and fearful and angry and depressed and a host of other feelings I just do not usually have. My normal go to, “This too shall pass” just isn’t cutting it right now. I just appreciate you sharing your authentic self and helping me to not feeling alone in all of this. God bless you, friend!

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  4. Beth, thank you for this…. so heartfelt and beautifully written. You have such a gift with writing…warm wishes that you and Tim and your family are well and safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Beth for the hope and look forward to “ordinary” in such an overwhelming sad time. Trying to stay focused, 1 foot in front of the other. Be loyal and faithful to family, friends, and coworkers. Who knew we would face this much of a challenge in our lifetime? 💝💝💝

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  6. This hit home in such a powerful way. Have been feeling completely out of sorts and full of anxiety all day. Thank you for the reminder that all I’m missing is normal and how lucky I am not to have lost more. Your writing is such a gift to all of us. Stay safe my friend and please keep these coming!

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