Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Warmth of the Sun

Still I have the warmth of the sun
Within me tonight…
My love’s like the warmth of the sun
It won’t ever die.
           —The Beach Boys, “The Warmth of the Sun”

I asked Reason to Believe partner Scott sometime in 2006 how he was ever able to get through his (many, many years earlier) infant daughter having leukemia. It was foreign to me how young parents like Scott and his wife could get through that.

He said, “You get through it. You just do. There’s no practice or manual for it. You have to get through it, so you do.”

It made sense then, a bit. But it makes total sense now. Now that my lovely wife has been diagnosed with—and has undergone surgery and his now recovering from—breast cancer.

Scott and I have known each other for more than 30 years, dating back to our freshman year of high school in 1982. What’s funny is since 1990 or so, we’ve seen each other exactly once—when my family made a trip to the West Coast in 2007 and visited with him and his lovely clan. And in between, for a good 15 years or so from the early 90s to 2006, we lost contact all together. So small, insignificant life events—you know, weddings and child births and moves and career changes and what not—we kinda missed out on all that.

We re-established contact in 2006 and have basically been in cyber-contact every day since. Ours is the utmost in modern day friendships, especially considering (as he likes to point out) we can communicate regularly without ever having to see each other! So it was after we got back in touch in 2006 I learned long, long after the fact that his (now very healthy) oldest daughter had had leukemia as an infant, and that retroactively hit me with the sense of dread and sorrow and fear. And I had to ask how they endured that.

“You get through it. You just do.”

Yeah. You do.

Nothing prepared me for my wife (I like to refer to her as the Prime Minister, because she benevolently rules all and brings joy to a grateful people) having cancer—hell, certainly nothing prepared her for this. And with that in mind I basically did the very clichéd but necessary gut-check—“okay, tough guy. Time to step up. She needs you. Get to it.” So I did.

Providing comfort and support and love, that’s a given and it’s easy. It comes with the vow I took 22 years ago—“In sickness and in health.” Got it. But caring for someone after invasive surgeries? Performing somewhat nursely functions that, seriously, I never saw myself being equipped to handle? Being able to ask the tough questions of surgeons and doctors, evaluate the answers and determine next steps with the Prime Minister in real time?

I know nothing about medicine and, honestly, way too little about cancer. But this is all stuff that’s on me now. Her job is to get better, and she’s doing it like a damn champ. My job is to act as, often at the same time, caregiver, watcher, comforter, scheduler and doting husband for my wife, as well as basically being the spokesperson to the many, many friends and loved ones who want to know how she’s doing and the kind of progress that’s being made.

Scott said years ago, “You get through it. You just do. You have to get through it, so you do.”

Damn was he right. That’s what I’ve done. That’s what the Prime Minister has done and my family has done. Today, eight days after her bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, she’s doing well. Her prognosis is excellent, but the pain of recovery is very real. She’ll be healthy, which is the goal. But recovery is not easy. She has to endure that physical pain. I have to do whatever I possibly can to support her while she does.

It was a few days after her surgery that I stepped outside to do some errands and was struck by the immense and gorgeous sunshine. Had this been July, rather than late October, it would have been a portent for a 90 degree day and something very much expected, so I would have thought little of it. But this is Connecticut and the leaves are all turning their oranges and yellows and reds and are covering my yard and every yard around us and the sun is just not that high in the sky anymore this time of year, so the expectation of having a warm, sunny day is just not there. Particularly since the few days which preceded it were grey and, eventually, torrentially stormy.

But this morning and day were perfect, and that sun just instantly elevated me. My mood was already good—my wife had gotten the news that the surgery got all of the cancer and there was no need for anything else invasive—but I didn’t expect to feel that comfortable glow on my face when I stepped outside. It was, in all seriousness, as surprising as being hit with a snowball. Only so much more pleasant.

For whatever reason, as I walked to the car, I began to hum to myself the lyrics that sit atop this post, part of The Beach Boys’ 1964 pretty and melancholy song “The Warmth of the Sun.” It’s not a song I think about, really, ever. I know it a little, nowhere near as well as I know other Beach Boys songs (including the A-side single to which “The Warmth of the Sun” was the B-side, “Dance Dance Dance.”) But it was still something I knew and something that popped into my head as I walked through a daylight I never expected.

“Still I have the warmth of the sun within my tonight. My love’s like the warmth of the sun—it won’t ever die.”

I kinda hummed this over and over again as I went through my day, enough to make the Prime Minister ask me (tell me, really) to kindly stop.

But here’s why I still can’t shake it. It’s a sad song with a wisp of hope, but only a little. It’s a song with an overwhelming and timeless image of comfort—who doesn’t know the extreme satisfaction we can get of being warmed by the sun?—but it is wrapped in a feeling of loss and emptiness. It covers both sides of the fabled coin; it gives you the good and the bad together and leaves it to you to sort them out.

I knew the lore of the song, that it was written by cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love of The Beach Boys on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. And I assumed it was written as a somber reflection of all that was lost that day.

Only…not really. The truth is the song was written that day, but in the early morning hours before Kennedy was killed. Later it was recorded and released, coincidentally, on October 26, 1964—50 years prior to the day I started singing it while walking to my car in the sunshine, seemingly out of the blue.

So the lyrics and melody were done before the tragedy occurred, yet listen to the recording (or really, any retelling of it since, including the rather stunning one I’ve posted below from Brian Wilson and Eric Clapton) and you hear that pervasive sense of sadness. The song wasn’t written as an elegy to the late President, but in many ways it was recorded that way. And remains today as a sweet, simple meditation on fragility and longing, fleeting beauty and the hope that something as elemental as the warmth of the sun can carry us through and keep us going.

That’s how I hear it, especially today, especially after these months of living with a loved one with cancer, months of testing, diagnosis, delay, worry, fear, anger, frustration and, ultimately, meaningful resolution. We get there, because we have to get there. It’s how in my house we have endured her illness and kept our heads up and remained optimistic. It’s how we look to a great future of health rather than a sour recent past of disease. It’s how we move forward. We moved forward because we have to move forward.

But we can’t do it alone, and we don’t do it alone. It would take pages and pages for me to explain how grateful I am to the hundreds of people—really, they number in the hundreds—who have offered their prayers and support, not to mention the gifts and the meals and the flowers. Who have reached out to us to lend a hand, an ear, a shoulder. They are our church community, our friends of 20+ years, our neighbors, our work colleagues, our amazing family and the people who maybe know us a bit more peripherally through social media. They have all been there. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done and I doubt I’ll ever be able to.

Much like a warming sun we don’t expect to feel on our faces, they have all been there. And we have felt the glow, the heat, the comfort that we hoped for but knew was never a guarantee. I think now that’s what Brian Wilson was trying to get across—that through the struggle and the pain, something can linger that either pushes, pulls or carries you through to something better. Or, at least, warmer. And it makes such beautiful sense to me now.

“Still I have the warmth of the sun within my tonight. My love’s like the warmth of the sun—it won’t ever die.”

Scott said, “You get through it. You just do. You have to get through it, so you do.” And he was right.

And there are factors that help you to get through. Sometimes they are the angels in your life. Sometimes it is the unceasing love you feel for your spouse and family, a love you know will prop you up when you need it. Sometimes it is undying faith in God and His grace. Sometimes it is friends sending flowers, meals, prayers, well-wishes and smiles.

And sometimes it’s just a day you walk outside and feel, unexpected but so very much appreciated, that warmth of the sun.

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