Jan 24th is the anniversary of my late husband, Greg Parker’s birthday. It’s been nearly six years since he died. During our three decades together, Greg taught me a great many things. One of the most profound ones was how he was able, while living with cancer, to hold on to hope and optimism, and sheer zest for life. He faced his adversity with a kind of grace and radiance that surprised and inspired everyone who met him, because of one important quality.
It was in July 2010 that Greg was diagnosed with Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma with Metastases. Translation: he had terminal Kidney Cancer, and it had spread.
The increasing pain he had been experiencing in his groin, which he attributed to “muscle strain” was actually from a giant hole in the bones of his pelvis that the cancer had eaten away.
The thing is, our home life at this stage was already a kind of hell, as our daughter Mary had been suffering from severe and life threatening anorexia and depression, and we had spent the last three years trying to keep her safe and alive.
And now, terminal cancer was added to the mix.
In the very early days of his diagnosis, amid tears and prayers and fear and uncertainty, Greg grappled to come to terms with what it meant. Facing the finality of a diagnosis like this was not easy for someone who loved life more than anyone I knew.
Until the one simple idea that seemed to hold him steady. From the time it came to him, he shared it with anyone who would listen. Perhaps sharing it helped anchor it in and propel him forward through the fear.
It was this: Instead of shaking a fist at the Universe and yelling, “WHY ME?!!”
He quietly asked, “Why NOT me?”
From then on, it was a day-to-day renewal of the idea that this was his condition … and as much as he hoped and prayed and wished for the cancer drugs to work, to keep the tumours from growing, to extend his life beyond the six months that were predicted … THIS was his condition, right now, and accepting his disease gave him the best chance of winning what he saw as the spiritual battle before him.
One of the clearest signs that he HAD mastered this idea, happened like this:
Across the four years he lived with cancer, every few months he underwent a complete scan to check if the tumours were growing. If the scans showed the tumours to be stable, it meant the drugs were working, and bought him some time. If the tumours were growing, that meant the drugs had STOPPED working, and his days were numbered … he would only have weeks to live.
So, our trips to the hospital to see his oncologist and get the scan results, were literally a Life and Death matter.
I remember those visits like they were yesterday. We would set off for the hospital, wheelchair folded and packed in the car. I’d find a parking spot as close as possible to his oncologist’s office in the huge sprawling hospital. I’d assemble his wheelchair and help Greg out of the car.
Then I would push the wheelchair towards Greg’s Fate. Our Fate. The Scan Results. My stomach would be churning and I would feel the nausea mounting.
Greg, on the other hand, appeared calm and unconcerned. Every single time.
I would occasionally, on those trips, ask him, “how are you feeling, Gregory?” thinking this time, THIS time he would say something that perhaps reflected the terror I was feeling.
And inevitably Greg would reply with some version of this response:
“I’m feeling good. Calm. Confident. It is what it is, Malini, it is what it is.”
I was mystified by this … almost irritated by this response! And WHAT the heck did he even mean, “IT IS WHAT IT IS”??
At the time, I barely understood that a transformation was unfolding before me: The man I had been married to for nearly thirty years was changing into another. He seemed to live each day with one foot in this world, and one foot in some mysterious realm that was veiled to me.
I, on the other hand, had both feet very much in THIS world. Grumpy and exhausted almost all the time, I was just focussed on keeping him alive in it: Getting him to his appointments. Getting his meds right. Anticipating his needs. Coordinating his schedule so that we weren’t over-run with the many, many visitors that Greg welcomed with open arms (even if he could barely lift his arms). Hoping and praying that even though I was forced to shift my attention from keeping our daughter Mary safe, to keeping Greg alive, that she would be ok. Oh, and running my business so we could pay our bills.
I certainly didn’t have the energy for any spiritual awakenings. But the thing that I actually really didn’t get was the deep spiritual truth that he had internalised in these simple words: “It is what it is”.
Throughout his cancer years it was as if Greg was learning the steps to a kind of mystical dance – a dance between HOPE and ACCEPTANCE. And somehow, mysteriously, in a journey laden with victories, emotional anguish, with unbearable physical pain and suffering, Greg mastered this dance.
We all live with uncertainty every day of our lives. When you live with a disease like this, that uncertainty is magnified a thousandfold.
Without ever losing his love for living, he embraced the ultimate uncertainty of life with complete Acceptance.
“The confirmations of the Spirit are all those powers and gifts which some are born with … but for which others have to strive with infinite pains. They come to that man or woman who accepts his life
with radiant acquiescence.”
For the full account of this and other lessons learned from Greg’s life, including why he was often called a ‘larrikin’, (think car theft and knife fights!!) grab a cuppa, put your feet up, and click here: Lessons Learned from the Life of a Larrikin. I hope they will make you smile, touch your heart and perhaps inspire you with tools to face the battles you are facing, with renewed hope.
Malini Parker is an artist and writer. From her home studio perched over a fragrant forest,
she runs beginners art classes in Perth, Western Australia
that help awaken creativity and amplify joy!