As adult children, when one of your parents gets sick, everyone reverts to their standard roles. So five hours before my mom’s breast cancer surgery, some of us prayed, some assembled snacks, some set up a care calendar. I wrote an essay. (I am a firstborn, controlling, career writer; I had no alternative.) I believe these guidelines apply to any family in crisis and those who love them:
THE KING FAMILY CANCER MANIFESTO
Mom goes in for surgery in five hours. Obviously, we hope the surgery will be the end of this, and Mom will kick cancer’s tail, and we’ll get back to our important issues like Lindsay’s grilled pimento cheese recipe for her new menu and . . . whatever it is Dad does at the ranch.
Amy H. gave me this idea she read in the LA Times. It goes like this:
● We have concentric rings around Mom’s cancer, and she gets to be in the bulls-eye, because well, she has the actual cancer.
● The second ring is Dad, because he said “in sickness and in health” forty-five years ago and so now he is stuck.
● Us four kids are third, because we are the fruit of their loins (gross).
● The people we married or “are hanging out with” or birthed are in the next ring, because Mom is their Grana or mother-in-law or “mom of the guy she is hanging out with.”
● The fourth ring includes all our best friends. The real ones. The ones we ask to help us move and crap like that. The ones who walk into our houses without knocking.
● The outer ring includes our work friends and church friends and neighbors who like or even love us, and they will get swept into our cancer vortex by proximity.
● Everyone else in the world is outside of those rings.
The way this works is that stress can always go out but never in. Mom is in the bulls-eye, so she can say and do and feel whatever she wants at all times. No other rings can dump their worry, fear, or burdens on Mom. She is the Cancer Queen and zero drama can reach her on the throne. We have to be strong and steady at all times for Mom. I don’t know how we’ll manage as this is not our skill set. Maybe there is a YouTube tutorial.
Dad is next. He can’t give Mom any fuss ever, but he can give it to anyone outside his ring. We have to absorb Dad’s junk too. Dad gets to say all the words in all the world and everyone outside his ring has to listen patiently, because the only person who gets to shut him down ever is Mom.
The family is next, so none of our crazy can go in toward Mom or Dad, but it can absolutely go out to the other rings. Our best friends are the recipients of all melodrama, inflated enthusiasm, and emotional outbursts. They can give us exactly zero of those things. Outer rings can only send in the good. Absolutely no crazy. Crazy-senders get booted from the rings immediately.
If people outside our rings want to help, they can pray. Remember? We believe in God! We know God loves Mom, and if we are not one of His favorite families, then God has no taste at all. He’s got us. I know it.
So no matter what comes later today and next week and this whole next year, we can handle this. We have each other and we have God and we have good rings. We can do this.
On this side of the manifesto, I can tell you that the ring system works. If the rings are maintained well, the bulls-eye person gets to sit in a soothing emotional spa of calm and serenity and love. Good outer rings constantly strengthen the inner rings.
For my mom, this looked like a stocked refrigerator for weeks, an unusually calm family, gifts for every single day of radiation from her staff, a cleaned house, rotating hand-holders on radiation days at the oncology office, anointing her with oil and prayer, baskets of lotion, tons of e-mails and texts.
For us in the innermost rings, this looked like a billion calls checking in on us, friends meeting us at the doctor’s office, a steady supply of patient listeners, well-timed distractions, invites for fun stuff, treatment strategy partners, encouragement galore, helpful research, laughter. Our people absorbed all our fears so we were free to absorb Mom’s and Dad’s. Our rings served us so well.
God was and still is so ever present, so ever near, so ever good. And we are taking our turn as outer rings for other folks right now, because that is how the community thing works. When someone staffs the outer rings of others, she need not worry when her day in the bulls-eye comes. She’ll be surrounded by good people who love her and know the rules:
All the fear and worry can go out, and only strength and goodness can come in.
If you are in crisis with your people, you have all my love and solidarity. Set up your rings, explain the out-but-not-in Crazy Policy, and remember that God loves you and is for you.