Category Archives: cancer


I’m so anxious I can’t think straight

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2007


I know what the issues are, but I can’t really deal with them.

Dear Cary,

Lately I’ve been very anxious about my father. I’ve been anxious about mortality and life goals, or how to live in general, but particularly as it concerns my father.

I’ll back up. I’m 31. For the first time in my life, I have a good relationship with a man I really love. It’s a lot of fun, and such a relief, and I think maybe not having relationship anxiety has cleared the way for some older and possibly greater anxieties. For the first time in years, I’ve been having the mortal terrors again at night. I contemplate death and scream out loud. (When my man is around for that he tries to comfort me, and it does help a little.)

I assume most other people don’t feel the way I do. I never hear them screaming. But how could they fail to? In particular I worry about my father. He’s in his 60s. We get cancer in my family. I have this worry. I don’t know how I’ll cope. And: I’ve been having some low-level longings for a baby, these past years, and when it occurs to me that my father might not get to be a grandfather to my child, it breaks my heart.

If I were a shrink I might wonder if that’s a transposed longing to do my childhood over again. Maybe so. I think my childhood was actually wonderful (and it was a time when I was much closer to my father). My young adulthood was more a series of lost years from which I am only now emerging. So some of this might not be about mortality so much as it is just about my relationship with my father, of course. I feel that I have special things expected of me. I am the one who takes after him; I am cerebral and stonewalling, while my brother is affable and socially gifted. But we have ways of interacting, my father and I, that are not really interacting. He retells something he read and I listen. I tell a story from my life, but I end up addressing the other people in the room more. I don’t know why, but he’s hard to talk to. Or I have a hard time of it. We are rarely somewhere talking, just the two of us. Lately, though, he seems a little to be reaching out to me.

I am scared to talk about all this with him because it is much more than I ever talk about with him — and because I feel that all my worries are rooted in my fear of mortality, which I don’t want to mention to him, as a way of protecting him from it. I don’t know if that’s silly or not. A couple of his friends have died lately and I think it’s been hard. At some level I guess I am really scared that he is as helpless as I am. And I guess he is?

I feel that he has been having a hard time. Maybe reaching out to me has nothing to do with it or maybe it does. Alcohol has been brought up as an issue too. I’m worried he needs a refuge, and if I talked to him I’d have to know of one. I drink most every day myself. If I didn’t (incidentally), would all these feelings be stronger?

I am pretty sure the right answer is: Go to him. Learn to talk to him. But I don’t know how and where to start. Other things are easier. Other patterns are in the way, including the pattern of aimless anxiety and the pattern of talking to my mother instead. I’m worried I won’t do it. I’m worried I’ll fail. I’m worried I’ll try and it’ll be banal, or not enough, or that everything I say will come out wrong. I don’t know what I have to say. I don’t know how to invent a new way of relating. I don’t know where I’m feeling responsibilities that aren’t mine and where I’m recognizing what is truly and only mine. I’m even scared of the prospect of raising a child who takes after me and yet ends up distant from me.

Cary, can you tell me what you think?



Dear Daughter,

Yes, I can tell you what I think. But there are far too many phenomena occurring in your thought-sphere, and they are occurring too quickly, for me to take any one of them and unravel it, to say, “Voilà!”

But I can pass on to you something that has helped me, at times, to stop the whirlwind of anxious thoughts that sometimes starts up and will not stop: Try thinking of the anxiety not as the product, or result, of some other thought process, but as a strategy, a method, that you are using to avoid feeling these other things. I found this insight useful in my own life — that anxiety is a form of emotional avoidance. So then when I am anxious I think to myself, what am I avoiding? What I am usually avoiding, being the way I am, is feelings. There are some feelings about, say, my father, that I do not want to feel. So instead I flit about the house, anxious, nervous, unable to settle into my work, unable to complete a task.

Unfortunately, at that time, it is necessary to simply have the feeling. I do not like some of these feelings. They are dark, somber, helpless feelings; they are old feelings, some of them, old feelings full of regret and longing. But they are shot throughout, also, with bright, sunny memories of childhood innocence: the Sunday morning I must have been 6, walking down the clay driveway hill at our house in Tallahassee, Fla., him carrying a shovel to clear the drainage ditches at the sides of the drive, his hand on my shoulder. He called me “old-timer.” He said, “Good job, old-timer.” I did not know what an old-timer was. I knew he had a timer that he used in his darkroom when developing black-and-white prints. It was a black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer. And I was not old. An “old-timer,” I thought. I liked it but I did not know what it was. It simply opened up into the mystery of words.

So when I am feeling things about my father, now and then something happy will come back — but tinged, of course, with the knowledge that the hill is gone, the clay driveway is gone, the strong hand on the shoulder of the child is gone. (I wonder if somewhere among his things that black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer might still be ticking.)

So you see where this goes — it goes into time, and sadness, and loss. But it goes to the feeling of those things, not to our ideas about them, or our brittle attempts at separation from them.

Once one stops using the anxiety to avoid these things and instead begins to feel these things in their full richness and power, it is not so important to figure out whether our thinking is right or not, whether we are hiding this or that. We are simply feeling things of great heaviness and age. They come of their own accord, and sometimes they delight us, and sometimes they level us with their somber weight, but we are not charged with thinking our way through it. It is just the stuff of life: you and your father, facing together mortality and fate.

I get the feeling you are fully capable of this. You are holding these things at bay but you know what they are. So here is something to consider: This route is not the smart route. That is, it is not a thinking route. It is not clever, or revelatory. It is more something in the chest, a deep, heavy thing you carry around for a while. For this reason, I do not know why we do it or why it is important or what its evolutionary advantage is, this simply feeling the heaviness of age. Here is a thought: Maybe it slows us down so we can be around the old folks, so we can stop flitting about so much. But that is pure childish speculation. I do not know why this is so.

Here is something else: When the anxiety machine really gets running, it can be self-perpetuating. You have to stop it somehow: You have to stop it in order to stop it, which sounds circular. So you have to stop it by changing externalities. The drinking, for instance. The drinking allows you to continue with your anxiety, your anxious avoidance. So … oh, let me find the paragraph where I went into that (I actually tried to answer this letter a few weeks ago but got sidetracked, and then came back and liked part of what I wrote). Ah, here, this is it:

You have a lot of different things going on in your head at once. Too many things, in fact. So how does one slow down? What is the drinking part of it? Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so if you are using it every day, your nervous system is depressed for that portion of the day. So it may be a little out of whack. Think of your daily psychic and emotional economy. Say you have X amount of psychic and emotional stuff to process, and you have X processing power. Say that’s pretty much in balance, all other things being equal. But say then you eliminate four hours of processing time because the central nervous system depressant has put you on standby for those hours. You’re not processing. So what is happening? Stuff is building up. Little questions aren’t getting answered and they’re turning into bigger questions. Things that need to be felt aren’t being felt. You’re not doing the necessary daily work. You’re not cleaning house and assessing your needs and practicing, practicing, practicing. Things will pile up. You need to deal with this stuff every day.

So I think you are probably out of whack with all these emotional issues competing for your time. How do you get back in whack? That is where the “externalities” come in. Maybe, if you can find a very wise person to advise you, you get into some form of therapy. But that may not be necessary. Try some things first and see if the night terrors recede. Undertake some life changes to calm the nervous system. Just do simple things, like on the weekend clear the entire weekend and just do the things you need to do around the house. This will be grounding. Just take care of simple things. Take a bath, do the dishes, don’t answer the phone. And for a few days don’t drink. Sleep a lot. Take naps. Get lots of rest and exercise. And pay attention to what you are feeling about your father. Don’t run from it. You see what happens when you run from it. You can’t settle. You are like a nervous bird. You need to settle and accept what it is. It won’t happen overnight. It is a long process. But slowly you may begin to see these things not as complex riddles to solve but simply as situations, emotional situations, feelings, the stuff of life, simply to be felt and honored. If that does not work, you may need some extra help, a therapist to guide you through some of it. But give it a chance, first, to work on its own.

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My mother is dying — how will I bear it?

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I know it’s inevitable, but I can’t imagine how to get through it.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 26, 2005 01:04 PM PDT

Dear Cary,

I’m writing because I love your advice and follow your column avidly. I don’t have the time or focus to make this pithy. I’ve always envisioned writing you a clever and insightful letter someday, and this ain’t it.

In a nutshell: I just learned my mother has a deadly cancer, her second round in two years. Despite what doctors are saying right now, I have a gut feeling that this is it: My mother is going to die young. She’s not even 60. I’m not even 40. She won’t meet my future children. She may not even be alive to see me get married to the love of my life. He and I had planned to get married next summer.

I am the only daughter, and anticipate being in the role of primary caretaker. My father and brother try their best, but I have always known it will be me who will help my mother die (or get well if there is some miracle). In fact, I have been preparing for this in therapy for over a year: trying to overcome my phobic fear of death, hospitals, illness, and least helpful of all: vomiting (people getting chemo vomit — a lot). I’ve made some progress, but I am still terrified and panicked that my fears will get in the way of being helpful or comforting.

She gets her first chemotherapy treatment next week, and I will be there (she lives in a city three hours away).

I’m beyond “why me, why her.” I know we all must deal with the death of our parents someday. Here is my question: How do people bear it? What can I do to overcome my fears and terror, and to offer my mother — who I love fiercely — solace and even meaning in the face of death? Is it even my role to offer this? How do I hold hope and death at the same time? She has been a wonderful mother — and devoted so much of her life to caring for me. How do I return the favor?

Heartbroken and Afraid

Dear Heartbroken and Afraid,

Much has been said to malign death, but little is said in its defense. Thus we fear it inordinately. But there is much about death that is wonderful. One thing that is wonderful about death is how little it requires of us, and how much we can count on it. Unlike a lover or a deliveryman, death will surely come, eventually, every time, to all of us. It will come whether we want it to or not, whether we are home when it arrives or not, whether we schedule it or not. The certainty of its arrival is frightening in a way — we might not be ready when it arrives! — but it is also reassuring. For once we do not have to choose. We bear no responsibility at all. If we do not make a selection, a selection will be made for us. When death arrives, it will not require payment or any form of reciprocity. It will not turn down the bed and then stand at the door waiting for a tip. Death, for the dying, need not be feared.

All death requires of us is that we bury our dead.

This is not to say that you are a silly and weak earthling caught up in weak and silly fears. I am not trying to pass myself off as some cold, imperious guru, impervious to fear of death. Far from it. I too fear death and dread the passing of those around me. I only suggest you try to make peace with death itself, in your own heart, to the extent possible, in order to lighten your burden, so that you can then move on to the issue before you with less dread and anxiety. You have probably made ample progress, perhaps more than you realize, by concentrating on this issue over the last year in your sessions with a therapist. You have been preparing. You cannot cure yourself, of course, or eliminate your natural responses to these future events. But you can prepare for them, and you have been doing so.

So take heart knowing that you are well prepared for the difficulties ahead. And take heart knowing that there will be many, many people around you who will care for you and help you when you need it. Your immediate family may disappoint you, but when illness comes, others rise to the occasion; wise caregivers and unexpected allies who were only on the periphery seem to step up and become central. Be alert to the people in your mother’s life who will now come forward. Look to them for the support you will need. That is how people bear such things.

It’s gruesome and terrible and frightening, I know, when the body is in the process of dying. But we do get used to certain tasks, however much we think we could never endure them. And death itself, once accomplished, is serene and quiet.

While you are taking care of these tasks, think of the immense procession you have joined — consider, as you empty bedpans, that you are taking your place on the great wheel, that we all go, every one of us, eventually, no matter what we believe, no matter what we have accomplished or destroyed, no matter how we have failed: We all go, and likely there will be someone emptying our bedpans, and someone emptying theirs, and someone emptying theirs. In this cycle of care and decay we are united. Your mother will go, and you will follow. My parents will go, and I will follow. Or perhaps I will go first and they will follow. We do not control the order of our going. Of this we can be sure.

I am not saying something as clichéd as that all this is happening for a reason. I don’t know that. But I do know that death comes to all of us eventually, and so to deny it when it is coming is, well, futile, yes, but also undignified. Without giving up — we must do what we can to live — we also need to embrace death, recognize its power, its omnipotence. Give it its due.

Perhaps some of our unease has to do with our guilt that we are not the ones who are dying. But really, unless we believe in a literal hell — and I don’t — what could be so bad about being on the other side? Why should we pity those who leave a little before us? For a time, some of us will be on one side, and some on the other. For a time, our friends are inside the nightclub and we are behind the rope. But before too long, we’ll all be over there on that side. True, the difference between the living and the dead is profound and fundamental, as is the difference between those inside the club and those behind the rope. But still, as Tom Waits sings, “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”

So I suggest you take responsibility for the things under your control, try to make the proper medical and financial decisions in a timely way, comfort your mother, tell her whatever you need to tell her before she goes, but give some measure of honor to death itself, as well. It is all of our fate. It is our inheritance. We will all be joined there eventually.


It’s a beautiful day and I’m happy to be alive

Dear Reader,

Today is Wednesday. Wednesday is advice-column-writing day. Usually I write a column by answering a letter from someone looking for advice.

Today is a little different.

I have a friend who is dying. He hasn’t asked me for advice and I haven’t offered any. But all I can think about is how this friend of mine is dying.

I could try to answer a letter on another topic. But it’s hard to keep my mind on other things. That’s what happens when a friend is dying.

The sky is blue. Life is beautiful. A friend of mine is dying.

It makes me think: How marvelous it is to be alive, to walk down the street breathing air, to see all the colors around us, to hear music!

It makes me realize something else, too. I have offered advice to people on how to deal with the deaths of others, but no one has ever written to me saying, in effect:

Dear Cary,

I’m dying. What to do?


Dying Too Soon

How could I possibly reply to such a letter? I could suggest that one accept the fact of death, etc., etc. But I try to offer practical solutions, and not pat answers like, Yawn, Death is a natural part of life, etc., etc.

So, not meaning to be flip, I might write back saying something like this:

Dear Dying Too Soon,

If you are dying and are unhappy about that and want to change it, the first thing you need to do is travel back in time. Once you have traveled far enough back in time that your dying does not seem so immediate a problem, just begin living your life as you were before.

If, however, there is no affordable time-travel service in your area, then simply find the disease or diseases that are killing you and cure them. After that, you should be fine.

That does sound flip, doesn’t it? I’m trying to make a point. You get the point, right? I don’t have to spell it out? Because you’re smart and you know what I’m getting at, right?

I know a little bit about dying. When I was diagnosed with cancer a little over five years ago, I got ready to die. Then I didn’t die. But I got ready. I’m still ready.

What I’m not ready to do is undergo treatment again. There were times  undergoing treatment when I wanted to die. I can see how, having been sick a long time, a person might long for death with the same fervor with which he once longed for life.

If it weren’t for the problem of timing, though, nobody would feel like they’re losing out. We wouldn’t be missing you, and you wouldn’t be seeing us out here smiling and playing badminton while you’re slipping into the great unconsciousness.

Anyway, my dear friend, it looks as though you are going before the rest of us. That is not surprising. You were the first to do a lot of things. You were the first with a motorcycle, which you promptly wrecked, and broke your leg. You were the first to build a van so we could all pile in and travel the country barefoot and long-haired. You were the first to go to Europe when we all wanted to go. You were the first to kiss certain people we all wanted to kiss. You ended up with the best motorcycle and the fastest car and the biggest house. You were the tallest and the best looking and we were all proud to call you a friend. You were always a little ahead of the rest of us and we didn’t mind that. It seemed only proper. You’re ahead of us again.


Go in peace, my friend. We’ll be right there behind you.


After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband


Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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I survived — now how do I survive my survival?


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Cary’s classic column fromWEDNESDAY, JUL 2, 2008


Cancer changed everything. I need a new paradigm.


Dear Cary,

Please help me figure out how to survive surviving.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After a year of surgery, chemo and radiation, my cancer, for the time being, seems to be at bay. My doctors tell me that this type of cancer cannot be cured, but that I have a 2-in-3 chance of living beyond five years. I’ve come through all of this slightly scarred, and bearing some permanent side effects from my treatment, but otherwise feeling pretty good, at least physically.

My problem is that my entire worldview has radically shifted, and things that were once important to me no longer are. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to figure out a way to reinvent myself, but for the first time in my life, I have no idea what changes I need to make in order to feel better about being alive, and to be happy.

My unhappiness seems to center mostly around my employment. I worked my way up the ladder into a well-paying but dead-end job. For the first time in my life, I haven’t had to work long hours and struggle to make ends meet to provide for my family (I was a single mom). On the other hand, the company I work for is no longer the edgy high-tech firm that it was when I started there 14 years ago. Instead of contributing new ideas and feeling part of a team, I’m stuck, along with everyone else, in a gray cubicle farm. I can work from home if I want to, and I often do, but doing so makes me feel even less a part of the team. Most of the work has lately been outsourced, and many of my favorite co-workers have lost their jobs. I miss my friends, and dread that I could be the next one to go. In the past, this wouldn’t have gotten me down. I would have brushed up my résumé, and perhaps even started proactively looking for another job. But now, I’m petrified to move. I desperately need my health insurance because of my cancer. I’m also physically much weaker now, and just the thought of looking for another job, going to interviews, pounding the pavement, tires me out. In three words: I feel trapped.

Aside from feeling trapped, though, I’m also questioning what I’m doing. After surviving cancer, and knowing just how fragile my hold is on life, I can’t help but wonder if this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And even if I can figure out what it is that I want to do next, will someone want to hire a middle-aged cancer survivor?

In my heart of hearts, what I would love to do is to take three or four months off to explore other options, to work on getting my strength and endurance back, perhaps take a class or two. However, I need to keep working. Even with insurance, my medical expenses have eaten away all of my savings, and I have nothing to fall back on. This depression isn’t helping. I’ve lost interest in many of the things that made me happy in the past. And the physical activities that I used to love, like hiking and dancing, I can no longer do.

I’m stuck. How do I get unstuck?

Grateful to Be Alive (I Think)


Dear Grateful,

What I want to suggest to you is that you find a group of cancer survivors and throw yourself into work with them. Help them cope with the same questions you are coping with. Make this the dominant, driving force in your life. Trust that the other elements will fall into place. If this means continuing to work, for now, in your same gray cubicle, then paint your cubicle pink — or green, or purple, or black if you like! Fill it with flowers. Fill it with sunshine.

You can’t go back to the cubicle and the way things were. You just can’t. It isn’t right. That life is gone. I imagine you in that cubicle, just surviving your days, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not just for you but for the world. The world needs you in the hospitals and living rooms of fellow survivors.

If you can get the sabbatical you so desperately need, take it. If you must continue to work, in your mind let it go. It is no longer the most important thing in your life. It is just a place you spend some time. Throw your energy into helping others like yourself. They need to know how you got through it and what it feels like and how you cope with the questions that arise. They need to know how you get through another day.

So how do you get through another day? That is a good question. Answer it. Ask others how they get through the day. Acquire knowledge about this central question: How does the cancer survivor, whose future is uncertain and whose present is compromised, get through another day?

I think you will find that the answer is circular; that is, you get through the day by helping others get through another day. And, in being circular and tautological, it is partly an impractical act of faith. But the faith involved is a pragmatic faith. It is a pragmatic faith in the workings of deep human community. You will find, if you turn to a life of service, that certain ancient forces of human community coalesce to benefit you. These forces may seem mysterious and full of paradox, but they are real and historical and if we must reduce them to the biological they probably serve some purpose in the continuation of the species. Compassion, agape, selflessness — whether these are evidence of our divinity, our material and social arrangements or our biology, they are dependably awakened in crises and will come to your aid. Open your mind to these forces beyond your conscious understanding. Consider the possibility that this encounter with grave illness has put you in touch with the mystic stream of life itself in its most basic and primal reality.

If you are religious, or mystical, or interested in the arts, or if you have always wanted to sing, or if you are secretly happiest when you are gardening or sewing clothes or doing math problems, turn to these things. Turn to the things that have always given you the greatest happiness. Turn to them because they are a source of joy and joy is a gift to the world. In that way, you will contribute to the world, and you will gain what you need.

At work, if it is possible to cut your hours in half and maintain your medical coverage, do so. If you can take a loan to pay your medical expenses so that you do not have to work full-time, do so. If there are resources at your disposal, such as a house that can be sold or mortgaged over, do so. I know you said you have nothing to fall back on but when you begin asking around unseen resources may emerge. Ask others for help. These years are precious, unique and unrecoverable.

Never before have you been handed such an opportunity to place your life on a new footing. Always you have been working in the system. Always you have been tied down by the struggle to make your payments. These payments are not just checks and cash. We make our payments when we knuckle under. We make our payments when we live in fear. We make our payments when we pretend the emperor is clothed in the finest raiments of the land. We make our payments when we “buy in.”

I want you to stop making payments but I do not want you to do anything crazy.

Well, yes, actually, to be truthful, I suppose I do want you to do something crazy. I do. When we face life in its starkest terms we see that, indeed, our previous life is the life that was crazy. We see that we might have gone on knuckling under for the rest of our lives, still playing the role prescribed for us by people to whom we are just a number.

By suggesting that you stop making your payments, what I mean is, step out of the system as you know it. The system of work as you know it is geared to competition and based in fear. It is based on the premise that there is not enough and that no one is going to help you. There is another way to live, based on the premise that there is indeed enough, and that everyone is going to help you. By helping others, and asking for help, you live in a different system. Try that. Try asking for help, and doing what is right and true instead of what is practical and necessary. Try doing what is important — helping another cancer survivor buy groceries, helping someone who has just been diagnosed figure out what to do next, helping someone after surgery, helping the families of the sick and diagnosed and recovering. Try helping. Try helping, with the assumption — you do not have to call it faith, you can just call it a working assumption — that whether for sociological or psychological or spiritual reasons, the help you give is going to return to you; you are in return going to be helped, and loved, and carried forward.

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My new boyfriend’s mom has cancer


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Hi Cary,

I am seeing a great guy, but things have recently become very ambiguous between us and I’m not sure the best course of action for me.

We were dating for a little over two months, it was a slowly deepening fantastic and mature relationship, and I care for him, he clearly cares for me, we were falling in love. But as it happened, on our second date he found out his mom has a widespread and fast moving cancer with unknown prospects for treatment.

He didn’t seem much affected by it at first, and he consistently deflected my offers of support and my concern. But over the weeks I felt like he was holding back, being emotionally distant, reluctant to fall for me, and eventually started contacting me less and being less available to see me.

I asked him about it, and he came back and said that due to his mother’s illness something fell apart in him and he can’t manage to be in a relationship right now, that things were great with me and it isn’t me, but he can’t tolerate the contrasting pleasure and pain, he can’t be there for me, he can’t uphold his end of a relationship, and he doesn’t want to hurt me or let me down, that he has to do this alone, that it’s simpler and a relationship would complicate things. He didn’t say the words break-up or just-be-friends, but he made it clear we are no longer in a relationship. Since three weeks we are still in almost daily contact and see each other around once a week, we have joint projects and plans to do things together, he’s still affectionate. Last time I saw him we were overwhelmed by our mutual attraction and made love all night, but in the morning he was distant and bothered by my presence. His behavior is quite clear that it’s no longer a relationship, but something else and rather ambiguous.

We have both handled this situation quite delicately, thoughtfully, and I want to be there for him as much as he will accept me, as much as he needs, but I feel tortured and confused about what that means for us. We have feelings for each other, we are attracted to each other, we enjoy each other’s company, we have joint projects together… but he isn’t available for a relationship.

How can I find a way for me to continue to be there for him without torturing myself always pining for more, how can I find a peaceful sustainable existence in this ambiguity? How can I ride this out with him, deepening our connection, our intimacy, and be there in the months or years when he is ready for a serious relationship? How can I give my support and love, but not expect him to reciprocate ? Should I invest myself in my single non-romantic life? Should I move on and date other people ?

Thanks for your help :)



Dear G,

Just tell him, clearly and often, that you are there for him during this time and that he does not need to right the balance sheet. There is no balance sheet. There is just you. You are there for him and that’s the end of it. That’s what he needs and it’s what you can give him.

You say you feel tortured and confused about what this means for you. It’s not surprising that you’re confused. One set of rituals has collided with another.

But there is no mystery about what is required. What is required is that you behave like a good, caring human being. If you make love you make love. If you don’t talk for a while you don’t talk for a while. The rules of romance are suspended. If you have needs for companionship or sex that he cannot meet, do not feel bad about meeting them in other ways. Being there for him doesn’t mean you put your life on hold. Just be there for him when you can be. Contact him regularly and don’t require him to call you back. Just remind him regularly that you are there.

Relationships deepen when one partner suffers a loss. In unguarded moments your friend will reveal hidden strengths and weaknesses. His core beliefs will come to the fore. You will see who he is.

It’s possible that you will be surprised by what you see. It’s possible, likewise, that he may not be able to be intimate with you in any meaningful way while he is facing the possible loss of his mother.

What I meant when I said that two sets of rituals had collided is that the ritual of dating has collided with the ritual of friendship. The confusion that results shows just how artificial the expectations of the dating relationship are. It seems to presume that no unforeseen human events will occur. When they do occur, the dating ritual participants are thrown into indecision.

This illustrates how dating rituals distort our natural instincts toward compassion and caring. It’s very interesting: If he were a friend, even a friend you’ve only just met, you would not be confused about how to respond to this event in his life. You would express your concern and make yourself available to him. But because you are following a dating ritual, each of you feels strangely compelled to apologize for the disruption.  It is as though people date in a vacuum, excluding all real-life events.

So the important thing is to act in the human sphere, to act in friendship. Put “the relationship” on hold.

Let go of your hopes and expectations for a relationship and just be there. Be a good human being and a good friend. You know how to do that.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up


I can’t get home to see my mom before she dies

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 25, 2007


By the time you read this, she’ll probably be gone. Why couldn’t I be by her side?


Dear Cary,

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and need advice. So here I am. I’ll cut to the point: My 63-year-old mother will most likely be deceased by the time you receive this. After a number of years battling multiple sclerosis, the drugs she had to take for that left her susceptible to an opportunistic cancer which, though that was easily zapped away, had spread in the meantime to her liver, where they couldn’t use radiotherapy. All they could use was chemo, and after the very first round, my already weakened mother got so knocked flat by her reaction to that — having to go into the hospital and barely even able to talk — that she refused any further.

This was not an ill-informed decision. My mom is a nurse and a quite experienced one. It’s that she knew too well what it would amount to. It probably wouldn’t get rid of the cancer, so she merely would have spent her last remaining days in horrible suffering. My mom has had a very hard life and only the past 10 years, after she remarried, to a very nice man 13 years her junior, has she found peace. He’s a contractor and had just built her a house that had taken him years to finish after she retired, up in the mountains near Asheville, N.C., her favorite place in the world. She did not want to spend what would have been little time anyway as an invalid.

As our family is medical, all the talk has been oddly matter-of-fact. I couldn’t talk her out of it because I respect her wishes and knew she knew what she was doing. I wanted to. The last time I talked to her it was the always-macabre My Will conversation, which is not what I would have wanted our last conversation to be about. Today she suddenly slipped into a coma, and her liver and kidneys have gone. They say it’s any time now. She’s at peace and unconscious. I guess it could be worse. But it’s horrible. My father killed himself when I was 17 and now, 21 years later, my mother, who did nothing but good for people her whole life, gets killed by a cancer another treatment brought on. My parents will now both be gone, for good. I’m frightened, though I’m not sure why. I never thought of that as a usual reaction to this.

And the worst of it: Because of intense economic difficulties for the past five years (having to do with a move from California to Chicago and a divorce, and a number of other rather strange misfortunes I can’t detail here), I have not had the money, nor the time when I had the money, to visit her since my wedding in 2000. (Actually, she came out to California, so not even then.) I always assumed there’d be time. Being unemployed prevented me from getting the money to go down and see her before she went. I’m lucky right now in Chicago to be getting the occasional temp job just to keep me from being evicted. If I left, I would have nothing to come back to. Now the only way I’ll be able to get down there is for the funeral. If I were to leave right now, she’d already be dead when I got there. That would be too much.

And though my family has understood and though it hasn’t been my fault I couldn’t see her, I feel like the worst son on earth. I feel horrible. I can’t stand myself. She loved me, dearly, and I love her, and I feel like I should have found a way, any way, no matter how poor I am.

She hasn’t been alone. There’s my stepfather and my sister, who still lives down there. But I should have seen her. I wish I’d seen her.

Am I right or wrong about my guilt?

Rotten Son


Dear Rotten Son,

You know, it is very hard to make life turn out the way we want it to. This is especially true with parents, about whom we care so much but about whose fortunes we can do so little. And it is especially true in the manner of our parents’ dying.

So when in the stillness of the summer night your failures mount up before you like a flock of screaming raptors with harsh cries and sharp talons and cold, yellow eyes, you may find it necessary to take out a piece of paper and a pen and under the light of a solitary lamp make a list of your little victories. Write them down and make them concrete and celebrate them, rare as they are.

The list may be alarmingly short, and it may be largely in the negative. For instance in my case I can say with certainty that never once did I lock my parents in the basement shackled to a water pipe and let them starve to death. Maybe I haven’t provided for them in their old age as well as I would if I were the good, heroic son. Maybe my calling has not brought me the fortune that would allow me to set them up in a condo in Hawaii. Maybe I am not a master of worldly matters. But I did not shackle them to a water pipe in the basement and let them starve to death. That I did not do. And neither did you.

It may seem cold comfort but we take what we can get.

You have had some victories. Count them. You have a mother who loved you dearly. You have a family that knows you and understands your situation. But chief among these victories, it seems to me, is your simple awareness of what is happening, and your ability to feel it. You may wish to stop feeling this, because it feels like guilt and insufficiency. It is emotional pain. But it is the tragic truth. It hurts but it also ennobles. This is no small thing. Look around you. Look at the many people who pass through life obsessed with their tiny troubles, barely noticing the great, life-changing events occurring around them, arriving at the loved one’s deathbed still fuming about a rude ticket agent or a misplaced paycheck, still perceiving life through some glasses that were cracked to begin with and never fixed. The fact that you know what is happening and have written it down, the simplest of true observations, is impossibly rare. You observe that your mother is dying and you wish you could be there but you cannot. At least you can say this. At least you are honoring this. You are not missing it. You are right here. That is enough for now.

And of course you feel afraid at the specter of your parents’ dying.

We all feel afraid at the specter of our parents’ dying, because pure and simple their dying is what we face. Our parents are our protectors and the givers of our lives, so when they die we realize there is no more life to be given to us. When they die we know absolutely that we also will die.

This is both a terrible thing and a comfort. After all, much of the pain of life comes from how we compare ourselves to each other and don’t measure up. You, for instance, in having overcome your various obstacles, find yourself now comparing yourself to some ideal son and not measuring up. It is this way all over the world. And all over the world we sons and brothers follow the same tragic path: We scheme to be better, faster, stronger and righter. We scheme to be the good son, the powerful son, the son who righted the failures of the father. I am thinking of George Bush here. I am thinking of a man not blessed with talent in the usual sense but cursed with a vile genius to surpass his brothers and his father. Look at the death he has brought to others. And look at all those religious fanatics he is obsessed with killing, who in seeking their own religious destiny deal death to others in wholesale quantity without remorse! What craziness!

Why not simply accept that death will come to us all, and let it come when it comes? Why not recognize death as the one merciful thing that will bring us finally together. Why not see death as the final antidote to our crippling feeling of insufficiency. Finally, if we feel we have not been good enough for anything in life, at least we are good enough to die. At least death will embrace us as it embraces your mother and my uncle and my father-in-law and every other soul who has ever lived and ever will live.

As to your mother’s feelings: She will have died knowing that you love her. She will have understood the terms of her going. She will have seen many die and will understand that death does not always come at a convenient time.

Of course that outrages us, but that is the way it is. Death, that most final, magisterial end, yet arrives with an insouciant randomness that outrages us. This one event, we think, of all events, ought to signal the presence of a just, even-handed God! But no, that is not how death comes at all. It comes with casual insouciance, like a child picking wildflowers, this one and that one and the other one, whatever catches its eye.

We just have to accept it, without reservation. Death picks a handful and carries them off.

So let your mother die and then go to the funeral, where the living make meaning out of death and fortify ourselves against the bleak terror of nonexistence … until the next time, when death comes again and takes a few more for its strange, invisible bouquet.





My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column Tuesday, JUL 21, 2003

What do I owe him?

Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses


Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.France_Ad_fix


She asked for a divorce, then found a lump in her breast


Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, DEC 22, 2008


I’ve been dating her husband, but now she wants him back!



Dear Cary,

For the past seven months, I have been dating and falling in love with a man who is in the final stages of his divorce. After six years of marriage, it’s been a year and a half since they were together. Throughout their marriage she’d repeatedly cheated on him, told him she’d never wanted a family with him, lived away from him for years when she decided to go to graduate school and not invite him along. She never wore her ring, changed her name, or set up a joint bank account. It’s not that I feel there is anything wrong with choosing these things in a vacuum, but it didn’t seem as if she ever wanted to be married to him. She finally told him she wanted a divorce, something he’d never wanted. He remained true to their marriage for seven months after they decided to divorce by paying her rent and bills (as she is unemployed and broke), not dating anyone else, and being her emotional support. He began dating me when he moved out of their apartment, eight months after their estrangement.

Two months ago, this woman decided that she wanted her husband back. She started with calling him constantly, saying she wanted to be friends. Then she began to write him love letters, insisting that he’s abandoning his moral obligation to keep his vows — knowing this would hurt him and cause tremendous guilt. She made vague remarks about suicide. Through all of this, my relationship with him has remained strong, mostly because we are very much in love and I have been confident that this divorce will soon be finalized.

The other day, this woman let him know that she found a lump in her breast, which requires a biopsy. And I don’t know what to do. She has no health insurance and my boyfriend says that he cannot, as a human being with a conscience and compassion, move forward with the divorce until he knows she is healthy. I want him to leave her for good. This woman is not a child; she had over a year to get a job and/or insurance when she decided on a divorce. I think she should go home to her family in Kansas if she cannot take care of herself. I also feel he should be committing to me — we live together, we had been talking about a future together. I’m 29 years old and want to start a family soon — with him. I don’t know if I’m being unethical and callous by wanting him to put my emotional health before her physical health.

At what point does he stop helping her and start taking care of his own needs — and of my heart?

They were 40 days away from a divorce. Please help me.

A Lost Girlfriend

Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT

Dear Lost Girlfriend,

Today I am going to try to write with some passion, knowing that often it is hard to contain a reasonable argument within the stretched and tenuous boundaries of a passionate outburst. I must go slowly.

This is sad, first of all. This is so sad you want to put your fist through the wall. This is also drama. It illustrates the maxim that plot (or drama, or story) flows from character. Most interestingly, it flows from character flaws — not heroism but weakness. Your boyfriend has a weakness. She appears to be exploiting it. But did she create this lump in her breast, consciously? No, how could she? It is the hand of fate, played to one side’s advantage. She plays her hand the only way she knows how. You are on the sidelines watching. They will play this out.

It is a triangle. At the moment, you are on the outs. But things could change. They probably will. Triangles shift as allegiances shift. She will wound him and he will come back to you, and then she will woo him again.

Theoretically, he could walk away. What’s to stop him? His own need to take care of her stops him. He cannot bear to see himself except through her eyes. That is what it feels like. It is I guess what is commonly called codependence.

She asked for a divorce. A divorce severs one from responsibility for a former spouse, except for those responsibilities spelled out legally. Otherwise, the divorced partner is free. The divorced partner owes nothing to the other. Isn’t that so? Isn’t that what is sought in a divorce, to unburden oneself of responsibility for another, except as spelled out legally? That is what she asked for. But because of who she is, it was not to be depended upon. A person like that is not to be depended upon.

If she does not victimize him, she will victimize someone else. If he understood this, he might feel better about cutting her out of his life. She will take care of herself. She will find a way. If forced to go to her family, she will do that. She will take their money. She will find a way.

When we marry, we commit. We cannot know what’s ahead. That’s the point. We commit to sticking it out through the unknown. Likewise, when we divorce, we commit to going it alone, not knowing what will befall us. We make a decision not to turn back. She has turned back. But how can she do that? The hand was dealt, the cards were played, and now she wants to invalidate that, to pretend it never happened. That’s not the way the game is played. Thus the drama: Fateful decisions are made, and then we cannot accept what befalls us!

And here you are on the sidelines, helpless to influence the action. You, too, are playing a role based on who you are: You allowed yourself into the trap of dating a married man. It’s an oft-told tale. Until a man is completely free of his wife — not just legally but emotionally — a woman loves him at her peril. He is not completely free, so he cannot be completely yours. You will be competing for him.

It makes me furious with sadness. My fury is a response to sadness. Yet it’s also the way of the world, a story as old as time. And no one is really to blame. We are drawn together in these dramas. Our weaknesses recognize each other; we seek fulfillment and recognition in the faces of others; we greet each other, intuitively recognizing each other, like old cricket players meeting on an ancient field. We play another round, all knowing the rules.

I feel for you. I wish there was something you could do. I suppose there is. You could tell your boyfriend that he is acting codependently and should go see somebody who can help him sort out his responsibilities. She is, as you say, an adult. She is, or should be, responsible for her decisions. He is, or soon can be, a free man if he chooses to be.

You also can walk away. You are free to walk away, protect yourself, face the fact that there is a drama playing out between these two from which you are excluded and over which you are powerless. Can you do that? You may have to. Look at the situation clearly. How long can you wait? Will this be a lifelong pattern with him? How do you know? People can change, sometimes, but it’s hard work. More often we stick to the same old patterns, repeating the old, familiar motions.

It’s an old, old story. Sitting on my father’s desk here is his copy of “Oedipus, the King” by Sophocles. My father loved Sophocles. “Nothing can make me other than I am,” says King Oedipus.



Hooray! I’m covered! (by Covered California)

Wow. I just completed my online application for health insurance in California, and I am amazed how easy and trouble-free it was. And now I can’t believe so many Republican politicians worked so hard to deny me this. As a person who survived a potentially fatal cancer in 2009, who had surgery and a long recovery, who has fought to get the care I need and was concerned after losing my job at Salon that insurance would be too costly or unavailable, I was worried.

But Covered California is awesome. I feel so relieved. Also I feel angrier now, actually, toward the foes of the Affordable Care Act than I did while the debate was going on. When I had good medical care through Salon, the issue was important but didn’t affect my own survival. But after leaving Salon, it really came home to me personally. So now, having just this minute completed my California Care enrollment, and getting healthcare for me and my wife, which will cover our familiar UCSF Medical Center, for about $420 a month, I’m feeling like it’s a political victory that is pretty unreal. Pretty amazing.

So: Thanks, Obama. Thanks, California.

And screw you, Republican scrooges, who would rather see me go bankrupt or die of cancer than see the country join the rest of the civilized industrial world in providing all its citizens with health care!