Difficult Conversations

The greatest challenge of my work week is leading the Sunflower Wellness class for cancer patients. Yes, the demand for modifications in order to accommodate one participant’s orthopedic concerns after another is constant; but that part is easy. I am a font of exercise repertoire. It’s the support-group part, conducting a conversation about mortality and the emotional and philosophical repercussions of cancer that shakes my confidence.

How does one introduce death into a conversation as if it were a routine topic, and sustain the sense of safety, even levity, in the room?

This Friday, as I unrolled my yoga mat, I told the class that I’d inherited the mat from my friend James Hutton. He died of same the disease that I have — prostate cancer. Jimmy was instrumental at a time when I had to come to terms with my own diagnosis. He took me to Commonweal, a retreat center on the northern California coast, where I made my decision about my primary treatment. Later, as his health declined, he purchased a handful of small apparatus, including that mat, so that I could train him on the deck of his studio apartment. Now the mat, medicine ball, elastic tubing, and pushup grips have returned to me.

I don’t think it is appropriate for me to ask class participants to tell their cancer narratives; but I hope that by sharing mine, my fellow patients will experience the strength of our commonality.

My story about Jimmy fell into an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t have a segue prepared to take the group into a period of intimate sharing. Perhaps the participants aren’t seeking the kind of support to which I aspire. I know only that, for me, it is the most important element of the class and the reason that I’m there. I am most certainly on my edge, at the outer reaches of my abilities, where growth occurs.

Have you any suggestions?

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