Adjustment of Expectations

How malleable our expectations become in adversity. We may have a secure idea of the future, and it could crumble in an instant by factors that are completely out of our control -- and what happens to our expectations? They plummet, re-calibrate, and find a new baseline.  When we are not in the whorl that untethers us from reality, we can look back and be utterly fascinated by the evolution of our expectations. They start at denial and free-fall to reality, a disorienting journey. I am just coming back to my life from a parallel existence that had me pacing in fluorescent hallways of a hospital. My mother is sick with cancer again. One day she was a happy tourist, the next she was a patient whose lungs were being pushed by more than 2 liters of fluid that had accumulated around them. She has gone home now and is getting the treatment that she needs. She is also in excellent spirits and doctors are hopeful about her recovery, which is why I am here, writing this.

Now, looking back, what strikes me as impossible is not that my mother's body could somehow have hidden and nourished this cancer for many months despite fighting it once before in 2006, but the expectations we all had when our well-constructed reality began to unspool and slip through our fingers. Expectation management in a hospital is not difficult. You are already primed for disaster. It's a controlled environment to the point of seeming surreal -- machines beep, nurses cruise the hallways, their cushioned shoes making dull sounds against the polished linoleum floors, the lights are so bright even the healthy begin to look sallow, a patient three doors down cries out in pain, you have the sense of being privy to the orchestration of some grand secret -- the stark business of life and the fight to live -- over and over and over. Something fundamental changes when you are in this environment for a long time. The hope and optimism of the outside world begin to shed from your skin, ooze out of your pores, fall thickly with each strand of hair that remains on your pillow when you wake up in the morning. The landscape of your expectations becomes fluid and cascades like a waterfall. For us as a family, our expectations were in free-fall pretty much from the moment we arrived at the hospital. I expected to be out of there in two hours, convinced this was an infection that had gone untreated, but I was soon hoping -- even wishing -- for the better, more treatable type of cancer. We went from infection to cancer to metastasis very, very quickly. In the end, we were left a little shell-shocked and in a state of manufactured gratitude (thank god it's breast cancer and not lung cancer).

Strangely, as time passes, I am not haunted by the nightmare of my mother's health condition, but overcome by the kindness that was shown to us from friends and family. I have also identified the errors in my own philosophy of life. I retreat often. I let time expand like a chasm between loved ones and myself. I often consider most relationships dispensable. Folly. And arrogance. And for the last few weeks, I have only wondered over and over how I will ever repay the kindness of everyone around me and marveled at the support structure that exists for us -- not because of me, but in spite of me. I have witnessed humility, grace, and love, the empathy that is inherent in careful attention, the act of giving without expecting anything in return, the purity of intention and action, and I have learned a lesson I hope to remember from this experience -- a simple lesson, something we talk about often and without much thought -- to never take a moment or a person for granted. There have been small miracles (and big ones) for me and my family over the last few weeks, and they were not because of divine intervention, but because of the selflessness of people around me. For this, I may never muster enough gratitude, but I can continue to offer thanks and return the same selfless love and attention as often as I possibly can. 

I will end with a story to illustrate that even if our expectations fall and shatter, they somehow reconstitute. I do not believe in signs or omens, but I can't ignore metaphors. One week into my mother's hospital stay, I couldn't help but be heartbroken to find the mint leaves she had so lovingly planted in our small garden shriveled and dead. I thought of her in her hospital bed, pallid and weak, and the uncertainty of the future brought me to my knees. But a little over a week later, we all came home from the hospital. My mother walked around the house, stepped into the backyard for fresh air. She was feeling stronger, happier. And healthier. We sipped our tea, made plans for her return to Pakistan, and I noticed her staring at the brown, sun-baked bunch of leaves that used to be her mint plant. I wondered if she noticed the metaphor, too -- but before I could say anything, I saw what she was looking at -- not the dead leaves, but a bright green shoot and two tiny leaves rising from the ruin. Like my expectations, the mint thrives in the garden still. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue