An Uncommon Cancer Journey – Excerpt

The Cosmic Kick That Healed Our Lives

Chapter Seventeen: Into the Fire

Barbara made room for us in her schedule right away, and we started our weekly couples’ therapy. Before each session, she would see us each individually, and it was gratifying for me to have someone focus on my troubles and my feelings. It had seemed to me that everybody always focused on Jack and was indifferent to my needs. Sometimes, I felt invisible. Barbara helped me to be more outspoken about my own feelings, a lesson I believed to be difficult. In time, I learned to speak up fairly well, at least with her. Once during a couple’s session, I complained that nobody was listening to me, only to Jack, and she replied, “On the contrary, I believe I spend more time responding to you than to him.” Actually, she was quite right—I felt needy and I was letting her know. However, it was a bit more difficult asking for help from my family and friends.

In these sessions, Barbara led us through the prickly maze of fears, resentments, and disappointments that had characterized our relationship. But by the end of every session, she always guided us to the unshakable foundation of love that lay beneath it all. Sometimes, the process would take as long as two hours, and, as often as not there would be a restless client waiting in her living room.

I think Barbara considered us an emergency even though she didn’t refer to us that way. More than once she squeezed us into her busy schedule and even saw us on the spur of the moment. When she decided that a particular activity would be good for us, she let us know in no uncertain terms. Behind her soft drawl, “I think it would be a good idea if y’all did________,” was an aspect of steel. If she suggested it, we were to do it. In most instances, we complied without hesitation. She knew, as we did, that there was no time to waste.

Despite the gloomy prognosis when we left Germany, Jack continued to feel and look well, and he went back to work part-time. He was not in any pain or even discomfort, and he seemed to have plenty of energy for whatever Barbara recommended, as well as his own activities. He was especially eager for those healing activities that felt good to him, like massage and the acupressure I supplied.

On Barbara’s recommendation, we took meditation lessons from her boyfriend, Ed. Actually, we both had begun to meditate in Germany, but more instruction in meditation certainly didn’t hurt. In fact, we had read about the possibility of contacting one’s spirit guide during meditation. One day while Jack was meditating in Germany, he felt as though he met his spirit guide, the improbable image of a man in a gray business suit named Ken. I never did hear what Ken was guiding Jack to do, or for that matter, anything more about him. Later, it was a source of amusement for both of us, this image that was so different from Jack’s.

Ed gave each of us a mantra, and we both found value in our own personal versions of meditation, which Jack and I continued for years. Our meditations were reinforced and expanded through workshops with Jim Green, a retired sociologist and U.S. Agency for International Development official turned spiritual counselor and meditation teacher, whose practices I still use on a daily basis. Often, these periods of quiet contemplation would turn into to-do lists or “monkey mind” chatter, but we would stay at it for at least 30 minutes, and usually feel refreshed afterward. Sometimes, Jack would go to sleep. Barbara told us not to judge our meditations, but just to stay committed to the process.

Barbara also recommended that we join her therapy group for couples that met every other week. In addition, Jack joined another of Barbara’s groups for singles, in which he found valuable. So, he was having some kind of therapy nearly every day. The couples group, which we endured for several months, was not the high point of our therapeutic experience, and we agreed that Barbara’s talents were better displayed in our private sessions as individuals and as a couple. It seemed that our group was a haven for passive-aggressive men who elicited rage, not only from their wives, but from all the rest of us. At least I felt free to display my unhappiness with the process to the group, which felt like a new level of candor.

In other respects, however, Barbara’s recommendations were invaluable. One of the most daunting, but certainly memorable, was fire walking. Barbara thought it would be a good idea for Jack to engage in an activity that would bring home the body-mind connection, something during which he could experience firsthand the power of his mind. She also thought it would be a good idea for me to share the experience—literally—not just as a bystander.

I had heard of people walking on hot coals, and I had always thought of it in the same category as sword swallowing and levitating, and even more reckless and bizarre than jumping out of airplanes. It had never occurred to me to try any of it. But if Barbara recommended fire walking (ordered was more like it), we complied. So, we went to a large house in Potomac, an upscale suburb of D.C. Our group included several people whom we didn’t know, some of whom were other clients of Barbara’s. Jack had told the children about this, and to my surprise, our son, Robert, wanted to come along. I wasn’t sure if he intended to actually do the fire walk or just wanted to watch. I don’t imagine that he was sure either.

By the time we arrived, it was already dark, but I could see the bonfire burning in the backyard. For at least two hours we sat in the living room, listening to a lecture and meditating. The lecturer was a gentle Buddhist who talked in an almost hypnotic way about the power of intention, how fire can burn when we resist it or when it touches us accidentally, but not when we confront it willingly. In retrospect, I’m reminded of the Cathar martyrs in southern France, who, when finally captured by the Pope’s crusaders and condemned to burn at the stake, walked into the fire singing. It’s not as if they weren’t incinerated, but they gave themselves willingly and fearlessly.

When our leader decided that we had prepared sufficiently and the coals were at the right stage (glowing but not in flames), he took us into the backyard and we removed our shoes. Then we circled the fire several times and spoke to it with statements like:

“Fire, you are my friend.”

“I am strong. I am ready for this encounter.”

“Hot coals, I am not afraid of you.”

The plan was to walk across a bed of hot coals about three feet long. Our leader went first, relaxed, stepping easily along the glowing path. Then Barbara crossed, swinging her arms and dancing, turning around at one point, then turning back. After a while, Jack crossed, not exactly gracefully, but confident and unhurried. Then Robert stepped forward and, arms held high, his long, bleached-blonde curls flowing, strode across the coals. Later, he strode across again! I was awed.

When it was my turn, I was anything but fearless. I was terrified, but determined—not only to face the coals but also not to be the family coward. I would say that I walked the coals to support Jack, but I think the stronger motivation was pride. At any rate, I hustled through those three feet of hot coals, and they felt hot indeed. Afterward, when I examined my feet, there were some small red marks—certainly not blisters, and not even burns, but evidence of the encounter. The feet of both Jack and Robert were lily white.

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