77: How to Do Fine

77: How to Do Fine

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

How to Do Fine

Spirit has fifty times the strength and staying-power of brawn and muscle.

~Mark Twain

My mother called from Nashville to tell me my brother had died suddenly — at the age of forty-five — from what we later learned was a cerebral aneurysm. Our conversation was brief. Awkwardly, I asked how they were coping. She said the pastor was there and people from church had brought more food than they could eat. They were “doing fine.”

At the funeral, a friend mentioned that my brother might have been genetically predisposed to the condition that took his life. “Early detection is key,” he said. “You should have your brain scanned.”

“Oh no, I shouldn’t.”

“It won’t hurt,” he said. My fear of needles was famous among my friends.

“I know it won’t hurt,” I said, “because I won’t do it.” In fact, I went to great lengths to avoid anyone in the medical profession trained to use a syringe.

“Look, Chris, the only thing worse than losing your oldest child is losing your youngest too,” he said. “Do it. You’ll be fine. And your parents will be relieved.”

For weeks, thoughts of undergoing a complete diagnostic examination kept me up nights. I knew I’d run out of the clinic like a hysterical five-year-old the moment someone flashed a syringe. I was a coward and a wreck — which I’m fairly sure is the opposite of fine — but I knew my friend was right.

Eyes pinched shut, I trembled through the tests. As nurse after nurse approached me with one instrument more pointed than the next, I’d ask, “That’s not going to sting, is it?” In the MRI tube, I kept waiting to be poked or jabbed or, I don’t know, slapped maybe? It was all new territory. On one occasion, a nurse drew ten vials of blood before I told her feeding time was over.

The test results: Mr. Allen, you’re a bit of a wimp, but you’re fine.

“Whew,” I said to myself, gave my parents the good news, and vowed to go on happily ignoring my health as I always had. All those brilliantly bland results confirmed the bliss of ignorance.

A year after losing her oldest son, my mother called me with more news: “I have breast cancer,” she said matter-of-factly. She might as well have been telling me their car had broken down. She’d already lost a son. What could be worse? She was resolved and ready to stare down death. Within a few weeks of the diagnosis, she stormed through two operations to have both breasts and twenty lymph nodes removed.

“How are you?” I asked on the phone from Germany a day after the surgery.

“Growing older,” she said, “is a pain in the behind.” Then she laughed as she always did when conversation was getting a little sentimental. “But I’m doing fine.”

“What’s your cholesterol?” my father asked. He was on the other phone in his office.

“I don’t know,” I said. “That involves a finger prick, right?”

My mother, bandaged up and scheduled to start chemotherapy in a few weeks’ time, laughed — at me, not with me.

I flew to Nashville to be there for the start of her therapy. My father and I — the support team — boldly accompanied her to the treatment room, which looked like a beauty salon except for the tubes attached to the women’s chests. It was a gabby space with The Price Is Right dinging and screaming on the TV in the corner.

Armed with a smile and an enormous Hershey’s chocolate bar, my mother made allies quickly. One woman’s husband turned out to be an old army acquaintance of my father’s. Soon the room buzzed with war stories, laughter and “Mmm-mmm, this chocolate’s good!” But then a nurse entered with a cartoon-large syringe filled with a red chemotherapy drug that everyone called “the red devil.” I suddenly needed fresh air — and maybe a stretcher. So much for the support team.

When I wobbled back in, the woman next to my mother was relating her decade-long battle with cancer. She’d lost the use of her left arm. Her speech was slurred, but she was smiling. The cancer had reached her brain but not her spirit. I looked around at the women in the room. They wore their beaming resolution like war paint. They would become my mother’s real support team: a troop of women bound by a common disease — an addiction to chocolate.

An hour later on our way out of the clinic, I jokingly tugged on my mother’s hair and said, “Hey, your hair’s still there.”

She laughed and said, “Yep. I’m doing fine. Let’s go get me fitted for a bathing suit.”

Of course she lost her hair but gained a hat for every day of the week. She bought a wig but never wore it. Hats and bandanas were quicker, and they were stylish without having to be styled.

Eventually I had to return to my job in Germany, but I called her often to see how she was. As always, she was “doing fine,” which I found hard to believe. This insane positivity had to be a knee-jerk, Southern reaction, right?

“Define fine,” I said finally.

“Well,” she replied, “I still have shooting pains in my left arm where they took the lymph nodes out. The port in my chest is a little uncomfortable. It’s hard to sleep, but I managed two hours this morning. My legs are cramping, and I’m nauseous as heck.” She chuckled. “Oh, and taking that chocolate to my treatments was a mistake: it just makes me think of chemo now, so it makes me nauseous too” — another chuckle — “but I’m still here, so I’m doing fine.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

I waited for a laugh that didn’t come. Whether she knew it or not (but I think she did), she was teaching me how to do fine. Doing fine is a decision to roll with the punches. With age, doing fine demands the stiff upper lip I sorely lacked, the boldness to face problems with a smile — with steely resolve and the courage to roll up your sleeve and make a fist. Doing fine comes with the realization that courage grows when it’s tested, poked and pricked.

~Christopher Allen

More stories from our partners