The 5% Girl and a Lesson in Empathy

After spending the last ten days in parental purgatory, we got a call yesterday morning. The huge tumor found in my daughter has been fully removed and after being told the odds were 95% that it would be malignant, Mayo has determined that it is benign. We were very lucky. Only 150-200 people are diagnosed with this type of tumor in the U.S. each year. Random. Like the cells that mutate for no damned reason into something that kills. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time for days on end, so getting on the internet seems like a questionable choice. But I’m here to say thanks for all the kind wishes.

canstockphoto3491219I found myself writing in second person over the last week. It’s an unusual POV to pick, but second person puts distance between the reality of life and the compulsive desire to write about it. I was unable to have conversation with people. All words led to I’m so scared and inevitable sobbing. So I tried to find ways to write around the margins of this terrible thing that was my reality, this waiting to see if my beloved child was going to be in the fight of her life or if she got to go home to resume being a teenager, a classical violist, a friend, a classmate. Our girl.

So, like any writer, I start with observations.

Many mornings, I drove home at 5am from the hospital. We’d been sleeping there every night, but in the early morning hours, I was the only one awake and restless. The city streets were clear and I rolled the windows down and felt the crosswind, quiet and cool. She wanted me to get her tennis shoes, even though they wouldn’t fit her swollen feet. I knew I probably shouldn’t be on the road, so I forced myself to focus.

The last mile before home, tears started to leak down my face. By the time I reached the driveway, I was heaving and wailing. Too many hours of saying calming things to her. Too many hours of somber conversation with medical professionals. Too many hours of my husband and I in waiting rooms starting sentences with “I don’t know how we…” Trailing off, because we can only afford to be in that moment.

canstockphoto7428433I thought about what other drivers saw on the way back to the hospital. A blotchy-faced middle-aged woman barely driving at the speed limit in her Prius. They couldn’t know that she was barely fending off terror, that she’d spent the previous day waiting through hours of surgery and recovery of her daughter, that she was in shock and despair. How often had I cussed out drivers, thought the worst of them, assumed that they were this or that?

We’re curiously often incapable of empathy until we find ourselves with the child crying on the plane. Until we have that bad day when everything seems to go wrong. Until we lose a pet, get a bad diagnosis, make a wrong turn. We pass each other in grocery stores, shuffle our feet impatiently at the ATM, cast knowing glances at other bystanders. It’s so much easier to be empathetic in theory than in reality.

canstockphoto832346Blurry-eyed, I dragged myself through the hospital cafeteria, I looked around at all the families, some comforting themselves with gentle inside jokes, others looking haggard and unseeing. Out of context, I know that I would have seen them differently, perhaps with a hint of judgment or irritation that they were too noisy or unfriendly or inattentive to what they were doing. When we are out in public, we do not know each others’ stories by appearance, and sometimes even by actions. We have to have the imagination and empathy to extrapolate a story. A kinder story.

In the days ahead of unraveling and recouping and processing, I hope that I remember this lesson.

28 thoughts on “The 5% Girl and a Lesson in Empathy

  1. Sending you good thoughts! 💗💗💗you’re surviving. Sometimes that’s all we can do, first person, second person, or omniscient


  2. Oh Michelle, what incredibly fabulous news! We’ve never met so it will perhaps seem odd when I say that your last post really knocked me sideways but it did and you have been on my mind constantly ever since. I am so, so happy and relieved for all of you. I hope your daughter is back home, having fun and making beautiful music soon ❤️


  3. Oh Michelle, what absolutely fabulous news! We’ve never met so it may seem odd when I say your last post really knocked me sideways but it did — and you have been on my mind ever since. I am so, so happy and relieved for you. I hope your daughter is back home laughing and making beautiful music soon ❤️


  4. I saw this, read backwards to the previous post, was horrified, held my breath, and am so relieved for you now. What a nightmare. It’s such a helpless feeling.
    You may have read it or heard it, but on the subject of empathy, David Foster Wallace’s commencement address “This is Water” is very thought-provoking.
    All the best.


    1. Thanks Ross. There are so many random decisions that could have saved or decimated my daughter’s life – that, to me, is the most frightening thing. Had I not taken her to the doctor, had the surgeon just done the biopsy (they wouldn’t have been able to tell what this thing was without the whole thing), had we done this or that. The trick now is stepping back from hyper-vigilance so we can recover.

      I keep a copy of “This is Water” in my inspiration file and re-read it on occasion. It seems that empathy is something that has to be prodded and learned over and over again.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Whew! Doing the happy/praise-God dance over here! I’m wishing your daughter a speedy return to her summer, and to you, a decent nap a.s.a.p.!


  6. Michelle, It is such good news that your daughter will be OK! Your thoughts on empathy are a valuable reminder to me. You are so right, nearly everyone we encounter is struggling with their own troubles, often troubles more hard and stressful than we can imagine. I need to constantly remind myself to have compassion for others, even though I cannot know their personal struggles. — John


    1. Thanks John. We’re still in shock from how quickly this all happened, but are so grateful for a diagnosis after nearly a week of waiting.
      I felt like I was standing outside of myself and could imagine how I looked to others. I had this huge, scary thing happening, but no one would know that by looking at me. We are such egocentric creatures that it takes something happening to us, before we can imagine that someone else might be going through it, too. Again, I hope I can hold onto this lesson longer.


  7. First – what good news! No doubt you are all greatly relieved.
    This is a beautifully written post and I hear you loud and clear about empathy. I too hope I remember your message!


    1. We’re still reeling from the whole thing – from abject fear to relief in the course of a week and a phone call. Whenever something traumatic like this happens, I always think there should be a before and after – that there should be some valuable lesson that sticks around. I hope this lesson in empathy does.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So glad for you, Michelle, and I love your reflection on empathy. Of course, these kinds of lessons are usually variations on 9-11, which united the country in flag-waving fervor for a few weeks before the crisis wore off and we went back to our usual separate selves. Sigh. Human nature. We remember and then forget, or get too caught up in our own stuff to care what someone else might be going through.


    1. That’s a very good example, Cate. I used to think that character was really illustrated in times of trouble, but it seems a lot easier to be a hero when that’s what people want to see. It’s what we do when nobody is looking that is likely the true test of one’s character. It’s something I need to think about more.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Your relief and good news has brought smiles (and maybe happy tears) to a lot of people. I’m so glad of the outcome of this ordeal. Thank you for sharing your news and your wise thoughts on empathy, Michelle.


  10. Breathing again after reading your post. And then crying after reading David Wallace’s address (i get more out of this blog than I can ever say….often from the comments and your recommended readings). Best to your family as you recover together. Thank you for keeping this connection. Leslie


  11. Wow. What a roller coaster for your family. I am so glad that you have a happy ending. Nothing will ever seem the same. Everything will just be more…and so will you.
    Thank you for sharing.


  12. I am so glad to hear your good news Michelle. I want to apologize for inserting the C word into my comments on your earlier post. I was projecting the experience of a close friend whose daughter battled cancer a few years back and unfortunately lost. It was very clumsy of me to do that.
    But geez, what a relief. What a gift! Life is good.


  13. I am so far behind on emails and am just now seeing this. I’m sorry your family went through this crisis, and so glad you’re coming out of it on the side of hope, life, and future.


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