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We seem to have a built-in resistance to change. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct of our ego. Some deep part of us fears that every change is a small death – what was, is no more. It’s a little rehearsal for the leave-taking from a life we didn’t ask for in the first place (or did we?) but now that we’re in it we cherish it. We only want things to run along smoothly, filled with the familiar, the comfortable, the usual.

When changes gang up on us like a school of piranha, we wonder who we’ll be when the change-fest/feast is over. Will anyone recognizable as “me” remain? What can we hold onto that is unchanging, even as those damnable fish are nibbling away at what we thought was certain?

I have just returned from a two-week trip to the south of England, to be with my daughter in Devon as she swirls in the huge school of changes called breast-cancer-and-mastectomy. The plan was for me to bring emotional support, help her with the complexity of her prescriptions and supplements, and do some administrative work that arose with her new circumstances, while a rota of friends would bring food and help with household tasks and the garden. This would leave Katheryn free to rest and heal, to tend to her physical therapy, and to ponder the difficult decisions about which medical treatments to choose following her post-surgery test results. It was a lovely concept, featuring all of us making the best out of unwelcome circumstances.

But change just wouldn’t leave us alone. The surgical site didn’t heal as planned. New medical concerns cropped up after lab tests. Frequently medical personnel rescheduled appointments at the last minute, leaving Katheryn scrambling to cancel plans, arrange for new rides to hospitals and clinics, undo help that had already been put in place. Computers rebelled with seemingly intentional malice. Wet laundry blew off the line in an unexpected gust. Side effects of pain medications blossomed. The cat food supply ran out. Email addresses and phone numbers were not accurate. The healing rest didn’t happen, the physical therapy got short shrift, the ominous deadlines for decisions loomed with no clearer wisdom than was had the day before.

I wondered to myself, How is it possible for anyone to cope with such changes? Especially on top of the earth-shaking changes to one’s sense of self that a dreaded illness brings? What do people do who are older, frailer, more alone, more confused, less capable than my daughter?

And then, just when I was getting into the rhythms of knowing how best to help Katheryn, and where the brown rice and toasted sesame oil are stored, and what is the best technique for rousting Orion (my 17-year-old grandson) in the morning, and how the damned smartphone works . . . another wrenching change: time to return home.

So who am I now, as the mother of a woman with cancer? Who am I, 5000 miles away from her? What will her life look like a year from now? What will mine? How do she, and I, and Orion, and all of us find the essential place in ourselves and in each other that is unfazed by change? Is there such a place?

I’m too jet-lagged to have any answers right now.

Just questions.

And a dim but certain knowing that the answers are close at hand.

 

“Please, Mom, come sooner rather than later.”

 

It’s an email from my daughter Katheryn in England, a continent and an ocean away – Katheryn, who, three weeks ago, was given a diagnosis of breast cancer, stage two. She was told that she needed mastectomy surgery to save her life. It would likely be scheduled in the next month. “Please come sooner rather than later.”

 

I had begun searching through flight options when my housemate asked, “Is your passport current?”

 

Oops. It had expired in February of this year.

 

Go online, find the form, fill out the form, check the box for “expedite” (which guarantees three-week delivery instead of five or six) and add another $60 “expedite fee” to the total on my check. Find a place on Whidbey Island that does instant passport photos. Put everything, along with my expired passport, into an envelope with priority postage guaranteeing delivery at the Philadelphia Expedited Passport office on Monday morning. Hand it all to the postal clerk before closing time on Friday afternoon. Whew!

 

Then on Saturday morning I got a call. New tests had caused Katheryn’s docs to speed up the timetable. Surgery was now scheduled for the coming Friday.

 

Now what? I wouldn’t have a passport for another three weeks. A friend suggested I call my Congressman to see if he could help. Yeah, sure, I thought. Equating “Congress” with “help” is not likely these days. Nevertheless, I called the local office of Congressman Rick Larsen early Monday morning. I spoke with a staff person, Jamie, who listened patiently to my story, including the part about how my expired passport and all my info was now somewhere in the bowels of a bureaucratic office in Pennsylvania. She agreed to make some calls on my behalf, and would call me back. I remained skeptical.

 

The short version of the rest of my passport story is this: Jamie reached a congressional liaison in the passport offices; he okayed the emergency nature of my passport request and alerted the reception clerk in the Seattle Passport Office that I would be coming in on Wednesday morning. When I arrived the clerk (and his computer) located my paperwork in Philadelphia, including my check and my expired passport. The several clerks who worked with me did not fit my perception of “bureaucrat” at all – they were alert, kind, efficient, and respectful. I watched as they patiently moved many dozens of citizens through a streamlined system of service that did not feel at all like the stockyard feedlot I had expected. In less than an hour I was called back to Window Number Three, and was asked to return to the passport office at 2:00 that afternoon. By 2:30 I had a brand new, very expedited, valid passport in my hand.

 

When I went back to the reception clerk to thank him for all he and the others had done for me, I told him I would never (well, not for a long while, anyway) disparage “government bureaucracy” again!

 

Now: get those airline tickets, and get to England to be with my daughter.