The worst and the best experiences can be two sides of the same coin, depending on how we look at it.
It was 10 pm. The cries of children on the oncology ward blurted out in unison, echoing distress, fear and pain, following the night time routine treatment. Ten minutes later, their crying had died down. Silence fell. I sat by my son's bed, in the dark, exhausted and desperate for sleep. Faint sobbing soon started from the beds nearby. It was the parents' turn to cry - through fatigue, frustration and concern. A father tending to the bed opposite kept quiet, as usual, preferring to suffer in silence while neighbouring mothers exchanged stories about their respective children. Suffering was all around.
I listened to the crying every night but one night I heard the father opposite sobbing. His child was getting worse. Doctors and nurses rushed in, discussing next steps. At that moment, a flash of insight hit me: this pain is universal. It's not personal, it's not mine alone. That's just the way things are. That very moment something strange and wonderful happened. All my worries and tiredness vanished. I was sitting in the dark, with peace in my heart and a smile on my face. My mind naturally let go - not from thinking or reasoning with it but from the heart's understanding. This gave me the strength to face what was to come over the next four years of treatment.
My son was three at the time and his illness taught me several important lessons that transformed my life and perception of the world.
First, there was no point fighting and blaming fate, wondering "why me?" I accepted it totally and was thus able to get on with the task of looking after him.
Second, it served as a reminder that life can change course suddenly for the worse without warning. Hence we need to be well-prepared. Whatever we can do to make things better, we must do it now - for there might not be another chance.
Third, material success is not important. As a mother, I would come across incessant competitiveness amongst parents at the school gate: whose child was doing best in class or at games, whose lifestyle was the most enviable. All this preening suddenly meant nothing to me. Nor is it important to me now. More important by far, indeed on a totally different plane, is to have a healthy life, a healthy child and, above all, a healthy mind.
Fourth, being continually tired and anxious, positive thinking and a sense of humour did not come easily. One had to take time off - to be with nature and fresh air. And watching comedies on TV was a help.
Most importantly, I learnt about suffering through suffering - that its cause was more from my worries rather than the illness itself. One needs to develop a positive outlook to turn the situation round so that it makes rather than breaks us. Whatever negative thoughts or feelings we are experiencing, they are just thoughts and feelings. Their nature is to come and go. They are NOT us. Happiness thus had a new meaning. It was not about having everything I ever wanted. It was more about finding strength and peace within - to keep emotional balance to help cope with whatever life is throwing at one.
People often said that I was brave but I just took things one day at a time. Faith and meditation were my refuge. The brave one was my son - with three operations, chemotherapy, relentless plummeting immunity, many infections, countless blood tests and transfusions... When his hair fell out in patches, people stared at him and kept their distance - as if he was carrying an infectious disease. He looked at his own hair, pulled out more clumps and laughed without a care in the world. He even developed a mature sense of coping, asking me how to win friends when feeling grumpy under the influence of steroids.
If you are caring for a loved one with long term illness, don't lose heart. Try to keep your focus in the present moment rather than worrying about the future. Free your mind from cluttered thoughts by shifting the attention to the in-out breaths, allowing your mind to be at peace so you can build up resilience to deal with the situation. All will soon pass and become the past. You will look back with greater strength and understanding. Perhaps you might have found a silver lining among the dark clouds.
Happily, my son pulled through and is now a healthy 20. That experience taught me that the worst of times can deliver the best of life's lessons.