Can These Four Questions Change Your Life?
I followed her down a long white hallway into a sitting room next to her bedroom, and I accepted a glass of cool water, and then I told her what was happening to me. Or rather, I read aloud from the manifesto of suffering I'd written in anticipation of this moment. I read about having cancer, and how I had two small children who needed me, and why my particular diagnosis was very bad, and how the chemo was exhausting, and how superscared I was, having no idea if the treatment was going to work, and how I hated being bald, and on and on and on.
When I finally gave her a chance to talk, I figured she was going to try to make me feel less scared about my prognosis, or convince me that even as a baldy I could feel beautiful. Instead, totally out of left field, she said, "Your children need you. Is that true?"
I looked at her like she was out of her freaking mind. "Yes!" I said. "They're 9 years old! They're little boys! They just finished fourth grade!"
To which she said, easy as pie, "Uh-huh. Your children need you—is that true?"
Now I was getting angry. I wanted to walk out of there, but I said, "Yes, it's true! My children obviously need me"—you freaky kook lady, whose check I'm gonna cancel the second I get out of here!
And she said, just as calmly as if she were asking where I'd bought my sweater, "Where are they right now?"
"They're with their dad," I said. "My husband."
At which point a tiny glimmer of light came on in my head, but I was so not going to notice that glimmer because no way was I going over there. Then she said, just as placid as could be, "Is he good with the boys?"
Of course, I took it hook, line, and sinker: "Oh, yeah, he is the best dad in the world, and he does so much with them, and the three of them have a great relationship—you cannot imagine. He should get dad of the year."
And just as matter-of-fact as ever, she said, "Your children need you. Is that true?"
I just sat there and sat there and sat there—and then kaboom in my mind like you cannot believe: I realized that Katie had nailed it.
It wasn't the cancer, or the chemo, or the baldness that was keeping me in hell—it was the terror of thinking that if I didn't make it, my boys wouldn't either. But they would. They would! If, in fact, I didn't make it, my boys would be okay. Their dad would take care of them. And all our relatives. And everyone at church. They'd be fine. They could and would make it without me if they had to.
"That's right, sweetheart," Katie said simply when I blurted all of this out. "How narcissistic to think they couldn't live if you didn't live."
She had found the thought I hadn't had the nerve to look at on my own—the thought that was so huge and scary, I couldn't even see it. She'd found it not because she knew me better than I knew myself, but because she sat with me and listened. She was present. She was in the moment—which is exactly where The Work has enabled me to stay (enjoying my life, my husband, my boys, instead of drifting in a sea of existential dread). And if you had been sitting in the garden outside Byron Katie's open window that summer day, overhearing first my fear and then my shock and then my confusion and then my anger, you would also, finally, have heard my laughter, all thanks to the question that by now has changed my life.
"Oh, honey—is that true?"
Caitlin Flanagan is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic; her book Girl Land (Little, Brown) will be published next spring.
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