April 2018

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Post Traumatic Surgery Disorder

For years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, I felt a literal sinking in my heart, a deep tightness in my chest, every time the news reported a grand catastrophe. On that day in 2001, I was away from home, staying at the John Hancock building in Boston. I was there for a week's training for my new job, and our organization's meeting was disrupted by Police who swept us out of the room in order to set up security plans for Boston. It was rumored that accomplices to the attacks were holed up in the building across the street, though this turned out to be untrue. We were alternately cordoned in the building and evacuated. I paced anxiously in my room, gasped for air as if there were a great weight compressing my lungs, and sobbed until I heard from my New York family members that everyone was safe.

Less than a week later I returned to my home in Seattle on one of the first coast-to-coast flights after the attacks. My section was filled with quiet pilots who scribbled frenetically on napkins and whispered in the aisles. In the terminal, two flight attendants yelled to one another from a football field's length away, ran to one another, embraced and sobbed. It was an intense time, and for years afterwards I felt that tightness in my chest again whenever there was a large scale disaster. This response, it seems to me, is the right one.

Since brain surgery, however, I respond more emotionally to the tragedies of indviduals. When U.S. representative Gabriel Giffords was shot in the head and six others were killed with her earlier this year, I followed her recovery news as if I knew her. I still do, though she's disappeared from the headlines.

A couple of weeks ago, the local news reported the death of Corporal Roger Scherf, Jr., a soldier who had been the lone survivor of a roadside bomb that killed the other eight in the vehicle in Afghanistan. Ironically, Corporal Scherf died in the U.S. in a car accident, and I think about all of the rehabilitation and personal grief that he must have experienced before his death and the pain that his family must be experiencing now.

I also heard on the news an interview with Linsey Addario, a New York Times photographer who was kidnapped with three colleagues by Gaddafi's forces and finally released after some brutal treatment.

I know that all of us will die, that this is the way the world is, and that I will one day be in the toll. Mostly, I take this in stride and feel with amazement the power of this world's beauty, the grace of the gift of being in this world. In response to such individual stories, however, I experience the great sadness of someone else's death, and remember again that one day, the death will be mine. That feels sad, too.

I am mostly upbeat, and I wonder if sometimes that's irritating to others who have experienced life-changing disease or other great tragedies but this sadness keeps me grounded. I like Annabella's matter-of-fact approach to the sadness in her toast: Here's to those of us who are left.

In her poem, "One Summer Day," Mary Oliver asks, "What will you do with your one wild and precious life?" Maybe it's brain tumors or moving into my late forties (yikes), but I think daily about this question now, and maybe I'm mostly upbeat because I feel so lucky about this one life that I'm getting to live: a solid partner (today, we celebrate 16 years of living together); loving and fun friends; a supportive spiritual community; the opportunity to work with high school students and their teachers; the on-going chance for new adventures, new ways of seeing.

Here's to those of us who are left. Here's to being here. Here's to Ann. Mary


  1. HI Mary, I have been following you for awhile now. I too had an ependymoma.
    I belong to a wonderful support group just for ependymoma sufferers.
    Email, Bruce, at and he can get you signed up, if you are interested. If that doesnt work for some reason I can connect you with his website. He is the moderator of the group.
    There are a lot of caring people there that have been through this too.
    I had surgery on 3-7-08, a 4th ventrical tumour about 22mm. So far I have had clean MRIs.
    I have post MRI syndrom, and have to have my MRIs under sedation now, I cant lay in that tube for that long anymore!!!!!

  2. I share you toasts! And you know, Mary, we are all especially glad you are here because you've given us a few good scares. You continue to amaze me of what you are doing with your one wild and precious life...and I'm glad I get to come along for ride for parts of it!


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