Suffering is optional

There’s a particular Buddhist phrase I find very useful these days: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”


Richard and I have experienced pain we never imaged we’d know over the last year and a half, since he began seeing birds (hallucinations, not real ones) as we were headed for a joint artist-writer residency we had been awarded in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. The pain of giving up that residency, a “time out” we both sorely needed (and still do). The pain of learning he had traumatic swelling in the right hemisphere of his brain, the pain when we saw the shadowy circular image of his first brain tumor in an MRI later that fall, the pain of his first brain surgery; the pain of learning he had brain cancer and moving to Denver for six weeks over the winter holidays for his radiation treatments.

The pain of our parting when I led a group to Baja California over those same holidays without him, a trip I had imagined doing together. The pain of learning his tumors had returned during chemotherapy; the pain of his second brain surgery and the removal of much of his right temporal lobe. The pain as his struggle to successfully recover from that surgery coincided with my mother’s dramatic physical decline, a period that brought Mom’s death, followed by his headache, the one that worsened until the wild trip over the mountains in the middle of the night following the ambulance carrying Richard, barely conscious, to the VA hospital…

Through these last few months, I’ve kept myself going with an image of the break to come: a road trip in March, a real vacation, in fact, the honeymoon we didn’t have time or funds to take when we married nearly 29 years ago.

A group of generous Salida folks created a travel fund for us, and we had planned to leave on the 28th of February for two and a half weeks, driving the Pacific Coast from LA to Puget Sound. We looked forward to being inspired by that magnificent edge where the Pacific Ocan crashes up against the North American continent, to visits to Molly in San Francisco and my brother, sister-in-law and their girls in Washington state. We were planning on hearing my sister-in-law, Lucy, play a concert. The trip was to be our long-awaited “time out,” a chance to relax, recharge, and to let go of fears and grief and stress; a time to eat great food, enjoy family and friends, and simply recover.

“Had planned,” because it’ll have to wait.

I woke at three this morning to see Richard in his pajamas opening the outside door of our motel room.

“Sweetie, where are you going?” I asked as calmly as I could.

“To the bathroom.”

“It’s the other way, honey,” I said quickly. “Come inside.”

I groped for the light switch and when the light came on, he turned around and headed to the bathroom. After he climbed back into bed, I lay awake for an hour thinking about travel and strange motel rooms and brains that need quiet and familiar routine to recover. Before I fell asleep, I realized that the honeymoon trip would have to wait.

And as I did, I remembered the phrase: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

Richard and I need a break, there’s no doubt about it. And while I’d love to run away on a 4,000-mile road trip, it’s clearly not the time.

Is it painful to set aside that trip we’ve been anticipating for months? Yes. Do I need to suffer for it? No.

Instead, I’ll look forward to heading home after this weekend’s memorial service for my Mom and the family gathering to follow. We’ll hold hands, cook our own simple and nourishing meals, do yoga in the morning sunshine, plan next summer’s kitchen garden, and soak in the comfort of simply living in the place we love. 


Tomorrow, February 18, is our Molly’s 32nd birthday. Happy Birthday, Sweetie! I’ll be guest-blogging about how this daughter of my heart and I walked our way into love over at Story Circle Network’s “One Woman’s Day” blog. Come along for the read!