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Survival Lessons from Alice Hoffman: Choose Your Relatives

Hoffman_author_CMYK_HR[Our thanks to Alice Hoffman for sharing this excerpt from her recent book, Survival Lessons. Based on her own experience as a cancer survivor, this is a deeply personal and profound collection of essays on dealing with trauma and loss. Read yesterday's excerpt, "Choose Your Friends."]

Choose Your Relatives

They say you can’t choose your family. But you can choose the people you’ll spend time with and who will receive cards notifying them you are currently unavailable. Relatives can be tricky when you are undergoing treatment for a disease or are in the throes of any sort of tragedy. Some want to do too much, some too little. But some are just right. A pie left on your back porch is just right. A hug in the hallway. A book of poems sent through the mail.

Only answer the phone when you want to, and then, give yourself permission to say you can’t talk, especially if it’s a relative. Make up an excuse. There’s someone at my door, a bear is in the living room, there’s a meteor shower spilling over my front lawn. Or just tell the truth. I’m tired. I’m sick. I’m at a loss. I’m not ready to talk. Call me later, tomorrow, next month. Better still, let me call you back.

HoffmanI learned from my mistakes. I didn’t experience illness in my family until Jo Ann was diagnosed with brain cancer. For some reason I thought life always got better, but it was nearly a full year of things getting worse. When she was failing there was an afternoon when we sat together and she told me she was afraid to die. I quickly said, Don’t be silly, that’s not going to happen. The words were out of my mouth before I had time to think. But it was happening, as it does to all of us, only she was dying sooner rather than later and she knew it. She had been very brave and had sworn she would make history. When doctors found a cure, she would be on the cover of Time magazine. That’s what she had hoped for, but that’s not how it turned out.

I was with her every day of her illness, but at the very end, I had plans to take my children on vacation. I waivered and thought I should stay, but Jo Ann said to me, Go! And don’t feel guilty!

She knew exactly what I needed to hear. Those were the last words she ever said to me. She died while I was in the desert in Arizona with my husband and children. She allowed me to understand I’d done everything I could for her, and that I, and everyone who loved her, had to step away and go on living.

Now I know what she wanted from me on the day she told me she was afraid. It was exactly what I wanted when I had cancer and I thought I was going to die. I should have sat down next to her, put my arms around her, and told her that I loved her. That’s all anyone wants. It took me a long time to figure this out. It’s a complicated human puzzle. But it’s never too late to know that love is all you need.


> See all of Alice Hoffman's books

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