I only really learned the term in 1992 when Buckingham Palace caught fire. Afterwards, the Queen did an interview, declaring ’92 to be her Terrible Year…her Annus Horribilis. I believe our son was about 18 then, and in typical teenage-fashion, he said “The Queen has a horrible ass?” “Maybe,” I replied, “but she may have meant something else.”
Many years later, and at my request, this cartoon appears before you. I’ll tell you about its derivation later, though, yes, this is my son’s artistry. Among other things, father, son, husband, and metal sculptor, he is a cartoonist with The New Yorker Magazine.
Returning to the Annus: I have this sinking feeling that everyone, rich or poor, famous or infamous, has an annus horribilis at some point in their lives. The big trick is not to let it morph into a Vita Horribilis, a horrible rest of your life. There are ways to steer clear of this. We’re steering even as I type…
Before it happens, no one who walks on this planet can prepare for such a thing. A family member dies, or gets seriously ill, or is injured. Your spouse walks up to you with a big surprise, “Guess who I just met with…an attorney,” or “You know that cute UPS guy?” or, in the case of one of Pam’s college girlfriends, one day you have a luxurious house at the shore…next day you don’t.
I can tell you the exact second our annus horribilis (AH) began. I was mowing the final swath of our front lawn with the John Deere and Pamela came out, with a sweat shirt tied around her waist…strange for her. I cut power and as I did I noticed the blood running down her leg. I said, “What happened?” and she said, “We gotta get to the emergency room.”
I promise you: I am not going to drown you with a year of horror stories regarding cancer treatments and then some of the huge surprises that rival the cancer. Truth is, I really don’t want to go there either. What’s more important is watching and learning how people react when the inevitable occurs. There are times to stand, brave and tall, and there are times to duck and cover. For those of you who’ve already had an AH, you understand the truth of it. For those who haven’t…a couple of tips.
First Observation: Every doctor on the planet has been counseled in the same technique: Never, under any circumstances do you give the patient the whole truth the first day, possibly first week or month. Like most guys, I was completely certain that what I needed to know was the truth…and right now. That is, I believe, a lie that we tell ourselves. What we really mean is, “I can’t stand what I’m hearing. Tell me the truth and by that, I mean, tell me that everything is going to be fine.” Sometimes it isn’t. The brain is a marvel at adapting to things, but terrible information can sink you before you’ve even begun to fight. As painful as it may seem, do not demand to hear the whole story. It’s a mistake. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, we can’t always handle the truth.
Moving Quickly: Sometimes a wait-and-see approach works best. Other times, as with Pamela, minutes, hours, and days count. After Pam’s first surgery with the DaVinci machine, the surgeon marveled at how quickly we cut through red tape. He confessed that the outcome would have been very different had we not done so. A chilling observation.
Choosing your hospital and your surgeon: The facade means nothing and the fact that your neighbor had her gall bladder removed means little. This is the most important decision you’ll make: Use the internet…wisely and triangulate. Fairly quickly one name will begin repeating. Silver hair means nothing, race means nothing. Culture means nothing. None of that means anything at all. You want to know how many surgeries like yours they’ve performed…this month and what their success rate is.
Not all AHs involve a trip to the hospital: Here are a handful of candidates that can stress you beyond your emotional limits: Divorce, Loss of Job, Death of someone close to you, Change of location, An affliction requiring life-changing physical care, sickness or loss of your child, chronic pain, abuse, being sued, victim of a crime…terminal illness, and this list goes on and on. Pamela did a little quick count: This year we have four of these candidates, all going at the same time. It makes things a bit stressful.
The Trinity: Family, Friends and Religion: Failing any of the three…a support group can save you. To be candid, when things go to hell, you find out very quickly who your true friends are and strangely, it’s not always who you’re expecting. Sometimes a true friend might be going through their own AH and they’re just trying to keep their head above water. Sometimes…there are different reasons. It’s the same thing with family: Like everyone else on the planet, some are better than others. I’m always amazed and a bit envious when I hear of family get-togethers where the family members measure in the hundreds. My mind just doesn’t compute. Our family is tiny by comparison, but when the chips are down, impenetrable. You don’t really need a cast of thousands, or hundreds. You really need a person or two who can watch your back through everything…the gory, the depressing, the long-term.
Religion: Not going into any depth on this one, mostly because there are over 4000 religions on planet Earth as of this morning and a bit more than seven billion people occupying those 4000 religions…each one absolutely certain that theirs is the only one, and often highly insulted that you could even think there are any others. Not going to go there. Instead, I’m speaking strictly of the emotional and psychological benefits that any religion provides, real or not.
If I could wave a magic wand and make any person with a terminal illness believe that their lives are very soon going to culminate in an eternity of bliss, I would do so in a second. What a kind thing to do, to believe that you or one of your loved ones will be in for eternal bliss. Here is a time and a place where belief in a wondrous hereafter is the kindest and most loving salve of all.
Reality Check: I look at my friends and I often get the classmates.com updates on my iPad and it’s not difficult to connect the dots. The serious illnesses are increasing, the deaths, and it’s a bit like listening to popcorn pop. The tempo starts off slow and accelerates, culminating in a frenzy of sound…followed by silence.
Whatever you conceive to happen after that silence is one’s own personal business. While you’re on this planet and in this realm, however, live each day with new eyes. Look at your loved ones and appreciate them. Tell them how you feel. In whatever religious realm you exist, truly enjoy the feelings that you have for your distant future. But right now, all you have is now. Enjoy it all……………but be prepared to duck.
Pam’s and my Annus Horribilis continues. She’s wearing some new jewelry now. Most of you will get it. It’s been rough on both of us, only in strangely different ways. It’s a different world now. I think the vodka martinis have gotten a bit stronger than before. Sometimes, that’s actually a good thing. We’ve been really close now for over 45 years. Now…we’re even closer. Didn’t think that was possible.
P.S. Henry and Cameron…a handful of years ago.
Cliche or not, this image is about how I’d come to think of myself. I was never once happy with the way I looked…never. Needless to say, things haven’t improved in that regard. But that little blond munchkin standing next to me is bigger than I am, is a killer fencer, a good dad and husband…and of course, a big pain in the ass at the studio sometimes. And that little munchkin is acquiring a formidable collection of New Yorker cartoons. Look for a book one of these days. HRH
Hello dear Henry
It is very sad to hear sad news about your lovely wife dear PAMELA . I am praying for her health in all my prayers. She is a strong lady and will
overcome this problem by the help of God. Here I send you 3 old pictures to remind you of the old good days, and you can see how good looking you were and I believe that you and Pam still are.
Your old time body Mo.
Thank you for your very kind thoughts. And thank you for the photographs. Two of them had been lost over the years. One was a beautiful and treasured photo of my mom. Thank You!
Pamela and I are as close as a couple can be. Trying to enjoy every single day.
My very best to you and your beautiful family.
We had our AH a year ago, Henry. Boy were we good at finding a surgeon who specialized in my rare type of cancer. UVA in Charlottesville, VA – although we would have gone ANYWHERE for someone with a success rate. She worked a miracle and removed it all. At least for the last year. No additional treatment necessary. My next check up is Sept 11. With no justification whatsoever, we anticipate good news.
This year’s AH was Bill’s congestive heart symptoms that led to his accepting a pacemaker and defibrillator last Monday. Absolute successful procedure. He’s now determining how much improvement there is. Personally, I love it when I see him sitting quietly, listening to his heart rhythms in perfect synch and then he laughs out loud.
And of course there was jewelry. In my case, it was lobster.
Hi Annette and thank you for sharing your poignant and yet humorous account. Sometimes things can get so bad that all you can do is laugh at the absurdity of it all. Glad you both have your sense of humor still intact.
Your timing is perfect.
Needed this as I’m sitting in the barn, thinking if I should go into work on my day off or stay home and do my own work on the farm .
Read your article.
Staying home, enjoying the smell of hay,
the horses munching and will ride them later. (They need a nap after playing outside all night.)
Just trying to get up after having to bury my brother after an annus horribilus. Ducking for the hubby’s knee replacement in Dec. Glad I can still duck and swerve after Breast cancer and back surgery.
Love and prayers to you all.
No matter what the faith, it does help us through things.
In health, horses and happy marriage,
Pam and Wade
Your email stops me in my tracks. There aren’t any words that I can think of to express my feelings for what you’re going through. Just terribly terribly sorry. Big hug and a lot of thinking about how fragile each of us is and how much we have to try to appreciate the small special moments as life unfolds.
Working as a kid on a dairy farm, I get it with the smell of hay. I even love the smell of cow manure…and being nuzzled by big warm animals that love us, human or otherwise.
Really really sorry about your brother, breast cancer, knee and back surgery. That old joke about life not being for the faint of heart is really true.
For Pam and me, we eschew the religious mindsets that seem to want to gravitate toward hating and exclusion. If there’s a supreme wisdom and love guiding the universe, I don’t think He would be terribly amused or tolerant of all the hatefulness. It’s not a competition of my religion’s better than yours….we’re all supposed to be in this together.
Thanks so much for writing and sharing.
Big hug from both of us.
Henry and Pamela
I always look forward to your articles.
Thank you, Frank.
That means a lot, particularly right now.
Having started my 4th round of chemo yesterday, your essay obviously hit home. I’m extremely sorry to hear about your AH and that it seems to be continuing. Please know you, Pamela and the rest of your family are in my thoughts!
As usual, I thought your points were spot on. I’m very lucky to have a husband who has in every sense, become “my rock”. (Kinda tough for someone who always prided herself as being Ms Independent, but ….) Mike, my daughter and “siblings-by-choice” are integral my desire to continue fighting – especially important following the loss of both my parents a few years ago. While I’ve certainly had my share of pitty parties throughout our AH (obviously, more than one-year), I also recognize all that I’ve gained and learned during this period – so much more than what I got from all those silly (hindsight) years spent working 80+ hr weeks in corporate America!! I’ve come to understand “living in the moment” and appreciate the incredible people and opportunities I’m fortunate enough to have surrounding me. In addition, as much as possible, I try to focus on others. For years, people teased me, saying I wore a sign telling complete strangers as well as those close, “Talk to me. I’ll listen – and even care enough to respond.” Now, that I’m in a different phase of my life, I have more time (although less energy) to devote to those in-need, and yes, I realize. this helps me, too. I once had a phylosophy Professor who gave us a one sentence exam to write about, “There’s truly no such thing as a truly altruistic act.” Funny, how I still vividly recall this.
Anyway, having firsthand experience as both a caretaker and patient, I can tell you, without the slightest doubt, the former is the more difficult role. So, you have my utmost respect, understanding, admiration and support. As the patient, for me, the worst part is knowing how my illnesses affect my special circle – I suppose this might be partially attributable to that old, deeply ingrained, Jewish guilt!
Please stay in touch, and don’t hesitate to call on me if there’s anything I can do – or any way I can help during your family’s AH. (And, yes, it’s interesting to discover the people who show up with both the desire and capacity to help.)
I’m glad to hear y’all are busy steering; as tough as this is, preventing that morphing or “slippery slope” is an invaluable healing and cathartic tool.
Once again, thanking you for publishing this significant and timely article.
Sending heartfelt wishes for much brighter days – soon!
Your intelligent and thoughtful comments required that I respond individually.
Most perceptive, the realization that the caregiver undergoes an arc of emotion that’s similar but different from the patient’s. Sometimes one has it worse, sometimes the other. It’s very complicated.
And yes, altruism is an easy one to debate. The altruistic deed has to get something, though sometimes it’s only the realization that they couldn’t do otherwise.
Dearest Henry, a million years ago, I didn’t know anything about you, other than the fact that the mere mention of your name made my beautiful friend, Pam, always smile. It’s incredible that so many years later, you continue to be her one, her only, her everything. And, as the amazing writer that you are, your article is perfectly clear, yet not TOO clear, and I am extremely worried about my girl, even though I am assured through your words that she is in the best of care. I want to hear that all is well in your world, and that the patented Pam grin is still in full force and effect… gosh, how many times I walked across the street just to SEE it! I love her and now, I love you… for loving her so much. You are incredible, Henry. Keep on keepin’ on and if you ever need anything, Pam’s old friend (old, but not “perky”–I remember what Pam said about “perky” people!) is HERE! Love you both.
Lynn Anthony (“Phooey” of New Hope)
It’s great to hear from you! Pamela is contacting you separately though I can assure you she’s receiving the best care she can. I was trying in the article to not complain, but to show that each one of us faces one or sometimes a whole lot more rough periods in their lives. And for 99% of us,we can be assured that there are plenty of people surviving and thriving with even worse situations. Every day we see the “beautiful” people and hear of the “beautiful” scenic lives we’re supposed to all live. For the most part, it’s a myth. If you think someone just…has it made, you just don’t know them very well.
I hope you’re doing GREAT! and thanks for writing.