Yet another month has slipped by. This time last year I was nearing my surgery date, and the things to write about were so numerous, I had to sift them out so I had enough room left on the page. My emotions were flurrying. My fear and anticipation was mounting. And, I got through it all, and even with complications, I sit here today, still in treatment, but still disease-free. I was thinking the other day, as Jared, Amanda, and I attended the Kaiser Bakersfield’s 2nd Annual Breast Cancer Survivor’s Celebration, about my surgeon, Dr. Sales. Dr. Sales was the guy who put the survivor’s bracelet around my wrist as I walked up to get my “1 year survivor” pin this year. And I’m glad he was the one who got to do that. I was thinking about the moment I got the details of my final pathology report, laying in that most uncomfortable hospital bed, a few days post surgery. All those long, hard months of chemotherapy. All that worry, and fear. All that wondering if all that we were going through, that I was going through, was having any real effect on this very allusive and aggressive cancer in my body. Dr. Sales came into my room, laying his hand on my leg. Al was in the room with me. My parent’s were at my house, working on getting the kids up and situated so they could make their trip to the hospital. Dr. Sales said, “we got the results of the pathology report back.” I felt my heart flutter. In a split second I wasn’t sure if I should want to hear, or not want to hear them. I certainly anticipated the worst. But I also hoped for the best, knowing that the state of things after 7 rounds of hard chemotherapy were very telling of my overall prognosis- whether I was winning or losing this battle. He said, “there was no cancer found in your effected breast, and 11 of the 11 nodes removed were fibrotic, meaning that they were scarred from necrotic cancer, cancer that was destroyed through treatment.” At that moment I could hear a large amount of air being expelled from my lungs- a consequence of holding my breath for the last several months. The mounting tension in my chest, caused from my trying to keep that breath in, released itself with that exhale. I cried. Al let loose, allowing himself to shed some tears too. It had been a long six months. Our tears of relief penetrated the soul of my Doctor, who was leaving his own wife and two young daughters at home to come and see his patients on a Saturday morning. His eyes welled up too, but he didn’t allow enough tears that they spilled over the brim- a struggle to maintain professionalism through a veneer of emotional distance. When my parents came to the hospital a couple hours later, I tearfully shared the good news with them, and they both cried, as they ritualistically removed their prayer boxes that they had been wearing around their necks. Yes, indeed, this Thanksgiving serves as a time of reflection, gratefulness, and most of all, connection.
I’ve been thinking a lot about connection lately, partly because I’m still trying to figure out what this cancer experience was supposed to be about, and partly because I’m still wading through Aron’s book, and he writes about his connections with his friends and family as the main thrust in his will to live. I am gaining a lot of insight by reading about Aron’s experiences facing death, but I’m also re-evaluating my own need to write. While I am a writer, and will write as long as I live, I am wondering when this phase of writing, when this cancer experience, will dwindle itself down to a few sentences? I know it will never completely leave me. It will fixate itself to who I am, blending itself to a point where it creates a different color altogether, but the blending process will be beautifully subtle, and I will be, I am, forever changed. You have all been privy to this subtle change in some way, even though I am still trying to ascertain how exactly it is that I am different. This is one of the wonderful things about writing- it allows a window of connection. Sometimes writing provides me the courage to express ideas I dare never express face-to-face. But other times writing can actually give a false spark of connection, as I have had too much time to sit and ponder the weight of each word, re-working sentences in such a way that they become more about effective writing than about emotional catharsis. When I’m speaking in person, once I’ve expressed myself, it’s all out there, usually in a totally raw form, whereas when I write, I can easily find a way to guard myself through a more deliberate choice of words. It’s vulnerability to a point. It’s blended transparency. It’s metaphor, and perspective, and truth carefully presented. There are many things I have left out of my writing. While I have tried to share small, angular views of the inside of my marriage as it has been tested in this storm, some things have been too sacred, to private, too painful to share. And certain other relationships, such as the one with my parents, I have largely left out of my writings, deliberately guarding their integrity. So, this contrived nature of my writing has led me to question: is it really about me? Am I writing for me, for my loved ones, for my friends, or for all people who experience the pain and struggle of being human?
You know, a Pastor we know recently shared in front of his congregation about a ministry leader in the church, about her personal trials, and unusual amount of recent losses. In sharing, he said that we cannot know exactly what she is going through. I hope that people do not look at me and say, “I can’t imagine what she’s going through.” I have tried, however meager that attempt has been, to make my experience with cancer as touchable as possible. In fact, a big struggle for me through this has been in feeling so alone, so untouchable. I cannot make people read my words. But I have sought to make connections with them through common experiences. After all, we’re all human. We may not have the same life experiences, but we all hurt, we all grieve, we all laugh, we all hope, we all live, and we all die. In the midst of all of that, we must find connection. The Apostle Paul wrote: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:15-16). When we say we cannot know, or do not want to know what others are going through, we are missing opportunities to touch lives and to have our own lives touched. When we fail to make a connection, we fail to leave behind and take with us the only lasting and eternal thing there is.
There’s a lady I have come to know at the cancer center. I do not know her name- she’s only told me it once, and I am terrible with remembering names. But the first day I met her, I knew I wouldn’t forget her. She’s the type of woman, if I could paint, that I would love to paint a picture of, sitting in the putrid pink vinyl chemotherapy chair, with her pink bandana covering her head. She’s a middle-aged woman, there for a discovered cancer in her lung. It was her first treatment when we met. We sat facing one another in the same section of the treatment area. So often I go for treatment, which is every week now, when the various patients there for a variety of ailments, and not all of them cancer, sit in the treatment chairs and avoid eye contact, or catch one another glancing, but are too embarrassed, or shy, or afraid to make a connection. No one speaks. We all talk to the nurses- they’re “safe”, they’re “familiar”. But rarely have I seen the patients talk to one another. Well, this woman was there, across from me, her first treatment, and within minutes we start talking. Her emotions being dammed by a thin shred of ego, she cannot control it, and her defenses topple, leaving evidence of the wreckage on the cancer center floor. Her husband recently had a heart attack, and is not only still too disabled to work, losing income, he cannot physically operate at his pre-heart attack level, meaning that the routine tasks he used to be diligent in handling around the house are going undone. She just got diagnosed with cancer and has weekly treatments to get through. So they have to sell their house- their “dream house” that they had worked so hard and so diligently to earn. It is more house than they can handle right now. She is in tears. And I feel so incompetent in consoling her, readily dismissing her “emotionalism” and an unfortunate side effect of chemotherapy.
I see her every week, and always make a point to speak with her. She swallowed her loss as well as anyone could be expected to, and she continues to show up for her regular chemotherapy. This past week I noticed that as she sat in that chemo chair, in a different section than I was this time, and surrounded by other patients not speaking to her, she was shrinking. Her hair is totally absent. Her face is sunken and ashen. She has lost a good amount of weight. And she is so totally alone. I caught her on my way out. I told her she looked like hell. But I also told her how strong she is. Her eyes welled with tears, and my eyes welled with tears- a connection. I knew her pain. She wanted so desperately for somebody to notice that she is shrinking in that chair, that cancer and it’s treatment is swallowing her up, if not physically, emotionally. I noticed. And I know that I’m not the only one. But her tears told me that I may have been the only one to acknowledge that she is not dead yet, that her struggle and her will to live is obvious. Most people intentionally look away from it. This is why I continue to write- not because I am a bigger saint for touching the lepers, but because I want people to know they’re not alone, and I want to make them touchable to others. Connection.
And yet I am firmly convicted that finding and making connections is not the singular purpose of my cancer. I have always held that in me, that need to make connections, to defiantly embrace negative circumstances in hopes of becoming a stronger person. So my purpose in writing is connection, and my purpose in cancer seems to be subtly blending itself into my soul. God knows exactly why, and my faith has been challenged because I do not. I find myself wrestling with Him again, discontent and unwilling to let go of Him (my cancer). I visited the story of Jacob’s wrestling with God again, and the story is haunting: So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”(Genesis 32:24-26). I am waiting for the blessing. Bless me, Oh Lord. Sanctify me.
Always in His Grace,