“What are you most hoping for in 2020?” I asked sincerely. The pause in her reply made me wonder if another one of my extroverted inquiries had overstepped a boundary. I’d known her husband for a couple of years, but Emily and I were just getting to know one another.
“A year of cancer-free,” she said with a mix of grim and hope on her thin face wrapped in soft waves of blonde hair.
For over two years Emily’s husband had been battling an aggressive cancer that had refused to stop at his brain. Multiple rounds of chemo coupled with surgeries finally led to a proclamation that there was presently no cancer. They both had hope that their young daughter would still see her father alive at the end of the year.
It’s been 20 years since I heard a doctor say “Stage IV” and that no chemo, radiation, or surgery could stop it. Although he carefully avoided the word “terminal,” Google gave the rest of what I obsessively wanted to know about the fate of my husband’s future and thus my own.
Eight years after John’s death, I see cancer everywhere. I see my friends anxiously awaiting lab results. I see my friends who no longer have every the part of their faces they were born with. I see the obituaries. I read that one in three Americans will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.
I strive to follow the wisdom of Byron Katie to “love what is” and not argue with reality. Cancer is a reality. Cancer “is”. But learning to “love” it is a challenge.
My first lesson came in grade school. My mother’s best friend was Margaret. Her husband Ed, who used to pay me a quarter for shining his shoes, had esophageal cancer. I learned to blend his food and put it in the tube attached to his throat. I loved the feeling of helping.
Margaret would become the first widow I witnessed after death from cancer. After that would come my mother and my sister, both of whom lost spouses to lung cancer. I love that these women taught me that even when cancer created the ruin of your existing life, that it was not the end of all of life. There remained something to love.
I love seeing the soup delivered, the company kept during chemo, the beautiful bouquets sent to console the bereaved.
I love seeing the moments cancer reveals the best in humans. The courage of seeing the doctor about a lingering lump. The vulnerability of disclosing of a diagnosis. The tenacity and will to endure years of needles and nausea. The zeal for life when one wakes up to the reality of death.
This year I pledge to love what is, and to join in Emily’s hope for the year.
What “is” in your life that you are struggling to love?
What have the darkest times of your life taught you?
What can you love today?