One Saturday morning, about 10 days after the last chemo treatment, my lover found a yard sale that advertised lots of women’s clothes my size. Floundering about yard sales and serendipitously finding things and (sometimes people) that relate to our lives in interesting ways is something we both love. In addition, I was in the process of starting a whole new wardrobe from scratch. Most of my favorite pre-surgery tops made me sad, looking lost on my much smaller post-op frame and though I was feeling dizzy and weak I was determined not to miss this chance.
By the time we made it there, the woman who had the sale had sold many of her items already and the first wave of yard sale customers had come and gone. As we checked out what was left, we got to talking to her and it turned out that, like me, she was from Germany. Her clothes and shoe size was very close to mine and I tried on several of her outfits in her garage. She kept complementing me on how tiny I was and that she too once had the same figure. Eventually, I shared with her the reason for my recent change in body fat. 🙂 She said: “Oh, you probably don’t want to hear this, but my mother died of breast cancer when she was 41”. Honestly, no, I didn’t! But here it was again, the ever present reminder of how close cancer is to all of us. So many are touched by it, if not within themselves then within their family or community. Turns out Iris was 18 when her mother died, but her younger sister was only 5 years old at the time. “My mother actually found the cancer early. She was nursing my sister at the time and went to see the doctor about a lump in her breast. But the doctor dismissed it as nothing and it was not until 3 years later that the cancer was found. By then it was too late…..”
There are so many stories that I have heard since I have been diagnosed. In some way it doesn’t surprise me anymore. In some other ways it still does. Being visible as a cancer patient in the outside world, marks me as vulnerable and mortal. It also reminds people that life really is precious and impermanent. Not everyone exactly likes to know that. Even though life has a 100% mortality rate, most people prefer to ignore their basic human condition and take their lives for granted – literally, not receiving it as a gift, but as a given. This sense of owning our lives actually creates a false sense of security. Of course, life is never in our control. A lot of human suffering is directed toward supporting the illusion of control over our lives to foster a sense of safety. Ultimately, all attempts to assure our minds that we are in charge are futile. Deep within our human DNA we know that life is ever fluid and changing, unbeknownst to our interpretations and subject to change at any minute of any day.
After I picked out some clothes that look like good additions to my wardrobe, I pay Iris and thank her for her very reasonable pricing. She says: “I wish you good luck! I do hope things work out for you.” , smiling awkwardly. I am taken aback. There is this funny feeling left in the air, some kind of a unspoken but distinct separation between us. I am the one in need of luck. She has seen cancer kill her mother. She is (presumably) healthy and I am in unknown territory. I want to say to her that my prognosis is very good. That I will be fine. That we are ALL mortal, not just me….!!! For a moment I feel sorry for myself. I want to be back in the “healthy people club”, the ones that have it “all together”, that can afford to wish sick people “good luck”. I want to be back with the normal people, with the ignorant people, because it is so much easier than being so vulnerable, so on the edge of my living, so stripped down and with nothing but the commitment to live into the truth of my healing in every moment, without control in outcome and trusting into the unknown.
And yet, as we are pulling away from the curb, I realize that this is my gift now: that I am willing to be that vulnerable and naked, awakened by the journey through the fire. Truth is, I could use all the luck I could get. Life would never be the same for me after cancer, and actually I didn’t want it to. I was grateful for the opportunity to wake up. Along with a lot of pain and hardship, it had also brought incredible freedom into my life. For better or for worse, I would never be able to go back to what once was. Yes, in some bizarre way, the Damocles sword of recurrence would continue to set me free as much as it would keep me on my toes, asking me to open into moment after moment of this precious life, without being able to ‘count’ on any future but really being present NOW and NOW and NOW. Because it is all we ever have to bring ourselves truly alive.
I realized how deeply I was committed to this path, and this practice now. So what if I got tossed into the “sick corner” by some. I would gladly stand in for our human condition as vulnerable stewards of this life we are taking care of. Nothing wrong with that. Smiling to myself I finally responded silently in my heart to Iris’s “good luck” with “I kindly thank you”, feeling peace and blessedness fill my heart while my lover turns toward me, from the driver seat, his eyes tender. ‘”You okay?” he asks. ” Yes”, I respond, “never better”.