“So much of faith has so little to do with belief, and so much to do with acceptance.”
-- Christian Wiman’
I was talking with a friend the other day about how we cope with the uncertainty of illness. And about how cancer makes us feel so vulnerable. Her fear and paranoia about a possible (although unlikely) return of cancer was palpable. Because once our world is shaken with a previously unfathomable diagnosis it is hard to return to confidence or to that state of blissful ignorance we once had toward our health. Instead we become vigilant, noticing every little cramp and shadow in our bodies. Nothing is taken for granted again.
In some ways, that notion is a good thing. We don't want to live an indifferent life. But, conversely, the idea that we can take nothing for granted might create an obsessiveness of worry. Fretting runs us in the opposite direction of a contented life. It's a bit of a conundrum. and also a balancing act. We need to be mindful of our health but also we want to regrow our confidence in life, rebuild faith in our bodies and find acceptance in the new normal of life after cancer diagnosis.
Later that night, my son and I had a conversation about how to overcome the challenges that arise in life and why some people bounce back better from adversity than others. No one lives an easy life. There will always be storms. They come from within us as well as from without. It’s a tremendous obligation to be responsible for your own life. In my struggles and challenges overcoming adversity is really about making peace with whatever situation is before me. It’s how I respond and react that indicates whether I will overcome a particular challenge. I learned this the hard way through my journey with cancer.
But no matter how many lessons I receive in this regard I still feel like a novice — learning again for the first time. There’s an “aha moment” or a “here I am again” moment. And eventually I quit fighting against my perceived obstacle and instead try to return to the practice of acceptance, of acting but not controlling, of breathing. This practice of acceptance builds my resiliency, my buoyancy.
And so I practice, over and over again.
Today is the fifth year anniversary of my diagnosis with stage III cancer. The aggressive cancer threatened my life, caused chronic, impactful consequences, and sometimes still haunts me. But it also set me on a path to Buoyancy. Tonight I go to the Midwest Independent Publishing Association Book Awards Gala. Buoyancy, a memoir is a finalist in the autobiography/memoir category. I am so honored. And so grateful to be here writing these words five years out from my first steps on this journey.
Cancer threw me into a vortex, agitated and spun me around until I was completely disoriented—and then spit me back out into vaguely familiar, but eerily not-quite-right territory. In writing and assembling this memoir, I felt the absurdity of trying to make sense of the messiness of disease, of trying to cram the entirety of my experience into a tidy, outlined format, to impose expository control on the discombobulation of cancer and create order out of the bedlam of disease. It’s near impossible.
The mornings are the hardest. I am disoriented from a dream of walking my dog in the rain. In the dream there are huge puddles. I don’t know which way to go. Some kids are playing catch nearby. A child misses and the ball rolls to my feet.
Suddenly I am awake with the realization of an unfamiliar and heavy weight. Various body parts ache. The emotions begin to swell. I feel the guilt of abandoning my kids and the pain I’ll cause my husband. I am overwhelmed with every maudlin thought from the trite why me, why now to the desperate, despairing sadness of my grandchildren growing up not knowing me, of my husband remarrying, of my children without the rudder of mom. All the things I wished to do, the woman I hoped to become pour in through the gaping wound of emotional exhaustion. I spiral out of control for maybe 10 minutes before I cannot stand it any longer.
I get out of bed and do the little things that add up to a daily life. I take care of the dog who is so practical. Cancer or not she needs to pee, to eat, to get a biscuit because she’s a good girl. All of this I do regardless of the weight that grinds away at me. I make tea and, surprisingly, there is still happiness in the cup. I eat oatmeal.
I try to find the calm and strength that had stabilized me the night before. But it has disappeared. I realize it is something I have to create anew every day, piece by piece. It is something of my own making, my own design. It’s not inherent or innate in me. I have to choose it, define it, and design it again and again. This realization is daunting but it is my task now. Build the calm.
And then somewhere in the night it is knocked down again. So I start each morning with the weight, the dog, the tea, and my task before me.