I grew up with an Army Colonel dad. He thought I could do no wrong and told me I could do/be anything I set my mind to. His famous lines were, “ooh I bet that almost hurt,” and “drink some water and walk it off.”
I find myself crying much of the time now as I walk through my breast cancer journey. It is difficult because it feels unnatural. I was raised to be a tough cookie and pride myself on my strength both physically and emotionally. My partner tells me and others frequently how proud he is of me or how much he admires me because I am tough. While that is wonderful praise and validation, it makes it difficult to get raw and authentic and let all the emotions flow. I am supposed to be able to handle it. I am a pleaser and don’t want to disappoint anyone.
But this last week was an emotional week. Not because of cancer, but because of packing. Cancer, I am convinced, just makes everything more dramatic and emotional. Like holding a magnifying glass under a sunray to intensify the light into a super concentrated beam. Cancer is the looking glass. Life is the sunray. And the high-powered beam that eventually starts a fire is the emotional response.
I moved into my current place rather quickly 6 years ago as I was making a fast escape from my old life, that I never really took a minute to look at it. I downsized by half and left a good bit behind. Not to mention this is where I learned to stand firmly on my own two feet, to spread my wings, to decide who I wanted to be, and to discover who I really am. This is MY place. And my son’s home. Half his life has been here in this happy little place. I know the next chapter holds great happiness and promise, and God knows I have waged many a battle here, but this was MY first home. It is hard to pack it up and leave it.
Touching drawings and report cards and “All About Me” essays hand-scrawled by my little 5-year-old who is now a man-child is just evidence of how quickly time passes. And how in just a quick 6 more years, I will be packing yet again, except this time for him to move out and onward with his own next chapter. It is almost more than I can take.
What will the next 6 years look like? Goodness knows I am not where I thought I would be now, so how can I know where I will be then? And in no way does life resemble what I had planned when I had my son. That is still a hard reality to swallow. What have I shown him about life, about love, about marriage, about the kind of man to become? What “normal” has the last 6 years instilled in him? What are his preset filters now as a result of my choices, my mistakes, my missteps, my shortcomings?
When I look at the fine embroidered linen monograms on his little smocked clothes, or the beautifully engraved silver baby cups and spoons, the elegant handmade silk christening gown I thought would be worn by all my babies (it was, I just didn’t know that “all” would mean just the one. Yet another lump I still swallow), these things seem so silly to a life now that feels so uprooted from what I had envisioned. So ungrounded from tradition, so transient and passing in time. Yet these things, while material yes, are precious to me and somehow say to me, “You were here. This was your life. You tried.” They are symbols of my best intentions. Now I rely on the lessons of resilience, conviction, hard choices, short straws, smiling through the pain, looking on the bright side, and forging new non-traditional paths.
So, I am learning to let go and let the tears flow. 40-something years of bottling up everything but joy (jazz hands everyone!) has not served me well. I am hoping the next 40-something of authenticity will. I am about to have a wholesale new life and that is cause for celebration. But I must also honor and pay reverence to the one I am leaving behind, and that is the best, most effective lesson on being tough.
I finished chemo girded in my armor of strength, bolstered with my spear of resilience, and fortified by my spirit of gratitude. Looking ahead, acknowledging behind, living present.
Photography by Breezy Ritter