Prepare For The Truth

The year I turned forty I was married, living in Bermuda, a stay-at-home mother to my four-year old daughter.  One morning I got out of the shower and noticed a strange, wide lump along my ribcage, snaking into my shoulder.  At first I thought that maybe I’d over-trained with weights at the gym, yet my left side was distinctly different from my right.  I called my daughter and then-husband in to see, and we immediately nicknamed it the “flank steak”, because that’s what it looked like, leeched to my side.  The cutesy name didn’t last long.  After seeing doctors on the island, they sent me to Dana-Farber in Boston for further testing.  “Isn’t Dana-Farber a cancer hospital?” I asked. “I don’t think you have cancer – it’s probably just a cyst,” the Bermuda surgeon, an ex-pat, reassured me in his thick German accent.  His surety bolstered my confidence.

My husband stayed back in Bermuda with our daughter, so I traveled solo.  I arrived at Dana-Farber on a Friday morning.

A doctor ordered an MRI.  After reading the images, the radiologist came out of her office and looked down at me lying on the table and said, “Do you have children?”

“Yes.  Why?” I answered.  The radiologist exchanged a look with her assistant and then a chill went through me.  By the end of the day I was told that I had a tumor in my chest wall, a possible soft-tissue sarcoma.  That I needed to stay the weekend and into the following week for a biopsy and further testing.

Recently I found an email I’d written from that frightening time.  I’d contacted Grant, a friend and former colleague, a cancer survivor himself.  Did he have any advice for navigating this nightmare? Here is part of his reply:

            “…you hear this all the time but cannot know how true it is until the test…deeply clarifying.  I often miss the sense of clarity – what mattered and what was small potatoes, who my friends were, what I cared about – that I had when I was sick and for a while thereafter.  Deeply bracing.

            So prepare for the truth to come flooding into your life.  It’s pretty shocking, not at all what you think it is, and impossible to explain.”

Grant’s words were prophetic and spot on.  Suddenly everything was absolutely crystal clear.  Yes, of course, I would proceed with the trip to Paris with my daughter.  She’d developed a fascination with the Eiffel Tower and I’d promised to take her to the top.  We were at the top a week later.  Of course we went, because this could be my first and last opportunity to show my daughter one of the world’s most beautiful cities.  With every ounce of strength that I had, I tried to enjoy every precious minute with her while not focusing on whether these might be some of our last times together.  No small task.  I was in agony, but pretending to be healthy and happy, because after all, my little girl was still practically a baby.  If she were to have memories of me, they should be joy-filled ones.

What matters, and what doesn’t, the small potatoes.  That weekend in Boston as I waited alone for Monday to come, I remember waking up and drawing the hotel room drapes, flooding the room with sunlight.  It was a perfect autumn day and the leaves had just turned and I stood there at the window, watching people walking down the street.  People were laughing and talking with friends, there was a father holding his small son’s hand, a woman carrying packages, hurrying on an errand.  All of them simply carrying on with the business of life, so clearly with the tacit expectation that this day was just one of many days – many more years of many more days to come.  That was me yesterday, I thought.  Everything has changed.

I asked myself questions.  If this is in fact the end, do you have any regrets?

Yes! For worrying about stupid stuff.  Like the size of my thighs!  Laughable now.

I should have eaten more, lived more, laughed more, relaxed a whole lot more, I decided that day.

What were some good decisions?  Quitting my job to stay at home and raise my daughter.  In that moment, it was the most brilliant, fortunate choice I’d been lucky enough to make.  These past four years may be the only ones we’ll ever have.

And Grant was right about the truth, too.  Not only did the truth flood into my life during that time of my tumor, but for years afterward.  Once I moved past my terror of dying, I was able to see that when your days are numbered, there’s actually little to be afraid of.  When faced with nonexistence, the fear falls away.  Eventually I was able to look more closely at my marriage, and address issues that I’d been avoiding for years.  My husband and I are now divorced.

Who my friends are.  The people who supported me, cooked me dinners, made me laugh and cheered me on.  That has stayed with me ever since.

After surgery and four weeks’ recovery in the U.S., I returned to Bermuda.  The same German surgeon who’d sent me to Boston, now oversaw the next phase of my recovery.  I reminded him that he’d been wrong – this hadn’t been a cyst – and what if the tumor grew back?

“There are no guarantees.  You didn’t have one before you got sick, and you don’t have one now,” he answered, and his words rang true.  I had lived the first forty years of my life like those people walking down the street in Boston, the ones that I’d imagined believed they had endless days ahead of them.  The ones who believed that they had a guarantee, but the truth is that there never is one.

Today my physical and emotional wounds have healed and I’m in good health.  I’m deeply grateful.  These days, particularly on challenging ones, I try to remember the epiphanies of that Boston weekend.  Just to be here, just to have this day, even a bad one, is an exquisite privilege.  Days when my pre-teen daughter drives me a little crazy, I try to remember to thank my lucky stars for the gift of another day, to be driven a little crazy, a little longer, by someone I love.