My new doctor interrupted me just as tears began gathering in my eyes.
“Good timing,” I told her, stifling sniffles. “I was just about to get to a really sad part of this book, The End of Your Life Book Club.” I gave her a brief synopsis of the non-fiction book, in which a son writes about the informal book club he and his mom shared during the last two years of her life.
“Hmm,” she replied, before asking how I was doing.
Twenty minutes later, I thanked her profusely. “I just can’t tell you how thankful I am for you. I mean, where would I start?”
She smiled. “I’m in this line of work because I want to help heal people.”
I thought of our meeting as I trekked out to my car, but I was too ravenous to think very clearly. I downed some much needed protein and iron in a Del Taco parking lot before beginning my forty-minute drive back home. I flipped on the radio and was immediately catapulted back in time by the opening notes of a beloved song. Read more…
Space research: fascinating, but not an especially good use of money with our own world full of hunger and unresolved needs. That’s how I would have characterized my take on space research early last year, before I read a couple of compelling posts on its merits.
Thanks to changes in thought and heart rippling out from my reading those posts, I knew enough to stand atop a roof and watch for the space shuttle Endeavour as it passed over my office today.
That shuttle was not so very long ago among the stars. It was among the stars because we have minds great enough to dream up, create and send not only technology but life into space. With minds out there great enough to accomplish these things, I cannot help but have faith that time will see many more wonders worked both in the sky and on our own home planet.
To do things, we must first dream them. As I stood and watched the shuttle fly by, I was heartened by the vastness of human dreams, and by the amazing impacts of our drive to see them come true.
And let us hope that all the other leaders in all the other fields look up into the night sky and ask, “What do I want? Would I be happiest to see the stars from here on Earth, or to fly amongst them?”
– Kristina, “Want Versus Need…Stuff and Space“
Thanks to What I Had Really Meant to Say for this opportunity to visit with hope today as part of the Hope 2012 blog relay.
The summer my mom snapped, I didn’t understand “hope.”
What I understood that summer was that I might never talk to my mom again. That the resources available to assist the mentally ill and their loved ones were woefully inadequate. That a woman could struggle through hardship after hardship only to find new hardships where at least one iota of peace ought have been.
I pieced hope together slowly over the years that followed. Shopping for hardware with my boyfriend one Mother’s Day, I found a colorful card that reminded me of my mom. I wrote on it that she’d always been a little colorful, but that her colors made the world brighter and richer. I delivered the card to her house only to have her scream and wave a shovel at me.
My boyfriend held one of my hands in both of his own as I cried in the front seat of his car. But I, like my siblings, kept at it. I believed something might happen to change the game tomorrow, or the day after it.
I passed by my mom on a run a couple of years later. Instead of screaming at me, she told me about all the neighborhood squirrels she was caring for. I slowed my run so I could accompany her all the way to the town’s bus station. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another moment like that, so I wanted to prolong and savor it.
Hope came a little easier after that.
Conversations were a little stilted when they happened, and my mom still occasionally accused her neighbors–and her children–of bizarre crimes, but conversations did happen. It seemed, after years of struggling, we might be getting somewhere.
Then, in the middle of 2009, my sister Rache called to tell me Mom’s doctor was concerned our mom might have “the C word.” My sister couldn’t even say it the first couple of times we spoke about Mom’s early appointments, so that I misunderstood what “C word” we were talking about. It hit me like a train to the stomach when Rache finally said the word: “cancer.”
That evening, I wrote my dearest friend:
I feel like I lost my mom several years ago, so I didn’t think it was possible to feel greater sorrow on that front. But hearing that physical death may also be imminent, it’s clear there are degrees of loss. Intellectually, I understand that there’s very little hope my mom as she existed while I grew up could be regained. Apparently, though, my heart has been holding onto hope that there might be some movement that direction. With physical death, what once was and what is now are all wrapped up neatly and concluded, with no chance of semi-happy endings.
When my mom’s diagnosis was confirmed, I was devastated. For years, I had hoped, and that hope had been destroyed by a single word spoken in a single second.
I thought and thought, and I fought with myself over what was and wasn’t reasonable in light of my mom’s diagnosis.
I’d trained myself to hope. I couldn’t not hope. So what, then, could I hope for?
I hoped that my mom would live long enough to meet her first grandchild, with whom I was seven months pregnant. It was a hope replete with moments of agony and frustration that I should be limited to such a small and fleeting hope, but I clung to it. I needed it to sustain me.
My son was born. Tickets home were purchased. My mom held her grandson.
She hated how she looked, but I saw only the love.
After my mom met my son, I invested my hope in the possibility of my mom’s recovery. And yet, there came a time where it was clear that hope would not be translated to truth.
I hoped my mom would get to see my son again, but I was struggling. It was easier to tell myself to hope than to actually tend to its tiny embers and set them full aflame again.
My mom did see my son again. He brought her great joy through suffering written so clearly on her face that I couldn’t help but feel its echoes, and despair.
He brought her so much joy that, occasionally, she’d grit her teeth and try climbing unsteadily from her bed, saying, “I will survive. I will live and see him grow up. I will meet my other grandkids.”
I would smile at her and try to calm her enough to get her back in bed, and then retreat to the cold bedroom down the hall and cry, and cry, and cry.
I didn’t know what to hope, but I knew better than to share that fleeting, wild hope of hers.
A week after the last time she told me this, I wrote my friends a letter that began:
At 2:35pm yesterday, my mother breathed her last breath in the loving arms of my sisters.
The letter described many things that brought me joy, and great love for those who’d helped me through the last months of my mom’s life. What it didn’t describe was hope, for I felt hopeless, even as I wrapped up that letter thusly:
Next October 30, I will celebrate alone the birthday I shared with my mother. But she’ll be in my heart, and the gifts she bestowed upon me will carry her spirit forward in my every action, every day.
At my mom’s memorial, I caught sight of my son sleeping and felt the slightest stirrings of hope.
My mom’s final chapter had been written, but my tiny man’s life had so many chapters remaining. Imagining those chapters filled me with joy that couldn’t be touched by words, and kindled those stirrings so they began to take on their own vibrance.
As I worked with my siblings to clean out my mom’s house, I thought about all the chapters remaining my son. I saw that I, too, had many chapters left in my own life.
I chose hope. Even as I bawled, and cursed, and listened to music I hated to know my mom would never hear again, I chose to believe that there was good ahead.
I would edit one of my books. I would nurture my son’s passions. I would lend a hand to others as often as I could. I would focus not on what had been taken away from me, and the inevitability that still more would be taken away from me with time, but on all the possibilities left open to me, my son, and my loved ones. They were so, so many.
In August 2009, I believed hope was lost. In August 2012, I see that hope was simply hiding then. She was clenched tightly to herself, nestled deep within me, keeping herself safe until once again free to expand to fill me.
Hope has since unfurled and stretched herself into every piece of my life. Sometimes she retreats, but I know she will find her way back to me, and I to her. She needs me to give her my voice in this world; I need her to remember why I have a voice, and how to use it.
Hope was never lost to me. She just needed to be freed from the constraint of being tied to one place, to one situation, or to one person; for, indeed, she thrives best of all when her feet are untethered and she is allowed to wander as free and far as the human imagination extends.
Instructions for Hope 2012: A blog relay
Step 1: Write a blog post about hope & publish it on your blog.
Step 2: Invite one (or more!) bloggers to do the same.
Step 3: Link to the person who recruited you at the top of the post, and the people you’re recruiting at the bottom of the post.
Melanie Crutchfield will be holding “Closing Ceremonies” around August 10 and will gather up little snippets from people that wrote about hope, so make sure you link back to her as the originator of the relay
I call on:
“People are like stained glass windows; they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.”
– Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Many years ago, my brother asked me to picture a mutual friend of ours.
After I had her image firmly in mind, David asked, “Do you see her scars?”
I did not. Her face had seemed perfectly reconstructed in my mind before he asked; in light of his question, I felt ashamed, as if I’d been caught in the act of surreptitiously editing a work not my own.
My brother’s take was different. “You don’t picture it for the same reason you don’t really see it when you’re with her. It’s irrelevant. Her beauty shines from within, not from the specific arrangement of features on her face.”
The conversation was much more extensive than this, and my brother’s overall approach much more nuanced, but this is the part that has stuck with me. It was the part on my mind after I shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s last month.
I expected to be a wreck during the actual shaving. I also expected to be mildly chagrined by how baldness emphasized my already prominent forehead. What I didn’t expect was that I’d feel more beautiful than I ever had before.
I also didn’t expect the staring.
The day after I shaved my head, I caught a couple dozen—yes, a couple dozen—adults staring at me with eyes wide and mouths agape. I felt confident and gorgeous with my newly fuzzy head, so it was easy for me to smile back at strangers even while my discomfiture grew.
I wondered: What if I had lost my hair to cancer treatments? What if I were struggling to feel beautiful and strong in the face of the fight of my life? A fight for my life?
My stomach knotted at these thoughts, yet despite my initial chagrin, I quickly stopped noticing the stares. I even forgot that I’d shaved my head. A neighbor asked, “What did you do?!” following which I launched into an explanation about how she’d heard my son, Li’l D, screaming because I’d forced him to get off the elevator. (The nerve!)
My neighbor gestured to my hair and said, “I mean, to your hair!”
I laughed and said I’d had it shaved for a charity. With her hand to her heart, my neighbor said, “Thank God. I thought you were going through chemo.”
Once in a while, though, someone’s attention is so obvious it’s impossible not to notice. In these cases, I’ve continued my strategy of simply smiling back, an astonishingly effective means to get someone to stop staring.
Out to get lunch in the middle of a recent workday, I caught a woman staring at me with a mixture of sadness, dismay and pity so blatant, it totally disarmed me.
After a moment, I smiled at her and she looked away. For about two seconds. She then resumed staring, looking away again for only as long as I gazed and smiled directly at her.
The scenario played through my head for hours afterward. I wished I’d piped up, as recommended by blogger Counting Caballeros, “Thank you for staring. I shaved my head to raise awareness for childhood cancer, and since I obviously have your undivided attention, would you like your donation to pediatric cancer research to be cash, check, or charge?”
I don’t know what it’s like to fight cancer firsthand. I don’t know what that encounter would have felt like if I were fighting cancer right now. All I have is my imagination, and in my imagination, the feeling was horrible.
The feeling wasn’t about the hair. It was about what hair, or the lack of it, seemed to automatically represent: the presence of illness. The reminder of human mortality.
I felt an invisible wall of “otherness” being built around me as I recalled the emotions reflected in that stare, and those I witnessed right after I shaved my head.
I wondered: Would I be so different if I were fighting cancer? Would I somehow be less human, or less worthy of the common courtesies afforded someone with a full head of hair? Or would I still be me, Deb, just trying to enjoy a bite of lunch without being reminded that I’m not only fighting cancer but that I’m also now set apart in the eyes of those around me?
I can’t go back in time. I can’t redo that lunchtime encounter. But the next time I experience this, I’m going to say something. I don’t know what, exactly, or if it will be inspired by the above recommendation from Counting Caballeros, but something. Something that reminds others that I am human. That we are all human, whether tall or short, skinny or round, black or white, bald or hairy, fighting cancer or cancer-free.
And now, here, I’m going to ask you to say something if you find yourself caught in the act of staring. If you’re curious, or concerned, or just want to say, “I’m sorry, but you’re so radiant, it’s impossible to look elsewhere,” please do. Say hi. Embrace the awkwardness, for words like these connect even as they potentially embarrass us. Instead of building invisible walls between people, they are part of our building bridges of understanding.
I’m glad my neighbor asked what happened to my hair. Her words opened a dialog that brightened my day. In both asking and the way she asked, I felt that no answer I gave would’ve scared her or inspired her to treat me differently, apart from perhaps to share words of support.
If the thought of talking to a stranger terrifies you, consider offering a smile. The power of a smile is enormous.
It’s that smile that shows the light within, and all those beautiful lights within reflected outward that brighten the world for all.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.