The first few days after I was diagnosed I thought to myself, “Ok, cancer… I might be able to squeeze you in around the edges.” As if cancer was like taking on a new activity—volunteering to help with Girl Scouts or making room for an exercise class. Maybe I was bargaining with cancer, “If I agree to let you take some of my fringe hours will you leave the rest of my life alone?”
I quickly realized that you don’t ‘make room for cancer’…at least not at first. The losses began to mount as my independence shrank—asking for help has been one of the hardest parts.
– “Could you come help with our girls this afternoon, I have an appointment?”
– “I’m going to have surgery, could you fly/drive down and stay with us?”
– “Sorry Sweet Pea you’re going to have to jump into the car on your own, mama can’t lift you today.”
– “Jeremy, my muscles keep spasming where I had the surgery” whispered in the middle of the night through tears.
– “Could you please supervise my intern? …I don’t have the bandwidth in my schedule right now.”
This journey has caused me to wonder even more about the aching of my own heart, the suffering that I’ve borne witness to as a psychologist, and the pain of this whole weary and groaning world.
“My dear, I’m seldom sure of anything. Life at best is a precarious business, and we aren’t told that difficult or painful things won’t happen, just that it matters. It matters not just to us but to the entire universe.”
I read that quote just prior my diagnosis and it came back to me right after. This pain, all our pain, it matters. Oh, it matters, it matters, it matters.
It matters because the painful things (both mental and physical) are not neutral, they change us. Suffering rearranges our hearts whether we want it to or not—whether we recognize it or not. It will change the way we see ourselves and the world.
Slowing down to let suffering matter is scary. These days, I can sometimes feel the choice: I realize that I’m not going to be able to continue life as I knew it—part of me wants to cry and another part wants to run, to move so fast that maybe I won’t feel it.
We worry that our hearts can’t hold it all… and truly they can’t. We peek over the edge of acknowledgement and think, “If I let this pain out of my mouth: I might start to cry and never stop; I might look weak; I might explode; I might never come back.”
Scary as it is to go there, I have come to be believe that if we try to block pain, numb or distract it away, we begin to harden and then there are places we can’t go—with ourselves and with others.
But if we let our hearts break, crack right open, eventually — and with care and nurture — they grow. We are somehow given passage to new places in our own soul and possibly those of others too. I am testing this again.
Words of a father who lost his son come to mind:
“I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that, dry-eyed, I could not see.”
Pain often needs many safe hands to hold it well. Holding even some pain means we must soften into vulnerability. A vulnerability that lets the pain in, sits in the tension of not knowing how it’s going to turn out, and decides to stay with it anyway.
So we honor and memorialize things for ourselves and for others. I’ve been taking pictures of the ways that cancer is changing things, both the good and the hard. Snapping photos with my cell phone as a way of tangibly telling the story, nodding to myself, “yes, it matters.”
Snap: that medical form when I checked the box indicating my history with cancer for the first time
Snap: a sparrow that reminds me that even she does not fall without notice
Snap: the steaming glass pot on the stove, as I try to become a tea drinker
Snap: My FMLA paperwork
Snap: My yoga mat with the Christmas tree behind it, returning again to this practice
Snap: Our girls dancing in the kitchen celebrating a Tuesday night for no other reason than joy
Snap: The bottle of Tamoxifen in my medicine cabinet
Snap, Snap, Snap…
We check in. We keep time with one another. Community comes close and with arms, ears, tears, texts, affirming in a million different ways, “yes it matters.”
When we let pain matter, there are bits of gold to be found, gifts that are often buried in the grief itself. Let’s let it matter, in ways both big and small.