I recently attended an informal social gathering, I guess that sounds rather lofty. It was really just a casual party, one where I only was friendly with a few in attendance. Strangely enough, several people knew me, however. I guess I should say that they knew OF me since we had acquaintances in common. We often find ourselves in such situations as our social circles expand, right?
It is sometimes awkward to be in a place where you are searching for the commonality between strangers, folks you have just met. The art of polite small talk is one that takes years to refine, I think, as you "interview for friendship," looking for what interests you might share. As I passed a group engaged in conversation, I heard one of them say, “That’s the woman with cancer.” They all turned and looked at me, offering a sympathetic smile. It stopped me short in my tracks, because, well, while it certainly was true, for the first time since I was handed this dismal diagnosis, I felt different, less than, and yes, labeled. And so, it was a rather sober dose of reality. I adjusted my wig and headed for the onion dip, but I must admit the encounter rattled me.
Disease is pretty objective, literally dis-ease, an uncomfortable place to be. It is, by its very definition, a list of physical symptoms, resulting in harm to the body. But a person is not a physical talking machine. We are, most certainly, precious souls, energy that is the spiritual manifestation of our existence. Malignant cells can take up residence in a body, the reason for which is unclear, while the real person goes far beyond a condition. I know this, for sure.
To go even further, Illness is how we respond subjectively to that sickness. And so, I have learned that I can have a life-threatening disease, but not necessarily be ill because I get to choose how I think about myself in this state of being. And that makes me powerful, giving me a little control over that which I cannot change. Goodness knows, remaining positive, upbeat and focused isn’t easy, but my state of mind is as important as the treatments prescribed. And it may be even more effective medicine than chemo. And so, yes, I struggle to avoid the emotional meltdowns, the tears shed into my pillow in the middle of the night because that only fuels the disease. But self-pity is counter productive: only through trust and optimism do we truly gather strength. Aren't we told that faith moves mountains?
I suppose these differences have become so very apparent on my weekly visits to the chemo infusion center. It is a sobering place, with patients in one large room, hooked up to various bags of poison. Many are sleeping, made drowsy by the drugs. Others read or talk in hushed whispers to the family and friends who have accompanied them, holding their hands for moral support. Everyone seems compartmentalized in their own space, lost in thought or prayers. There is no laughter, no joke telling or animated conversation. And I struggle with how the atmosphere makes me feel, wondering how healing can happen in a place that feels so hopeless, so oppressive, so filled with illness. The nurses think that I am silly as I make wise cracks to them, suggesting that they should serve margaritas, along with the poison, but they have no idea that the foolishness, the light-hearted banter is more for me than for them. They send clowns to entertain sick children. I wish they did that for adults, too. There is no make-a-wish for the grown-ups.
I recently read a story of a ninety year old woman who didn’t want a birthday party to celebrate the milestone, claiming that if people knew how old she was, they would write her off. I can empathize. Carrying the sick label carries with it those same fears, that you will become a non-person, a medical record number, as folks disappear from your life, afraid that somehow this is catchy, that this big monster will chase after them as well. And so, for now, I am fighting like the dickens to keep a bit of who I am alive, focusing on living, rather than existing, and trying to remain strong. And just in case, you may not know me, let me introduce myself. I am Paula, not the woman with cancer. I intend to be her until I take my last breath. I know of no other way.