“You’ve changed since you had cancer.”
It was two years later. My hair had grown back, though it was shorter than I’d ever worn it. I’d gained back some of the weight I’d lost. On the surface I looked much as I had before months of chemotherapy and radiation.
My colleague wanted to believe I was normal, and she seemed to take it as a personal affront that I didn’t approach life and work exactly as I once had. This comment was the culmination of a string of unkind remarks she’d made to others that had been repeated to me by people she thought she could trust to keep her confidences. She was right. I had changed. Just not in the way she meant.
I seethed, but I was smart enough to keep my face in neutral, to put on my fragile professional veneer as best I could, to breathe. But inwardly, my immediate reaction was to think, I hope you have cancer some day so you can find out what it’s like.
I tried to stifle my instinct. I don’t mean that, God. Forgive me.
“You’re right, I have changed,” I said, with only a slight edge to my voice. “But not in the way you mean. I’m still good at my job. I just have less patience for pettiness than I once had.”
I supervised 22 staff members and taught 100 teenagers each day. When my oncologist had suggested that I try to reduce stress, perhaps take up yoga, I had laughed ruefully, “The only way I can lower stress is to get a different job.”
I loved teaching. Full of energy and life, my students actually made me forget for a few hours that I’d survived Stage 3 cancer. Dealing with adults? I had little energy for it.
When, a few weeks later, I dissolved into tears in a stressful meeting, I knew it was time for a change. It took me another year to figure out what position in a school system could possibly be less stressful and still offer some fulfillment. I still miss students. But I haven’t for one minute missed supervising adults.
Now, as I’ve reached the ten-year mark as a survivor, I’m able to admit that there was some truth to what my colleague said. And I know now that once cancer survivors look normal, most people want to forget the illness and the struggle of the crisis they helped us weather. Otherwise, it’s just too hard to face the capriciousness of fate that can change or end life in an instant.
I struggled for a long time to forgive her. And if I’m honest, I have to admit that the moment after her comment wasn’t the only time I wished cancer on her. But at some point I realized that my resentment for her could grow into a cancer no less deadly than the physical cancer that I’d fought so hard.
Having no desire to sacrifice my own well-being on the altar of anger, I began to work at letting go of my animosity. I prayed for forgiveness. I couldn’t bring myself to pray for her, though I remembered Christ’s command to do just that, so I settled for pouring out my hurt feelings and sitting in silence, listening for that still, small voice and the peace that passes understanding.
I have forgiven her as much as I am humanly capable of doing—with the help of a hovering Spirit to remind me that she likely faces her own challenges that I can’t possibly understand. Occasionally the resentment resurfaces, and I’m reminded that forgiveness is a process.
I’m also reminded that the Spirit sustains us in our efforts in ways that sometimes seem coincidental and a little magical. When I sat down at the keyboard to write this blog, I logged onto a music site, which usually defaults to the classic rock playlist I most often choose. Lost in my own words, I wasn’t even conscious of the tunes, until I heard the first snippet of a song that I’d heard at my church last Sunday—a song I’d looked for Sunday afternoon on the music site.
Creeping into my consciousness, Amy Grant sang, “Beautiful, the mess we are. / The honest cries of breaking hearts / Are better than a Hallelujah.”
Yes, sometimes I’m a mess. But perhaps selfishly forgiving someone else because it helps me is an acceptable beginning.
Tell me your own stories of the beautiful mess we human beings are.