Tag Archives: cancer

Find It Hard to Forgive?


“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.

Can Literature Save a Life?

Harper's Ferry Statues

Literature saved my life.  Not in the way science saved my life when I had Stage 3 cancer.  But, nonetheless, literature saved my life.

I wish I could point to a single dramatic moment when it happened—like that moment when I lay on the gurney, my body marked up by the two surgeons who would take me apart and put me back together in their eternal faith that they could give me life.

Watching as they scribbled on my skin and explained to my family and me what they would do in the next six hours as I lay in an anesthetized slumber, I had a fleeting thought about all the times I’d marked up essays and explained what needed to be done to bring the writing to life.

That was nearly ten years ago, and in that time I’ve come to understand that the doctors gave my body life.  But it was up to me to live.

I marvel at the advancements in science that have changed the face—and the force—of cancer.  But even more, I look at the stars and the moon now with more of a sense of awe.  I revel in the feeling of ocean waves lapping across my feet.  I treasure the time I spend with the people I love.  Like most people who survive a life-threatening experience, I’ve learned the difference between existing and living.

Literature has always helped me live—has always made my life about more than mere existence.

During a childhood marked by poverty, I traveled to other places long before I left the state of my birth for the first time the summer after ninth grade.  In a culture where religious practice was limited to evangelical Christianity, I understood the stories of people of other faiths.  In a town completely lacking in racial diversity, I talked with writers of other races who spoke to me from the printed page.

Nikki Giovanni dances forth as the most powerful memory.  I read her poem “Nikki-Rosa” in a literature class, which begins, “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black.”  Though I was not black, Giovanni’s images, which could have come from my own early childhood, gripped me.  Like me, she had spent part of her childhood in a house with no indoor plumbing, and she took baths in “one of those / big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in.”

I remember closing my eyes after I read the first few lines, picturing the toilet in the back yard of a house we lived in for a few months when my father lost his job, thinking of my own baths in an aluminum tub in front of the open stove in the home my parents rented when Dad got his job back.  I opened my eyes and read on to discover that Giovanni and I also had in common that we had a father who drank, a sister we loved, and happy memories of birthdays and Christmases.

But I also learned from Giovanni that we were different and that those differences can loom large and make us angry at people we don’t even know—and maybe especially at people we don’t know.  She ends the poem by saying, “I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand…”

My blood rushed to my head and I held my breath when I first read those lines.  I was furious.  I felt as if she had lured me in with the secret story of the childhood we shared and then punched me in the gut.  She had hijacked my childhood and relegated me to a world of white people who couldn’t possibly understand her “hard childhood.”

When I could breathe again, I considered what might make her regard white people in such a way.  And in the days and weeks that followed, that poem sang in my head, and I began to understand that just as I didn’t know anyone who shared Giovanni’s skin color, she probably didn’t know anyone of my skin color who grew up in a house like her own.  And as I read more about her, I came to understand her a little better.

I also began to read more literature written by people of other cultures, and when I moved out of the state and became a teacher in the very diverse D.C. suburbs, I knew my students of color in a way that I would not have without Giovanni and Hurston, Allende and Anaya, and others.  And I understood that even the students who shared my skin color were often strangers to me.

Books are never a substitute for experience.  But great books can make a person who owns only a library card into a world traveler.  Great literature can lure us out of our comfortable co-existence into a jubilant celebration of the life we share on this planet.

Yes, literature really can save a life.  And in a time when we’re too often angry at those we don’t understand, perhaps literature can even save the world.

So tell me a story.  When has a great writer lured you into life?

A Mother’s Day Bargain?

Ash's Grad

I once made a Mother’s Day bargain with God.  Well, we didn’t exactly shake on it, but my heart was in the right place, and I was thinking about that whole ask and you shall receive thing, so at the time I thought it was a deal.

My daughter was three years old, and my marriage to her father had ended.  I was still in that angry stage—where almost everything was his fault.  We promised to be amicable for our child’s sake, agreeing to share custody but to have her live with me.  The dissolution of our marriage was surprisingly civil because we both adored our child.  But in my head I believed that I was the only one who could help her navigate the tortuous path of childhood.

I pleaded, God, just please let me live until she’s an adult!

And I did.

Pretty pleased that God was keeping the bargain, I looked forward with joy to my daughter’s senior year in high school.  The year began with all the excitement of senior year and college visits and planning for her future.

But just before Homecoming, at the beginning of October, I realized that the lump that I had long felt in my breast—the one that had never shown as anything on my yearly mammograms—wasn’t just another of those lumps I felt all the time.  I had once said to my doctor that I did self-exams but that my breasts always felt lumpy to me.  She told me she understood but that I should keep doing them because one day I might feel a difference.

And I did.

But not until it had time to grow much larger than the others.  I went to the doctor, and she ordered a mammogram and a sonogram.  The sonogram showed that it was cancer, and by the end of October of my daughter’s senior year, we knew it was early Stage 3, and I began a course of therapy that would end two weeks before my daughter graduated.

I was terrified.  Yes, the cancer was scary.  But even more scary was the thought that God was calling in the chips on the mom’s bargain I had made when she was three.

I didn’t tell anyone my fears for a couple of weeks.  As my daughter and my husband kept assuring me that I was going to be fine, I had a sinking feeling that I was done for.  I thanked God for keeping the bargain and asked for the strength to get through what lay ahead.

Finally, on the night before the surgery, just before I fell asleep, I turned to my husband and told him why I was so terrified.  He listened quietly while I sobbed and told him about my deal with God.

Then he hugged me to him and made me laugh for the first time in weeks.  “Honey,” he said, “I think you’re confusing God with a character in ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster.’”

Now for those of you who don’t remember that story from your literature classes, Stephen Vincent Benet tells of a farmer who, after a string of bad luck, sells his soul to the devil.  When the devil calls in the deal, the farmer is defended by a fictional version of one of America’s most famous lawyers, Daniel Webster, who bases his defense on the fact that the farmer is an American while the devil is a foreign prince.  The devil points to numerous examples of his presence and citizenship on American soil, and so Webster argues for all the beautiful things, ending with “the new day that’s every day when you’re a child.”  The jury sides with him, and Webster twists the devil’s arm behind his back and makes him promise to leave the farmer alone.  He also asks the devil to tell him his own future, and the devil tells him all the disappointments he’ll face.  Webster just wants to know whether our country, in spite of all its flaws, will prevail, and the devil grudgingly admits that it will.  Webster laughs and kicks the devil out of the farmer’s house.

On that night as I prepared for the loss of so much, I prayed a very different prayer than I usually prayed after my husband reminded me that life isn’t fiction.  I thanked the Spirit for a presence with me in the muck and asked for courage for myself and my loved ones who would take this journey with me.

It’s been nearly ten years since the night I offered that prayer—a Mother’s Day I didn’t expect back then to see—and over twenty years since I thought I was making a bargain with God.

On this Mother’s Day, I offer a prayer of thanks—for the chance to see my daughter grow up to be not only a fine young woman but a wonderful friend.  And unlike that Mother’s Day so long ago when I thought I was certain about the nature of God, I’m thankful, too, for the opportunities to learn that I’ll never have a Mother’s Day when life is a crystal vision of clarity.

Tomorrow after church my daughter, her boyfriend, and my husband will make brunch for me, and we’ll spend some time savoring what it means to be a family.  And I’ll thank God for whatever bargain landed her in my arms almost 27 years ago.  It’s a bargain I can’t even begin to understand but one that fills me with awe and joy.

So tell me of your grand bargains.

Bad Hair Day?

Estelene No Hair

Moist air day = bad hair day, I thought as I looked into the mirror this morning and watched the corners of my mouth turn down more each time I released a lock of hair from the round brush to find it still wavy despite my efforts.

Sighing and clenching my eyes shut, I put the brush down on the vanity counter and realized, not for the first time, why it’s called a vanity.  I’ll admit it, I’m vain.  I want my hair to look the way it looks when I walk out of my stylist’s salon with it freshly colored and cut.  But this morning, I looked at the gray roots and didn’t even bother to use the color wand that my stylist had given me to get me through those last few days before each appointment.

Now here’s the thing–nine years ago this month, I was about to learn what it was like to have no hair.  And one would think that after spending four months with no hair and another year waiting for it to grow back, I’d really appreciate having a bad hair day…because it means I have hair.

I had surgery for breast cancer in October 2003 and my first chemo treatment on December 4.  I remember that because my oncologist told me that unless I was among the lucky 1% of patients who do not lose their hair, I would start losing my hair three weeks to the day after the first treatment.  Now I can hear you Christians–and maybe even some of my non-Christian friends–out there calculating when that would be.  And you guessed it.  I got into the shower on Christmas morning, put shampoo into my hand and rubbed it between my palms, forgetting what my oncologist had said.  But I remembered the moment I pulled my fingers through my hair and looked down to find clumps of hair wrapped around my fingers.  I stood in the shower and cried, my tears mixing with the water from the pulsing spray from the shower head.

I stepped from the shower and wrapped my head in a towel.  When I unwrapped the towel, I found more clumps of hair stuck to the terrycloth fibers.  I pulled the wig I had bought with a friend’s help from the styrofoam head at the top of the closet, placed it on my head, and walked out of the bathroom and into my husband.  He looked at me sympathetically and hugged me.  He didn’t need to ask what had happened in the shower.

On the day after Christmas, I called On the Edge Hair Studio, my salon, and explained what had happened.  I knew that this was their busiest time of year, as clients came in to get their hair done for New Year’s Eve galas.  I asked Cathie, the receptionist, if I could possibly come in and have my hair stylist, Angie Cassagnol, shave my head.  I told her that I just couldn’t stand day after day of having my hair come out in my fingers.  “Oh, honey,” Cathie said, “you know that Angie will take care of you.”

And so, two days after Christmas, I trudged into the shop, blinking back tears as I walked toward the window lined with blinking white lights and green garland.  Cathie and Angie greeted me with a smile and complimented me on the human hair wig that cost me a year’s worth of appointments with Angie.  I smiled half-heartedly and sat down in Angie’s chair, as I’d done for years.  I looked at Angie’s thick, dark hair enviously and wished I had her talent for doing her own hair.

I took a deep breath and pulled the wig from my head.  Angie gasped, and her eyes filled with tears.  “Okay….okay,” she said.  “I’m going to have to cut it short before I can shave it.”

I made myself breathe.  “Okay,” I said, closing my eyes.  I heard the sound of the scissors snipping and finally found the courage to open my eyes.  Tears streamed down Angie’s cheeks, and I found that I could stop crying, perhaps because she was crying enough for both of us.  “It’s okay,” I said.  “You’ve told me lots of times when I was afraid to change the style that it’s only hair and that it’ll grow back,” I smiled.

When she finished, I had a boy cut.  And at that moment, we both knew that we couldn’t go on.  She had performed an incredible act of love for me, and I knew that I would never have another hair stylist.

Ultimately, it was my husband Matt who found the courage to shave my head–one of the greatest acts of love of our 21 years together.  And six months later, the hair started to grow back.

But even though I remember the pain of having no hair, which in some ways was worse than losing my breast because it was so visible to the world, I still get frustrated on bad hair days.  Until I remember to laugh at myself and thank God that the world has people like my husband and Angie, who love me even when I’m having a no-hair day.