It’s amazing how a serious health diagnosis changes your life. I don’t want to use an overly-simplified phrase like “It was a blessing in disguise” because I’m not there yet. And I really don’t think it’s that simple. I hear a lot of people throwing this phrase around, but it’s too new yet for me to assume that there will be a shiny silver lining in the middle of all the loss. It’s too soon to try to imagine the ultimate change this will have on my life. All I know at this point is that I would give good money to make it go away, to be able to wake tomorrow morning and find that it was all a horrible nightmare.
Being diagnosed with cancer at the age of forty-six seems surreal; maybe it would seem surreal at any age, but I never thought I would be face to face with my mortality in my mid-forties. I figured I had at least another twenty years before I would have to confront this morbid reality. But here I am contemplating things very dark and occasionally soul-crushing.
With these sorts of thoughts crowding into your skull, it’s hard to not feel that something has changed in how you view the world. Already I can tell that my priorities are different. Things that were once very important have been tossed to the side like clothes that no longer fit. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore that I’ve lost a pound and a half or that the new Brahmin line of purses has a gorgeous tortoise pattern available.
I’ve been very emotional since my diagnosis; everything I’ve read tells me that this is normal, but it doesn’t feel normal to cry in the supermarket because the dark red globes of the beets are so beautiful. Navigating Pinterest these days is like walking through a field strewn with land mines; there are far too many smiling dog faces or cute kittens doing cute things. And I’m not normally an emotional person. But these days the simplest, most mundane things are likely the things that will smear my face with mascara.
I find not only the possibility of death to be a constant companion, but the inevitability of change is also forever in my thoughts. My treatment regimen will consist of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and hormone therapy, all of which will bring their own changes to the party. Some of these changes will likely be temporary, but some will also be permanent. Trying to envision how I will be at the end of it all seems as iffy as picking the right lotto numbers.
Years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a poem of Rumi’s called “Childhood Friends.” In the poem, a childhood friend brings Joseph a mirror as a gift and holds it up to him saying, I’ve brought you a mirror. Look at yourself, and remember me…../Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested./Whoever sees clearly what’s diseased in himself/begins to gallop on the way./…Don’t turn your head. Keep looking/at the bandaged place. That’s where/the light enters you.
Rumi was of course addressing the spiritual wounds, the defects in a man’s soul that he should be aware of and confront, but I think that if one can read it as including both physical and spiritual wounds, it’s an even more powerful message. Instead of turning away from our wounds, we can confront them and accept them as part of us, for better or worse. The Venus de Milo is no less beautiful because Aphrodite is missing her arms. There’s something lovely about the scars of an antique; many furniture makers work hard to get a “distressed” look for a new piece of furniture. The scars and the blemishes show us that the piece has been used and loved over the years; it has witnessed decades of life and has survived into the present.
As I progress through this journey of disease and healing, I want to remind myself to not turn away from reality, to always face my illness with the full realization of what is happening. I’m hopeful that if I’m able to keep looking at the bandaged place with enough clarity, one day I will be able to view it as the place where the light enters me.