It has been a long time since I last wrote. There are a few things I do when I am struggling, and refraining from writing is one of them. I also ignore phone calls, stop talking to God, and drink too much wine, in an oft-failed attempt to numb the pain. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized how bad things had gotten. For one, we had a busy summer filled with trips to see dear family and friends and milestones like Mike taking the Virginia bar, me applying to graduate school and running my first 5k, and John Paul graduating from speech therapy. Perhaps the most monumental thing that happened was that I was declared two years in remission (which is a big milestone not only for obvious reasons, but because being two years out means a greatly decreased chance for relapse.) But despite the busyness, hard work, and moments of celebration, I knew something wasn’t quite right. On the outside, I’m sure everything looked fine. In fact, I was trying hard to make sure everything looked more than fine. For, “what kind of person would I be,” I wondered, “if I continued to struggle after being given a second chance at life?” How could I admit that I was having a hard time when others have lost their lives to the very disease that I have, for some reason, lucked out at beating? Besides, wasn’t it time to just “get over it?”
But faking happiness doesn’t always make it come to fruition. And telling ourselves to move on doesn’t always make it happen. I’ve pushed through because, what else can I do with this gift I’ve been given? Yet, I’ve struggled to see the fruits of my labor. At times, it’s even seemed that the harder I work to be happy, the deeper I fall into darkness. And more than once I’ve come close to giving up and retreating back into despair.
Recently, as we were packing up our apartment in anticipation of moving into our first home, I discovered a box full of medical supplies from when I was undergoing treatment (saline to flush my picc line, medical tape, etc.) As soon I saw the contents of the box, I lost it. All of the feelings I’ve been trying desperately to pretend I’ve moved past came boiling back to the top. I cried hysterically for five minutes, and it took Mike rubbing my back and talking to me in a soft, low voice to even begin to calm me down. Like a solider brought back to the brink of battle, certain moments catch me off guard, and there are times when I still can’t erase the images, smells, and sounds of cancer, no matter how hard I try.
It was then that I realized that I needed help. I couldn’t heal all on my own, despite my desire to be self-sufficient paired with my never-ending stubbornness. And although very dear friends and family members have stood by me, offering support whenever I’ve asked for it, and even when I haven’t, but they can see that I’m struggling, seeing the pain on Mike’s face as he tried to console me made me realize that it was time to consult someone removed from the pain, someone who hadn’t cried their own tears on my behalf. So the next day, I made an appointment to meet with a therapist.
At my first therapy appointment the social worker asked me the “miracle question.” “If you could snap your fingers and make yourself feel exactly how you wanted, what would that look like?” she asked. I didn’t have to think long. For I know the last time I felt completely happy. And if you’ve read my rambling words for long enough, you probably know too: in Colorado. For many reasons, it was the time when I felt I was most approaching who I always wanted to be. I felt closer to God than I had been up unto that point. I was doing something I loved by singing at church each week, and through my singing I felt that I was helping others. And most importantly, I often found myself experiencing moments of complete and utter joy, sometimes when I was singing and immersed in worship, sometimes when I was skiing and in awe of the beauty of the Rockies, and sometimes when I was with a dear friend whom I regarded like a sister. Each of these moments brought me happiness like I’d never known, a happiness that made me feel certain of God’s presence in my life.
Since leaving Colorado, getting sick, and eventually being diagnosed with cancer, despite beautiful moments like when baby John Paul would fall asleep in my arms, or when he was a young toddler and he’d kiss me squarely on the mouth without a second thought, or now, when he dances like a maniac around the living room, it’s hard to think of moments when I’ve felt complete and utter joy without any fear or anxiety or baggage of some kind standing in the way. Perhaps what is the most different in my post-Colorado/post-Cancer life is the lack of freedom in my emotions. Something always seems to be there, holding me back from truly feeling anything without some kind of reservation.
In fact, the only time I could think of in the past few years when I felt completely free, if not explicitly joyful, was the night before John Paul was born. Ironically, this also happened to be the night I felt more fear than I ever had before. And yet, in the midst of that anxiety, wondering if I was going to die or worse, if my sweet baby boy was going to die, I felt strangely calm. I can’t credit it to any merit of my own; I know it was grace from God — a gift of the Holy Spirit, in fact — that brought me inexplicable peace in a moment of such suffering. And still, despite its strangeness, it was perhaps the most beautiful moment of my life, even more beautiful than those moments of joy I felt singing or skiing in Colorado. And so, despite my first instinct to wish for the happiness I felt in Colorado, after my therapist asked, “What would you feel right now if you could?” I began to wonder: could it be that what my heart truly desires is more than just mere moments of joy, but rather moments of contentment and peace, no matter if they are found within good times or bad or somewhere in between? And could it be that when they’re inexplicably wrapped up in the darkness and sadness that sometimes invade our lives that they’re that much more meaningful?
The day after my first therapy appointment, I drove back into the city for my second day of graduate school. My first day of my master’s of social work program had gone well, and I felt certain that I had chosen the right path after years of considering different career paths. And as I drove, I noticed that I was doing some of the things I do when I’m happy. I was grinning, even though I was alone in my car. I was singing out loud, not to just any song, but to a song of worship, music I hadn’t listened to in months. As I was singing, I wasn’t merely singing empty words, but praying. I was shocked when I realized that what I felt at that moment was pure and utter joy.
Yet, despite this breakthrough moment, it wasn’t long until I felt the weight of the past few years hit me like a ton of bricks once again. When my professor mentioned a colleague who had died of cancer during a class discussion and looked directly at me, as if waiting for my response, I felt the anxiety of not knowing if I would survive, the sadness of how much cancer can steal, and the guilt of survival hit me simultaneously. I felt pressure (admittedly self-inflicted) to give the correct response, but I didn’t know what it was. I was both frustrated at being put in that position, and thankful that my experience was being appreciated and validated. My contradictory feelings were confusing and upsetting, and I couldn’t calm down for the rest of class.
As I drove home that night, I slowly felt myself let go of the frustration I felt. Even just taking a deep breath and lowering my shoulders felt triumphant, for, although I’d felt the blinding pain once again, I’d released it.
I stopped at a red light before merging onto the highway that would take me home, and happened to look to my right, where a man lay on the sidewalk. His eyes were open, but vacant, his clothes torn, and a paper-covered bottle his sole companion. I will never fully understand the pain he feels or the path that brought him to such despair, this I know. And yet, as we locked eyes, I was overcome, not merely by sadness for his lonely state, but because I saw myself within his suffering in a way I never could have before. For I’ve now experienced the agony of lying in bed, feeling completely alone and overwhelmed by pain, and wondering if I were going to die before ever really knowing my son. And suddenly, it occurred to me that perhaps given the right channel, my pain and suffering can undergo a transformation and become a wellspring of empathy and goodwill. Even though I am indeed different from that naïve girl in Colorado, it might actually be now, made stronger and wiser with all that I’ve seen, that I am moving closer to who I was always meant to be. And with this realization, I felt the sense of contentment I’ve sought for months.
Maybe God answered my prayer, or maybe I merely allowed myself to rediscover what was always there by finally knocking down some of the walls I’ve built up amidst my pain. But either way, even for just that brief, intense moment, I felt at peace. And I want you to know, especially those of you who are struggling and wondering if you’ll ever feel at peace again: you will. It may only be for a short moment at first, and it may be more complex and layered than before, but it will come. I believe that more than anything else. There is no time limit to grief and no blueprint to healing. I am two years in remission, I can run a 5k, I can hold my son, I can flip my hair over my shoulder, and I can, for the most part, count on my next birthday, but there is still anger and sadness and pain that dwells within me. And yet, I notice the moments of contentment growing more frequent as my heart continues to rebuild itself. But just as a muscle atrophies if left to rest too long, in order to uncover a new sense of peace after trauma we must allow ourselves to truly feel everything, even the sorrowful memories we long to push deep down inside of ourselves. For it is only then that our most precious muscle will grow strong once again.
Life is not black and white. We do not always move in a linear fashion through good times and bad times; what is ever that simple? We often waver between sorrow and joy, suffering and prosperity, and it is within that tension that we must continuously seek peace. We must never give up on the beauty of the morning light, the healing power of a tender word or hug, or the power of a God who loves us and remains with us through it all. It is this truth that I hang on to and that keeps me going, and I pray that it is this same truth in the power of hope to always overcome despair that comforts you when you lose your way. And if you are suffering or struggling in any way, please know that any and all of your feelings are valid, that you are allowed all the time you might need to heal, and most importantly, that you are never alone on your journey to seek peace. I am right there with you, as is our ever-loving God.
Not always thus, I seldom looked for You.
I loved to choose and seek my path alone.
In spite of fear, my pride controlled my will.
Remember not my past, but lead me still.
So long your power has blest me on my way,
And still it leads, past hill and storm and night.
And with the morn, those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Lead kindly light, amid the gloom of evening.
Lord lead me on, Lord lead me on…
On through the night, on to your radiance,
Lead kindly light.
(Words from the song Lead Kindly Light by Steve Warner, based on the words of John Henry Newman. I believe I’ve shared this gorgeous song before, but I find myself returning to its wisdom and message of hope again and again as I continue on my journey of seeking peace. I pray it touches you as it touches me.)
Click here to hear the beautiful song, Lead Kindly Light.