24: Bitter Sweet

24: Bitter Sweet

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Bitter Sweet

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I’m not saying you are going to die within the year, but I am saying you may not live to see your children grow up.” I am in a chair listening. I am thinking about my four young children. My surgeon is talking. We are discussing my prognosis and my pending surgery. My fortieth year is spinning into a mid-life crisis where everything is hitting the fan. Cheerful by nature, I find I am not my perky self.

When I see my first ever mammogram, the sprays of white stars with two dense clusters, tumors that look like a couple of suns against a black night sky, I am intrigued that cancer can look so pretty. I can see the concern on the faces of the people who have to give me the news and their angst that I have come alone. I have come for the test knowing I probably have breast cancer. My local doctor was convinced—my husband, still hopeful, was not.

Whatever the diagnosis, I wanted to be able to deal with cancer privately, matter-of-factly. But like every human, I have many roles: wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor. So my drama became public domain—a genuine blessing to have so many souls who care but a real burden to shoulder their fears for me.

Leaving my surgeon’s office, I hope retail therapy will cheer me. I wander a store and consider buying shoes. “They may as well be cheap since who knows how long I’ll get to wear them!” The thought makes me laugh at myself. I think about the old man who jokes about not buying green bananas anymore. I rarely allow myself the indulgence of patheticness.

I call my husband. He is stoic. We will get through this.

I think about my children. I remember I gave birth to three of my four kids without intervention—no drugs, happy gas, or epidural—my body having it out with nature, my sweet supportive husband there, the midwife to guide. I took hours of labor one moment at a time. Somehow this comforts me. I know I can be tough. My words to cling to: “This too will pass...” and my favorite quote by an inspired religious leader: “We are asked to drink of the bitter cup, but not become bitter ourselves.”

I determine to live without regret. Leaving my young family motherless is the source of my greatest fear and the source of my greatest inspiration to survive. They are my anchor.

During my chemo treatments, my five-year-old tells me a child in her class said, “One day your mom will fall over and never get back up again.” Odd how many people also told me sad stories. I am truly grateful to the wise generous souls who choose to share survivor stories. Those are the helpful ones. Not that I am averse to reality, but hope is a necessary reality for healing.

I tell my five-year-old that if anything should happen to me, she has plenty of people to love and watch over her. I realize she got the point when she says, “Yeah, you could die but that’s okay, I’d be alright....”

This was the same child to whom I gave a pair of scissors a couple of months earlier and told to have fun cutting my hair. I had long hair—I had it cut short before it fell out so the change would not be so dramatic. I figured I might as well go even shorter, so I wore a surprisingly cosmopolitan do, given by a five-year-old, for a week. With short hair falling out, I then shaved it all off. There is something liberating about taking the tiger by the tail, before the tiger pounces.

Cancer made me pause and think about the legacy I would leave my children. I created a children’s book for them. One I wished someone had given to me. A friend suggested I publish it. I felt shy about it—a cancer survivor writing another cancer book. But I did publish it and I am grateful that through it I have been able to help others. Who would have thought cancer would open this avenue to me? I had always wanted to write children’s books. I am embracing the silver lining.

These days, so grateful to be in remission, when I visit my oncologist for checkups, I pass the chemo room. My heart aches for the people in those chairs. I remember being there, feeling like I was being immersed in a pool of bleach.

I think back to the elderly gentleman I overheard kindly but firmly decline more chemotherapy, the nurse pleading with him to try another regime. I think of him because later he turned to me and asked sincerely how I was doing, and I felt his compassion, his sincere hope for the best for me. We shared a bitter cup but he offered me sweetness. His grace was amazing.

Thinking about him reminds me of what tough times can do for our souls.

~Linda McCowan

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