48: Happy Cancer-versary

48: Happy Cancer-versary

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Happy Cancer-versary

How beautiful a day can be

When kindness touches it!

~George Elliston

My “cancer-versary” was two days away. The worst parts of treatment — the surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy — were long behind me, yet I was miserable. Why? Because the part of breast cancer treatment that was supposed to be easy — just swallow a pill every day for the next five years to lower my risk of recurrence — turned out to be just as bad as the chemotherapy. The drug’s side effects left me incapacitated on the couch.

The anniversary of my diagnosis was supposed to be a day of triumphant celebration and tranquil reflection on how far I had come in the past year. I had expected to spend the day being grateful for my life and health, grateful that I was still alive to parent my young children, grateful that my hair was growing back. I wasn’t feeling grateful. I was feeling disheartened that the side effects were persisting two weeks after my oncologist had taken me off the drug. I had been a healthy, active person before my diagnosis. Was that never to be restored? I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The day before my cancer-versary, I took my seven-year-old daughter to piano lessons as usual. At the door of her piano teacher’s house, an old friend and neighbor stopped me. He and I had served on the local church’s council five years ago. I could always count on Jim to cheer me up with a funny story or news of a mutual friend.

“I need to tell you something,” Jim said with an air of mystery. I sent my daughter on ahead with her piano books. “Do you remember Marcus?” Jim asked. My mind quickly scanned over our mutual friends, but I couldn’t recall anyone with that name. Seeing my blank look, Jim continued, “He was the homeless man sleeping in the church garage five years ago.”

Then I remembered. I hadn’t known his name that Sunday afternoon five years ago when we, the church council, had learned that a homeless man was sleeping in the decrepit garage behind the church. He wasn’t a nameless, faceless stranger; he was born and raised in our little, close-knit town. His mother still lived here, and many older residents remembered him as a boy. But five years ago he returned to the community as a broken man, homeless and addicted to alcohol. These are overwhelmingly complex issues, and we — the church council — felt inadequate in deciding the best course of action to take with the man sleeping in our garage. We wanted to be compassionate but not enabling. We wanted to protect him but also address the fears of neighborhood parents. We had no idea what to do, and we left the church meeting feeling at a loss.

“Remember how you left him your sleeping bag?” Jim asked me. I did. I remembered going home after our council meeting that Sunday and returning to church with a well-worn sleeping bag from our camping gear. It was winter, and a temperature of nineteen degrees was predicted for that night. I remembered stepping fearfully into that cold, dark garage and being horrified that someone in my own town would consider sleeping on that bare, oil-stained cement floor, under that roof so decrepit that it seemed only moss was holding it together. I remembered feeling relieved to see no evidence that anyone had been there. Maybe it was all a rumor, or maybe he had only been passing through on his way to adequate shelter. I left my sleeping bag with a note saying that it was from the congregation so that, if the man did show up, he would not feel guilty taking the sleeping bag. At the time, my act seemed shamefully inadequate, like a bandage on an amputation.

I was timid about following up on my meager offering, ashamed that I might have crossed a line of propriety either with the community or with the homeless man. But after several weeks, I peeked into the garage and saw that the sleeping bag was gone. There was no way of knowing if it had reached its desired recipient or had simply been removed by a zealous tidier. That seemed the end of the story, since I heard no more news of the man.

I had completely forgotten about the sleeping bag until Jim mentioned it. “Marcus came to church this Sunday and gave his testimony,” he told me. Marcus is now sober and has a job and a home. He came to thank the church and the AA group that meets in the church building for their encouragement and support, for helping him turn his life around. “Marcus remembered the sleeping bag,” Jim said. “He mentioned how much it meant to him and he thanked the congregation for it. Now, when he speaks at local AA groups to encourage others trying to recover from addiction, he tells them about the sleeping bag.”

The day after Jim shared this story with me was my dreaded cancer-versary. Although I was still not feeling well, I did not spend the day dwelling on how harsh my life had been over the past year or how much I had lost to cancer. Rather, it was a day of rejoicing about how much has been unexpectedly gained. What a joy that a tiny act of kindness, forgotten over the intervening years, could have made a difference in someone’s life. I hope I can meet Marcus some day and tell him how he returned the favor: just as I had the privilege of encouraging Marcus five years ago during his dark days, he unknowingly encouraged me during mine by sharing his story. Happy cancer-versary!

~Sharri Bockheim Steen

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