There are bits and pieces of my life – of all our lives, I suspect – that can’t be parsed or parceled or wrapped up into neat packages, and so they become secrets, not in bad ways necessarily, but quiet and hidden nonetheless because I find myself at a loss for how to disassemble them in any way that makes sense while leaving them as deep and horrible and wonderful and true as they really are. I wait to talk about these pieces, usually, until I can manage to break off a piece of the story about adoption, about depression, about marriage, about faith, about the dark, about grace, about train wrecks, about my body, about kids with special needs, about LIFE. A piece that makes sense as itself, not polished or perfect, perhaps, but something that reflects the whole. That shines a light on the rest. That helps me put words to the rock that is part of the mountain or the grain that is part of the beach or the drop that is part of the ocean that overwhelms me.
But I sit here tonight, on the carpet of my hotel room, outside the bathroom which is the quietest place in the room where my children are awake past their bedtime watching cartoons and the Disney channel, and I try to put words to the mountain, to the beach, to the ocean, but I find myself a little lost. A little wandery. A little speechless. Which you can tell by all the words I’m using to say absolutely nothing at all; the sign, always, of a writer gone astray.
It’s just that my niece has cancer, and she’s had it for 6 of her 8 years of life with all of the ups and downs and what-ifs that word entails. Cancer. Which is Damn It All. And Dear Jesus, Help. Because cancer.
And tonight, in Anaheim, before we start our manic extended family Disneyland trip, terrorizing a park full of good people with our myriad children – my five rowdies plus our niece who is brave and bold and beautiful and spends a fabulous amount of time shaking her head, trying to choose between delight and dismay at her cousins’ shenanigans – I’m stuck on the floor with my butt going numb, thinking about life and about cancer and about words and stories and mountains that seem sometimes too high to cross, even a rock at a time.
There’s no piece to break off.
No way to make this story neat or tidy.
No way to shrink it down to something that makes sense.
I wrote an email the other night to a group of women who are, at the same time, strangers to me and also my friends. We’re due to meet each other in person in Portland next month, most of us for the first time, but we’ve met each other before, here, in this bloggy ether, where we’ve told true truths and revealed our real selves, and I don’t know how that’s possible without counting each other as friends.
In my message, I asked the women to introduce themselves, Reply-All style, and then they did. Except they didn’t just give their superficial stats because I think they forgot it’s more culturally appropriate to only dip our toes in the water with each other. To be tentative. To hold back.
Instead, they started writing things like this, from Elizabeth, “In addition to our living children, our oldest child died of pneumonia several years ago at age 3, and we just had a stillbirth due to terminal defects in December. I am okay, nobody freak out; I just prefer to mention this upfront.”
And this, from Jennifer, “My husband was diagnosed with lymphoma in September and we are nearing the end of his chemo. His last scan came back good. By the time we actually all meet, he will be all done (except for recovery) and will have another scan. That’s the week before we meet, so expect me to be either crazy elated or a complete wreck.”
And this, from Andrea Dillard, “Can I just say you all sound lovely? And totally intimidating? I’m not very good at groups or at introducing myself or at making friends with other women.”
I found myself at my computer, reading their stories and drinking deeply from their vulnerability and generally breaking down as I was knit imperfectly back together, because I was, at that moment, trying to juggle answering an email from a truly kind woman who doesn’t understand why I use swear words in the middle of an otherwise nice blog post and is very concerned that I’m undermining my witness for Christ… and listening to a voice mail from our pediatrician about whether anti-anxiety medication is right for the son who’s battling increasingly severe panic… and reading an email from someone outraged that I made light of the Girl Scout controversies… and planning and replanning this trip to Disneyland, a trip for which I feel guilty spending money and insanely grateful for the opportunity to spend time with my kids and my niece… and thinking about kids and cancer… and I guess I just needed help facing the mountains.
I needed help looking at the winding path up the rocky slope that disappears into the trees.
I needed help putting one foot in front of the other when God only knows if this mountain is passable.
I needed help, but I didn’t know how to even mention the mountains. The range of mountains. How to name them. How to acknowledge their vastness and my inability to surmount them.
But grace came anyway.
Grace came anyway in the form of strangers and friends sharing bits of truth, and they let me borrow little pieces of their souls to patch mine.
Which is when Jennifer wrote, “I stayed up until midnight watching mindless TV. Because cancer. I stay up late enough so that I am too tired to think when my head hits the pillow. The first time I mentioned the ‘C’ word out loud to my husband I said, ‘You have cancer. What the fuck?’ I hadn’t said fuck in five years. Now I say it every time I stub my toe or drop something. Because grace.”