I am in a day-long staff development, never a good place for me. I have a hard time sitting still, being quiet, being professionally “appropriate.” I interject, grow restless, stand in the corner and stretch. I admire the way other teachers can sit and listen and contain their restless minds–how the elementary teachers listen patiently while the speaker discusses high school standards.
I can’t sit like that. I organize my Google drive, catch up on Poem-a-Day reading, and still hear every word. I try to self-regulate. I watch the clock, limiting my comments to one per half hour.
(Years ago, after attending a monthly series of regional staff meetings together, a teacher from another county stopped me as we were leaving. “You know,” she said, her hand on my shoulder, “I have never in my life seen someone who looked like they weren’t paying attention at all who heard every word.“)
I do hear every word. I just can’t idly sit with my wandering mind. It might go to yesterday afternoon, when, in the back of a desk drawer, I found the inky footprint of my stillborn granddaughter. It might go to the recent death of my co-worker. The death of my best friend. The tests my husband Greg is about to have–since, fresh off of cancer #3, he couldn’t see the other day. My brain may scream, “HE COULDN’T FOCUS HIS EYES.”
I think it is better for everyone if I quietly read a poem
During the meeting, I messaged a co-worker who was sitting in a waiting room in St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital where his young daughter, an ATRT survivor, was having her quarterly brain scans. He texted that she was in recovery. I replied, “I’m sorry. Every time. I’m so sorry.”
What I wanted to say, what suddenly sprang from my heart, was, “I’m so sorry you have to carry this wet dog around.”
I didn’t say that, of course. Too odd, even for me. Carrying a wet dog?
I’ve sat with that analogy all summer–long enough that he is today, again, at St. Jude’s awaiting his daughter’s scans. No one I’ve run it by gets it. They don’t understand when I look at them and say, “Surviving cancer is like carrying around a big wet dog.”
But . . . picture your dog lost in the woods. He has been there overnight, and you have been searching desperately, wandering down spider-webbed trails, your good shoes getting ruined by the muddy muck near the river. And, finally, there he is–you see him on the shore’s edge–he is soaked, the water running off his matted fur in rivulets. His paw is badly hurt, but you are so happy to see him that you don’t care. You elatedly scoop him up and begin to carry him home. He smells. He is sticky and panting and soaked. Your arms ache. The walk is long–through dry creek beds and briars; you dodge broken vines and stumble over tree roots. Your dog is whining–he’s tired and hungry and hurting–but you happily carry him. You whisper into the warmth of his ear: I will take you home, and all will be well.
You will rest together. He will be in his bed. You will be in yours.
That’s the goal in Cancer Land. While well-meaning nurses may talk about survival in terms of children’s high school graduations and wedding days, the real goal is only this: everyone back in their proper place. Children in their beds, parents in theirs, under one roof.
When cancer causes you to miss that, even briefly, you realize that life’s treasure is simple: it is presence.
The ordered dinner table with every chair full–Dad, Mom, and offspring. Quiet chatter about boring days. Bickering about the last piece of chicken or who has to bathe first.
During a thirty-one day hospitalization, it’s all anyone craves: presence.
In understanding the treasure of presence, you truly comprehend the cost of loss.
The same hospital stay that teaches you to treasure a family dinner, a carpool ride, or a Monopoly game also allows you to survey the spectacle of death and sorrow. You are there when a grade-schooler gives a eulogy for his newly-dead father. When a groom diagnosed weeks after the wedding dies days before anniversary #1. When Val, who is young and beautiful and kind, dies anyway, and the nurses leave her name tag up by her empty room for days–until, when you can’t look at it anymore, you take it down.
(You still carry it in your wallet seventeen years later. You couldn’t throw it away in 2001. You are no closer to being able to now.)
If you are in the hospital long enough, you watch dozens of people die, sometimes two or three a day.
One weekend, five people die. Children die.
You still remember the wails.
It is a miracle that anyone escapes–that anyone walks away from their front row seats of sorrow and horror–and so much more of a miracle when it is you.
Miraculous to stand, to find some footing, to gather yourself and make your way past the travailing parents, their only daughter dead. To walk past the orphaned children, the people wailing, “All is lost!” To look at them, recognizing that, for them, all is truly, truly lost–yet you yourself are able to continue to walk.
To exit that place, to walk away from the helpless and leave them unhelped–it is, in some ways, the greatest sorrow of your life.
But you don’t care what it is you have to carry–how damaged or mangled or heavy your load–because you are walking flint-faced past scores of the barren and empty-armed.
Your arms are laden, and soon, you will rest.