Saturday, June 2, 2012

Alternate Endings

I celebrated my cancerversary (the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis) last week, in the middle of an already rough week.  It's hard to relive those particular memories, and all of the pain associated with the diagnosis and subsequent years of treatment.

I posted a note on Facebook about how many years I'd been cancer free, and received a lovely series of replies from friends and family congratulating me on my good health.  One of those was from the husband of a friend of mine. His wife was diagnosed a year and a half ago, and she came to me when she got sick, looking for information and inspiration.  Last year, she stood up in front of my church congregation and thanked me publicly for my inspiration, using the words, "You are a hero to me," and it caught me so off guard that I sobbed.

She died six months ago, leaving behind two young children.  One of those children is close in age to Katherine, and the other is so young that he will never remember his mother.  Her husband's congratulations were among the most gracious I have ever received, because though I know he's glad for me, he'd likely trade me in a heartbeat for his soulmate's life.

And that's not all.

Today I bumped into the friend of a friend who has been fighting cancer; the mutual friend and I were diagnosed around the same time and went through early treatment together, with the notable difference that I got better, but her cancer metastacized.  Her cancer is throughout her body, and she's been on chemo nonstop for seven years.  Her time is coming, and there is no way around it.  She was hours from death recently, and hospital interventions saved her, but the end is near.  Our mutual friend wept as she told me.  She asked, more dumbfounded than cruel, "How come you are healthy and she is dying?"

These stories sit in the marrow of my bones, along with others like them.

It could have been me.  It could have been you.

Seven years after my cancer diagnosis, and my hair touches the brastrap across my back - longer than it was before I got sick.  I have several feet of scarring related to cancer covering my body, but the scars are no longer bright red, and some of them have faded so much that it's hard to find them.  I lost two breasts, and while I still miss them, I have two new very perky breasts in their place.  I used to go to the doctor five or ten times per week, and now I go a couple times per year.

But it could have been very different.

My daughter knows who I am, and even if I died tomorrow (not in the plans, thank you very much!), she would remember me, and she would remember how deeply I love her.  I have made sure of that.  Every time I kiss her goodnight, it is a victory.  I nearly missed ever reading the children's classics to her, but we've read the Little House series and Pollyanna together, we've read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm together, we're reading Anne of Green Gables.  There was a time when she was a baby that I looked forward to reading things like that with her, and there was a time when I thought we'd never get to do that together.

I do not have the luxury of taking these things for granted.  Every time I show up for a class graduation, every time we go camping, every time we sit down to dinner, there is a part of me that is aware that I nearly lost it all.

Why is it that some live, and some die?


I look at happy marriages and think "That could have been me."

I recently read a post on Big Little Wolf's Daily Plate of Crazy about What Makes Men Tick.  The article was interesting, but it was a comment by someone named Zammo that had me spinning.  (Take a moment, check it out.)  He gave a list of what "all" men wanted from marriage, a formula if you will for a successful marriage.  It made me want to scream, because *I followed the forumula and it didn't work.*  If Zammo was right, then my marriage would be happily skipping along right now, because I did everything that I was *supposed* to do....but the damn marriage failed anyway.

I wrote a point by point refutation of what Zammo said, proving that he was wrong by the example of my own life, and then I deleted it.  I realized there was no point.  My life is what it is.  It defies simplistic logic.

I recently spent time with two different families; functional, lovely families.  I watched how they worked together, how they played together, how they parented together, how they laughed together.  I watched how they watched each other when they thought the other wasn't looking.  I saw admiration, love, respect.

It could have been me.  I wanted it to be me.

Katherine was with me, and I saw her watching, too.  It could have been us.

The longing of those moments still feels like a tightening in my chest and water in the back of my throat and a tensing of my neck.  It's a physical longing.  It is the feeling of sobbing, without tears or movement, but that gasping tightness.


I wore lingerie.  I kept our home beautiful on a shoestring.  I asked about his day, and meant it.  I did without, so that he could have more.  I kept myself attractive.  I encouraged sex.  I held my own outside interests.  I encouraged his interests.  I encouraged him to pursue his dreams.  I asked for little. I made time for the two of us, outside of family life.  I managed the home.  I was frugal.

And it wasn't enough to save our marriage.


We all know that every story might have alternate endings.

What if I'd died from my cancer?
What if I lived in a third world country?
What if I didn't have an education?
What if I was older, or younger?
What if I'd never had a child?
What if I was rich, instead of broke?
What if I had majored in creative writing, instead of economics?
What if I'd married the man who wanted to take me on his yacht around the Aegean?
What if I'd never have married Bryan?
What if I wasn't an optimist?

The questions are unanswerable.


I do not know why I got cancer, even though I was height weight proportionate, exercised, breastfed my baby, ate organic, slept in a dark room.  (The counter to each of these is a breast cancer risk, according to some.)

I do not know why I appear to have survived cancer, as I watch others die from it.

I do not know why my marriage had to fail, when it might have thrived, when I willed it with every fiber of my being to thrive.


There are no answers, of course.

I am alive, and I have friends that are dead or dying.  There is no good explanation for this, and if there is, I dare you to tell it to a woman on her deathbed.  Why me, and not them?

I am divorcing, despite all the love, care and attention I tried to give my marriage.  I've seen others who don't work nearly as hard at their marriages as I did, and yet those marriages are thriving.  Why them, and not me?


I don't know why I didn't get the alternate endings, good or bad.

But I do know this.

I am going to suck the marrow from life.  When it comes time for me to die, I will say that I have lived.

I am not going to waste my second chances.

I will be more fully myself than ever before, because I am alive, and I get that chance.  I will live my life with more love than ever before, because my painful marriage ended, and so I get another chance.  I will develop more fully, because of the pain I've lived through.

I'm alive.  And I am so damn grateful to be alive, despite it all, that I can't frame words around it.  It is GOOD to be alive, and I don't forget it, even when I'm tired, overwhelmed, frightened.


And because I love it, and because it says more about pain than any other poem I know, I'll leave you with this last thought before I ask for your input.  Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.


Readers, what alternate endings do you think about?  How do you explain why things went one way, when they might have gone another?  How do you make peace with a world that is so topsy-turvy?

And most importantly - how do you reconcile the fortune of one person with the misfortune of another?  How do you live with the fact that the Indian is dead at the side of the road, while you ride the bus?

Thank you for sharing your thoughts; I look forward to hearing them.


  1. This was a beautiful piece. I often think of that as well when I found out about the cancer I had and how it was caught unawares and luckily just in the nick of time. Life is unexpected and sometimes a gift that we have to grab.

  2. Thank you, Lee. I think that cancer prepares us for other bad days in some ways, don't you? If I survived cancer, perhaps I can survive divorce, too. I am glad you are well now. It is a gift!