I know how awful you feel. How weak, nauseous, dizzy. I know that every cell in your body is hurting. Today, Marianne, is the last day of your treatments for this insidious disease.
Get ready because your mother is going to throw you a surprise party tonight. It’s because she loves you so much. It’s because the last months have been excruciating for her and all those that love you. You haven’t been able to see their struggle because the sheer effort of making it through every day has blinded you to anything else. You aren’t going to last very long at the party and you will lie in your bed listening to everyone celebrating the end of your ordeal while tears streak down your cheeks and you wonder why you don’t feel as happy, as relieved, or anywhere as close to it all being over as everyone else does.
Hold on, little one. Breathe. Lie back and let go so your body can do what it is supposed to do. It needs to heal and it will, even if you can’t believe that right now. In a few months, you’ll be packing for university and moving out on your own into a brand new phase of your life.
I wish I could reach back through time and lie down beside you, hold your hand, soothe your pain and whisper words of comfort and love in your ear.
I would tell you about the new friends you are going to make, the amazing adventures to come, the loves and the heartbreaks that await, the work you will excel at, the places you will live and that there will be so many moments where joy swells inside you and laughter erupts from your belly. I would tell you that life is going to really suck sometimes and that everything you need to survive the tough times is already inside you. I would tell you to keep dreaming big and to let those dreams pull you forward
I would not tell you that cancer is going to come for you again, and again, and again. And then another time again. I would not tell you that as bad as you feel now, there is much worse to come. I would not tell you that your body will be filled with toxic poisons that will bring you to your knees, that they are not finished burning through your skin, and that they are going to carve you up and leave your body riddled with scars, visible and invisible, that will bear witness to what it will have taken to get through the battlefield that has been more than 60% of your life.
If I told you all that you would never get out of bed again and you’d live in fear, holding your breath until the next hit knocked you over. It’s going to be hard enough with the all the check-ups, the almost yearly scares that the disease is back, the weakened lungs and the paralyzing fear that you are a freak because you can’t always be ridiculously happy to be alive. It will be hard to watch your father get diagnosed three times. It will be hard to hear that the doctors have become more concerned about treatment cancers than the one they originally treated. It will be hard to learn that inscribed in your genetic code is some yet unknown flaw that creates a window for this disease to keep coming for you.
You don’t need to know that your doctors will never let you have children, despite how hard you push the limits of medicine and demand that this dream be kept intact. You don’t need to know that the seeds of a disease you have studied in school and that is normally attributed to veterans has already started to grow inside you. You don’t need to know that you will watch a woman sitting next to you in chemo die in front of you, even as the same drug is pumped into both of your veins. You don’t need to know that you will have to watch your sister go through cancer too and feel the impotency of a caregiver. You don’t need to know that the day is going to come when your doctors look at you and say, “Marianne, there are now no other options. You just have to let us do what we need to do to save your life.” And you will let them take over, even as you know that you may never forgive yourself or be at peace with it.
None of that is important right now. What you need to hear as you lie there, not yet an adult but more than a child, wondering if you will ever feel better, is that yes, you will. I would tell you how resilient you are. I would tell you that you are capable, smart, strong and yes, brave, and that none of that is a result of having had cancer. I would tell you that all of that has always been inside of you and only came into focus when you needed it so desperately. I would tell you that you don’t need to keep telling everyone you meet that you had cancer because you believe that cancer is the thing that makes you visible in your own life. I would tell you that you can tell anyone whenever you want but that you have never, ever been invisible and that you couldn’t be if you tried. I would tell you that it’s in the understanding and trusting of your own strength that you will find hope again. I would tell you that the importance of dreams is not that they come true but that you never stop dreaming them. I would tell you that all of you is worthy of love and should not settle for anyone who shows up offering you less than you deserve.
Life is a journey and there isn’t an instruction booklet, any sneak peaks, or fast and easy detours. Only you can live your life. Only you can grow into enough courage to look at your faults straight on, take control of them, work on them and understand that you are doing the very best you can and that that is enough. Only you will be able to write your own story and that won’t be possible until you own your story and yourself and feel proud of the person you are, love the person you are.
Let’s get real. If I could I would write you up a list of steps to take and things to avoid. We should start with the bangs! No bangs. Ever. I would tell you to walk away from the guy who was in “love” with you when he was really in love with his image of who he thought you should be. I would tell you to pay attention to the signs about that job opportunity and who is offering it to you, and that you don’t have to just take what is offered you because you think you are deserving of no more. I would tell you that you will never, ever regret a trip you take and that you should take more. I would tell you that you don’t need to look after everyone else and to always make sure that you put yourself at the top of your own todo list. And I would tell you that no possession can ever be worth more than just being yourself.
I would tell you that sometimes things are going to very hard. I would tell you that your feelings are going to get hurt, that you will apologize too often, that you are going to experience humiliation, that you are going to be overcome with sadness sometimes, that you are going to question everything, and that all of that is okay because, even if you think you are the only one who has ever had these feelings, you’re not. I would tell you that you should never ever let a man demean you, silence your voice, or undermine your work just because he’s a little threatened by you. That’s his problem not yours. I would tell you that when you finally decide to risk it and fall in love with someone you have trusted forever, he is going to lie to you, hurt you, and then walk away like you never existed. The hurt will never fully go away, but at least you will have tried and you will survive. I would tell you that you are going to experience physical pain like you still can’t yet imagine and then recover. Over and over and over again. I would tell you there are good friends who are going to disappoint you and that you will disappoint some of them and that all of you will get through it whether you remain friends or not.
Marianne, you are going to screw things up so badly! You are going to berate yourself and throw yourself a lot of pity parties. You are going to get some terrible haircuts, (bangs are just the beginning of it,) buy some hideous outfits, grow a big zit on pretty much every day you prayed you wouldn’t, and you are going to make a lot of truly terrible decisions. You are going to be too independent, work at fitting in too hard, build too many fortresses, try too many times to be what you think others want instead of yourself, and spend too much time trying to figure out why you can’t see yourself the way everyone else does.
As you lie there, what I wish I could tell you most is not that there are hard times to come and that you will get through them. I would tell you that sometimes the hardships we survive eclipse the moments that make getting through them worthwhile. I wish I could tell you to pay attention because you will find the fullness and joy of life when you least expect it, when you take chances, when you stay in the moment and when you are most yourself.
You’ll find it in the wind through your hair as you lead a bunch of travellers down a great hill in Burgundy on your bike. You’ll find it in the lasting and meaningful friendships that will be forged in wine caves in Beaune and in the Cognac chais of Hennessy. You’ll find it when you tell those lungs that they can try to be a problem but that no matter how long it takes, you are getting to the top of the Deeks Lake hike, the volcano in Bali and the rocky outcrop of a huge hill in Tanzania. You will find it in letting a guy pick you up in a bar because your gut says this one could be a keeper. You’ll find it in a most important friendship that is made with someone you don’t even know yet, when that guy from the bar decides, two years later, that you’re not a keeper. You’ll find it every time you go home to France and are restored by a place that belongs to you as much as you belong to it. You’ll find it in the silky feel of cool water on your hot skin when you skinny dip before bed on sweltering, Canadian summer nights and you’ll find it in the burn in your thighs as you ski peak to valley without stopping at the end of perfect days of skiing. You’ll find it when you pack everything up and follow your dreams and move to LA. You’ll find it when you go back to school and finally see what you are truly capable of reflected in your marks. You’ll find it on California beaches, in game nights that are delightfully out of control and in dumping warm laundry on your friends’ son as he giggles uncontrollably. You’ll find it in the ardent, full kisses of the boys you will love and in the teasing that can only come from friends who have known you from before you knew yourself. You will find it everywhere. And yes, you will be surprised that you will even find it in the middle of those times that you don’t think you’ll survive. You’ll find it in so many unexpected moments, moments that will bring tears of joy, guffaws of laughter and swells of emotion. And you will treasure every one.
But for now, Marianne, just hold on. Be kind to yourself. I know you are afraid because you have lost sight of the future you just assumed you would have. I know that hope feels like the most dangerous thing in the world. I know that you feel crazy and broken and spent. As you lie in that bed, despairing and letting your fear dampen your pillowcase, you only need to know this: You are going to live. You are going to keep breathing. You are going to feel healthy again. You are going to fight back and get through things you can’t yet imagine. You are going to kick some serious ass. You don’t quit, you don’t give up, and when you need to fight, you show up, a fierce army of one.
Sleep now. Let your tired body sink into the softness of your bed. Tonight, you need to lay down your weapons, ease up on your fight. This one is won. Remember that you are more than a fighter. There is gentleness, vulnerability, sensitivity and kindness in you and you are going to have to learn to lead with those, even though your experience is going to tell you to keep fighting. Put your head on the pillow and know that you are safe, you are loved, you are more than enough, you are special and you are never alone.
Sweet dreams. Tomorrow your boyfriend is going to wake you with a handful of roses and a cake he baked himself. Treasure these moments. Take them in. Let them touch your soul. They are and always will be what you fight for and they are worth the battles.
With unending love and a promise to always show up for us,