People are kind, life is good. Hold onto this for a second before you flash your middle finger. For various reasons, this past week absolutely leveled numerous friends of mine. One after another is dealing with heavy heartbreak, death, loss, physical injuries, breakups, infidelity, the complications and terror of aging parents, fertility issues, and more death and heartbreak.
The week before, everything seemed to be fine. I was doing my best to work despite nearly half the country being on vacation and then wham, a slew of emails, texts and phone calls about serious life shit. I thought, “What the fuck is happening?” and then, “The world is unraveling.” But really, life is always unraveled for someone and comfortably bound for another. For example, against this backdrop of grief and misery, I had my final cancer infusion and had my port removed. For me, these past few weeks have been the happiest, most hopeful blips in time that I’ve experienced since my husband died in August 2015*.
There’s a tradition among chemo patients that requires the aggressive ringing of a bell once we finish treatment. I got to do this (pic below) on July 23 following my final infusion of Perjeta and Herceptin, two non-chemo treatments that were required to help prevent my breast cancer from coming back.
So check out that picture and compare it with this one, a photo that was taken not long after I started chemo in January 2018.
I LOVED that the hospitals used this as my patient profile picture. Seeing myself as a turtle on its last legs every time I went to the doc was a real ego boost during a period in time in which my self-esteem was soaring.
Finally, the photo below was taken on August, 1, 2018, my 37th birthday and two days before my final chemo treatment.
This trifecta of photos was taken over 1.5 years. During that 1.5 years, there were 12 chemo treatments, a double mastectomy, the removal of 18 lymph nodes, two port surgeries, a breakup, two moves, six weeks of radiation, an emergency surgery, two weeks of home IVs, a year of Herceptin Perjeta infusions, a suicide attempt and enough anger and pain to send the whole of the US to the moon. I visited dozens of docs and therapists and had a specialist for every physical and emotional ailment you could possibly think of. I added about one hundred new coping mechanisms to the storage unit where I keep them. I held ice in my palm to calm down my amygdala. I skipped in my backyard to release trauma. I started retraining my flight or fight response. I accepted painful realizations about myself. For 1.5 years, I was attacked from both the inside and the outside intellectually, emotionally, physically and psychologically. It was fucking brutal. Every day I prayed that any and all manifestations of pain would cease and every night I hoped that tomorrow would be better.
When I was a little kid overwhelmed by whatever kids worry about, my mom would say, “Ivy, tomorrow will be better.” I am 1.5 years into tomorrow and she’s right, tomorrow is better, but every single tomorrow isn’t better and to get to the tomorrows that start to feel better, you have to get through the day. So how do you live today for tomorrow? You take one breath at a time, one step at a time and when you cannot take those steps, you let the people who love you carry you. It’s the simplest, most difficult process I’ve ever gone through, but it works.
When my husband committed suicide, my mother and possibly the rest of my family, was worried that I would follow in his footsteps. I distinctly remember standing in the bathroom screaming uncontrollably. If you had told me then, “Hey Ivy, in four years, thoughts of Jamie will not consume you. In fact, you’ll enjoy your life.” I would have told you to go fuck yourself. If you had told me then that the suicide of a spouse would become a secondary loss to something like cancer, I might have punched you. But the thing is, there is hope even in the face of extreme loss and grief and we are all far more resilient than we think we are. I promise. Hope may wither and drown and rage and shrink, but it’s part of our DNA. If it wasn’t, none of us would be here.
The other day, I started hearing British accents everywhere. It was crazy. After hearing a third group of people speak with British accents in downtown Fort Collins, I started following the accents. Not a single one was British, all American. I try not to think about the anniversary of Jamie’s death, which is August 28, but obviously my mind won’t let me. When I shared this with my mom, she said, “What a terrible time of year for you.” Yes, Jamie died in August. Yes, my last chemo treatment was in August, yes, August marks the time of year that I became a single mom, but my birthday is also in August and I finished chemo in August. I fucking love August, but I wouldn’t have last year or the year before or the year before that.
I know you’re in pain. I know it feels unbearable, but you can bear it. You are still here. You are beautiful. You are kind. You are worthy. If you put one foot in front of the other, these feelings will eventually fall out of you into your shadow and, when you get used to them resting in your shadow, they’ll become particles, parts of your past that collide with your present when you allow them to. They will no longer feel like the dictators of your future. I know this to be true because it’s happened for me.
For years I have been relying on you all to get me to tomorrow. Today, I am here and I am healthy. If you need someone to lean on, lean on me. I can do tough, I can do ugly, I can do everything in between. Just don’t give up.
*I don’t place the birth of my children in this category simply because while that day brought immeasurable joy, it was also very difficult.