Celebrating Light and Lightness

One year to the date, we sit in a restaurant, celebrating. Paying homage to the very day, exactly 365 prior to this one, when her mammogram revealed the cancer in her left breast. I’d brought balloons tonight, bearing messages appropriate to the occasion… CONGRATULATIONS! and WAY TO GO! We catch up over pints of Guinness, although there’s not much to catch up on, as we’d been together only a few weeks before.

Frequently, our gabfest is interrupted by fellow diners, friends and strangers alike, asking what we are celebrating. So Meg tells her story, all the while her smile beaming and her heart busting with pride. Chiseled down to two sentences (thanks to her editorial skills), the story has a great tooth, a happy ending and is well worth hearing:

One year ago today, I discovered that I had cancer. We are celebrating that I have spent the past year beating it.

I lose count of the story’s telling after about nine or ten, but hugs of congratulations and cheering wishes inevitably follow.

Dinner leads to coffee, and the restaurant owner brings out a cake he’s purchased just for the occasion. We offer it to those around us, many of whom have not yet heard the story. Each politely declines the cake, but then inquires about our celebration. And once they hear the story, everything changes: they all now want to partake in the festivities. I carve while Meg delivers the slices, each piece bringing new words of joy. A woman who’d initially turned down cake for digestive reasons insists on a small piece. I love the hope!  An older couple gratefully takes two slices. We’re so happy for you! A single man lights up with surprise. Such wonderful news!

When the last slice is delivered and the conversation wanes, we quietly reminisce about the past year and the more detailed version of her story. The raw parts we keep for us.

Thankfully, the full-length cut of ‘Meg’s Cancer Story’ also has a happy ending. But within it is a sad, dark sub plot.  Because the family she’d hoped would walk with her throughout her cancer journey did just the opposite: they abandoned her. Worse, two months into her treatments, they betrayed her by selling the house in which she was living right from under her cancer-ridden, toxin-filled body. With no home, no job (chemo brain makes it nearly impossible to effectively focus on professional writing) and months of treatments yet to come – not to mention an upcoming double mastectomy and two months of radiation almost immediately thereafter, Meg endured the grueling task of packing and storing her possessions in borrowed spaces and moving into a neighbor’s guest room.

Within weeks, my happy friend went from light to darkness.

Had I not seen for myself, I could never imagine one person being forced to fight two cruel battles at the same time, along two distinct fronts. While chemicals waged war against her cancer on the battlefield of her body, a full-force attack had been launched within her heart. And this second battle created deep, seeping wounds that caused far more anguish than the first.

I bore witness to both assaults. I watched her face anger, betrayal and hurt alongside hair loss, incessant nausea and exhaustion. I watched her endure months of appointments with oncologists and radiologists, balanced with massages and therapy. I watched her simultaneously move through emotional despair and physical pain. Truly, it was not easy to watch. But I did, with eyes fully open, sitting beside her for most treatments and appointments, holding her hand and soothing her soul whenever and however I could.  At the very least, she deserved a witness. And that’s what I would be.

I was not the only person assigned to the team we called Meg’s Warriors. Others provided care and support, both financially and emotionally, including the dearest and kindest of friends who opened their home and heart to Meg for the duration of her illness, feeding her, nurturing her, nursing her. A powerful lesson that the quantity of your friends matters not, when the quality of but a few is well beyond adequate. White knights in the sub plot, quick to the rescue on the darkest of days…

Six months into her treatment, on a snowy winter morning that was sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas – days traditionally filled with family merriment and holiday cheer – we drove to the hospital. And at about the same moment in her life that Meg’s surgeon removed her breasts, Meg herself was removing the lion’s share of the anger and hurt that tore at her heart. Two days later on a brilliant, sunny afternoon, she left the hospital feeling lighter; emotionally, physically, spiritually.  Healing began that day and has since continued. The results have been a joy to behold.

From darkness back to light.

It is now May and nearly all treatment is over. With a clean bill of health and a smile that reflects the content and peace she is at last feeling, Meg and I are seated in that restaurant. Remembering it all… the lows, the highs, the darkness, and the blessings. We marvel at the journey and where it has brought her, what it has taught her. How it has simplified her life by bringing such clarity. How it has revealed the truest of friends and shown her that family is whomever we choose it to be. How it has created such lightness in her life, on so many levels.

She tells me she could not have done this without me. I tell her I would never have let her do it without me.

I plea with her never to forget the sub plot of Meg’s Cancer Story, because deep within its heart is the real heroine: not me, but her.

In the parking lot, we herd the balloons into her car and hug goodbye.

The celebration ends, and a new year begins.
It’s going to be magical. And light.