Most of my worst thoughts hover around a single word.
For a long time, I felt like I was the only person in the world who will die. It was the weird feeling that began in the haze of my diagnosis. I remember standing in the lobby of Duke Hospital, waiting for them to admit me. I was talking on the phone to my friend, Margaret, with my hand on the window.
“I feel like I’m behind glass now. And you’re all on the other side.”
Even today I still feel it in the moment between shaking someone’s hand and the spark of recognition in their eyes. Oh, it’s YOU. And then they cock their heads to one side like sorrowful cocker spaniels.
It is true that there are some things I’m always going to have to do alone. It’s the deep breath I take before they put in a fat needle into the port in my chest. It’s the sinking feeling in my stomach when the doctor holds the test results. It’s the catch in my throat when I watch a little baby curved into the dip of a new parent’s shoulder.
I am locked inside this body, which is failing me. And it keeps me from breaking through, back to the life I want.
But this is also the truth: I am never alone. You are with me.
I come home and there are cookies in my mailbox from Katy. Last week Mandy sent me smelly pencils (called “Smencils”!) and I am hooked on the grape one. Molly made me a crossword puzzle where all the clues are drawn from American religious history trivia. Rob, my doctor friend, talks me through some recent findings. Andrea, my college roommate, e-mails me funny videos to watch during chemo and my little sister Maria sends me funny articles with titles like “Types of Guys I Would Like to Date, If Anyone Could Please Introduce Me to Them.”
I was late to a meeting the other day because at the faculty meeting I had gotten too many hugs.
These little things…..they are the cure. They are the cure to loneliness. They are the cure to self-pity. They are the cure to boredom and exhaustion. These are the little whispers: youareloved, youareloved, youareloved. I can feel it in moments of divine closeness when God seems to say, I am here. And I can feel it when I open my mailbox and my sister in Toronto has sent me brown eyeliner. She KNEW I needed brown eyeliner.
I check my e-mail and there is a note from an academic colleague who tells me a funny or a sweet or a sad story and I can hear them saying: “I am here. You are here. We are here.”
The most alone I have ever been is when I woke up from my surgery. The room was empty and all I could hear was the chirping of the heartrate monitor. The hospital had, of course, taken everything that was familiar to me. My dress I love to teach in. My ring from the man I love. All I had was my hospital gown and a carved up body I hardly recognized.
And then I saw it. Something around my wrist. It was a bracelet.
But not just any bracelet. It was a slap bracelet, the kind I played with when I was ten and they were all the rage. It was such an absurd situation, the more I thought about it. Someone had crept into my room, past security, and quietly slapped it on my wrist so I would have it when I woke up. It was bright neon. It was hideous.
And all it said was: FIERCE.
So, yes, my dears, I must be brave. But you make me fierce.