When Life Squeezes Flesh and Bone, I Do Like a River… and Flow

When a person who has never been ill is diagnosed with a life changing disease, the first days after the diagnosis can be hell… particularly when the person in question is young.

The grandmother of an old friend of mine emailed me to say her grandchild had been diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. The cancer has spread, and the recommended surgery will cause serious damage to one of her lower limbs and immune system. She is only 34. The changes to come will be even tougher on her because she has been a performer since she was a preteen. She won’t be able to do her job anymore. Some of the people in her circle have started to distance themselves from her.

She called me yesterday afternoon. I could hear tears in her voice. I let her talk about her latest doctor’s visit… gave her time to cry… waited until she asked specific questions… She made many inquiries, but in truth her last question was the one that really mattered. She wanted to know, “How will I continue to be myself when this shit is taking away all the things that make me who I am?”

“This might sound somewhat silly,” I said, “even a bit patronizing. But we aren’t what we do for a living; we are much more than that. Time will show you different ways to keep on being yourself, or to evolve into a different self that you can be proud of.” She didn’t say anything, just sobbed quietly. So I kept on going, trying to soothe. I told her about the sadness I felt when my shoulder, hip and back worsened and I could no longer do the job I loved. “But I found different things to do. You have so many great people in your life,” I said. When her sobs got louder, I stopped talking.

“He told me he needed time,” she said after a while. “He won’t call. And when I call, he lets it go to voicemail.”

I didn’t ask who he was. I knew she had been living with the same guy, on and off, for a few years. To be honest, I wanted to be a coward and just talk about something else. But I went for it. “You know, I’ve had to walk away from a lot of people over the years. Not just because of living with chronic illnesses, but because our interests have changed. Also, because I kind of had to accept that I don’t have enough energy to shoulder my pain and their anxiety. Sometimes you just have to let them go and move on. It might not be as—”

“That might be easy for you,” she said, “but not everybody can be as cold as you are.”

Her harshness took me by surprise, but I just kept on talking. “Sometimes, you’ll feel the need to lash out at people close to you. Those who care about you—and who have experienced similar situations—might even let you abuse them for a while. But the moment the mistreatment becomes too much for them to bear, they might walk away. One of the most difficult side effects of being severely ill is not physical. Even though it hurts, you’ll have to find a way to let go of those relationships that are impossible to maintain, and hold on to those willing to walk through the shit with you.”

The conversation ended shortly after that. She was no longer crying, and I could almost hear her brain-housing group processing what we had just discussed. I’m not sure how she’ll proceed from now on, but I emailed her when I woke up this morning; told her that I’m here for her… She replied with a picture of a huge black and red heart, cradling a wee pink glittery heart with stitches on it. The message made me smile. I replied with a painting of a girl flying with a giant crow, and wrote, “If your legs ever grow too weak, those who love you will be there to help you fly.” I’m hoping this wee bit of truth makes her grin a little.

Girl with Crow“Crow Girl”, by SunshineShelle