It has been almost exactly 5 years since my world was turned upside down with the words “It’s cancer.” In those years, there have been many things that sustained me: my family, my friends. I know I’ve written extensively about how my girls in YSC have held me up and helped me keep it together.
But another thing that helped me through this hell-ride of cancer survivorship is the voices of other bloggers with cancer. Through the magic of the interwebs, we were able to find each other, encourage each other, and be there for each other. These voices, I could recognize from just a couple sentences of their writing, but in many cases, I could easily pass on the sidewalk without recognition,
because we never met.
Last night, another one of those voices was silenced. Lisa Bonchek Adams died because of breast cancer.
It’s a little confusing for me. Despite all these deaths I’ve experienced over this handful of years, I still haven’t learned how to appropriately grieve, to mourn these women who, for a short while, traveled this same bumpy road with me. How do I mourn someone I only know through facebook exchanges, and blog comments?
But I’m making this about me. I’m furious and sad for children who were separated from their mother, for her husband, for her real-world loved ones, as well as all the lives she touched with her words.
But she will live on through all the lives she touched. She will live on through her words, her blog, so I will close this with a quote from Lisa:
“Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”
I have this enduring image of Candice in my head. It’s not real, it’s imaginary, but there’s truth in it. She’s wearing a white Grecian gown and angel wings. No, not actual angel wings – these she crafted, right there in my imagination. She whipped up these wings from 14-gauge wire, feathers, a bolt of vintage white and gold Hollywood Regency fabric, and her emergency glitter supply. They’re fabulous. So was she.
It’s her posture that really grabs my attention: a shrug, with her shoulders and hands slightly elevated. And with that shrug, she says “Hey, I’m not one to judge. Whatevs. But it seems like going out and doing something fun would be a better way to remember me than just sitting there on the couch.”
So I went to a party.
Ok, so it was a gathering of her friends with breast cancer, but she would have understood and approved.
We tried to wrap our heads around the fact that this bright light in our circle of friends was gone. We all wrestled with our own mortality. We talked about how difficult it is to describe Candice, and have people really understand just how awesome she was, or how deeply her absence is felt, about the urge to insist, “But you don’t understand! This was CANDICE!” Of course people didn’t understand, unless they’d met her. You only had to meet her once to really get it.
I mean, this is the girl who responded to the diagnosis of Stage IV cancer by learning to play the ukulele.
She really lived. She had a short life, 31 years, but she lived the full breadth of it.
The first time I met her she walked in bald and bold and lit up the room with her megawatt smile.
This was a support group for young women with breast cancer (Young Survival Coalition), and most of us showed up the first time not just bald, but feeling exposed, raw, and terrified – of both the cancer and the prospect of group therapy.
I remember tucking my feet up under me on the couch, and trying to hide behind a throw pillow, as if that was possible.
Not Candice. She walked in with a kind of confidence that made everyone take notice. She was even a bit giddy, asking so many questions, and even stopping to apologize for taking over the conversation. But glancing around the room, I could see the other girls were just as thrilled as I was with this new energizing personality in our group.
We all leaned forward when she spoke.
She had this big, generous spirit, ready to help out, lift spirits, or whatever was needed. But she didn’t take shit. She would call your shit out in a heart beat. I loved her for that. too.
We often discussed the bullshit that surrounds cancer, the stupid Facebook games where people pretend to be pregnant and that’s some how supposed to be supportive of people with breast cancer or spread breast cancer awareness… I could never figure out how anyone thought that would help. It just pissed Candice off. The way people tell us, “Oh, you’ll be fine, you’ve got a great attitude.” As if cancer paid any attention whatsoever to my attitude, or anyone else’s.
Candice did have a great attitude; can we just retire that particular turn of phrase?
Candice and I had this knack for getting hospitalized at the same time. She spent much more time in the hospital, but it seemed each time I went in, she was already there or showed up shortly thereafter.
This would be a bit more fun if we were roommates, or even showing up at the same hospital. But no, she went to Swedish and I went to UWMC, and then we’d sit up with our phones and laptops and text from one bed to another, laughing at the absurdity that so often accompanies cancer.
One afternoon after she was admitted to her room (I was at home) and we were chatting online when I had a medical situation come up. I called my nurse and they decided I should head straight in to the ER. Unfortunately, I was 20 miles away, and my car was in the shop.
I was still online with Candice, and she sent her husband to pick me up and take me to my hospital. Again with the absurdity as he left his wife’s side at one hospital to retrieve me and drop me off at another hospital before returning back to her.
There were so many stories like this we shared at our cancer girls party to remember Candice. We laughed. A lot. And then we got out those wild wigs that Candice rocked, and in a move we’re sure she would have loved, we each donned a wig (there were exactly enough wigs for our party) and toasted the memory of our dear friend.
I’ve been sitting on this post for nearly 3 weeks now. Partly just processing, trying to come to terms with losing my friend. But part of it is also the perfectionist in me. I don’t want to end this post right here because there are so many things I haven’t said yet – things I haven’t figured out how to say, funny stories, photos locked away in a cantankerous hard drive that I still need to retrieve, and I’m sure I could rework a few of those paragraphs a couple dozen times . . .
But I’ve got to let it go. I’ve got to get this posted, because in some odd way, withholding this post is keeping me from saying goodbye. And as hard as it is for me to say this, it’s time for me to start saying goodbye to my friend.
So I will leave you with this video of Candice Bailey and her ukulele and a friend singing “Sunshine through the Rain.”
Those were the words I wrote without thinking: “a relearning how to dream after cancer blog.” I was shocked when I looked back and saw that I described my blog in this manner. Since writing the post, I’ve gone back and stared at those words countless times. To be honest, the words make me a little uncomfortable. Those hastily written words contain truths I didn’t realize were simmering under the surface.
Friday Night I found myself on stage at Courage Night as one of five women reading our work about surviving cancer. In the Q&A session, as I was describing how my blog had evolved, I recited this line from that blog post: “CoffeeJitters has been a single girl making her way in the world blog, a wedding blog, an infertility blog, a photography blog, a quitting my job and going back to school full time blog, a wow! I’m pregnant! blog, a mommy blog, a cancer blog, ….” except I swallowed the words “a relearning how to dream after cancer blog.”
No, in a room full of cancer survivors, women I love and trust, and who understand better than any one else, I could barely voice those words I had already published. I’m still not quite sure whether I said them out loud when I was at the mic.
I am currently taking Susannah Conway’s “Blogging from the Heart” class, which is proving to be more magical that I could have ever dreamed. This class is also bringing me face to face with that line – “a trying to relearn how to dream after cancer blog.” She is asking me to dig deep, and think about the purpose of my blog. It is easy to spot the focus on gratitude and appreciation of everyday magic, but this blogging practice is also challenging me to stretch.
Just as a physical injury can leave the body bound up in a tight little ball of muscle, the emotional trauma can have a similar impact on the spirit. Yoga and stretching and movement will little by little improve the flexibility and range of the body, but it’s sometimes painful and frightening. It is work that exists entirely outside of the comfort zone. I’ve reached the point where I understand what I have been intuitively trying to do, yet simultaneously resisting – to improve the flexibility and range of my imagination, of my ability to re-dream my future.
The process is slow and difficult, but looking back I can see how I have gradualy expanded the time frame of my dreams. Since diagnosis, I’ve had trouble imagining my life more than a few weeks or months ahead. Now my dreams stretch as far as five years out. Some day soon, I’ll be able to imagine myself at my daughter’s high school graduation.
Oh, how I wish I had a picture of my dad in his old soccer referee uniform. The one that hadn’t fit for more than fifteen years, but he put it on anyways when his team needed a rally.
My dad had a way of diving in and making our interests his own. When we got into theater, he started quoting Shakespeare, and kept doing so long after we had moved on to other pursuits. Football? Football!? Once my brothers started playing football, my dad became a famous football fan in our town – the guy with the moose gooser – a cannon he lugged from game to game and fired off when ever the Palmer High School Football Team, the Palmer Moose, scored a point.
And yes, when we started playing soccer, he got into that sport as well. He helped with coaching city league teams, and eventually trained and certified to become a city league soccer referee. My dad wasn’t just a sports fan, he referred to himself as an “athletic supporter.” Of course, he couldn’t say that without snickering.
Years later we had all moved on, but Dad still quoted Shakespeare and dragged the moose gooser to all the Palmer games. And when the US Women’s team made it to the last round of the worlds cup a decade or so ago (And WON!), my dad was right there cheering them on. I went to visit my parents and found him dressed up in that old, fifteen years too small soccer referee uniform watching the game and yelling at the TV screen. But it didn’t stop there, he even flashed a yellow card at the screen.
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately. December 30th would have been my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary – if he had lived that long. I remember how much my neices and nephews enjoyed their grandpa – and he them – story time, living room forts, tickle monsters… I know there is little sense in dwelling on what is not possible, but sometimes I imagine what would have been – my daughter with her grandfather.
A friend of mine was going through her photos recently and found a couple I had not seen before. These pictures were taken four years ago at a dear friends wedding, and they landed in my inbox right when I needed to see them (Thanks Sharon).
The first photo: my two favorite men, my husband and my father. This may be the only picture we have of just the two of them.
The second photo: my husband and I with my parents.
So what little blessings have taken your breath away recently?