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Beyond Expectations: Gratitude for Those Who Kept Showing Up

by Rebekah McNamaraPatient, Marginal Zone Non-Hodgkins LymphomaMarch 26, 2024View more posts from Rebekah McNamara

Beyond Expectations: Gratitude for Those Who Kept Showing Up

As a military spouse, making and keeping friendships is often challenging. The constant moves and short time in any one location often make it hard to make and maintain friendships while moving from base to base. In January 2018, my husband received orders from the Army, notifying us that he’d been reassigned to work in Manhattan, New York. Four months later, in May 2018, we packed up and moved our family from Eastern Maryland to Brooklyn, New York. As a seasoned Army spouse, I knew we needed to be near other military families, and the closest military installation to Manhattan was Fort Hamilton, located in Brooklyn.

By then, we’d been a military family for 18 years and had lived in Maryland twice. In all the moves over all the years, living in Maryland was the closest we ever came to living in a state that felt like home. Most of our military friends and family cycled regularly in and out of Maryland as a permanent duty station or for training. So, it naturally became the place we’d all return to periodically. It became a place to continually connect with our military family. If home is where the people are, this is our home. For this reason, leaving Maryland and the friends we came to know as family felt even harder.

In the first four months we’d been in New York, my husband and I had both started our new jobs, and the kids were settling in at school, working on meeting people and making new friends. My husband and I had made a few military friends at Fort Hamilton. However, we were still very much in the early stages of finding our people when we received the devastating news that I had cancer.

Life as a military spouse never felt stable; it was like we could never settle down and put down roots in a new place. With every move, I felt like I was still holding on to the friends and family I left behind at our last duty station while simultaneously working to settle in and meet people at the new location. All the while knowing we could be notified anytime that it was time to move on to a new duty station. This constant cycle is something military families know all too well and understand that orders to move could come at any time. It’s never easy, but it is something that you eventually get used to.

In some ways, it’s a blessing because military families have friends and family worldwide. While in others, it can be highly challenging.

Military families are constantly forced to start over every couple of years. Since we’re all used to this recurring cycle, having been there ourselves, many seasoned military families go out of their way to welcome new families as they arrive. Military families can typically dive quickly into new friendships. Still, at the same time, our guard is always up in self-preservation, knowing we could leave at any time. So, while we can easily make new friends, those relationships often start off feeling superficial. It takes time to break down that wall and really let people in at a deeper level.

That wall was just starting to come down for my husband and me around the time I was diagnosed. Though we were new to these friendships, I guardedly shared my diagnosis with our new friends. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be so profoundly vulnerable with people I was just getting to know. Still, at the same time, these were the only local people we had to turn to. Initially, we tried to continue to grow these new friendships. Still, as I got deeper and deeper into treatment, I realized that I didn’t have the energy to continue investing in new relationships when my whole world felt like it was crumbling around me.

I was in full-on survival mode—so I acted out of self-preservation and pushed them away. At the time, the weight of my diagnosis felt so heavy. It was too much to bear…so how could I share that burden with new friends? They’d only just met me. How could I ask them to hold the weight of my diagnosis? Worse yet, what if I let my guard down and fully shared myself with these people I barely knew, and they let me down? Could I handle the pain of a failed friendship while simultaneously fighting for my life?

I wasn’t so sure. I have been burned before, really hurt by people who I thought were my closest friends. So, at the time, this all felt too much to risk being vulnerable and potentially be left feeling worse than if I’d never opened up. After my diagnosis, life as I knew it felt different. As if someone had pressed the pause button on living. I was going through the motions, but I wasn’t living. If I felt like I was unable to move forward in life, how could I move forward in friendships when I was facing my own mortality every day?

I couldn’t let them in. So I didn’t.

Instead, I pulled myself inward and leaned solely on my husband and myself. Only when my husband insisted that he needed to get out, connect, and feel normal would we go. Even then, I was just going through the motions for him. Everything felt like a reminder of the life that I left behind with my diagnosis, one that I thought I might never get back. I guess I thought that if I stayed home, I could hide from it all and pretend it wasn’t happening. To protect my family and to try to shield them from the pain of what I was going through, at times, I pushed them away too. In hindsight, it was unfair for me to assume that we could manage our own pain while supporting one another through one of the biggest challenges of our lives.

I did my best to push them all away, but several of my new friends showed up and kept showing up for me. I didn’t deserve them. I was doing all the things to push them away. To build walls and to block them out. But they kept showing up. They called—sometimes I called back. They invited us to events and outings—I usually didn’t go. They dropped off food and offered to drive me to appointments. They visited me in the hospital after my surgery. They drove my kids to and from sports. They drove me into the city and sat with me at urgent care. They called. They kept calling. I didn’t deserve them, but they kept showing up.

I look back and see how fortunate I am to have so many wonderful people in my life. There were people who wanted to be there for me. The same people that I tried really hard to push away. I’m so fortunate to have friends and family who stood by my side throughout my diagnosis, treatment, and the aftermath as I figured out how to live again on the other side. I sincerely appreciate my family and friends’ patience, support, and continued understanding. Despite my best efforts, they never stopped showing up for me; I am forever grateful for that.

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