He holds up the object in front of him with a wide smile on his face. A cookie – seemingly innocent and yet it looked enough like a breast. The first Pinktober after my mastectomy and lymph node dissection, I stumbled into ‘a bake sale for breast cancer’ and “boob cookies” were being sold – sugar cookies frosted pink with nipples.
I know exactly what he is thinking. He is chuckling quietly, lost in some sort of inside joke with himself. Except I recognize the lines along the side of his face and the laugh that resonates in his chest, instinctively sensing that this is his wicked sense of humor that is seldom revealed to others. And normally I would giggle along with him, trying not to encourage him yet smiling in both affection and amusement. Except this time I am frozen, catapulted back into memories of which he would have no knowledge. Of which he should have no knowledge because I have deliberately hidden most of those things away from him, unable to speak of them because then all of the horrors of cancer that I see when I look in the mirror might actually have occurred. The innocence in his eyes contradicts the storm that churns in my own. And through the tears I am desperately trying to hold back, I see him as he sees it barreling in on both of us. He freezes too as I tell him I need a few minutes and leave the room, retreating into a space to mourn the things that are no longer here. There is no way he could know what has actually just happened.
How could he?
The very real and grave danger of the “brave cancer warrior face” is often the lack of acknowledgement of the need to process the things that are gone. The plans and expectations for a life, a career, a family. Relationships that seemed unshakable and disappeared under the weight of a diagnosis and the threat of mortality. The way a body once behaved and functioned and looked and suddenly does not. The idea that you are healthy and strong and every day is yours to conquer, and without warning you are merely trying to survive, to breathe, from the rising of the sun until the moon takes its place.
How can you?
And yet new friendships are formed as one moves into the neighborhood where a vacancy was never expected and bonds with strangers become a lifeline. People who might not ever meet in person check in more regularly than family and the people who used to self-identify as close friends. And when days go by without a post, there is the dull sick dread in the pit of your stomach, because you know. Eventually you see the words from their loved one sharing what you already knew was coming but hoped you wouldn’t see, and you drop to your knees and sob for reasons you can’t explain to the people whose knowledge is confined to somewhere other than Cancerland.
How do you?
The words on the page tell me that grief is really just love. It’s all of the love that you have, waiting. It is poised to spring forward at any random moment, begging to be let out. To announce itself and share that this is who we are and what we have done and all of the things we could have been but no longer will be. This is the love we have to offer and the story we have yet to tell. It is the narrative that sits just at the base of your throat, forever anticipating the right moment, and yet it is words unspoken.
How can it not be?
I think about that as I come back to the room and he gently touches my head and whispers the words that he didn’t need to say. This man, who can fix anything I manage to break, cannot put back together this one thing. I reach for him, wrapping up in the stillness and feeling the rhythmic timing of his heart willing my own into the same cadence. And perhaps that is the point…it is not to be repaired but to merely let another help guide all of that love out, somehow. To draw strength from someone who recognizes when to allow space and when to sit quietly nearby while you navigate the near constant “how” of grief.
How can we do this together?