Turning toward darkness
Why we bear witness to each other when we're not shiny, youthful and new
Last night I had a dream I was in the hospital. Bald and surrounded by dozens of other women I knew to be cancer patients, mostly decades older than me.
Like when you dream of your house, that’s not really your house…we stood next to a wall of glass windows looking out at a city that wasn’t really my city. Many of the women were writing on poster boards and they encouraged me to write something too.
Instead of picking up a marker to join them, I deflected.
I told them about the Jimmy Fund commercials that used to play at the movie theater when I was growing up. Maybe they still do. In the commercial, kids with cancer looked out big glass windows of a hospital at the steel beams of a building under construction. They wrote their names on poster boards and held them up to the windows.
The construction men working on the new building used colorful spray paint to write each name on the metal beams and the kids smiled. I think they were building a new research hospital for pediatric cancers, because the commercial changed when I got older and the new hospital was completed. When the commercial ended, someone would come down the aisles to collect money and give you a gold pin if you donated. I told the women the story so I wouldn’t have to pick up a marker and join them.
I woke up feeling a little empty. I wanted to write my name with them for someone to see it, but even from inside the walls of a hospital with other people who had cancer, part of me was still afraid to label myself with what was true.
It’s been almost exactly five months since I was diagnosed with cancer.
I haven’t written about it very publicly. I’ve mostly shared updates with a small group of friends and family on a private site. My job has been incredible allowing me to work remotely while my immune system is low during treatments and that means most people don’t physically see me aside from my coworkers on Zoom or friends and family who come to treatment every two weeks. If people could see me, it would be nearly impossible to hide the truth with my shaved head, sunken eyes, and thinning eyebrows. I would have to stand in it. People would see it.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday which has always struck me as one of the truest holy days we have in Christianity. As Glennon Doyle might say, brutiful (brutal and beautiful). I don’t always connect with Christian traditions these days, but this particular tradition has always felt sacred. It’s a day that reminds us of our own mortality—unto dust. A day that starts the season of Lent to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, facing the hard truths of his own mortality and all of the pain that comes from being human.
As Kate Bowler says, it’s a season where we “turn our faces towards the limitations of our bodies, the brokenness of the world, sickness, pandemic and war.”
There’s so much brokenness to see. And we, the broken, want to be seen. Like the kids seeing their names written on the beams.
I feel like I’ve been hiding a big part of my life because it’s not shiny and new and youthful. It’s often not happy and it can be lonely. But it’s true. Maybe it’s a bit of a cop-out to start writing about my experience with just one month of treatments left for a cancer that has a very good chance of cure. That’s ok with me. Better late than never.
We’re all so much in the wilderness right now. There is war and pain all over our lovely world and in our precious lives. In Pittsburgh we are in the midst of a false spring with a few days that peak into the 50s and early 60s and tempt us to look away from the winter that will last a while longer.
But I’m done looking away.
At least for now and as much as I can. When we ignore all of the darkness, light has little meaning. And the truth is, there’s a lot we don’t choose in this experience, but one choice we can make is to bear witness to all of it.