Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What is brave?

People have been telling me for two years that I’m brave. Brave for looking cancer in the eye. Brave for injecting myself with interferon. Brave for choosing chemo. Brave for talking about this, at all.

I usually say, “You would do it if you had to.” They always look at me doubtfully. And I’m learning what an individual choice committing to chemo is. I heard it enough when I said no in the hospital: both, “Don’t give up,” and “It would be valid if you do.” My solution is to commit to one round at a time. Two if I can handle it: that’s the space between PET scans. If I’m going to put myself through this, it only makes sense to find out if it’s working.

What then, can I say that you would do? You would make the choices that are truest to yourself, when your life is in danger. Believe it. Trust yourself. Because I am no more special than my life has made me.

I just wrote yet another thank-you letter to one of my teachers. She’s no doubt used to it now; I do it every few months. She is very, very present in this whole cancer trip. She was there when I first was diagnosed, when I was still her student.

A year before that, I was in another of her classes. And I wasn’t doing my work. She called me in to talk to me about it. I was scared. I was scared of pretty much everything, back then. I remember two things that she said: she wanted me to learn to be tough, and I was too capable to not be getting my work done.

How I got to be the age I was before either I was told or it sunk in that I was valuable, I have no idea. What I think she was really doing—and I’ve finally gotten this, three years later—is teaching me to frame experience in a way that I choose. I knew how to be a victim. I did not know how to own my own life.

I recognized the teaching as important, even though I didn’t understand it. I worked it. She helped me, when I went back to her (frequently) with either a thank-you or a question. We got through, and I got through the experience.

Then I was diagnosed. And cancer taught me more about courage than my teacher ever intended to. She was with me through everything she could be. She is, now. That’s how I know that her teaching is true.

I learned very quickly to look cancer in the eye. I will tell you easily that I hate having it now. I’ll tell you in the same breath, cancer healed me. There is no question. I was so afraid of everything, before cancer taught me not to be. Fighting for my life the first time—even though I describe it now as “practiced denial”—gave me what I need to be where I am right now, on an equal footing with every other human being, afraid of no more than anyone else is, and in the places where it counts, a good deal less.

Example: I’m meeting with my bishop next month. I did the calendar math accurately, and I’ll be sufficiently past chemo to be able to sit up and speak coherently. (I’m nauseous a week out, but I can think past it. I’ll be two weeks out, then.) I also have every right to be nervous. And there is no fear in me. I will say to him, something very much like this: “I know. I know how sick I am, and I know that we have no idea if I have time to go through this process the normal way. I know that there are other things I could be doing with the time I do have. But this is what I want. I have no idea why your blessing matters to me. But it does.”

He’ll probably say, well, God go with you. If he tells me to wait until I’m well, I’ll tell him why that’s unrealistic. That’s the only hesitation I can imagine him having. He’ll give me qualified and considered permission to enter the process, and we’ll go from there. I’ll do as much as I can, being sick literally half the time—and that’s if the chemo works.

I have no guarantees. What I have in bright, big letters is NOW. And the fearlessness that I need to live here.

Yes, I can thank cancer for that. And I do. I have had the teachers I have needed, human and biochemical. I don’t believe that God gives disease. I know that I have what I need to go through it. I have a loving, supportive community, and I have a strong enough self. And I can say this from here, knowing full well that I haven’t suffered as much as I will: if this kills me or if I live, I will be whole.


Ann said...

Thanks Kirstin -- you are also our teacher.

Caminante said...

Seventeen years into this ordination life, I still have so much to learn and am from your writings. Prayers for you today and always.

LKT said...

I'm still pondering the advice your teacher gave you. So different from my own inclination to say, "There, there, dear," and I have to say I'm impressed by the thought that the other side of the coin, "Be tough!", is also legitimate and helpful advice. Don't know if I could give it, though. I'm more of a "hang in there" kind of person so...hang in there.

Kirstin said...

@Laura: She's not saying that now. (And I agree that it wouldn't be appropriate.) She's just being there. Then, before I was diagnosed, it was a totally different scene. I needed what she gave me then.

MaryC said...

Kirstin - no, you ARE special. And brave and honest - and you find a way even through your illness to teach many of us just by your example.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I usually say, “You would do it if you had to.”

So true. It's not until you're in the position of having to make the choice that you know what you can do. Grace comes with the need for it, not before.

And cancer taught me more about courage than my teacher ever intended to.

Again, true. That it's people in our lives who count, not things, stuff. Our priorities get rearranged. Don't sweat the small things. Don't waste time trying to change what we can't change. So many lessons....

Kirstin, you are grace to a good many people, and you teach us much.

Love and blessings.

Ann said...

Not ever facing something like you, Kirstin, but when quite ill I learned that it was easier to be one who has the "thing" than the family and friends around - I could rest in their prayers when anxiety visited. When my brother was dying in May - I found it much harder to be a watcher. Maybe not always true - but what happened to me.

Kirstin said...

Ann, that is DEFINITELY true.

Thank you (and all of you) for being as present here as you are.

claire said...

One night, during my stay at the hospital and awaiting the results of how much the cancer had spread (it had not), I 'saw' my life -- it looked like a forest after clear cutting. So many relationships had been destroyed, left behind. I felt I had absolutely nothing to show for my life (I was 53 then, 11 years ago). Even my heart was not mine, it was Godde's.

So I asked time from Godde. At first, I was going to say five years. Too short. Then, ten years, not enough. I ended up with thirty years. Will it be that way, i do not know. Every year, I re-enter the same twilight zone when i go for the checkup and I have a small hitch-hiker which still seems innocuous.

Ah, yes, this is the point of this comment: Cancer has taught me forgiveness and gratitude (I had read Stephen Levine's One Year To Live). Cancer has changed my life.

True, I have never had chemotherapy, just radiation therapy. But yes, as you say, Cancer is healing...

May you be healed as well in all possible ways.

JJ said...

I have also found it true that when in a difficult situation I can be/do because I don't like the other options. I find that I choose to be who I am and I make more conscious decisions about how I want to live rather than floating along without much thought. KWIM? Will I wallow? Will I abandon others to their fears? Will I say mean things or will I let love overflow? Will I let my fears change who I feel I should be, am, want to be?