Nervous energy coursed through my body as I stepped onto the elevator. I was heading to my first radiation treatment.
“Does your shirt say, I Got This?” a voice from the back corner inquired. She was small and thin, and her steel gray hair was chopped into a no-nonsense bob.
“Yes, it was a gift,” I replied.
“So you’ve got this, even if it sucks…right?”
“And boy does it ever,” I chuckled, “But yep. I’ve got it.”
“Haha, me too, honey.”
Hours later, I stepped back onto that same elevator.
“I rode with you this morning. You’ve changed shirts,” the familiar voice said.
“Oh hi there!” I said, turning around to meet her gaze. “Yes, I went for a walk earlier and worked up a sweat. It’s so dang hot in Texas.”
“Yes, it is. Well, this is the last time I’ll have to come here.”
Not picking up on any kind of pensive tone and being unable to fully read her face that was half-hidden by a mask, I replied, “Oh yay, congratulations! Good for you!”
“Well actually…not so good for me.”
It felt as if lava were being siphoned into my throat. The tears welled as I realized my error. I knew in that suffocating moment that I had just congratulated a dying woman.
This person had literally just returned from an appointment where a doctor (I hope) held her hand and apologized profusely because there was nothing else to be done. I rattled off my own apologies in an unending loop until we reached her floor. I asked her name and told her I would pray for her.
That beautiful, courageous woman is Ruth, and her reality is the same nightmare that often keeps me up at night. In the stillness of the darkness, my monster will croon, “But what if you do all of this, and the cancer still wins?”
Yes, I have a monster. He isn’t just the cancer. He’s all of the hard things rolled into one mean son-of-a-gun. He is the fear of the unknown. He is the possibility of my children growing up without me. He is the anxiety of more scans and painful tests. He is the poisonous, joy-thieving jerk who rides on my back everywhere I go.
Some days, he feels light and manageable, and I can drown out his whispers with worship music and positivity. Other days, it’s difficult to trudge onward because I feel like I will buckle under his incredibly intrusive weight. He’s one rude dude, my monster.
There’s this thing I love about being here at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and it’s not just the peace of mind knowing I am receiving the best possible care. No, it’s something else. What I love is the brutal, unflinching transparency of people’s pain. It feels honest in a way that most places are not.
Every single person I pass in the hallway, meet in the elevator, and sit with in the waiting room has their monster on full display. It’s a sad kind of comradery that makes me feel seen and heard.
Ruth from the elevator has her monster, and it will remind her every few seconds that her story will soon come to an end. She will go home and struggle to find acceptance of this cruel, new truth.
But the thing is, Ruth’s not going to die tomorrow. She will have to resume normalcy in the days before things spiral downward. Until she can’t anymore, she will cook dinner, and pay the bills, and clean the house; all the while knowing that Death will be turning the corner to meet her far sooner than she ever imagined.
And after returning home, Ruth will be driving to visit her daughter, lost in the murmurs of her monster. She’ll be whispering another desperate prayer for a last-ditch miracle when aggressive honking will bring her back to the traffic light where she’s sitting. As she pulls forward, she will glance in her rear-view mirror to find an angry man throwing his arms around in the vehicle behind her. He’s fifteen minutes late for work.
Later, Ruth will stand in the checkout line of the grocery store where a man behind her will let out an exaggerated sigh because she’s taking far too long to thumb out the correct change. He will make muffled comments about her being a dinosaur and audibly wonder why she can’t just use a freakin’ credit card. He wants to hurry home so as not to miss the football game he’s been anxiously awaiting all week.
And then Ruth will try to make small talk with the lady at the bank who will gripe about just how extraordinarily crappy her morning has been. You see, her cleaning woman can NEVER seem to manage to arrive on time, and she’s had just about enough.
And through all this, Ruth will feel with certainty that her luck is so much worse than the driver who was late for work, the man who nearly missed the football game, and the woman whose cleaning lady had the audacity to get stuck in traffic.
None of these people know about the crushing weight of the monster on Ruth’s back, because if they did, they would probably operate very differently because a dying woman deserves better.
You see, Ruth doesn’t look sick yet. Unlike me and many other fellow cancer patients, she has her hair, and therefore, there’s no obvious sign screaming out into the world: “PLEASE BE NICE, Y’ALL… my monster is trying to kill me!”
And people ARE kinder when the demon you’re toting is of the obvious sort. I’ve noticed kindness toward me greatly multiply when my outsides started matching what was happening to my insides.
And I’m thankful for it. I’m so very thankful for all the love and kindness shown to me by the world right now. But the truth is, I was hurting a heck of a lot worse after losing my mom than I am right at this very moment.
Last October, I was at the store picking up some milk. I remember looking at the man who was next to me in line and thinking, “I may in fact die from the way my heart feels in my chest right now. I just watched the most beautiful human alive, the one who gave me life, take her last Earthly breath, and this man has absolutely no idea.”
He had no way of knowing, of course. Just like Ruth will have no way of knowing that the man honking at her in traffic has a son who is a drug addict. He was up all night trying to locate his whereabouts. This father knows deep down that being witness to his boy’s addiction is the equivalent of watching a slow-motion funeral.
Ruth also won’t know that the man in the grocery store doesn’t have one single meaningful relationship in his life. His depression spews out as rage, and he’s slowly pushed everyone away. The football game is the only thing he has to look forward to each week. On the other nights, he fantasizes about the ways he could just end it all.
And it would be easy for Ruth to judge the seemingly pretentious woman who is fed up with her maid. But Ruth doesn’t know that this woman is married to an emotional abuser, so now she quickly points out the mistakes of others hoping to divert attention from her own shortcomings.
Those people have their own kind of monsters. And while it doesn’t excuse poor behavior, it does help us view the world through a different lens if we visualize EVERYONE with these invisible hardships strapped to their backs.
People see my bald head and my lashless eyes, and they adjust the way they move in the world around me because my pain is more obvious. But physical insecurities, financial worries, depression, anxiety, grief, and additction… those aren’t always so clear to outsiders.
I pray for Ruth. I pray that the world senses the weight of her monster and helps her to carry the load. I pray that in her final days, she is showered with love and goodness. But I also pray that if she encounters something other than that, she will be able to recognize those people are just feeling the heavy weight crushing their own backs.
Cancer has taught me so much, and one of those things is to try my very best to view others the way God sees us.
Because our Creator sees every invisible monster, and He is happy to help us carry the load.
I’ve had to lean into Him more than ever this past year because I now know He WILL give me more than I can handle. That’s the whole dang point. God wants you to come to Him and ask for help with that monster on your back. If the load didn’t feel so overwhelmingly heavy, we would think we could manage alone. I’ve found that the more I turn toward Him, the quieter and lighter the thing becomes.
Something else I am learning is how to tread more lightly. My hope is that we can all be a little gentler with one another. I pray that the solidarity of the human spirit that exists within the walls of this cancer center can spill out into the real world, too.
But even when it doesn’t, I’m working on kicking my judgment to the curb. I have had a few encounters lately that were negative, and I know my pre-cancer-self would have been quick to make judgements and assumptions about the people involved. So I’m trying out this new thing where I visualize those people walking around with their own monsters unwelcomingly clutching onto their backs, nails dug in deeply.
I invite you to try it, too. Because that ugliness we so often see in the world…well, it’s really just the work of those invisible monsters who have become far too heavy to bear.