“Mommy, when they cut your boobies off, will they give you new rainbow ones?”
I recalled my three year old’s words as I stared out the hospital window with labored breath. The pings and beeps of the machines monitoring my body sang their hideous chorus, and I wondered how long a person could stay sane in a place like this without any loved ones to distract them. Not very, I decided.
I glanced down at my broken body. No freakin’ rainbows to be seen.
In less than six months time, two unexpected and seriously unwelcome things had happened. My mom had died, leaving my sisters and me behind, shattered and confused. And as we struggled to make sense of a world without her in it, I received a shocking diagnosis. I was a seemingly healthy, 36 year old mother of three, with no family history of breast cancer, but there it was, detected by a baseline mammogram.
And man, was I pissed about it.
The heat that radiated from inside me spewed out in both tears and mumbled curses.
It was Mother’s Day, and for the first time, I couldn’t phone my momma to tell her how much I loved her.
I couldn’t hug and kiss my own babies back in Virginia. I wouldn’t be able to receive the scribbly, Scotch-tape wonders they had created for me. It had only been a few days since I’d seen them, but it felt like I had been deprived of their hugs for a lifetime.
It was a sad-sorry excuse for Mother’s Day, and I was all alone with my bad attitude and desecrated body. I felt… robbed.
Just four days prior, my breasts had been cut from my body, in a desperate hope of evicting the rudest squatter of all time. During the mastectomy, a rare complication occurred, resulting in a partially collapsed lung. You can imagine having major chest surgery and then adding the inability to breathe well. Pile a lot of grief on top of that, and it left me with the most broken version of myself I’d ever known. I’m telling you, she was seriously a Debbie-Downer.
In the months to follow, I would cradle a nest of my long locks in my hands, not recognizing the woman whose reflection looked back in the mirror. I would have an anaphylactic reaction to my first chemo treatment. I would spend my 10th wedding anniversary tethered to a bag of poison. I would learn that when the doctor at home originally biopsied my tumor, he accidentally dropped malignant tissue under my skin. This created a second tumor that grew into my dermis, worsening my overall prognosis. And because of this freak occurrence, I would have to receive 20 rounds of radiation. After finishing active treatment, I would begin hormone therapy for the foreseeable future which would wreck my body in a myriad of new ways with no reprieve in sight.
All of it Bad News Bears, I tell ya.
But if we rolled all of the aforementioned things into one big ball of steaming doo-doo, THAT day, that Mother’s Day at M.D. Anderson following my surgery was more miserable than all the rest combined.
I was truly heartsick. Drowning in grief for my life before losing Mom, my life before cancer. It was as if the pain I’d been running from had finally metastasized to my mind. So there I was, alone with God in my hospital room, trapped inside a body which had betrayed me.
I tried to rationalize my way out of the hole. I told myself how lucky I was to have caught the disease early. Lucky to have had over three decades with my mom (which is more than many get). Lucky to have a community who loved and supported me. Lucky (and privileged) to have the opportunity to receive the absolute best level of treatment.
Every one of those things was true, but not one of those truths could heal the wounds that had been inflicted to my soul.
And it was then I realized that God didn’t need my forced positivity. He wasn’t buying what I was selling because He already heard the cries of my heart before I uttered a word.
If ever there was a time to drop the pretenses, it was when I was alone in that hospital with nobody but Him. And I realized He understood my anger and despair. There was acknowledgement and comfort, and not one ounce of judgment.
I felt, physically felt, His promise that it was okay not to be okay.
As a society, and I fully include myself here, we play the “Well, at least…” game so dutifully.
“Well, at least it’s not stage 4.”
“Well, at least she didn’t suffer.”
“Well, at least your children are healthy.”
I believe comparison can provide much needed perspective and positive encouragement can be helpful, but I think it’s important to point out that those who are hurting don’t need someone to pluck them from the knee-deep mud because that inevitable, muddy terrain will still be waiting for them in the future. What they need is someone to hold their hands as they trudge through it, however slow and dirty that journey may be. Just because we KNOW things could always be much worse doesn’t make the right now feel any less difficult.
And not feeling our feelings is a dangerous game because buried pain festers in the soul. It weaves its way through our insides until our outsides force us to see what we’ve been trying to ignore. Regurgitated beatitudes of blessings when we are in grief are at best, forced, and at worst, deadly.
It is my firm belief that the heavy expectation of constant positivity and gratitude results in calloused hearts, addicted minds, and cancer-riddled bodies.
And that canNOT be what any Father wants for His children.
Would it be what you wanted for yours?
My faith is so important to me, but it has grown harder and harder to continue to publicly acknowledge that I’m a Christian. It has nothing to do with Christ but everything to do with what Christian Culture has become. My hesitancy comes from not wanting my deep love for Jesus to be lumped in with those who practice a religion that feels so far away from Him. I want no part in the exclusion and ugliness I so often see masqueraded under the guise of God’s name.
And I think one of the things that bothers me the most is the charade of it all. The charade that if you don’t immediately swallow your very valid emotions and turn it back to gratitude and praise, you aren’t a faithful follower.
“Satan has ahold of you if you can’t find the bright side.” I not only find that sentiment ridiculous, I find it damaging. And it is just one of the things I’m happy to have unlearned in recent years.
And once I stopped the charade, I started to heal. I am surviving my cancer journey because I am allowing myself to hold and sometimes share those feelings without much shame— (I’d like to say any, but old habits die hard).
And in that hospital room, I promised myself that all of the feelings I had swallowed in decades past would find their way to the surface and join in the sad song my soul needed to sing.
I stayed in that hospital room for a while. And in a hotel in Houston even longer. The doctors were apprehensive about me flying so soon after an injury to my lung.
On the morning when we were finally cleared to leave, I felt anxiety like I had never experienced before. I was terrified of my lung collapsing again during the flight. As I was wheeled around the airport, bloody drains hanging from my sides, I silently prayed with every passing minute, “Please God, let me be okay. I don’t feel okay. Let me be okay.”
My sister handled my bags and steadied me as I made my way to my seat. The plane was large, the walk down the aisle, a marathon. As I groaned and awkwardly lowered myself to my chair, I tried to hide the red tubes dangling from underneath my shirt.
I explained to the woman seated beside me that I had just had surgery and apologized for being so slow. She replied, “I could tell. I’m actually a breast surgeon at MD Anderson. It feels so serendipitous to be sitting beside you this morning.”
Serendipitous, indeed. My God.
She was an answer in an airplane seat.
I breathed in and thanked Him for the answered prayer, knowing that even if something happened, I would be okay.
I don’t think God gave me cancer, but I do think He knew that through this journey, I would be able to cultivate a different kind of relationship with Him. One that’s truer and more honest and beautifully raw in a way it wasn’t before. And for that, I actually am so very grateful. My hope is, by sharing my heart, it might help someone else let go of that shame and find a new kind of closeness with Him, too.
Yes, I think positivity is important. Yes, I hope telling my story will save others. Yes, I want to make my mom’s early exit from this world mean something by honoring her in the best way I know how. And yes, I am deeply grateful for my life being saved.
But in the moments when I don’t care about the purpose, and I just need to grieve what’s been lost, without fear of seeming ungrateful, I know God will be right there with me… a gentle presence by my side.
I have another surgery in a few weeks. I’ll be back in a hospital room, and while my body has done a lot of healing and is being slowly reconstructed, I still won’t wake up to rainbow boobies. And I expect I won’t be filled with constant gratitude “just to be alive” like many have said I should. I will curse and cry when it comes, and I won’t berate myself for feeling it all.
Because my God knows my heart, and He’s going to show up for me anyway.