I Am Strong, I Am Not

By on December 10th, 2014 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

I describe my year of cancer as sleeping with an enemy, unrelenting and omnipresent. I couldn’t shake its presence, even in those brief moments of relaxation. It was always worse at night. My husband was asleep and my daughter at college, and in the darkness, the house almost silent, except for the usual creaks and groans, nothing could be denied. To the world, I presented as unsinkable. This is what my dear family and friends required. They needed their Amy back, the Amy who always marches on, through the best and the worst. Probably, I needed it, too. Everyone felt better telling me how strong I am and how I will beat it, but there, in the dark, I was terrified and helpless. There, in the dark, I talked to my dead mother and father. In spite of the usual elephant that had lived in the rooms between us — like most families, complicated love — I needed them badly. Each had died of cancer. I spoke to the empty ceiling and asked them to watch over me. Each time I went for chemo, I felt like a lamb going in for slaughter. I tried to visualize tiny resistance fighters living in my breast, my own Polish forest, beating away the Nazis inside of me. I did everything my generous supporters, others in this sisterhood, suggested. I carried my ginger candies. I took my daughter’s bean pillow and the lap quilt that was my father’s. I took my music and drank water until I was swimming. I was grateful for all of this, these rituals, almost religious, that offered me some semblance of control, deeply grateful. Still, I viewed, and still do, cancer as sneaky and arbitrary.

For me, there was no sense of a greater plan. My own brand of faith simply provided me the will to endure in the face of cancer’s randomness. Some of my friends are terminal; some have had cancer return many times. Some will die. How is this determined? Right now, a year out, I am cancer-free, but I don’t call myself a survivor. Rather, I call myself lucky.

In the meantime, those who love me needed the reassurance of optimism and the sense that all of life happens for a reason, and I do understand. And they needed to tell me that I looked great, though when I looked in the mirror, I was always surprised. I wrapped bold scarves around my head and tried big earrings and a bit of eye makeup, but during the night, a stranger had replaced my face, my being, with theirs. I thanked the well-wishers, but wanted to escape them, too. How did they know I would beat it? How could they be sure? Didn’t they know I felt as though I was living in this stranger’s body? What did I really need to hear from those who struggled for words? Oh, what a complicated question! Even now, I struggle to answer.

Yes, I was grateful for their concern and for the rallying cry of people who care. But I wanted to be known. I mean, I wanted others to know that something horrid had entered me and, at times, I was angry and frightened, and, at times, could not breathe, could not stand. Yes, I was also strong, but strength melded with fear. I wanted not pity, but for someone to just know that I felt lost and alone and definitely not warrior-like. The problem with knowing is that it also brings with it vulnerability. I could not ask my family and friends to face that; they already were, deep inside. As always, I was protecting them. Yes, yes, we do fight the cancer! Yes, we do live in crisis mode as we proceed bravely through our treatments. But it is not a war, rather a body and a soul trying to accept these circumstances and all of the accompanying feelings, including hope — hope that the medications will heal us. I could put my body into the hands of the experts and decide to trust them. My soul and my heart, well, that was less facile to treat. I still need to give a voice to that leg of my journey.

Dear readers, I would love to know how you handled the array of feelings that tag along with cancer. We are in this together, aren’t we?

Amy Small-McKinney is the author of a collection of poems, Life is Perfect (BookArts Press, 2014), and two chapbooks of poetry, Body of Surrender (2004) and Clear Moon, Frost (2009), both with Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including American Poetry Review, Cortland Review, Pedestal Magazine, Blue Fifth Review, APIARY Magazine, and Philadelphia Stories and are forthcoming in Tiferet Journal. Several poems written during cancer treatment are to be published in an anthology, Bared, by Les Femmes Folles Books. During her tenure as 2011 Montgomery County Poet Laureate, Amy founded a program using creative writing for healing. Image credit: Sarah McKinney

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