It’s not that anyone attains perfection, but after living with ourselves our entire lives, we learn what to expect. We know our highest levels of performance, our areas of strengths and unique gifts. We pride ourselves in these attributes and strive to be the best we can.
Then debilitating illness strikes. We’re not who we were. A lesser version of ourselves has abducted our bodies and settled in like it owns the place.
We wait to recover. Get back to normal.
But what if we don’t?
What if some parts never heal? What if they just are … who we are now?
Cancer left dents in the package that is me. Even after much healing, the fracture lines of treatment stare back at me. They taunt and heckle. My body flashes daily reminders like annoying pop-ups bearing unwanted messages.
The hardest part of recovering from cancer is accepting those parts that have not recovered. If the brain fog has dissipated over time and the memory improved, it still has not made a full comeback. Same goes for the energy and stamina. I won’t mention the peripheral nerve damage, headaches, lymphedema or the cosmetic stuff, such as thin hair and sparse eyelashes. Me complain? I’m alive, yes?
I’m learning to live with these things, but I will never like them. I don’t know if I can mentally incorporate them into my image of who I am now. They feel like part of something outside myself that, unfortunately, attached itself to my body. Like a parasite. A foreign invader I’d like to extricate from the real me, if only I knew how.
My mother used to joke about the other seniors who’d make statements like, “I used to be 5’11″,” or other similar remarks about the bodies they used to have. One day my mother, all 5’1″ of her, said, “I used to be six feet four inches.” Everyone scoffed and told her she was full of it, but she made her point about how foolish the others sounded to her.
Like those who shrink in height, gain weight or experience a decline in vision, we bemoan the loss of the person we used to be. Our identities are indelibly entwined with our former concepts of self.
Unlike that which affects appearance only, cancer leftovers often interfere with enjoyment of life. Although finished with treatment, the struggle continues, even if not at the same level.
I want to shout, Hey! This is not the real me! See who I used to be? Remember her?
When you’re NED, you tend not to complain, or if you do, you do so quietly. After all, we’re alive. And so grateful, we say. And we are. Still, survivor’s guilt trips us up and keeps us from complaining too much or too loudly, especially when we see our metastatic sisters who suffer so deeply. On the opposite end of the spectrum are family and friends who can’t possibly understand why we still struggle. Surely we’re just fine. Isn’t our regrown hair evidence?
Thank you, that’s very nice that I appear fine but … am I the only one who sees the aliens who’ve invaded my body? Of course, those who are close can see and often admit that, yes, cancer has taken a toll.
I detest the term “new normal” because I don’t regard these things as normal. Sweet euphemisms fail to comfort when struggling through the present day-to-day.
It’s not that I have illusions of perfection. Perfectionism is an endless quest taken by those who shun mediocrity. While high aspirations are admirable, the quest is misguided. I know because I’m guilty of countless attempts. Perfect doesn’t exist. It’s just that after the loss and diminished function that occurs after a serious illness or injury, we’re slapped in the face rather abruptly with new imperfections.
I recently listened to Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song, “Anthem,” during which I cried deep healing tears. A cathartic moment, it encouraged me to let go of visions of who I was and to embrace all I am. The beauty of imperfection is the awkward, gawky way that light shines through unexpected places, like how a flower manages to grow and push up through the cracks of concrete. So resilient, its beauty stands out, indeed is striking, against its unlikely surroundings. And here’s a euphemism that I do embrace: reinvention. I’m all for it.
Below are some of the beautiful lyrics and a youtube of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:
Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in