A few days ago, a college friend sent me a Facebook message asking how I’m doing. I haven’t talked to him in quite a while, probably not since I finished chemo last March. So, I told him, “No more cancer, my numbers are still good, and my hair is back. Like it never happened.”
Like it never happened? I looked at that phrase after I typed it and nearly burst into tears, realizing how true it was. This terrifying, debilitating illness and treatment have come and gone and my life hasn’t changed one bit. My car has the same crack in the windshield. A mountain of long-forgotten toys and books waits to be offloaded in the garage sale that never happens. My boys fight with me about screen time and my husband forgets to take out the trash.
How is this possible? I beat cancer. I want to scream at my family, “I’m a fucking warrior. I shouldn’t have to figure out what’s for dinner tonight or remember where you left your glasses.”
I went straight out of treatment back into real life. There was no fabulous vacation to celebrate survival; no revelations about personal growth. No one wrote a song or dedicated a book of poetry to my heroic journey. I survived. So what? What now?
I spent a lot of time on stage in high school and college. I loved turning a playwright’s or songwriter’s words into something that was uniquely my own. I could be noticed without revealing anything about myself. Applause became something intimate and anonymous at the same time. The intimacy filled my heart to bursting in the moment, but once the character was gone, I was deflated by the anonymity beyond the stage. Applause only lasts for so long, and then you have tidy up your costume, reset your props, go back to reality.
That’s the thing about a cancer that doesn’t kill you. You spend six months in the spotlight of treatment, your bald head a beacon of courage and hope. But as the side effects of chemo start to wear off, that beacon starts to dim. Your kids feel the relief of mom being able to do the things she used to do, so they demand it of you as a sign that you really aren’t going to die. The extra chores they took on when you were too weak to move are back in your lap now. They have craved this normalcy and it is hard to deny them, even though you feel out of balance somehow. What now?
It has been a year since my oncologist told me I am in remission. I have put away my hats and scarves and discarded bottles of pills—the costume and props of cancer. I have exchanged the intimacy of illness for the anonymity of motherhood. My calendar is full of music lessons and after school clubs and sports instead of rounds of chemo or doctor appointments. What now?
The best thing about now is that it restarts every day, every moment. Maybe the year since I beat cancer has been anti-climactic. Maybe mothering doesn’t take the same kind of warrior spirit that got me through chemo. But, maybe I can still write my own song or book of poetry. I can hit that reset button now or tomorrow or as often as I need to. If this now isn’t momentous, maybe the next moment will be. What now? Who knows? Let’s go find out.