Surviving Survival

You get to keep the gifts of kindness.

by Cherri Ellis

In your car, when you look into your rearview mirror, you are warned right on the glass that the things you see will appear to be larger than they actually are. Sometimes that happens in real life. When things are behind you and are officially in your past, they can take on a larger-than-life quality that requires adjustment on your part. Such is the case with surviving cancer.

When you have come through it all — the diagnosis, the agonizing, the chemo or radiation or surgery or drugs or whatever tricks they had in their bag that they thought might work for you — you are called a survivor.  It is a strange-feeling moniker, awkward in it’s bravado. Chances are, you don’t feel like a survivor. You don’t suddenly wake up one morning and say, “Oh, I am so glad that is over!  I need never think about cancer again!” Nope. It’s there forever. It happened, it sucked and it’s never coming off your Facebook Timeline.

You now are faced with a weird lifelong hobby:  surviving survival.

It’s an emergent process and not linear at all. For starters, you lose your staff.  When you are sick, if you are lucky, you are surrounded by people trying to take care of you.  My cancer was (is?) a very rare type about which little data exists. I had a team of crackerjack medical rock stars monitoring my every cell.  I now see them every six months if at all, and between visits I suspect they are cheating on me with other patients.

My friends who rallied around me with such urgent focus and crazy love and support are now free to go on back to their own problems. I am expected to handle my own dinner as the casseroles have stopped coming.  For that matter, I now am the one bringing care packages to others because life goes on, and I am suddenly not the center of it.

Here’s a secret:  you get to keep the kindness you were shown forever. It never goes away, and it never stops feeling good when you think on it.  Aside from the flowers and talismans and food and visits and hugs and kisses and cards, there were moments of staggering beauty where one soul reached out to another and made a difference in the universe.  I will tell you about three of these moments.

1. I was post-surgery but back home.  I hurt, and I was sad and scared and frankly getting tired of it all. I had frayed the nerves of everyone around me, and way too late at night I called a girlfriend from college who now lives in another state. She was in bed, but I heard her whisper to her husband that it was me, and she padded down the hallway to her music studio. Lora is an opera singer, and I love her more than I love opera, which she takes in stride. That night, assessing my mental situation in one “hello,” she lightly played a single chord on her piano and started singing Billie Holiday’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” to me. Her voice came through the cell phone like auditory valium, and I laid my head on the pillow and let her sing me back from the ledge. The vision of her barefoot and singing to me in the dark in her nightgown makes me tear up every time I think of it, and I think of it often.

2. Another girlfriend in another state had already done all the things people do to show love from afar. She checked on me frequently and sent flowers, etc., but one day she sent me a ridiculous surprise. The last time I had been at Kimber’s house we had sat by her pool, and she served this amazing raspberry chutney on pimento cheese with crackers and chardonnay. It was wicked good, and I believe I set some kind of world record in volume and speed of consumption.  We laughed because I methodically ate all of everything and felt just fine about it.  One Saturday after surgery my doorbell rang, and there was a young family holding a baby and a cooler.  Kimber had arranged to have the snack hand delivered to me from Oxford, Miss., by friends who were coming through town. There are day brighteners, and then there is chutney, cheese and a new baby being put in your arms.

3. I wasn’t supposed to be taking a bath yet, and when you are forbidden by doctors to do something, it takes on an almost mythical allure. One night in a fit of patient rebellion I announced that I was taking a BATH.   You would have thought I had announced that I was heading out to rob a liquor store.   Undeterred, I started the water and began gathering things around me… towels and products and candles and ice water and everything I could think of to make this the ultimate bath of all time. Sinking down into the tub, I was horrified to discover that the water wasn’t hot.  I tried to add more, but all the tap would provide was more cold. I was crushed, but as I started to get out, my husband came crashing through the door with a bucket of hot water from the laundry room all the way on the other end of the house.  He poured it into the tub and ran back for another, repeating the process until the water steamed up around me. It was the best bath of my life, made sweeter by his dogged efforts to not see me denied something I wasn’t supposed to have in the first place.

So while my cancer left scars that will be mine forever, it also brought gifts that are just as permanent. It is up to me to know the actual size of the images in my rearview mirror, and I can’t turn around and look too often or I won’t safely move forward in the direction I’m traveling.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

8 Responses to “Surviving Survival”

  1. steward says:

    awesome cherri…i’m headed down that same path… and i’m scared. my family has simply left me alone It’s nice and warm to know that there could life ever after… even if it’s not the ones I love… we must carry on…

    • Tami says:

      I am a 4 yr. breast cancer survivor……you are stronger than you know, it’s as hard as they tell you it will be and it’s ok to be frightened. In the end, you’ll be stronger than ever before in your life and grateful for all of the little things we all take for granted. Lean on your medical team for support and take comfort in knowing that, sadly, you are not alone…….if you feel the need to respond, reach out……I’ll be your support. Great post Cherri!

  2. Jane E Perry says:

    I just love you, and your amazing ability to put a humorous light on anything. xoxoxo

  3. Mark Jones says:

    Woman, I continuously marvel how you turn these frightening life challenges into things of wisdom, perspective and humor. You can’t possibly calculate the amount of courage you bring to others, but I hope, someday, you get a sign of just how valuable your voice and perseverance is to others being challenged by similar obstacles. Congratulations on being a survivor. I’m, honestly, not surprised!

    Big hugs!


  4. Wanda Warren says:

    You will forever be my baby but a braver and stronger woman I’ve never known.
    I love you xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

  5. Becky Satterfield says:

    Thanks for this beautiful piece about survival and savoring life as we all should. xo

  6. Franklin Biggs says:

    Cherri: An excellent piece on a road that we all walk alone, and yet together. How to not let the cancer be the center of your life. Scars, yes, side effect, sure. But upright and breathing, finding a reason to get up each morning, going out to make a difference in a small piece of the world. Help someone else make a difference. Some of us need to turn inside for strength, I did, and I had to make sure my folks knew that I needed to conserve my focus and strength. And again, good piece. Take care.

  7. Vanita Fitz-Gerald says:

    Beautifullly written Cherri and please do not concern yourself with losing your staff. As long as I can stand up in your kitchen and rattle those pots and pans you will have staff, at least until the Chardonnay is gone. That cancer thing was just an excuse to come over and cook in your dream kitchen anyway. I love you big my sweet friend!

Leave a Reply