The Gift of Burden

It is the afternoon of Wednesday, April 19th, a couple days after my twelfth wedding anniversary, and I am trying to play catch up on all the outstanding tasks and residual clutter I had put aside for two weeks while we were away on spring break and anniversary celebrating vacations.

I sit at my home office desk trying to rid its surface of what's suffocating it... Kindergarten school work brought home before the break, health insurance paperwork, clipped box tops for school fundraising, and health and fitness coupons, race flyers and vitamin samples from the swag bag I received for running a 10K race just before leaving town.

My computer screen displays the results of the doctor search I had done a couple hours ago on the provider finder of my new health insurance company website. Now a couple minutes after 2:00pm, I can finally call the doctor at the top of the list... surely they'd be back in the office from lunch by now.

I retrieve our landline cordless phone from its stand to make the call, and as I walk back to the desk with it, my cell phone sounds nearby with a notification alert. It's a familiar and comforting chime, the one assigned to the Facebook Messenger app; one that has brought me fun chats and enjoyable interactions with friends and family so often in the past. Yet this time, it's not a link to a good article sent by my sister or a short but sweet note from an old friend checking in on me.

No, today it brings me the opposite kind of news... word that my cousin Christine died this morning, having succumbed to the breast cancer she had courageously survived a couple times already over the past three years. I sit down to read the words written by her brother, "my beautiful and loving sister passed today around 11:30," and immediately break down crying.

I cry for a few minutes before I respond to him with my condolences, and then I cry some more. Through my tears, and still holding my home phone in my hand, I look up at my computer screen at the name of the doctor I was about to dial listed under the specialty I searched this morning: gynecology. The timing was unbelievable.

My annual mammogram was due in March, and I had been avoiding scheduling it for a couple months already because it was going to be a bit of an ordeal... you know, one of those cycles of actions that is more annoying than hard, with so many steps to make it just inconvenient and time consuming enough to want to put it off in favor of things quicker and easier to check off your to-do list.

I had to search for a gynecologist close by, with good recommendations, who is taking new patients, and who accepts my new medical insurance (since the OB-GYN that delivered my son six years ago now does not), make an appointment to get a checkup, pap smear, and prescription for a mammogram, and then schedule a mammogram at the lab to take afterward.

I find that anything to do with health insurance and its confusing coverage is always cumbersome to deal with and makes me wish I had a personal assistant to tackle the minutiae of these tasks. But since it's all me, all the time, I had to take care of this cycle of annoyance myself; and I'd been a bit anxious the last few weeks over the fact that I had delayed in getting it done. Especially since my cousin's words had been replaying in my head, imploring me and all the women in her life to get our annual mammograms each year on time. Since her breast cancer was discovered on a mammogram taken one year after a test that was clear, she wanted to ensure that we all knew how vital early detection was. I had been diligent with my tests ever since; that is, until now.

So it was at the top my list of to-dos for this week; and there I was to-doing it at the very moment I found out breast cancer had claimed her life. I was in shock, not only from the sad news, but from the fact that I received it at the exact time I was finally taking these long overdue steps in my own breast cancer prevention.

After my crying ran its course, at least for the moment, I was determined to call the gynecologist on my screen right then, stuffed up, crying nose or not. I secured the next available appointment for Monday, May 1st, and then called the lab to schedule a mammogram for later that same morning.

There, it's done. I handled it - for myself, and now, strangely, in honor of Christine in this sad moment of unhappy coincidence. So many thoughts swirled around in my head... of sadness, anger, injustice, and fervent opposition to just how incredibly unfair this reality was. Yet I had no time to sort these thoughts out, as I had to leave and pick up the kids from school minutes later. Life was still moving on, and my desire to stop, grieve, and reflect did not surpass my responsibility to take my daughter to her softball pitching clinic or sit with my son and help him with his reading.

I wanted to write. I wanted to get out and process my thoughts on this travesty. I had so much anger to express toward cancer... about its incessant presence in our lives, its suspected causes that could possibly be eradicated if our society was just better aligned with what actually keeps people healthy and less susceptible to contracting it, and its relentless siege on so many people I care about - the latest being my cousin Christine, but also my ex-stepmother Julie, who died of lung cancer just last month, and my neighbor of fourteen years, Karen, who lost her battle with pancreatic cancer last November... three of my people in six months.

But the words didn't come, my head and heart still muddled in grief and indignation. The next few days were full of the usual duties and responsibilities of my life; yet, they were also full of the usual gratitude for my life, so I decided to focus on the good and the grace, and attempted to replace my anger with acceptance.

When I thought more about Christine and the day of her passing, I considered what a gift the burden of my looking up doctors and making a few phone calls was compared to what she had to bear that morning... taking her last breath and saying goodbye to her children, parents, siblings, and entire earthly world up until that moment. I knew her burden was much greater than mine, and was not the gift that mine was - the gift of life, of possibility, of health, hope, and living and breathing to see another day.

But the more I contemplated it, the more I wondered if maybe her burden was a gift, in an entirely different way. Maybe being free of the pain she had been suffering was a gift, more than I could ever understand. Maybe surrendering and not having to fight anymore to live on this Earth was also a gift to her. Maybe ceasing to endure more chemotherapy, chronic discomfort, hair loss, unrelenting sickness, and emotional turmoil was the absolute greatest gift she could have received that day... a precious gift, all wrapped up in the burden of grief felt by those she was leaving behind.

me with my cousins Christine (far right) and her sister & brothers - 6/28/14

me with my cousins Christine (far right) and her sister & brothers - 6/28/14

I was unable to visit Christine while she was sick. Time, distance, severity of her symptoms, and honoring her wishes for privacy made it so. The same was true of my ex-stepmother Julie and dear neighbor Karen... both of them also choosing to share their experience of illness and dying with only their closest inner circle during their hardest days and most delicate moments.

And who am I, or anyone, to protest these wishes? Unless you are the one lying there, the circumstances around death don't come on your terms. As a bystander (however distant or close a friend or family member you may be), death doesn't follow your course of action or wishes for what you would like to see happen before it arrives. It comes when it comes, and those of us left behind must accept the terms of it, whether we like it or not. Sometimes in death, we don't get to chose what we say, don't say, hear, or don't hear. We aren't the ones dying, so we don't get to call the shots.

It's only in life, in relation to our own life, that we are truly granted the opportunity, choice, and power to say what we feel, express what we believe, and experience moments in which we get to hear and feel what we want, if we are lucky. We are mere spectators of other people's lives, unless they invite us to participate; so it is up to all of us to seize those moments and opportunities to intersect and connect with each other, and make our time here as full and fulfilling as possible. Indeed, there is no doubt we are all connected, but as we come into this world alone as our own being and entity, we also leave this world alone, free to go where our energy takes us.

When I received the details of Christine's memorial service, I discovered that, ironically, it had been scheduled for the morning of May 1st at the very time I had made my overdue gynecologist and mammogram appointments. Of course I've changed them to attend the funeral; but when I finally get to them next week, I will be thinking of Christine. I will remember how much she loved her life, and how she fought for it until she could no longer do so. I will remember her spirit, her determination, her loyalty, her dedication to her family, and the enduring legacy of love she left with them.

And when I get my annual mammogram each year after this, I know I will also think of her and remember how this test, however bothersome to schedule or painfully uncomfortable to go through, is another one of those gifts of burden I will happily bear to live this life I'm so grateful to live.

 

🙏   Rest in Peace Christine, Julie, Karen, and all the beautiful souls we have lost to cancer.

Honestly, I Want to See You Be Brave

 
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Innocence, your history of silence
Won’t do you any good
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.
— Sara Bareilles
 

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a determined young woman who was interested in learning more about my husband and my "how we met" story. It seems she had found my Instagram post of the napkin he gave me on the night we met over sixteen years ago and wanted to know where and when it happened.

At the time of her inquiry, I was out of town visiting with cousins while happily watching my kids transform into human prunes as they swam in the pool from morning 'til night; so I wasn't able to answer her immediately.

She had contacted me to simply ask if she could share our story with the 300K+ followers of her wildly popular Instagram feed The Way We Met; but in the absence of my response, her persistence led her to my website where she found a post I wrote about my marriage entitled Eleven Years of Wedded...

Her discovery of this post changed her initial intent. She went from just wanting to share our cute "how we met" story to imploring me to allow her to post an excerpt of my marriage piece instead. She said what I wrote about my experience was so brave and honest and that my perspective and reality check on love and marriage was something that would inspire her readers.

I never considered myself "brave" for expressing my thoughts and feelings through my writing, but rather just overtly honest (and sometimes uncomfortably so for others). Yet I appreciated her sentiments and contemplated her request thoughtfully.

It was an interesting idea... placing my words of sobering reality and an alternate view of "happily ever after" alongside all those tales of romantic adventure and endless love of couples, diverse in age and experience, sharing their story of meeting and falling in love.

I knew our "how we met" story was just as unique and quirky as the rest of them, and therefore would fit perfectly into her carefully curated collection of anecdotes. However, I wasn't sure that including my glimpse into what love, commitment, and marriage looks like after the honeymoon phase was a good idea. After all, doing so would be a clear departure from the uplifting "sunshine and moonbeams" and "love is in the air" themed content usually found and expected there. And that's what intrigued me.

Being curious about how it would be received by her audience, I decided to grant her request and provided her with a stripped down, heavily abridged version of my marriage piece that would fit the Instagram character limit. She then posted it on The Way We Met on July 19th:

"The word to most often follow 'years of wedded' is bliss. Ironic, as that’s not what most married people would say their marriage is full of. I’ve been married 11 years & it’s been anything but blissful. My husband and I met at a party in a kitschy karaoke bar, where our eyes met across a crowded room. He wrote his number down on a cocktail napkin and we were engaged 4 years later. Lying on the sand seductively smooching in the tides during our engagement session, we were the picture of true romance, burning passion & undying love. Our wedding was flawless, gorgeous, and dare I say, perfect. So perfect that it set me up for a big, fat fall. As a fiancé and woman about to marry the man of her dreams, I hung my hopes on ROMANTIC love; but as a wife, it didn’t live up to the hype. The false advertising I was fed as a girl - one born, bred and brainwashed by soap operas, romantic comedies & silly love songs - was debunked by the challenges of marriage. Intensity, passion, conflict, drama & attraction were the attributes I was indoctrinated to believe were the ingredients of true love stories. But, oh my, how they aren't. Work, economics, the death of my mom and birth of my baby made the first few years of married life difficult. And divergent viewpoints made our 'opposites attract' love affair way less charming than it was before our I dos. The attributes that intrigued us in courtship became liabilities in wedlock. I came to recognize that love has to surpass the romantic realm and elevate to a higher vibration to withstand all life throws at it. It must let go of ego, find humility, cultivate depth of character and shed romantic fallacy. Love is so much more than a romantic snapshot on the beach; and love in marriage can be as simple as staying. As being true to the intentions that fueled its existence in the first place. I enter my 12th year of marriage as a wife, mother and woman who knows what it takes; yet knows it’s not easy to do, be, or live what it takes. The knowing is easy, but the doing is hard. Keep trying and the doing will happen. And that doing of it... is LOVE.” Abridged version of “Eleven Years of Wedded" by @happyalongthebu

A photo posted by The Way We Met (@thewaywemet) on

Within a few hours, thousands of people had read the post, hundreds had shared or commented on it, and many of them visited my website to read the full unabridged version. Except for three or four comments that conveyed how much of a downer and depressing bubble burster it was (a valid response for some), there was a defining thread among the rest that was apparent by reading even a small sampling:

"I very, very much appreciate this woman's honesty :)”
"It will be twenty years of wedded for me and my husband and this is the truest thing I have read about marriage in all that time!"
"Why am I crying?”
"Amen 1000 times over."
"Thanks for this. I'm glad I read this wonderful story before I tie the knot this weekend.”
"Married 35 years - amen to this…"
"The truest truth I feel like I've ever read."
"I love the 'way we met' posts but many have made me feel like a colossal failure. Marriage is hard and from the outside many tell me I'm "lucky". No, I'm not lucky... I work damn hard to keep this train from wrecking! On the outside I can keep sh*t together, but half the time I'm an internal mess! I love your story so very much!”
"Thirty years today and this rings true."
"Loved this. This has been the most realistic post on relationship dynamics.”
"Thank you for sharing what a real marriage is.”
"Wow!!! Totally agree. Married 17 years and could have written this. Thank you for your beautiful honesty."
"This is such an important post."
"So true and beautifully said."
"You nailed it. Bravo."

Reading these and others like them, I was struck by the fervor with which people expressed their appreciation for one simple thing: honesty. So many of the other comments were two simple statements, repeated over and over, "Love your honesty." or "Thank you for your honesty."

As a microcosm of our society at large, this post and its reception demonstrates to me that authenticity in, and honesty about, our intimate relationships is a rare commodity these days. Aside from the blatant poison arrows slung at the institution of marriage by naysayers, most people don't respectfully admit that married life and committed love is far more challenging than they expected, and far less perfect than they desired.

Yet, so many individuals seem to appreciate when someone else says it for them.

In this societal climate of "put your best face forward" and "don't let them see you sweat," revealing the truth that one's life is not as perfect as it seems from the outside is often too vulnerable. The rampant comparing and competing among us is one of the worst plagues of our society. The hidden truths of our lives can make us feel ashamed, like we are doing it all wrong, especially because everyone else - most of whom aren't being truthful either - seems to be doing it all right and therefore (we assume) much better than us.

Well, guess what? They aren't. We are all in the same boat, even if some of us don't admit it. Some people are just better at putting on an act, playing a part, and convincing everyone around them that their relationships are perfect, or close to it. Just as being honest about mine is like breathing to me, keeping up a façade and concealing the unpleasant realities of their lives is natural for others.

This is not a judgment or criticism. I recognize and respect that we all have our own philosophies and coping mechanisms. We are all just trying to navigate through life and do the best we can with what we have been given. Yet, I still wish for those that have been programmed to conceal and pretend (like most of us have been) that they find the courage to speak out and remove the masks they wear that hide some of the truths of their lives from those around them.

I believe that living and breathing in your own individual truth will set you free, and that connection with that truth will always lead to connection with others; and more importantly, to connections that are worthy of your time, friendship and love.