I’m sitting across from an angel. Must be an angel, I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s an old saying, something about entertaining angels unawares, and I still don’t know if they exist but there’s no other way to describe this experience, because I’m feeling an incredible sense of gratitude and peace.
Let’s put it very clearly, being treated by chemo for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I’m in a lot of pain. I do rest in the knowledge that this form of cancer – and it is a form of cancer, make no mistake about that – is highly treatable, one of the most treatable cancers there is, and that many recover and go on to live normal lives. But right now, between severe neuropathy in my hands and feet that often feels like fireworks shooting off inside, to skin so sensitive that everything feels like prickles at worst and sandpaper at best, to limitations on what I can eat between what I can prepare and what I can taste, to nausea and exhaustion that will rear itself at any time, it can sometimes be a real challenge to perform simple every-day tasks. It can take what feels like forever to change my clothes, take the lids off containers, flip channels on the TV remote, write anything up, get in and out of my car – oh yes, and thank heaven I can drive! I’d really go bonkers if I couldn’t. Yeah, at the very least I can sit upright and alert behind a wheel, move my foot back and forth between the accelerator and the brake pedal, and steer a car. But even just getting out of bed in the morning is a physical chore. And sometimes I’ll just sink, tired and frustrated, into a pool of tears, just letting them flow freely, and then pick myself up and keep going as best as I can.
When I look in the mirror, I see two things: a head missing most of its hair, and big dark sad eyes with circles around them. Because there’s another pain I feel too, and it has little to do with the illness, the treatment I’m going through, or any of the physical effects I’m experiencing moving through this. It’s a pain in my head, born out of fear. Not that I won’t lick this illness, because I have every confidence I will, but if I will be able to take care of myself when I do. This pain started long before the illness, and it took me down some self-defeating roads I’m not proud of, and though it took me a long time to get unstuck from this path and start turning this around, I was able to start before I got sick. And then I got sick. So I cry because I’m still afraid, and I still have these things to turn around, and I’m still trying to do this while I’m sick. And I hear the voices of people who I know care about me but say things that feel more critical than supportive – I know they say those things because of their own fear, but I wish they didn’t because it makes me feel worse. But I can’t do the things I’m doing to make them feel better, only to make me feel better, because when I feel better I can do better – if not physically at this point, then at least emotionally.
So I rely on the people and the experiences that give me that reassurance, that show me that life is good and people are good and that I will prevail and be okay. Sometimes I think it’s just in the people I know, whose presence in my life is priceless. But it has also been showing up lately in the most unexpected ways.
For instance, I never realized how much birds sing after a violent thunderstorm. It’s uncanny. Or that my first vision of spring flowers would be an overwhelmingly full street of cherry blossoms on a dreary day. Or that suddenly I can throw clutter away that I never ever could before. Or that the most unexpected things will make me laugh. Or make me cry.
Or that I’d find myself here in my bank, sitting across from one of the managers in his office. I had come in after making a deposit at the drive-through teller to make sure I could pay a bill, because one of my big fears are my limited finances. But I had to do this right after a painful argument at home that left me feeling shredded. I sat in the car for what felt like forever before I calmed down enough to start it and drive over.
He was a nice guy, very friendly, and could easily give me the answers I was looking for. I mentioned off-handedly that it was a hospital bill, and then motioned to my hat covering my hairless head, and he immediately seemed to get it. He said to me, “you know, you can just pay them a few bucks a month until you pay it off, they can’t charge interest or put you into collections” He explained that though all other medical bills do have to be paid on time or there are repercussions, by law hospitals can’t do that if you pay an amount each month. I asked him how he knows this and he told me he’d been doing it for years. He then went on to tell me he had two brain tumors, that they’re benign now but could always come back, and that he’s on drugs and treatments for various other chronic conditions. He told me he has one bill that goes back three years, he was sending them ten dollars a month, and then said, smiling, “yeah, it’s almost paid off.” A manager in a bank.
He then starts telling me more about his illnesses, about his family – a wife who was just laid off but is looking now to go back to school, a six-year-old daughter with medical issues of her own, and his mother who just passed after a long battle with cancer. I am just tearing up hearing him talk. And here’s the thing: no anger in his voice, no fear, no regret. Sadness yes, but also gratitude for all the good things in his life. And when I tell him how touched I am, not only by his story but by his attitude, it makes me feel so good because I’d just come from a difficult confrontation and had been feeling so torn up, and to hear how he talked was just inspiring. And he tells me what I had been working so hard to tell myself, that all the reassuring people in my life had also been showing and telling me – and maybe even the not-so-reassuring people, too, in their own way – that I am good and deserve good things, and that I’ll be okay – and to allow the fear, but to focus on what’s hopeful and encouraging. Not to diminish any support I’ve gotten elsewhere, but here it is coming from a total stranger at a moment when I’m feeling at my worst. And as we say good-bye and he gives me his card, we give each other a big hug.
And I’m still thinking, maybe angels still don’t exist, at least not in a discernible form. But maybe they show up to give us those amazing moments that have no other explanation.