It snowed again last night. Another inch of fluff to the eiderdown, another layer to keep things hidden away under a veneer of gentle, reflective whiteness. Enough already! As the record snowfall from this past month begins to melt—and today’s rain and fog will help eat away at it—mementos of daily life are exposed. In the woods, the carcass of a deer, stripped bare except for one haunch, a snowshoe left behind on the melting lake, animal scat in the yard.
But in the city, it’s even more revealing. Walking across the park yesterday, the snow was black with dirt and soot. In the compressed and melting piles, a toddler’s pink sock. I shivered at the thought of how cold the exposed toes must have felt. A crumpled utility bill—was it paid or rejected in disgust? A mylar balloon, smudged, its message only partially visible within the folded edges: “Happ Birt Ab.” Did you enjoy your celebration, Abigail? I wondered. Or was it Abby? Abuela? Abraham? A crumpled water bottle, and so many masks, mostly blue, disposable, inadvertently dropped or purposely left behind—residue of our lives hidden beneath the snow.
Just as the rain and warm temperatures wash away the city grit and melt the snow, so too does the passing season expose the emotions cancer patients hide under a blanket of projected strength. That strength isn’t necessarily felt, but rather is demanded by the constant pressure to fight, be positive, stay strong. And the abiding need to hide away acute emotions as a means of self-protection. Acknowledging to the outside world how hard it is to deal with the diagnosis would require admitting to the fear and anxiety we live with every moment. And that just might be overwhelming. So, we keep it all enshrouded, hoping to fool ourselves as well as the rest of the world.
Patients also bury their emotions in defense against the careless comments of others. So many of us have heard insensitive remarks from well-meaning friends that deny legitimate feelings of fear, fatigue, frustration, even helplessness. We say, “I’m fine,” knowing full well that the asker doesn’t really want to know about the weeping drains, about the enflamed radiated skin, about the constant anxiety, depression and so much more. We are told, “You’re strong. I’m sure you will get better.” But what if we don’t feel strong? What if what we really want is to cry and bemoan the injustice of life that we should be facing this diagnosis while the asker is oblivious to the reality of daily life with cancer?
Of course, just as a fluffy blanket of snow can be protective against a fall, when what lies beneath is rough, sharp or uneven, that covering may hide the true danger, and the need for care in order to proceed safely. My own approach to coping with cancer, like so many other challenges in my life, was to assume a courage I didn’t feel, to project strength, confidence and assurance, to cloak my true feelings in a layer of optimism.
As a result, my medical team assumed I was coping well and didn’t offer any of the psychosocial support they knew was available. At home, I only allowed myself to cry in the shower, so my family never knew how scared and overwhelmed I felt. It was only after reading my book that my mother said, “I’m not sure I gave you as much support as you really needed.” But how was she to know? I never admitted the truth to her because I wanted to protect her from further worry.
So many emotions are hidden beneath the blanket of strength. But eventually, the snow melts. For me, writing The Big Ordeal gave me the insights and comfort I needed to come to terms with my own emotions. Eliot held it together throughout treatment and only allowed himself to process his emotions after hearing there was no longer any evidence of disease. Damian’s thaw came nearly 30 years after his diagnosis when he fought his way back from a deep depression.
And when the snow melts, there is mud. The ground squishes beneath our feet and we can’t help but get dirty, track it into the house, find it caked on everything we touch. So too, the process of dealing with cancer emotions. Once exposed, they are a bit of a mess. In addition to the shattering fear and loss of innocence, there is confusion, and there are issues of self identity. There can be tears and recriminations, hurt feelings, gaps in intimate relationships that grew while we were building protective walls, and there is the reality of all we have been through—the carnage of cancer.
But, in coping with cancer and dealing with winter’s white mantle, as the ground around us absorbs the moisture from our tears and the melting snow, I know that better things will come. Healing and renewal await as the mud begins to clear. We still have a ways to go in the woods, another 8 – 12 inches of snow to melt. But I am watchful for the hints of spring, of crocuses, hellebores and hyacinths, of hope.