After an 18-month self-imposed COVID exile, my husband and I recently returned to our apartment in NYC. We had abandoned it in a hurry when the virus caught my husband’s college roommate, sending him to the hospital and an early death. The threat hit too close to home and was only getting worse. As the months wore on, our adult kids took over the space, becoming roommates for the first time in over a decade, and rearranging our apartment to suit their needs. Now, thanks to vaccines and the slow containment of the virus, things seem a little safer, but it was going to take some effort to re-establish our own home, particularly our bedroom that had been my son’s for over a year.
I set about cleaning my closet—not a full Maria Kondo, but an organizing and clearing that reflected our new lives. Things are different now, and my closet should be too. There is still an unworn floor-length dress, purchased for the wedding of a friend’s daughter planned for last summer that has yet to happen, and office-appropriate clothes that may never be worn again. And there are jeans and tees and gym clothes that that have probably seen better days and might be ready to pass along.
Finding Nuggets of Gold
But among the threadbare and tired looking items I found some treasures that I didn’t remember owning. There was the vest I had bought in the early 1990s to go with a taupe power suit that had long since outlived its usefulness. But the vest would look great with a pair of jeans on a sticky September night. There was a pair of white sneakers emblazoned with a logo that still reflects my passions six years later and would help bring a smile to patients when I finally can return to a clinical setting for my volunteer activity. And a sweatshirt that is one of the coziest I’ve ever worn that probably isn’t fit for external use, but will still come in handy on a chilly morning at my desk.
Finding reserves in the closet is like remembering the hidden strengths we forget we have when going through an ordeal like cancer. No matter how even-keeled and perfect our lives appear to others, we have all had to cope with something unpleasant in the past, and somehow figured out how to do so. Amid the high anxiety of a cancer diagnosis, it can be challenging to recall those strengths and put them to good use, but like the treasures in the back of the closet, they are there, waiting to be called upon.
Interdependence and Self-Reliance
Rita was in tears last week talking about all that she has been through with her cancer treatment. The grueling surgery, the months of chemo, the relentlessness of radiation. The bodily assaults are almost all behind her, but the emotional and physical fatigue that has built for nearly a year still feels overwhelming to her, until she remembers her family. They rallied around her, have taken shifts to escort her to treatment, and have been a source of so much comfort. They are her strength, and I could hear the smile return to her voice as she focused on how close they all are, how lucky she is to have such loving family, how the love she gave them over the years created a bond that she could rely on when she was the needy one.
Jody’s hidden treasure has been her self-direction and focus on self-care. Complementary therapy protocols, such as juicing, acupuncture and massage, have helped her manage the side effects of treatment. But her true super-power has been the sense of control that comes from researching and acting on her new-found understanding. Now, as she prepares for her final chemo infusion, she is already looking ahead to what she can do to rebuild her physical abilities and restore her life. Even on days when she hasn’t had the energy to go for a walk, she is always active in managing her cancer.
Danielle finds strength in remembering all that she has overcome to be where she is today—a retired healthcare worker with a pension and financial flexibility she never dreamed of. The first in her family to get an advanced education, she has worked hard to create a sense of professionalism and independence. But it came at a cost. Luckily, like progressive weight training, the history of slights and micro-aggressions she has overcome in the process strengthened her inner resolve and gave her the ability to tough it out through cancer and its treatment. And, that resolve keeps her demanding attention, better care, and more respect. It also propelled her into a clinical trial that should prolong her life.
When I was diagnosed, like so many of us, my first inclination was to cry and feel sorry for myself, especially when I looked online at the grim survival statistics associated with my cancer. But, an avid internet researcher, I put my hidden treasure to use in trying to understand why—why me, why this cancer, why that protocol, why I felt the way I did, why the chemo worked, why it took so long to recover, why my doctors didn’t have answers for me, why, why, why? (Sorry Mom and Dad for all the annoying questions I must have asked as a kid!) I didn’t know it was a strength that would help me get through it all. I didn’t recognize that what I was doing coping in one of the only ways I knew how.
No matter how small the closet, how spacious or densely packed the cupboards, we all have hidden treasures. Maybe it’s a photo that always brings a smile, a favorite tee we should have tossed years ago, a precious family “heirloom” whose value is otherwise unrecognizable. And we all have hidden reserves of strength—aspects of our personalities, our experiences, our skills that help us cope. While my general cleaning motto has always been, “When I doubt, throw it out,” I’ve come to appreciate the value of shopping from the back of the closet, particularly when looking for those inner reserves that help me cope, even when others might not understand why.