PART 4: I have decided that being told you have cancer sets up a kind of inner archaeological dig. Back and back through many layers of thoughts, beliefs, feelings. Of course you don’t have to be diagnosed with cancer for this to happen, although I imagine that it often takes a jolt to the system (like the current coronavirus and its many ripples). But for me, it’s prompted the desire to reveal what has haunted me that I didn’t realize was still haunting me. Like old beliefs about my childhood. My mother. My father. Like the belief/certainty that “I was neglected.” And what I see now is that I’ve taken that belief/decision and transposed it on almost every relationship I’ve ever had. What I am understanding is all the places and people with whom this belief has shown up — she neglected me. He neglected me. They neglected me. Abandoned me. Seeing myself as the victim, the one who was done wrong to. I’m not exactly sure why a cancer diagnosis would bring this questioning up even stronger, given that I’ve had forty years of therapy, but it has. (Um, a voice is now saying while rolling her eyes, do you think it could be the death factor, Geneen? Yup. I think it could be…) But whatever the reason, every time I feel like a victim, I pop out of it and question my part in it. Sometimes it feels like scratching nails on a blackboard, but even that is better than being hunkered down in they did me wrong.
Part 5: A few nights after receiving the cancer diagnosis, I had a dream that there was lion sitting outside my door, which wasn’t the door of my house now. When I saw the lion, I went into fear mode. Oh no! A lion is out there. He is going to knock the house down, eat me for dinner. Oh no. I went about trying to secure the lock on the front door, which was a flimsy hook-and-eye latch and couldn’t keep out a gust of wind, no less a 420-pound lion. Still, in a frantic whirl, I tried. And then I noticed — really looked at — the lion itself. He was huge, yes, but he was sitting in the sun, peacefully, contentedly. And I suddenly knew he wasn’t there to harm me but to protect me.
The next day, after the dream, when I walked into the medical facility for more tests, the check-in person had multiple photographs of lions pinned around her desk. And there I was, once again remembering that not only cancer but most things I fear can be prompts to ride the spiral of the long list of fears that have built up over a lifetime (especially now in our coronavirus era). For me, the lion was a totem that all these months later, I’ve never forgotten. A totem that what I am convinced will destroy me is often, not always, an invitation to look at how often I proceed from fear without actually looking at what is asking to be seen. It reminds me of Rilke’s lines that I quoted in This Messy Magnificent Life about dragons that ”at the last minute turn into princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave; perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us."
Part 6: Sometimes sadness is just sadness. Not a result of a story from the past or imaginings of the future, but because it is. For years I’ve practiced inquiry—questioning and exploring the different beliefs, body sensations, thoughts and feelings that pass through. And I’ve practiced noticing the trance of my childhood stories and when what’s happening is not what’s happening now but what happened in the past.
Recently, I’ve also practiced taking in the good of what's around me. Rewiring my brain, establishing new neural pathways. When the cancer in my breast was diagnosed, I was shocked by the visceral understanding that it could happen to me. Not just cancer but that suddenly, my life could turn. Despite my father’s death, my friend Lew’s death, my friend Linda’s (pictured) death, my beloved editor Peg’s death and the death of dozens of people I know, there was a separation between them and me. Between their deaths and me, mine. A belief that I was apart from. Special. But with a cancer diagnosis, there is no keeping death apart from. There is no amount of taking in the good that outweighs the direct experience of knowing that I will die if not now then someday. And so I realize now that taking in the good can also mean taking in the goodness of feeling anything, everything, even sadness.
No matter how the cancer diagnosis and treatment has opened me, no matter what it’s invited me to see, there have also been many losses. The loss of my life before the cancer. I will never go back to that life. It’s gone. The loss of a left breast that resembles the right breast, that hasn’t been operated on, that isn’t scarred. The loss of a pain-free breast (the scars from the surgery are itchy and painful and the oncologist says they might be that way for years). The loss of feeling special, invisible, in control of what happens. And the losses that are accruing now, all around us, in so many. When I allow the losses to be what they are without trying to antidote them with how much I still have or what I’ve gained, when I don’t try to think happy thoughts but just let the sadness be, it unfolds quietly, swiftly, grateful to be welcomed as and for itself.