Thirteen years ago, when I was going through chemo for breast cancer, I used to go shopping the day before my every-three-weeks treatments. Retail therapy, cancer survivors call it.
I laughed with the saleswomen and took some clothes to try on into the fitting room. There, I watched myself carefully as I undressed. I was seeing my “true” self, I thought, with the fresh red scars slashed across my chest. Every night, when I pulled off my wig, I saw that person, too, the way she really looked — bald and pasty-faced: a typical cancer patient.
I spent a few seconds congratulating myself on how well I pulled it off — my semi-public persona, I mean. The saleswomen had no idea what I really looked like or how scared I was. They couldn’t see my new scars. They couldn’t read my chaotic, troubled mind.
That was when it hit me, finally — that real moment of truth. The rest of the world, I realized suddenly, was doing the same thing. We all tried to keep our scars private, to compensate as mightily as we could by being upbeat, appearing untroubled, pasting on that wig, that grin, cracking those jokes. Nobody could see us sweat. God forbid.
I learned the same lesson of how little we know of others’ lives and struggles when I began to go to survivors’ support groups. How many times did it have to happen to me before I learned it? Almost invariably, the one woman in the group I’d surreptitiously picked out as fortunate and enviable — you know, the pretty one who was well-dressed and self-confident — turned out to be the sickest in the group, with a prognosis that would be fatal. I knew nothing, saw only the unblemished surface.
I don’t know if that’s good or not — these successful lives of compensation all around us. I know others with a dramatically different take on life, who corner you and overwhelm you with the grim and grisly details of their lives till you feel like a toxic-waste dump. You know them, too: 9/11 happened only to them. Life deals them one vicious blow after another. They can never catch a break.
After a while, you learn to avoid these people and their constant, unending tales of woe. It’s called self-preservation.
But most people I know aren’t like that. Instead, they surprise and shock me with the problems and concerns they bear privately. The friend who struggles with depression — a young, beautiful, smart, successful woman you’d never dream has a care. Another whose child is an unending cause for concern. Another who’s struggling with the aftermath of cancer treatment, a time that can be enormously difficult, when all the world moves on, convinced you’re fortunate and whole when, in fact, you’re scared to death and shaken to the very depths of your being.
How many times do I have to learn and re-learn that same lesson I thought I’d mastered in the dressing room 13 years ago?
You say the world has no heroes? I say they’re everywhere, living among us, bearing burdens we can’t fathom. It’s just that the rest of us are too focused on our own scars, sure we’re the only ones who struggle, overlooking the heroes who surround us, quietly doing their best and persevering.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)