I once told a woman I knew fairly well that I always get melancholy on the anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis.
She said, wasn’t it a shame I couldn’t look at it another way — and be delighted and grateful for my survival? She looked at me expectantly, clearly hoping I’d see some kind of light, some better way of being.
I only felt worse. I already felt bad — and now I was feeling bad about feeling bad. Even I didn’t want to be around a loser like me.
Somebody else’s expectations of how you should be, act, feel. Your own expectations. If you ask me, they’re killers. They demand a simple, positive approach to life and the emotional range of a pep squad. They don’t like ambiguity or ambivalence, darkness or sadness, rage or guilt. When they tell you to “Give me a D!”, they’re thinking dee-fense, not depression or despair.
Those expectations (and their purveyors — the expectors? expectorants?) overwhelm you when you’re diagnosed with cancer. Be positive! Fight it! Never let’em see you sweat or cry or leak any other unattractive bodily fluids.
If you survive it all, then you’re supposed to emerge with a smile on your face, a song in your heart, a pump in your fist. Apres treatment, on the days I retreated into howling fetal position, I had the distinct vision of such a person, who looked unnervingly like Martha Stewart. She’d already moved past the petty annoyances of cancer and lethal drugs and radiation beams and scalpels and stainless-steel doom. In fact, wasn’t that her right over there — crafting a stunning centerpiece for her dining room table out of old chemo tubes? Why, yes!
(All of which brings me to the unavoidable question of why I should want to be Martha Stewart when I, personally, cannot stand Martha Stewart. But that’s a question for another day, when I will resume contemplating my many personality flaws.)
But, anyway, diagnosis anniversaries — when the melancholy settles in like a softly suffocating fog and disappoints everybody who’d like a more uplifting story. What to do?
I’ve finally decided the sadness is about the many friends I’ve had who have died from cancer. Why did I survive and they didn’t? There’s no fairness here, no justice. I was lucky and they weren’t. I have to live with that, knowing I’m fortunate to live with that, to live, period.
I’m also convinced that this sadness isn’t something to be avoided. I have to sit with it for a while and give it its due. I can’t explain it any better than the writer Oliver Burkeman does in this lovely essay in the Manchester Guardian. It’s the contrasts that give meaning and flavor to life, Burkeman writes. You can’t appreciate light without dark, life without death.
To hell with everybody’s simplistic expectations, including my own. I’ll keep company with this melancholy on my own. And later, if and when I feel like it, I’ll celebrate.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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