My Heroes Have Always Been Everywhere, As It Turns Out

Almost nineteen years ago, when I was going through chemo for breast cancer, I used to go shopping the day before each treatment.  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 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.

These days, I look around at my friends and acquaintances and often think the same thing: I know so little of their lives — and  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 19 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 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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10 comments… add one
  • Cindy Link

    So true, Ruth. Many times over the years, I thought Robin Williams was the luckiest guy in the world to have so much fun doing what he loved. He hid his scars so well that no one saw them.

  • Wow. That’s all. Just Wow.

  • Such a beautiful post. I love all your posts but this one hits especially close to home. When my drinking was at its peak, no one (apart from my nuclear family – and to some extent not even them) knew the depth of my illness. The depression that created the void that I filled with wine. The sadness and despair knowing that I was doing to my children what my father did to me – drink their lives away.

    Because I am brutally honest and I listened when my loved ones expressed concern, I was able to quit while I was ahead, so to speak. But it taught me a valuable lesson about humility and heroes and the struggles we all have.

    Thanks for a lovely post Ruth.


  • Ingrid Link

    I do so enjoy your humorous posts, but your poignant entries are so real and humbling. Thank you for both.

  • Steve Link

    Indeed. Part of the strength and joy that comes from being in a faith community is that for many of us–certainly not all, for a lot of religious practice is remarkably shallow–faith empowers intimacy, not only with the God of the faith but with a (usually small) group of other believers. That intimacy, fueled by willing vulnerability, lets us proclaim to ourselves and to each other, “We are not alone. Thanks be to God.” And for each of us–married, single, cancer survivor, young, old, hearing-impaired, buff, whatever–our greatest fear is that we are alone, in whatever state we find ourselves. A faith is not the only way to find that intimacy, that truth. But it is a powerful way.

  • Heidi Creve Link

    I enjoyed reading this, Candy. It is expressed beautifully indeed. Many thanks for sharing.


  • This post really moved me. We know only what friends reveal, it is true. I have lost two friends in the past two months. One a very successful lawyer/politician, and the other a less successful natural health doctor, living in Germany, someone who had begun taking steps to turn her life around when acute leukemia hit. My politician friend, who had money, traveled to Germany, seeking a cure for her uterine cancer. Both were wonderful, caring women in their sixties. I guess my conclusion is that life is short, that we should try to enjoy every moment. And, if you have a friend who is suffering, give her or him a call while you can and express your love.

  • Heidi Link

    I enjoyed reading this, It is beautifully expressed indeed. Many thanks for sharing.

  • Beautiful, Ruth. And so true. I remember admiring a woman in a support group, thinking she was so beautiful and looked so good that she must be there not as a cancer patient, but someone supporting her friend. Turns out I was so, so wrong. I’ve since learned that no matter how ideal, beautiful, healthy, untroubled, another person looks, they’re fighting for something just like the rest of us.

  • So beautiful. And so true. I particularly love this: “I say they’re everywhere, living among us, bearing burdens we can’t fathom.”

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