Yesterday, a friend and co-worker arrived with beautifully packaged “get well soon” goodies: hearty soup, individual portions of creamy mac and cheese (one of my all-time favs), festive cookies and soft buttery rolls. I met her at the door with perhaps more energy and exuberance than she might have expected, but the mystery was quickly resolved when I blurted out, “The node was clear! It was clear!” There were careful hugs all-around, even some tears, before we headed to the kitchen to unload the gifts so lovingly supplied for this “one-arm bandit” (as my husband affectionately refers to me as I heal from my lumpectomy and lymph node extraction….)
As we talked, I couldn’t help but wonder at her response to my news. It made sense that this pathology report was elating to me, but it occurred to me that her joy was notable…more than I could ever have expected given the circumstances. After all, this was her very first visit to my home and though we are friendly and have many friends and co-workers in common, we had never really “hung out.” I was touched by both her concern and her emotional response to my good news. As I pondered, I was reminded of the strength and resiliency of each individual gossamer strand of this tapestry we weave, this life we live. Many times in the past few weeks, I have been supported by these seemingly fragile strands. They have held me above the precipice and offered me comfort and respite — they have been both my defense and my cushion. They may seem invisible at times, but they are always there, have always been there….each of our separate lives, woven together over the years, in intricate, inscrutable, indestructible patterns. One strand falters and the others pull up the slack — it is how it is meant to be, yet each time this interplay of forces happens — we are dazzled…and humbled.
Before she left, she asked me, “I’ve heard a story around school…it has something to do with Laura and a Christmas tree reminding you to get a mammogram?”
I cautiously smiled. My initial response was that I wanted to be careful to relay the actual story without lending too much significance to the events. I certainly didn’t want to imply that I had some pipeline of influence with a diety…but it was a story that somehow extended beyond what is easily discerned and measured. It is a story about those steely strands that hold and support us still…bridging even the chasm between life and death.
I explained that nearly 20 years ago, I had scheduled my baseline mammogram. My friend and colleague Laura, a few years older than I, had one scheduled right around the same time. She had some concerns; I was just trying to figure out what “normal” should look like. I was shocked when my doctor called and told me I needed a follow-up — and then surgery to remove some suspicious tumors. I remember looking down on my two young children — my youngest barely out of diapers — and my heart being gripped by fear. My friend Laura, was sent home from her exam without the answers she had hoped for — and dismissively informed that her concerns were unfounded.
To make a long story short, my surgery revealed two benign cysts. Relief! Months later, Laura caught up with me in the hall. After seeking a second opinion, she had been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer and she would be leaving work to focus on treatment. My eyes had instantly welled with tears and I choked on the shock of her prognosis. After reassuring me (which was just her way, wasn’t it?), she looked me square in the eye, “Just promise me that you will get checked every year.” I nodded mutely…it seemed like such a simple promise to keep. And after Laura eventually succumbed to the disease, how could I possibly not?
Well, I did keep that promise for many years…and then, discontented with my doctor and unable to find a replacement, one thing led to another…and the next thing I knew, I hadn’t had a mammogram for at least five years. This past June, my friend Sharon showed up at my classroom door. Sharon was retiring and cleaning out her room. This day she wandered in with a delicate little Christmas tree in her hand. “This was Laura’s. She had left it with me with directions to pass it on if I should ever leave. I know you were friends with her too…It seems right that I hand this over to you.” Of course, I was touched and agreed to give it a home on my desk. After Sharon left, I examined the detail of each and every tiny ornament…and memories of Laura and that promise swam back into my consciousness.
I resolved to find a new doctor, which I did. And I took the order for a mammogram and vowed to get it done as soon as life slowed down a bit. Day after day, as I let everything else get in the way of making that appointment, I would see that little tree shining at me — reminding me that I had unfinished business to attend to. Every day that I didn’t call, I would feel that little pang of guilt that I wasn’t living up to my part of the bargain.
One October afternoon, I turned too quickly and clumsily knocked that little tree to the floor. As I recovered it and let out a sigh of relief that nothing had broken, I realized I could delay no longer. Putting the tree down, I picked up the phone….and made the appointment that had been avoided for too long.
When my surgeon had called yesterday to relay the results that there was no cancer in my sentinel node, there was a real reason to rejoice. When she detailed my pathology report, she told me that if I had waited just five months more to act, the outcome might have been very different.
Just as my friend, listening to this story unwind in my kitchen, reminded me that people cared and were willing to sustain me with confections and comforting casseroles, prayers and cards, tears and coconut cream pie…that little tree had led me to keep the promise I had neglected. A promise that could not save Laura, but surely delivered me.
After my acquaintance had bundled up and headed back out into the cold of the night and snow, I sat by the sparkling full size tree in my living room. I thought of all the family and friends, near and afar, who are woven into the tapestry of my life; each thread, each strand so easily taken for granted, yet each one so integral to the structure of who and why I am. I am resolved to repay each for the gift of their kindness, their joy, their shared sorrow, their unflagging support …. measure for measure, now, and for all time.
- Mammography Screening Intervals May Affect Breast Cancer Prognosis (sacbee.com)
- Frequent Mammograms Tied to Lower Risk of Breast Cancer Spread (news.health.com)
- Give Thanks… (beatingcowdens.com)
- Is It Christmas Without A Tree? (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
What a beautiful and touching story. Thank you for sharing it. I taught middle school for 26 years, and can see that story clearly, with all of the powerful, yet fragile relationships we weave into our lives over the years while teaching. Thank you for sharing your good news. I share in your elation and the huge sighs of relief and thankfulness you must be feeling. Remember to breathe and to feel the love surrounding you in every moment. WG
Thank you so much. It really is important to just drink in all the positive, breathe in and fill ourselves with all the love, before we start and end each day. Each day is precious!