This is my one-year anniversary of ringing my end of treatment cancer bell. The day came eight months after a phone call that changed everything.
“It’s not what we thought,”
My life became a series of prepositions that day. There was the “Before,” my old, innocent life, and I knew a day would come when I reached the “Other Side,” a place at the end of the rainbow, a land of recovery. But to get there I’d need to traverse the “Between.” The Between was a no man’s land of mastectomies and aggressive chemotherapy punctuated by hospitalizations and sepsis. I lost much in the Between, parts of my body, parts of my identity, and even parts of my soul it felt like at times.
But I got across it. I reached the end, and this time last year, I was about to step over to the Other Side.
The bell was my conduit. I’d watched it hanging from the entryway wall of the cancer center for almost six months, a brass beacon, a quiet promise hovering in the hall. My gaze never lingered long. It was like a scandalizingly beautiful thing at which you never want to be caught staring. I peaked though.
There was a particular brown leather recliner I sat in each week. I chose it because it was beside the tall line of windows which let in sunlight and a view of growing trees. But it was also situated so that I could see the bell. My North Star.
On my last day of chemo, I stared at it without shame. It was finally attainable, just on the other side of the infusion dripping into my veins. But then doubt drifted in. I recalled that I had only seen the bell rung once. Only one other person had I witnessed escaping this room.
Therein lies the dark side of the Bell. There are too many people who will never have the opportunity to ring it. There were already several I knew who had died, and many I had befriended who were lifers waiting to die. They were the ones with stage three or four cancer, their futures a series of treatments and experimental trials. They jumped from the safety of one lily pad to the next until the day arrived when there was nowhere left to jump.
They were my friends, and as I looked around at them, the Monday morning crew I had gotten to know so well, I realized this was probably the last time I would see them. The society of the recliners and the broken people they held, had become my family, as had the oncology nurses who somehow held the magic of upbeat humor as they toiled among the dying, and, and the receptionist I chatted with regularly. They had taken me in at the beginning when I was scared and vulnerable, and had cared for me in their own ways, through medications, conversation, reminders to keep my chin up, or prayers. They had been my shelter in the storm, my weekly reminders that I was not alone. My heart tugged, strangely lonely for them as I contemplated being released back out into the world where people were whole. Somehow during that time my allegiances had shifted. These were my compatriots of the Between.
The other salient feeling was fear. Would ringing the bell be tempting fate? Who was to say that I was actually finished with treatment, and more importantly did I want to be finished with treatment? Because although the chemotherapy was rough, it was all I had. If a single malignant cell had survived, it was about to have free reign. So perhaps it would be better to just continue chemo? Just to make sure I could live?
But that’s not actually living, is it?
Stepping over to the Other Side is not as easy as it would seem. It requires letting go of prepositions. I could choose to stay in the perceived safety of the Between in a warped, Stockholm Syndrome type way. Or I could move forward. There would be uncertainty and fear in that direction, but there would also be possibility. There would be hope. Sometimes in life you must choose; you must choose to orient yourself to the past or the future. You can’t do both.
I rang the bell. I chose hope. Today is my one-year anniversary. Today marks the transition from thinking “this time last year.” Today I celebrate my latest MRI read: “no evidence of recurrent disease.” And I continue to choose hope. I don’t know what lies ahead, but that is the direction I’m keeping my gaze. I’ll continue to live here, on the Other Side, as long as it will have me.
Originally published at https://facingmonsters.com on May 13, 2020.
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