My cousin Liza loved purple amethyst geodes when we were growing up. She would break them open with a hammer, slamming them against the concrete until they cracked open wide and their jagged purple crystals caught the sunlight and reflected it all around.
Cancer was the hammer that smashed my heart. It was so painful.
My heart was in many ways, open and wide and big before my cancer, too. I loved often and hard and big and sweet. I risked less, and I assumed more, that I had all the time in the world. I did this assuming without even noticing I was doing it. I was driven, I was going places, I was achieving. I loved to travel, to write, to read, to get into intellectual arguments, to live in the world of possibility and ideas. In so many ways, six years after cancer slammed into my life, I am still the same.
And in so many ways, I am not.
For once a hammer comes down upon a geode and crushes it, once it cracks open wide, once it's secrets and reflections having nothing left to protect them, there is no going back. I could not glue together the pieces of already slightly broken geode I once was, because the fact of the matter is, they took my left tit away. And they threw it in the trash, so there are parts of my geode that don't even exist anymore. The completeness that once was is an impossibility.
It often felt like that hammer slammed into the little geode that was my heart again and again and again, and I wondered again and again and again why I was the target of such prolific violence, such insensible trauma. I will say again, it cracked my heart open wider than ever before. I did not need the cracking. I was good enough, shining enough brilliant light, focused enough on doing good in the world, that even without the cracking I would have cast light onto this world.
But that light would have been different.
It would have looked more like a different grrl. There would not have been magical playdates with twins, for the twins were born of the surrogacy, which was not ever how I planned on becoming a mother, but magical nonetheless. There would not be a warm and cozy California home, close to my parents and so many dear ones, because my focus was the tenure track, which lures young, bright scholars all over the world. There would not have been these women in my life who I revere, adore, and need. There would be much less heartbreak, for I am certain I would not be able to fill my Day of the Dead Altar with young women who were failed by the medical machine that could not cure their cancer.
And yet- I wouldn't trade the friendships. I wouldn't trade the heartbreaking understanding I have of me in world- the understanding that I can't wait until I'm dying to live the life I want. I wouldn't trade the twins for single babies grown in my womb.
There is some stuff I would love to trade though. I would love to trade the funerals and the lack of feeling in the tips of my toes and finger tips, and the numbness in my reconstructed breast. I'd trade the tamoxifen, the mistrust of my own body, the knowing that I could die, the chemical menopause.
But here I am, and my heart is broken open, and it's useless to speak of trades anyhow, because there is no one to bargain with.
And so instead, I snuggle in bed. I let my girls run their fingers along the port scar on my chest. I always pick up the phone when someone calls me to tell me about their new diagnosis, their new friend's diagnosis, their recurrence or their worry.
For if nothing else, I want my experience to be a lighthouse. A flicker of knowing, a pair of warm hugging arms, for people just now crashing on the sharp, painful rocks of cancer.
When I was newly diagnosed, I met some others- and there were no lighthouses. We were crashing against the rocks, bleeding, crying, drowning with nothing to do but grab onto each other for dear life, and sometimes when you are in dark water grabbing other people, you pull them beneath the surface with you and it is harder for everyone to breathe. But sometimes, you link hands and talk softly together and float atop the ocean waves.
Those were the kinds of friends I made, crashing against the cancer rocks, our geodes shattering into pieces. And once, three of us got a rocking chair tattoo: it was a promise to get old together, to not die, to sit on porches in the summer sunlight and be old enough to watch grandchildren frolic while we sipped old lady drinks.
We didn't all make it. We are a rocking chair down.
The promise has shifted. But we are still together. The rocking chair friend that has left this world did so to the tune of Bob Marley's three little birds, which she had tattooed on her wrist. Every little thing, is gonna be alright.... seemed so ironic after her death. And yet I feel her on the gentle breeze, and I take her motto for my own, and somewhere deep inside, I know she is right. Every little thing, is gonna be alright....
I miss her. Badly. But I also feel things shifting. Here's the proof: I had a sore throat last weekend, and it didn't even occur to me that maybe it was lymphoma, and I didn't google the frequency of breast cancer metastases to the throat.
This is wild progress. I am going to be ok. Six years out, and I'm going to be OK.
Also, I got a tattoo today. Every little thing, is gonna be alright...
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.