Karen and I have a lot in common: we’re blonde, we have blue eyes, we have loud voices, we like brightly colored things and good music and books and books and books. We’re curious. We’re a little brash. We have a lot of feelings, and we feel them deeply and without apology.
We also have an ex-boyfriend in common, which in a lot of ways makes us the unlikeliest of friends, but when we met over brunch and mimosas in that boy’s peacekeeping mission between his old and new lives, we clicked. Became email pen pals. Hung out even after they had broken up and she remained in Minneapolis.
It’s been a few years, and we’re separated by a few thousand miles but connected by our mutual friend The Internet, keeping in touch by trading likes and wall posts.
Things are different now than when we met: I’m married and a mom (did you know that already? That I got married and had a baby? Have I ever mentioned it?) Our mutual ex-boyfriend is on the opposite side of the country with his new wife. Karen has a new life that involves breathtakingly Instagrammed hikes and tropical vacations. She has a new career and a new degree and a (brand) new boyfriend. And breast cancer.
FUCKING. BREAST. CANCER.
And I’m pissed. PISSED.
Karen is 31. She eats organic food. She practices mindfulness meditation. She does yoga. She runs. She does more than her part to do good in this world. SHE HAS AMAZING BOOBS.
She doesn’t have a history of breast cancer in her family, and when she found a lump 6 months ago, her doctor diagnosed it as a “nothing” and sent her on her way.
Now, she’s facing down a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation.
Like gym class and life in general, this isn’t fair, and when I got her message with all of this news I rolled down the windows in my car and scream-cried down the freeway. Then traffic slowed down and I had to pull it together because I don’t want to look like an REM video on my evening commute.
Karen has breast cancer. Aaron has brain cancer. My high school friend Eddie, who has survived cancer not once but twice, has brain and rectal cancer.
The sk8r boi who frenched my friend Cara in front of all of us during a 9th grade “party” that really just involved them making out while the rest of us watched a horror movie on our friend’s living room floor. The guy who threw one of two parties I attended in high school, at his parents’ beautiful Lake of the Isles home. A party that was immediately broken up by the cops and from which I ran home nonstop, afraid the police would arrest me for attending a party where there were no parents present. The dude who always, always has the right joke for the right moment, who can make even cancer funny.
This happens. It happens to good people. And it happens to bad people (although not often enough. Is that controversial to say? I said it). It happens to Angelina Jolie.
We’re powerless to prevent it, but we’re not left powerless. This shit, this shitty shit, the shittiest shit of all, has one redeeming quality: its ability to highlight the very best in us, the very best in others. Our happy is happier. Our sadness more poignant. Our boldness is badder than ever. Our lives are more intense in every way, lived in contrast.
But it’s still shitty.
I’m not as strong as you think I am.
Or maybe I am. Swinging a 12 lb. baby kettle-bell style while he cries in a car seat does help develop your upper body muscles, but I still can’t do a push-up.
What I mean is, I’m not unusually strong. I’m not exceptionally strong. There’s really nothing special about me.
“I don’t know how you do it.” People say. It’s meant as a compliment, implying that I possess some sort of inner fortitude that they do not. It’s nice to be thought of that way, and it’s nice to hear that people may think of me that way, but it’s just not true.
This strength isn’t superhuman. It’s the most human thing of all, a muscle we’re all born with but need to exercise rarely at best. It’s a tenacious little thing that bounces back from atrophy as soon as you need to flex it.
Mine is more developed now than it was two years ago. And some day, yours will be, too. Someday, you’ll have a reason to use it. Your husband may get sick. Your parents will die (sorry, it’s inevitable).
I don’t mean this as a scare tactic. I mean it as a pep talk.
Someday, the universe will throw a wrench in the works and your well-oiled machine of a life will grind to a halt. And then it will keep going. Because you took a deep breath and pushed it back into motion.
“I don’t know how you do it,” someone will say to you while softly touching your arm.
But you’ll know it’s really nothing special to keep one foot moving after the other. You do it reflexively, like breathing, because its not something you can choose not to do.
I’m already sorry you will, but you’ll know all of this.
And someday, so will they.
Are you the same sweet girl I emailed with, or is there yet another young couple going through this hell? Keep your pretty little chin up and love that boy with all you’ve got. It’s the best medicine for cancer. Well, that and chemo.