By Carmelene Melanie Siani
In a podcast I listened to entitled “Living a Full Life,” Natalie Goldberg described her reaction to her diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia:
“When I found out I had cancer I went through incredible rage. I almost burnt up the city. I could have lifted semi’s and thrown them the rage was so huge. But that’s not all. The fear. That one amazed me. I realized that we all carry fear all the time, but it never came out in the way it came out. I was out of control terrified. Tremendous sadness. I was so sunken away there was no self. There was nothing. I was destroyed.”
In 1954, at the time of my own diagnosis, I was 20-something years old and had just had my third baby. Unlike Natalie Goldberg however, when they told me it was cancer, I wasn’t afraid or angry or even sad.
I was just numb.
Looking back on it—on all the times they stuck mirrors down my throat, on the surgeon describing to me how they were going to take out these muscles and that part of the larynx and how they were going to make an incision all the way across my clavicle so that they could reach everything—I realize that, I too was destroyed.
But I didn’t let myself feel it. I was too afraid.
In her talk Goldberg addressed living a full life even when your world falls apart.
“Whatever comes up, in life you have to face it,” she said.
Then she told a story.
“Collette, the great French writer was married to a Jew and during World War II they took him. She was freaked out that her husband was heading towards Auschwitz and they said, ‘We’ll do everything we can to get him back” but they didn’t have a lot of power. So she went home and sat by the door waiting for him, day after day, and as she waited for him she wrote. And what did she write? She wrote Gigi. A wonderful story about a young girl.”
Like Collette, I too went home and waited. I lived my life and took care of my children. They were my “Gigi.”
However, I still hadn’t felt anything.
Then, one day, many months after they’d cut my throat from ear to ear and sewed me back up and told me it wasn’t cancer after all, and after the muscles in my neck had grown strong enough for me to not have to hold my head up with my hands, I took my girls to the beach.
Just after I put the picnic basket down, unfolded the beach chairs and sat on one of the blankets to watch while my three little “Gigi’s” head out to put their toes in the water, I suddenly without warning, blacked out.
Ultimately, nobody could say whether I had merely fainted or had a stroke or what had happened really, and told me not to worry about it unless it happened again.
After listening to Goldberg’s talk however, I am finally convinced all these 50 years later that what I had suspected all those decades ago was true. That day at the beach wasn’t me fainting or blacking out, it was me no longer being numb. It was all of my unexpressed rage, fear and sadness hitting me with such force that I literally couldn’t take it all in.
Goldberg says that having a full life means going through what we have to go through without cutting ourselves off from the rest of life.
Here are the four suggestions I garnered from her talk on how to do that:
- Practice smiling because at the same time a bomb is being dropped a rose is opening;
- Make positive effort, even if it’s just getting out of bed and brushing your teeth;
- Continue under all circumstances; and
- Don’t be tossed away.
I appreciated her reminders for their gentleness and truth. Bombs fall in our lives all the time.
We are diagnosed with cancer, our husbands are taken away by something over which we are powerless, our children get sick, our mothers die. I found Goldberg’s words to be comforting suggestions on how to go on living that life into which a bomb has fallen.
How much simpler it would have been for me had I known these few, simple truths when I was a young mother trying to deal with the bomb that had fallen into my life.
What a comfort it would have been to know that, “at the same time a bomb is dropped, a rose is opening.”
Carmelene Melanie Siani is a 74 year old woman who began writing for publication on her 73rd birthday in 2015. She writes stories and vignettes about life and how life itself gives us the lessons, hopes and direction we need to put our feet on higher ground. You can find her writing at elephant journal, the Kindness Blog, and on her writer’s Facebook page.
Editor: Dana Gornall