By Shane Willbanks
I’ve made a new bestie in chemo, but she’s not a cancer patient.
Her name is Maddie; she’s six and three-quarter years old, and her young 24 year-old mother is there to fight a brain tumor. Maddie thinks I am the bees knees. She loves my tattoos—especially Barry Bob the angel bird on my hand. She calls me “Shiny Shane” because of my bald head, although most everyone is bald there, and she sits next to me and reads whenever she gets the chance.
There may be more to my nickname than that because I make her belly laugh like no one else can.
This past Friday, once they began to push my particular cocktail of Cisplatin, steroids and anti-nausea meds into my body, Maddie ran over after asking mama and reading the mood of the room (sometimes people moan or cry or puke; sometimes it smells really good, like caramels and spring flowers; sometimes it smells like sadness and ammonia and it’s not just a smell, it’s an entire mood).
On this particular day, the mood was bleak.
We lost “Wild Bill,” the master of bad dad jokes and beloved husband and father of four to pancreatic cancer last week. I cannot tell you how much I’ve cried over Bill and his family these past 10 days. I miss that man. Cancer gives you meteorite friends—they are bright and beautiful and sometimes their light burns out too soon. There were five new warriors in the room, and they looked scared as hell.
Maddie had already welcomed them as only she could do. She jumped into the chair next to me, reached up and rubbed my head with a smile, and said her usual greeting to me, “What’s up, chicken butt?” (I might have taught her that).
“Cain’t call it, just gonna ball it,” is always my reply.
She leans in to whisper, “let’s fuckin’ gooooo” and we fist bump (l might have taught her that, too). She’s six chronologically, and she’s a mama bear warrior at too early an age.
“What are we reading today?” I asked. She raised the book up to my nose to show me the cover of Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss. “Right on,” I said. “Let’s fuckin’ goooo.”
She usually reads a few pages then asks me to read some, back and forth until the book is finished. Friday, she flipped it open towards the back and started reading.
“Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t
Because, sometimes they won’t.
I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.”
Then Maddie closed the book and smiled with a quiet pride as she sat back and hugged it.
“Why’d you stop?” I asked as other heads in the room roused to investigate the pregnant pause. Her mom, a young warrior in her own right named Mickey, had been smiling the whole time Maddie was reading—just beaming.
“That’s mama’s favorite part,” Maddie declared as she smiled.
I looked over at Mickey as I asked Maddie, “Oh yeah? Why’s that?” Mickey smiled at her daughter as she saw the strength well up in her posture.
“She says sometimes nobody else can fight for you and you gotta go inside, lock all the doors, and fight whatever’s in the house.” She looks down and swings her feet back and forth when she preaches. She knows everyone is listening.
Mic drop. Gavel slam. High fucking five.
“Man, she’s right about that,” I told Maddie as I gave mama a thumbs up and a nod.
The beauty of all of that is not lost on me in sobriety. I get blessed by angels when I walk into that place of healing and death – the ultimate metaphor for recovery in general. Some people recover. Some die. All are badasses.
We need people. We need community.
But we also need to batten down the hatches, cut the bullshit, and fight the fight that only we can fight – the fights I personally have tried desperately to give away to someone else. This little six and three-quarter year old curly-headed cherub knows that. She and Mickey have a deal:
Mickey fights indoors, Maddie mans the perimeter.
“Shh! Mama’s fighting,” Maddie will say if I make her laugh too loud. “She’s fighting,” is her reply when you ask how her mom is. “She’s fighting,” is her response to when she gets mad. Maddie hates cancer with the anger of a tiny Tasmanian devil. But at her young age, she sees and brings and creates beauty in a hard place to smile. She makes me appreciate small things (as usual, pun intended).
Keep fighting, my friends. I am. Mickey is. Maddie is, too. Wild Bill’s wife and kids are now fighting a new fight. Just don’t give up. As this fucking life keeps teaching me, sometimes we don’t get to rest between battles. Most often we fight on multiple fronts. That takes discipline and focus. In Maddie’s tiny angelic voice let these words whisper:
“Let’s fucking gooo!”
I know Maddie knows what could come with her mother, and a lot of us in this room.
That fear stands over us all like a dark shadow. I know she’s mad at it—the big It. Whatever people mean when they say, “She’s really going through it, right now.” I’m mad at my “its”. All of them.
But there are so many beautiful and often hidden moments in battle. When a wounded soldier gets up to help a friend. When a newbie gets thrown to the wolves and emerges victorious, or whimpers and crawls away to fight another day.
_______ is tough.
Sobriety, recovery, love, battle, life. Hell, you can fill that blank with just about any word. But we do it together. Side by side and more often back to fucking back.
Fight your fight. I’ll fight mine. Mickey and Maddie each have their own. We got you and we got this. Let’s fucking go.
*Author note: A friend of mine pointed out that I should take out the part where a little baby says the F word and I apologize for the harshness of that truth. I didn’t teach her the F word. There’s a whole cool story behind that. The short version is I said LFG! my first time there and she immediately asked her mom what it meant. Her mom smiled and said, “you know what it means.” Maddie said it to me the next time we read together. She’s quite a kiddo.
Shane is a dad of two, doggo dad of one, recovering numbness addict, and current cancer warrior. In his many lives Shane has been an author, a teacher, a researcher, a restaurateur, an entrepreneur, a Taekwondo champion, a motivational speaker to inmates and parolees across Arkansas, and a world-class fuck up. With just over two years of sobriety, now he mainly just writes and journals, mainlines chemo every three weeks, and finds joy wherever he can.
Editor: Dana Gornall