I ran into a former colleague friend at the grocery store the other day. She told me that she liked being my Facebook friend because unlike so many others, my posts are not all Pollyanna and sunshine, that unlike so many others, I tell it like it is. I considered it high praise, not because I spurn our collective tendency to create carefully curated versions of ourselves on Facebook, but because I believe so wholeheartedly in the power of connection, and I believe that vulnerability is the key to connection.
Case in point. Today I had a long-dreaded CT scan to see if my cancer remains in remission. Despite all my angst—and there was a great deal of it—it does. I am grateful and relieved.
But I am also beginning to understand, for the first time since I was diagnosed and treated in 2012, what it really means to have survived cancer. I thought I understood this before, but I didn’t. After I got the news that my scans were clear, I wept. Not with relief, not with joy, not with gratitude, even though I felt all of those things. I wept because I understood, at last, that this fear and uncertainty will always be with me. No matter how many scans I pass, I’ll never stop worrying that the cancer might come back or that some other cancer is waiting—waiting for just the right series of clicks and rotations on one of my genes—to finally jump out of the closet in which it’s hiding and nab me.
This is hard for many people to hear. In the past, my Facebook updates about clean scans have been jubilant, written in all caps, and littered with exclamation points. But today I did not feel jubilant. I did not feel like exclamation points but rather like ellipses, like it’s only a matter of time before cancer ultimately finishes the rest of the sentence. True or not, that’s what today felt like.
I know that people want to see exclamation points. They want jubilation. They want joy and gratitude. I get it. If I were in their shoes, watching someone I knew lose a child and endure cancer after she’d already lost a mother and endured a divorce, I’d want the same thing. I’d crave it, because I’d want to know that it’s possible, after not one but a series of tragedies, to somehow get back up and go on, to still feel both joy and gratitude. I’d want to know that if I were ever faced with something similar, there would be hope for me.
But I know from experience that I’d be doing everyone a disservice if I only ever served up exclamation points with a side of gratitude. Because connection is the reason that we are here. Not simply connection over joy—that kind of connection is easy. It’s much harder to connect over the things that make us squirm or weep or seethe, the things we don’t want to imagine, the things we don’t want to sit with. And that’s exactly why it’s so important to do it.
It’s important because it’s in those moments that we all most need to know that we are not alone.
It’s important because our most important role as humans is to bear witness, to offer compassion, to empathize with one another.
It’s important because the reason we are here is to be with one another, not only when things are Pollyanna and sunshine, but when we are broken and bitter and vulnerable, stuck in our beds in the dark with the curtains drawn.
It’s important because if we can’t be with each other during those times, then what, I ask, is the point?