I am a woman in process. I’m just trying like everybody else. I try to take every conflict, every experience, and learn from it. Life is never dull.
~ Oprah Winfrey
I have always been a bit more emotional than everyone else in my life. Once, in casual conversation, a guy asked me in an effort to connect deeply with me, how often I cried? I laughed and giddily exclaimed, “All the time!” I shared my self-deprecation and my laughter as freely as my tears. I was not embarrassed by or uncomfortable with my emotions – they were a part of me that I wholly embraced. Crying and laughing cleansed my soul in different ways, and with all the emotions flying around inside of my developing body, I needed those outlets.
I needed them because although in retrospect I could see that my family life was dysfunctional, I did not recognize it at the time. I also did not know that I had created a bubble of happiness to surround myself with as I traveled around my little town. At nineteen and twenty years old, with that bubble wrapped tightly around me, I laughed and I cried, and I had the sort of blast that can only thrive within ignorance of the world’s dangers. At that age, my very being was electrified with the possibilities of everything, and newly woven into my bubble was invincibility. I had been loosening the metaphorical apron strings that bound me to my parents, so that by the age of twenty, I positioned myself with my foot against the running block; I glared at the competition on either side of me; and when the starting shot sounded, I stretched my long legs to take flight along the racetrack into adulthood.
Alas, unbeknownst to me, those strings had been reset, so my legs did not move freely. I tripped where I stood, and as I looked back in confusion, I saw the pained faces of my mother and father side by side; my brother standing near them with a furrowed brow and a beer in his hand. But there was someone else, too, whom I could not clearly see. As the dust from my fellow sprinters returned softly to the earth, I sorted through the unfamiliar features of a stranger in my line of sight: Black hair. Caramel-brown skin and thick eyeglasses. His frame was slight, and when he spoke, his voice was accented and kind. It warmed my shaking soul. I vaguely wondered about the tears running down my cheeks until I saw the movement of the stranger’s mouth and heard the words softly leaving his lips. Today, I can only recall a few of his words, but in reality, I am sure there were many more. I heard ‘Mother’ and ‘cancer’, and the sound of my own sobbing voice asking him what it meant. I remember the racetrack of my imagination falling away as I walked with him to my mother’s hospital room. I remember her loving smile while she reassured me that everything would be okay. I remember her telling me to not bother my dad at work with an update – she would tell him when he stopped by in the evening. I remember thinking that that was absurd, but now I believe it was love and kindness and valor.
I don’t remember much from the year-and-a-half of treatment that followed. My self-preserving psyche will only allow me to glimpse that painful time from a distance, as though I am viewing it through Polaroid snapshots taken from eighteen rows back. I know she threw up from the chemotherapy a few times a week, yet I only remember seeing and hearing her once. I know she lost her hair, but I don’t remember the process of her loss. I remember that when my bubble burst into a thousand sharp-edged pieces, I nursed my wounds with alcohol and embraced the pounding rhythmic beats of countless nightclubs after each long day of work. I remember the night someone bumped into me and I prayed that she would do it again so I would have somewhere to vent my heartbreak and anger. I remember the day when I was driving to nowhere in particular, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know when the last time was that I had cried. That had never happened before. What had become of my gleeful proclamations of crying every day? What had happened to my laughter untouched by sorrow?
Where was Angel?
That day, as I gazed over the steering wheel wondering where I had been and where I was going, I knew that this single event in my family’s life had irrevocably changed me. Although it would be a long and exhausting journey to find my way back to some resemblance of who I was, and although my family’s experience with cancer had had a defining impact upon my youthful self, I knew that it would not, in the pages of my life, be my only definition.