When I was in graduate school I wrote my papers by hand, literally writing things out then cutting up and pasting together sheets of paper with tape. When finished, I would put all the pieces together then type it up on my electric typewriter. That was how it went throughout graduate school, without too much trouble, until my final paper was due and my hand began to swell up, making it difficult to write. When I complained to my friends and fellow students, I discovered that many of us had ailments that seemed to pop up just at the end of our graduate-school experience. Hunter College School of Social Work was a lovely, safe place where we were nurtured by our professors and by one another. Moving on to become a mental health professional was unsettling. None of us felt quite ready, and I believe that these unusual ailments emerged to remind us that there were feelings we just weren’t dealing with. Well, we all moved on, of course, and my hand eventually felt better. Today, life is even easier with a computer.
The fear of moving on was frightening. We were leaving a safe space and had difficulty facing the fear of struggling with the unknown. This is something I have been feeling again lately as I move toward the end of my chemotherapy treatment. Cancer and chemotherapy are physically and emotionally draining, but my doctor and supportive medical staff have helped me through it by taking care of me on both a physical and emotional level. They always reassured me when I needed it and helped me through difficult and frightening times. Knowing I would have to leave their safety net was difficult, and equally frightening was having to move on to another unknown. I felt sad and frightened, but I pushed through my last chemotherapy treatment anyway, albeit with ambivalence.
The nurse administering my final treatment was wonderful and when I told her that it was my last one, she became excited and asked me if I wanted to ring the bell, a ritual for patients finishing their last chemotherapy treatment. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to. In boxing matches, the bell is rung after the end of a round, but the fight is not necessarily over. I was reluctant to ring the bell because my struggle is not yet over, but I decided to ring it anyway, and I was so glad that I did. It changed everything.
As we were walking over to the bell, my nurse told the other nurses where we were headed and they got excited and joined me for the ritual. They watched and cheered as I rang the bell. I rang once tentatively, then again with more gusto. The sound and vibration resonated through me and at that moment my reluctance faded away and was replaced by the joy of the staff cheering me on, which made me realize that I accomplished something big. I did it! I experienced tremendous anxiety during the eight months of having symptoms but not knowing what ailed me. Then I got through 18 weeks of ingesting all sorts of chemicals that had many miserable side effects. I got through numerous tests and challenges, and even though my fight is not over, the sound of the bell at that very moment made me ready for the next challenge. It washed away my anxiety and ambivalence and replaced them with the elated feeling of accomplishment. At that moment nothing else mattered, not even fear of the unknown.
Life has a way of giving us what we need when we need it. A day or two before my last treatment, I was reading a magazine article by Brandi-Ann Uyemura that spoke about ways of rediscovering your passion. She wrote about suffering and stated that the word “passion” comes from the Latin which means to suffer. She goes on to say, “The path toward finding passion encompasses suffering and joy, pain and opportunity.” She helped me to understand that suffering, though unpleasant, is not something to avoid. Facing it and moving through it brings its own set of rewards.
Just a few days later, the civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis died. I was watching a retrospective on his life’s achievements and there was a quote that rang true for me. He said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Both of these messages inspire me to connect with the brave part of me, to move with eagerness and determination toward the many unknown paths that lie ahead of me. Yes, I will be afraid, and uneasy, but I will move forward anyway because the struggle will be worth it. Their messages remind me that facing a struggle is not a curse or a burden. It’s part of the experience of life. The struggle is in trying to figure it all out, in finding our way. The reward of struggle can be inspiring, like ringing a bell after getting through a difficult ordeal. It helps us see our strength and endurance, and rituals, in general, help us mark an ending, which gets us ready for a new beginning. Struggle helps unknown parts of us emerge, like when I am trying to figure out how to design my next embroidery project, and a spurt of creativity eventually pops up, and it feels wonderful because I figured it out. My father possessed this quality. He made every misfortune sound like a fun adventure. He grew up during the Great Depression and told fascinating stories about his resourcefulness during desperate times. My brother inherited this quality, too, and he always manages to see problems that comes his way as an exciting challenge. This is a quality I always appreciated but it is only now that I can acknowledge it at a deeper level, because I have learned to look at challenge differently.
I will go through the next step of my recovery, stem-cell transplant, carefully and successfully. I will seek the guidance of another supportive team. I will get through it and when it is over, I will be able to move on to the next part of my life. I have faith that as one door closes, another opens, and that there will be another path for me to follow. I am not sure what it is at this time, but I don’t need to know. I have faith that the unknown path will reveal itself when I am ready, and I am not afraid of the struggle anymore. In fact, I feel ready for it.