i took ten days of unpaid leave after my best friend died suddenly five years ago. i actually don’t think anyone knows that. agnes died on a monday afternoon near the end of april. and when it comes to bereavement leave, it’s kinda nonexistent when it isn’t family. ten days. i spent that time sobbing hysterically into my pillows, shopping online for anything and everything that would bring me peace, sifting through her desk drawers, helping to settle her estate, planting window boxes and shuttering the world around me. it was a particularly dark few weeks in my life. when i returned to work, it was like staring at the experience over and over again. we shared a wall. we taught the same grade. we lesson planned together. shared the same planning period. walked in a walking group every morning at ten. the whole thing just felt empty. the plants on her desk had wilted. because i was the only one who would’ve thought to water them. and by our fourth block of the day, i was barely able to see through my tears. i stepped into the hall to take a breath. teaching ninth grade was hard but doing it while actively grieving was even harder. the next thing i know, ten students pull me into a group hug and they began to rock me back and forth, singing ‘lean on me’. you know that song. ‘lean on me, when you’re not strong. and i’ll be your friend, i’ll help you carry on. for it won’t be long, til i’m gonna need somebody to lean on’. for like seven whole minutes. i didn’t ask them. i didn’t even tell them i was stepping into the hall. they just knew. it’s one of my top five teaching moments and it’s one that i hold so close to my heart. and here’s why.
i am having a hard time. there i said it. i have fallen into the shadows. really not a good look. it’s a lot of things though- the hair loss, the crippling stomach pains, not being able to eat anything, not having enough energy to even focus on a television show, forgetting what i was going to say, waking up every morning and not going to work. it’s also how every centimeter of my skin is different. blistered in some places, raw and patchy in others. peeling and scarred in places too. it’s also that i am thirty one. i am supposed to be in the prime of my life, right? building my career and establishing my life with my wonderful husband. window shopping for houses on zillow and working on my dissertation. walking my dog and trying new recipes. doing laundry and putting together new outfits for the work week. trying new makeup products and sniffing shampoo at target. getting frozen yogurt with my friends and watching movies on the weekends. chasing my niece in the loop while she rides her scooter. ordering pizza and hanging out til ten. that’s what i am supposed to be doing. but i am not. i’m battling the wicked side effects from chemo drugs. i am missing all of those things. i am watching it all happen. while i sit here. and that’s probably harder than anything else. watching all the things i love and miss, just kinda rush past me. moments and memories that i won’t get to have. i will get to remember how sick i was. i feel like i am falling behind- like this year will become this gap, where i miss so much of what feeds my soul. and that i will become so far behind that i will never catch up. that i will miss the inside jokes and the funny stories and the firsts and the moments. and that i will feel left out. and will always feel a little behind. i promise you, i am chasing the sun. i try really hard to make lists of all the bright spots. it’s a small list but i have one. i remind myself that i could be all alone. or that i could be without health insurance or incredible medical care. i could’ve never caught it to begin with. i could be sicker. i could have a worse prognosis. or the cancer could be in other places. and i have to often stop and remind myself that while this journey is quite large, it also could be so much bigger.
but in the same breath, i find myself crying on the phone to my husband. who by the way, hasn’t been living with me for the last five weeks. after my first round of chemo literally kicked my ass and i found myself with a double mouth infection and lost sixteen pounds in nine days; i moved into my childhood bedroom. and i have been here ever since. obviously, we have decided to move and have packed up our third floor apartment and will move in two weeks and finally be under the same roof. but i literally fell apart on the phone tonight. because let me tell you; having cancer is lonely. it’s one of the loneliest experiences of my life. well aside from forty two days of isolation while battling an infectious disease just six months ago, but ya know- water under the bridge. it’s hard not to go to those places sometimes. when the world feels a little quiet. when you start to feel like it’s only happening to you. when you just want a break in the action. i search for the bright spots incessantly. i feel like that is all i do sometimes. and sometimes, i feel like i have to search, high and low. like when someone asks me how i am- i always include bright spots. it only feels fair. to not unload all this onto someone. but it is lonely. despite the amazing supports that i have in my life. it’s lonely. it’s hard to describe and even harder to unpack to people. your body goes through so much. and not just like side effects and medicine and all that. i mean, like a complete body dysmorphic shift into an alternate universe. one where everytime i walk past a mirror, i stop and think, ‘wow, is that me?’ because sometimes it feels too big. and sometimes i want to quit. and a lot of the time, i don’t even feel like i know who i am. and sure, it’s temporary. isn’t everything in life? literally. you can make absolutely anything short term or long term or in between. that’s kinda the beauty of it. but even though there will be an end, that’s a bright spot that doesn’t always lock me in to this experience. it’s been an entire shift of my existence; of who i am. i have lost my sense of self and am struggling to figure out who i will be when this is all over. battling with my mental health, struggling with the loss of independency, absolutely hating that people see me as sick. watching every inch of my skin react to medications. hoping that i will still have my career on the other side of this. finding the true friends in all of this. it’s heavier than i thought it would be. it’s more draining than i thought it would be. it’s a lot harder than i thought it would be.
but i think back to that moment in a dusty high school hallway five years ago. literally ten days after i lost my best friend in a tragic car accident. standing there. no actually, leaning there. on the shoulders of ninth graders. leaning and swaying and singing and humming. being held up in hardship. being recognized in grief. being acknowledged as broken and hurting and having a hard time. and i think that’s what got me to the next day, and the day after that and the months after that and to this very day now. five years later. the lean. the ability to shift the ugliest weight into the shoulders of others. which is super hard for me. asking for help and showing that i am weak in places. to uncover the cracks in my surface. that’s hard for me.
but maybe, just maybe; it is okay to lean. when it feels heavy. when it feels like too much. when it feels scary or lonely or overwhelming. we can use those people. the ones who show up for you. the ones who make paper countdown chains and paint your toes and order tshirts and are always there. the ones who call and text and bring soup or send a card or text. the ones who hold you in silence. the ones who wrap you in love. the ones who hold you close in times of trouble. the ones who let you lean. because leaning is okay. it’s what athletes do on the sidelines with their teammates. it’s what couples do at the movie theaters. it’s what babies do in the neck crease of their mamas. it’s support. it’s someone who is there.
it’s for the times when you can’t always be strong. but it doesn’t mean you’re weak. it’s okay to lean. and so, i think i will rest my head and lean a little more. xo.