Last weekend Mark and I threw off our hermit mantles and ventured off to a lovely cocktail party thrown by lovely friends we seldom see and hosted in a home I just might sneak into when the owners are away. It was beyond beyond and just the lively fellowship we needed. Thank you, Cole, Amy, and Dan!!
A highlight of the evening was being introduced to Laura. Laura is just entering the “wait and worry” stage of her cancer journey. Finished with surgery, chemo, and radiation with fresh fuzz on her head, Laura whipped off her wig with panache. While our lives are affected by different cancers, it was good to swap stories and encourage each other. It reminded me of my hungry phase when I just wanted to meet other survivors and bathe in others’ “it all turned out OK” stories.
It was during my hungry faze that we first got started doing the Race for the Cure. I still remember our first Survivor Dinner before our first race. I had talked Mark into it with the assurance that we’d meet other survivors and assured him of how much it would bolster us. And so to the Penn Club we went, me with fuzzy hair, Mark and my parents emerging from the tunnel that was treatment with a rather blinking expression. “We’re doing what, now?” “Huh?”
We chose a table off to the side a bit hoping for some great conversation with our table-mates. Our party of four was joined by a party of three: a woman, her daughter and son-in-law. The woman was the survivor. Or should I say “survivor.”
Through the course of the evening I peppered her with questions eager to find some commonality. Not far in I learned this…She had a tumor. It had been benign. BENIGN!! The word every survivor in the room would have given anything to have heard. The four of us started out confused. We slowly turned to incredulity and by the time the evening was over, I was in full blown rage. We left quickly and without a word. I took the cake from the middle of the table just for spite.
Not ones to give up quickly, we signed up for the survivor dinner the next year. Again, my parents were our guests. Mark and I got there early to secure a table without any crazies. We were soon joined by a young man who was saving two chairs. Now, because I’m telling the story you’re guessing it, but Mark and I were completely flummoxed when through the crowd emerged the fake survivor and her daughter. Too late to switch tables. Didn’t help that when it was just the young man, Mark and I had regaled him with stories of the fake survivor from the year before. No wonder he had wriggled in his seat.
So there we sit. The seven of us again. Me fuming. My parents incredulous. Mark wanting to leave.
And so, I prayed. God, give me the words I need to talk to this woman. If I’m not supposed to talk to her, let me know we need to leave. Help me here. Help. Help!
Dinner had been cleared. Dessert served. Dad left to find coffee and I took his seat beside fake survivor. Mark and Mom suddenly found many things to talk about so as not to look at me. Son-in-law came behind fake survivor and held her shoulders perhaps the only one in her party who knew the power of my rage. Dad walked in and saw me in his chair and promptly turned on his heel and walked back out.
I don’t think my voice trembled too much when I told her how insulting her charade was. That the term “survivor” meant there was someone with whom I could discuss the hell that was initial chemotherapy, the trauma of surgery, the hyper-awareness of every little thing wondering if it had returned. I told her that she insulted the women who had lost their lives to this disease as well as the families they had left behind. I talked. She cried. She talked about siblings who had died from lung cancer and how her doctor’s office had called her a survivor. “But you’re not a survivor of this,” I said, “you may be a survivor of something else but not this.” I asked her if not for me, then for the three people who had walked through the flames with me, the people eating this dinner beside me, please do not insult their journey. For the other families here who have endured and persisted, who have put one foot in front of the other. Please do not belittle it. Please don’t do this anymore.
She gave me this promise. On race day she would go to the registration tent and tell her story of the benign lump. She would ask them, she said. She would ask them if they would consider her a survivor. And she would from then on wear the appropriate shirt. White for participant. Pink for survivor.
I didn’t see her on a race day and I have not seen her since. But Mark did. And he noted the color t-shirt she wore in order to tell me later. What was it? White or Pink?
I’ll leave the answer to that in the comment section so that you have time to guess. And I’ll remain grateful for all of the wonderful conversations I’ve had with others who have walked similar turf. Paths of loss and fear. Trails marked with uncertainty and vulnerability. And I’m grateful that my anger at fake survivor is gone and replaced with pity. If I can say anything for her, at least she knew, like a poser at the VFW, that survivors had something good going and she wanted to get in on it. She certainly was right about that. My conversation with Laura this weekend just one piece of plentiful evidence.
All the best to you, Laura–to the journey behind and the journey ahead! To your eight year old daughters and your dear husband. Keep whipping off the wig with panache!!