Fourteen years ago. It seems like yesterday. I remember the moment the doctor said for me to call my husband to help brace the fall of the news. News that didn’t seem real. News that seemed like a cartoon anvil on a coyote. My husband was just a law student at the time with his hat on low wearing those wrinkly khaki shorts I was always ribbing him about to throw away. “He’s in class,” I pressed. I sat in a haze wondering when he would arrive. But in this moment time was just a clock spinning and it meant nothing as I sat staring at the beard of the doctor talking. I couldn’t hear the words. I couldn’t process the thought of melanoma spreading, crushing, drowning out my life. I couldn’t bear the thought of a life barren, without fruit, without children or a legacy or a career, and I thought of my eye ripped out with a hole left instead, dangling. I asked for a tissue, but when it hit my fingers I let it fall.
Falling was familiar. I watched this shirt fall like a feather to the ground as the x-rays and the CTs and the machines purred like kittens to be petted. “It’s gonna be okay honey,” those nurses said. But they get to go home to their casseroles and their television shows and their veins that don’t carry poison. What do they know of life. I could barely pick it up and thrust my arms through the holes.
I remember the falling of tears, the high of the medicine falling away, and the pain that surged like knives. I remember always falling back into things – pity, depression, doubt, fear. And then I remember falling into the arms of my people, who delivered pasta and held me at night, and falling so hard into prayer that we formed a communion, God and I, just sitting there in some form of space talking.
So I wear this shirt now to remember. A shirt my grandmother cast out of the closet because it was too small. I threw it on one morning in April 2001 not realizing that I’d be wearing it on this day for the next 14 years. I didn’t realize the rest of my life would be a cocktail of unknowing, but also blessings and tender mercies. There have been a litany of falls. It seems as if I’m always documenting the going down and the rising. I wrote this years ago, and it still applies:
“God doesn’t do surplus. He won’t accept lukewarm, or dependence when it’s easy, or prayers only on Sundays. He doesn’t believe all religions are created equal or we can just slide by unnoticed or half-ass our way to salvation by putting ourselves first. We have to let it all go. Not because our palms are sweaty and we just can’t hold on any longer, but because we want to. And friends, there is joy in submission. Joy that envelops fear, and pain, and deep, dark wounds. Joy that frees us from the beating and torture and darkness that penetrates. It’s in these moments where you have nothing else to hold onto but God himself. A smile starts to crack, and then it widens, and joy enters in.”
Today after pancakes, I told my children the story of my many surgeries, and they listened perched on the couch like an active audience. They especially like the cataract removal one that I did without anesthesia. I have lots of stories, for life is a collection of picking up again, of gathering and releasing, of falling and surrendering. During these past 14 years I have truly lived a full life. Life full of grace and purpose, laughter and joy, new beginnings. So I wear this shirt again and smile, since it’s a reminder of how far one can go in the midst of a decade. It reminds me of my grandmother, who has now passed. Of my children, who were birthed into this imperfect world. Today I’m taking them to Cabela’s to look at the animals, and we might take a detour for milkshakes. I’m wearing shorts since it’s warm out, and the sun is casting a glow on the rain-soaked leaves. Surely He says to us that our hearts can be rendered pure, and I believe it. Things change, and hope can begin to sprout again.
Despite what you are falling into, there is always the getting up again. Today I’m standing tall and bearing it, because I know nothing will cause us to fall forever. It’s always just a wave of down before the up. A maturity in knowing that the sun will rise. That years will peel away and yet life will begin anew. But it’s always wise to remember the past, and be forever and eternally grateful for the scars that mold us.
I close my eyes for a moment in remembrance, even the eye that is battered and radiation-damaged and weak, propped up with stilts. And then I open them. Because there’s always the opening, and the surviving, and rising again.