I’ve been living with my diagnosis for just over four months now, and I’m continually surprised at how my experience of the news has evolved. I recognize within myself the changing landscape of emotions day to day, minute by minute. Now that I’m not purely on survival mode, this diagnosis has settled into the fabric of my identity. It’s not who I am, but it’s certainly a large part of my human experience.
Being diagnosed with cancer didn’t just change my relationship with myself, it changed my relationships. The way I interact with my coworkers, family, and friends has shifted in ways both subtle and dramatic.
If you’ll allow me, I’d like to explain what I mean using the analogy of a house fire. I chose this because it’s ostensibly imaginable and involves a lot of help. (Well, okay, the other reason being I’ve been watching a lot of This Is Us recently. ) It’s not a perfect analogy, but it communicates my point well enough.
When a house catches fire, hopefully someone alerts the authorities early enough and firefighters show up. My uncle was a volunteer firefighter, and I have fond memories of hanging out with him in the firehouse when I was younger. Here’s what I know: firefighters are unfathomably brave. They walk into blistering heat knowing their hat might melt to their scalp and they may leave needing medical care of their own. Without firefighters, buildings would burn right to the ground and leave so many without a place to call home.
Eventually, when their job is done, the firefighters leave. After an appraisal, some guidance, and lots of complicated insurance steps I don’t understand, contractors and workers come in to help re-build the house. Anyone who has ever had remodeling or construction work completed can tell you: it takes a long time. Deadlines are set and then pushed back. Calendars are changed. Plywood frames seem to stand bare in the cold, unchanging and without progress. But construction workers are undeterred. They’re hardworking, show up day after day regardless of the working conditions, and stick it out so that someday, somebody can move back in.
There’s another group, too. It contains a wide range of people who aren’t as apparent at first. As the house is burning, there are some who aren’t quite sure what to do in an emergency, or they don’t think it right to intervene, since it appears everything is being taken care of. Maybe some people feel it’s best to stay out of the way and say some prayers that everyone gets out safely and or that rebuilding goes according to plan. Fires are pretty terrifying, so it’s understandable it strikes a chord of fear in some and they don’t want to get too close. Or maybe one of the pipes just burst in a neighboring home, and that person needs to get on it before their basement floods and their possessions are lost. And I’m fairly certain there are some people who are just staring at the moment, still shocked at the fire happening just down the block, on their very own street.
In case you haven’t caught on by now… I’m the house. And the homeowner. (I warned you this wasn’t a perfect analogy.)
When I was diagnosed, I was astonished at the number of people who rushed to help through their words, gestures, and thoughts. I received flowers, cards, text messages, and food. People offered me excursions to distract me from my circumstance, a place to stay in the city, their beautiful stories, their platelets: you name it, I received the offer. It was absolutely critical so soon after my diagnosis. If I didn’t have this outpouring of support during the first few days, I probably would have melted down completely. I’m so lucky to have these first-responders in my life.
In the weeks since, I’ve received less of the “emergency” response and moved into the builder experience. There’s not as many daily offers of help now that the smoke has died down, but a committed group shows up to check in and make sure things are on track. They’re the ones sending a text once a week, just to say hi. They’re the ones messaging me funny memes. Let it be known: these people are just as important the firefighters. They recognize that I’m not in a dire circumstance, but they can see that I’m currently down to the studs, and at times, in need of an extra pair of hands. I’m so lucky to have these foundation-layers in my life.
The third group is tough to describe at times because it’s less of a vocal and visible role. (I myself am not sure who’s entirely in it.) It could be that someone doesn’t feel it’s their place to reach out, or they’re more comfortable stepping back and sending some good thoughts my way. For many, there’s a good chance I haven’t heard that someone I’m otherwise close to is experiencing recent hardship or emotional trauma, and by all means, I WANT you to take care of yourself so you can be all that the world needs you to be. Just as I am lucky to have the firefighters and the contractors, I’m lucky to have the quiet support from people who want the best for me: I swear they are knitting and re-knitting the invisible wings I reach for and strap on my back on the hardest of days.
What pains me most to admit is that there are people in my life who I expected to show up, and they haven’t. I don’t know why they aren’t able to be around (at least not yet). It’s embarrassing to admit because the number of these individuals pales in comparison to those in the other categories. But to omit this fact from an honest recording of my cancer experience would mean I’m not telling my full truth.
It doesn’t in any way detract from the volume of love, support, and good thoughts I’ve received from others. It’s just as though I expected someone to help me with a task, then something happened and they couldn’t make it, and I never got word. “Well, okay,” I think, and I try to make peace with it and not to take it personally. Because here’s the thing: despite them not being there when I expected them to arrive, I’m lucky to have them, too. Each of them had a role to play in my life in some way. I wouldn’t be who I am without their influence. Besides, who’s to say they won’t show up later?
I try to operate on the hypothesis that everyone is doing the best they can. It may sound spiritually enlightened… but it’s also just an easier way of getting through life without dramatizing too much. I believe deeply that it’s best to leave room for grace and generosity. I fully support giving people the benefit of the doubt. And regardless of whether or not they’re around now, no one is more worthy of that generosity then the incredible people who are part of my life.
A Housewarming: All Are Welcome
Here’s what I want you to know: very, very few people can be both a first responder and a foundation-layer, and that’s the way it is supposed to be. Your true, authentic response, whatever it may be, is perfect, valid, and absolutely necessary. There is no need to change who you are or how you respond.
Stop trying to be a builder if you’re a first responder: if you didn’t send me that text that first week after I was diagnosed, I may have not gotten through my first week of living with cancer.
Don’t guilt yourself because you weren’t a first responder and you’re here to build: your support now, in the quieter moments, is so, so needed.
And I promise you, it’s okay to sit this one out, my friend: you may need to be an observer in my experience so you can be the first responder or builder in someone else’s life. Go. I’ve got this. And they need you.
There are very few individuals who have the emotional bandwidth and stamina to show up day after day after day for my needs. I myself get exhausted with my own drama at times. I consider myself inordinately blessed to have more firefighter/builders than I can count on one hand, and I hold them close and try to tell them every day just how much I love them and appreciate them.
There’s a great passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love where Elizabeth describes the difference between her sister and herself through a short anecdote, which I’ll attempt to capture accurately here for you. When her family received the news that another family experienced a tragedy, Elizabeth’s first thought was “my goodness, that family needs such grace right now.” Her own sister responded,”that family needs casseroles,”
Whoever you are, no matter what you bring to the table (grace, casserole, or company), thank you for being part of my journey. I’m lucky to have you here.
7 thoughts on “To Build (and Re-Build) a Home”
As always, when you write your feelings for all to see and experience I think to myself – wow she is like a word goddess even through the toughest of times. I realize that words are healing. You are healing me as I read each of these “excerpts”. Thank you for being there to soothe so many and to heal as you heal. The Cioccas lift you up and see all positive in your journey. Be well and know that the fire/house has a survivor and that is YOU!
You don’t know me. My daughter’s were either trained by your dad and/or taught by your dad in school. I follow your journey and I am a prayer warrior on your behalf as well as your family’s. Your words are so elegant. They show how strong and how vulnerable you are and let people (even ppl who you don’t know) see you for who you are as a person. I’m fighting with you in silence. Wishing you all of the best and the absolute strength to battle this and win. You have so many silent people in your corner.
I have a friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t know for so long and one day, I texted her and told her I was thinking about her. She then told me. I was in shock. I texted her fairly regularly and visited, sent food. Sometimes, people just don’t know how to act or react to these types of situations. One day they will show up. Your outlook is so graceful and refreshing and I’m sure it is difficult for you to feel that way while you are in the biggest fight of your life.
Stay strong. So many people are in your corner regardless of you even knowing me or you knowing they are. They just simply don’t know how to react, maybe.
And I apologize for my grammatical errors! Hahahaha. I’m not the best writer out there and already see that I say “daughter’s” in the first sentence. hehehehe.
Hi Ms. Hagen!
No need to apologize at all – I so greatly appreciate your kind, generous post! This is just a testament to the fact that even though we’ve never met, you’re a part of my cancer experience. I so greatly appreciate your prayers.
And on behalf of your friend who has breast cancer, thank you for being a builder. I wish her all the best on her road to wellness! If you do happen to see me out and about – be sure to introduce yourself. I’d love to say hi!
Darling, the only thing I didn’t like about your analogy was casserole. I hate it.
Thank you for being you and sharing so openly with us. It is so kind and frankly so you to write a post that essentially takes care of everyone around/following/whatever you want to call it you right now. I know so many people are responding, building and just thinking of you right now. You deserve all of it and more. Take care of you every second of every day Christina ❤️
I see you as the fire in the sense that you ara strong, hot and burning this thing down.
Just in case you don’t know, your beautiful posts probably help and inspire us more than they do you.
We are here. We are rooting for you and we are grateful for you.
Blessings to you, Christina. You are always so eloquent and carry on with grace. You have a very unique insight. May you be surrounded by people who continue to lift you up .
Once again, thank you for sharing and complete honestly! You are amazing!