Before the amputations, I was as conciliatory as they come, evincing the classic middle child’s need to bring all diverse viewpoints into happy togetherness. It’s true that I have always colored outside the lines, some. (Acknowledging that I’m a pushover doesn’t mean that I don’t think outside the box until the hammer comes down.) But if anyone looked at me earnestly and asked me to mend my ways and mend them now, I’d pretty much hop-to. My iconoclasm was reserved for matters that were of little concern to others.
When I was about 13, I had a new friend over to my house. It was maybe the third or fourth time we’d gotten together. While we were hanging out listening to music in my room, she kept looking up at the wall above my bed, where I’d recently hung a really cool, modern, teak and brushed nickel cross that I’d gotten as a confirmation gift. She was fiddling with the end of one of her waist length braids, avoiding eye contact with me, when she finally said, “That cross really offends me. Would you mind taking it down?” I felt terrible.
I jumped to get it off the nail and set it out of sight. No way I wanted to offend my new friend (who happened to be Jewish). I felt a rush of admiration for how clear she was in her beliefs, and how respectfully she communicated her needs.
When my mom later came in and inquired about the cross, I was quick to rehang it as I told her about the incident, knowing the explanation would clear everything up.
It wasn’t that simple. Mom told me with great sadness that she was really disappointed in me. She felt it was the first time I’d really sinned. Woah. When I looked at it that way, I could see her point. I felt terrible again.
That’s me. I can empathize with any and every point of view. Even when I take a strong position on a polarizing issue, I’m a lot more interested in having the discussion – intentionally and thoroughly and respectfully – and in examining all the perspectives – than in “winning” it.
Cancer and mastectomy, though, combined to remind me I only get one trip through the hall of mirrors. Simply reflecting all the views around me was a sure recipe for deathbed regret. Since the onset (post breast cancer diagnosis) of almost daily visions of myself in my final hours, keeping the peace has ceased to be inspiring as a primary lifelong m.o.
When the anaesthesia wore off, it was not just a biochemical slumber I woke from. It was spiritual – though not deliberate – and, for a long time, not conscious. I awakened with a new urge to find out what my own voice sounded like.
Upon opening my eyes in the recovery room, my first request was for a martini, which cracked up the attendant staff. (I promptly got one, too, drawn in Sharpie on a paper towel.) Over the objections of the nurses, I ordered a Reuben sandwich and a bowl of green chili within an hour after being wheeled to my room, and wolfed them down in short order. Then I ran in place to test my strength, did some pushups against the bathroom wall, and hiked around the nurse’s station before I fell asleep again.
I was determined that these amputations would transform me into a stronger human being. I was convinced the surgeons had concurrently implanted super powers. My sister held her breath by my bedside, hoping the surge of confidence would soon abate.
As my friend Marge, when she was a kid, quipped on her dad’s birthday card: “You’re not getting older, you’re getting bolder.” Without much conscious intention, the dependable pleaser I had been was gone. I was newly fearless and forthright in my readiness to speak out when I bumped up against ineffectiveness, inauthenticity, and injustice.
But, like a teenager trying on new selves, I wasn’t always graceful in living out my new world order.