I have been writing more about my walking/race training and school recently than I have about breast cancer. To read this blog, you might think breast cancer is a distant memory for me now. It is far from that, however, and I still think about it a lot more than I want to. I talk about it a lot, too, both because I often run into someone who asks me how I’m doing and because it seems to come up in my conversation frequently these days. Sometimes those conversations happen in unexpected ways.
We live in the same town that Randy and I lived in while we were growing up. I never thought I’d end up living here, but it turns out to be a great place to raise kids, so here we are.
This used to be a relatively small rural community. When my family moved here in the late 70s the population was about 5,000. To get to our high school you had to traverse several country roads and then drive down a driveway surrounded by cornfields and cow pastures. This area is one of the fastest growing in the state, however, and now the population is around 30,000 and the high school is surrounded by hotels, malls, homes, and fast food restaurants. It doesn’t look much like it looked in 1979.
We moved back here right after Karly was born and just as area growth was starting to explode. One of the first commercial buildings to be built across the street from the high school was a Jewel grocery store. (For those of you who are not from Chicago, Jewel is a large grocery chain owned by the same company as Albertsons.) I remember very well when the store opened because it was just a couple of blocks from our house. If we lived in the city it would have been within walking distance. The store opened right around the time that Blake was born, about 14 years ago or so. I started shopping there when it opened and I shopped there almost exclusively for years despite the addition of a Dominicks, a Cub Foods, a Super Target, Super Wal-Mart and a Meijer in the same vicinity. We have since moved to a different house, but the Jewel is still pretty close. I haven’t frequented the store as much in the last couple of years because a new grocery store opened up in the area that has much better prices. However, I still stop in a couple of times a week to pick up fresh meat or produce or other last minute meal ingredients.
I made one of those last minute stops one day last week to pick up ingredients for dinner, including some fresh shrimp. I stopped at the butcher counter and placed my order and the woman behind the counter told me that she thought my hair was really cute. I have been getting lots of compliments on my short style recently, and I always laugh to myself at the fact that people think this is a choice that I have made. This time was no exception.
As I was standing there thinking about how shocked she would probably be if she knew why my hair was this short, she suddenly asked me, very pointedly, how I was feeling. I looked at her closely, and realized that she recognized me and that she knew exactly why my hair is this short. What is amazing about that is that I don’t know this woman except as an employee of Jewel who works behind the butcher counter. I don’t know her name or where she lives, and we have never met each other outside of the grocery store. I recognize her from the meat department, but I’m not sure if we have ever even spoken to one another before. I told her that I was feeling great and that I was surprised that she knew who I was. She assured me that she recognized me and that her heart had gone out to me when she saw me shopping in the store last year. (I knew that she was referring to my parade of scarves and hats.)
I was astounded that she recognized me and remembered me, and I told her again that I couldn’t believe that she knew who I was and then I found myself getting a little teary about it and I told her so. She told me that of course she knew me, and that she also knew that I had been shopping in the store since they opened. She said that she remembered when I used to come in with my babies who were probably not babies any more.
We talked for a few more seconds until my shrimp was wrapped and ready to go and then I continued shopping for the other items on my list. I found myself feeling a little emotional about the encounter for awhile afterward, though. I was so humbled last year by the outpouring of support that I received from my family and friends and classmates and teachers and doctors and nurses and strangers and from my blog readers and their families and friends—I am still humbled by it. I have said before that it was often the thing that got me through the hardest parts. Discovering that even a grocery store employee was watching me go through the experience and was rooting for me was surprising and touching and meant so much to me.
Cancer is awful in so many ways. It is hard and frightening and life-changing. It brings things into your life that you hope that you never have to experience. But it is a strange thing because it also brings amazing things into your life. I have frequently told people that sometimes having cancer made me feel like I got to observe my own funeral. People told me things about how they felt about me and my family that they might never have told me if I wasn’t dealing with breast cancer. I got to hear the kinds of things that they might say about me if they came to my funeral and I got to acknowledge, through their own words, the ways in which my life and the lives of other people have touched one another. I wish that everyone could experience this kind of affirmation, because it is powerful. As I have started to work my way out of the darkness of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, I find myself trying every day to tell people how I feel about them. I hope that I can always remember to stop and reflect on the ways in which people touch me and to tell them about it.
If I could give only one piece of advice to a friend or family member of a cancer fighter, it would be to tell them how you feel. Tell them what they mean to you and how much you care about them. Your love and friendship is powerful, incredible, healing stuff.