“have you ever thought about dying?”
This week, I went with a girlfriend to a matinee showing of the new Barbie movie. While most people would not constitute sitting on plush seats in an overly air-conditioned theater with the volume turned up to 11 a breakthrough, managing to sit for two hours without an immediate need for a nap felt like a win.
We had a good laugh, grooved to the music and soaked up all that girl power, but what particularly struck me was “Stereotypical Barbie’s” desire to be human. There’s a foreshadowing of this desire when she asks her Barbie friends if they’ve ever thought about dying.
Why would anyone leave the safety and perfection of Barbieland for the complicated, and complex chaos we call life and its ultimate end?
Illness teaches us that it’s dangerous to be alive – and, maybe more specifically to be a woman born with breasts. You will get hurt, you will fail, you will experience loss. You will get sick, you will decline, you will eventually die.
Of course, the flip side of Barbie’s party-stopping question is, have you ever thought about living, really living?
As I improve each day and begin dipping a toe back into life, I think about just how did I manage to get through this…um, adventure.
Typing “adventure” as opposed to the more popular “journey” must indicate to you that the lexicon of cancer and our cultural scripts simply don’t resonate with me. They put forth narrow expectations to be courageous and not to whine, to be strong and not exhibit terror, to be aggressive and never feel ambivalence. I simply cannot abide.
Take the word “survivor.” I tried it on for size, but it didn’t fit. A bilateral mastectomy is gross and disfiguring, it’s about as far from “pink” as one can get. It’s an amputation. Sure I survived by managing the pain, the panic, those awful drains, getting so little sleep and dealing with being maimed, but I didn’t carry on with a stiff upper lip.
I toggled between a “wall punching profanicator” and a puddle of sobs, an exploding ordinance of equal parts rage and sorrow – of course, in between more serene and joyful moments (plus sick humor). I knew in my gut that no amount of positive mental attitude or arms-raised-in-the-air courage was going to pull me through.
What got me to lay down on a gurney and let them cut me up was ornery stubbornness.
This week, I started working again. I played my flute at St. Ambrose, prepped talks I’ll give in the fall, and completed my project for the Porcupine Mountains Artist-in-Residence. l was hired to voice a video for a breakthrough cancer drug. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Am I maybe reading with more empathic commitment? Can a listener hear that I truly care?
Yet, things feel weird like I’m not the same person anymore.
I’ve been warned that as my body heals, my emotional world will take time to catch up. These past three months have been traumatic and destabilizing. Being sick has caused me to lose my way, to lose the map that previously guided my life.
Last night I went to a club meetup and felt so disconnected and exhausted I came home in tears. Richard consoled me by pointing out a quirk in my personality. He told me that no matter what’s happened in my life, I somehow keep going. I move forward and do the next thing that needs to be done. I constantly reinvent myself.
I have no idea where it comes from, but he’s right. Pushing through – with a healthy dose of ornery stubbornness – is one of my superpowers, even if I kick and scream the whole way.
During the credits for Barbie, cartoon-like drawings appear on screen of odd Barbies of yore, many discontinued for pretty obvious reasons. Like “Growing Up Skipper” who’s breasts bulge out when you move her arm. Or “Pregnant Midge” complete with a detachable, fully-formed baby. Of course, even with child, she’s smiling and perfect.
I started to wonder if there was a “Mastectomy Barbie” perhaps with detachable breasts. Indeed there is a “Brave (another one of those over-used descriptors) Barbie” having undergone chemo. She’s also smiling and perfect, even if totally bald.
I am not perfect – but, oddly, I’m often smiling. That’s not because I am “better” for having had cancer. It’s because I accept it.
Acceptance is such a quiet and internal task, one that’s extremely hard because it requires us to embrace each dimension of the lived experience, to feel it fully and incorporate all of it into what constitutes who we are.
That’s why the word “survivor” doesn’t work for me. It stops the conversation and avoids the reality of the naked and vulnerable internal struggle. It’s a struggle of confusion and heartbreak that wraps itself within what can oftentimes be breathtaking beauty in healing and returning to wholeness – or even falling down laughter at how ridiculous being alive can sometimes be.
I don’t want to survive and rise above my wounds, but to travel with them. Those ten-inch scars are part of me now. And in the end, that’s the risk we – and Barbie – take. By becoming real, we accept that maybe one day we’ll have ten inch scars on our chests, or that we’ll lose part of our life due to managing illness, or worry about cancer returning and spreading throughout our vulnerable bodies.
But it’s the price we pay in being human, to feel both ecstasy and grief, to feel love.
Maybe a better word than “thriver” is “aliver” because in spite of this ordeal, I keep moving forward in search of a pathway that leads, maybe not to peace or happiness, but to what’s next, to how the story unfolds and to how I might reinvent myself by being open to life as it is.
You might call this one “The Real Deal Barbie.”