By Shelley Abreu Last year, as my daughter’s official recovery period from a bone marrow transplant drew to a close, I stopped writing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my creative withdrawal happened during the same month she stopped all of her medication.
For the previous two years, we followed a treatment protocol designed to cure her of cancer. This medical plan of attack was my armor. Even when things went wrong there was always a back-up plan. In fact, when the worst happened and her cancer relapsed during treatment, the doctors simply drafted a new protocol. Of course, it wasn’t really simple. She would need a risky stem cell transplant. It was done with a lot of deliberation, care and thought. But I felt like a warrior. No matter what the test, I had marching orders.
Whenever I felt like I was slipping into a worm hole of grief, I merely had to focus on what was next---what action would move us one step closer to her cure. I knew it was dangerous. Her protocol didn’t guarantee us anything. Still, I felt protected by the task of executing each phase of her plan. There was always something on the horizon to focus on. And with my writing, there was always something positive to report. Yes, I could write about my fear and worries, but there was always tangible hope.
This past October, after ten months of post-transplant isolation, my daughter took her last dose of cancer related medicine. It was a day of celebration. I hung a banner, and we made a special dinner. I felt elated.
Then there was nothing left to do. Suddenly, the worm hole widened its mouth---jaw chomping like a wild beast. What now, it taunted?
When I sat to write, I found myself reflecting on the past or contemplating the future. But I couldn’t bear either. I was done reliving everything we had endured. And the future carried the burden of “what-if.” All we could do was wait and see and pray that the cancer didn’t return. The battle part of the story was over. And all our friends and family were declaring victory.
“You must feel so happy,” or “you must be so relieved it’s over,” people would say. It felt like they wanted me to write the final chapter. Of course, I felt those things in part. But I’m not ready to wave the flag. I keep asking myself when will that happen? When will I feel like we’ve won? Cancer will snarl at me for the rest of my life. Sometimes I feel like I’m crouching behind a rock in a flat open field waiting for the enemy to return.
What was the point of writing anymore? Why did the story still matter if I couldn’t sum it up with positive inspiration? How many ways could I write about the endless tunnel of fear that loomed around each corner of my mind. I guess the act of not writing was my new protection, my new armor, my way of not facing the unknown.
The next few months, I began to feel depressed. Disconnected from life. Strangely, even though my daughter was doing better than ever, I felt half alive. I see now by denying by fear, and my story, I was holing up in my own emotional bunker.
Last month, our family took a spur of the moment trip to the Caribbean. It was our first vacation that required a plane ride in three years. The night before our departure, I nervously threw flip-flops and bathing suits into our luggage. I was excited but also scared. It felt perilous. We had spent the last year living safely in our home, tucked away from people and their potentially life-threatening germs. Now we were free.
When we made it to our destination, I watched my kids splash around in the pool, my daughter full of life and energy. I felt the worm hole contracting just a little bit. The warm wind hushed the snarling sound in my mind. I realized it wasn’t time to just wait and see. It was time to start living again.
When we returned home, and the kids were back in school, I opened my laptop and started to write. Why? Because I realize my story does matter.
I might not always have a happy feel-good chapter to write. But who does, really? Life isn’t about outcomes. It’s about the experience of it: the beautiful, the absurd, and the horrific. Stories teach us about living, and therefore the act of writing does too. Writing helps us shed our protective armor. It makes us vulnerable. And it leads us back to ourselves---when we are lost, we find in our words the story that connects us to the fullness of our life.