In the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel there is a character named Graham Dashwood played by Tom Wilkinson. With a group of retirement-aged people, Graham Dashwood chooses to go to India, to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. One of his motivations was to discover what happened to a long lost love. What is unknown to the group of people with whom he went was he had a life threatening illness he never shared.
I too went to a foreign country with a group of similarly aged people, not to find a long lost love, although a deepening of love for my mother occurred. Rather, I too chose not to share my “back story”. I didn’t realize until my return what was beneath my motivation. For the first time in a long time I got to be Renee Meyers not Renee Cancer Meyers. The hosts of the group knew my situation, my mother knew, but the other 26 people knew nothing.
I was happy. Free. Weightless. I got to be the version of me I envisioned. I didn’t care if anyone asked a single thing about my life. I was content to be interested in learning about theirs.There was the story of “Ted” who had a huge limb from an equally huge tree fall on him last winter during a nasty windstorm, puncturing his lung and breaking his arm. He brought pictures to share of the limb…both the tree’s and his. Though not the most dynamic of storytellers, you could tell that the experience was very important to him. He never voiced it, but I imagine the story was worthy of pictures because it was as close to escaping death as he could imagine.
There was the comedic story of “Tess” who shared the messy details of her divorce involving mistresses, children by the mistress, and a letting go of long held beliefs about marriage. It was a divorce worthy of a movie script. Woven within every comedy sketch is real life pain that comedians know how to make humorous. Though she was a teacher, a comedian she could be. A few of us had a friendly competition which Tess won…"Who has spent the least amount of money for an item at Kohl’s?" I thought I would win having spent zero for an item I purchased a couple years ago. Tess had a gift card which meant she had money left over when all was said and done.
There was the “how did you meet” story of one couple. She had never been married, he two months a widower. They were fixed up on a blind date and married six months later. That couple has been married 25 years and you can still see their mutual admiration and love for each other.
I didn’t need to be “heard” or be “seen”. I got to hold space for others to be heard and seen. Over breakfast one morning there was an impromptu, listening/ coaching moment where “Mary” came to see she really didn’t want to retire from her job; she loved it! She found freedom in announcing when she got back she was withdrawing her notice to leave. The only reason she was going to retire was because she thought it was expected of her given her age. There was the impromptu fashion consultant moment where I got to help “Jane” see that the green color of a particular cape brightened her face; the lavender in the other cape washed her out. Moments of friendship…listening, as “Margaret” shared that she had lost two of her three children…encouraging, as“Jill” overcame her fear of heights as we climbed the steps to kiss the Blarney Stone…just holding space for others to feel what they needed to feel.
Really, none of the above snippets signify anything big and that is the point. It’s how I choose to be in the world; how we all probably choose to be in the world. I got to experience again what it is like to be one of the crowd rather than one with “special circumstances.” I got to be me and no one needed to filter her choice of words for fear of how I might take it. Sometimes cancer can feel like an unwanted companion whose mere presence flavors, changes how the interactions, how the conversations occur.
Cancer does funny things to your relationships. “How are you?” said between friends upon seeing one another means, “hi!” or “What’s up since I last saw you?” Said to someone with cancer it can mean, “Has anything changed?” or “I’m so worried about you,” or “I hope you’re not closer to dying?” I suppose it can mean “hi,” but often the bracing expectation of an unwanted answer that accompanies the question adds something to the meaning. I’m not criticizing peoples’ genuine concern for loved ones. I get why the question is asked. I just long for normalcy in conversations.
Similarly when I can tell that something is bothering a friend and ask about it, the answer can be prefaced with, “I’m worried about something which is stupid when I think about what you’re dealing with.” My response has always been, “Pain is pain. Worry is worry. Sadness is sadness. What causes it doesn’t matter. The pain, worry, or sadness deserves compassion regardless of how big or small the cause. I don’t think our emotions follow a hierarchal scale when they decide to make themselves known. We are the ones who add the scale and decide whether we are justified in feeling a certain way. My worry about cancer can feel exactly the same in me as your worry about whether the bee that just landed on you is about to sting you! When you share your life with me as you always would have, both the joys and the sorrows, what I receive is a chance to care for you.
Happy. Weightless. Free. That’s what I felt in Ireland. I brought a suitcase to Ireland and though it was heavy, the invisible one that follows me around at home, the one with the big letter C on it can feel much heavier. Some days it disappears completely, other days I’m good at tucking it under the table or in the closet, and, still others, it feels like I carry it on my back. Today, as I write this, it is propped against the wall over there…whatever that means. I won’t be contemplating the meaning…it is a beautiful day outside and I’m going to go walk my dogs.