When I was in seventh grade, I was placed in the Honors track. It was a total disaster. Ever since long division was introduced in third grade, Math became my daily daydream hour. I truly hated Math class, and by the time I was in seventh grade, I didn’t care what “X” was or how many times seven went into 642. It just didn’t matter. Science was okay, I guess, but really only if we were learning about animals or space. All the rest was the kind of stuff they did on that show, “3-2-1 Contact”, which to be honest, bored me to tears. That PBS hour was an excuse to bike to the Seven Eleven for strawberry Airheads. I was a good reader, essay writer, and lived for Art and Music class on Wednesdays and Fridays. But I wasn’t a straight A student and was more known for my habit of unknowingly humming in class than I was for my good grades. So I really don’t know what the seventh grade team was thinking, putting me in advanced classes.
I did so poorly that for the first time in school, I was embarrassed to even show up. I hung my head and cried when I brought home my grades. Even English class became a struggle. It was like the weight of disappointments and mountains that seemed too tall to scale inhibited me from thinking clearly enough to diagram a sentence -- something that used to come to me naturally. Plus, my childhood cat died that year. It was all just too much.
The next year I was placed back in regular classes. At first I was embarrassed as everyone in Honors knew exactly why I wasn’t with them. But then I brought home an A in English, then an A in History, a B in Math, and I was asked to edit the school newspaper. Eventually, I even stayed after school to help my English teacher grade tests. It was a remarkable comeback story for a kid who had spent the entire year before, crying in the back of the classroom. Soon, I didn’t care anymore that I couldn’t hang with the advanced kids. It was my first lesson in learning my limits and accepting what I can and cannot do well in a given circumstance. I grew a lot in eighth grade, and by the end of the year had the highest average in all my classes (except Math.)
“I knew you had it in you,” my English teacher told me at graduation. “We just needed to find the right track so you could chug along.”
Well, friends, it’s been a while since we gathered here in my thought hub. Last time we were together, I shared the death of my mother, my struggle with guilt, and the utter pain of coping with grief while undergoing chemotherapy. That was June, and it was all too much.
When my father died, I kept writing. Writing was my outlet to process what I’d gone through --- what I’d witnessed in the last two months of his life. I wrote about the exhaustion of grief, the anger of not getting the miracle I’d begged for, and my struggle with faith. I wrote about my need to pull away from friends and social events because, in my mind, home was where I could collapse into tears if needed. Out there in the wild of school events and cocktail hours, I had to suppress my aching heart. No one could possibly understand that I never stopped thinking about those last two months of Pop’s life. Or so I told myself.
But this time was different. Sort of. I clung to my family -- my brother, sisters, nieces, and nephews, and of course, my children and my husband, my rock-- just as I had when Pop died. But this time, the youngest child in me simply couldn’t unlatch myself from their grasp. This time, they were the therapy. Plus, I simply couldn’t write. The most natural habit seemed to evaporate. Sometimes I’d lie awake at night and write a blog in my head only to watch my laptop gather another layer of dust the next day. Chemo had gotten harder. It didn’t feel natural. My fingertips lost their feeling. My fine motor skills prohibited me from simple things like opening a jar of peanut butter. I couldn’t taste my food. I was skinnier than I was in eighth grade when I stayed after school to grade tests. I cried for my Mama multiple times a day. I longed for the scripture verses I knew she would have sent me as my body crumbled to the poison -- the curative poison. It didn’t feel like my life. How could I write about a life that wasn’t recognizable?
Except that that’s just a part of the story, a dramatic retelling. There’s more to it.
Sometime during the blog’s blackout, I received a message from a reader. “Did you get cancer and all of a sudden become religious? Your blog has changed.”
I replied with, “No and yes.” And, “Cancer changes things.”
When I was diagnosed in February, two thoughts occurred to me almost simultaneously. One was, “I’m not ready to leave my kids”, and the other was “Wait! I’ve never shared outside of my dining room table what I truly believe.” It was at that moment that I said to myself that no matter the outcome, my self-conscious armor that hid my faith for fear of offending someone or making others uncomfortable or looking like an uncool religious prude would no longer prevent me from being the testament of faith to others that I always should have been.
It wasn’t a foreign thought. I grew up in a deeply religious household. We prayed all the time. We talked about God every day. Mom and Pop reciting scripture was as common an occurrence as my proudly singing the rap part in “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” by TLC. I spent Sunday mornings in church and Sunday afternoons in worship services with my parents’ prayer group. I can’t remember the first time I heard someone pray in tongues because I was surrounded by faith and the Holy Spirit. But I kept it private. Maybe I was embarrassed or I didn’t know myself well enough to know that plenty of people are openly spiritual and that I, too, could be who I truly am without explanation.
So no, I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be religious, but I was shaken, and in that moment I said enough is enough. I know the pathway to exaltation and no self-conscious foolishness will stop me from sharing what I know with others. End of story.
Have I changed? That’s a laughable question. Of course I have. And that’s the real reason I put this blog on pause. Just as Annie, the almost drop-out seventh grader, needed to find the right track to chug along, so too did I this summer. Chemo is a life-saving turd. It has the capability of making the mind and body incapable. Add to that the unexpected death of Mama, and I once again faced mountains that seemed too high to scale. I needed to find my path over the rocky terrain. I needed time to heal. I needed time to make sense of change, and I needed time to listen, understand, and trust that God would put me on the right track. I like to think I’ve changed for the better, with a more powerful purpose.
But I’m still Annie.
I’m still the person who, when at a fancy dinner, gets a tiny piece of meat stuck between her teeth and spends the rest of the evening subtly (but not subtly) sucking on her tooth until, upon returning home, makes a beeline to the bathroom to finally floss the demon meat out.
I still can’t set a boundary without apologizing for five days straight.
I still can’t ask for a favor without offering my severed arm as a sign of gratitude.
I still haven’t worn a high-heeled shoe in two years because I have granny feet.
I still misplace important documents, even after I designate a file for them and pledge to never leave them in the wrong place ever again. (If you see my kids’ birth certificates tucked between Shutterfly photo albums, know that I genuinely thought that I’d remember I put them there.)
I’m still miffed that my husband is always, always more organized than I am.
I still think overly air conditioned grocery stores are a menace to society.
Oh, and I still always choose the grocery cart with the wobbly wheel and tough it out because I think it’ll draw more attention to myself if I trade it with another.
I still think puss caterpillars are the devil disguised as a fuzzy leaf.
I still can’t fold bottom sheets. But my husband can, and that really works my nerves.
I still can’t stand catty behavior, but I’m still tempted every day to spill the tea.
I still, when confronted with awkward silence, run my mouth with equally awkward conversation because shouldn’t someone say something? We all feel the tension.
I still forget to shave my legs before I go to the gynecologist (or worse, the pedicurist.) And I still honestly think they care.
But after this year I know that…
Perfection has a new kind of importance. I’d rather be known for consistent empathy than consistently polished clothes, homes, and children.
Quiet work is a form of prayer and I seek those moments out.
Opinions are just that -- opinions. Not facts.
If my house is messy when you come over, so what? Life is messy, and I’m a humble reflection of it.
What people think of me is what it is. As long as I’m not an offensive asshat, why should I care?
I don’t need material things as much as I need quality company.
There are a lot of really good non-alcoholic beers out there. Shockingly, I don’t miss alcohol at all.
I don’t like the fear of starting something necessary, but I know who to go to with my fears. And I know they’ll be dealt with.
Life is hard. It wasn’t ever promised that it would be easy, but shouldering the burden with open eyes can lead to immeasurable rewards.
Laughing at my self-consciousness diffuses its effects.
It is a fact that if you look for the good, you will find it.
I grieve so heavily because I knew what it meant to love and be loved. Therefore, my grief is more beautiful than ugly.
Replacing doubt with faith is a daily exercise that requires more strength than any weight I’ve ever lifted before.
Love is the beginning, middle, and end to our purpose on this side of the curtain.
“The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” Exodus 14:14
In this, the longest year of my life, (Seriously...it's only September?) I am living proof that our God is a good, good father. I remember Pop sleeping in a chair next to my bed when I was very little and couldn’t fall asleep because I was afraid of what was in the closet. I needed only to lay still, and Papa would take care of the rest. Somehow, magnificently, God is even greater than that. And sometimes when we are riddled with pain, fear, grief, and mountains seemingly too high to scale, we need only to be still and wait for the promise that will come.