Survivor’s Guilt

This morning, I dumped my overflowing bag onto the passenger seat of our car. The yellowing leaves were gathering on my windshield, wet and sticky, as I drove past the Cancer Agency to Whole Foods. It’s odd we live so close. Last fall and spring, I used to ride my bike in five minutes to the multiple appointments and blood-draws and scans and chemos.The air is getting crisp, like it was then, the rain leaves the streets permanently stained with wet, and the leaves gather in the gutters. It’s starting to feel like that time again. Thank god it’s not, I shuddered, as I passed the Cancer Agency parking lot and recalled the exorbitant parking fees.

I was at Whole Foods making a salad for lunch when someone tapped me on the shoulder. A breast-cancer-buddy. Making herself a salad, too. The only difference was that her salad was to be eaten before her chemotherapy appointment made her too nauseated, and mine would wait for the brown-bag working lunch scheduled with the other instructors teaching the same UBC course as me. We hugged, exchanged updates, rolled our eyes at chemo, and promised to get together for coffee soon. Her stomach will probably be too sensitive for coffee, though, so it is way more likely we will end up sipping tea or walking along the Seawall, sans food and drink. I was glad to see her, and also, glad to part ways knowing I wasn’t the one going to stare out across the bay from the fifth floor of the Cancer Agency while they pumped poison into my bloodstream.

And yet, I am irritable. I wish we could spend time together without the cancer, I wish we didn’t speak the cancer language, I wish she was better like me, and making a salad for a working lunch. I know, though, that such platitudes are useless, and even damaging. She told me this morning, that no one understands she’s not getting better, that no one accepts what she has to: that she will be living with an incurable cancer for the rest of her life. So while I wish it was otherwise, the only option is to step into what actually is, and to acknowledge what actually is, and to be real and realistic… and while doing so, to pour love and caring into being present and whole and real.

But still. I can shake the feeling of unfairness. How did I escape? Did I escape? They think so. I think so. But I did nothing to dodge the bullet that she did not. I was running a different race, and I know this. Knowing, though, doesn’t make it easier to accept that I have “no evidence of disease” scrawled across my chart, and she has “stage four” scrawled across hers.

It feels like I should never take a nap, never rest, never waste a moment because for whatever random reason- indeed for no reason at all- I am well and she is not. And yet that demand of myself makes me cranky and I wish for something else. I think this is what they call survivor’s guilt. It’s one of the reasons I shudder when people call me a survivor. It feels like when you crack that word open and look inside, what you see is a bunch of cancer patients on one side of those twelve-foot walls used in team-building, except this one is a fifty-foot wall. On one side of the wall, all is happy and well, and people are celebrating and pointing and calling each other survivors. But when you look on the other side of the wall, you suddenly realize that the celebrating people got to the “survivor” side by stepping on top of all those dead and dying bodies on the cancer-side, the piles and piles of people who didn’t make it. “Survivor” feels like stepping on all of those beautiful bodies in order to climb over that fifty-foot wall, and celebrating feels like erasure when what is called for is bearing witness.

So sure, I guess I survived. But the word survivor feels ugly. And people not surviving forever and ever makes me angry, and so does the fact that at some point, we will all die. That effing sucks. And so in the meanwhile, I’ll bear witness. I don’t want to be climbing any fifty-foot walls, especially if I have to step on beautiful bodies, even if climbing over those beautiful bodies is only metaphorical. I want none of it. What I do want is honest. Witnessing. Hope grounded in reality, not hope tied with a pink ribbon. Love. Curiosity. Laughter. Tears. Adventure. Quiet. What I do want is honest, honest love.

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One thought on “Survivor’s Guilt

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: Pinktober Is Here | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

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