Unpacking the Past

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not much of a singer, but if you get me in a car all on my own then I can belt out a tune like nobody’s business and with such gusto that you’d think I was singing to save my own life. Thank god no one can hear me because it sure wouldn’t be pretty. But no matter, it’s highly enjoyable for me and no one’s ears (or my dignity) are hurt in the process. When I’m in the car, man, what a singer I am.

So today, on my regular morning commute, I keyed in on a song that I’ve sung a million times and usually with a feeling of strength and triumph – Melissa Etheridge’s “I Run for Life.” While I’m a stage-three cancer survivor, it wasn’t breast cancer, but still, I feel every nuance of that song and play it full blast, singing right along. Nothing different this morning than any other day, except maybe I was tired (I got a lousy night’s sleep last night) or maybe just feeling a bit emotional – I’m not sure. All I know is by the time I got mid-song, I was crying. Not just a little bit weepy either but crying ugly sobs up 293 North, all the while wondering, “What the heck is going on with me this morning?”

Then the phone rang, and it was my daughter, whose own daughter has been sick over the past day. Immediately I switched back into normal mode and thanked her for breaking whatever emotional meltdown had suddenly taken hold of me. When she learned I was crying about cancer (not a usual matter by any means for me), she became quickly concerned, perhaps thinking I had some scare going on or reason for being upset. I did not – and I was mystified why every word in that song, one I had sung a hundred times, suddenly turned me to mush. I’m still not sure why it hit me like it did today.

Here’s what I do know though: Whether it’s grief or pain or a combination of both – or maybe just a difficult situation that we just can’t deal with, it’s easy to push it away, to force it all down and lock it away somewhere to contend with later. Once upon a time, I was a champion at this. I could compartmentalize anything and sometimes, everything. I had to. There was so much going on that I could only deal in small increments, so I did, using the best of my energy and emotion with what was directly in front of me. I started to think of it as Scarlett O’Hara syndrome. If you’re familiar with “Gone with the Wind,” you know how easy it became for Scarlett to set things aside that she didn’t want to face, to say, “Fiddle-dee-dee, I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Well, so did I.

The thing is, tomorrow hits you when you least expect it. Like this morning.

This past spring marks 20 years since I started a whirlwind mission to handle a million different things, sometimes at once. I had four young kids, a seriously ill husband, a ton of volunteer efforts underway and the return to a full-time job after working a variety of part-time gigs and owning a couple of businesses. Mostly though, I had focused on family and raising those kids. Needless to say, the new job and a complete change in our lives transpired rather quickly in 1997 and just the busyness of life in general coupled with a series of terrible circumstances over the next five years would have finished me completely had I not pushed things to the side and kept moving forward. I have no regrets. I’m here, and I’m healthy, and in spite of some difficult times, my family has experienced countless blessings, so much joy and such love.

Yet still, every now and again, doors open slowly and unexpected feelings surface. Sometimes I purposely peek in and see what I can sort out. I think about what I’ve learned, what’s been lost, but mostly what I’ve gained and how lucky I am to be here to experience it all now. The perspective of time makes a tremendous difference and it’s far easier to consume a lot of what transpired. But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt – or that it might not take me by surprise.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 8.17.06 PM.pngGrief and pain are such tricky things. You think you can hide from them; deny them, push them away and keep them under lock and key. But they’ll bubble up slowly, insidiously reaching for your heart, so maybe it’s better to welcome them in, let the chips fall where they may and realize you have the strength to pick yourself up yet again. We’re not always ready to do that though – I know I wasn’t always and there were times I felt that there was only so much I take at once.

So here I am, all these years later, finally allowing myself to experience the pain, to recognize how scared I once was, to really think about everything I’ve been through – particularly when I was sick because I didn’t dare let my guard down then or cry all the tears I felt, mostly because I was afraid if I did, somehow I’d wallow and never get better. I didn’t want to be a poster child and I didn’t want anything more than to see my children grow up.

And now they are, and I have the luxury of this time, to reflect and remember and continue to sort it all out. While I think I deal well with the past, mornings like today show me there’s still so much more to learn.

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