I’ve been struggling here and there as of late. Not continuously. As I said to my therapist, “It’s not as if I can’t or don’t want to get out of bed.”
I am still grateful each morning. I still read the words framed beside my bed on a post-it
Today you do not have cancer in your body. Be grateful to God, Doctors, Family, and Friends.
But I can tell it’s there. A feeling. A fear. An anxious tickle in my mind saying, “but what if?”
What if… the cancer comes back.
I said a horrible thing to a friend the other night. A very best friend of mine. I uttered the words, “…if it comes back, it won’t be good. And I think… if it comes back… I just hope it goes fast. Because I can’t die in front of… I will die with cancer at that point. I will be on treatment forever.”
Obviously that’s not the real truth. I would fight to death no matter what. I would claw my way through every day if it meant I got to see my boys’ faces just like I see so many others with advanced diagnoses do. I would not give up. But as I talked it out loud, I decided to dump the ugly thoughts in my mind out so I could leave them with her and not carry them with me. Anymore.
I don’t go there much. I say much like I’ve been dealing with this reality — this cancer life — for all of my days. But it’s only been nearly a year. Yes. NEARLY. We’re back. We’re back to this place where I remember what life was like before. B.c.
Back to the time where we ended our summer by moving. By me feeling miserable about not having our stuff moved yet as it sat in our other house to show. And trying to keep three boys happy all day in a house that had yet to feel like a home. I remember taking the boys for school. And I remember my outfit. Their smiles. My hair.
I remember a life unshattered.
And that is the rearview mirror I peer into throughout the day every so often right now. The before.
The innocent before.
And I get mad at the before me. I get mad at her for not loving every gorgeous moment of her charmed existence. I get mad at her for not shouting out loud, “I’M SO STINKING LUCKY!” I get mad at her for getting cancer. I get sad that she didn’t see it coming. And that she was so blindsided. That she didn’t know she should be loving every minute with her boys and her husband in her beautiful new home instead of lamenting what wasn’t. She should have been happy with what was.
That is what I think about when I think about the before. And then… now.
It’s the first time I’m looking at the before as something that will never be again. A life before cancer. Before the genuine fear of my death. Before the clinging to my children and the weepy calls to my husband. Before the trying to understand. While curled up on my couch with puffy eyelids and scary thoughts filling my mind. And the trying to make sense of it all. And figure out what was next. The after.
But we’re not in the after yet. We’re not to my “diagnosaversary” yet. We’re not to “the day my world fell apart” yet.
But I know now in looking back what I couldn’t know or truly have understood a year ago looking forward. That life can change in a flash. That the last thing you suspect will ever happen to you could. That cancer is real. Not just a word that happens to other people. It is a disease that will truly take up residency in your life. And sometimes, people get to survive it. And sometimes, they don’t.
And I got to. Which is the biggest gift I’ve ever received. And I’ve known true love and a great family and four pregnancies and three beautiful boys and a tribe. I’ve known good. But getting to live and know that good longer well, that’s one hell of a present.
But I’ve been in this place. Where, as my therapist so eloquently put it, I am grieving the death of my former life as I knew it. How perfect that explanation is. How much that nails the exact emotions I’ve been dealing with. But yet I didn’t have those words to put on it. It’s exactly on point.
I am still joyful. I still have mostly good days. And the hope of what lies ahead is still my main focus. The goodness of it all. Of getting to be here. The gratitude for each day. Each hour. Each breath. Is so much stronger now than it ever was for me in my before.
But right now. I’m in the weeds a bit more. And I have my boots on and my socks pulled up. Because I have to do this part. I have to go through this. This year. The next. And the next. I know I have to process it. I know I have to grieve and cry and even get a little scared. I have to “do me.” And doing me means I am going to feel it all. The good. The bad. The scary. The uncomfortable.
I imagine this next month could get hard. Perhaps harder than I want to allow it to. Not only is it the anniversary but also, my ovaries are being shut down and my hormones are crashing. I am on new meds that can create little pains and aches that I haven’t dealt with before. Aches and pains that whisper into the deep depths of my mind, “maybe it’s back.”
But I just can’t, right? I can’t let this become me. Consume me. Define me. Not every day. I will not let it be my story… cancer mama. It just gets a piece. Because right now, I’m not cancer mama… I’m survivor mama. I’m thriver mama. I’m happy mama. I’m Ashli. Writer. Feeler. Lover. Maker of thoughts. Wife. Lover of my husband. Lover of my boys. Lover of my tribe. And cancer free.
I was the before. I am now the after. And I had to live all of the in between in order to get to where I am today. I had to go through the toxic chemo, the bald head, the pain of surgery, the loss of my breasts, and finally, radiation. To get to here… to the after. Because the reality is, we don’t get to skip the shit just because we prefer the rainbows.
So I leave here today giving the what ifs for you to hold onto for me. To take in your hearts and minds and shoot up a prayer or a positive thought. To put on a shelf and let me only worry about when necessary. I’ve gone through the shit and I am enjoying the rainbows. I am supposed to be passed the shit… but it still piles up some days. And I don’t need the what ifs hanging over my head like clouds of heavy rain.
There is both pain and goodness in the before. We know our before. We recognize it like an old friend. Perhaps we grew comfortable in it. And we believed it was all we’d ever know. But the after. The part we forget about it. Is that while it can be full of scary. Or shit. It can also be years of rainbows. Decades of happiness. And a lifetime full of the beautiful afters that your heart lives to feel. To experience. To bask in.
So when I struggle. When I get lost in the before. When I mourn what could have been if I hadn’t dealt with the hard of the last year. I remind myself of all the rainbows that came in the midst of the storm. All the goodness that poured down like rain. And I feel a thrill for the goodness to come. Of the firsts the boys have ahead that I will be a part of. Of the trips and marital milestones we have in our future. And of the love I have for this life I get to live.
So if you’re here. Whether in cancerhood, motherhood, parenthood, womanhood, lifehood. If you’re here. In your after. Your after whatever. After the hard. You, my friend, just know… shit before rainbows. And then. The shit was worth it. Because of the beauty of the rainbow. The rainbows that make the days where you struggle just a small piece of the pie. That make you want to fight to be here as long as your story can be written. As long as there are rainbows to be seen. Don’t ever let the clouds keep you from believing there is no longer a sun.
I’m here. I’m in a place. I’m scared. Sometimes of what lies ahead. Sometimes of what happened before. But I will not stay. I will move forward. I will not go back… at least not every moment of every day. And when I do… I will remind my heart to hold onto the rainbows. Let the shit go where it must. And gather up the goodness in my hands like fireflies in the summer sky… and never let it escape my grasp.