I have one last thing to say about my week in Tulsa at the Synod Youth Workshop and it has nothing to do with the youth. Nothing. It is about the relationships you can build up by visiting the same place and the same people every single year for years and years. It’s always about relationships. In this case it’s about the relationship between three women: one from west Texas, one from east Texas and a woman who lives in Oklahoma.
I always end the week at Synod feeling sorry for the graduates, the kids who have finished high school. They invariably cry over the fact they can’t return the following year. They can come back as an adult sponsor or a small group leader but they have to wait until they are 25. And seven years might as well be a lifetime to these kids.
This is the time I’m so happy to be in the adult category because I can come back every year almost without restriction. The small group leaders usually serve only two years then must take a mandatory year off. But you can still come the following year as a sponsor. This delicious footnote is how I’ve been going for over 20 years now.
We’ve held the retreat at the University of Tulsa for probably 15 years or so. And those of us who come every year see the same university staff on an annual basis. Somewhere in this time I’ve managed to become friends with some of them. My favorite friends are the dining hall staff-- food being really high on my list of favorite things to do three times a day. Back in 2003 the theme was a take-off on the TV show, Cheers: “Where everybody knows your name.” That year I decided I needed to learn the names of some of the people I see every year. I learned the man who presided over the ice cream machine was Ronald McBride. And the lady who swiped our ID cards to admit us to the dining hall is Shalise Jordan.
A couple of years ago the line to get your card swiped had a logjam and Shalise and I had enough time for a real conversation. She told me she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had entered the chemo stage of treatment and was losing her hair. The idea of losing her hair really bothered her.
I had a touch of breast cancer myself the year before. The doctor immediately declared that I would have chemotherapy. So he sent me to a nurse who was ready to schedule an appointment for a port to be surgically implanted to dispense the chemo. Then she showed me a catalogue for wigs. My first instinct was that the hair was going to be a problem with me and not for the reason you might think.
Hair has never been a real high priority for me. Some women fuss with it, rolling and curling and fluffing and smoothing. To these women hair is a creative exercise, a hobby so to speak. I prefer to walk out of the shower and let the hair do what it wants while I hope for the best. And I just knew nobody would make a wig that looks like that. Any outfit who sold a wig that looked like my regular hair would probably get reported to the Better Business Bureau.
But then I realized this might be a time my hair would look pretty good with little effort. I began to think that if it worked out for me I just might go to a wig permanently. About the time I got to this level of planning they decided I didn’t need chemotherapy. To be honest, I was just a tiny bit disappointed.
I had a quick round of radiation and was finished with the whole episode. I’ve never felt qualified for any of the cancer runs or walks. I never wanted any cancer swag…the pink ribbons and such. I felt like an imposter. My cancer had been too easy.
One year I was trying to go to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory but it was swamped. I found out the finish line for the October cancer walk was across the street from the restaurant and all the ladies were celebrating the finish with lunch.
I discussed doing the run with my daughters. We would walk then go eat at Cheesecake Factory. Then we pared the experience down to the essentials and decided to just make a nice donation for cancer research, skip the run and just go eat at Cheesecake Factory.
And that’s about as far as I got to being a cancer poster chick. But when I thought about it I realized there was more to it than helping a good cause. It was the risk of appearing vulnerable. I don’t do vulnerable. It’s a feeling I’ve never allowed myself to have. I do laughter, sad, concern, anger, and rage. I do silly and serious. But I don’t do vulnerable.
I’m usually very honest about my life. I’ve seen some stuff that a lot of young girls never see. And maybe because of this I just never felt comfortable letting other people know when I’m scared. So I call it a “touch” of cancer and pretend it was nothing more. I don’t tell people that it would hit me in the dark at night as I lay waiting for sleep. That time of the day when you have nothing else to occupy your mind and reality slams open the door to your mind and a scared little voice says, “Holy Shit. I could die." And even if cancer doesn’t kill me, something will. I am going to die—maybe not now but sometime. "Wait! I don’t want to leave. I’m scared.”
I thought all these things in the dark. But I never showed what I was thinking in the light of day. I don’t do vulnerability.
But Sharla Fowler does. She got cancer a year or so ahead of me. And she was open and honest about her fears. It was like a breath of fresh air in a scary, dark closet. She was the poster chick that I never wanted to be. In fact, she was in a commercial for the Texas Cancer Centers telling women what a great outfit they are. She kept tabs on when my radiation would be over and sent me a congratulatory email. When I hit one year from surgery she sent me another message. Sharla keeps better track of my cancer than I do. She managed to turn our shared experience into a sorority.
So the day I was held up in line at the dining hall and found out Shalise had breast cancer I knew she needed to talk to Sharla. It sounded like Shalise had the big scary kind, the kind where you do the chemo and lose your hair. I found Sharla in the salad line and grabbed her to go talk to Shalise. The three of us became our own little cancer club right there on the spot. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. Sharla kept tabs of when her chemo would be finished. The following year Shalise was the first one I wanted to see when we hit the campus. Her hair was growing back and she looked fantastic. She was feeling great. We had major hugs.
By now, Shalise has been promoted enough that she doesn't swipe the cards at the dining hall anymore unless she wants to. And, for Monday, she made sure to be at the door. We hugged and danced around and had somebody take our picture. I marveled at how great her hair looks.
I'm not really sure what's the deal with the sign that says, "Our Family" means but it's not a bad caption
We wanted to know what her kids were doing. Both of them are at Tulsa University. I found out that her daughter is moving into an apartment on the campus and her son graduated this spring. We’ve moved beyond asking how we feel because we’re all survivors and are living our lives at full speed. If cancer wants to kill us it’s going to have to catch us first.
Each of us knows that feeling--that “Holy Shit, I could die” feeling in the dark of night. It’s not a club for the vulnerable as much as it is for survivors.
I still don’t do vulnerable. But maybe admitting it is my first step in learning how to do it.