Sixteen years ago I sat in a blue leather chair watching the chemotherapy drug drip slowly down a clear tube and into the needle in my right arm. I could taste the metal of the platinum-based drug prescribed to kill the parts of me that weren’t behaving. I was too tired to cry and I didn’t eat that day.
That night my hair fell out in clumps and tears finally streamed down, mixing with the warm shower water. I stepped out and wrapped my scarred body in a towel. That was the evening my husband shaved my head.
I was twenty-nine years old.
There are scars that run the length of my abdomen and they tell some of that story.
But they don’t tell the whole story.
They don’t tell of the words that hurt.
They don’t tell of the times people offered petty platitudes in an effort to give me some solace. Words that I’m sure they thought were helpful things. Words that looked for holes in my story. Words that doubted my pain and that tried to paint my reality to be less than true.
“I had a friend with ovarian cancer and SHE didn’t lose her hair at all. Maybe you won’t.”
“Were you a heavy smoker?”
“Did you have a history of cancer in your family?”
“You are lucky. You look great with a bald head.”
“At least you didn’t have your breasts removed.”
“God gave you this battle because you are strong.”
I knew these well-meaning friends were trying to find a place to put the pain. They were looking for a way to distance themselves. They were looking for a way to assure that it could never happen to them. And maybe they were even looking for a way to deny or explain away why it was happening to me.
Their words were not comforting.
Their words undermined the reality of my situation and my feelings. Their words felt a whole lot like the arrow of blame was directed straight at me.
You might not know that most days, even all these years later, my ears ring. It’s a side-effect from the platinum that was used to kill the cancer. Even today: a smell, a needle, an oncologist’s name, a cell phone ring can unleash the pain inside of me. You might not know that when I tell my story people still have questions and many still want somewhere to place the blame.
Today, if you didn’t know about that time in my life, you might wonder why a tear streaks down my cheek in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. It’s a routine visit, after all, and needles are only used to draw blood to test my hormone and cholesterol levels. My reaction might make you think that I have too much anxiety. I am being ridiculous. I am overreacting.
You would be wrong. I am reacting to my truth and my pain and my history and my present fears.
I know a teeny-tiny bit about how it feels to have history with something painful that defines me.
But my scars don’t show on the outside. I can hide them and wear the painful truth on the inside. I can cover it all with clothing and makeup and a smile.
Tragedies like #Ferguson unearth minefields of history and pain.
I don’t know all the facts. But I do know that triggers can be large or small or in between. And this one was huge for our brothers and sisters. For all of us.
I believe this to be true: What many people see as an overreaction in Ferguson, Missouri is a reaction to real and relevant pain that has roots.
Truths got uncovered in a tragic, tragic way.
So what’s the point of little old me #goingthere?
I want to remember what it felt like to be offered platitudes, explanations, theories, and even cold-hard facts during my own season of intense pain.
I want to remind myself that in the wake of #Ferguson I might be tempted to offer my limited perspective with true but worthless statements. I could compile reasons why I am not part of the problem or point fingers to individuals. I could spout facts like that I had a black roommate in college, that I marched on the steps of capital hill in my 20’s to bring attention to racism and poverty issues, or that just today I shook hands with 12 new graduates students from 12 different countries, all with varying skin colors.
But when it comes to the day-to-day reality of race impacting my life I cannot pretend to understand.
So I feebly try to do the thing that my best friend did during my horrible bout with cancer.
She didn’t have cancer and she didn’t understand, but she grabbed my hand and she squeezed it hard.
She picked me up in her car and drove me to get my favorite meal. She looked me straight in the eye and didn’t look away or try to manufacture words. She showed me the ministry of presence.
And her presence was the one thing I desperately needed in the midst of the strongest identity crisis and most intense pain of my life.
And so I offer here the ministry of my presence. Maybe we can sit and you could tell me some of the battles, of the loss, the fear, and the stories that have injured you and that make up the patchwork of your life. And maybe I could tell you mine.
You will not try to pick up and walk in my cancer shoes, and I would not try to put on yours.
Dear friend with skin color or socioeconomic status or loss that is different from mine, I don’t know all the facts of all that is happenings in Missouri or on your block or in your hospital room or just down the hill from my house. I don’t know what discrimination you faced as a little girl or just yesterday because of your skin color.
But I do know that that pain floods like a dam that has been broken when given the right set of circumstances.
So I quietly acknowledge that it is all rightfully painful. And I kneel with you and cry at the wreckage.
I offer no words~ only my hand.
I’m #goingthere with Deidra Riggs, Jennifer Lee, Lisa Epperson and many other writer friends who have felt called to use words to weave a tapestry of greater understanding between us. Soon they and a group of writers will travel to Ferguson to listen.
This post is a small, humble offering of a piece of my heart that is tuned in to the great wound that opened wide a week ago in the town of Ferguson, MO.
I invite you into the conversation.
But I mostly invite you to kneel.
And while you’re down on your knees, grab the hands of those around you.
And let’s pray we can begin to hear one another’s stories.