Tag Archives: cancer

We Are In A Relationship With The Universe

Cheryl Strayed wrote about this idea that whatever happens to you, good or bad, is yours. She wrote a whole series of advice columns sharing with the world her stories in order to answer their own questions, quiet their own fears. She did not pretend to know more than she did. She did not pepper her words with false hope. She did not tarnish them with despair.

She wrote stories of truth and let the lessons fall like chips on poker tables. She let the reader find the diamonds in the rough. She trusted her questioner to find the answer in the honesty.

And there was pain. There is pain. There is more pain in this world than there is joy, sometimes. The scales tip in one direction more than the other, and that is the direction we choose to see—whether accurate or not. We are not gray people. We do not see spectrums of light and dark. We are happy; we are sad; we are troubled and tortured; when we’re willing, we’re elated.


At the beginning of the month, I had the opportunity to write a love letter to a girl who had just been diagnosed with cancer. She was in college. She was the sunshine; she was the perpetual smile; she was unsettled about sharing this new, ominous cloud that might taint her vision of the world.

My very first sentence? Cancer is the word in the dictionary I hate most.

It has ripped the people in my life clean in two and there are memories—or nightmares, maybe—where I am barely eight years old and standing in an unlit hospital bed while I watch this woman hug the pink itchy blanket cloaking her mother, begging her not to leave this earth.

I almost didn’t send it because what does a girl with cancer want to hear about how it has embossed a fifteen-year-old image in my head? What kind of love letter is that?

A sad one. A troubled and tortured one. A weighted-down-by-life one.

I didn’t want that for her. I really, ridiculously did not want that for her.

She sounded like the kind of girl who made others’ days better just by showing up.

I have had the pleasure of knowing a handful of such people and some of them? They’ve been ripped straight out of my storybook.

I wanted her to know that cancer did not own her. I should have mailed her a copy of “The Fault In Our Stars,” honestly.

But I didn’t.

I hoped my words, albeit small and scattered, would be enough.

And then, last week, she sent me a friend request.

I felt bad; I should’ve been born a Karen Smith or an Emily Johnson. Something pretty dull and drab and altogether impossible to locate. I should not have sat with fingertips hitched to my computer keyboard, longing for an adequate response to her public gratitude. I should have been anonymous.


Instead, I am left knowing that we are in a relationship with the universe. We take our biggest and smallest and scared and straightforward storytelling selves and we own them for the world because the world needs honesty. The universe needs people to lay their iPhones down and listen. Or script letters. Or send long-winded emails of appreciation and consideration.

We are in a relationship with the things we say and do and imprint on the hearts of others—strangers and friends alike. And it is beautiful. And it is terrifying. And it has nothing to do with this new thing called “social media” and everything to do with being a human being who lives and breathes and walks outside and looks at someone else and speaks to someone else and tries to find the right words for someone else.

It is what happens because we are alive.

For The Nights Spent Singing In Your Closet

Some nights, I zip up my knee-high riding books or slip on my Target moccasins and lock my front door. I tumble, yes tumble, there is an awkward falling quality to it, down the flight of stairs and press the key fob to unlock my car door.

I turn the ignition and wait for music, wait for something that might keep me from feeling alone. I wait for another voice to fill the hollow space inside this car that’s mine but not yet mine. This car that doesn’t yet smell like me.

Sometimes, just stuffing my feet into those shoes and closing that door and smelling that leather and hearing those first few notes are enough to calm me from whatever I’m inevitably trying to avoid.

In another life, I’d be a singer.

I’m not terrible, can pick up a melody and learn it, but I have no illusions about someday earning myself a record deal. Nashville will never hold my heart.

Maybe, in the far-off-don’t-think-about-it-or-you’ll-only-be-sorry future, I’ll feel comfortable enough to sing for some boy (man?) who doesn’t make me feel like I’m in a room full of strangers who would rather a juke box accompany their next round of beers.

It’s not something I think about.

Kind of like the reason I’m sitting in the car, putting it in reverse, shifting to first and cutting the wheel hard, squeezing it till my fingertips are white because I’m sure that will stop me from scraping the back of the Kia Soul that yes, does have a stuffed hamster on the dashboard to match the dancing ones on the commercials.

John Green - The Fault In Our Stars - "I was thinking about the word 'handle,' and all the unholdable things that get handled."

Loneliness. That’s what lingers in those lyrics that the other tenets are bound to know over tooth brushing and flossing, shower shaving and tea brewing.

They are bound to hear my good days, my bad ones, as I sit in front of the computer and try to pretend I am alone, on an island, with soundproof walls and no one around for miles.

That doesn’t help the loneliness.

And probably the only thing that does is knowing that someday my once-broken, twice-broken, gosh-how-many-times-can-you-break-a-heart-before-you’re-twenty-three heart will come in handy when I want to master a melody about the things that chisel away at us.


And dying without goodbyes.


For boys who never became men.


For girls who always break first, before he has the chance.

Getting stood up.

For divorce and disease and forgetting the name of your own family. Forgetting where you live. For growing old and wishing you didn’t have to wake up anymore. For goodbyes that take too long and aren’t long enough.

Maybe that’s why I’m sitting in my closet on the floor, trying to find lyrics and notes to hold all those things we, as humans, are inevitably going to have to handle.

Maybe that’s why we have driver’s licenses at sixteen—there are nights when the car will always need to hold melodies for us, when we will need to remember that sometimes, all we know how to do is stop at the red light and use our turn signals and wipe the rain away when it comes.

Because it will come. If not today, then another day.

And there will be a song on the radio and you will wonder why every single country star knows somebody who died of cancer and why must every single commute feel like the world has ended and put itself back together in just the span of 15 minutes while you sit in traffic?

It will happen. Maybe you won’t sit in your closet. Maybe you won’t be alone. Maybe the music will fill the spaces you don’t want to deal with right now.

“I was thinking about the word ‘handle,’ and all the unholdable things that get handled.” – John Green, The Fault In Our Stars

Sorry, Not Sorry. That's what we say now, Mama.

It is hard for her to imagine him as a little boy, brushing Semolina breadcrumbs from the corners of his mouth. Surrounded by a table of babbling older sisters and whirling hand gestures and the aroma of Mama’s sauce.

She can’t see him on porch steps in Brooklyn or in front of the corner store, sneaking kisses with a girl whose red hair had only half the fire churning inside her warm belly.

Back then, he still fought for his love.

Maybe not with raised fists or harsh voices, but in the quiet defiance of a boy who loves a Girl He’s Not Supposed To Marry.

Back then, people didn’t throw the word Arranged around the way they did garlic cloves and oregano in pots of red sauce.

They ingested it like pasta—accepting it because Mama said so.

Mama said a lot of things, but I am sure she didn’t say to run away the minute that Girl He Wasn’t Supposed To Marry was buried six feet under.

I think Mama was a storyteller. I imagine her Italian hands, wrinkled from stirring pots and sewing shirts, moving in concentric circles as she grasps for the right word.

It is ‘Sorry,’ Mama.

Sorry the Girl with red hair stole his heart. Sorry he did not ask for it back. Sorry he could not stop her from slipping into a disease that took parts of her until she was laying on a white hospital bed. Sorry the doctors did not properly diagnose her the first time. Sorry they still do not have a cure.

Sorry, Not Sorry.

That’s what we say now, Mama. It means something like this: “I am only sorry you do not wish to understand her, Mama, but I love her.”

I love the Girl I’m Not Supposed To Love With Red Hair and Freckled Arms. I love her burgundy tree in my backyard. The house in the back corner of the cul-de-sac. The Yoo-Hoo drinks in her fridge and the aqua plush carpet.

I love the smell of chlorine in the mountains of Pennsylvania in the middle of December.

Mama would have hated it there, but she would have wanted him to stay.

I know it. I know the boy whose most dangerous habits were eating apples off a knife and kissing Irish girls was meant to stay.

Because when the people you fight for die, you don’t pretend to have listened to Mama. You don’t pretend you never loved her.

He was meant to push little boys with goopy smiles in strollers and take three-mile walks through the park and always pay when the next-door neighbors’ ice cream truck pulled up. He was meant to hold babies and give Mamas breaks.

He was not meant to listen to his own Mama. He was meant to keep the fire alive when the Girl He Wasn’t Supposed To Love couldn’t anymore. 

Education might start in the classroom but it ends in the streets.

girl studying math homework

my sister doing math homework

Last spring, I got a 4.0. I’m not telling you this to brag or even to suggest to you that it’s possible. In fact, I’m telling you for the exact opposite reason.

For six semesters, it’s been the only number worth memorizing. And at the expense of my sanity and well being.

I was the girl who spent Sunday afternoons in a study corral at the library. Hunched over a statistics textbook, redoing problems until my answer matched the one in the back of the book.

Someone needed to stop that girl. Grab her pencil and textbook. Take them hostage.

Because a spoken word poem about a 9-year-old boy with cancer stopped me dead in my tracks Monday night. And I realized that education is not two numbers separated by a period on my official transcript.

Education is the realization that getting an A-minus is not the end of the world. Because I’m alive and my heart is pumping and there are hundreds of injustices in this world. And I work this hard for what? For a number that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Tears streamed down my face as I watched the video. Because the girl in the study corral, she missed out on the sun shining outside that day. She missed out on the hundreds of other people in this world with a story to tell and pain in their hearts and nobody put that girl’s actions into perspective.

I used to think education was a classroom full of kids, all in ruler-straight lines of desks, perfect posture and hands folded over hands in laps. Waiting with eager eyes and antsy feet tap-tap-tapping until the bell rang and then silence for 46 minutes.

Education equated to discipline. To perfectly written five-paragraph essays and math tests with no red lines scribbled on them. Grades with three digits.

I want you to know that it’s not true. I have two semesters left. One year. I’ve been in school since I was five years old. That’s 16 years of believing one silly little thing. And it’s not true.

That poem I watched was just the first of a whole stampede of experiences and ideas and insights that I’d sheltered myself from. I didn’t know how to save the world or raise my voice above the cacophony of sounds radiating from the universities around the world, filled with people who all wanted to help and be heard and volunteer and give back.

I didn’t realize that the only thing I had to do was start by breaking the mold. Start by being honest with myself and then spreading that honesty like peanut butter. Letting that gooeyness stick into all the crevices.

You’d be amazed how people can relate to honesty.

There’s a world outside the box, outside the doors of the library, outside the entrance to the university. Education might start in a classroom but it ends in the streets where kids are playing and getting caught up in violence and parents are sitting them down at the kitchen table to impart life lessons. And those parents go to bed praying they’re doing something right.

The first thing they can do? Tell their kids to break the mold. To find balance between school and everything else. To give themselves a break.