Maybe everyone who has been diagnosed with cancer has to go in search of a silver lining, but I suspect that only a subset of us undergoes any active searching. I’m both staggered and humbled by many of the people I have met with cancer over the past three years, who are seemingly hardwired with eyes that find and focus on a silver lining. They are the resilient ones.
I’ve met several kinds of resilient people. One kind have invisibility cloaks. They can, at will, shrug into those cloaks and no longer see the cancer. They don’t always wear the cloaks, which I’d describe as a sort of denial. But they find great relief when they’re able to. One friend wears hers and then goes to play with her grandkids. She’s in her 60s and she slides and swings and rough houses with the kids.
She has a stage four cancer and is resilient both physically and emotionally. I’m never sure if the physical resilience enables the emotional or the other way around. They probably work together. I know that she doesn’t always wear that cloak, though, because I’ve been there when it slips off her shoulders. From my perspective, though, it is a comfortable and well worn cloak. She looks good in it and it lends her super powers.
Mary Kay was resilient in a different way. It was as if she was just made that way. When life’s sledge hammer came down, she surveyed the damage, repaired what was salvageable, discarded what wasn’t and got back down to it. Whether it was a physical or emotional bulldozer, Mary Kay stood up, dusted herself off and proceeded with life.
It’s not that she didn’t spend some time on the ground, mind you. Nor was she always able to stand back up. Mary Kay wasn’t made of teflon. She bruised and limped just like the rest of us. She was thoughtful when she surveyed the damage, took her time and made hard decisions. Retiring from her job was one choice she made that was excruciating for her. A week before she died she told me that she wished she’d been able to work longer because she loved her work.
Instead of working full time, Mary Kay volunteered at her place of business. There were months when she was unable to give even an hour, but then there were months where she could go in several times a week for a few hours.
She told us often that the years she lived after her diagnosis were the best of her life because she saw clearly what was important and was able to invest herself fully in those things: her children and grandchildren, her husband, her work, and travel. I believed her, but only because I knew her and saw her and heard her. Without the experience of knowing her, I would have rolled my eyes in response to her story. But she was the real deal.
I struggle to find life’s silver linings. When I’m knocked down I experience the falling in every way possible, what it sounds like and smells like and feels like and looks like. I read about the thing that has knocked me down, get to know it, and find others who know it. And then I relive the experience. Sometimes I get stuck right there.
Someone at work asked me, “Are you an optimist or a pessimist? I can’t ever quite figure that out.” I think I’m an idealist. I don't expect the best or the worst. Instead I read about and try to understand what “should” be. I’m an over-achiever by nature. When asked to bring cupcakes to my child’s school function, I make them from scratch, with real butter and the best chocolate and expensive vanilla. I have in my mind’s eye the perfect cupcake and I work hard to make them, very hard. I believe that I’m capable of making and delivering them. And, I often succeed. So, the next time someone needs cupcakes, I’m ready to do it again.
It won’t surprise you to know that the cupcakes don’t always turn out right. I once read about cupcakes you could make in ice cream cones. Perfect for kids, but I got the wrong sort of cones and they melted all over the cake. My husband, who sees silver linings in the darkest of clouds, said, “Oh, I’m sure they’ll be fine.” And then he saw them. We threw them away, just wrapped a trash bag around the entire pan and were done with it.
My tendency is to start over, try to make them again, try to get it right. My husband’s was to go by the store and get a fruit tart. We followed his option. As I ate the mass produced, processed custard with sort of unrealistically firm fruit on top and watched the kids scramble for every last crumb, I filed the experience under “failure.” These were not successful cupcakes.
My husband and daughter filed the experience under best failure possible. “We got to eat that fruit tart from the grocery store!!!”
Happiness is found where my husband and daughter found it, tucked into the same corner where Mary Kay and my other friend discovered it. It is the silver lining. It is being willing to see something other than what is right in front of your face.
And, then, like them, you change the story. The story isn’t about cupcakes. It’s about having a sweet treat to celebrate something or other with your school friends. It’s about getting to eat the glorious looking tart that you’d never be allowed to eat under other circumstances. You’ve seen it behind the glass every time you go to the grocery store and today, thank god, the cupcakes failed so you get to try it.
Later this week, I’ll post Part 2. You see, I’m just never going to be the person who easily sees the silver lining. I need help finding it. I need help making it. I’m learning how.
In pursuit of the silver lining, Part 2 is here.
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