Rising from ash: hope in the face of cancer

Rising from ash: hope in the face of cancer
Fireweed just outside Homer, Alaska

Before moving to Chicago two years ago, I lived in Anchorage, Alaska for 14 years. Let me tell you, Alaskans know how live in harsh, relentless conditions. In the snow season 2011-2012, they had just under 134 inches. First snow was in October and the last in April. I have no idea how long it took to melt. I do know that it was followed by a cloudy, cold summer.

And yet, most of my friends’ Facebook status updates were about their adventures skiing, biking (yes, in the snow), hiking, running, living in the elements. Of course, there were frequent updates about the snow, too.

Most of us don’t choose to live in harsh conditions, though we live and sometimes thrive in them nonetheless. None of us really wants to live in the midst of wildfires, earthquakes, extreme weather, and isolation. Still, Alaskans do, and they adapt in a hundred different ways and sometimes recreate their environment.

I just got back from a week-long visit to Alaska. They were enjoying a spectacular summer. Temperatures in the 80s, sunshine (until the wee hours no less), and abundant growth. From vegetables to flowers, plant life was dominant this summer.

Life is so tough in Alaska that employers frequently give employees “sun” days (instead of snow days). Particularly in very rainy and cold summers, companies give employees the day off when the sun is warm and the sky is clear. Alaskans know how to capitalize on the good stuff.

Fireweed is one of the most common plants in Alaska, and it’s a tough customer. Fireweed is very often the first plant to grow after a forest fire or other disruption of the soil. It flowers in the inhospitable climate of Alaska

We use fireweed as a clock of sorts. The flowers bloom from the bottom. The closer the blooms are to the top, the closer we are to winter. Fireweed is bittersweet for me. As those blooms rose up the stalk, my spirits often began to decline. For me, a native of the Southwest, living in Alaska was hard work.

Honestly, I was anxious about returning to Alaska, but after I got my first hug and saw my first fireweed, I knew I was returning to one of my homes. Alaskans know how to recreate their families from friends and neighbors, and the community is very close and very welcoming.

Both the people and the plant life took complete advantage of this glorious summer. The fireweed was more beautiful than I have ever seen it.

I don’t think of Alaska as a place to find renewal after a year’s worth of coping with cancer. Why go toward the earthquakes and fires and cold, rainy weather? Why go where living is harder for plants and people?

Why go? Because fireweed grows when nothing else can. It is weedy and resilient and persistent and tough and noble. It is beautiful when it can be and struggles through when it can’t.

Why go? Because the people survive in inhospitable conditions, ride bikes in the snow, and make strangers part of their family. They are resilient and tough, too.

And when it’s beautiful outside and the sun is up until 11 p.m. and it’s too warm for a sweater, people and fireweed alike are out there thriving and showing off, soaking up every bit of warmth that they can.

Fireweed and Alaska’s people remind me to cultivate hope in the face of cancer.

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