I’m sitting next to my mother as she receives her first round of chemotherapy treatment.
I can honestly say that as I was flitting around the world on our grand 6-month adventure, a chemotherapy clinic is just about the last place I imagined I’d end up upon my return home. We were in Thailand just a couple of days before our return to the U.S. when my mom experienced what she thought, at the time, was a heart attack. One test led to another, which led to another, which led to another – and in the end here we sit with a diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer.
While her cancer is not curable, they say it is treatable and she has decided to undergo chemotherapy in hopes of extending her life by what feels like only a handful of months. I am completely devastated. Aside from Glenn, my mother is the singular most important person in my life. She is my everything. My absolute everything.
I have no idea how I am going to navigate through the world without her cheering me on and helping to celebrate my accomplishments. She won’t be here to chuckle and roll her eyes at me when I tell her about my next grand scheme. I’m going to miss that, and so much more. But I can’t focus on what the future holds right now…otherwise I will miss out on the precious moments with her that remain.
When we set out on our around-the-world trip, I had imagined that I would have some grand epiphany. I’d discover the meaning of life, maybe. Or, I’d be so profoundly moved by some experience that I’d quit my job, sell my stuff and move to a remote village in a far-off land to save elephants or something.
In the end that didn’t happen. At least it didn’t happen in the way I had envisioned. Instead I was blessed with a much more subtle, yet profound, realization. I learned how very important the people in my life are and what a vital role they play in my happiness and wellbeing.
I’ve always struggled with social anxiety.
It was particularly crippling for me when I was a shy child. Through various life experiences I have gained coping skills so that I appear to have things well in hand when I’m in a group of people in a social situation. But on the inside, I am a hot mess. As a result, I tend to avoid social interactions with groups of people whenever possible – even with people I know reasonably well.
This dynamic is one of the things I miss the most about weighing over 300 pounds.
It may be hard to imagine, but when you weigh 300+ pounds you are able to navigate through the world as if you are invisible. I found that my obesity made others uncomfortable. Strangers would rarely talk to me and they certainly didn’t look me in the eye. Most people were nice enough, but few sought out meaningful friendships with me. People looked past me, which enabled me to blend into the background – a wondrous thing for someone battling social anxiety.
My weight created a warm and cozy barrier that insulated me from the world because it deflected social interactions. Now, as a result of my weight loss, that barrier isn’t there as much to protect me. People tend to see me now; I’m no longer invisible. I now walk around feeling raw and exposed…panicked that at any moment I might be expected to chat with someone in the elevator or make small talk at a social gathering, even with people I know.
But over the course of our trip around the world I have found my perspective changing.
While traveling Glenn and I spent an inordinate amount of time as just the two of us. Even though people surrounded us everywhere we went, we were unable to speak to them (even if I had wished to) because of the language barrier. As such, I often experienced a profound sense of loneliness while on the road which was new to me. I longed for the daily interactions I used to have with people back home. The chats with the charming corner barista while getting my morning coffee, the stories from a beloved co-worker about her kid’s soccer practice the night before, or brainstorming with a dear friend about a topic for the paper he needed to write for his graduate class.
These, and countless other social interactions, make up the rich and vibrant backdrop to my daily life.
I didn’t realize how important they were to me until they were absent while I was on the other side of the world. My internal narrative has always been “I don’t need a sense of community. I’m perfectly happy having just Glenn and a couple of close friends, thank you very much.” But now I realize that the sense of happiness and fulfillment I feel each day comes from interacting socially with the much broader group of funny, creative, sincere and inspiring people I am lucky enough to be surrounded by.
I’ve always had this community, I just didn’t realize it was there. My extended group of friends and family, both near and far; my amazing co-workers; folks from my neighborhood that are daily fixtures in my life; even strangers I met while traveling that I now call friends.
These and countless other people fill my life with joy. They make me feel whole. They are worth every bit of anxiety that comes from my social interactions with them. My connections with these people – forged in good times – have become my foundation of support during this difficult time.
That’s what the “buddy system” means. Looking out for each other, especially when the going gets tough.
With the news of my mother’s diagnosis my community has circled around me. Sending heart-felt wishes, offering help, giving hugs, sharing their own experiences with cancer or the death of a beloved parent. Before our trip I would have been inclined to rebuff that attention because it would have made me uncomfortable and elevated my anxiety.
But now I realize how important these relationships are in my life. So I am trying to take down my barriers – allowing myself to be raw and exposed – and letting their love and compassion wash over me like a warm embrace.
And in doing so, I have found the strength I need to sit beside my mother and support her through the challenging journey ahead. After all, she and I are the very best of buddies. Forever and always.