The first time I came across the secret was when I learned that my dear aunt Helen, who was like a second mom and always inebriated on joy, had a horrible past life. She lost five immediate family members (three sisters and parents) before she turned 18. Then she married a man who did not want kids, and she loved kids. Like in a sad TV show, years later she found out her husband had another wife, and a kid, in another city. Painful! When she left this man, he tried to kill her. I will never forget that night because I was under the bed when he came to our house looking for her with his gun. My dad, her brother, took his gun out and they had a standoff in our yard.
I can’t remember seeing Helen without a smile . . . unless it was a laugh. She found joy in every moment of her long life. It was a paradox, an enigma.
In college I met a holocausts survivor. She was so much like my aunt, constantly laughing. I didn’t take history seriously at the time and didn’t understand what happened in the Nazi camps.
This type of smile differs greatly from the smile described in the song, Smile. In that song, (lyrics below) the smile is pretentious. Helen’s smile and laughter were authentic. But this kind of happiness, the joy of the survivor, has a secret. It’s a secret that I’m just figuring this out.
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear maybe ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile- what’s the use of crying
To make sure there is no misunderstanding, I am not a cancer survivor. Mine is considered incurable. I’ve had people who don’t understand the diagnosis, say such. My cancer is like an old drunk man, passed out in an easy chair in my marrow. One day will awake and try his best to murder me. Is he waking now?
Multiple Myeloma will have a cure someday, and I may or may not live long enough to realize it. It is even possible that the cure may be here now. A few new treatments have profound initial responses, but they just don’t know how long it last. It involves reprograming the patient’s immune system (T cells) to fight the cancer.
But when I look at where I’ve been, I am a survivor of suffering. My story is not unique, as most of you have survived something dreadful.
I didn’t think I would ever leave the intensive care of a hospital two years ago. Kissing the mud when my feet got to touch ground again. I still love the dirt, the grass, the trees, the water, the mountains, the sky . . . and all that is part of this incredible creation. I have always loved the out-of-doors, but now it is intimate, its personal. Having suffered beyond what I thought a human could bear, the lack of such is profoundly delightful. That’s the survivor’s secret, having tasted the loss and having another chance at it.
I can’t even talk about my family without exploding with joy.
I was thinking about this yesterday when I drank a glass of orange juice. It was straight from Florida, thick with pulp. Little ovoid pieces of pure citrus ecstasy, that stick to your teeth. I love orange juice and this was my first glass in two years. When I first got off dialysis, a year and a half ago my electrolytes were so high, I had to forgo all fruits (including tomatoes), meat, and was down to plain noodles and oatmeal. Now, I can have fruit, tomatoes, can eat a little chicken but no red meat. Now, to me, a slice of a tomato is like the thickest and juiciest steak you can imagine.
In summary, I have a type of joy with the ordinary that I’ve never experienced before. I know what it is like to be without. That’s the survivor’s secret. But don’t say it. No, I’m not better off now that I’ve experienced cancer . . . it still sucks like a Hoover.