“The truly brave man does not suppress his fear. He really experiences it, but holds fast to the good, moderating the fear of which he is fully cognizant.” -Doug McManaman
I have always been afraid.
Afraid of the dark in my room, the wood grain on my dresser leering like a face in the shadows.
Afraid of the movie, I would hide behind the entertainment center and peek around the corner, my body protected from the bad guy’s gaze.
Afraid of the snippets of the ten o’clock news I wasn’t supposed to hear and didn’t understand, creeping in the hallway where my parents couldn’t see.
Afraid of letting people down. Afraid of getting a “B.” Afraid of not getting a boy. Doing what I should, because I was afraid of being in trouble. Doing what I shouldn’t because I was afraid of not being liked.
Afraid of an intruder in my car, my apartment, on the street. Afraid of not knowing the truth. Afraid of knowing and being responsible for it. Afraid of the mistakes of yesterday, the problems of today. Afraid of things that hadn’t even happened yet. Afraid of not being successful. Afraid of not being loved. Afraid of being judged for what I loved and who I loved and how I loved and where and when. Finances and work and the dark and storms and the wrong diet and the right thing to say and “does that mole on my arm look funny to you?”
“Stay awake! Be ready! You do not know the hour when the Lord is coming.”
If you’re awake all the time, can you keep the hour from coming? People say they fear the unknown, but they’re wrong. You can only fear what you know.
Synovial sarcoma, an aggressive soft tissue cancer, occurs in only “1 to 3 individuals in a million people” per year. It is so rare that my oncologist has said studies written about its outcomes are too small to be of statistical significance. The papers I’ve read and experts I’ve consulted put the five-year survival rate for a case like mine anywhere from 18 percent to 70 percent.
I did not see it coming. All I saw was a bump on my leg.
I was afraid when I was waiting for the biopsy results. I was afraid when the choir sang at daily Mass.
“Somebody’s knockin’ at your door. Can you trust Him?”
I wasn’t afraid on March 15th when the doctor said, “I’m sorry I have to tell you this.” I was afraid when she said, “we have to get this baby out of you. You’ll need to be induced tomorrow.”
I wasn’t afraid when the baby came in the middle of that night. For days I was happy. Then I was terrified.
I have never been afraid of pain. I’ve spent my life falling and skinning my knees and smacking my head and breaking my bones. But I have always been afraid of death. If it ever got too close, I’d hide it in the furthest corners of my brain.
“I’ll deal with you later.”
Then later was now, and I couldn’t hide. You can’t run with IVs in your hands and lines in your chest, or when you’re doubled over in a hospital bed, or when you’re fixed on a beanbag mold, a beam of radiation buzzing around your leg.
I obsessed over prognosis and metastasis, treatment and sin and truth and death. I lost my appetite, my memory, my hair, my ability to get off the couch, to use the bathroom normally, to have any meaningful conversation or happiness without “DEATHDEATHDEATHDEATHDEATH” whisper-screaming at the back of my brain. I felt dead already. I felt dread when I entered my Church, my place of refuge. God had never felt so close or so scary. Why couldn’t I trust? Why couldn’t I be brave? Why couldn’t I smile or laugh or be ok? Was He good? Was I good enough? Was He really there? Was I really here? I had panic attack after panic attack. They lasted through the night and into the next day. If I took a pill, they subsided until the pill did. Then they came back with twice the strength.
Then came surgery in August. I wasn’t afraid of that. I was ready. I can handle pain. I woke up happy, and for days I was happy. Then I was terrified.
I went home to my parents to convalesce. I got the call there: clear margins. No evidence of cancer around the edges of the tumor. No evidence of disease.
“Can I say that I’m NED?” I asked.
“Dr. Rosenthal is ok with you saying that,” the nurse answered.
I drank beer with my mother and cracked jokes. I bought a yellow dress with flowers on it. I danced to old music with my daughter.
“Que será, será. Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see, que será, será.”
Then I had another panic attack.
I did two more rounds of chemotherapy, and lost what little hair I had grown back. I asked about doing two more, the maximum dose, but the doctor said I’d had enough. I had check-up scans in November and again in February. They were both clear. I’ve been “in remission” for seven months now.
I am so much braver than I was exactly one year ago. I’m not afraid of intruders or tornadoes. My hair doesn’t stand on end in the night after watching true-crime television. I’m not so worried about what people think when I speak. I’m not so worried about what people think I’m doing with my life. God is still there. Still close, still mysterious, and, as always, very, very good.
But I’m still afraid. I’m afraid when my leg swells or when I cough or have a strange pain. I’m afraid of the statistics and the studies. I’m afraid of what my husband might do without me, of not seeing my children grow up. I’m afraid of my sin, of what I have done and what I have failed to do. I’m afraid of wasting time or having bad days. I still have panic attacks, though they are steadily becoming fewer.
I’m afraid of dying, but I’m not so ashamed of it anymore. Everyone is afraid of something and underneath it all, whether it’s the weather or pain or even being alone, that something is always death—earthly or eternal. It is our primary adversary, and it entered the world when Adam and Eve first ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They decided they could discern for themselves, against His will, what to fear.
So, I will be patient in my fear. I will laugh and smile. I will try to be brave. I will try to trust. Christ used cancer to kill so many of my worries. In the end, I believe He will use death to dispel my fear of death itself. If I make Him my King, if I ask for His will to be done, He will destroy every evil thing in His good time, whether fear or ruler or authority or power.
“For He must reign until he has put all his enemies under His feet.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”