Three years ago i was standing on the edge of a river, calling my best friend to tell him i had cancer, telling him i was a little scared, that it didn't feel real, that i trusted myself but also that i didn't know what to do. Later that day i stood next to a lake, asking my mom how she was doing, and if my step dad was around because i had something to tell her and wanted him to be there for her, and then trying to tell her the news in the best way possible.
Since then i've learned there is no best way to do some things. i learned there might be years with only a few good days, times where you only make progress by falling forward or none at all, and pain you can't manage if you haven't learned how to yet.
The good news is life has allowed much as it has taken during this time. i'm mostly known for adventure, for beautiful pictures, and encouraging words. i don't know if there's anyone more grateful than i am at the chances i get and what i've gotten to do in life given where i've come from. i often get messages from people, letting me know they find my life encouraging, sometimes telling me their dreams and fears, letting me know what they see in me and how they relate.
Sometimes i love this because it's good to know my life means something to people in a way that might be helpful. Other times, i'm afraid of it because it feels so far from my reality. i shouldn't be looked up to. i must be living a lie if that's what people see because the honest truth is that the past three years have been the most frustrating in my life. For the first time, my problems couldn't be solved by doing my absolute best paired with relentlessly not giving up.
When others describe me or my life they usually use words like inspiring, beautiful, and hope. i do not want to let people down, but when i think about my life, i use words like hopeful, stressed, lucky, alone, beauty finder, anxious, and tired. And i feel like i might be a letdown, which i will be and won't be. i'm not so scared of that. i'm afraid of who's going to stick around.
When i got the news, something i didn't tell most people was that i wasn't too surprised. This was my third cancer scare, and it seemed i'd only be able to dodge it so many times before it got to me. The other thing was how it seemed almost fitting. When i told one close friend, he immediately said: "dude, this would happen to you" which left me both puzzled by his honesty and at the same time totally understanding of why he'd said it.
And i think that was my attitude. This would happen to me. i try not to think like that too much because it's not helpful and thoughts like that border on feeling sorry for yourself. At the same time, it seems realistic to think this way sometimes, doesn't it? i grew with a lot of abuse as a kid, have a laundry list of medical problems, surgeries, and (equally due to my love for adventure and aptitude for clumsiness) ER visits ending up with casts or stitches. All i'm saying is bad surprises are no stranger.
At the time of diagnosis, more than anything, i felt a little defeated. Cancer broke the camels back when a straw or even a slight breeze would have. i was living alone, caretaking a mountain lodge for a non-profit, finishing a book about my life with the homeless, and snowboarding a lot - in many ways it was a dream, but i was also trying to reflect and heal from a traumatic childhood in a way i had never given myself the time to do. There was also this girl i'd spent the previous three years going through life with. We talked about everything with each other, dreaming and hoping, praying and thinking, talking for hours on the phone, and visiting her on nights in Charleston with warm breezes, eating key lime pie and sitting on swinging chairs on the bay. Two months before cancer, she walked away without saying anything at all. It made me feel lost in a new way. The first few months of being sick, banished to life on a couch, were the loneliest. i'd call her, and it'd be sent to voicemail. Then i'd hold the phone but not call. Eventually, i just tried never to think about any of it.
The year after diagnosis was a build up of frustration, anger, and loneliness to degrees i'd never known before. Schedules were filled with doctors visits in Reno and at Stanford, talking about surgeries and chemo, if we should cut out all my lymph nodes, if i'd be able to have kids, if they'd hit a nerve and i'd be paralyzed, and eventually deciding my cancer couldn't be justifiably treated through chemo, and the surgery yielded too small of a benefit given the risks. Instead, we would be monitoring, waiting to see if the cancer would spread, feeling for lumps or pains, having what felt like way too many x-rays, blood tests, and CT-Scans, talking about the danger of so many CT scans causing more cancer, and then talking about cutting it out if it came back. Life was busy enough to ignore most things during the day and go into a game time mode, but i spent most nights trying to breathe calm as tears ran out the corners of my eyes.
Eight months in i moved to San Diego, for the hospital and hoping for more opportunities and a better job. All i got was the hospital. i also, kind of accidentally, kind of because it was the only place i could afford, moved into a place people move into after they get out of jail, get divorced, off the streets, or if they have some money but mainly spend it on their drug addiction. It was the most depressing place i've ever been. The neighbor on my left was a quiet alcoholic, and the neighbor across the hall was a large woman who wore her bathrobe in the musty hallways and smoked pot and did other drugs in her tiny room. i'd stare at my neighbor's door to my right when i'd unlock my door. Something happened in his life. Something he felt too much or not enough of, and he had killed himself right before i moved in. No one wanted that room, so it stayed empty.
It was also the apartment where i wrote a children's book on the window sill and the apartment where i started having small panic attacks. It was the room i refused to go back inside after a night of bussing tables, instead driving into the mountains at 1 am, determined to see something beautiful rather than let the darkness that had come over me claim another one of my nights. It was the place i'd sit surrounded by bills and insurance statements saying they wouldn't pay, the bed i laid in after i found out my grandma passed away. It's where i cried in bed after coming back from the ER, feeling like everything in life was being taken away after having to have the conversation with my doctor about maybe having bone cancer and thinking i might have to lose my leg, or might die. It's where i came back home to after losing the old student and friend i had who'd been diagnosed right after me. He used to call me, telling me we were in it together, saying we were cancer buddies. The best times were when i would open the door to the fire escape in the evening and sit out there, put Mat Kearney's albums on repeat, and give myself the grace to still dream.
Those times did pass. i moved out and have traded up a few times since in every way in life. i don't have to get so many x-rays, kept my leg, and i'm no longer dirt poor, which is awesome, but i still walk past that downtown apartment pretty often, thinking about my neighbor to the right and feel sad for him.
What didn't leave was the anxiety i've now carried for a couple of years. That friend who left without a trace wrote me a letter in January. She apologized for abandoning me, said she was selfish and lost, said i did nothing to deserve it, told me i live a beautiful life and told me she knows i was put in her life for a reason- to give her someone that always points her back to God. She said i live life in a way where i always find the beauty in things, which is true, but for some reason, it hasn't made the loneliness go away. Sometimes i start to panic still, usually before doctors appointments or after being alone for too long, but i can reign it in a little easier now than before.
All these things have made vulnerability scarier than ever, because people could leave, and because i don't understand why people would want to be around if they knew, but the real kicker is that if they are around and don't know it's like i'm not even there. And the thing is, i'm real good at not really being there. This was always my go to as a kid. i was terribly afraid people would find out i was abused because it made me think they'd know i wasn't worth treating well, that if they found out what happened, it would be a secret let out that would make me worthless in their eyes too.
The thing is, it may not look like my story, but i think a lot of people are hiding like this - feeling like if people knew their actual life, it would be too much or show some kind of worthlessness. i'm just here to say it's probably not. To some, it may be, but they're probably not the type of people you want sticking around too long anyways if they're going to be that way.
My life is kinda screwed up sometimes, and i can get a little nervous and overwhelmed, but i'm also a beauty seeker. Everything has fallen apart, but i've also gotten to write a couple of books and speak a few places about them - i've gotten to see people's tears hear their hopes. i've experienced desolation and also what it's like to be fully invested in the art of life. i've had anxiety and depression, but also the milky way and baseball games and knowing whole heartedly that my soul is deep water, and i'm figuring out what wisdom is.
Three years from that day i've stood on a lot more river banks and lakes. It is the ever-changing concept of vulnerability and the ever-present challenge to press into it. My favorite thing isn't getting so nervous about people and things i think are cool, but what can come right after and asking for more of those quality moments, experiencing some disappointment but also trusting that all of this is part of a very very good life lived for God, others, and myself. Hoping there is so much left to live while knowing sometimes there will only be a few good days in a year comes from hope and faith and an assurance that there is so much beauty i cannot yet see.
Sometimes it's easy to think wisdom is being able to fix things and knowing what and how to fight, but i'm learning that it often looks like holding the world's hand as tenderly and kindly as ever, especially when it's rough, and you're tempted with the want to turn away.