I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Before and Afters. As many of you know, I spent a good deal of my summer in Nepal. When I left, I went straight to the Philippines for another work-related trip. It was an interesting thing, going from a place 4-months post-disaster to one nearly two years. Like the montage in one of those ridiculous romantic comedies I unabashedly and tastelessly love: a simple plane ride taking the lead character from misunderstanding and heartbreak to happily ever after, all to the tune of Matchbox 20. Don’t get me wrong. The Philippines still has a long way to go in their recovery process. But in movie world, she’s started dating again, has a new wardrobe. She’s finally switched from those clunky, unseemly glasses to contacts, making everyone realize she’s been a beauty all along. The 20 months between her and Nepal make a big difference.
Closer to home, I sit on my parent’s couch in South Carolina, a couple of uber-affectionate puppies in my lap. A little more than a year ago, I was also here. Same reason: recovering from surgery (this time thankfully minor). I wear the same stiff girdle and hideous compression bra. (Will there ever be a day that I only wear pretty underthings??) A Tom Clark latte greets me every morning; my mom waits on me hand and foot. I am, again, banned from hot baths, hot tubs, and hot toddies as a result of my six-week restrictions, all of which are typically highlights of a parental visit down South. And yet, this is nothing the same. Not even close.
Last year at this time, I had just had my second mastectomy. For months, my stomach had been a tightly clenched knot, my chest palpably emitting a pain that had nothing to do with a removed breast. I was terrified of my life, of rocking the boat, of the person I wanted to be but couldn’t. I was quite simply, a huge f*cking wreck. Emotionally, spiritually, physically. I was mere weeks away from leaving my marriage of 10 months, and more broken than I ever thought possible. I might have been able to kick cancer’s ass, but it was the keep on living thing that I just couldn’t do one day more. This was me. Before.
When I think back to then, just a year ago, and to the person that I was, I hardly recognize myself. I don’t. I am not that person, it would be almost easy to deny her existence ever was. I am happy and fulfilled and filled with peace and love. Most days, I feel like a unicorn radiating frigging rainbows out of my ass. I adore my life and the people in it. This is me. After.
I read something the other day about how sometimes you meet people that are traveling the same path as you. Most times, they aren’t in the exact same place, a little further ahead or just a tad behind. The people who are further along, they’re the ones that nudge you when you want to give up, assure you that it IS possible to continue, that it DOES get better, that you ARE brave enough, strong enough. Then there are the people behind you, who started the journey a little later on. People who, sometimes, look a lot like the me that existed before. How it’s our responsibility to help them along, as someone further up the road so graciously did for us. And that’s how the world becomes a better place, all of us working in harmony, traveling parallel paths, pulling and pushing and moving each other along.
I love this idea. Because often we tend to focus on just the Before and the After. No magazine ever has featured a cover girl that was two pounds down towards a goal of 50. But to me, the two pounds is the important part. It’s the in-between that makes up the substance of our lives. It’s in the in-between where we realize we’re actually tired of being hairy caterpillars, that we were born to be butterflies and if that means holing up in a cocoon to make it actually happen, then damnit, that’s what we’re going to do.
As I reflect on the last year, on the in-between, I realize more fully how significant the journey part of my journey has been. The people that pulled and pushed. The coworker that let me openly cry in her cube on too many occasions to count. The mother that stopped her life for me to heal. The sister who patiently let me grieve on her shoulder and then bought me divorce dresses to wear as I reentered the land of the living (and social). The first ex-wife, who in a serendipitous turn of events, became a source of healing like no other and an amazingly dear friend. The girls (now fully grown women, walking and strutting their own paths) of my high school who constantly remind me their support didn’t end just because my treatment did. I had the awesome opportunity on my recent trip to New Orleans to thank just a few of them in person. I can’t express enough how much they pushed/pulled/dragged me in ways that literally saved me life. And how much I love them for it.
And I’ve got to do some pulling myself as part of my in-between. Although seeing other people in pain is a horrible thing, in many ways it’s been incredible to be able to say, “You’re going to be OK,” and know that they believe you. You’ve got the battle scars to prove it. And it’s amazingly therapeutic too; to be able to pay forward just a smidgen of the in-between pulling you’ve received.
I keep getting those Facebook memories from this time last year. And instead of seeing them and being sad—the photo at the Arboreteum with a friend was actually three hours of constant tears and questions: How can I possibly leave, start completely over? Should I wait until surgery is done, I can’t do this all at once? We just bought a house, I just changed my name. I failed. Maybe it’s my fault, he didn’t ask for cancer—I look at them and reflect on how much I’ve grown. In a way, I’m starting a new Before now. Because I want to keep going, I don’t want to ever be completely satisfied with my After. I want to live in the in-between. It’s where life happens.
When I was younger, I ended an engagement about five months before the wedding. (I have the most incredible, amazing friends but am apparently a complete dope when it comes to men.) While it was a relief, I was still completely lost, off course and in shambles. So my dad, being my dad, made me a painting. I love my dad’s art, and most of the walls of my apartments throughout the years have been covered in his work. But this one has always been one of my favorites. It’s not particularly beautiful; red and raw with a huge, gaping slash rising out of the middle of it, but the words he wrote on back of the canvas say everything.
Sometimes it takes a fissure in our lives to give us pause to reexamine ourselves, to assess who we are and why we are here. Let’s look at these fissures, the “breaking or parting,” not as a painful end of something, but as a joyous beginning of our healing and renewal.
All My Love,
I think maybe that the fissure my dad so truthfully writes about is what we all go through when the Before comes to an end. What seems like the very end of it all is often times really just the beginning. It’s extremely painful, sometimes almost unbearable so. But that’s why there always seems to be someone ahead of you, reassuring that it’s been done before. And that you’re going to do it too.
In the time between my (many) Befores and Afters, I’ve learned that when you are at your worst, you often have the opportunity to come out your best. That’s when the really good shit starts to happen. But you have to want to see it like that, even when it’s near impossible. You have to read past the technical definition. Otherwise it’s just ends up being what it seems: a shitty f*cking hand.
The Universe seems to know, even when we don’t. It knows that if you jumped from the Before crap to the After glory simply by listening to a mediocre 90’s pop band and buying a pair of contacts, well, you’d end up missing the best part. Where the magic happens and life is lived and love is given and received and heals all the fissures. The in-between. It’s my favorite part.