I spend the majority of my time with cancer people. People who either have, have had or are in some way dancing with the disease. Each weekend I stand on a stage and gaze out at hundreds – sometimes thousands – of faces etched with expressions of pain, sorrow, hope, fear, anticipation, joy and sometimes a combination of all of the above. It's fitting. Cancer uses every emotion in the rainbow and always paints a unexpected picture – half Dali, half Rembrandt and all covered in obscene graffiti. Or maybe that was just my cancer.
Anyway, I find it ironic in a way, that I spend so much of my time with cancer people. Deep down all I really want to do is run as far and as fast as I can from the whole thing. Deep, deep down I don't want to associate with cancer in any form. Deep, deep, deep down sometimes I even deny I ever had cancer. And deeper than that is some stuff my mother did to me – like allowing me to wear coolots and a matching vest when I was a kid. But despite me desire to be away from the whole thing I'm bathing in it, eating a tasty stew made from it and wearing it as a hat each and every weekend.
The Orange Dog That Lives With Us is a dog by definition. She is canine. She has 4 paws, 2 ears, and a snout. She also has a cute little puppy face. She's not tall, but she's not short either. Her coat isn't long, but it's not short. She's not a small dog but you wouldn't call her big. She's the goldilocks of dogs. Right down the middle. She every dog. But she's the least dog-like dog I've ever known. And I say she "lives with us" because we all understand that this is her choice. We don't own her. She is simply tolerating our presence.
The Orange Dog really doesn't know she's a dog. She thinks she's a cat. She was raised around cats. She has a very cat-like personality. She's standoffish. She's rather rude at times. She doesn't really want to be petted, or talked to, or acknowledged. She's content to be over here, thank you very much and you can just stay over there. If she had opposable thumbs I bet she'd be a writer and she'd pen large tomes thick with philosophical insights much too significant for the average human. She's uppity, frankly. And would rather just be left alone.
And once, a while ago, The Orange Dog got out.
Thankfully, she has a tag – much to her chagrin. And on that tag is our phone number and shortly after she got out we got a call. It went like this:
Them: <pant pant> Hey! Um, hi … do you have a dog?
Me: Yes (said into phone)…. Sort of (said mostly to self)
Them: Well, we have her <rustle, rustle> (then said away from the phone) … Hold her! Hey! Hold onto her! She'll take off again!
Me: Oh! Okay .. gosh we didn't know she was out … where are you?
Them: Well, <pant pant> we started trying to get her around Main street … but we're now at State Line. (pause) Man, that little dog is fast!
Me: <chuckling> um, okay, we'll be right there.
So we jump into the car and take off to go get The Orange Dog. On the way there, The Hub discussed how she got out (opposable thumb theory emerges again), and where she was going (to live with monks?) and what the chances were that she'd already nipped at someone who tried to "Hold her! Hey! Hold onto her!" (100%). As we got near to where the caller said they were we saw a group of about seven people – three kneeling, two looking up and down the street for our arrival, and two standing with their arms folded – all gathered on the sidewalk. We couldn't see The Orange Dog. As we got closer it was clear The Orange Dog was in the middle of the group – and the three kneeling people were holding her and, get this … trying to pet her and that's when I called our attorney friend to let him know he'd probably be defending us in dog court. We pulled over and jumped out and began thanking the group for their help. "She's really scared!" one person said, "see how much she's shaking?" I couldn't bring myself to tell them that she wasn't shaking from fear but from disgust. The Hub scooped the dog up and tossed her in the car. We shook hands, thanked them again and then headed home. On the way back we laughed like little children. Poor Dog. "I bet you'll never do THAT again!" The Hub said to her and she sneezed and snorted in the back seat. It was her worst nightmare … imagine being TOUCHED and PETTED by LOTS of PEOPLE … sickening! Once we got home she trotted deliberately AWAY from us and into the bedroom to sip a brandy and calm her nerves. We didn't see her until the next morning.
She's a dog. But she wants nothing to do with being a dog.
And for all the making fun of her I do, for all the times I've said, "I don't get it! Why doesn't she want to be loved?" for all the moments I've thought she's crazy or twisted or just plain dumb to want to escape the very characteristics that define her, I have to say … I get it.
Sometimes I feel just like her. All I want to do is run gleefully down the street with my tongue hanging out and my legs pumping as fast as they can. I want to flee any mere idea that I was a cancer patient. I want to run far and fast from this disease that seems to have followed me and tripped me up my whole life. I want to avoid, escape, erase this defining characteristic from my life.
And yet, each weekend I pull on my big girl cancer pants and head out to meet with, talk with, walk with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who are liquid with stories and dripping with emotion.
Jen from Arizona who had a clean PET scan after her first bout with cancer and then 3 months later was diagnosed at Stage IV (there is no stage V), who is now cancer-free. Again.
The man from Tampa who walked The Breast Cancer 3 Day 2 weeks ago in memory of his wife – who died six days before the event.
Matt from Virginia who walked last year with a picture of his mom on his t-shirt. "Walking in her honor … she's my hero!" his shirt said. And this year the same picture on a different shirt "Last year I walked in her honor, this year I walk in her memory."
The two girls I met at opening ceremonies in Boston who met last year on the walk because they were tent mates. They struck up a friendship in 2007 since they had so much in common. Similar life stages, similar backgrounds, both walking in memory of their moms. They have even more in common now. One of them was diagnosed with breast cancer September last year and the other was diagnosed in February this year. They both walked together this year, as best friends and as survivors themselves.
The man in Michigan who was my ASL interpreter who began weeping during opening ceremonies and had to run from the stage after we all said the names of the people we were walking for out loud into the morning.
The woman who was sitting at a cheering station this past weekend in Arizona in wheelchair, bald, pale and somehow clapping and her husband who stood beside her saying softly to each walker "don't you quit now … don't you quit."
The stories go on and on. They break my heart. They make me angry. They give me hope and they make me sick. I should find comfort. I should find healing. I should be able to roll around in the camaraderie but instead I shudder and shake. I am a cancer survivor. And I want nothing to do with it.
And as I typed that last paragraph The Orange Dog walked slowly from the bedroom where she was sitting calmly by herself and laid down on the rug near me. It can't be said that she came out here to be with me but when I reached down and patted her head she actually nudged into nose into my hand.
Maybe there is hope. … for both of us.