we ate dinner backwards last night. dessert first. it was that kind of a day. i could not wait to unveil the cake lighted and displayed behind the dining room doors. it boasted an important message for my family: a chocolate frosting 15. that was my number. i had gotten the long-awaited call from my surgeon's office. the oncotype was in and my number was low. 15. anything under 18 meant i could be ruled out of chemotherapy. i was ecstatic. i started to dial my family immediately...but in a moment of great, and uncharacteristic restraint, i stopped. i was pulling into the parking lot of whole foods. i would order a cake instead. oh, i can't explain how my mind works at times. i don't understand it myself. but a cake it would be. and a bottle of sparkling-but-too-expensive-lemonade. i put them both in my basket and headed for the checkout. i don't remember the steps. i am sure, however, i floated from bakery to register. the cake wasn't especially pretty and the lemonade wasn't exactly sparkling, but it didn't matter. i had discovered that very same hour i was skipping a summer of chemo. you don't get news like that everyday. we certainly don't get to celebrate like this just any old day.
at the checkout, the gal behind the register saw my cake and politely asked if i had a child turning fifteen. "i have one of those, i do," i told her. but this cake is not about birthdays. birthdays are wonderful, but life days are precious. i didn't tell her all that. i simply told her the story: my oncotype (i explained the odd word) came back today and it was a low number and this was good and i wouldn't need chemo and i was going to surprise my family and this cake and this lemonade were all part of my plan. i finally stopped rambling. she looked at me, brown eyes steady on my blue. "that's amazing," she said. and then her brown eyes began to fill. she said, "that's beautiful and i'm so glad you are telling me." she said she understood my joy because she, too, had a run-in with cancer. it was her little girl. her daughter turning nine this october was diagnosed a few years back with choroidal melanoma (eye cancer). the eye was removed and it was sad. heartbreaking and hard. but when the test results came back and they had discovered her daughter's cancer had not spread to her brain, there was great rejoicing in their home too. a wonderful and wild celebration. you learn to take the news of something good when you are living under the diagnosis of something bad. she bagged my small cake and expensive lemonade and then she stepped around the counter. in her sweet, and somewhat shy manner, she asked hesitantly if she could hug me. "of course!" i exclaimed, grabbing this stranger in my careful-post-surgery-hug. we stood there hugging in the middle of whole foods. she, this complete stranger, was the first person i told and the first person i embraced in celebration of my news. and somehow it felt right.
i am sure, more than ever, we all have stories. this woman in whole foods affirmed it. we tend to look at someone else's cake and make narrow assumptions, don't we? this woman is happy and throwing a splendid birthday party for her lovely daughter turning 15, and all is well...we think. we are so sure in our thoughts and in our presumptuous ideas. would anyone ever have guessed differently? would anyone ever have guessed this was about chemotherapy results not a birthday party? no. absolutely not. but the difference was, this woman asked. she asked and i told. and then she told. and we connected. sometimes it can actually be that simple. but someone has to stop assuming and start asking. i would like to be more this kind of person.
cancer has taught me so many things. i am not sure where to start in the listing of lessons. but last night, when the celebration had ended and the children were tucked in bed and i was alone with my evening thoughts, i could not help but think of the woman working in whole foods. how is it we, two cancer-stained women, could stand their smiling? she, with a daughter, less one eye. me, with my own kind of amputation. i laid in my bed and marveled at it all. i know there are so many of us suffering with stories, sad and full of sheer hopelessness. i know this. and it is incredible to me to believe we could ever find joy again in things like cake and lemonade and grocery store hugs. sometimes when you are under the blanket of something so heavy you believe...you really, truly believe... you'll never, again, know something sweet and sparkling and kind. but you do.
my onctotype came back at 15. it will be my magical number for days to come. but what if it had been 51? that happens, you know. would i be able to rush out for a cake and a sparkling drink? probably not. but would we have gotten through it? i am guessing, yes. because i have learned in these months to accept the good and the bad. i have, by no means, learned it perfectly. but i am learning to trust God with my story. i am learning about stories. i am learning we all have them. i am learning about the need to tell them. by God's grace, i may not need chemo this summer, but i am, more than ever, in need of Him. and regardless of my number, that is my story.