Once I interviewed a Vietnam veteran who told me he’d waded through swamps filled with leeches. He’d smoke cigarettes, and then use them to burn the leeches off himself just so they wouldn't keep sucking his blood.
Now, I know stage 4 cancer isn't quite THAT bad, but there are days when I do feel like I'm wading through a swamp, just hoping to find solid ground. Yet, what happened last week gave me the anchor I’ve needed.
Someone paid for me to get a manicure for Mother’s Day. I’ve been pretty excited about it, but when I got to the salon last week, judgement practically emanated from the woman doing my nails. She impersonally motioned for me to put my hands on the counter before roughly sanding my nails and yanking on my hands. I tried talking to her, but she acted like she didn’t understand English, so we sat in silence for a while.
I’d worn fancy earrings and clothes that day (all from Goodwill *scha-bam!), and she hadn’t seen that I walk differently from regular people. I realized then that when I’m sitting, no one would know I’m sick. Regardless of the reason “why,” she didn’t act very nicely, and I just wished I could understand more about her.
(A dress I got for $5 at Goodwill.)
It wasn’t until she got to my left thumb that she studied my disfiguration and looked at me. “What happened?” she suddenly spoke bluntly—in English!
“I cut my thumb in half on a tablesaw,” I said. “It was crazy. The poor kids behind me—blood went everywhere. It was the worst accident that high school woodshop class ever had.”
“Hmmph! And what’s this?” She pulled my arm really hard and started touching the bruises on my inner elbow.
“I have stage four...cancer,” I said. “They have to draw my blood a lot and do treatments. I wanted a port, but I guess I can’t have one because I’ve had blood clots in the past.”
The air around us shifted. I swear this woman went from hating me...thinking I was some snotty person...to feeling compassion.
She showed me all of HER scars then; they ran from her hands to her arms. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed them before! Just like she’d missed so much about me, I had missed so much about her.
“I’m from Vietnam,” she said. “I fished for a living before coming here. These scars are all from fishing.” Then her eyes twinkled as she let go of my hand and stared at me. “We killed the fish—while they were still alive.”
I didn’t know how else you’d kill fish, but THAT made me smile—as if a real, live pirate sat across from me!
“You have kids?” she asked.
“Yes, I do. Four.”
“19, 16, 13, and 11.”
“19! I have a 19-year-old too,” she said.
I beamed as she showed me pictures. “She’s a real beauty!”
So we talked about our children, fishing, and even cancer. We both said how hard life can be and how strange things turn out. And oddly enough, neither one of us could fathom what the other had gone through! I couldn’t comprehend Vietnam, and she couldn’t imagine having cancer.
And this woman—who’d pretended to not speak English—suddenly became a sort of kindred spirit.
After I gave her a tip and walked out to my car, she darted from the building and yelled across the parking lot. “Good luck! Hang in there!”
“You too,” I said.
As I drove away, I couldn’t help smiling.
We all go through hidden struggles that no one sees on the surface. It’s just nice when we can have these transcendent moments and find such beauty along the way. I’m so glad I met that woman who felt generous enough to let down her walls to share some of her story with me. She is pretty amazing.