The crowd presses in. I look about 5 times my normal size because I’m wearing two sweaters, a jacket, and two coats. Idaho is cold, but cancer is colder.
A man bumps into me on accident, and I almost fall down. We’re crowding like cattle to see our children perform, sing, and play instruments. But the staff hasn’t cleared a place for the extra flood of parents, and we’re bottlenecked at the back of the gym.
I pray for Mike to come in soon since he somehow makes everything better. But poor Mike dropped me off at the school’s front entrance because I can’t walk far. And as I’m standing at the back of the gym, I feel bad for Mike, walking a couple of blocks in the freezing air, his beard swaying in the wind and his brown coat zipped tightly up to his neck.
Then I’m in so much pain that it banishes any other thoughts. Tears come to my eyes because my legs are shaking from standing too long, and I’m cussing myself for (pridefully) not using my wheelchair. A woman hears me groan and rolls her eyes, flicking her hair out and away so it hits the chest of the tall man next to her. “People should stop complaining,” she says to the man who I assume is her husband, boyfriend, or maybe just an admirer of women with heavy makeup. Then that lady simply…stares at me.
I want to tell her why I groaned. Because I’m still fighting cancer and I’m so sick. Because I had a fever all week and just got over another infection. Because sometimes I cry myself to sleep because the pain is so bad. But I don’t say any of that. Instead, I bite my lip. I’m not there to confront some judgmental blonde. I’m there to see my little girl play the bells and sing. So, I somehow weave through the crowd—without falling down—and ask a teacher if I can sit somewhere since cancer has eaten so much of my spine and my right leg.
“Oh, my!” Her eyes are wide as she gives me a stool right at the door outside of the gym.
People gawk, their eyes ping-ponging between me and the stool because although I look like a marshmallow of padding, I’ve painted color onto my face AND I look truly…deceptively healthy. But still every person who rushes toward the gym takes a moment to stare at me quizzically. A man I know stops and squeezes my wrist. “I’m so glad you’re feeling better,” he says. “Wait ‘til you’re in your 50s and you really know what it’s like to experience aches and pains.”
I plaster an appropriately congenial look on my face—and it takes effort. “Thank you,” I mouth as he bounds away even though I think his comment is thoughtless. Will I even make to 50? Unlikely! And then I feel tears coming to my eyes because I’ve stooped to pitying myself. Yes, mere aches and pains are so much worse than terminal cancer. You bet!
Most of the other parents are near my age. Yet they can walk around and jump and play. They can run up stairs if they want to. They can bound away from senseless conversations. They don’t have a disease eating at their tissues and bones. They don’t have some expiration date circling their heads like a vulture.
I shake it off. I’m being too sensitive. Who cares I’m the only adult sitting on a stool outside of the gym? Who cares that most people don’t know what to say—or are relentlessly curious about anything they don’t understand?
Then I spot a row without people. It’s behind the one group that would never judge me—and for that reason alone, I want to be there more than anything—by the kids with handicaps. So I lumber off the stool and over to those amazing kids. I struggle up the stairs and slide into the row, hoping the “parent seating patrol” won’t see me. Some parents start to follow, filling up that section, and I snuggle into my layers of clothing, so happy to rest my aching joints and be by a group of kids that won’t tell me I’m sick “because of my sins” or that if I “could have more faith…” or if I “could eat the right things” I’d be healed already.
Mike comes in and lights up the gym with that infectious grin. He spryly makes shimmying into the seat next to me look effortless, but he’s so cold that I lean in, willing my warmth to transfer bodies. And right after he sits down, a tiny girl in front of us smiles and waves to me and Mike too. If I’m honest, her simple kindness is so powerful. With a wave, that kid with Down syndrome starts resurrecting my mood.
The assembly starts, and I’m reminded of why I fought so hard to attend this crowded event. My youngest daughter, Indiana, shines as she plays the bells and then sings several songs with the choir. I’m so proud that I can hardly stand it. The pain goes away. The self-pity and sadness all fade. And the only thing left is the joy that I have great people in my life—people I love so dearly.
The choir director asks the crowd to help them sing “God Bless the USA,” and I belt it out, harmonizing and hitting all the right notes along with some stranger behind me. I guess sometimes when we’re sad about what we’ve lost, it pays to remember what we still have! And although I might not be able to run or even speedwalk ever again, I can still sing.
The tiny girl looks back at me again and I wink. She’s beaming as the man behind me and I sing in unison. Her genuine smile grows as the words and melodies transport all negativity far away from the gym. “I thank my lucky stars… To be living here today.” And as the girl claps and hugs herself with such enthusiasm, I somehow feel comforted because in some small way, I think I made that kid’s day a little brighter.
After school, Indy gushes with joy, telling me and Mike all about her big debut. “Did you see that…?” or “Did you hear when…” Then at the end of her questions, she asks, “Can we go to a victory lunch? Because I did REALLY good.”
“Yes,” Mike and I look at each other, loving every minute.
“A victory lunch?” Mike says later. “That was darling.”
“Right?! Plus, I think it’s a great idea.”
That afternoon, despite everything we might be going through each and every day, I had to smile because we’d all had a memorable day that made us appreciate the good things in life. No matter what we might be going through, it’s always good to focus on “cans” instead of “can’ts” and to be proud of how far we’ve come despite hardships. Sure people can be offensive and say dumb, insensitive things, but they can also be so sweet and darling and wonderful. They can make life beautiful.
I guess the point is I don’t want to take the good with the bad. I want to throw out the bad and just pay attention to the good. It’s cliche, but life IS short. I don’t want to waste any bit of it worrying about things that aren’t worth my time. I’ve started weighing things lately by asking a quick question: “Is it worth worrying about?” And it’s amazing how many times the answer is simply “no.” I think I got an entire day back, and the week just started! 😂