I went back to our high school recently with Vanessa, Mom and Billy. We were invited there to represent The Live Sincerely Project at a volleyball event that raises money for local breast cancer charity Chicks and Chucks. Vanessa was honored with flowers along with many other ladies that are all breast cancer survivors, and a lot of money was raised for a great group in what was a lovely event!
My role at this event was merely to read the Live Sincerely pledge, from a piece of paper, to the kind, supportive folks there for the event. Easy enough task, and I was not concerned about doing it at all…. until I got there. Something about being back at school really hit me, this building where the younger selves of my sisters and I learned and laughed and grew; back when we felt “normal”, before life got hard and Vanessa was “special”.
Seeing all these kids (and I apologize to my 17-year-old self who protests being called a kid, but it’s true, younger self!), lined up to play volleyball, young and beautiful all of them, took me to a time and a place where cancer didn’t invade every minute of every day. I was watching this event unfold, but in my mind I was back there, when Vanessa was just the middle of the three normal girls cycling through NCC on the hill. Where we drove our junky old cars with the pride and thrill of new freedom. When we, too, had few concerns beyond friends and gossip and outfits and loves and games and homework.
I saw the girls there, and I saw in my mind Vanessa at their age. Then I saw present-day Vanessa standing there next to them now, smiling and happy and amazing, but also broken and confused and physically and mentally changed. I wondered what the girls saw when their eyes passed over her. Did they see just a wobbly lady, struggling to keep her balance just standing, with eyes a little wild and lost? Did they see her short fuzzy hair, her many scars, her changed fashion sense, her shrinking facial features from steroid bloat? Did they see themselves in her, even a little? Did they know SHE HAD BEEN JUST LIKE THEM, a beautiful, vibrant, healthy, happy young girl? A high school friend, fashionista, and super talented student? Did they realize that cancer had taken her, just as they were right then, and turned her into what they saw that day? That Vanessa could be them, their friends, their sisters, their moms? That Vanessa’s cancer could have been already growing in her when she was just their age?
My concern that night wasn’t how anyone might be judging Vanessa; although I DO feel protective of her when we are out and about, this event was a safe, supportive and charitable bunch of people, at our alma mater, many of whom knew Vanessa’s story. It was more a realization I was having of all that I hadn’t known in high school – what I didn’t know was coming for us back then, and lessons that I hadn’t figured out the hard way yet. It was if my current self froze up under the weight of the innocence that had walked there, and was standing right in front of me.
So with all that running through my mind, I started reading the pledge, and got pretty far…
“…honoring the lessons and gifts of my past,
fully participating in the fleeting beauty of the present,
and bravely walking towards the unknowns of my future.”
Before that line, I took a huge pause, tried to start again, and still could NOT do it. So confronted with the memories of the past, so present in the moment and all its weight, I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words: “unknowns of my future“. I was just dumbstruck by how much was unknown the last time I was in that gym, and all that I know now… and how much is still left unknown.
So, if I just froze – what happened next, you ask? Well, please let me tell you! My sweet Vanessa, who is not just broken and confused and changed, but also BRAVE and loving and amazing, saw that I was struggling, patted my back with a smile, took the mic from me, and finished the pledge, loudly and clearly and strong and perfectly. I couldn’t even stay much longer at the event after the pledge reading, nor could I write about this until these weeks have passed, from the flood of tears this moment brings me.
My sister, in that simple loving act, reminded me that we NEVER know, and we are NEVER alone.
We mustn’t worry too much about what we can’t know or control about our future, because to do so is to waste the fleeting beauty of the present. What will be, will be. Live life with clarity and purpose now, so that when your future does unfold, you can smile about what has gone past and be brave with whatever you face.
What this night also reminded me is to take the time to really SEE those around me. By paying attention, empathizing, and listening, we can support each other, learn about ourselves, and grow as community. How many people have I looked through, and past, and around, thinking I knew what they were all about already from just one glance… instead of really looking at them, and listening to and seeing them for who they truly are? How can we all be more compassionate and accepting? Every story is important, and every person has a story that isn’t clear from just looking at them. Vanessa stood there, misunderstood as she could have been, yet loving me completely and being a perfect support right when I needed it most. This is what we all can have, and all can be.
I’ll end this by encouraging you to reach out and connect to someone, today, every day, all day. This can open up the world in ways that enlarge our hearts and grow our appreciation for our own lives. The “unknown” part of life IS scary and hard, and can consume us if we let it. By being present and open with the people we meet on our journey, we can “know” a little more about each other, and ourselves, and THAT can erase some of the fear and anxiety about the unknown of our futures. Yes, it’s all still unknown – but if we are doing it together, with kindness and compassion, we’re never facing that alone.