Living with the Shadow
In an earlier post about coping with cancer, I described the prospect of death as the shadow that never left my room: always present in a corner, leaping occasionally to the center, but never choosing to force life’s inescapable confrontation.
“Great article, but my question is how do you move on after facing the shadow?” one reader asked. “The shadow always lingers.”
“For me,” wrote another, “it's not death that is the shadow but the potential of another fight and the fear that I just don't have it in me to fight anymore.”
That’s cutting to the essence of things.
I shared both comments with my wife Brenda the other morning on our daily walk, and said I wasn’t sure how to answer.
“You have to make the shadow your friend,” she said.
Ah! Yes, that’s it exactly.
If cancer is a gift in any respect, it’s this: It awakens you to the shadow. It’s there for all of us, whether we are healthy or not, whether we recognize it or not. All the time. The choice we face, all of us, every day, is what to do with its presence.
Which returns me to the daily walk. As the days lengthened this spring, Brenda and I found our way to the habit of stretching our legs together before we leave for work.
We live on a quiet rural street, where tumbling stone walls define what were once rocky pastures. They have long since reverted to woods. These days the light rises early, and about 6:30 each morning Brenda and I walk up our driveway, turn left onto the street and continue up past our closest neighbors, Steve and Kelly.
There’s a lot to like about them both, but one thing I like about Steve in particular is that when I email him every so often late on a Friday afternoon, asking if he’d like to end the week with a glass of whisky, he usually says yes.
By the time we pass Steve and Kelly’s, we’ve grown aware of a woodpecker thudding his way toward breakfast. If not, it’s a mourning dove cooing, or chittering songbirds.
Next we reach an abandoned gravel driveway beyond their property, leading up a short but meaningful hill. On good mornings I feel my heart awakening as we climb, and on bad ones my legs remind me that stretching really does matter. If it rained the night before, we see tiny red efts in the dampness at our feet, and we count them amid the fallen leaves and pine needles as we climb. Our record is 10.
Atop the hill we emerge onto a grassy field, and as we climb toward the crest we study the sky, which is always different. Some days we can pick out fire towers miles away; on others the sun brightens some hillsides but leaves others in darkness; on others still the cloud of mosquitoes is intolerable, and we don’t linger.
The driveway and its hill belong to Jim and Ellen, who are also neighbors. One thing in particular I like about them is the two chairs they placed on the crest, just waiting for someone who has arrived slightly out of breath to occupy them.
The walk home goes quickly, and no more than 20 minutes after we stepped outside Brenda and I are inside again, gathering our things for work. It’s not even 7 and we’ve enjoyed time together. I feel as if I’ve inhaled the day already, its sights, its sounds, its freshness.
To me, that’s living with the shadow: seizing small moments, savoring them for the gift they are. A day when I don’t find a way to do that is a day lost, no matter what else it brings. For that awareness, I have the shadow to thank.
My hope in recounting these experiences is that they’ll be of interest to others coping with cancer: patients, caregivers, loved ones and practitioners. You’re welcome to respond by commenting below or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.