I was sitting quietly in my infusion chair at chemo, surrounded by very sick, very bald people; feeling and looking very much like a weary, sick, bald person myself. Yet inside my head, I was brutally beating myself up.
“God damnit Lauren, you have got to find your A-game to kick this shit.”
See, this little two guns blazing girl had approached everything in life that way; charging in and taking care of business and living to tell the tale of many a trauma and travail as she blew the smoke from the guns. I knew as I laid there in a heap, that if I were to live to tell the cancer tale, I had to figure out how to get the strength to pull the guns from the holster and charge.
But I couldn’t.
I was so physically and mentally sick and so, so tired….so freaking weak and blurry from the meds, that charging seemed impossible. Hell, getting out of the chair to go to the bathroom was damn near impossible. I was so mentally consumed with thoughts of dying and leaving two little kids motherless, that finding my aim and focus to shoot the cancer down was blurred.
So many things tugged at my psyche and overwhelmed me at that time, making it impossible to even form a plan of attack; how bad the cancer was, swimmers in the other lanes next to me at chemo going under, the fact that the tumor was stubbornly refusing to soften and shrink as it should have those first weeks of treatment, and the unknown of just what type of body mutilating surgery was ahead of me based on genetic test results that hung out there in a lab somewhere. I remember sobbing to my dad saying, “I know I have got to get my mental shit together to focus and beat this thing, and I can’t seem to do that.”
I was also distracted by my perceived unfairness of it all, and energy sapping self-pity prevailed. Energy that needed to be spent visualizing recovery and figuring out how to shoot this bastard down; energy that should have been spent harnessing my can-do, kick ass mentality. Energy to charge, sucked up by woe.
Yet I couldn’t shake it, this sense of, “Sorry, but this little cowgirl is out of chutzpah and bullets.” A sense of final defeat took over; that in a life of impossible mishaps and terrible twists of fate, even more had gone wrong leaving only enough mental and physical fortitude to reach for the white flag. In those very, very dark moments when negativity consumed my mind like the cancer was doing my cells, I would look back on my life. I would think about it all…the blindsides and hard stuff that had happened to me and Pity, with its cunning whisper to my fatigue, would distract me and convince me of the unfairness of it all; my mother dying two days before my wedding, not having my mom around when I had my own kids, my husband walking out on me and two little kids at Christmas, the difficulties of finding work as a single mom, the miscarriages and all the other hardships. Things that my darkness convinced me that no one else had to endure in such rapid fire.
Punch after punch, this little Bobo doll had bounced up again and again with a smile and optimism. But now, sitting alone and bald, a nail being punctured into my chest, this little Bobo was deflated. She had been patched and re-patched . She could not find the air, the A-game mentality to pump herself back up; to take a breath and rise again, and to blaze.
And then, someone gave me the book.
The book was game changing.
Up sick during the night, I read the book. At chemo, I read the book. Crying in my bed at my inability to run more than half a mile after a year of chemo, I read the book. And most of all, when Pity tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, let’s have a party and eat chocolates and discuss how unfair life has been to you,” I read the book. The book became my garlic against blood sucking self-defeating thought. The book gave laser clarity and a mental framework needed to talk this thing down to size and focus. The book shot my A-game out of a cannon and energized me to charge; to pull my guns out and take aim and tell cancer to fuck off.
The passage, ingrained in my mind and repeated like a mantra.
The passage, repeated as I awkwardly laid face-down for breast MRI number 15, jewelry and clothing stripped, wearing nothing but a simple rubber band on my wrist. The passage, repeated as I lay there cold and shaking and alone and frightened of the results. The passage, calming my heart as I was admonished not to breathe heavy or move. The passage, repeated as I lay there through 46 shots of radiation, stilling me. The passage, slapping me around when I cried at how hard it was to run with atrophied muscles after chemo.
The passage, game changing as I lay there thinking, “Why me?”
“That ascent triggered something in me. As I rode upward, I reflected back on my life, back to all points, my childhood, my early races, my illness, and how it changed me. Maybe it was the primitive act of climbing that made me confront the issues I’d been evading for weeks. It was time to quit stalling I realized. Move, I told myself. If you can still move you aren’t sick.
I looked again at the ground as it passed under my wheels, at the water spinning off the tires and the spokes turning around. I saw more faded painted letters, and I saw my washed out name: “Go Armstrong.”
As I continued upward, I saw my life as whole. I saw the pattern and privilege of it, and the purpose of it too. It was simply this: I was meant for a long, hard climb.”
Once, I was talking with Colton in generalities about a particularly troubling case at work. A case where a horrific incident with a child had been overlooked legally I suspected, in exchange for obtaining drug cartel information. I was horrified and angry and he said simply, “It’s the trolley car problem, Mom.” He explained the age-old philosophical dilemma of a trolley car out of control careening down the hill, and you can throw the switch so that instead of killing ten people, it kills two.
I have remained quiet about my perception of the trolley problem of Lance these last weeks. The cognitive dissonance to a cancer survivor of the good juxtaposed with the evil. The internal conflict that arises especially when you were one who reaped the good part of the dichotomy, yet are a compassionate person who is sickened at the destruction caused by the recipients of the evil. The dilemma of what to do when you are forgiving person, and are faced with one who has no remorse for the evil. The question of whether a bit of good diminishes the awfulness of the bad.
I found myself wanting to compartmentalize the bad parts, almost as abused children do with their parents. I wanted to sequester it, separating his life as an athlete from his life as survivor, an organizer of a foundation, and an author of a book that had helped me talk cancer down to size and focus on what a privilege even a hard life is. “He is not the organization,” they say, but in many ways, in my mind he is. Because of the book, because he was an athlete, because he was a survivor; all these things converged to create the perfect storm, the perfect mentality of livestrong. Of how to livestrong when you are sick; and to live stronger when you are well.
I struggle now like I did with Bill Clinton, trying to reconcile what I loved about the man yet hated about the man as a cheating spouse who lied. I can remember Elizabeth Edwards trying to sort out her own personal dilemma on Larry King saying, “Is a lifetime of good, of all the good this person has done, overshadowed by this one thing?” Weighing good and evil is taxing.
I found myself as a psychologist discussing the essence of narcissism with colleagues, in that narcissism often allows people to accomplish some great and good things. Narcissists make great surgeons as they think they are infallible and great lawyers as they are righteous. Narcissists never for an instant believe in the self-doubt that cripples the rest of us at times. Narcissists can be faced with a brain and lungs and testicles filled with cancer and tell cancer to fuck off, and they can it seems, generate a mindset that convinces us to do the same.
I have friends who are athletes, furious at the cheater in sport. I have friends who are athletes who are compassionate and forgiving. I have friends who are cancer survivors who know what the organization has done for them and others with cancer. I have friends who are cancer survivors who are pissed off. And me, a cancer survivor and minor league athlete, a huge fan of sport, am at the crossroads of where his lives intersect. See it’s not just about the organization for me and it’s not just about the bike; it’s about the book and the sweeping mentality of livestrong that covers ALL of it. I am confused…not by a hero or even a role model, but by someone who gave me a toehold and hand up in a chasm, while simultaneously he was stepping on others hands to do so and it seems, pushing others in.
And I am angry too, and most disappointed at this odd thing; like when I see someone smoking a cigarette after surviving lung cancer. How dare he put something in his body that could re-awaken the giant? What a freaking waste of a Mulligan on God’s part. Or was it…if two died instead of ten? And if maybe, just maybe, I was one of the 8 saved?
As I walk along in life and find the proverbial turtle on fencepost, I remind myself, “It didn’t get there by itself.” It goes for good and evil. Group think is dangerous and childhoods sometimes put people in places they never imagined. And I want to soften my judgement of evil.
Today, my ponytail bounces as I run through mile three. I can move, and the rhythm of my footsteps under me reminds me that I am no longer sick. I see my cancer and life as a privilege, and know I was built for a long hard climb. I am aware of every single ounce of what it took to get me here, and how a little help with harnessing my A-game allowed me access all of it. Today I blaze, and blow the smoke off the guns and tuck them back into the holster as I step down from the treadmill after a good long climb.
I look down at my wrist to the yellow bracelet that I have worn since the day I was diagnosed and try to make sense of it all.
I think of how the eternal existential dilemma of the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead remains, as does the impact of all of her behavior on those around her.
As for me, I will continue to livestrong, all in part because of a man, an athlete, an organization, and a book; all of which infused the mentality of livestrong into me at a time I was not able to harness it in myself. I will keep my focus on doing good, and on passing the mentality along to others who have lost their strength and focus, because of someone who helped me find the good (when all I wanted to focus on was the bad.)
I will take the “very good indeed” part that I was given and spin it into even better, and hope that the ripple effect of the good outweighs exponentially, the horrid.
And I will remember always, the importance of focusing on the good.
And I will pray that we in turn, can help him find his A-game; he hasn’t yet you know.
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow