After a few weeks of teaching my class and getting to know Cheryl and Joni it happened. They invited me to have brunch with them after a workout. I was elated. The Pink Ladies had just offered me a jacket. Good bye to Sandra D. I was about to have lunch with the cool kids.
I told them I would meet them at the restaurant and frantically packed up my things jumped in the shower at the gym to rinse off and tried to make myself look presentable. I felt the same jitters that you do when you are getting ready for a date. As juvenile as it sounds I just wanted them to like me! When I got there they already had a cup of coffee waiting for me and another friend of theirs had joined us. We sat and chatted for a bit all getting to know one another.
Something that I find unique about group exercise is that people who are “regulars” all recognize one another, know each other’s name’s, and share a connection that is built during the difficult times of a workout which binds them all closely together but none of us really know anything tangible about the other. I have had many people who take my class ask me sheepishly “Hey Stephanie ummmm what do you do, you know, for your real job?” At which point I always laugh because the bond that you make with someone while pushing your body to it’s physical limit is so intimate that you are somewhat startled when you realize that you don’t know simple things about someone like how many kids they have or if they are married or not.
So We asked each other these trivial questions and began to small talk. Cheryl asked her friend how her son was doing. The friend replied with a short vague answer that immediately sent alarm bells off in my head. I had learned in the last few months that if you have a serious health problem and someone asks you a question about it who doesn’t already know you, you don’t dump the entire load on them all at once. I have mentioned before that I have seen people’s faces go from curiosity, to concern, to good lord why did I even ask? Is my drink empty? Where’s the bar? I need an excuse to get away from this crazy sick lady. As a result whenever people asked me why I had missed the triathlon season or why I hadn’t been at work I simply replied with a vague “Oh I got pretty sick and had to have surgery and take some time off.” This gives the person who asked the question the option to probe for more information or just leave it at that. Most people prefer the latter.
But when I heard this woman give a vague answer regarding her son I knew that the reason she had was for my benefit. She had only known me for twenty minutes and what if I was someone who just didn’t handle “heavy” conversations very well. She was giving me the option of gliding through this brunch clueless or I could ask and find out more about her life and her experiences.
I was not afraid of “heavy” conversations…I wanted more.
So she told me her story. I will respect her privacy and not divulge the details but the story was one of fear, struggle, and bravery. Traveling, sitting in waiting rooms, gathering information, and making difficult decisions. As she told me her story I felt strangely connected to her. So many of the things that she had encountered, emotions she had felt, I had felt them too. When she finished I wanted to cry from both happiness and grief. It was strange to feel so much emotion at once. My heart broke for her knowing the type of stress and fear that she had experienced but I also felt this strange relief that I was not the only one out there who had been through something like this. It made me feel less alone. It made me feel stronger. So I did something that I had never done before.
I shared my story with the table.
Until now the only people who knew my whole story were my immediate family, close friends, and my many bosses at my university who had had to be in the loop during the process of trying not to get fired. I did not openly share it with people because I had been afraid of the reaction. I figured I would either see horror, discomfort, or indifference in the eyes of the person looking back at me. This was not the case. The friend gave advice, drawing from her own experiences, and Cheryl and Joni showed steadfast support and positivity.
No one at this table was uncomfortable or afraid. They were all surprisingly interested in what I had to say and offered congratulations for making it this far as well as encouragement for what I was facing in the future.
The most important thing that happened at that table that day was when Cheryl, knowing that I was newly single, and realizing that we probably needed to bring the conversation up a notch to lighter topics asked, “So the Mayo Clinic huh? Did you meet any cute doctors while you were there?”
I blushed and giggled like a school girl caught passing a note, “well there was this one resident…”
The three of them all leaned a little closer to the table as I began to tell them the story of Dr. J. When I described myself to them, sitting in the PACU, high as a kite on Versed, covered in blood, itching from head to toe, gown askew, tubes coming out of my hands, and a tampon up my nose trying to flirt with him we all lost it. The table exploded with laughter and something inside me cracked open. It felt so good to laugh about it. It was like I had been keeping my story locked up inside me, afraid that if I let it out it would send people running and screaming like those Godzilla movies from the 1960s.
But I learned two very important things that morning. The first was that I was not alone. There are other people out there like me. That know exactly how I feel. A few weeks prior I had felt so isolated. That no one could understand. I had been completely wrong.
The second was that even though parts of my story are a little intense, other parts of it are hysterical! Being able to laugh at a situation that had been so stressful made me feel stronger. Even though my tumor still dictated every move that I made in my life, the ability to make light of the past and what I had gone through helped me feel more in control. I could not stop what was happening to me but I could change the narrative from a monster movie to an episode of Friends, sitting around drinking coffee, and laughing at some of the unbelievable curve balls that life can throw our way.
I have said it in multiple posts because I absolutely believe it to be true: life is a battle where the experience of struggle is inevitable.
That morning, at that table, amidst the copious amounts of coffee and blueberry pancakes, surrounded by friends and laughter, I realized that
In life, a sense of humor is needed armor
It was time to suit up.