I’ve tried to develop personal traits like fortitude and self reliance to grow and mature. I thought independence made a person stronger, less vulnerable. While looking inward for strength I should have been looking outward too. I came to this realization recently when I got an unexpected answer to a question.
I work for the Massachusetts National Guard. This winter I was doing a video project, interviewing soldiers who were preparing to deploy to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I have seen soldier training, simulated combat; it is chaotic, loud and scary. The real thing is hard to comprehend. As a civilian, I wanted to ask what it takes mentally to go into battle, to overcome fear.
I had a personal interest in the question. I’d recently been diagnosed with cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My prognosis is good and I am halfway through six months of chemotherapy. The worst part was before diagnosis, when I knew I had cancer but what type, how treatable, I didn’t know. I tried to be optimistic but too many times I thought about dying, leaving my children without a mother. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff and one phone call could push me into a reality I couldn’t reconcile or cope with.
When I asked the soldiers, all veterans, what it took to go into battle I expected responses to be; “courage, inner-strength, experience.“ But every soldier gave the same answer, best put by one who replied, “the National Guard is like a family to me and every time I go into combat I know that the guys to my right, to my left, and behind me; they’ve got my back.”
This made me think. I’d noticed that as the seven weeks waiting for a diagnosis went on I felt braver, better able to face whatever was to come. I’d been wondering about what it was that made me stronger, now I thought about who. My mother, who had had breast cancer, a sympathetic ear. My sisters sending care packages. My life-long friend sharing laughter over Face Book inspired memories. My kids making my heart feel full. My fiancé holding me, telling me “everything will be ok.” He must have been scared himself but God love him, he made me believe. My co-workers getting me through the days at my desk, jumping every time my phone rang.
These human bonds held me together during the worst weeks of my life and now through chemotherapy. As a working, single mom I’d always felt guilty spending time for “socializing” but I need to teach my children through example that relationships are worth nurturing. I believe it is the human connections we develop that make the good times in life the best and make the toughest times bearable. Facing the prospect of leaving this earth made me understand exactly why I wanted to stay.