Anniversaries in the calendar of cancer can be challenging. Make new memories to compete with the old.
Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
Anniversaries in the calendar of cancer can be challenging. Oh, October! This month marks both my diagnosis of invasive breast cancer and my mother’s. It is also the anniversary of a brother’s cancer diagnosis.
As September waned, I started brooding. The phone call my brother made to let us know about his cancer haunted me anew. Recalling my reaction to my mother’s diagnosis made me remember how it felt to realize she was mortal. Anticipating my annual cancer check-up, I worried about every possible scenario that could frighten a survivor.
Then, barely a week in, something happened to change my attitude. October lost its pall with a new memory that surprised me. How could that happen?
I met my son at an UltraRunning event three hours up the road. Usually I show up at the finish line. This time, I wanted to see him take off running. Worried I would be bored between start and finish, I planned to wave goodbye, get a good night’s sleep and knit near the finish line the next day until he came running down the mountain. His crew, however, invited me to meet up with them and my son at some of the aid stations the second day.
Just figuring out where the stations were – and how to park – took some maneuvering. Getting to them, I drove through beautiful scenery. Once at a station, I would set up my stool, talking to others or knitting or both. It was fascinating to watch the helpers who make an UltraRun possible. While I cannot say that I was much help beyond a pat on the back and a “Go, Guy!” as my son whisked through, being there helped me.
Multicolored autumn leaves and purple asters were beautiful. Not content to knit all day, and spending a good bit of time waiting, I took off walking down some trails. Hopping to the side as runners passed, I tried to imagine what the run felt like to them. One free stretch, I took off running too. The runners had to feel so free, so focused, so full of life.
UltraRuns are challenging, though. Along with aid stations, there were pink ribbons to help the runners avoid losing a trail. Some pink ribbons hung to the side, and some hung over a trail. “Trail markers are October’s new pink,” I reflected.
The night my son finished his run, we set up camp in separate cars. Although a night in an overflowed parking lot had not been on my original agenda, I decided I wanted to stay with my son until he had to go home. I thus made a nest in the back seat of my car.
Next to me, my son set up camp in the back of his SUV. I watched him, this awesome human being who can run 100 miles and still stand up, lay out his sleeping bag. Oh, October! There it was, my brother’s sleeping bag, which has been so many more places than my brother ever got to go.
My son never met his uncle, who died at 21, but he has been using this sleeping bag—purchased for a brief camping trip just before he died—his entire life. No matter how many Octobers pass, I will never forget seeing my son, tired but healthy, settling into my brother’s sleeping bag for a well-deserved night’s sleep. I do not need a photograph for an image I will carry to my grave.
Oh, October! What an adventure it was to drive down forest roads, parking in places I might never have allowed myself to go without that hope of catching a glimpse of my runner. Oh, October! I am a changed person after walking into woods at night, fearing neither bears nor cancer, to find a place to pee, a modest flashlight dancing over fall leaves. And what an adventure to sleep in the back of my car, for the first time ever, windows cracked and rain misting before a sunrise appeared right outside my window.
When it was time to say goodbye to my son and to the weekend adventure, I said goodbye without a heavy heart. Then, on the drive home, I realized I had not brooded for days about cancer anniversaries. Perhaps the only antidote for my sad memories is to create competition. Make new memories. You may not want to sleep in your car or run 100 miles, but do something if, like me, anniversaries spook you. Seek more out of life.