Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ringing the Bell

A few months ago, my frend, Mike, forwarded me a commencement address delivered by Naval Admiral William H. McRaven at the University of Texas at Austin. Admiral McRaven served our nation as a Navy SEAL, and in some brilliant ways, he weaved together ten things he learned in Navy SEAL training with advice to the graduating class of his alma mater.

For example, here is the last one, which particularly fascinates me:

Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see.

All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims.

Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training.

Just ring the bell.

If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.

Mike, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy (and MIT's business school, and an Iraq War veteran, sheesh, I know) kindly remarked in his email to me that in my battle with cancer, I never “rang the bell.” Since then, I sporadically worked on a blog about Adm. McRaven's point. But for some reason, I couldn’t finish the piece. Until today.

This morning I came upon a totally unrelated speech, ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott's acceptance speech for the Jimmy V Award at the ESPYs last night. Some of the words I found there became the missing puzzle piece to the unfinished blog:

When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight then lay down and rest and let someone else fight for you.

This was the piece I needed to finish the blog about ringing the bell. So, on the way to work this morning, I finally finished one of my many elusive blogs.

As my train pulled into South Station, I closed my laptop and vowed to proofread and publish the blog on my way home. I picked up my bag feeling empowered and purposeful. And grateful that writing still makes me feel that way.

As I stepped off the train full of spirit, I heard the ding of a new text.

I read it, and almost collapsed. It was from my friend, Meghan, a young mother of three, a breast cancer survivor, and a truly beautiful person inside and out. Teddy and her eldest son went to day care together when they were babies and although we didn't know each other then, I heard Meghan's name many times after my diagnosis; at least 15 people told me that I "had to meet Meghan M-." We didn't meet until months later, at a We Beat Cancer event. I'll never forget Meghan greeting me that night with her bright smile, and a gift. The gift was a bracelet engraved with "Hero," and I cried at her kindness when I opened it. Still to this day, I wear that bracelet all the time.

I'm sure you can guess what came next. In the most delicate of ways, Meghan told me the awful truth that her cancer had returned. I read the dreaded "M" word through my tears as I traveled with the current of the commuter crowd off of the train platform. Metastatic. Lymph nodes. Bones. I couldn't breathe, couldn't stop ugly-crying, and didn't even think about who could see me or what they thought.

When the crowd broke up, I walked into South Station unsure of what to do. An empty metal table appeared before me and I collapsed at it, bent over, and bawled my eyes out. It felt like Valentine's Day all over again; the same indescribably awful feeling of knowing that someone so good was going through something so bad. The same helpless feeling of knowing that there is really nothing I can do to help. And the same terrified feeling that I could be next. To be honest, I can't say that the emotions came in that order, although I'd like to think that they did. Eventually, they all just swirled around together and revealed themselves as mascara-tainted tears all over my work dress.  

When I caught my breath, I called Brian. It was camp drop-off time so I didn't reach him. I called my mom at work and as usual, her compassion gave me the strength I needed to (eventually) stop crying and continue on my walk to my office.

Brian called me back a few minutes later and when I told him the news, I completely lost the fragile composure I had gathered in the train station. Brian said he would come pick me up but I refused. I knew that no matter where I was today, the reality would still be there. The sadness, the helplessness, the fear. The fucking cancer. 

So what about the blog that I finished this morning before I knew about Meghan? Some of it's here, but most of it changed. Nevertheless, in the end, both Adm. McRaven's message and Stuart Scott's message still felt very fitting for shaping my feelings tonight.

*   *   *

Immediately upon reading Mike’s email back in May, I had an instinctive reaction, and one that I'm guessing Kristin and Meghan and anyone else who has ever fought cancer would understand—if there was a bell that I could have rung after my diagnosis to make cancer go away, trust me, I would have rung it. I would have rung it so long and so hard that someone would have had to call the cops to pry me away from it. But there's more to it than that, as Mike most certainly understood.

In the end, I don't completely agree with Admiral McRaven’s point that one should never ring the bell, at least not in all aspects of life. Sometimes I actually think it’s good to ring the bell, and maybe even ring the shit out of it. The hardest part, I think, is trying to distinguish the times when we should ring the bell and the times we should stay clear away from it, no matter what magnetic forces we feel are trying to pull us in.

This issue is particularly interesting when we consider our younger generations' inclination to speed. Constant communication. Immediate responses. Instant gratification. While some may portray that as a bad thing, I don’t necessarily think that it has to be. But I think that it most certainly will be if we’re not all careful. Very careful. Because the thing about speed and constant and immediate and instant is that some of the best things in life simply cannot be attained that way. I think that some of the best things in life—discovery, loyalty, love, trust, generosity, pride, and hope—can only be given and received with great patience. Dedication. Time. And failure. Lots of failure. I wonder if we teach our kids, or each other, enough about those things.

Lately, I’ve been talking to Teddy about failure. I don’t know exactly why, but several times recently, I’ve found myself doing it. It’s  mostly been in the context of the book that I am trying (and failing) to get published. In fact, just this morning, Teddy woke up and the first thing he asked me was, “Does anyone want your book yet?” Granted, the Red Sox didn’t play last night and typically his first question is whether they won or lost, but still, I was touched.

“Nope, not yet, buddy, but I’m still trying," I replied. I didn’t feel an ounce of disappointment in the “nope, not yet” part, but I felt a whole lot of pride in the “but I’m still trying” part. Then I decided to take a later train so we could watch baseball highlights together (repeats). We didn’t talk anymore about failure this morning, but tonight I’m thinking back to longer conversations he and I had on the topic. For instance, I’ve told him that maybe no one will ever want to publish my book. He was sad, but I didn’t feel the need to fight that completely. Within reason, I think that kids should be allowed time to feel sad and disappointed and they should learn how to talk about it. Only then can they learn how to deal with it productively. Still, my book isn't something Teddy needs to be sad about because, as I explained to him, I could publish the book myself even if no one else wanted to publish it. He seemed to like that idea, although he likes the idea of buying it in a bookstore more. (I do, too.)  Still, I want Teddy to see that sometimes, we fail in other people’s eyes but not in our own. In a six-year-old kind of way, I think he's starting to pick that up.

So, let me be clear. I don’t plan to ring the bell when it comes to publishing my book, particularly after Meghan told me that my writing has helped her. But publishing it will take time. And time is not something I take for granted. Especially not tonight.

Which brings me to my last point. 

Meghan reached out to me this morning to tell me about her recurrance and to ask if she and Kristin could connect. Tonight, I find myself humbled by the strength that it must have taken Meghan to do that; the strength to say, I'm going to fight this, and I'm going to need help. I want to teach my kids what Meghan, by her very actions, is teaching hers (and me). That it will be a long and lonely life if we try to fight alone; that life is so much better if we live for the right reasons and in the right manner, and if, when necessary, we fight like hell and live some more. I want my kids to be stubborn and strong, but I also want them to know that it's okay to lie down when we've fought and we're tired. That doesn't mean we have rung the bell or quit or failed. It means that we have the strength and courage to let someone else fight for us. 

Ultimately, I want my kids to meet people in their lives as good and smart and strong as the people in my life (both my every-day life and my every-now-and-then life). People like Mike and Meghan and my mom. I want my kids to have the courage to do what Stuart Scott says to do and what Meghan did today. To live strong and fight gracefully. And to see that when you fight for others when they're tired, others will fight like hell for you when you are. 

*  *  *

Note: Meghan gave me permission to share her story. Tonight she told me that if there's any way she or her story can help others, then she "is an open book." I believe deeply in the power of an open book. I think the world is a better place when we all know more about people like Meghan. 

1 comment:

  1. Great entry Tara. Honest, beautiful, thoughtful and impactful, just like you. Strength and sorries to Meghan. Time for all of us to tell that cancer to go screw!!! Effin' cancer; sick of it.