The Strong Woman

Attention’ implies to attend, that is, to listen, hear, see, with all the totality of your being…completely.In that total attention – in which there is no division – you can do anything’

This quote if from a Buddhist website, I saved it over a year ago when I felt nothing. I felt nothing. I looked fine I always look fine. It’s some learned behavior which has evolved in me to an art form. I am resilient.

A dear friend visited me after my surgery for rectal cancer. She brought over her toddler who just delights me — better than flowers.  My friend looked at me and exclaimed, “You look GREAT. What does it take for you to look like shit? Get hit by a bus?” I chuckled, slightly embarrassed. What do you say to something like that?  I read to the baby and they left when it was clear I was tired. But my friend pays attention. She sees me.

It seems to me that the strong woman in the room is most times also one of the alone. Some times it’s an attractive woman but this attractiveness is not the organization of her face or body, but the glamor of confidence. She will remember something of you. She will smile, her own smile. She laughs at dirty jokes. She is quick witted. She flirts but does not lead you on. Men and women like her, most of the time, for the strong woman is not needy in public. It has never served her to do so. She has attended to many empty wells. She pays attention to this.

So this woman is forgotten in times of struggle. She is the one you forget to call, she is easy to leave.  And still she is resilient. She will look good. The company she keeps, those in her community, will see what they expect to see. This is not done with any forethought of malice. It’s just a lack of attention.

I’ve been told I’m strong so many times it makes me sick to hear it. I’m not. I have a faith that makes me less fearful. I was a single parent and had to be the one.  My beloved choice at a young age, which makes me who I am now.  I have a way of going out lately that takes work. I am working out the leftover consequences of rigorous cancer treatment, which literally took my body to the edge of life. At my last chemo treatment I watched my blood pressure plummet and my detached mind thought “Wow, this is how it feels to crash.”

Beside me at this last treatment was my sister. We’ve gone years without being able to be close. This rift healed when her daughter was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. We have a genetic disease called FAP.  Her daughter died of cancer at 21, as I washed her face. Don’t tell my sister she’s a strong woman. . . so many did during the four years of her daughter’s sickness it became meaningless. Her church community where not there for her. The pastor never once visited her home, visited her daughter. “Strong?” she’d say to me, “What else am I supposed to do? Fall apart? It’s my daughter!” She vented her disgust with me over tea and fried egg sandwiches. . . early mornings, her daughter’s labored breathing a descant to our chat.

Four months later I have to call her to say, ‘I have cancer’. I dreaded this and she says, “Don’t keep ANYTHING from me. Let me know.” I do what is hard first. That phone call. Telling my son.  I paid attention to how they responded so I could support them as they supported me long distance.  Even with cancer deaths in our family, they were not afraid, concerned yes.

Cancer scares people. Just the word, even now. Even with the improved treatments and inter-disciplinary, integrative care available. I knew in the long haul of my care people would fall by the wayside because it is the nature of the disease. Some I let go of because they needed the propping up and I had no strength for that. I had no interest taking care of anyone but me. This was new territory for me. I’m the strong one. I’m the one who shows up. I’m the soup-maker and coffee brewer. I do things.

When I was done with the poison and radiation and the rest. I was hollow inside. I had no me. I had this shell, this face, this skin that looks like me and the face of the strong woman. But I was fractured and frail and few saw it. I kept to myself more and more. I found that quote. I wanted to believe it at the time but did not.

Last year I came to terms with this altered body, this altered me. I came to find the grace in the change. I came to understand the core of myself, my essence and strong is not one of them. I find myself seeking women who seem solitary at parties, alone, not unhappy but alone. I’ve found new friends, kindred hearts.  I am not a strong woman, this is a label others have put on me so I put it on no one myself.

Next week I start Tamoxifen, prophylactic protocol for five years. There’s this lump, that’s not a tumor. I get all my estrogen sucked out of me. I’m told I will be extremely emotional over the next few months. I’m doing the hard stuff, again. It’s my life and no one can live my life but me. I pay attention to it. I pay attention to those around me but with detachment. I’m still dealing with depression and anxiety disorder but, see, I love my life and not giving it up for nothing, no how.

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