The Lifecycle of a Butterfly
Art by: Joseph P. McKenna
Life happens in moments. I was born. I graduated school. I bought my first house. I married. I miscarried. My marriage ended. My father died. My mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was diagnosed with cancer. I was let go from my job. My mother died. The world as I knew it, went black.
I felt like the angel of death. Like one of those imposing statues you see marking someone’s grave; Stoic, grey, lifeless. Cracks forming across the surface of a once alabaster exterior, no longer able to maintain a flawless outward appearance. Everything that I thought my life was; what it was supposed to be; who I thought I was supposed to be -- gone in a moment. I was a caterpillar. Before the moments leading to my cancer diagnosis and my mother’s death. I just was. I walked along in the light, day by day. Breathing in and breathing out. Not knowing what it meant to live in the moment. All of a sudden it hit me. I wanted to live. I didn’t merely want to observe life and dream about what could be. That wasn’t living. That was watching television, watching the lives of other people who themselves may or may not have been living in their moment. It was a strange realization. Life and the prospect of it – what I had missed by not living and what I might miss because of my diagnosis – overwhelmed me. And, I froze. I cocooned. I paced the floors of my house when I was alone and cried in pain and torment. The ground beneath me had fallen away. I had cancer. This was my life… Cancer became a scary demon that I inwardly battled. Outwardly I wore a smile and told everyone that I was fine and that everything was going to be ok. I was not fine. “It” was not fine! And things were not ok! They may never be “ok” again. I don’t know how I did it some days but I kept moving forward. One foot in front of the other. Not knowing where I was going to end up.
My hair began to fall out. My skin formed lesions that would not heal. At night I would soak the bed with sweat and I would wake feeling like I’d been in a cold flood. I would quietly get up and change the sheets. In the morning I would be exhausted and I would paint on make-up hoping to cover over the sores and my tiredness. Then I’d arrive at work feeling successful. Triumphant even! My mask was a good one today! …only to be asked what was wrong with me? I felt like a monster. Digging down deep I would find the extra smile that I began carrying around in my purse and I would slap it on… all the while frantically searching for a quiet bathroom, a closet or any reason to go back to my car – some quiet, safe space where I could fall apart, if only for a moment. Then I’d put that smile back on and try again. I needed that job. Where would I be without it? I cried out and clung on to whatever sense of normalcy I could. Even when I knew it was wrong. Illusion became the name of the game. Slap on a façade, fantasize a little… spin helplessly out of control like a whirling dervish. The wheels were coming off at high speed, but I acted like everything was fine. People who called themselves my friends began to abandon ship. In the light of day, the true horrors of the mental side of cancer were too much for some to comprehend. I could barely blame them. Still, it hurt. Surgery and radiation slowed me down. I felt like a human pin cushion from all the tests and bloodwork. I felt nauseous and didn’t want to eat but still I would crave things I used to love, only to eat it and not be able to taste it. And then get sick… Some days I didn’t want to leave bed. Other days I couldn’t. My body was heavy, my mind wishing it could force time to rewind to a point where I could change my diagnosis. Or to the future where I was feeling myself again. I was living in every moment except for the one I was presently in.
I lost weight and then gained it back from the meds or … because my meds weren’t right. What was it? I waited for the doctors to let me know and for my test results to start to become “normal”. I pondered the idea of normal. What was that and when would my “new” normal set in? I was in the future again, hoping and waiting for the sick me to catch up. Slowly and not without great upheaval, things began to get better. My medications started to work and my moods, bloodwork and energy levels began to level off. My body was becoming something I recognized again. Not some alien thing that was not my own. My skin cleared, my weight settled, my hair stopped falling out. I had colour in my cheeks again and I wanted to take part in the world around me. Sometimes the smile I wore, was even my own.
I was transforming into a butterfly. It was going to be worth it. I could feel it. The struggle would not be for nothing.
Still. I was scared. What if? What if the cancer came back? With every test and follow-up the wound reopened. What if? What if? …what if? It was a beast that lingered around every corner and in the shadows. Not just in the shadows of my mind but everywhere I went. Sometimes in the form of a movie, a magazine article, a well-meaning friend… I even had strangers declare on finding out that I’d had cancer, that I should do any number of things to prevent it from returning. Or! Gasp! That I must have done any number of things to bring it on. I would pause to think… what if I had brought it on myself? Would I not do anything and everything to have it not return?
“What if?” I finally decided was a monster just as dangerous as cancer. I tried to ignore them both and did what felt best for me.
As the days passed to weeks, months and years… the monsters “What if?” and cancer have faded but have not completely gone away. I don’t think they ever will. And, that’s ok. I don’t fear them like I used to.
Once a caterpillar, now a butterfly. Each day stronger and more confident. Alive in this moment.