Today, at my favorite local nursery, I had the privilege of traipsing through a small Monarch butterfly pavilion. I never knew such things existed. From mating pairs to adults laying eggs, from caterpillar to chrysalis to glorious new butterfly, each stage in the life of this remarkable creature was on living display, this poetic and profound transformation we call a metamorphosis.
Unless one has a Kafka-esque bent, we usually apply the word metamorphosis to a life adventure with a positive outcome. It’s a solitary journey, from ignominious worm to fearless flier, that we’re generally referring to, with the chrysalis part somewhere in the background, hiding under a leaf. But the chrysalis is where most of the action takes place. And it’s how well the caterpillar prepares for and builds her chrysalis that determines the outcome of the whole excusion.
The word chrysalis reminds me of another word — crucible. A chrysalis is defined as “a sheltered state…of being or growth,” while a crucible is defined as “a place…in which concentrated forces interact to cause…change or development.” A crucible is also described as “a severe test.” Hmmm. So, what happens if your chrysalis is also a crucible?
After admiring and photographing the Monarch butterflies, I thought about what a “long, strange trip it’s been” this past year, from being a woman who never suspected she had cancer to being a woman who has survived it — so far. And I decided that it’s not that the chrysalis and the crucible are one and the same, but that the crucible is a part of the chrysalis. The crucible, the “severe test,” would surely be enduring the diagnosis of the cancer itself and then its scorched-earth treatment protocols, all those “concentrated forces” interacting in one’s body to bring about remission. But that’s only part of the journey, and perhaps not even the most significant or transformative part. The thing is, although I had to experience cancer treatment by myself, I did not take the rest of journey alone.
It’s truly been something I will always treasure to know how many people were willing to step up to the plate for me. There were the friends and colleagues who drove me to hospitals and doctors’ offices. There were the friends who brought me groceries and sent me cards. There were the old and new friends who took me to museums and boutiques and even to a tattoo parlor, to help remind me that I was not just a cancer patient. And there were the friends who let me cry and curse and rage about being a cancer patient.
The companions on this journey who are perhaps closest to my heart are the scores of brave, generous, feisty women I got to know in cyberspace — on a breast cancer peer support forum and on other social networks — who all belong to that “Club We Never Wanted To Join.” They live all over the world but come together online to share information, experience, cyber hugs, laughter and sorrow, and they welcomed me with open hearts, letting me say and feel anything I needed to say and feel, and helping me keep my sanity. As the months have gone by, some of these friendships have grown beyond the bounds of cyberspace, as phone numbers and addresses have been exchanged, and meet-ups arranged. In the midst of one of the worst chapters in my life, it’s a powerful and ironic thing to know I’ve been in such splendid company.
During my first follow-up visit after my partial mastectomy, I remember my surgeon telling me that although I still had to go through more treatment, she could honestly say that at that moment, I was cancer free. It was not hubris that made her say that — she is possibly the least arrogant physician I know — but a desire to help me feel less afraid of the rest of the journey. I didn’t believe her for an instant, bless her heart, but I appreciated the spirit behind her words. A week later, I had an alarming initial consult with a radiation oncologist, who outlined my recurrence risk and explained how pursuing various treatment options could reduce that risk to less than one-in-three. One in three. Going from being cancer free to having a one in three chance of getting it back again made my head spin. Later that day, I spent the evening recounting this dreadful visit to a few artist friends, and shrieking with laughter as we replayed it, exaggerating its awful implications with every morsel of farce we could muster and calculating the odds of my ever being able to sleep again. There will always be a sense in which this journey will never be over, because the Stalker can return, disobeying the restraining order I’ve obtained, to attack me again. But in the meantime, I am grateful that I could learn, against all logical expectations, to laugh at cancer and find people who were able to laugh with me. There’s nothing like it for cutting the Stalker down to size.
I remembered today how hard it was at first to convince myself that ‘I had cancer, it didn’t have me.’ Now, I know what that really means. Learning that I could choose how to navigate this passage, that I could reach out to others and allow myself to give and receive affection, comfort and perspective, that’s what built the chrysalis. All the love, laughter and friendships that emerged from it are the butterflies.