I admit it. Willingly. One of my favorite movies of all time is Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It wasn’t evidently that big a hit when it was released in 1946, even though it was nominated for five Academy Awards. But when I was still a teenager, the movie’s copyright status passed for a time into the public domain, and some TV exec decided to play it during the run-up to Christmas. That introduced the wry, almost Dickensian film to a whole new audience, garnering a legion of soon-to-be-diehard fans and launching a new holiday tradition.
Perhaps the most memorable viewing I ever experienced took place the year I went to an impromptu Christmas party at the home of a friend’s friend, whose parents had conveniently left for the evening to see the Ice Capades. You know how it is. You’re 20 and your parents are gone for a predictable period of several hours. What do you do? Easy. Call your buds and throw a party. The ostensible organizing theme of the evening was for all of us to gather in Rick’s parents’ livingroom and watch George Bailey come of age, struggle against the evils of corporate greed, decide that everyone would be better off if he committed suicide, and get rescued by his guardian angel. Somehow or other, I ended up in the kitchen with one of Rick’s friends, a guy I’d had a massive crush on from the moment I’d met him a few years earlier. We were alone, we were a little tipsy, and heck, ’twas the season. At long last, we managed to overcome our usual shyness with each other, even making a date for the following weekend. The deal was sealed when he scooped me into his lap and launched an enthusiastic session of suck-face for several ecstatic minutes. All while perched on a kitchen chair. Sigh. Wonderful life indeed!
The romance didn’t work out, sad to say, despite some gold-plated kissing. But the gal pals I had at the time are still my gal pals all these decades later, proving once again the adage, “Men may come and go, but girlfriends are forever.” That’s a photo of all of us at the top of this page, taken in our collective 50th year. I’m the tall one in the back. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, one of the first people I called was one of these women. We are scattered all over New England these days, so it’s not easy for us to see one another. But on that awful night, I knew without question that they would all be there for me in any way they could if I needed them. That kind of knowledge is a powerful thing.
My favorite bit of dialogue in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is just after Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, saves the suicidal George Bailey by pretending to commit suicide himself, prompting George to ‘save’ him. George, the reluctant hero, is diverted from his immediate intention to drown himself, but he’s still despondent and disillusioned, and now he’s stuck with this peculiar little man. Furthermore, he can’t quite figure out who the heck Clarence is. Finally, in frustration, Clarence says, “George, I’ve been telling you. I’m your guardian angel!” To which George, deeply unimpressed, replies, “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
Thence follows the lynch pin of the entire story. George admits to Clarence that he wishes he’d never been born. And Clarence, with permission from his Boss, grants George his wish. He proceeds to show George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if he’d never been born. It’s a sobering show. George doesn’t understand at first, but is devastated to see tragedies unfold where he remembers triumphs. With tremendous irony, Clarence explains: “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.” And by this device, as we all know, George finally comprehends how much his existence has meant to the people he cares about, enabling him to rise above his despondency to realize just how much he wants to live.
I know just how George Bailey felt when it appeared that his life was about to be ruined by Mr. Potter’s duplicity. The night I found out I had cancer, I wanted to crawl into bed and never come out. I was positively gobsmacked. Instead, however, perhaps in part because I’d learned from George’s experience, I made a deliberate decision to do the exact opposite. I knew it would not be smart for me to be alone with this calamity, and that I had to make myself ask for help. I also thought that if I put the word out far and wide, it might make a few people get their mammograms or PSA’s or colonoscopies, because they would realize that cancer can happen to anyone. So, I told all my old friends and all my work colleagues, all my artist pals and all my dog-walking pals. I joined an online peer-support forum and found hundreds of other women in the same boat. These ‘intimate strangers’ became my new friends, helping me keep my sanity and not want to jump off a bridge like George did. I added a page to my art website to describe the journey and to poke fun at it. I drew cartoons, wrote farcical reports on treatment, took silly self-portraits with my prosthesis stuck to the outside of my clothes. I made serious art about it that got into juried art shows. I joined Facebook. I started this blog.
And I ended up having a George Bailey experience. No, I never saved a second class angel from drowning. But all my output came back to me in ways I could never have anticipated. And I don’t mean just the recent activity. I mean all the interactions, all the relationships, all the bread I had ever in my life cast upon the waters, all of it seemed to prompt gestures of good will. Cards and phone calls and emails came from everywhere. People I had only a passing acquaintance with brought me gifts and did me favors. Time after time, I relived the following scene: I’d run into someone I hadn’t seen in months or even years who’d heard my news, and I would get hugged — fiercely and warmly enfolded as if the person’s life depended on it — and told in no uncertain terms just how glad this person was that I was alive. Like George, I was given a great gift. I found out how many lives I had touched, how much of a difference I had made in the world, how much good will and affection and kindness I had managed to engender out there that was now miraculously and copiously flowing back to me. And I felt deeply and irrevocably touched.
I am no Pollyanna. You all know that. In fact, I hate bloody Pollyanna. And you can be sure that you will never, ever hear me say that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me. I can’t stand that kind of nonsense. For one thing, it’s just plain inaccurate. Cancer sucks. Make no mistake about that. It wasn’t the cancer that gave me some of the most poignant, profound encounters I’ve ever experienced. It was the generosity and open-hearted-ness and courage and kindness of dozens and dozens of individual people who took the trouble to let me know that they were glad I was on this earth. That was the best thing that ever happened to me — all of you.
I don’t believe I’ve had the privilege of meeting my guardian angel in person. Although, like George Bailey, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she turned out to be the same sort of bumbling idiot-savant that is Clarence Oddbody. I’ve certainly kept my G.A. busy over the years. But I have to say that her finest hour has surely been to give me the grace to be grateful for the real blessings of this past year, and the vision to recognize them. For that, I am sure she has earned her wings.
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