I was supposed to see Maya Angelou on a cruise I took in 2014, but she was ill. She died just months later, but she did join our cruise by satellite video link to read some of her poetry and share some of her thoughts. One of my favorite Angelou poems is Still I Rise.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise. (full poem)
Poetry is one of those art forms that can be written about one thing but applied to all kinds of situations. I’m certain that Maya was writing about racism and her experience as a woman of color (or even as a woman, during those times), but for me, it always makes me think of my family of origin and how each of us had to rise above life as we knew it at home. We’re all damaged, but we all came out alive. Had they had it my parents’ way, I’d be living in rural Georgia with a passel of kids and grandkids, repeating the same pattern over and over and over, going to the same church, being buried in the same family plot. I left. I rose above. No one is beating me or telling me what to wear or who to be. I got out.
Did I have to do some work? You’re damned right I did. But I did it. I worked to break those patterns. I worked hard to deal with my own stuff. Some of that stuff lasted a very long time, but eventually, I learned to be okay, to focus on the positive things that came out of my childhood, and to live for now. It’s all we’ve got, after all.
Those early lessons of endurance have served me well. Though early on in the grief over the death of my daughter I was flattened, and I prayed for my heart to stop so I could be with her, I endured. I knew how to endure. I’d endured my home life until age 16. I’d endured the sarcasm and unkindness of my sister’s first husband when I lived with them in Texas so I could graduate high school. I endured living in a car for 6 months so I could be with the guy I loved. I endured small things and big things along the way. My dad died when I was 20. He never met my husband or my kids.
Mom died later. I was 42. She had been sick for a long time, and we’d had time to mend our relationship. She did know my husband, and she loved him. She loved the kids, and they loved her back. I hated that we couldn’t spend more time with her, but she stayed in rural Georgia, and we all hated going there. The kids would rather have been at a theme park or a big city, because that’s what they loved. They didn’t see the attraction of fishing or seeing the farmland that had been in my family since the early part of the 20th century. They wanted Go-karts and video games and spectacle.
I endured mental health issues that affected me and my marriage, partly because I endured knowing that I was gay but vowing to stay with my husband in spite of that. He had to endure me. The kids had to endure my unhappiness. They had to endure our unhappiness. I don’t know what else they feel that they endured. I can’t ask my daughter, and my son seems happy enough. The biggest thing he has had to endure is the death of his sister. That was an awful day for us all.
Enduring the death of my beautiful daughter was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I wasn’t sure how I would rise. The thing about grief is that you can’t find a shortcut through it. It takes as long as it takes, and the only way is to get through it. I’m always amazed at the timeline people put on things. “Aren’t you better by now?” “Aren’t you over the death of your mother? That was years ago!” If they don’t say it in words, they say it in actions. They go away.
Grieving a child is different than any other type of grief. There is a feeling that you have failed them. After all, isn’t it your job to keep them safe and alive? There is a feeling that you’re being disloyal to their memory if you smile or laugh. One of the things that went through my mind when the smiles and laughter started to come back was, “Do I deserve to laugh when she can’t? What kind of a person am I?” In those very early days, the grief would hit me like a tsunami. One minute I was functioning, and the next I couldn’t even breathe, I was crying so hard. Sometimes I would fall to the floor, because my muscles seemed to lose all ability to keep me upright. I couldn’t predict it. It just came when it wanted to.
And in those early days, I wondered how people could drive their cars or go to work or see a movie. How could the world keep turning, when the world as I knew it had ended? It took me a long time to process the gaping hole in my life. The grief really didn’t begin to change until the 7-year mark. And then again at the 12-year mark. It got easier to endure, but I will always be enduring it until the day I draw my own last breath.
So when cancer came knocking, was I thrown? A little, yes. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me. But it didn’t flatten me as it would have had I not already endured so much and risen above the things I endured. I took it a day at a time, for I had learned that was the only way to take things that are so hard. I got through each treatment and side effect and tried hard not to think about the next one. I endured the loss of a dear friend who was on his own cancer journey, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I got through chemo, surgery, radiation, antibody treatment. I got out of bed each day and, other than the few weeks I took off for surgery and for the harshest chemo, I went to work. I did my job and then some. Sure, I often went straight to bed after dinner, but I endured. Still, I rise.
Two of my best friends just retired. They turned 60 last week. I’m seeing pictures of them in their RV, having fun and new experiences. I will be working for quite a while yet. In fact, I just moved into a new position at work where I feel immense potential for growth, and yes, I feel appreciated. I’m loving it. My friends wish that I could retire and take it easy (and show up in RV camps with them). My sister worries about my health. But I’m not ready. I feel I have a lot left to give to the world, if only to my employer.
Still I rise.
Don’t count me out. Don’t ever count me out. And don’t count yourself out either. No matter what you’re going through. No matter what life hands you, you can and will endure! Believe in yourself. It does get better.
If you do count me out, trust me, I won’t fall. Sometimes I think that my rough beginnings in life taught me valuable lessons that others might not have learned. The one thing I know for sure is that if you persevere, if you hang in there, if you just persist, you will rise, too.
Will I always miss my child? Yes. That won’t change. Will I always have physical damage from the cancer? Yes. That won’t change. What changes is me. What changes is in me. Still I rise.