Friday, October 28, 2016

Uncertainty, Ugliness, and the Fear of Death

Think about the following. We go about our daily lives rubbing shoulders or crossing paths with our fellow humans and, for the most part, cannot begin to imagine the unmitigated struggles, the interminable challenges, and the overwhelming burden that is their experience on a daily basis. One such individual is Carol Ann Smith, a dear soul and a wonderful woman, with whom I instantly connected when we were first introduced and whom I would not have met were it not for my current Journey here in Guyana. You see, every single day for the past three years, Carol has been living with the fear of death, feelings of ugliness, and a dark and heavy cloud of uncertainty as to her health.

Since the discovery of a lump on her left side three years ago, Carol's life has been a roller coaster ride of hope and dashed expectations. She told me of how liberated she felt when, following several tests, she was told that she did not have cancer. She said that it was as if she had gotten a new lease on life - a lease that was subsequently shredded when she later found out that the mass scheduled for removal from her left breast was, in fact, cancerous. From joy, happiness, and excitement weeks before, Carol suddenly found herself experiencing a feeling of numbness and emptiness, drained of all feelings of love and care for others, scared of dying, and all of a sudden consumed by anxiety, despair, and loneliness.

Awaking out of unconsciousness to find her left breast no longer there was extremely difficult for Carol to wrap her mind around. The feeling of incompleteness with which she has been left and the sense of imbalance she feels in her body remain as constants, and she has never quite gotten used to them. No silicon implant fills that empty space. No mastectomy bra serves as concealment for the excision of that which nourished her dear son when he was a baby. Instead, the bandages - the bandages that provided the covering post surgery - those provide the filler for that empty space on her chest. She reached under her blouse, gently removed those sacred bandages and showed them to me. Those bandages (which she regularly cleans) provide the palpable reminder of her ordeal, as well as a palpable link to that part of herself that she lost. I looked at those bandages and in that solemn instant Carol's humanity, my humanity, the human-ness (my word) of every individual, was reiterated.

Perhaps the worst part of the experience of the the past three years for Carol was the loss of her long and beautiful dreadlocks. She felt "ugly", so ugly that she has so far spent her life hiding. Carol drives a taxi for a living and finds it the perfect way of hiding herself, though she worries about falling ill while driving and is fearful about the possible results of such an occurrence. Her fear of dying is balanced out with that strong maternal feeling of needing to be "there" for her son. This desire to be there for her son is that  which drives her to confront the thing she is scared of the most - dying. Carol dislikes participating in support groups as these cause her to have to relive her experience. In addition, she hates participating in these groups because she does not know whether she is cancer free or whether the disease continues to reside in her. It is this enervating and burdensome uncertainty that plagues her daily.

Carol, for whom walking from her car to her doorsteps is an almost insurmountable task, became inspired and emboldened as she followed the progress of my 553 kilometer walk from Georgetown to Lethem. In the short period in which I have known her I have found her to be a beautiful and an amazing human being who still finds time to pause, consider, and capture with her camera the beautiful things arounds us that we take for granted. I will be doing whatever small bit I can to help make her acquisition of the expensive follow-up screening she needs possible.