For most of my life, if someone asked how I was, I automatically responded, “Fine.” I didn’t trust that anyone wanted to hear about dealing with lifelong depression or a chronic blood cancer that periodically caused me to be out of remission. This left me feeling lonely, but I remembered my father’s words from the time I was old enough to understand them, “You’re strong, you can manage.” In my family, talking about feelings was taboo. The few times I tried I was told: It’s all in your imagination.” I coped by doing what I could to take care of myself. I disassociated—body from mind. I lived like a horse with blinders, paying attention to what was directly in front of me. Managing.
Coping mechanisms often have a shelf life. What saves us at one time can cripple us as we change and grow. Recognizing this is difficult. Changing is harder. After I turned 80, and did a vision quest, I realized I wanted to talk about my life honestly, depending on who asked. I didn’t want judgment, unasked for advice, defensiveness, or the person to “fix” my problem so they could feel better.
It took a while to learn how to talk about my inner life. I discovered the analogy of the weather report—this is what’s happening at the moment. I developed friendships with people who wanted to know. They listened patiently as I described what I was feeling as best I could. They didn’t try to “fix” me.
I do the same. In a conversation, I listen. I ask if they want to know what I’m thinking or feeling about their situation. I let them know I care, that I want to know what their life is like. As a result, I no longer feel emotionally isolated. Friendships have deepened. I feel known. I know I’m making progress being more honest with my thoughts and feelings when a friend said recently, “I love you even when you make mistakes.” Imagine that!
It was early morning in late December 2013. Snowing. Cold. I had to be at the hospital for another round of cancer treatment at noon. The treatments were long, leaving me with a sore arm, no interest in food, and very tired. The holiday season of cheer had left me feeling depressed, hopeless, and helpless. The treatments had been going on since early October. I knew the only thing that would help me feel better was to be in the mountains, despite the weather. I called a friend. “Ken, would you drive me up to Big Tesuque so we can hike up to Aspen Vista Road?”
“Nancy, it’s cold. It’s snowing!” His incredulity was palpable. “Besides, if I remember correctly your treatment starts at noon.” It was like couch potato talking to ultramarathoner. Out of his imagination, out of his comfort zone.
All I knew was what I badly wanted. Trying to use my most persuasive tone of voice, I practically begged. “I need to be in the mountains. The hike’s only a mile each way, we can easily do it if you’ll drive me to the hospital afterward.”
He offered reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. I countered each of them with, “I know, but . . . “
After a few minutes there was a silence. A sigh. “Okay, if it’s that important to you, I’ll pick you up in half an hour.” I started to thank him but he’d already hung up. I got dressed—long underwear, sweater, insulated pants and jacket, wool hat, neck gaiter, mittens and handwarmers. I greeted him with a grin. He shook his head. “Nancy, I hope you know this is totally crazy. I don’t know why I let you talk me into it.”
“Because you’re my friend and you want to make me happy?” He swatted my mitten, unable to conceal his grin as we drove up a snowy, slippery Hyde Park Road.
When we got to the trailhead the snow was coming down fast, thick flakes sticking to my hat. I stuck out my tongue to taste the cold flakes. “Let’s go,” he said. “You lead.” As we made our way up the narrow side of Big Tesuque creek it was truly a winter wonderland. I could feel my hopeless, helpless, depression dissolve into awe and joy.
I kept telling him how happy I was being in the mountains, in the snow, in the majestic silence, how grateful I was that he was willing to take me. He wanted none of it. “Pay attention to where you’re stepping. The wet stones are slippery.”
It was so beautiful I was sorry I hadn’t thought to take my camera. “Can you take a photo,” I asked.
“I guess.” We stopped so he could take a few photos. I didn’t dare ask to see them because of the snow. When we got to Aspen Vista Road, he said, “Let’s go back on the other side of the creek. It’s easier going down. Not so many rocks. You don’t want to miss your appointment.” I was too happy to argue. We hiked down the trail in silence. He drove me to the hospital. I thanked him again and again. He blushed, wished me well, and drove off.
I entered the treatment room and signed in. The intake administrator said, “Well, look at you! You’re positively beaming.” I told her about being in the mountains in the snow. She shook her head in disbelief. “Go on in and sit. The nurse will be right with you.” I found a chair in a corner and waited for the nurse to hook me up to the IV fluids. To distract myself from the painful poke of the needle I told her about hiking up the mountain in the snow, ignoring her disapproving look. “You need to be careful,” she scolded. Your white counts are very low—you’re at risk for getting pneumonia” If I didn’t go, I’d be depressed and miserable. Is that really better? I fell asleep with visions of snowflakes dancing in my mind.
When I woke up, I saw an elegantly dressed, white-haired woman hesitantly approach my chair. Her smile was warm and caring. I smiled back. “Dear,” she said, “I know you’re Jewish, so I don’t want to impose, but how do you feel about angels?”
More than a little perplexed I said, “I like them fine.”
“Well,” she said. “I make angels for patients to hang on their Christmas trees. I know you don’t have a tree but I’d like to give you one of my angels if you would like to have one.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’d be pleased to have one.”
“See,” she pointed out. “It’s got a bald head because so many people lose their hair.” I took the angel, thanking her for her thoughtfulness and skill.
“It’s really kind of you to think about us. I’m sure it’s a busy time for you.”
“I’m never too busy to share my angels.”
“You’re an angel,” I told her. She smiled and walked to the person next to me.
A few minutes later, another woman dressed in red and green, with twirling red and green earrings came up to me. “I see you have a bald angel. I also make angels. May I give you one of mine. Two is better than one, I think, don’t you?”
“Definitely. You are absolutely right,” I agreed. She gave me one of the angels she had made, looking as happy as I felt. Having never had any angels, to suddenly have two felt like a double blessing.
As I was playing with my angels, a man dressed in white introduced himself and asked if I would like a foot massage. First two angels, then a massage? All the while hooked up to an IV in a cancer clinic? “Yes, I would like one. Very much.” He helped me take off my socks and I lay back in the chair, enjoying the feel of his strong warm hands on my cold feet. I must have dozed off because when I woke up, he was gone and my socks were back on my feet.
I was waiting at the clinic door for a friend to pick me up and take me home. When she asked how the treatment had gone, I told her, “It went fine. I slept for most of it, dreaming I was dancing in snowy mountains with angels.
Seven years later, still in remission, the two angels hang in the entryway to my house, reminding me how the kindness of strangers helps me to heal.