When I began writing Spy of Richmond, I had no idea I’d learn for myself what it meant to keep a gigantic secret from everyone I loved. My heroine’s secret, of course, was that she was a spy. My secret? My husband had cancer.
We thought it was just a lump on his clavicle. A very painful, swollen, hot-to-the-touch and out-of-nowhere lump. Even as they wheeled him into the operating room to remove it, the word “tumor” did not occur to me. So when the surgeon came to consult with me afterwards and said the tumor was too large to remove, I was completely caught off guard.
“We’re sending a sample to the lab,” he told me, “but if I were you, I’d want to know what we’re dealing with here. Hodgkins Lymphoma cancer.”
I jerked backwards, as if his words had slapped me across the face.
“I see this all the time,” he continued. “It’s a textbook case.” More words. Chemotherapy . . Meet with the cancer team on Friday to get his treatment plan together. . .
I was crying by now. “Are you going to tell Rob? Am I supposed to tell him?”
“No, I don’t want to tell him until the labs are in. But you need to process this now so you can support him when the time comes.”
Well, if I wasn’t to tell Rob, then I wasn’t going to tell anyone. This was my first secret.
I went through the motions of life, holding the ugly news close to my heart until it bore a hole right through it. At the pharmacy, picking up Rob’s post-surgery prescriptions, I couldn’t bear to answer the cheerful question, “How are you?” On Facebook, someone asked Rob if the doctor said anything about cancer. Rob said no. My secret gnawed through my middle.
Then the phone call came: no cancer cells were detected. The mass was completely benign. This was the first time the doctor had been wrong, the nurse told me. I was stunned. After I hung up the phone I told Rob, “It isn’t cancer,” and started sobbing. “They told me it was cancer,” I choked out. It felt like a miracle to me, and suddenly the only thing that mattered was that Rob was going to be OK.
Still, recovery from that surgery was very challenging. Because of the depth and width of the incision, he needed follow-up appointments at the wound care clinic for weeks, and I was in charge of changing his dressings a few times a day at home, which was painful for him, and distressing to me. Add to this the fact that he developed a dependence on his narcotic and went through a terrible withdrawal.
A month or so after Rob’s surgery, our family took a mini-vacation, and I cracked my toe on a deck chair at the side of the hotel pool. Really hard. It hurt like the dickens, but I wasn’t about to complain. After all, look at what Rob is still going through! I thought. This is nothing. So we carried on, walking around the Science Museum that night and around the zoo the next day. My toe was killing me, but since it was nothing “compared to Rob,” I tried to deny the pain.
Weeks later, I still was limping. I finally went to the doctor, where an x-ray revealed I’d broken my toe. This, then, had been my second secret, one I had tried to keep even from myself. The truth of the matter—my secret—was that I was in pain. The lie that I had chanted to myself to drown out the truth, was that because my pain was less than someone else’s, my pain was invalid, and did not deserve attention. The lie was that acknowledging my own pain would be a wimpy thing to do.
Don’t we all deny our own pain sometimes?
But here’s the thing about pain, whether it’s physical or emotional. It’s real, even if/though someone else is currently suffering more than you are. Comparing burdens is useless. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. And only when we acknowledge that something is wrong will we be able to fix it.
I have this hunch that at least some of you are experiencing pain today. Hear this: your pain is real, and you are not weak for seeking help. What you’re feeling is valid. Don’t tell yourself that because someone else has it worse, you should be fine. C.S. Lewis once called pain the gift that no one wants. Pain is a message that we are not whole, and that we should be. Pain says something needs to change in order for us to feel better. But we have to be honest about it before we can get on the path to healing.
It’s a delicate balance, but one worth striving for. Let’s be grateful for the blessings we do have, but please, let’s not walk around on broken toes.
Don’t Click Away Just Yet! Jocelyn has offered to give-away one of the Heroines Behind the Lines books to one lucky reader. You pick the book (see the graphic above for the titles) and if you’d like a digital or paper copy. All you’ve got to do is tell me in the comments which you’d choose. I’ll pick a winner on Sunday and announce it on the Monday blog. Ready? Steady? GO, Eddie!