Writing a New, Resilient Story
Editor's Note: This is part of Nancy's Resilience series. Please see other posts in this series.
Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is among my favorite quotes and the perfect capstone, I believe, to end this 12-part series on resilience.
Cancer is a mighty foe not unlike the gladiator hell-bent on victory at any cost. We know such a fierce opponent requires singular focus, yet seldom do we have the luxury of immersing ourselves so fully in our treatment or our loved ones’ cancer treatment that we can overlook our homes, our jobs, our families, our communities. And even if we had that luxury, is that really wise?
I wrestled with this very dilemma during numerous periods of my husband Brett’s long illness. One day his cancer consumed me. The next day I attempted to focus on our toddler twins. They deserved a present mother who had the energy to chase them in the neighborhood tot lot as they screamed with glee. They deserved a patient mother who did not get exasperated when the toys lay strewn about the apartment. At 2 years old, how could they really understand their mother’s need for exact order when the center of our family’s world was gradually losing his battle? If only I fought harder. Cancer permeated my every waking thought.
Waiting for a loved one to die is no way to live. Since Brett had been sick for nearly 7 years, I’d spent the whole of my 30s in this heightened state of worry and premature grief. When at last he died in February 2004 at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx, New York, it was both anguishing and merciful. A part of me naively thought that our suffering would end then. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I can still picture my father-in-law Stan taking me in his arms seconds after Brett died, whispering, “Now you can be at peace, too.”
When a narrative dominates your life the way cancer did mine, it isn’t easy to change. Long after the early weeks and months of raw grief, long after the first year of mourning, cancer remained front and center in my life. I had difficulty expressing any identity beyond “I’m Nancy Sharp. I’m widowed. My husband died of cancer when our twins were 2 ½ years old.”
You might assume that I stopped repeating this narrative after moving to Colorado a few years after Brett’s death. After all, I’d hauled the twins, then 5, and me across the country to build a different life. In spite of the freshness of our environment, the old story rose to the surface every time I met someone new—even after meeting Steve, a widower, who’d lost his wife to pancreatic cancer and was raising 2 teenage boys on his own.
It was about this time, in early 2008, that I took a Kabbalah class in Denver. One day the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves the way we might as if we were at a party. “I’m Nancy Sharp. I’m widowed…” I stopped myself. What am I saying? The room grew quiet, and I felt the heat of everyone’s eyes upon me, staring in empathetic silence. I had come to this painful truth all on my own. How can I really make a new life in Denver if I’m still chained to the old identity?
That breakthrough moment changed everything for me, especially how I felt about myself and the future I deserved to have. Four years after Brett’s death, it was time to bury the old story and reframe it with something truer. Cancer and loss would always be part of my story, and my children’s story, but it didn’t have to be the entire story.
Little did I know this pivotal awareness would ultimately help me to define resilience in a whole new way. Everyone threw the word “resilience” around so often—even then—that it felt like something I should just say yes to. As in, “yes, kids are so resilient.” And, “yes, I’ll bounce back.” My loving family and friends wanted me to believe this, so why not just agree with them? What I came to learn, however, is that resilience is so much deeper than just bouncing back; if we truly want to rise above our circumstances, including the limiting stories we tell ourselves, we have to be able to integrate the lessons and the losses. This means we must look hard at past experiences by recognizing what’s essential to carry forward for our own growth. Only in this way can we begin to reframe the possibilities for ourselves and lead a more resilient, optimistic life.
I’ll leave you with a few apt words from my memoir Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living. “Endings. When is it time to begin again? Time to move on, carrying your stories with you without being defined by them?”
The time is now.
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