The Conference That Turned Us

by Amy Webb

The week after my lumpectomy I received in the mail a brochure inviting me to a free conference titled “Cancer as a Turning Point…From Surviving to Thriving.” As I read through the information, the more intrigued and pulled I felt. The crystal ball was mute for four months hence, but I registered the next day, keeping the brochure on my desk, in plain sight.

The timing was a bit off – I’d be between my fifth and last chemo treatment, but it was only a five-hour drive, on my 20th wedding anniversary weekend, and I imagined it as a possible celebration. My husband Richard readily agreed to accompany me, checking off the space on the registration form, “Family Caregiver/Support.”

As months of treatment progressed, and my white counts took the quick elevator to the basement, the oncologist urged me to stay out of germs’ way, avoiding crowds and sick people. For weeks I chose to go to the sparsely attended first service at church, if I felt up to that, and generally cocooned myself. It paid off, as I only had to deal with chemo aftereffects, and nothing else physically taxing during those months.

The appointment for blood count analysis after my fifth treatment was the day before we would have to leave for the conference. I made my husband a deal – if the counts were up, we’d go. They were – miraculously against the trend. I called him from the parking lot outside the oncologist’s office and rejoiced, “Pack your bags!” It would be my first time away in six months, a far cry from the nearly two decades of near-weekly travel that enabled my work.

Furman University’s campus proved to be a sanctuary. Cars filled the parking lot, although the school year had ended. The walkways to the auditorium were filled with what looked like couples of all ages, women with sisters or friends, solo acts. I looked around for those in hats, but most had hair, and I immediately felt a bit self-conscious.

Although I needed my hat for cover in the sun, it was too hot for long wearing in the southern summer; I worried my baldness would stand out, revealing me as in-treatment, still underway. I comforted myself by remembering a friend’s compliment about sporting a great shaped head. And I purposely wore great outrageous earrings that belonged in the Caribbean.

The auditorium was fairly dark, despite the bright morning. Almost every seat was filled. It was quiet as a cathedral, except for the flutist on stage improvising medleys. As I heard her breathe, I could take a deep breath. I could feel myself intensely curious, feeling for the first time that my cancer diagnosis was a ticket into something huge.

We sat toward the back; the inclined floor allowed us to see a grand sweep of stage and flock. The lights went on and the program began. Singers, speakers, authors, composers, doctors, nutritionists, dancers, musicians, and story-tellers gifted us with their wisdom, energy, and admission of how their lives had been transformed by the very disease that brought us all together.

The pace worked, energizing as it flowed. Soon into the two days, I put away my notebook and absorbed. My husband and I stood side-by-side in guided yoga stretches. We sat moved by more than one performer’s movement to music that unfolded a picture of a treacherous path and graceful passage. We sang. We laughed. We listened. A liturgy, gentle and strong. It professed surviving as opportunity, fully recognizing that not all before us would be easy.

I thought now and then about what I would share in my summary emails to my circle of support. So many images opening me like a kaleidoscope. It seemed impossible to do justice to this experience by putting it into words. The essence of community more powerful than craft.

What to include? What to leave out? Certainly I needed to spotlight the opening request: for survivors to stand, then for caregivers, and to hear us applauding each other in a wordless L’Chaim! (To Life!). Harder, though, for the reader to see through my tears that final digital montage of candid photos, presented as “Celebrating Heroes.”

As we stood to leave the auditorium, music blaring, I called over our seats to one amazing actress as she was walking out before us. Jonna had staged a one-woman masterpiece, depicting her own several rounds of cancer and treatments, a portrayal which made me howl with laughter, nod in knowing, wince, and sob.

“Thank you, thank you for showing me what can come on the other side,” I had said to her. “You are a gift to the world.” She hugged me close, her full head of curly hair brushing my baldness. And we both cried. Then she crouched down beside Richard, willing to wait for me to snap a picture of them together. I noticed that as I was putting my camera away, she spoke briefly to him.

On the walk back to the car, my husband asked me what I said to her. The report choked in my throat. In turn, I asked him what she said to him in parting. “She told me she had been sitting a couple rows behind us during some of the performances, watching me rub your head. She said how much it touched her, how moving to see so much love.” We both went silent. Then he added, “I heard her words and thought, ‘I did this? I had this impact? I was merely doing what felt good to me.'”

That not-so-long drive home was filled with silent memorializing, and plenty of conversation. We were not the same couple we were just three days ago. We wondered aloud what the other side would look like for us, how emergence would translate. Without saying another word, we signed on to finding out.

© Amy Webb 2009