Flash Fiction Challenge: Explore the Complications of Heroism from Chuck Wendig.
“You are a hero!” my best friend whispered as she hugged me tightly.
“Why?” I asked, “Because I didn’t die?”
Still standing after a brutal year-long Round One in the ring with cancer and its insidious treatment, I need to squeeze my eyes shut to remember my own story. I squint as I pull the memories out of the bloodied recesses of my synapses and speak with deliberation. Having forgotten mundane words which once flew off the tip of my tongue, I struggle to string the sentence together in the fog.
There is a normal range of brain damage for boxers and chemo patients.
Like Rocky, I took a beating. I think if the Oncologists said “Listen, we may cure your cancer, but you and your body will be kicked ahead ten to fifteen years at the molecular level” no one would opt for the treatment. It’s more akin to torture which they drip, drip, drip into you slowly. Hair loss, hearing loss, diminished sense of smell and taste, weakened vision, nerve damage, brain damage, heart damage, osteoporosis are all common long-term effects. My scarred and lopsided right breast and lung were seared with radiation beams. To add further insult to injury, my chance of developing other cancers goes up just from the treatment.
If I make it to five years without my breast cancer having migrated to my liver, lungs, bones or brain, I will be declared a survivor. If the highly invasive ductal carcinoma kills me, does it win?
Let me tell you what my bravery looked like. I got trashed on white wine right after my diagnosis. Crying shoulder to shoulder with my girlfriends, hiccupping and slurring goodbyes. “Maybe I should just end it now?” I wept. I don’t even recall being poured inside my front door that night. And I still had to tell my son.
“Hush,” everyone said. Be strong. Be brave. Stay positive. Be tough. Fight hard. Kick ass. Be a warrior. You’ve got this. Why are you acting like a bitch? What’s wrong with you?
Always the life of the party, I looked for ways to drag my cancer out into my butterfly social scene. Instead of fighting it, I linked my arm with death, and made her my mean girl bestie. No FOMO for this MOFO.
I burst into the operating room like a Hollywood starlet, purring up the side of my surgeon.
“You won’t leave a messy scar, will you?” I begged. “If you do, make it an X.”
My doctor held up two staple guns and said, “I can staple you closed!”
“Oh hell no. No Frankenboob.”
The entire surgery team laughed. Such a delightful patient! As Dr. X touched my arm to put me to sleep, I made one more request. “Will you take a picture of the tumour for me?”
He did. Just over an hour later, groggy from the morphine and anesthetic, I slipped in and out of consciousness as he talked to me in the OR. My surgeon stood over my right shoulder to show me the image. “I can’t save or send you the photo because my phone isn’t encrypted, but here it is.” The tumour was reminiscent of a reversed pomegranate; a cluster of fat and cancerous white milk ducts surrounded by a tangle of angry red veins.
The following Friday, I was out celebrating St. Paddy’s Day in a green wig.
I covered my doubt in a superhero’s invisibility cape, and waltzed into the Chemo Lounge, resplendent in my gown. Darling, let the Cancer Wars begin.
When our heroic expectation of medicine skids into a wall, we become lost and disillusioned. Chemo, my supposed hero, attempted to killed me. And might not have done a thorough job. There are no promises, despite the cute pink ribbons.
Judge and jury.
Nothing is absolute, not even heroism. Toss that coin in the air and call it. Heads for hero. Tails for coward. We can be both at the same time, or lurch from side to side. We uphold heroes on the pedestal of the Gods with their perfection. And feel cheated when their flaws show up because they are no better than we are. Must they observe the principles of a double standard?
Why do we sensationalize magnificent 11th hour heroic acts? If we sneak behind the curtains of these “heroic interventions”, don’t we often find a smaller cause? One tiny ounce of prevention which would make those pounds of cures obsolete. If the wrong was righted properly, there would be a quiet, unsung hero.
Find the cause of cancer. Not the cure.
One last thought on heroism. Does forcing people to accept the title of hero prevent them from acknowledging grief? Pain or loss? It conjures up stoic images of strength, silence and sacrifice. Not vulnerable tears, fears and failures. We mindlessly herd people into their roles as victim and as warrior. Why is the victim weak and the warrior strong? The opposite can be true.
My greatest strength will not show up when I fight or take flight from cancer, but when I freeze. If, after I am propped up with a bonus life in Round Two or Three, I might decide to stop running and face it head on. I won’t turn and hide, just accept it. Or give up. There are too many lives on this planet to spend millions trying to save mine. At best guess, Round One cost taxpayers ~$750k, or closer to $1M with my planned reconstruction surgery.
I want no heroic measures to save me when the end is near. I am fearless of death, having already seen a glimpse of the other side. Perhaps, then death is my hero.
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