I carried it around because I didn’t know what else to do with it. It was the kind of burden that would shock and invade, so I just kept it hidden.
I woke up with lead in my feet. I trudged through the routine of getting dressed, but I did not want to. I wanted to stay home with my shock and grief, but I also needed to go to class. My husband thought it would be better to get my mind off of things for a while each day and that I should attend my master’s summer coursework as planned. I just didn’t think I could do it.
The fearful and slow-moving dreadful morning reminded me of another such morning eleven years earlier three months after he was born. He was born in May, and I knew I would return to work in August. That weight fell on my shoulders minutes after giving birth and stayed strong the full three months before school began.
The first morning I was to leave, my mom had graciously come to town to help ease the transition. We weren’t sure he would take a bottle (he didn’t for me) and we knew he was still struggling with some rough colic. I woke that morning with weight in my shoes. I did not want to leave him for anything, and here I was leaving him for seven precious hours. I arrived at work, listening but not listening. The anxiety burned in my chest as I sat in meetings and simply missed my young baby boy.
Eleven years later, I attempted to act normal, but I knew I was not succeeding because I kept wondering if I was acting normal enough. Conversations went on around me, and I knew they were happening, but I couldn’t process what anyone was really saying. My burden was too large at the moment: the doctors had said the worst nightmare every parent could dare envision on the darkest day — your son has cancer. I waded through non-normal classes and tried to keep my head above the rising waters of grief. Alone, it was more than I could take.
Then, professor Sowder came in. She had received my email with some of the gruesome details. She was pretty much all business most of the time, so as she pulled me into the hall, I was expecting to go over details like, “are you dropping out?” and “how much class will you miss?” but instead she just hugged me. That hug brought the water back down to waist level. I was still wading in it but not drowning.
Burdens, consuming though they are for everyone at some point or another, are tricky little devils. Sometimes we think we will be spreading the burden by sharing, so we keep a hold of them to protect others. They become our secret dark places, protected by walls like fortresses. Treated this way, the weight of the adversity usually only increases.
As we share with others, sure sometimes bad things happen: we get judgement, incite gossip, and face ridicule. But cancer, though harsh and cruel in all other ways, has one thing going for it. People unfailingly respond with love, and sharing the burden makes it lighter. I wish mental illness was the same. And we have made great strides toward that, but we have a ways to go. I can honestly say that no person has responded with anything less than love in response to my son’s cancer. When mental illness strikes, sometimes people’s walls, fears, and ignorance get the better of them and they respond with harshness, awkwardness, or gossip.
In the end, cancer isn’t much different from an encounter with mental illness, but would Dr. Sowder have pulled me out of class and given me that hug if my son had been diagnosed with bi-polar tendencies? Um…maybe. It’s up to us to respond with love in the wake of any human tragedy, to share the weight of life’s burdens together. I realize we do not live in some Utopia, but we could all stand to lose a little weight.