I Once Spent Time on the Mountaintop
by Harriet Cox
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt a mental numbness. Because I didn’t hurt, it was hard to believe that I had a life-threatening disease. As time wore on and treatment was scheduled, I began to believe it, and the numbness was replaced with a fear and despondency so strong that I struggled through each day. All the while, friends, family, and my dear husband responded with surges of love and concern.
Gradually, these waves of love washed over me, and as they receded, they took with them the edge of the terror I felt. In their wake, I was left with a core of intensity that lifted me to a crest I had never known before. Suddenly, ordinary moments became significant. Not just moments with loved ones, but all moments. I viewed our extraordinary world with new-found acuity. Life was so bright and sharp that it crackled.
The might of this experience was overwhelming. I had climbed an Everest of emotion that was the most exhilarating of my life.
I was high with an intense joy that I could feel flowing through my veins. I began to pray, not out of desperation, but out of happiness and hope. I did not pray for a full recovery. I prayed for the strength and courage to endure whatever lay ahead. My doubts didn’t seem to matter anymore. This welling of emotion inside me gave birth to a celebration and acceptance of a power so strong that understanding the particulars seemed superfluous. Whatever the nature of this power, I wanted to meld myself into it. The might of this experience was overwhelming. I had climbed an Everest of emotion that was the most exhilarating of my life.
There were uneasy times along the way. At lunch with friends, I had trouble getting into the “issue of the day.” Was stone flooring better than carpet? Would a suit be better than a cocktail dress for the party on Saturday night? Who could care about stuff like this? We are alive, and we have people who love us. End of subject. End of all such subjects!
I’m not sure how long it took. A year, maybe two. With time, the world came back. I slid down Everest, slowly at first, but down I went. One day I realized how infrequently I thought of having the treasure of life. I was even pondering, every once in a while, what to wear on Saturday night. The world that we all try to scramble through by duping ourselves into the notion that the new car, the big house, the high-paying job really do mean the good life, reasserted itself.
I have mourned the loss of my perch on the mountaintop. Rarely do I feel that chemical surge of joy for just being alive. I think of it, but it’s an intellectual gratitude, not nearly so intense, a result of a return to good health. Perhaps it’s impossible to sustain such a pinnacle. Recovery must mean a return to normal life, however superficially we have come to live it.
If this is true, so be it. I am happy to be well. But I am also diminished. I once spent time at the top of the mountain, and I am grateful I was there.
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Harriet Cox is seventy-one years old, eight years out from diagnosis, and enjoying life. She has reared three children and is a community volunteer in Henderson, NV.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2009.