Author wishes to remain anonymous
On a gorgeous Bolinas morning in April 2009, I made the left turn off Mesa Road to attend the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. It had been nearly two years since my initial diagnosis of breast cancer. An introvert by nature, I was ambivalent about spending an intimate week with people I had never met before. Beyond that fear, due to my cancer and other significant challenges in my life, I felt as if my mind, body and spirit had been chopped into bits and strewn hither and yon. I was ragged and raw and pretty much a nervous wreck as I made my way down the narrow and long road toward the Commonweal main building.
The years 2007 and 2008 had been extremely rough for me – my daughter going through several difficult transitions, my breast cancer diagnosis and aggressive treatment, the dissolution of my marriage, the selling of the home I had lived in for 25 years, and moving to my own small home that I shared with my two cats. Weaving through all of these events was my precarious job in a floundering technology company. The organization was doing very poorly with layoffs occurring frequently adding to my existing mountain of anxiety.
With everything that I had been dealing with during those two years, I had entered into a ‘to do list’ mode. To take a dive into the emotional mess that I was and deal with what had actually actually happened to me was not a step I had yet been willing or able to take. I had dipped my toe into the pool by attending a writing group several times a month for those touched by breast cancer. It had helped, but I knew I needed to face my cancer head on. I needed to have a conversation with my cancer, wrestle with it and roll in it – even though it was going to be terribly messy. I knew it in my bones and I was utterly terrified. I also knew Commonweal was the place to go to take this enormously scary step. But when I made that left turn off Mesa Road that April morning, I had lost all confidence that this had been a good idea.
After parking, I took a deep breath and walked into the main building. Within hours, or perhaps even just an hour, I felt I had gone home. I felt lovingly held and knew Commonweal was exactly where I needed to be. It was all around me – the wonderful healing energy, the incredible space perched above the Pacific Ocean, the welcoming and wonderful staff and of course Pacific House. And it was all so delicious.
And I did have that conversation with my cancer, and I wrestled with it and rolled in it. The program was such that I felt I did so through all of my senses. The sand tray was a high point. Admittedly doubtful going in, after five minutes I was totally and completely in the sand tray zone. Feelings and fears I didn’t know I had surfaced in what I created in my sand tray. Of course everything else was a high point too. The massages, group therapy, yoga, the evening sessions (most especially the discussion led by Michael on death and dying and pain and suffering), the absolutely amazing food (I ate for eight), the chapel, my walk on the beach, our wonderful group of eight women and the truly loving and amazing staff – all interwoven to create a week that was difficult and challenging and wonderful at the same time. The Cancer Help Program helped me begin to heal that enormous part of me that was humiliated, terrified, extremely angry and untrusting of all since cancer had entered my body and my life. I began the long road of opening up my heart that had been so incredibly closed.
My daughter had been strongly encouraging me for months and months to get a dog. Her reasoning was that a dog would provide protection, companionship and solve all of my problems. I countered my main reason for not getting a dog was that I was going to die soon. Her adamant response was that having a dog in my life would keep me alive. The last morning at Commonweal our wonderful group of eight entered Kohler House to the visual delight of postcards placed on nearly all flat surfaces in the room. We were to pick nine postcards that we were drawn to. After choosing them, we shared with the group why each one of our nine postcards was significant to us. One of the postcards I had chosen was a picture of an adorable puppy looking out a window. When I shared why I had chosen that particular card, I shared the story about my daughter’s quest to bring a dog into my life. However, I adamantly shared, choosing that postcard did NOT mean I was going to get a dog. What it signified to me was I was beginning a new life. No dog, no way.
But my daughter had already chosen a rescue dog for me – a four-month-old puppy who looked like her dog who I absolutely adored. We could have dogs that looked like each other she said! My daughter emailed the rescue organization to tell them I was interested and initiated an email conversation between the foster mom and me. The young puppy was on her way to being in remission after a tough go with Lyme disease. That she was in remission from a life threatening illness made it feel to me as if we were meant to be a pair. So roughly six short weeks after insisting no dog, no way in Kohler House, I was driving home with my new six-month-old puppy.
I honestly believe I would not have taken this leap of faith toward living and life without my weeklong experience in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program.
Header photo by Corinne Bayley