by Miki Kashtan
It’s been 17 years since I’ve been to the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. My cancer is long gone, my mother and older sister had breast cancer and came out fine, and my younger sister lived with ovarian cancer for seven long years before dying in September 2014. Major life experiences have happened, millions of minor ones have accumulated, I have changed almost beyond recognition through all these years.
So, looking back at my week at Commonweal, I see it far in the distance, and still so clear. I was not one of the people whose life, whose experience of cancer, or sense of self, was transformed by the experience of CHP. I was much more transformed by the experience of accompanying my sister on her journey, which didn’t include much of CHP.
Still, there is a very small and profound experience I had at Commonweal that I imagine is not entirely unique. At the time of being there, I was immersed in enormous struggles with my then life partner. This ongoing challenge kept me on the phone for some periods of time every day, way longer than I truly wanted to, and away from being with the people I was bonding with at CHP.
Then came the day that our group decided to go to meet the moon and howl at it on the cliff (we were, after all, the Howling Nine). As people were gathering themselves to go, I was on the phone, trying to create peace, to listen and to be heard, to connect with love. I paused my conversation, told the people that I was still on the phone, and, with a sinking heart, motioned them to get going without me.
Some long minutes later the conversation ended, with or without peace, as it did every day. I walked out of the phone booth, only to discover eight other people sitting downstairs, waiting for me to be ready to go with them. They were unwilling to go without me.
That moment has never left me. I grew up an outcast, the unwanted one, bullied and taunted. That small gesture by eight people who barely knew me was a complete departure from what I thought was socially possible for me in this life. Nothing like this had ever happened: that people would make including me a high enough priority to delay a pleasurable activity. For that evening, the possibility of belonging was palpable. The memory continues to inspire me to reach for more and more connection and belonging with people, and to find it.
Were these people exceptional? As much as I came to like and appreciate every single one of the people who took this journey with me, I doubt what happened is because of their personal qualities. Rather, I see it as an example of the kind of coming together that is part and parcel of the CHP experience. I know this, because I have seen and felt it in reunions, too, whenever I’ve been able to attend them. I somehow think we all know that we need each other for our life to be whole and meaningful, and that CHP manages to strip the veil that makes us forget our interdependence. Eight people knew that it simply wouldn’t be human kindness to leave a struggling friend behind as they go howling at the moon. Elsewhere, they might have forgotten.
Header photo by Corinne Bayley