I sliced an onion the other night. And it made me cry.
Onions usually make me cry, but this one made me cry for a different reason. You see, this was the last good onion I had in my fridge—it was the only onion that didn’t have a green stalk growing out the middle of it, it was the only onion that was even usable, because the bag of onions I had in my refrigerator had been in there, unused, for so long, that I had to throw all of them away except for this one. It’s been that long since I’ve sliced an onion. It’s been that long since I’ve cooked a legitimate meal for my family at a legitimate time and served it to them in a somewhat normal way. It wasn’t a frozen pizza meal; it wasn’t DoorDash, and it wasn’t something that someone brought over (we so appreciate all the meals—thank you, friends!) and I was so proud of myself. But I was crying while slicing the onion.
I didn’t cry because the onion was fresh and potent. In fact, I’m sure most of the onion-ness had worn away by the time I sliced it. There was no sting in my eyes because I cracked open a vegetable that was attempting to sting my eyeballs right out of their sockets. There was no watering that went away the moment I walked away from the aforementioned vegetable. There was no ohmygoshmakeitstop feeling.
No, I cried because, as I cut the onion, I looked across my kitchen, out my back door, to the back yard, where Jon was teaching our son how to swing a baseball bat. While I cooked a meal. While birds chirped in the backyard. While fresh spring air blew through my kitchen. While my son laughed at his dad and his dad smiled at him and gently taught him something he would use in his life. I cried because, for the first time in a long, long, long freaking time, I was doing something normal.
On the day of the onion slicing, Jon had been off chemotherapy for nine days. The longest stretch without this nasty medication or any like it since late November. He probably didn’t actually have the energy to be teaching Andrew the ins and outs of bat-swinging, but he’s a stubborn one as many of you know, and he won’t be outdone by the likes of chemo or fatigue, and so out to the yard he and Andrew went—to swing bats. I went to the kitchen to slice onions, music playing in the background.
On the day I am telling you about the onion slicing, Jon has been off chemotherapy for 18 days, and I am barely able to find the words to express what I am thinking or feeling about these little normalcies that are creeping back into our lives.
And people keep asking me. In fact, they are doing it over and OVER again. “How does it feel to be getting back to normal?” The truth is that there are some normalcies that are creeping back in. But we are a very long way from normal. We are a very long way from what our lives used to look like. I am not sure that our lives will ever look the same. It’s OK. I’m not sure I want them to look the same.
Cancer sucks so much. It is the worst suck that ever sucked. I’m serious. And I’m sick of it. I hate it more than I’ve ever hated anything before.
But I’m so grateful for what it’s taught us. I’m so sad about so many things and people that we have lost. I am so sad about the ways my husband has suffered. I am so grateful for the ways my marriage has grown and the closeness it has brought to our family. But my goodness. Cancer is the Big Awful.
Grief and gratitude existing in the same space is heady and hard, and I have shared that before. It’s weird, but it’s our reality.
I don’t want to trade the lessons we have learned, but I hate the trauma that has taught them to us.
So, as people are asking us what it feels like to be getting back to normal, we are still processing, and in some cases experiencing, our trauma, and it’s a little weird to be simultaneously living in two spaces, so I want to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to get “back to normal” following, and also while still experiencing, a trauma.
Trauma is weird—it rewires your brain and it tricks you into thinking and believing that the traumatic experience you are having is normal, that it is what you should get used to, when in fact that is not at all the case. Trauma recovery is a process, and I know that this recovery for our family will be no different. Jon and I have both experienced trauma—both individually and together. He has faced his own mortality in a way that he never has had to consider it before, and I have been in fight or flight nearly constantly for seven straight months.
As I have reacted to our situations as a caregiver and a wife and a full-time working mom, I don’t remember my last deep breath. I don’t remember the last time I fell asleep without the assistance of some type of medication—Tylenol PM and I are well acquainted. I don’t remember my last seven-day stretch without a headache. Heck, I don’t remember my last three-day stretch without a headache. My right eyelid twitched constantly for the entirety of January and February and most of March. Stress is funny like that. Your body does respond physically to emotional stress, and sometimes these effects can be long-lasting or permanent.
Trauma means that what feels normal to people who aren’t in fight or flight feels uncomfortable or scary or weird for those of us who are. Trauma means that every day activities that are mundane or regular feel odd and strange, and that those of us in the throes of the traumatic event feel odd and strange engaging in the regular. We feel out of place. We feel exposed. Naked. Unsafe.
It’s super weird.
So, slicing an onion seems small to you. But it’s huge for me right now. Cooking a meal is like “So what?” to you, but it’s huge to me right now. Watching my husband teach my son to swing a bat seems commonplace to most people because it happens at your house regularly; before cancer it would have happened here, too. But we’ve been in survival mode for a pretty long time.
We have experienced and are trying to survive a trauma.
And so, things like this that are so seemingly small: slicing an onion, cooking a meal, a batting lesson, taking our son to pizza, going out for ice cream (all things we have done recently) become absolutely huge to people who are part of an ongoing or compounding trauma, or for people who are working their way to the other side of a trauma.
We don’t know the whole picture of where we are yet, and so I will not say anything about what our future holds, as I don’t truly, completely know. Only God fully knows and understands. But I believe He will make a way when there has, at many times seemed to be no way. I believe that with my whole heart. But until I know the way, I will hold off trying to explain the next phase of our journey.
Until I know, until we know, I will slowly creep back toward normal. I will slowly allow myself to feel things again. I will slowly allow my guard to come down and to let myself enjoy my life—our lives together—one moment at a time better than I did before we had a life-altering, life-threatening illness change how we operate permanently.
I will take some deep breaths, I will slow dance with my husband in the kitchen. I will thank God for batting lessons and onion-cutting and fresh parsley from the garden and planting Cherokee purple tomatoes and searing steaks in a cast iron skillet and cooking other meals that my family will love. I will smile at these moments instead of questioning them. I will savor them instead of being afraid of them. I will get back to normal, whatever that is, by doing the next normal thing, one normal thing at a time, until it feels totally right again.