It has been a while since the subject of cancer filtered into a conversation at the prison. A while since what was being discussed around the table made me think back to my moment of diagnosis, my first appointment with an oncologist, my trip on a gurney down a hospital hallway to an operating room. It has been five and a half years since my diagnosis. The memories, fears and worries do not plague me in the same way they once did. My experience with cancer always inhabits my thoughts, but more and more, thankfully, it hovers in the background, unobtrusive and no longer distracting. There are days I don’t think of it at all—like an ex-boyfriend one swears she’ll never get over, but then, one day, finds she has. Time, it turns out, doesn’t heal all wounds, but allows them to scab over, scar and become a part of you. A part you stop noticing in the mirror each and every morning.

Sometimes, though, the memories return fresh and strong. This happened during the last class at the prison when the guys offered up their stories of what it was like the weeks or days before they started serving their current sentences. The question specifically was: what did you do to prepare for this part of your journey? As teachers I think we expected responses about saying goodbye to family, spending time with children, making love to wives and girlfriends, visiting favorite restaurants and eating favorite meals, and taking long walks for as long as one wanted to walk. Our expectations only turned out to prove there is still much we have to learn about this experience called serving time.

Turns out, one doesn’t often get a chance to prepare for serving a prison sentence. One student did say something along the lines of, come on now, if you’re out in the streets doing dirt you always know you’re going to end up here. His argument being, if you are doing things that might get you arrested you would be wise to be prepared to go to prison any day. But beyond that general truth (Which reminds me of the saying: live every day as if it is your last. Good, but not necessarily practical advice.), it turns out most of our students were simply going about living their lives at the time of their arrest. They were not prepared. They had not discussed it with their families. They did not remember to do something they loved every day just in case tomorrow was the day they got caught. And once they had been arrested they stayed in jail until their trial was over, received their sentence and then went straight from jail to prison. There was no “time out” in the free world to prepare for the journey to prison. They were in their lives one day, and on their way to prison the next.

Cancer was like that for me. One moment I was a twenty-seven year old organic farmer living a fairly hippie and healthy lifestyle, the next moment, at 8am on a random Thursday, I was a cancer patient. I wasn’t sick. Then I was sick. In less than a few ticks of a clock. With only a few words from my doctor over the phone. Like the students in my group, I had to come to terms with my new reality after I was already existing within it. There was no considering. No trial period where if I decided this cancer business wasn’t for me I could give it back. People sometimes still ask me: don’t you feel like cancer taught you lessons you might not otherwise have ever learned? Maybe. Sure. What? I’ve never been one of those survivors to say after the fact that I was thankful for what cancer taught me. I learned the lessons I faced because I had no choice. But I would have taken them any other way. Without a doubt. I would have taken continuing to live my life in cancer-free bliss, saving the lessons for another day. I would have spared my family the months of fearing they were going to lose a daughter, a sister. I am not comfortable trying to package cancer up in a shiny bow of subversive self help. An unexpected path to enlightenment. It’s cancer. It can kill you. It could’ve killed me. Someday it still might. I would rather not have had it. That’s the truth.

There are experiences in life which change us profoundly. Rearrange our literal and figurative guts, redefine who we are, present us with questions we must answer whether we want to or not. How will you spend your time now that you’ve been sentenced to it? What is a life worth with a 50-year sentence? How do you want to die? These are not experiences you prepare for. They catch you by surprise. They are not a gift. They might have been inevitable, and maybe some part of you always saw it coming, but, you don’t prepare. Even if you could, what would you have done that would have made it any better? How many times could one of our students hug his children before going to prison to make not being able to hug them for years any less of a burden to bear? What would I have done the day before my diagnosis to feel alive that would have lessened my awareness of death the moment after my diagnosis?

What our conversation with the guys about preparation—or lack of—for entering prison reminded me is many stories start with the unexpected and the unpleasant. This does not mean there is no point to the story, but it can mean the point will take some time to find. And once the point is found it does not mean you have to be thankful for the journey. I don’t expect the men in our group to be thankful for 20, 30, 40 years behind bars no matter how much they change and grow into better men while serving their sentences. I do not expect cancer victims to be thankful in some way for their cancer experience. Such expectations are what those not walking these particular journeys want to hear to make themselves feel better about another person’s suffering. We wanted the guys to tell us they made the most of their final days in the free world, that they noticed how the air smelled and the way their wife smiled for what felt like the first time in their lives. We wanted them to say they were thankful in some way for the journey they were about to embark on. That they were ready, accepting and determined to make the best of it. It would have made us feel better to hear these things. The fact that they looked at us and said, “Why would you think we had a chance to prepare?” and, “How would I have prepared exactly?” was beautiful. It taught me what I had learned once with the cancer, but apparently forgot: there are some things in life you simply have to endure and survivor. If you come out on the other side a better person, well, then, as some say, there go I but by the grace of God.

  1. Cindy Zelman says:

    This was a great post, Erika. It’s so well- written, compelling, and honest . It’s great to see you tackling the subject of cancer in relation to your prison work . I’m glad that you didn’t cave in to the pressure of telling people you were grateful for cancer in helping you to learn lessons. You’ d rather learn them a diff way . Being grateful for cancer is bullshit, as you point out . I don’t speak this from personal experience but from the experience of my stepmother, who died from cancer in her seventies . Keep in mind that she was one of the most positive souls I’ve ever known. Without solicitation she said before she died, “If anyone were to ask me what this experience has taught me, I’d have to say nothing at all . There’ s not one life lesson to be learned.”

    • islandwriter says:

      Thanks, Cindy. Means a lot coming from you. And thanks for sharing what your stepmother said. It was a little scary to write about it (writing being akin to speaking it out loud for me), but it’s the truth, and, as you know, I’m working on the truth. The guys at the prison are actually good for me in that sense–they don’t have much left to hide so tend to just say it as it is. I want to be more like that.

  2. Benito Gonzalez says:

    Do events in life really change us, or do they merely make us more self-aware? Don’t parents and teachers tell us that we could do something we felt we could not? Are life experiences any different? Brutal and challenging sometimes, but unrelenting in their demand we deal with them. If life isn’t about preparing but learning, shouldn’t the focus be on what we learn from life experiences and how they have better defined who we are? Or perhaps even how best to learn from them.

    It seems cancer did teach you something — you wanted to live and you dreaded the thought of not having more time for life. That indicates there is much you want to do that you have yet to do. Or perhaps much you want to experience that you have yet to experience, or maybe just learn that you have yet to learn. It means you value life and your ability to wake up and face each day. Maybe you already knew that or perhaps the experience made you more self-aware of your love of life.

    Not every experience and each truth will necessarily be welcome. While truth leads to understanding, understanding remains a two edged sword. It can be painful to learn things we may rather not wish to know. Not everyone is willing to deal with the truth, for it spares no one and gives none safe quarter from false assumptions and views. It is why so many close themselves off to the truth and understanding. Those who do not wish to accept the truth embrace beliefs. They refuse to abandon viewpoints or perspectives that conflict with what they wish to believe. Beliefs offer people the security to draw their own preferred conclusions by filling in what they wish the truth to be instead of accepting what it is. To truly understand, you must be willing to accept, not everything you believe is necessarily correct.


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