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They say people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. Not me. At least, not until I was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2022. Our daughter, Allie, and her fiancé, Mia, came for a visit that summer just a few days after my biopsy. It was a tense time. My doctor had just told me to surround myself with family. To not be alone. I had abruptly walked into one of many waiting places to come that would push my husband’s and my patience right to the edge. Right where fear meets the monsters of a machinating mind.
I remember it was a windy day. We had dragged chairs to the leeward side of the house. The girls were asking me to speak at their wedding the following summer. I was trying to play it cool despite the greasy knot in my belly, the hot fear between my ears. My knees tucked right up to my chin, arms wrapped tightly around them. It was an out of body experience I still struggle to put words to, a kind of a witnessing of my life in reverse. As if somehow the present were an echo of somewhere I had already been. A place where I didn’t know if I was saying hello or bidding goodbye.
It was going to be about a week before my results came back. We knew my situation wasn’t good but we didn’t yet know the degree of bad. We knew the tumour was one of two kinds, one with a much worse prognosis. The kind that would prevent me from speaking at my daughter’s wedding. I said yes anyway.
Olfactory neuroblastoma (ONB) is a malignancy affecting only about 1 per 2.5 million people each year. While ONB was certainly the “better” of the two possible tumour types, it would still require major surgery and 33 days of proton radiation therapy to follow. Regular scans and follow ups would be scheduled for the rest of my life. Any public speaking fears quickly paled in comparison to my treatment plan.
However, the day of my toast I found myself cresting on an unforeseen wave of fear. Fear that I might choke up, suddenly mute. Fear that the theme of my toast would fall flat, fail to paint the picture of the Allie that hung on the wall of my heart. No longer confident I could speak in front of more than 150 people, most them strangers, I headed for the powder room. For a moment, public speaking was more frightening than death.
Life is a part of death. Death, a part of living. Imagine a couple dancing, one leading and one following. Now, imagine this same swirling, twirling couple swapping roles, taking turns leading steps. It’s the best metaphor I can conjure. One that speaks to the possibility that much like relationships among people, relationships exist amongst truths. Truths, such as death, that become mirrors, reflecting, thus reminding its frightened partner of her beauty, grit, and grace that accompanies her fear. Constant partners in a dance, sometimes leading sometimes following, mirrors for each other’s opposite rather than shadows. Reflections that remind us we are here to live, too.
Looking briefly into the washroom mirror on the day of my daughter’s wedding, I recalled where I was in relation to death almost a year earlier. In that moment, I felt life taking the lead. In that moment, in my reflection, death gave me the courage to speak. Together, under a tent, beneath an unsettled but transforming sky, I joined our guests right at the edge where death danced with life and vice versa.