The literary world is abuzz at the memoir of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her book My Beloved World chronicles her early life in the Bronx as a part of a close-knit but troubled family. Her dad was alcoholic and died when Sotomayor was 8 years old, the same year she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Her mom struggled to open herself up to happiness after a tumultuous marriage, and Sotomayor faced difficulties as a young Latina with big aspirations.
I’ve just started reading Sotomayor’s book, and already I’m hooked. In an interview with O Magazine, Oprah asked Sotomayor about a question that Sotomayor raises in her book: How is it that some people are faced with adversity and it makes them want to rise to the highest part of themselves, and other people, faced with the same adversity, get knocked down. Is that nature or nurture?
I’ve often wondered this myself, and never more than I have while enduring the cancer “journey.” What is it that makes some people wither under the strain of the disease, while others adopt a “take no prisoners” attitude and commence with the ass-kicking?
Sotomayer’s answer is not driven by cancer, but what she says applies to pretty much any adversity that comes along. She says that people who have been nurtured, presumably as young children by loving and involved parents, have the confidence to be optimistic and to try things even when there’s a risk of failure. She says “The test of your character is how often you get up and try again.”
I can only speak for my own experience, which was a Cracker-Jack idyll of childhood in a loving home with parents who believed in me and instilled confidence and optimism. Is this why I was able to face my cancer diagnosis head-on and without taking to my bed with covers pulled tight over my head?
Was it a by-product of my childhood, or was it from watching my mom endure her own cancer “journey” without a shred of self-pity? Even though her “journey” was a bazillion times harder and more trying than mine has been, she never once complained or said “I can’t do this any more.” She did every single thing required of her, even when her body was giving her every reason not to, and she did it quietly and stoically. The disease prevailed in the end, claiming her life and robbing her legions of loved ones of her presence, but she put up a hell of a fight.
There’s been nothing quiet or stoic about my “journey,” and many times I could imagine my sweet mama chiding me for expressing my frustration so vocally and with so many curse words. Many times I heard her voice in my ear reminding me to be patient with the slower-than-molasses healing. Many times I felt her gentle reminder to go easy on my docs, who were doing their best to help me (and if she were around, she would have baked them a loaf of bread or a batch of kourambiethes as a peace offering for the not-so-nice way I vented my frustrations in their offices).
I wish my sweet mama were here now, so I could ask her opinion of the nature-vs-nurture question. I think she would relate to Sotomayor on many levels. I know she would downplay the enormous gift she gave me by being a loving, nurturing, involved parent by telling me that it’s just what you do. And I’m pretty sure she would boss me and tell me to allow my kids to have dessert more often, because they need a treat.
Despite my sweet mama’s undeniable effect on my life, I don’t feel especially confident or optimistic these days. While the worst of the cancer “journey” is behind me, the toll it’s taken on my sense of self is great. The reality of creating a life after cancer isn’t easy, with body issues and fear of recurrence being key players. My hormone-blocking BFF, Tamoxifen, wreaks untold havoc on my body and has aged me at an alarmingly accelerated pace. The rigors of check-ups, follow-ups, and scans for new cancerous activity are wearying. The uncertainty of why a group of cells went haywire in an otherwise healthy body is unnerving and serves as a reminder that nothing is a sure thing: you can eat right, exercise, and be pro-active about your health and still fall victim to cancer. It’s not fair, it’s not right, yet there it is.
Perhaps this is a commonality the befalls those of us on this “journey” — like moving through the stages of grief. Perhaps it’s normal that at a certain point, after cancer is no longer the main focus of the majority of our waking hours, we realize how crazy hard the whole thing was and still is. Perhaps instead of being left with a sense of pride in having survived the worst-case scenario, we realize it’s a hollow victory. Perhaps once the adrenaline wears off, we’re left with the dull thud of reality saying, “You survived the worst, now whatcha gonna do?” As I’ve written before, perhaps the soul-crushing depression about the “new normal” that follows a cancer “journey” is what we’re left with when it’s all said and done. Add all of this to the confusion over whether we dodged a bullet by surviving or were dealt a direct hit right between the eyes by being diagnosed in the first place; then throw in a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt; and heap on the searing realization that all we endured is a walk in the park compared to other people’s “journey.” Considering all of this, it makes me wonder how anyone can rise to the highest part of themselves rather than being knocked down by adversity. Although I’m not sure how it’s done, I’m certainly glad Sonia Sotomayor raised the issue.