In this first episode of It Could Happen to Anyone (ItCouldHappenToAnyone.com), Dawn and Dionne refuse to let anything get in the way of an interview with brain tumor survivor, Lori Paul — not even their symptoms, lack of a cameraperson or a mountain of bloopers.
Moments of liberation don’t happen often. Every now and then, someone says something that emancipates you from destructive thoughts. The CNN report on screenwriter, David Seidler, who won the Oscar for The King’s Speech, does not just inspire me. It sets me free.
Hollywood notoriously places an expiration date on its talent. Screenwriters are no exception. Scribes who do not make a splash in the industry right out of film school climb an uphill battle be a working screenwriter. This deadline loomed in my mind, often ticking louder than my biological clock. When I received a brain tumor diagnosis (and then another), the sunset of my writing career was all I could think of.
Perhaps pain or stubbornness kept me from seeing the inevitable. I ignored the complications of juggling a brain tumor (and then another) and a writing career at first. I swallowed my tears and my pride when my play made it to Hollywood, but I could not go.
As long as I was writing, I was fighting. I was in control.
But the brain tumor (and then another) began to tug on my mind, body and spirit. And the public fight against my health insurance company wore me down further. Letters to my former health insurance company and politicians replaced screenplays, and eventually even paid writing assignments.
Looking at my laptop, I’d curse myself a failure for forgetting words. The electric shock pain from my brain tumors was (and is) so excruciating I not drag myself to bathroom, much less muster up the creativity to be a writer. I’d contemplate the value of a life with brain tumors that my former boss called my “shortcomings.”
I’d helped others deal with their circumstances with my words, but the moment the brain tumors threatened my writing—my words—I could no longer deal.
And then David Seidler gave me freedom.
After wrestling with stuttering for years, he wisely decided not to confront it with paper and pen so soon after conquering it. The 73-year-old screenwriter stated the mind requires time to heal from the battle—to mature, to write about it objectively.
It’s smart advice for any writer hoping to avoid the trap of melodramatic writing. But it’s a powerful rule for health activists who can easily collapse under the weight of their stories.
David Seidler’s patience struck me more. Most writers recognize the potential literary value of their battles, especially those cognizant of the expiration date Hollywood places on talent. The media is dubbing David Seidler a late bloomer. He reminds me not to try to outrun my illness, only to crumple under the weight of false deadlines.
He got his Oscar on time. Whatever destiny awaits me is not going to match the timelines and bucket lists I scribbled out in college. I must begrudgingly trust God’s divine plan just the same.
I will still cry when I have an idea that my brain tumors won’t let me type. But if my writing is a God-given talent, I now know that no illness can hold me back from seeing my words in the fullness of their destiny.
My new freedom comes in knowing that all things come in due time…right on time.
I wanted to kiss you good riddance, Mountain, but I could not find the strength nor words.
I guess that makes you feel powerful.
What you don’t know is every time you knock me down or wear me out, I get back up again…and again, whether I believe in myself (or my health) or not.
So throw your pain at me.
Strip me of my health, career and friends.
I will soar phoenix-like or claw my back before you rejoice in your handiwork.
If you want the truth, Mountain, I feel a dose of helpless serenity knowing that you are neither friend nor foe. You are just “is.”
You are a matter of life and death sitting, shocking and kneading the life out of me for no damn reason. I cling to you, Mountain, to calm my heart from cruel philosophers who say your presence is written in Heavens or the stars. You, Mountain, are in God’s hands.
As long as you are what you are, Mountain, I have to be what I am…strong.
Knock me down, Mountain, my brain tumor, if that makes you feel powerful. Tomorrow, I’ll just get back up again…and again.
I sensed that bad news was coming by the way the doctor and nurse entered the room. My heart still raced from the twenty-minute dash from my office. Now, the exam room’s white walls cave in on me as I wait on someone, anyone, to deliver my results. My doctor, speaking in an unusually measured tone, finally says, “There is an abnormality on your MRI.” I forget how to speak. I forget how to breathe. My silence permits the doctor to elaborate on the possibilities of a brain tumor, aneurysm, infection or multiple sclerosis. I must be crying because the nurse hands me a wad of tissues. My doctor begs me to remain calm knowing that his request is in vain. How could I? There was something foreign on my brain and I could not get it off my mind… literally.
I call my mother, hours away in Kentucky, and relay my doctors’ instructions to have someone look after me. She, being a perfect mother, announces that she will drive down tomorrow. Being an okay daughter, I hustle to the grocery store as I always do when she visits. I walk down the aisles and my full-figured frame seems dwarfed by the freezers. The entire world becomes so large and it engulfs me in its folds.
No sooner than my mom’s arrival, my doctors admit me to the hospital. We pass the time reading the newspaper. My mother had long considered moving back to Atlanta. The situation makes her choice an easy one. In between what seems like a million needle pricks and MRIs, she combs through the classifieds for a job. A listing catches her eye. My employer is looking for a bright, driven professional to do my job. I want to kick and scream, but the EKG wires constrain me. It is a good thing. If I do have an aneurysm, too much stress is deadly.
I return home and start the agonizing process of telling friends and family. Some freak out. Others pepper me with questions for which I do not have an answer.
No, I do not know what “it” is.
Yes, I prayed about it.
No, I do not know if I am going to die.
The silence that follows is worse. My phone rings less and less. Friends that would race to accompany me to exclusive parties or film premiers mysteriously go missing. If they do call, the topic of my health does not enter the conversation. To them, I am merely on vacation – a Dawn on sabbatical set to return another day. I know better. I am stuck in a one-bedroom apartment with my mother with no job, no visible friends and something on my mind that is wrecking havoc on my body.
I want to receive an awakening that makes life’s nectar sweeter. Instead, the solitude forces me to say good-bye to myself. The social butterfly juggling a million projects had to go. Left in her place is a shell ready for filling. Faith, already in abundance, increases. Dreams surpass the desire to just get by. Where there was bitterness, forgiveness prevails. My ability to create things from nothing becomes the metaphor for my life. Stripped down to nothing, I have the awesome responsibility of rebuilding myself into something better.
Writing becomes a mighty weapon. The duo of pen and paper effortlessly cuts through the comments, questions and the loneliness. I suddenly realize that this malady is one of the best things to happen to me. Somewhere in the midst of the pain and symptoms, is a catalyst pushing me to live better.
I write vigorously. With each sentence, I gain a better understanding of myself. My choreoplay debuts in Los Angeles. When my heart sinks because I am not well enough to see it, I write. When film projects fall through due to my lack of strength, I write. Throughout the misdiagnosis and false starts to treatment, I write. Even when I discover that this spot on my brain is a rare and incurable tumor, I write.
The oddity of it all is that I have been fighting to keep “me” in tact. I mourn the Dawn that was, so ignorant of the Dawn that can be. My perceived value diminishes every time I use a wheelchair or walker. In moments like these, I look at my mother’s houseplants. I study the care she takes in cutting off the dead stems. Something, more beautiful, blooms in their place. I cannot help but to wonder, if the same could go for me. So, I say “good-bye” to myself and “hello” to a stronger me. It might be a wounded me, but it’s a better me.