Storytelling has been one of the most powerful tools on my healing path. From the dark depths of shock to the dangerous ledge of the unknown, words planted an anchor to hang onto. Syntax sutured up the ragged edges of emotional and physical wounds.
I can commit words to tell a story and rely on them to be unchanged, even as the body gives way to it’s mysterious betrayals. Relationships can change, schedules can shift, but I can always count on my stories to be there at any hour of the night. Stories are time capsules for when memory fails me. They are like vaccines, little vials of a painful experience turned innocuous. I can take them in like supplements and fortify my system against the potential onslaught of what may come. I am made stronger because I have ingested my story, fully processed it and integrated it into who I am today.
Where a sense of control in life is sometimes slippery, you have agency over your story. You can rewrite and revise at any time. The voice you speak in, the perspective from which you tell your story reveals many new dimensions. As a kid I loved those choose your own adventure books, with their magical permutations leading you to new outcomes. How can you look at your own story so the outcome unfolds in some new way, drawing that line to where you have arrived now?
Tomorrow evening I will share a story at a local art opening. Handwriting On the Wall, at the Art Society of Kingston, will present art and spoken word that address the experiences people have had with cancer.
The story I have chosen is one of my favorites, because it is about a real life event where I was getting my footing as a new cancer survivor, still physically healing and rebuilding my life post treatment. In a very unexpected way, as I let myself be swept up in imagination and play, I received a gift of healing from the ocean.
I’d love to share it with you here, in case you live too far away or are unable to make this event…
The Magic Mermaids and a Gift from the Ocean
As we drove over cesspools of polluted swamp land, I was conscious to mouth breathe so I wouldn’t have to smell the sludgy Hackensack River. The seat belt dug into my portacath as the Jersey Turnpike took us closer to the shore and I silently prayed the industrial excrement wasn’t traveling all the way to the ocean.
I was heading to the Jersey shore with my 5 best friends in celebration as another one of the pack crested her 40th birthday. It was the first time I had been away from my husband and young son, and this trip marked a whole year of intense healing, a year since my breasts had been chiseled away, and 6 months since chemo had ended.
With the perfect forecast for endless sunny skies, vacation was off to a promising start. We decided on Asbury Park, and the small concrete cube of ‘Madame Marie’s Temple of Knowledge’ was the sentry point. We soon met up with Christie’s mom, her sister Suzanne and her two kids, and her brother Mike. We planted umbrellas and staked our small beach empire, before heading for that first dip in the water.
Sometimes the ocean has a foreboding feeling, the jellyfish just one wave crash away, the shells all angular and cutting the bottom of your feet. On this particular day, there was no imaginary shark frenzy just below the lip of light blue that gave way to the secret deep. The surf was just the right amount of surprise and surrender, playful without being a bully. I eased my way past the breakers, testing my upper body strength. In this salty buoyancy I found that I could still swim pretty well in spite of the lifting and rearranging of my pectoral muscles the previous summer. As I floated on my back, I imagined my breast implants as little life preservers carrying me over the waves.
Back on my towel, and not long after the salt began to crystalize on my skin, Christie’s niece Anabelle, a cheerful and confident girl, asked if I would go back to the water with her. She had that inexhaustible energy of a 6 year old and her enthusiasm for the ocean was contagious. The waves had begun to pick up as the tide shifted inward and the greedy oceanfront landholders were sent scattering further back, pushing us like a heard of seals closer together. We had to run as fast as we could to get from the umbrella shadows to the water, lest we be scorched by the fire walk across the sand. Anabelle squealed as she grabbed my hand to brace against the whitewater assault.
“Let’s pretend we’re mermaids!” she managed before diving under the next wave. “We’re mermaid sisters. My name is Coral. What’s your mermaid name?”
The image of a precious little sphere clamped safely in an oyster shell came to me. “I’m Pearl,” I quickly replied.
“We have special powers too. I can control the waves and call the other mermaids to us. What can you do?”
I paused for a moment and decided, “I have the ability to fight off sharks… and I can clean the pollution from the ocean.”
“I’m the big sister and you’re my little sister,” Coral declared. “I’ll say when to dive and when to jump.”
We frolicked mermaid style, our tail fins propelling us under or over each oncoming wave. At some point Coral told me that our parents had died and we enacted the scene where we desperately called for them. I ignored the stares of our fellow swimmers nearby as we lamented over the bloody upper half of our mother as it came washing towards us. I had to swim out and defend the honor of our parents, by killing the sharks who had murdered them.
In all our exuberance for the ocean, in our plight for mermaid survival and celebration of our special powers, I truly forgot myself and WAS a mermaid for that time. The most miraculous thing happened next. I could see a little hill of a wave forming, and judged that it would perfectly hit its peak by the time it reached my position. Instead of jumping over or diving under, I decided to do as mermaids will and flip backwards in the direction of the rolling wave. There was no time to overthink it, and in that instant my arms went pin wheeling backwards as I flipped my body over. The wave wrenched my arms back and if not for the water in my ears, there would have been an audible tear as the scar tissue in my armpits shredded away.
The shock of it made me grab my chest and for a whole 10 seconds I froze wondering if I had just completely ruined my breast surgery, undoing a yearlong saga of difficult healing. Then I had to fight through another wave, and I noticed that the pain was quickly dissipating. Was it just the cold water, was I in shock? I began testing range of motion and to my amazement I found I could reach my arms all the way up and around, my chest opening to the sun in the deepest stretch I had felt since the double mastectomy.
What a gift the ocean had given me that day. I had let myself be carried away in this fantasy of freedom and strength, pure feminine power in the midst of the sea. I wish I could have peered into Madame Marie’s crystal ball a year ago, when I felt crushed by the pain of that surgery and could only see the oncoming wave of chemotherapy before me. I would have seen myself a year later, playing freely, still a strong swimmer in the ocean. I was healed by those waters and the magical mermaid sisterhood of New Jersey.
Melissa Eppard lives with her family in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY area. After overcoming breast cancer in her mid-30’s, she knows that nothing is guaranteed in life. As a certified personal Life Coach she has made it her mission to ignite the spark of purposeful living and creative fire in everyone she meets. What you nurture will grow! Learn more and follow her other blog at http://www.MelissaEppardCoaching.com