A year and a half ago I joined a club.
The club wasn’t looking for new members. In fact, many people devote their entire lives to figuring out how to completely eliminate the prospect of there ever being any new members. No one sent me any kind of invitation. And I certainly had no desire to join the club.
Truth be told, I didn’t know of its existence.
I didn’t know that once I was diagnosed with breast cancer I would be deluged with offers of comfort and support from countless members of the club, ninety-nine percent of whom are women. I heard from people I barely knew, did not know, never will meet - members from my hometown and members from chapters in other states. I got letters, emails, phone calls, hugs, offers of lunch dates, gifts, flowers and shoulders available for crying from the brave, strong, faithful, generous, mighty and inspiring women that make up this ever growing alliance.
There is no official handshake. There aren’t even monthly dues. But what there is an instant bond unlike any I’ve ever experienced before. Breast cancer survivors will do whatever it takes to be there for each other every step of the way: from diagnosis, to surgery, to treatments, to recovery, to reconstruction, to more surgeries, to the ensuing and inevitable periods of grief and loss and readjustment.
For four years prior to my diagnosis, I photographed breast cancer survivors for a major hospital in my hometown. The portraits are used for exhibition in the hospital hallways and at various women’s health conferences. They are also published in a calendar that is distributed to newly diagnosed patients. Those I met during the photo sessions always impressed me. They were a forthcoming, gracious, spirited, optimistic and stalwart group of human beings.
The fifth year of the project I was just a few months out from my own mastectomy. Obviously, I related to my subjects quite differently then. We had a lot more to talk about. And trust me, most survivors of breast cancer will talk to other breast cancer survivors about anything and everything pertaining to their journey. There were some tender and some heart wrenching moments.
I figured this, the sixth year, would be a piece of cake. My life has been blessed and very full since my last surgery. I had this thing all figured out and had done what I needed to do to move beyond the experience of breast cancer. There would be no need to conduct club business during the portrait sessions.
Whoa, was I in for a surprise.
Yesterday I had a full schedule. Six of the “calendar girls” showed up on my doorstep at various times during the day for their sittings in my studio. Each time I opened the door, I welcomed a complete stranger. By the end of the day, I realized that what I had welcomed into my home at 1:00, then 2:00, then 3:00 etc. was a steady stream of tiny pieces of myself.
There I was in this woman, there I was in that one.
Staring into my own face through the viewfinder of my camera all afternoon took more strength than I could muster. When I got my last hug and closed the door on my last appointment, I sat down and cried.
I was not expecting this.
The women in this portrait are mother and daughter. They were diagnosed three months apart. The mother’s mother died of breast cancer. All three women worked on this quilt. (The assignment this year was to bring an object that says something about who they are.) All three names are stitched into it.
They are each club members. They are also family. The longer I am a member of this club, the more I realize the latter goes without saying for all the rest of us, too.