I recently came across a scrapbook my husband made for me to commemorate my 40th birthday. In it friends and family, old and new shared memories of their relationship with me. I came across an entry by a friend from graduate school, Beth. She and I were both married to men named “John” who were graduate students in the Computer Science Department. It was a funny coincidence. We socialized a little as married couples and I have always thought very highly of her as a gentle, thoughtful, and intelligent person. We exchange Christmas cards each year and an email every ten years. I had forgotten what she had written in my book or even that she’d taken the time to respond to John’s request. What she said was lovely that she sees me as a kindred spirit with whom she will always have a connection. She described me as “fun, smart, and safe.”

When I was a psychology intern, I trained at a medical center in which our services were integrated with the medical services. We worked with cancer patients, burn patients, spinal cord injury patients, organ transplant patients, etc. We also had a separate outpatient psychology clinic and provided testing services to the department of psychiatry.

In my work, I don’t typically work with people who are in imminent danger. I remember the trepidation I felt prior to this internship that I would have nothing to offer individuals with serious medical illnesses, especially those with terminal disease. And I really really really didn’t want to work with children with cancer and other serious life threatening illnesses. But I did.

I discovered that I had something to offer them. Even as children, they understood the danger of talking about their illness with their parents. They understood the burden. As an outsider, I could lift it. They could talk to me without fearing that they were hurting me in some way. If I empathized with the sadness, anger, and fear, I was just a supportive adult not a parent who is supposed to be the strongest person in a child’s life. And I could listen and avoid the unintentionally non-accepting messages that adults give children when they try to talk kids out of emotions because they are unable to regulate their own. Children, even children who are dying, like to play and laugh. I could do those things. I could be fun, smart, and safe.

I keenly appreciate the fun, smart, and safe people in my life right now. And many of them come from unexpected places. I left for vacation right as Diane from dglassme posted the very excellent Deep Dark Trenches of Virtual Space. Diane writes about her own link to the Internet, especially the cancer blogging community. The post is also accompanied by a photo of sharks. I identified with the post so strongly, especially the following:

When you start to look forward to seeing your doctors more than your friends, you know something has gone dreadfully wrong considering they have some pretty ridiculous personalities, or when you care more about what a complete stranger you met on the internet has to say than a close friend or loved one. Who are these people? They are mothers, psychologist, college students, diplomats, attorneys, historians, writers, nurses, surgeons, oncologist, etc.  – people from all walks of life, from all over the world – who have cancer or are working with people who have it.

During this technicolor stage of my life, especially the part of my cancer recovery during which many people in my life consider cancer to be in my permanent past, I find myself drawn to my cyber buddies. Most of them are cancer patients but others are not. But the thread that binds them is that due to personal circumstances and/or chosen professions, they are accustomed to life changing events. They deal with challenges with intelligence, kindness, and humor.

I have developed a few unique and close friendships with individuals whom I have never met in person or even spoken to on the phone. I have no frame of reference for these particular kinds of relationships. I had never blogged prior to my cancer diagnosis. My Facebook use in the past, basically boiled down to “Look at my kid!” “Look at my kid again!” (I still do plenty of proud mama posts. And by the way, “Look at my kid!”)

Sometimes I feel ill at ease with the uniqueness of the relationships. I feel at a loss as to how to explain to others how I learn so much from “strangers”. Fortunately, my husband gets it and never seems to feel left out or disappointed that I look outside of our marriage for support. Sometimes I have trouble navigating the waters of my cyber friendships, but by and large, I still feel safe. In this community, I feel that there is always someone who can sit beside me and hold my hand during the lowest points. And there will be someone who will laugh at my jokes even if they are dark. And there will be someone who communicates an understanding of what I am going through even if his/her experience is different. And since it is a community, there is always someone who can step in for support when someone else is not available. So the network is consistent and always there.

I am thankful for the times that my technicolor emotional expressions are not only tolerated but accepted because there have been a few times that I am been taken aback by the intensity and intimacy of my outpourings. I boo-hoo-hoo’d with dysregulated empathy over one of my friend’s Facebook posts, when she was having a particularly difficult day. I was embarrassed afterwards and even thought about apologizing. But knowing that apologizing for these kind of behaviors can be a kind of unnecessary flailing dance that I do, I held back. In time, normalcy returned on its own.

I have dear friends and family who help me heal and grow stronger each day. They love me and want the very best for me just like the parents of the children with whom I worked at the hospital.

But as Diane pointed out, the people, even the dearest ones in our day to day lives, don’t constantly live with cancer or some other life changing experience. When I talk to them about my fears or my illness, I know that I may tip them off of their axes and send them spinning in other directions. I have been in their shoes before and I totally get it.

Thank you for being fun. Laughter helps me deal with the ridiculous aspects of my life, it distracts me from my worry, and it gets me breathing again.

Thank you for being smart. I feel understood and connected rather than lonely and weird.

Thank you for being safe. Thank you for sitting with me in my grief and trusting me to work through it. Thank you for forgiving the times I step on toes, don’t pay enough attention, or misplace my tact.

I hope that I provide the same things for you. Cancer is scary enough without scaring each other.