I recently received an email from Cameron Von St. James, asking me to help share his story. Cameron’s wife, Heather, was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma -a form of cancer caused by asbestos – when the couple’s daughter Lily was only a few months old. Heather was 36, and was given 15 months to live.
With the help of the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, Heather was able to find the right doctors, and eight years ago on February 2, had her lung removed. In order to cope with their fears, Cameron and Heather named this date Lung Leavin’ Day and celebrate it every year. Heather explains,
Lung Leavin’ Day is about overcoming your fears. I get together with my family and friends and we write our fears on plates, and then smash them into a fire.
The timing of Cameron’s email – just days before our move from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania – was compelling. Moving is not cancer – note even close. But it is scary in it’s own way, sometimes I think more for the parents than the kids. In the last few weeks, anytime Phil would start to voice his fears about moving, I would shut it down by saying, “Look, we can’t give into that,” or “Let’s just focus on the positive.” In my delusional Mommy Guilt-gripped mind, I thought I was protecting Emma and Phoebe from our fears. Basically – for anyone who has seen The Lego Movie – I had morphed into Unikitty from Cloud Cuckoo Land: “Stay Positive! Stay Positive!”
If my therapist is reading this right now, he is shaking his head and massaging his temples.
Stuffing my fears is never an effective strategy, yet I continue to find excuses to do it. I say things like, “We just need to keep it together right now,” or “The kids need us to stay upbeat!” And yes, if the girls saw me crying into my coffee every morning, they may question my leadership abilities. But even Unikitty from Cloud Cuckoo Land knows that resisting “negative” emotions will eventually catch up with you:
What I love about Heather’s story is how she chooses to live in a place of hope by facing her fears, not denying them. Inspired by Lung Leavin’ Day, Phil and I decided to follow Heather and Cameron’s lead and write down our fears about moving, and then conduct our own plate breaking ritual. My initial list looked something like this:
- Fear of the girls not liking new school
- Fear of Phil not feeling fulfilled at work
- Fear of us losing a sense of adventure as a family
- Fear of losing current level of closeness in marriage
- Fear of losing Phil to his “fans.”
The first thing I noticed about this list is my fears are more about other people than myself, which I am sure in its own way is a form of hiding from the real feelings. The second thing I noticed is that apparently I think I am married to Tom Cruise. Or maybe David Hasselhoff.
By fans, I mean his “people.” Phil is from a large family and has had a beer with pretty much everyone in the Philadelphia area. He calls it “The Long Arms of Braun.” Philly is his hometown. When I was 25, I moved there to be closer to him, because I am from New Jersey, where we are bred to be resilient and adaptable with a slight inferiority complex. When I married him, I often felt like an appendage – an accessory to his former life. Moving to Massachusetts, while sad and challenging at times, was the first thing we had ever done as a couple that was truly ours. It brought equality to our our marriage.
Love and fear are in this constant tug of war. I love Philly, and moving back there feels like going home. We have a wonderfully supportive family and amazing friends. But I also love the independent person I have become, and fear that moving back into our comfort zone will make that person disappear.
So I guess my real fear was not about losing Phil, but losing myself. Which seems silly when I say it. But not scary.
After sharing our fears, we wrote them on plates. Well, paper plates. Our plates were already packed.
An while paper plates don’t break, they definitely burn.
The whole experience made me feel lighter. When I look back at our lists, some of our fears are real – usually the things out of our control. Other fears are real but manageable; fears that require planning and taking action.
But some fears are just not real. My fear of losing myself is not real because I am right here. I can feel my feet on the ground and the computer keys under my fingertips. The fear of losing myself is an old fear…that I am not brave or smart or independent enough to do something scary, or be my own person.
But I have. And I am.
But I guess I had to write it down to realize that.
Setting it on fire also helped.
Please support Cameron and Heather in their commitment to raising awareness for mesolthelioma by spreading the word about Lung Leavin’ Day. You can learn more about Heather’s story here.
Then, go smash some plates.