When Michelangelo, the great sixteenth-century Italian artist and sculptor, began to consider a new Pieta, he started with an un-hewn boulder, an indiscreet block of rock. He would stand for hours, staring at the stone until he began to ?see? an image, a form, emerge from the rock. An arm, hand, or knee would protrude from the face of the stone, begging to be set free. Then, he would begin carving and chipping away, releasing the entity that lay trapped inside.
Sometimes he would stop before the full figure was carved. The Academy Gallery in Florence, Italy, where the statue of David resides, contains multiple Pietas that appear to be unfinished. To Michelangelo, however, as soon as the figure was released, the sculpture was complete. It did not matter to him if there was only an arm, half a face and a portion of the Holy Mother?s body distinguished from the rock.
From September 2001 through September 2003, I launched a search for my personal Pieta. Diagnosed with breast cancer one week after 9-11, I underwent a double mastectomy and subsequent reconstruction, a retina detachment and lens replacement in my left eye, and a complete hysterectomy. Like Michelangelo's artistic essence, it was only after my surgeries that I, too, began to be fully realized. With each knife?s paring away of flesh, with each organ that was removed, I came closer to understanding who I am, and what I wanted out of life. My options were narrowed, finely tuned to be clear choices and not compromises.
In addition to the surgeon's excisions, Life carved more of my heart away as my closest friend died of breast cancer after an eight-year battle. Six months later, and seven months after my own cancer diagnosis, my mother died of lung cancer, succumbing to a valiant fight with an inoperable tumor and a failing heart interminably weakened by a single round of chemotherapy.
These assaults on my body, heart and mind took their toll on me in innumerable ways, many of which are surfacing only now as the days between my cancer and me increase. Mostly, though, it is my relationship with my eight-year-old daughter that gives me perspective, gives me hope and motivation to assimilate these experiences carefully and fully. As she grows into a young person of talent and choices, I consider carefully how to guide her in her metamorphoses. How do I instill, or help direct, my daughter?s identity? Will she grow naturally toward a stable, healthy future? Will her experiences cause her to cast off unwanted principles and behaviors? I search for more meaning in my life; not reasons why, but lessons in my everyday to keep me on track with my daughter and myself.
My responsibility as a role model for my daughter has become my prime directive in my post-cancer years. How I respond to monumental crises, or the just the simple ones she faces in third grade, show her ways to live her life. If I react as a victim, she will learn to be a victim. If I act with courage, tenacity, and confidence, hopefully her mirror will reflect that as well.
However, this does not mean that we walk through life holding hands in denial. While the personal power and insight I have gained from my experience is undeniable, I cannot ignore the other side of this survival equation. In other words, I must embrace the losses I?ve endured as well. The loss of my organs, the loss of my youth, the loss of my marriage, the loss of my mother, my final living parent. The loss of my emotional blindness that kept me from facing the sickly-comforting emptiness left from a horrific childhood. The loss of my Innocent who looked forward to Christmas and dreamed the Knight was on his way. The loss of the Blind Believer who knew that God and Jesus would make everything okay eventually. The loss of the Achiever who knew she could sit at the helm of any ship in the corporate harbor. She believed she could win, and the speedy sensation of winning was everything. Those aspects of me, aspects of my Self, are gone. They have transformed into something stronger. And wiser, and braver. But, intrinsically sadder now, I mourn the losses nonetheless.
I have gained much during my journey. I have learned how to live fully. I have finally learned the importance of being a mother for my beautiful child above all else. I have begun an autopsy on what?s left of my Self so that I can expose my Essence, my true Spirit and Heart that lay buried for so many years. I have learned to sing, and laugh, and dance, and say what I think without worrying that it might cause someone to leave me.
Some would say that it took tremendous courage to have my breasts lopped off, and to elect to have three reconstructive surgeries to rebuild my chest. The complete hysterectomy would have put other, weaker women over the edge. ?You are so brave,? women have said to me over and over again.
Surviving is not coming out on the other side and resurrecting like some triumphant Phoenix, singed and dark from the flames but flying nonetheless. The experience of those difficult months hangs around me like an invisible cawl. At times, it is a victim?s cloak, deep, swirling purple velvet that both protects and insulates me from the rest of the world. But, as the days pass, I find myself rising beyond the tethers of the traumas themselves. The memories that caused me so much sadness, and worked to redefine me, are fading into the past. They are becoming the story I tell the long-lost friend who asks "How have you been?" The words tumble out easily, and I am even managing to weave in a few jokes from time to time. Interesting how humor emerges as the pain dissipates.
I work to assimilate my experience as a survivor into my everyday life. I want to return to my pre-surgery self, but that is impossible. It would be like wishing a shooting star could return to its original orbit, its celestial starting point in the sky. At the end of its travels, it has become something else even as the shimmer of its tail fades. It is no longer the star, or the racing meteor. It is a dimming glimmer, and as it fades, all that remains is the memory of its heavenly scar even as the incision across the sky quiets to nothing.
It is the same with the scars on my breasts, abdomen and heart. They are the evidence of my growth, my path to the wise woman I am today. Without them to remind me as I step out of the shower each morning and catch a glimpse of myself in the steamy mirror, I might forget how hard I have worked?how far I have come. I might assimilate the sacrifices too completely, seeing only the Monarch butterfly in its post-pupae glory. The awesome metamorphosis would be lost.
As effortless as the flight of a butterfly might seem as it lights from flower to flower, its emergence from the cocoon is never easy. There must be blood and tearing tissue and searing pain as the determined insect rips open the casing and forces her way outside. Then, as the pain subsides, she breathes her first sweet air and takes her first shaky steps toward the sun. After her birthing struggle has subsided, she is ready for the world, taking every opportunity to drink in the delicious nectar Life provides.
Like the tentative butterfly, I am emerging from my cocoon as well. I have broken through to see the sun and breathe free. However, unlike the butterfly, I hope to remember every step of my struggle, every painful choice and subsequent achievement. Only with the benchmark of painful memory can I hold onto the awesome-ness of who I am today. I am my own Pieta, reaching out from the stone that held me tight before the chiseling began. And, while my daughter watches my emergence from the sidelines of her own life, I pray she will embrace the graces of survival, holding them in reserve for a day when she will inevitably need them.
Virginia Hardee Silverman was born and raised in rural eastern North Carolina. The daughter of a sometime tobacco farmer, she spent her childhood playing on the wooded banks of the Tar River, running from gators and cottonmouth water moccasins. She has been a marketing executive with Fortune 50 companies for 24 years, and recently completed her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles . She is a singer, cancer survivor, and mother of an eight-year-old daughter, Eve. Her essays have appeared in anthologies published by the University of Miami ? Ohio and Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the April, 2007 issue of Health Magazine. In addition, she was selected as a Touchstone award winner.