My journalism professor often told me, “Sarah, you’re burying the lede!” when I put vital details at the end of an article instead of at the beginning. So here we go. Here’s the lede: After two years of living on the road (which included traveling to 25 states and 11 countries, speaking at dozens of events and making a lot of great memories), I am settling down in San Francisco.
I’m going to be working a few shifts a month in an urgent care clinic in downtown SF so I can keep up my medical skills, earn some extra income and add some structure to my life. And I’ll be traveling one or two weeks a month for speaking engagements. Which means I’ll be a part-time SF resident — like a flight crew that’s “based in” a home city but continues to criss-cross the globe.
I’m excited about the move. I really like SF so far, and I’m looking forward to finding a new community and a new rhythm. I’m excited to experience life’s small pleasures that I have not had for two years: a library card, a gym membership, a place to name when people ask me where I’m “from.”
But I’m also realistic about starting a new chapter. Because, for all the possibilities that new beginnings offer, they are never without at least a little bit of unsettledness, disorientation and frustration. I know at some point I’m bound to get lost, hop on a BART train going the opposite direction from where I meant to go, question if this move is the right decision, grapple with the loneliness of being a small person in a big city and resent the annoying chores of changing my address, dealing with utility companies and filling out the paperwork that comes with practicing medicine at a new location.
And then there’s the other thing I’m a little worried about: my story.
In 2008 I moved from Connecticut to Portland, Oregon, and started working a new job at an ER there. Only weeks before, I had finished chemo, nearly died of pneumonia and turned my life upside down to move to the West Coast, desperate to start a new chapter that gave me a reprieve from all the losses I’d experienced.
I didn’t tell anyone about my recent cancer battle. I wore a wig to work. I didn’t ask for a reduction in my hours or any extra help. I didn’t want anyone to judge me for my health issues before they’d gotten the chance to know me. I didn’t want people to see me through the lens of my diagnosis. I wanted them to know me simply as Sarah, not Sarah The Cancer Patient.
After a few months, my hair started growing back and I was ready to stop wearing the wig. Unfortunately, around that time, Britney Spears had a meltdown and shaved her head. I was worried that if I suddenly showed up at work sporting a crew-cut instead of my wavy, thick wig of hair, the medical director would think I’d had a psychotic break. So I wrote him an email the night before, explaining my cancer diagnosis and sudden change in hair styles. “I have something to tell you….” I wrote, my fingers shaking as I typed.
A short while later, I went on a first date with a guy I’d just met. We went to a restaurant and, in order to sit at the bar so we could get the happy hour specials, we had to show our ID’s. I still had my Connecticut driver’s license, in which I was tan with long, blonde hair. The bar tender compared my license photo to the girl standing in front of him — five shades paler with short, dark brown hair.
“What did you do to your hair!?” he asked.
I wondered if it was possible to explain the discrepancy without my date finding out, less than 10 minutes into our encounter, that I’d had cancer and almost died.
“I had cancer and all my hair fell out during chemo,” I whispered.
Instead of subtly settling the situation, the bar tender exclaimed, “Whoa! What flavor of cancer did you have?”
I realized the jig was up, there was no way to keep this a secret, and the situation was getting worse instead of better.
“Cancer’s not an ice cream flavor.” I spat, more than spoke, the words.
He led us to our table and I hid my face behind my menu, fighting back tears of anger and humiliation. When I couldn’t dam the flood, I excused myself and went to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall and sobbed. It took twenty minutes for the tears to stop flowing. By the time I came out of the bathroom, my date had ordered us food to-go and was standing in the lobby, holding take-out boxes and my purse. I could’ve kissed him right then and there for being so sensitive and so kind.
Yesterday it happened again.
I was working in the urgent care when the insurance agent showed up. We didn’t have an appointment. He just assumed that, in between the chaos of me trying to see a deluge of patients, he would have me complete some paperwork for my new insurance. He stood next to me at the nurse’s station, asking me questions and punching the answers into his laptop.
“Any pre-existing conditions?” he asked.
“I had cancer,” I said quietly, hoping the medical assistant and nurse who were sitting nearby, whom I had just met a few minutes before, couldn’t hear our conversation.
“What kind of cancer?”
“Breast cancer,” I whispered.
“Breast cancer!? Really!? You look so young!”
I never know what to say when people give me that response, so I just shrugged and kept charting.
Then the questions kept coming — and the guy didn’t lower his voice at all. Instead, he kept talking louder to be heard over the chaos of ringing phones, beeping medical equipment and staff conversations.
“What year did you have cancer? What treatments did you have? Are you cancer-free or not? Are you taking any medicine for it now?”
For better or for worse, because this has happened to me several times before, I was able to keep my composure and avoid an embarrassing, tear-filled meltdown in front of people I didn’t know.
“I’m not having this conversation with you here,” I said firmly. “Here’s my cell number. You can call me later.”
“Here we go again,” I thought as I tried to take deep breaths, forgive the guy who had been oblivious to how inappropriate his actions had been, and focus on the patients who were waiting for me to see them.
Starting a new chapter — whether it’s with a new person or a new job or a new place or any other number of life changes — is rarely easy because it requires being vulnerable to becoming known. It means being at the mercy of people who are more established than you. It means submitting to the process of going from stranger to acquaintance to, if you’re very lucky, friend — or soul mate.
It means holding fragments of the new story, and remnants of the old one, and trying to piece them together into a new patchwork quilt before you get too cold.
It requires you to believe you belong, long before others acknowledge that you actually do.
But in the end, I think we were born as stories and we were born for stories. Which means we were born to end chapters and begin new ones. We were born for ups and downs, for surprise endings and unexpected plot twists.
As we live out our narratives, we are made to take the risk of beginning new chapters — and taking especially gentle care of others who are starting new chapters of their own.
And when we write the final words of our story, when our last breath writes, The End, we will find ourselves in the best story of all, where all of our narratives coalesce, and all of our souls belong.