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May 22nd, 2012 - Melissa Ridley Elmes

I want to cry but I’m too tired to accomplish actual tears. I compromise by letting my face crumple, then silently lower it to rub my forehead rhythmically back-and-forth against my forearms, crossed upon the desk in front of me. The gentle moving pressure soothes the dull ache between my eyes where tension lives rent-free, but does nothing to alleviate my rumpled spirit. I groan in frustration, in exhaustion, in elation. Pick an -ion. I’m feeling them all today.

It’s been A Year.

The mammogram results form handed to me by a discharge nurse just thirty minutes ago during an office visit mashed between morning and afternoon classes—gratitude to my boss for arranging my lunch and planning period back-to-back to accommodate my doctor’s appointments this term—rests on the desk before me, that ardently hoped-for evidence I’m in full remission. We beat you, you Fucker, I mentally gloat at the ghost of my tumor.

We. But of course, Nick’s not here today, Tuesday, won’t be here until Saturday, his new job taking him out of town during the workweek.

The workweek. I glance at the clock: five minutes before my next class. Two hours of teaching and grading before I pick the kids up from daycare. Four hours before I am at rehearsal for the play I’m helping produce. Seven hours before the nightly ritual of bath, teeth, story, bed, after which I can turn my attention to the novel I’m writing, three agents already interested in seeing the first fifty pages.

I set aside the nervous breakdown I so badly need to have. There is no time to process anything. This is partly because I’m working full-time and solo parenting our children and writing a novel and producing a play—and partly because I won’t let myself have down time, don’t permit myself to pause. I know better.

If I stop, I’ll die.

I’ve known that for just over a year now, known it from the moment I found the tiny lump during my morning shower last April 1 and understood it instantly for what it was. Cancer. My Dad killed by it just two years earlier. My children, aged seven and three, were still asleep down the hall. My husband of eight years was still snoring away in our bed. The urgency was immediate, flooding my system with adrenaline and drive: I had to go, go, go—go get it diagnosed, go get it cut out, go get it chemo’ed, radiated into oblivion, so it never comes back.

I’m terrified of stopping. So terrified, I took up running. Running from cancer. Running through chemo and radiation treatments. Running toward hope of a future. Running so much I completed my first half-marathon this past Saturday. God, my thoughts are racing. God, my legs still hurt.

God, everything hurts: Body, Mind, Soul.

God, I just want to stop, just for a little while, just to catch my breath, just to feel—


I can’t stop.

The floodgates. The uncontrollable, the overwhelm, the unknown—

The first post-lunch students burst into my classroom, adolescent energy filling the space: laughter, shoving, banter. I stand, straighten, smile, step into my featured role: the wise woman, an authority, a teacher who mentors students with calm assurance and warm humor.

I deserve a Tony award for this performance. I am not wise. I am no authority, save on the subject of my own mortality, about which I have become a master navel-gazer. Who put me in charge of anything or anyone? I am only ever terrified, just under the surface.

This is why I go-go-go. As long as I keep going, as long as I don’t stop, no one else will see, because I won’t feel, how afraid I am of everything and everyone.

Cancer. A year ago, on April Fool’s Day. Ha, ha, ha, Mother Nature, good one. Hilarious.

Showtime. “Okay, let’s get going!” I urge my students, tone of voice: bright; demeanor: in charge; heart, thumping: In-re-miss-on. In-re-miss-ion. In-re-miss-ion.


I hate myself for thinking it, but—I’m grateful I got the cancer.

It’s cancer! It’s terrible! It kills people! Who the hell thinks like that?

But I do, and I am.

Often, honestly.

Grateful, that is.

Tonight, for example.

I look around our rehearsal space for Velda: Girl Detective, a world-premiere comedy written and directed by our neighbor, Ron Miller, based on his original character Velda, “an ex-burlesque girl turned detective who has all the curves and knows all the angles.” My Halifax County Little Theatre colleagues are fitting costumes and painting sets; the actors, running their lines; my kids, in the corner playing with blocks; and I’m helping bring this story to life. Just last month, I finished a run starring as Golde in the Clarksville Little Theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof, sporting my newly curly, post-chemo hair. Just a few months before that, I played Sally Anderson in HCLT’s A Christmas Carol, my gown’s high neck hiding my radiation markers, heavy wig hiding my bald head. Last summer, performing in the Colonial Actors Theatre Society musical review got me through four rounds of chemo, exhausted, but on stage. I didn’t make enough time for it before cancer; the fear of never again having time for it after cancer brought me back to theatre in full force.

I think of the novel draft on my laptop. I’m writing. For the first time since college, when I thought I’d be a writer but went into teaching instead. I didn’t make any time for it before cancer; the fear of never having time for it after cancer brought me back to writing in full force.

I think of our impending move in two months to North Carolina, where I’ll begin my PhD. Too busy with work and family, I didn’t make any time for it before cancer; the fear of never having the opportunity even to try after cancer brought me back to that dream in full force.

I impulsively woosh in and hug my kids so we fall into a giggling heap, sending blocks skittering. Too busy with work and worry, I didn’t make enough time for it before cancer; the fear of being permanently absent after cancer brought me back to being present and in the moment with my family in full force.

“Hey Melle, we’re going to run this scene,” Ron calls over to me.

Showtime. “Okay, let’s get going!” I urge myself, tone of voice: bright; demeanor: in charge; heart, thumping: I-am-li-ving. I-am-li-ving. I-am-li-ving.


Melissa Ridley Elmes is a Virginia native currently living in Missouri in an apartment that delightfully approximates a hobbit hole. Her writing has appeared in Haven, Star*Line, Spectral Realms, Illumen, Reunion: The Dallas Review, In Parentheses, Thimble, Gyroscope, Fox Paw Literary Blog, A Story in 100 Words, and various other print and web venues, and her first collection of poems, Arthurian Things, was published by Dark Myth Publications in 2020.


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