In the movie Parenthood, there’s a scene I love. The family is racing around to get out the door to a child’s play. Steve Martin’s high-strung dad character, Gil, is feeling overwhelmed as he tries to wrangle everyone into the van. Kids are running and hollering. The scene is chaos, a reflection of how Gil feels about life in general throughout most of the movie. In the midst of this, Grandma, whom Gil thinks is a little senile, tells a story:
Grandma: You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster.
Grandma: Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride!
Gil: What a great story.
Grandma: I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.
Grandma’s story has always resonated with me. Because there’s part of me that, like Gil, would like to just hop on the merry-go-round where there are no bumps and dips, you know what to expect, and you can settle in and relax. But that would get really boring. And frankly, I don’t know a single soul for whom life really is a merry-go-round. You might get to take a few spins on that ride, but sooner or later, you’ll find yourself careening down a track toward twists and turns, alternating between screaming and laughing and wondering if you’re going to lose your lunch.
This year’s cancer diagnosis launched me onto quite a roller-coaster, and this week, in particular, has been filled with peaks and valleys. Early in the week, it was like waiting in line for the ride–anticipating, feeling anxious, not knowing what the experience would hold. Wednesday, learning my treatment would not include chemo, felt like that moment of euphoria when you crest the big hill at top speed, hands in the air, squealing with delight. And yesterday, it was a jarring drop that sends your stomach into your lap for a moment. Nothing catastrophic–just another unexpected step, more waiting, another delay.
I did not take yesterday’s news well. I’d had enough of the dips and twists on this ride. My screams mixed with cries and I shouted and sobbed and beat my hands on the car steering wheel. It felt good to get some of the emotion out. This morning, I’m remembering that we’ve all got a roller-coaster to ride. For me, right now, it’s called cancer. For others, it’s called traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, death of a child, infertility, joblessness, or divorce.
The ride won’t stop just because you’re screaming and want desperately to get off. You’ve got to stick it out to the end. All you can do is grab the safety bar, hold on tight, and pray you make it to the end. If you’re lucky, you’ll have someone to hold your hand and scream along with you, you’ll have laughter mixed in with the screams, and you’ll remember to lift your head at the high points to appreciate the view (because a roller-coaster always has high points). And when you exit the ride, you’ll recall to those around you how scary it was, how difficult, how you weren’t sure you’d make it–yet, here you are.
And when life’s roller-coaster pulls up to the platform for the final time (it’ll happen for all of us eventually), hopefully, those who love you will remember how much you enjoyed the ride–all the dips and turns and bumps–and savored every moment.
Now… where can I find some cotton candy?