Dobby, from the Harry Potter books, was a principled, yet interfering house elf for the nefarious Malfoy Family. He was an indentured servant, until the gift of an old sock from Harry freed him. Dobby is ugly, painfully so. He is raggedy, with a poverty of sophistication and a lack of filter that, while somewhat refreshing is also uncomfortable. For me, Dobby is a metaphor for cancer; meddlesome, a harbinger and ultimately, a saving grace. Cancer is like having Dobby, the House Elf from Harry Potter as your companion in consciousness on the crossing. Kind of a modern-day Jiminy Cricket, he is up in your ‘house’, as it were – for the duration – making a mess of things organized, then ultimately freeing you from it. The moments of clarity brought to me courtesy of Dobby my Cancer Elf are much appreciated. Because of cancer, I learned things that you only know for sure when you survive in spite of the odds. Here is what Dobby the Cancer Elf taught me;
1. Kindness Matters. When you have a bald head, your ride is a wheelchair and you carry an emesis basin instead of a purse, people are kind. During treatment, I was waging a battle that was visible and obvious. What I am aware of now, more than ever, is that everyone is fighting some type of battle, even when you can’t see it. Be kind to everyone. It matters. Dobby is bald, wears an old pillowcase and is hard to look at. He needed kindness.
2. Appreciate those who are there for you. Release from your heart and mind those who aren’t there for you. Unexpected kindness for our family came from friends and unexpected people. Ernie removed a fallen tree from our yard, and stacked wood. David took the trash to the curb and did home repairs. Christie dropped a cooler filled with frozen meals at our doorstep each week. Sandy ran a marathon and prayed the rosary for me while she raced. Vanessa stayed with our daughters – a lot – and at a moment’s notice when we had to get to the hospital. Linda stayed too, and cooked, and sat with me. People I didn’t know prayed, sent cards and gifts and just showed up. “Close” members of my family and some friends didn’t. Not even a card. It was painful and I felt abandoned by them. In retrospect, for whatever reason, they never really were there for me. Looking back, I had made excuses for them throughout my life, but the truth of these relationships came to bear in my darkest hour. It was painful then, but liberating now. To focus on the lack of concern by a few is to dishonor those who showed up in small and sacred ways and cared for my family and I. Dobby didn’t have much, but he got a sock from Harry, the sock set him free. He set about moving forward in being positive, not looking back at the Malfoys.
3. Have faith. When you are seriously ill, there are times you are so completely alone and scared. For me, these were times when my husband couldn’t ‘come in’ with me. In those moments, the absence of those you thought would be there, looms large. When I would go into an MRI tube or wake in recovery or surgery, the feeling of solitude is a giant echo in a cold, dark, vastness. It was those times that I asked the Holy Spirit to be with me, and I felt peace. The truest peace I have ever felt. God is with you. Just ask Him to be. Dobby had faith that all would be well one day. He was right.
4. Don’t waste time on anything. Don’t waste your time on anyone that doesn’t deserve it. In the words of the prolific ‘Unknown’, “Don’t cross oceans for someone who wouldn’t jump a puddle for you.” If you don’t know what to do with your time, share it with someone who needs it. It will be well spent. Dobby focused on helping Harry while his life was crap, he wasted no time in trying to get the Malfoys to like him.
5. You are not your hair. When you are fighting cancer, you really don’t have time, energy, vanity or use for hair. To lose it seems a big deal at first, mostly because it represents loss, the first in a series of losses as it turns out. You are not your hair, car, house, bank account or occupation. Dobby’s lack of anything lovely didn’t stop him from being who he wished to be. He set about helping Harry in spite of his looks, lack of power or a place to call his own.
6. Err on the side of love, always. No one wants to be ‘left alone’ to deal with cancer. If you are not sure if you are inner-circle enough for a call or a visit, write an email, send a message on Facebook or put a little something in the mail. Anything to let the person know they are being thought of, prayed for, loved. When you are unsure of your steps, err on the side of love, always. Even if all you have to give is a sock, it could mean the world to some one.
7. Pray. It works. ‘Nuff said. Dobby had faith.
8. Love your body. It is the greatest, most magnificent and priceless thing you will ever own. As much time as I spent cursing my thighs pre-cancer, I was sorry to see my femur go (and my natural knee and tibia), my leg bones have been replaced by titanium now. As remarkable as limb salvage surgery is, and as brilliant a surgeon as I had, nothing can replace the function, beauty and grace of your natural parts. My body fought hard when some cells turned on me and went rogue, and my body persevered. When this gift of a vessel for my soul stops fighting for me, I shall look upon it with gratitude for its service. I’ll try to do it in the meantime too. Just like Dobby, who soldiers on in service to others even with a lack of height, muscles or beauty.
9. Let Go of ‘Supposed to Be.’ Embarking on a journey you didn’t buy a ticket for, and not really being guaranteed where you will end up is the walk of every cancer patient. It is a voyage of discovery and uncertainty. Just let go of your expectations of where your life is supposed to go. Roll with what you got. Just like Dobby.
10. Growing old is a privilege. A privilege denied many, who would have loved to live another day. Celebrate with a grateful and joyful heart each birthday, each wrinkle and gray hair; they are evidence that you have survived every challenge faced. You never know what tomorrow will bring you – for Dobby, it was freedom. J.K. Rowling is quoted as saying, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” I can’t help but think that she had a Dobby with her on her journey through her poverty and depression. My wish for you is that you not meet your rock bottom. Rock Bottom is a harrowing, lonely place to be – but a great place to be from. To slog back toward the sunlight is to know a courage that only comes from overcoming what you once thought impossible.