Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
I sold my house ― the one that I’d raised my children in ― and moved to a non-descript rental until I found a new home for the new me, the me who was now an empty nester with newly diagnosed chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). The surroundings were unfamiliar, and all I had to give me comfort and connect me to my former life was the stuff we once used together. I mindlessly fluffed the cushions on the couch that the kids and I snuggled on together to watch a movie while sharing a big bowl of popcorn. I was glad I kept this couch. I straightened the worn armchair where I sat and worked late into the night. It can go, I thought. I sat on the edge of the bed where I had pulled the covers up to my face and cried for hours when I got home after my bone marrow biopsy. I put a sticker on this that said “for yard sale.” I was dividing my life into distinct parts ― things I wanted to hold on to and things I wanted to let go of. I was “Marie Kondo-ing” my life, not just my belongings. My CLL diagnosis was in the “let go” pile. It did not bring me joy.
And why would it?
It came as an unexpected side effect of a checkup. It began with an unnerving call from a doctor saying something was “weird” with my blood and that I needed to see a hematologist. It resulted in fear, panic, and uncertainty for my future. Just knowing that I had it drove me to see the doctor time and time again with newfound pains and pangs that were consistently diagnosed as something minor, not at all related to my CLL. Like gas. Like anxiety. I wished again and again that I never had that checkup, that I had skipped the appointment and now lived blissfully ignorant to my condition. I was certain that not knowing would be better than acknowledging the slow but steady creep of increasing lymphocyte counts. I had lost all hope for a new and exciting time in life.
But then I saw the roses.
I needed to find a new place to call home. It was love at first sight with a house I visited during a showing on a cold winter afternoon. It had a greenhouse from 1972 attached to the garage. It was full of empty pots, rusted gardening tools, and general junk except for the small dirt bed in the middle of the room which was abloom with deep pink, American Beauty roses. The glass panels of the greenhouse were cracked, and there was no apparent working heater. But the roses were full and fragrant, filling the crumbling conservatory with the scent of hope, perseverance, and life that refuses to give in to its less-than-ideal circumstances. I was in awe.
The realtor continued the tour, talking about how much work the house on the hill needed, but all I could see were roses blooming everywhere. I saw flowers growing up to the sky on the roof that needed replacement. Blooms of roses poked through the floorboards, creating a carpet over the wood that needed to be refinished. Trailing up the twisted staircase, a vine of roses led the way to the second floor. Of course, they weren’t truly there, but they might as well have been. I had seen something that gave me hope, a feeling of possibility that I had been missing since my diagnosis.
This is what positivity and optimism are like. They are roses that bloom in the unlikeliest of conditions. It took me a while to come to terms with having CLL, to stop panicking and dreading what could or could not happen. But I finally came to understand that my diagnosis is not my destiny. When I feel discouraged or am having a hard time, I think of the roses blooming in the untended greenhouse. Seeing the resilience of a flower that pushes itself up in order to burst open with color, fragrance, and beauty that delights and inspires is a reminder that we, too, can do the same, that we, too, can grow toward the light.
I still have moments of fear and discouragement. There are days when I just curl up in bed and feel sorry for myself. Sometimes I still wish that I never went to that fateful doctor appointment. And then there are increasingly more and more days when I feel invincible and unburdened by the knowledge that I have CLL because I’m getting the care I need.
I’m now living in the house on the hill. Every morning I watch the sunrise with its ever-present hope of a new day. And the roses are still blooming.