Dec. 20, 2019
When the storm of cancer hits, you need somewhere to go for protection. Somewhere to shield and strengthen you.
My shield is an oak tree.
It stands alone in the field of tall grasses and wildflowers at the back of our property. Roughly 60 feet tall, with a crown at least that wide, this majestic tree has been a source of strength for generations of Maxwells.
I haven’t always protected the tree in return.
A few years ago, vines of American bittersweet climbed up and wrapped around one of the tree’s lower limbs. Bittersweet is a menace. It’s a creeping vine with twining stems that can grow the length of a telephone pole. The stems wrap around other plants and trees, choking their growth and eventually killing them, unless the bittersweet is cut away.
Under assault, the limb on our oak tree weakened and split. My uncle had to saw the limb off near the trunk.
I walk past the tree every day. Ever since I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in March of 2018, I have made a ritual of walking. After my surgeries, sometimes I’d only walk 50 feet. On my best days, I would walk a few miles, past the oak tree and down the dirt path that leads to the ocean.
In the early months of cancer, those walks were full of resentment.
Intellectually, I understood that life never promised fairness. When you look around the world and see the suffering, this has always been evident. Still, I questioned why cancer had come for me at age 41. Certainly my wife and daughters didn’t deserve it.
Walking past the oak tree, I would focus on the sprawling thicket of bittersweet and thorny brambles. The vines were hard at work, wrapping around nearby saplings and the roots of bushes.
The bittersweet was a maddening reflection of the cancer in me.
Lethal. Uninvited. Relentless.
What an awful design by mother nature, I thought. I imagined taking a flaming machete and going on the warpath. I wanted to chop and burn every last stem into oblivion. Of course, I knew it would be futile. One has to pick his battles.
So how do you confront our enemies in nature?
For me, I had to start looking at bittersweet and cancer from a different perspective. These are not sentient beings. They don’t have thoughts or feelings. They have no intent to kill. They evolve with a singular purpose — to replicate and to survive. This competitive drive is the core design of all living things, whether it’s a vine or a cancer cell.
Sure, I can rage against the flaws of our design.
But my quest to be cancer-free doesn’t feel right when I’m dwelling in resentment and hate. It feels a lot better when my mission is grounded in my fierce love of my family and friends. There are still plenty of moments when I experience the more destructive emotions. I’m OK with that. I just don’t get stuck there anymore.
This shift made it easier for me to see the core lesson offered by threats to our existence: that life is the ultimate privilege.
On my daily walks, I began to focus on the oak tree instead of the brambles.
Yes, the tree was damaged. It had lost a significant part of itself.
And here it stands, undaunted. It continues to weather every gusting wind, every rainstorm, and the deep freeze of Maine winters. Its leaves still return each spring, glorious as ever. It is my giving tree. I spend time with it every day, for communion and to offer thanks for its inspiration.
In the tree, I see myself.
I’ve lost parts. I’ve been damaged. Yet here I am, standing my ground, living with joy and defiance in the face of the storm.