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Alicia Garey Headshot

Gratitude

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I have cheated death before. In my early twenties, I worked at an art gallery. One evening, while the manager was out at a restaurant nearby, a man came in wearing a nice suit. I was all alone in the gallery at that moment. The walls were glass -- I could see out -- and he must have seen in and noticed that I was alone. He walked toward the desk I was standing behind, calmly presented a large silver gun and told me to hand him all of the money. My first thought was this was part of a movie being filmed, as we were, after all, in the land of movie making in California, and what was before me seemed totally unreal. I recall that when he came in, he shut the front door behind him before proceeding to walk toward me.

I told him there was no money; there were only credit card slips. This was an art gallery -- people were not paying cash. I went to the little box where the credit card receipts were kept, opened it and showed him. At this point, I'm sure I was shaking like a leaf. I had just eaten some almonds and my mouth was impossibly dry from fear. I remember feeling the sensation that I wanted to duck. To get away from that silver thing that had the potential to hurt or kill me. I was still behind the desk, where there was also a phone. I recall his hand holding the gun, waving it around slightly, and imagined that he could possibly shoot a hole in my hand at any moment if I tried to reach for the phone. Of course, I did not reach for the phone. It was useless.

He then told me to go into the back. There was a small bathroom there. He asked me again, "Where the f*ck is the money?" I told him I did not know, and to please take a piece of art. He did not like that idea, and somewhat lightly hit my face with the gun, said "shut up bitch," and turned off the bathroom light. He closed the door and told me not to come out. I felt the bruise already beginning on my cheekbone. Guns are heavy. In the dark bathroom, I wondered what might be in there that I could use to hit him over the head if he came back. There was a ceramic plate, but I quickly realized this was a ridiculous idea. My cheek hurt and I turned on the bathroom light to look in the mirror. he fan went on so I had to quickly turn off the light. I caught a quick glimpse of my reflection and saw the bruise already appearing.

I tried to look through the sliver of a gap between the door and the door casing, but could not see anything. I heard some rumbling around. The stupid criminal was looking for the cash. I then heard a noise. A noise I knew pretty well. The front door to the gallery was a big, carved wooden door. The entrance floor had stone tile. The door always rubbed against the floor at a certain point and made an annoying scraping sound every time someone came in and out. This sound told me that he was probably gone. Very, very slowly I opened the bathroom door. All was silent. The sculptures and art pieces stood motionless, lit perfectly, on this otherwise lovely evening, in the glass-walled gallery. They could not communicate anything to me, but I could see straight through the space and he had gone.

The manager was coming back from her dinner and saw the commotion. She felt just awful. We had recently held an event at the gallery, featuring an artist and book signing. There had been hors d'oeuvres and champagne. She offered me a bottle of champagne (which I accepted) and she made sure I got home safely.

They never found the guy. I had nightmares for years. I thought I would see him in a crowd. I can still picture him today, although it's a little fuzzy. I remember his nice suit. He had a soft voice. The gallery is now a Starbucks. It has the same wooden door and the same glass walls. What was the adjoining gallery is now part of the Starbucks. I've gone there many times.

From this event, I learned to be more aware of my surroundings, although I'm not sure I could have done anything differently (except to not work alone at an art gallery). Thankfully, I didn't die that night. I wasn't even badly injured. Things could have gone very, very wrong.

One question remains: Was my getting cancer the same randomness as having been held up with a gun? Was it just bad luck? The answer continues to elude me.

There is a saying that bothers me a little bit. You know the one; "everything happens for a reason." I have a hard time believing that the awful things that happen in the world were somehow meant to happen. What I can accept is that we learn from what happens.

Here is a strange question: Are we, those of us who have suffered in some way, chosen? Was I chosen to experience the event of breast cancer so that I might learn from it? It sounds pretty crazy to me. But I feel enlightened. A near-death experience will do that to a person I suppose. (The truth is, life experience in general is bound to catch up with even the luckiest, most fortunate among us.)

But it still does not answer why. Did I somehow inflict this upon myself?

We humans are indeed exposing ourselves to a vast number of potential dangers every single day. For instance, this thing we call a car, this three-ton metal object, has killed many of us. So, there are man-made dangers and perhaps organic dangers. We have developed chemicals and substances which put our lives at risk. Did I ingest something that turned into poison in my body? If stress was a factor, could I have avoided it? Could it be that we need stress to propel us into action, and that I would not have done anything differently?

I believe that I could no more change the actions of that vile criminal than I could change those cells turning on me. In fact, I have done many things in my favor, like eating a balanced diet, not smoking and keeping active.

It is more painfully clear to me now that cancer plagues the human race. We know more now than ever the consequences of what we expose ourselves to. But are we going to change? Are we prepared to do things differently? Perhaps I have survived to become part of the question. Perhaps I continue on, learning and exploring, ultimately, in whatever small way, becoming part of the answer. I hope so.

I've said many times that I'm grateful. And I'll say it again, because I am. I am so truly grateful to have gotten through the ordeal, to have received such expert care and for all of the surprising gifts that came my way.

Is this the end of this journey? Is today the day that I am done learning from this event in my life? Am I me again? Perhaps. I think though, (and this is where it gets surprising, considering how ugly it is to have cancer) that I am more confident than ever.

Someone recently asked me if I was cancer-free. I wasn't exactly sure how to respond. I mean, the short answer is yes. But the long answer is more of a question. Am I cancer-free? Will I ever be free of this whole mess that is the cancer experience? I don't know.

What I do know is that I have landed on my feet. I have weathered the storm. I have braved the open sea. I have become even more, forever, me.