In my fifty years of life, I’ve learned that joy and pain often go hand in hand. And I think I’ve experienced more joy than many ever will because I have experienced more pain than most will.
I am someone who has lost a sweet, precious daughter. I have been raped—the assailant was caught, and we went through a full jury trial. I had Stage 3 breast cancer and survived, but lost my baby sister to cancer just a few years later. My mother had a brain aneurysm. My husband battled with alcoholism.
I know how it feels when you can’t stop crying, or when you’ve wept so much there isn’t another tear inside. I know how it feels to be furious at the world, helplessly thinking over and over, This can’t be happening. I know how it feels when you think you’ll never recover, you’ll never emerge from the darkness, and your life is most certainly over.
I get it. I understand. I hear you.
But I want you to know there can be joy in the tsunamis of pain. Belly laughs and tears of joy can bubble up in the middle of an ugly cry, reminding us that even in the middle of our darkest moments, light can find its way in through the cracks.
The first week after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a woman I didn’t even know told me, “This will be the best and worst year of your life.”
Turns out, she was only half right. I can now say, unequivocally, it was not the worst. Some of the sweetest gifts and most precious moments of joy in my life came out of my year of cancer, and I am so grateful for them.
When I was first diagnosed, I quickly decided to cut my long, blonde hair. My sister Jodie flew in from Houston and took the reins of the operation.
It was one of the hardest things I have ever done—and I suspect it was for Jodie too—but we pushed aside everything we believed about the importance of hair and embraced the task.
First, she shaved the back and carved my initials into my buzzed hair. We took pictures and doubled over in laughter. Next, she shaped my hair into a spiked mohawk and took more photos of her shaving artistry. We were laughing, we were crying—tears of joy inextricably mixed with tears of fear, anger, and sadness.
Oh, and did I mention my husband Craig wasn’t home for any of this? When I was diagnosed, he was half a world away, stationed in Bahrain with the Navy. If you’re wondering if that was ridiculously hard, you would be correct, ma’am.
Even though Craig was so far away, he did such a good job staying connected to me—he made sure we talked on Skype every day. Two hours after the shaving incident, Craig was scheduled to Skype me, and I was mortified. I felt like every bit of my femininity was gone. How can I let my husband see me? What man would ever want to be with a woman who looks like this?
The computer rang and, with fear and dread, I connected our screens. As Craig came into focus, I was bracing for his look of shock and pity.
But instead, I watched his face light up, his eyes widen, and a smile spread across his face. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “You look so beautiful, you really do. You look so beautiful.”
My eyes filled with tears.
It will forever be one of the most precious, unforgettable moments I have ever had with my husband—or in my entire life.
When life hurts and pain is a constant, it is difficult to find—let alone recognize—joy. But without the really hard moments, the wonderful ones can’t stand out so vividly. Today I know that I couldn’t have shared those earth-shattering laughs with Jodie or that tender moment with my husband if I hadn’t experienced the pain of cancer from which they were birthed.
Our hard times are blessings too. It might not feel like it at the time, but when you look back, you can see how God was orchestrating those moments to be a part of who you are: your story, your message, and your gift to others.
It’s up to us to look for joy. But it’s always there, even in a bald head.
Dawn Barton is the author of Laughing Through the Ugly Cry: and Finding Unstoppable Joy and has been a public speaker for 10+ years, giving talks about cancer, joy, female empowerment, and direct sales. When she’s not encouraging other women to find joy and humor in even the most difficult of circumstances, you can find her living happily ever after in Cantonment, FL with her husband, daughter, parents, mother in law, two horses, four dogs and three cats (and a partridge in a pear tree). You can follow Dawn on Instagram.