I'm Becoming Aware of Awareness
And wondering how much of it is necessary.
I’ve had awareness on my mind. We’ve come out of the pandemic and re-engaged in many social activities that require our awareness, in particular, awareness month events.
Recently, the NYT published a piece written by Holly Burns, a breast cancer survivor, whose words stopped me cold. “October is basically 31 days of low-key PTSD.” October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, was a time when media published photos of smiling survivors, places the focus on prevention and survival, and not as much on those whose diagnosis is terminal. It’s a challenge to portray the sickness and the heartache, amidst wanting to convey hope. “It is definitely not my patients’ favorite time of year,” said Kathleen Ashton, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Breast Center in Ohio. “Some do enjoy the opportunity to raise awareness, but the majority of my patients find the month distressing.”
Over the years, I promoted awareness many times. One of the benefits of aging is to acknowledge your mistakes. And in this arena, I have many.
I was someone who took full advantage of awareness months. As a 30-year-old, I backed into it like many others, speaking up for a young husband diagnosed with leukemia. But did I co-opt his tragedy, use it as marketing? Twenty years on, it’s a question asked of myself, despite once writing an op-ed about bone marrow donors which generated many new registrations.
The year my husband died, an extensive list of family and friends walked in the LLS’s Light the Night. Later, I would read poetry at the event, sell my memoir there as well. The next year and those that followed, our numbers dwindled. Our mighty band would consist of his parents, my son, and me. Soon, I walked with my second husband. Then, just my son and me. Finally, it was me. Alone. I was the only one who needed to be aware. It was in my life to learn from.
It’s no secret the pink ribbon has become a contentious marketing icon. The NYT author writes of a pink lid on her hummus. Every time Kroger lights their building pink, I wonder about the impact of that display.
My mother was a breast cancer survivor. Before informing me of her diagnosis, she hopped on plane with a casserole dish of vegetable lasagna (my husband’s favorite), flew 2000 miles, and assisted me in bathing my prematurely born son. She returned home and underwent surgery where doctors removed her left breast. These are the stories that make the media, right?
When dementia settled in beside her, I became her caregiver for six years. Part of her wardrobe consisted of a mastectomy bra. Whenever the bra appeared in the laundry, I was reminded of her heroic efforts. Eventually, I told caregiving staff to let her go braless, it was the least I could do—free her from any lasting memory that might cause her distress. She didn’t need an awareness month. Her body told that story every morning she woke. And I had the memory of washing the one breast that survived and the body that had healed over the absence of another.
Do we need awareness weeks and months? If they all compete with one another, how many can we really be aware of? Here is a just a sampling from my inbox this week: National Disability Employment Awareness Month, National Estate Planning Awareness Week, Italian American heritage month, Back Care Awareness Week, and, in case we didn’t realize how much a role technology plays in our everyday lives, it’s National Cyber Security Awareness Month.
Perhaps bel hooks considered issues to come like Black Lives Matter, or even National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and National Coming Out Month—also in October, when she wrote, “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
We live in age where visibility feels necessary, imperative. We fight for bandwidth over social media, social calendars, social capital. We tire ourselves in doing so, perhaps battling someone else’s tragedy, also on my mind as I walked, and recalled a young woman who had been hit while jogging in a crosswalk a week ago. Her injuries I felt in my left kneecap that had been clipped by a car—my own knee-jerk reaction. You might call it awareness. I was aware. Of my anger. And that always causes me to act.
“Let go of the awareness,” my yogini reminds the class, “as much as you can.” This is before savasana, the resting pose. Yet, to return to our lives off the mat, she nudges us back into awareness.
A reminder we can only sit out for so long before re-engaging with the world around.