Once upon a time, I used to love playing volleyball on the Vanderbilt Beach in Naples, FL. We used to go down each Christmas during my late teen years. We would play for about ten hours a day, and my game really picked up in the process.
One year, there was this girl who used to watch us play. She’d sit there for hours, cheering for no one in particular. She was pretty hot from recollection, and I was strongly considering thinking about saying hello, which means I never did. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to impress her.
So one day, I found myself across the net from this guy who fancied himself to be the best athlete on the beach. He may have been, but that’s beside the point. I saw him looking at the girl I’d never have the courage to approach, which totally irritated me. I knew that if I was given the opportunity, I was going plant the ball right into the chest of this container of Massengill.
So the serve came over the net. A kid from Cleveland bumped it. My brother Gavin gave me the set of the century. And right as I’m about to murder the ball, I started thinking about this guys strengths. I hate to say it, but he was a far better athlete than me, and a phenomenal blocker. If he blocks me physically, he’s going to block me figuratively, too. And then how am I going to look the hottie in the eye while not saying anything? This whole thought process happened in the 1.3 seconds it took to get off the ground and up to the top of the net.
So I made the fateful decision to out-think him. Just as I brought my arm back and he brought his arms up, I delicately flicked the ball over his outstretched fingertips. It was brilliant.
However, it was not brilliant enough. Butt-clown somehow lurched his body back to make a play. As his legs flailed, he did, in fact, reach a ball. Truth be told, he reached two. With his heel. The pain was so searing that I somehow suffered a concussion right in mid-air, and I had been injured nowhere near my cranium.
As I slowly flew backwards towards the ground, knowing full-well that I was not going to end up on my feet, I thought about how I was going to stick the landing. Maybe if I flattened out, kinda Nestea-plunge-ish, it might look cool. But no matter how terra firma and I were going to meet, I would not let myself stay down for long.
As soon as my back and the sand greeted each other warmly, I stood up, exhaled deeply, choked back a tear, re-swallowed my testicles, and said, “That’s game.”
I’m sure the girl thought I was the bravest man alive... or that I no longer had a scrotum... because nothing could have survived that well-heeled biltzkrieg. I gave up beach volleyball that very minute.
So the next day on our way to the court, I told my brother I was finally going to talk to the girl. Imagine my surprise when I found out that her vacation ended an hour before we got there.
As I un-fondly look back on that incident, it still staggers me how stupid I was around women. I was almost unflinchingly good at under-reacting in situations where an overreaction would be quite appropriate. It was that way on the beach that fateful day...
...and it was that way during cancer.
Call it chivalry, call it ego, call it sweet or dumb or right or wrong, but I have always felt an ingrained need to be strong for the women in my life. When I got sick, I refused help from everyone, but especially the two women closest to me... Stephanie, and my mom. And so I used to do everything for myself for fear of being at all burdensome to them. Any time I would be asked if I needed water or a banana or anything at all, I would politely decline the offer, saying, “Thanks, but no need to worry about it. I can get it myself later if I want it.”
While I thought I was helping, I was actually inflicting a fair amount of excess pain.
I have been married to the love of my life for almost fourteen years now, and I’ve learned what it takes to truly be strong in that time. Strength comes through honesty, integrity, compassion, being vulnerable when you need to be, and, yes, being the rock when necessary. It’s being aware, keeping your eyes and ears and heart open for things big and small, and legitimately listening. And imperatively, it’s about communicating in a meaningful way.
And nowhere was this proven more to me than at a talk I took part in about two months ago. My dear friend Teri Griege and I spoke at the St. Louis County Library about going through cancer and coming out the other side, reliving the high and low points, and talking about the moments that really made a difference in our stories.
We then opened it up to the audience. A woman who was there with her husband basically begged us to tell him to talk to her about his journey with cancer. He was going through some pretty severe treatment.
His repeated response was, “No, I can’t do that. I need to protect you from this.”
He had no idea that, in fact, he was making things worse, because what you come up with in your own mind is usually far worse than any reality. I can almost guarantee you that what he was going through was not quite as horrific as what she imagined he was going through.
And it brought me back to my own shortcomings during my treatment. And yes, I can say with great certainty and self-forgiveness that I screwed up a lot during treatment. Being sick didn’t make me perfect, no matter how perfect I strived to be. I have learned the painful lesson that by simply allowing myself to be cared for, it could have alleviated some of the anguish I fiercely tried to protect them against.
I think about that couple often, and I hope he took the advice that both Teri and I gave him that night. “Talk to her. Please.”
And if he finally did break down and open up to her, something tells me that she would have no issue whatsoever telling him to zip it for an overshare.
Dan Duffy is a husband, dad, video producer, author, and testicular cancer survivor. His memoir, The Half Book: He’s Taking His Ball and Going Home, is available on Amazon in print and e-book versions. Meet up with Dan this year at Stupid Cancer’s CancerCon in Denver, the Midwest Young Adult Cancer Conference sponsored by Gilda’s Club in Madison, and Stanford Medicine X in Palo Alto.