“I thought of you when I saw this” (text from my sister when she sent this photo to me years ago)

It’s Fine ’til it’s Not

5 min readNov 7, 2020


I know, I say this all the time: “it’s fine ’til it’s not”. That is true about nearly everything. What is important is where that line is, when we cross over to being not-fine.

Almost everyone has had that phone call, letter, conversation, that results in loss, and the slipping from fine-to-not. Loss of someone you love, a job, a house, a possibility, a hope, a chance. It’s a line you never forget crossing, and the reminders of it are many: the empty chair, the clothes in the closet, the notes and cards, the scars and medical debt, the moving truck, the courtroom, the photos, the heartbreak, the fear, the starting over. I’m telling you, that adage that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is garbage. What happens is time passes, and you are more aware. And you learn what works, what matters, who matters, how to get from today to tomorrow.

You do not know what others are carrying, how they are coping. I think of my funny caring big gruff brother-in-law, who was driving to the gym summer before last, and a reckless driver crashed into the side of his car and killed him. I cannot adequately convey how not-fine every single processing of that has been, for us and certainly for his four kids and his wife. He should be here. Zero things about that are fine. It is a defining mark: before, and since.

Another line crossed: twenty years ago today, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and given some bleak odds to make it through treatment, and grim chance to make it five years. There was no survival data beyond ten years. Well, there is now. I found I did not (still do not) have much patience for room decor signs of “Live, Laugh, Love” or “Breathe”. When you are in a fight for your life, I tell you, you are living and breathing like it’s your damn job, and don’t need to be reminded. Everything is not-fine, but you do your level best anyway.

You roll with some stuff. You lean on family and neighbors and friends to get your kids where they need to be when you can’t go anywhere. You adapt, and give yourself injections and wear a wig or a hat and worry about white blood cells and scar tissue and Hickman catheters and escalating medical debt (even with insurance) and a whole glossary of new vocabulary, none of which is fine. After chest-wall surgery, I could not lift my toddler daughter up. Instead, I sat on the couch, she crawled into my lap, wrapped her arms and legs around me, and I stood up and carried her everywhere, because not carrying her was so completely not-fine, and it was the time to be held close and that was not negotiable.

You hit the milestones. The one-year mark, the end-of-treatment mark, the five-year, ten-year, the last payment on the medical bills. The scan results that say NED (no evidence of disease). And you celebrate being more fine than not-fine. You read that the research drug-study you participated in resulted in a new cancer drug. It’s out there, doing big things for people. And that is really fine, though when you took it, it was so not fine. You remember the neuropathy, when you couldn’t feel your hands or feet (really, for months), and then years later, training for a half-marathon and your running buddy would say “feel your feet push the ground away!”, and you were all ‘oh hell yes, feel-your-damn-feet’. And it was better than good, it was fine. You run Races for the Cure as a survivor. Your son runs with you to celebrate your 10-year mark. That is really quite fine, especially the part where he links arms with you to cross the finish line.

I remember once, back in the bone-weary exhaustion in the midst of radiation treatment, laying down with my daughter for a nap, and waking up to see my mom sitting in a chair across from me, tears running down her cheeks as she watched us sleep. I know that now, when things are not-fine for your kids, they are a whole new level of not-fine. I, too, have sat in the dark with each of my own, having discussions that are not in any parenting manual anywhere. And what you learn out of that is when things are not-fine, you are held closer. That is what we can do for each other: show up, sit in the sadness, be not alone when it’s not-fine, catch the shards when hearts or happiness or hopes shatter, and be willing to let the hurt hurt, together.

Being not-fine changes you. You look in the mirror and everything looks different or wrong or so jacked up and not at all fine. But you realize Bruce Springsteen was onto something with “you ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright”, and time was going to steal looks away anyhow, so you come to find that beauty is compassion and empathy and stillness and laughter and science and intelligence and running a few miles and watching the sun rise over the lake. Not everyone will love you, but the right people will. Not every game is a W, but enough are. Not every mile is easy, but you look back a little astounded how far you’ve come. Spoiler alert: none of us are entirely fine. But most of us are fine until we are not, and then we count on each other to help us stay the course and keep ourselves between the navigational beacons.

If today, you are not fine, I hear you. I hope you have something good available today — good coffee, good book, good friend, good dog, good scenery, good music — to share your space. If you know someone in the midst of not-fine, be the good that shows up, in a call or text or card or in-person on the doorstep. If you have traveled a road from not-fine to mostly-fine-again, I salute you. I celebrate all of us who know it’s the little things that are really the big things, who have learned to leave nothing unsaid, and who truly enjoy every damn sandwich. I’m glad you’re here.