For my birthday, celebrated a couple of weeks ago, my stoic Finnish friend gave me a very cool gift.
And then she sent me this. Also very, very well timed. From the friend who always, no matter what, helps me redefine ‘normal’, who finishes my sentences for me, who laughs at my jokes, who celebrates my successes and supports me when I fail, and for whom I would drop everything, bare my teeth and roar if she needed it.
Grit. Guts. Determination.
And so much more. It’s a Finnish term that is hard to translate. Sisu is about taking action against all odds. It’s about displaying courage in the face of adversity. It’s about sticking to a plan after failing. It’s strength of will.
Many years before Tanya’s diagnosis I made “onesies” for our sons that had the word sisu on them. It was symbolic, on some level, I am sure. But mostly kinda cute. I think it was simply me stamping a bit of my limited Finnish culture on the myriad of baby stuff happening in our lives.
Fast forward to the day Tanya told me she had cancer. Of course I was with her the days leading up to it. We talked about the possibility that it could be cancer. And I chose to believe it could never happen to her (or any of us for that matter). But it did. And the world kept spinning. And spinning. And I kept saying (to myself and her) this is temporary, you will get through this. You are strong. You’ve got sisu. And sure, we can whisper things like you’ve got sisu and not really mean it, but I meant it. Tanya has shown me strength I have never seen before. She has been incredibly gracious—I have yet to see a “poor-me” moment. She educated herself about the illness, and stuck to her plan: she would not be swayed from getting a bilateral mastectomy; would only rely on pain meds for a short period of time; was determined to get through chemotherapy her own way, complete with wigs and giggles. And above all else, which I can’t imagine ever doing, she was willing to publicly share her story, with all its gritty details, in the hope that it would help others on a similar journey.
Knowing Tanya, I am not super surprised that there are people whom Facetime her early in the morning seeking her consul, or that people stop her in the mall and tell her she’s an inspiration. It’s really not that surprising because she has always been a standup person in a crisis: be it a baby whisperer who arrives late at night when you are exhausted and on the floor wanting to give up, or the person you meet for coffee because your marriage is dissolving. She personalizes your pain. You see it in her eyes. She understands. She empathizes. She’s got your back. And that is why I think so many of us were willing to be her tigers during this journey. Because she has been a tiger for so many of us over the years: roaring on our behalf when need be. And now, despite her own question marks and her own pain, she continues to roar for others. She continues to be available to share her time, her insight, and her self so that others can travel this road of uncertainty with a friend by their side. And to me, that means traveling with sisu by their side.