For months on end, this was the safest place to excavate so much of my life after cancer – the struggles, the triumphs. The strange ambiguity of living after almost dying. But there are so many enormous things happening now – around me, to me, maybe even because of me – that the legacy of my illness seems to be changing, diminishing perhaps, in one form, but expanding and growing more all-encompassing, in another.
I have allowed too much time to pass; moments have come upon me over the past month when I thought, “There’s something. Write that.” But the moments have left me. Instead, I have gone for a run, or dug up a long-dormant flower bed in front of our house, or taken a yoga class, or talked with my husband about becoming parents. In short, I have gone on living – in the moment, unencumbered by the burden of reflection, of considering the import of each utterance, gesture, or coincidence. There was a long period of wanting to tie everything I felt and observed to my illness. My cancer defined everything. It framed my experience in an absolute and inescapable way. Now, it seems, the focus is shifting.
Recently, I have tried to articulate this tectonic shift, this movement from “full-time cancer warrior” to expectant parent. I need to be clear: there will never, ever be a way to understand and experience life without reference to my cancer journey. Those who have been in the fight hopefully know what I mean. We dust ourselves off, slowly, painfully; we piece our world back together through sheer force of will. Hopefully, we end up living in a way that is richer, more sublime and full of beauty. But no matter how far we travel – from our moment of diagnosis, our first surgery, our last treatment – the marks are indelible. This is what I have almost allowed myself to forget. Shame on me.
Recently, a cherished friend experienced a terrible loss. The details are not mine to share. But when she came to me and shared her news, and I saw the heartbreak in her eyes, I was reminded, in a way that I was unable to appreciate for so long after my illness, that injustice and cruelty and rotten bad luck come in many, many forms. For longer than I care to admit, cancer had me trapped in a world where my suffering, my loss, my tragedy, were without parallel. There’s an inevitable self-absorption that comes with facing your mortality, with being struck down by a force as pernicious as cancer. All you need do at this moment in time, though, is consider the state of the world to understand that we none of us have a corner on the market. Horror is universal. It is everywhere.
Last week, my husband – in a beautiful 180 from sentiments he expressed just a few short years ago – expressed feeling guilty for having such a happy life. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami – events so monumentally terrifying that they very nearly defy comprehension.
“What are we supposed to do?,” he asked. “How are we supposed to live when there is all of this insanity going on in the world?”
“We just have to be grateful for what we have,” I told him. “All we can do is take comfort in the embrace of everything that we have – do the things we love, try to nurture a sense of joy. What else can we do?”
It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the nightmares unfolding in so many corners of the globe. Compounding that, here we sit, expectant parents – pregnant for the foreseeable future, wondering when our lives will be turned upside down by the arrival of a brand new human being we will get to love and call our very own. Everything, it seems, is out of our control.
I look back to the darkest days of my illness, and perhaps find a lesson there. At a time when my body had completely betrayed me, when I literally had no idea if I was going to live or die, there became a way. It was a way borne of small things I didn’t even realize were sustaining me at the time. In watering my garden, or hugging my friends, or exchanging messages with a fellow Crowded House fan in Australia who became an unexpected support during treatment – all of these things enabled me to hang on, to find a will that was threatening to abandon me.
It strikes me as incredible, much of the time, what human beings are asked to endure. But it is in that test of endurance, I believe, that our true greatness is revealed.