I wasn’t going to post a “Thanksgiving” blog entry because it seemed so … trite. But then I realized that there is absolutely nothing trite about the gratitude I feel toward all the amazing people in my life, both real and virtual. So, here goes …
When the surgeons performed the double mastectomy in June, they put in expanders – like placeholders – to stretch out the skin in preparation for the final reconstruction (once my skin and body to recover from chemo and radiation). Although the expanders feel as if I have only partially-full Ziploc bags in my chest, they are low maintenance and I look mostly normal in clothes, so now the breasts themselves have become beside the point. Dying to get back to “normal,” I am back in the gym, a bit sporadically but still. It changes you physically, emotionally. It changes the way you see things and people and relationships. It literally leaves an imprint on your brain.
On my worst days I waged a war against cancer.
On my worst days I raged about the injustice, the waste, the why, the how.
On my worst days I allowed the disease to define me.
On my very worst days and nights I bobbed up and down in dark oceans of fear with no land in sight.
But on my best days…
On my best days I gave thanks.
Not for being sick. Not for losing parts of my body. But for life itself. And for all the things I learned.
They were many and they came to me piecemeal, as in the story of the old wise men who examined the elephant in the dark, each describing a different part of the animal. Eventually I managed to put the pieces together and to recognize them for what they were.
And here’s what I learned:
You go through life thinking you know some things, like what “healthy” means. Then one day the bottom falls out from under you and there you are, arms in the air, plunging like Alice down the rabbit hole. And that’s when you realize that nothing was as it had seemed. I learned to assume nothing and to question everything. I learned you must see through your own eyes and not through the eyes of others.
I still struggle to be comfortable with uncertainty, but I have finally made peace with it. Maybe someday I will even embrace it.
I learned that happiness in the face of adversity is revolutionary and that optimism makes you more powerful.
“What are you waiting for, J?” I would always ask myself. I’m not sure of what I was waiting for, but I spent too many years hand-wringing over my dreams. It was illness that finally pushed me over the cliff.
“If not now, then maybe never,” is what I recall thinking. I learned through this that healing may not be so much about getting better as it is about letting go of everything that isn’t you and finally becoming who you are. And when I squared off with all my thoughts of death, I learned that there is no such thing as too late.
I learned you never stop missing the dear ones who left too soon.
With my hair, my eyebrows and my lashes gone, every one of my masks stripped away, all I felt was love. All I desired was unity. All those things I had worried about over the years, raged about, complained of, fallen out over – all seemed completely worthless and inconsequential.
In the end, I learned that love is tangible and that it is the foundation of everything worthwhile. And if I had to go on to the next world, love was the only possession I wished to take along.
In my darkest hours, what I cherished most were not the firework moments of my life, but the most pedestrian: sitting together on a park bench in the warm sun, talks with my son during car rides back and forth to school, spontaneous hugs.
But time passes and amnesia sets in, dimming those bursts of clarity. Sometimes these days I find myself once again sleepwalking through the everyday and obsessing about the dramatic.
But this moment is the prize.
I know this. And I don’t want to forget.