Category Archives: cancer
I try hard not to fall back on the old cliché “It could be worse” when trying to console someone or boost morale. “It could be worse” is almost always true, and yet it is so far from comforting it almost feels like scolding.
“Quit yer bitchin'” more like. Not helpful. “There’s a first-world problem,” someone says when you’ve lost one too many rounds with the technology in your life. Great: now I can feel frustrated, overwhelmed and ashamed of what a yuppie douchebag I’ve turned out to be. Thanks for that.
So when someone posted an article on Facebook with the one-word comment “perspective” I was hesitant to read it. Plus it’s called “Notes from a Dragon Mom,” which made me think that it was related to that whole “Tiger Mom” thing, and I’m sure we can agree no one needs to go there again.
But I didn’t want to leave my desk chair and go face the onerous task of grinding the morning coffee beans (“There’s a first-world problem”), so I read it anyway.
Wow. Perspective. Read It. Really.
The author, Emily Rapp, writes movingly about parenting a terminally ill child:
Ronan won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal. We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.
Her point isn’t that those of us with healthy children should feel guilty for that unearned grace or foolish for having dreams for the future, but that parenting—living—is ultimately a “here and now” experience.
The truth is that healthy children and healthy parents die unexpectedly, as our family learned personally and painfully this summer when we lost 3 friends in a car accident. And there are less dramatic changes and surprises: a career ends abruptly, lifelong friends move away, a mental illness appears out of nowhere and settles in to stay. It now takes me two hands to count up the number of friends—mostly mothers 40 and under—diagnosed with breast cancer in the last two years. What Rapp writes about parenting is true for all the plans we make: “none of it is forever.”
Gratitude for not having any of those problems is great, but it’s still a short-term perspective. The long view, ironically, reveals that regardless of whether we’re healthy or sick, successful or at sea, today is really all there is. The only way we can be sure that we’ll achieve the desired consequences of our actions is to do them “for the humanity implicit in the act itself.”
If I set that as the standard for what I put on my agenda today, what stays? What goes? And what do I need to add to make this day worth doing, just for the sake of doing it? If I set that as the standard for how I perform the day’s necessary but ordinary tasks, would I do them differently?
My Facebook wall and Google+ stream are full of a common sentiment: R.I.P. Steve Jobs. (Twitter probably is too — when I last looked it was over capacity and couldn’t sign in.)
As a teen and young adult I was raised to love Steve Jobs like I was raised to love classic rock, Detroit, and vacations at the lake up north. As a grown person I may be able to see the warts that I missed as a kid, I may have developed some new tastes, but Apple was one of my family values from time my dad brought home the first Macintosh.
The death of Steve Jobs feels personal: a sign of decades of brilliant marketing, for sure, but true in lots of ways. I’ll be calling my dad tomorrow, for one thing. I think he’s had every Mac model (even the Newton! talk about being ahead of his time!) and used to ask for copies of MacWorld as Christmas gifts from us kids. I associate Apple with my dad like some people associate sports teams or cigars.
And on that score: the other reason I take the death of Steve Jobs personally is that I feel pretty sure he’s one of the accidental engineers of geek ascendency, the shift in pop culture mores that has made technology, science fiction, role-playing games, and assorted fantasy nerd lore cool for my 12-year-old daughter in a way that it never was when I was young. He may have a screen credit on “Toy Story,” but he also deserves credit for “The Big Bang Theory,” which wouldn’t be a phenomenon today if geeks like Jobs hadn’t been making science and computers exciting and necessary for the last 25 years. To grow up a nerd and then see your team rise up and take over is powerful stuff. It moves products, yes, but it also moves people.
People like Jobs are incredibly inspirational to me because, in small but important ways, I see myself in them. Not only because I was squarely in the geek squad as a kid, but because he came back after being written off or cast out, and because I have always tried to live like this:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. [Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, 2005]
That approach never let me down either, until recently. Lately a plateau—maybe a rut—in my work and in other areas of my life have left me wondering whether my foolish optimism led me to a dead end, and whether a hard-nosed pragmatism would have served me better.
For better or worse, however, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I love my iMac, my Macbook, my iPods. When the money tide turns the iPad is top of my list. And I’ve been convinced that it’s not just OK, but essential, to Think Different.
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary” [Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, 2005]
Sometimes I have morbid thoughts. Today, I asked my daughter to take a picture of me blowing out the candles on my birthday cake (tomorrow is my actual birthday, today was just the cake and some presents) because I thought “What if this is my last healthy birthday? What if next year I am sick and going through chemo again?”
Even though I told myself that I am not going to let the fear of dying ruin my life, sometimes negative thoughts like that occur to me. Actually I am not sure how negative it was. It was practical in a way. I am the family photographer so I am more likely to be behind the camera and not in the pictures. But recently I have been trying to make sure more pictures of me exist, for my daughter’s sake. I want her to have pictures to remember me by, just in case. And, if I live to be 100, I still want to have pictures of these days.
When I thought about not knowing where I will be next year it opened my eyes, my heart, and my brain to where I was right then and I smiled and felt grateful to be with my family, who were smiling, singing and directing joy and love to me. I closed my eyes and blew out the candles and echoed the sentiment “and many more!”
Personally, I would like to lose some weight. The chance of breast cancer reoccurring is reduced if I lose some weight, exercise and eat healthier. You would think that would be a huge motivator but some days it just isn’t enough.
I want to alternate running and lifting weights six days a week but not a week goes by that I don’t get too busy. Recently it seems like just getting enough time to walk the dog is an accomplishment.
I also have a goal of keeping my calories under 1500 most days of the week, but it is seriously difficult when you’re eating on the road or feel like you only have time to pick up something fast for dinner.
But, even on a good week, when I don’t really have any excuses, I give into cravings for a donut or something sweet with my afternoon joe, and instead of adding years by exercising, I actually subtract years by sitting on my butt surfing the net.
One of my problems is that if I make a bad choice during the day, like treat my daughter and myself to some ice cream after lunch, then I feel like “Well, I ruined today, I might as well go for it.” and have a bowl of buttery popcorn and a beer after dinner.
Another problem is my “Monday” fix. I always tell myself I will start my new diet or my new workout regimen on Monday. Monday just seems like the right day at start something new. Then, to get ready for the “deprivation” I will be experiencing come Monday, I eat whatever I want over the weekend.
What am I waiting for? For exercise to be easy and smaller portions of healthy food to not only fill my stomach but fill my emotional hunger too? I have a feeling that can happen. Actually it sometimes does. I have experienced runners high and I love salad more than burgers. But waiting for healthy living to be easy isn’t working. I’ve packed on a dangerous amount of weight waiting for Monday.
I need to realize and remember that each day is a new day to make better choices. One cone of ice cream at lunch doesn’t mean I’ve ruined the whole day. And, even within each meal, I can make a better choice than the worst choice, even if it is not the best choice. For example, I don’t have to finish the whole cone or “lick the platter clean.” Each moment is it’s own moment. Maybe just narrowing it down to moments will help me.
Today is the first day of the rest of my life. No, really it is! Cancer, illness, and chemo are behind me. My future is a winding path. I know there will be more twists and turns and even great fallen logs that I will have to climb carefully. But this is my path, and I am so grateful and excited to walk it.
More than a year ago — before I found the lump — I was lying on the carpet in my office. It is the only room in our house with carpeting, and sometime I just have to luxuriate on the soft grey wall-to-wall. Anyway, I think I had just finished doing yoga, and my mind was peaceful and open, when I was slapped in the face by a great and terrible thought:
“What if this is the best time of my life? What if these are my golden years? What if it never gets any better? (because we always assume it is going to get better, don’t we?) What if this, right now, is the best my life will ever be?”
Does that sound sad? Scary? Disheartening? Unbearable? I didn’t feel any of that. I felt very clear headed. That was one possible outcome that I had never considered. But once I considered it I had to confront it. I realized you can’t count on life to get better and better. I learned a couple months later, when the doctor told me that the lump was cancer, that you can’t even count on life.
If today, this month, this year, was the best it was ever going to get, if you were never going to get a bigger house or a better job, or a smaller body or an easier kid, if these were your best years, how would you choose to live them? It made sense to me to try to make the best of them.
Sometimes, when I am feeling kind of spooky, I wonder if, on that day, some part of me knew I had cancer and was inspiring me to make the most of the time I had left. But I don’t really like to go there. I think the surgery and the chemo did its job, and I have a natural life span ahead of me.
But whether I have a short or a long time left (we really never know) and whether my life gets better or worse, it is my responsibility and my blessing to love my life. To love every morsel of it that I can, and to ashew self- inflicted stresses, those petty but often wickedly attractive dramas, like fights with my extended family or friends that could last for days (in my head), like injustices over right and wrong (as if I really had all the answers), and like my struggles to wrassle a comfortably consistent life from Nature, which is universaly not.
Yesterday, I had my last chemo treatment. In two months I will be thirty-eight. Thirty-seven was a great and terrible year. At times my path was crossed by the Shadow of Death. But even that darkness was part of my path, just like everything that came before and everything that will come. And I am just really and truly grateful to still be walking.