Lesson 5: This is life

There have been many times over the course of this whole cancer journey when I’ve wanted to get through this next part and get back to my real life. This is a common feeling for me. I can’t wait until this ________ (hard project/ exam week/ super busy period/ chemotherapy/ bad weather/ difficult parenting season) is over so that I can get back to my real life. As if the hard project/ exam week/ super busy period/ chemotherapy/ bad weather/ difficult parenting season weren’t my real life in the first place.

There was a time, before I understood that my local recurrence of breast cancer was local, that I discovered the survival periods for people with a breast cancer recurrence had an average of 18 months. And I thought that was me. I sat on my couch and looked out at the dawn one sleepless early morning and thought about what it meant to have so few dawns left. I looked back at every one of those periods I had wished to push through quickly in the past and wondered how many 18-months periods of time that represented. I realized, as we all would in that moment, that 18 months of difficulty was way way better than 18 months not on the planet. I realized that each time I had been wishing to “get back to my real life,” I was wishing away my actual life in the moment.

The biggest and most enduring lesson cancer has brought to me is that this is my life. This moment. And this one. And this one. There are horrible times, times when I feel anguish and misery and the wish that the ground would swallow me whole.  And even in those darkest times, I can now access my gratitude that the ground has not swallowed me whole—and the knowledge that it will. There are glorious times, times when I feel like my very skin cells are made of joy, when I can almost imagine that I emit light. And in those magnificent times, I know that the sunshine of that moment, like the sun hovering at the horizon, will pass. And both of those are my life.

This has led to gentle changes in how I spend this time. I am much less likely to spend my time doing a thing because I should do it. I had wondered whether this would throw me more into hedonism and out of work, but it doesn’t. I am one of the lucky few who adores their work; I adore my colleagues and my clients and the difference I get to make in the world. I have lost all patience for small talk, and my friends will tell you that if we don’t have a single dinner table conversation over dinner, I’m likely to leave before the meal is officially over. (I hate the fragmented and confusing world of pairs or trios talking at a larger table.) I would rather be alone than be disconnected in social settings.

But more than anything, I live deeper into my life these days. My cousin came to visit, and we had a coffee in the village and talked about his life. I have no words for the joy of sitting in the sun, drinking iced coffee, and hearing him puzzle about his future. Naomi and I threw the ball for the dog last night in the sunset, the sea thrumming rhythmically behind us. I have no words for the love that fills me as I sit with this adult child of mine, hearing the timbre of her voice, the music of her laugh. I talked with a potential client today about an incredibly cool approach to leadership development they’re trying out. I have no words for the intellectual deliciousness of helping them think about all the experiments they might try as they invent a new way forward.

I used to think, in my best moments, that I was in love with my life. I even had a pin that I wore on my lapel that sang it out: “I love my life.” Now I think it’s more that I am in love with life itself, with the experience of it. My dog is a miracle. The bees that are invading our shed are a miracle. The fresh strawberries ripening in the garden are a miracle. We are the most unlikely recipients of the most astonishing lottery in the known universe. Cells joined and separated and built and we were born to this planet with all of its miseries and delights, all of its kindness and horror. Somehow life brought me here to my house in New Zealand with Michael cooking dinner and Naomi napping. Life brought cancer to my body, cells dividing and multiplying until I found it and cut it out and poisoned and radiated it to try to make it go away. This is the unbearably beautiful, sparkling, frustrating, agonizing space of being a human, the blink of time between our first breath and our last. This is my life.

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