Nine years

Today is the nine-year anniversary of my first cancer diagnosis. It’s hard to know how to celebrate. On the one hand, it is not an anniversary I was ever happy to have. On the other hand, having lived nine years after that day is a great source of joy indeed.

This year I’ve been thinking about how lucky I was to have cancer now rather than two or more generations ago. Even fifty years ago there would have been little to have done about my cancer, and I think I’d have been unlikely to have seen this ninth year, particularly in such good health. The chemo, the radiotherapy, the surgery after surgery—all of these were so gruelling at the time, and all of these have delivered nine years to me, and hopefully so many more. I feel deeply grateful to the doctors and scientists who have worked tirelessly over generations to make cancer less deadly than it used to be. The years they have given all of us who have had these treatments—the sunsets, the hugs, the important conversations—cannot be measured. It is a pile of treasure stretching up to the sky.

I have been thinking about the treasure of my last nine years. Here are a handful of jewels that sift to the top.

The first that comes to mind is, of course, my children. When I was in chemotherapy,12-year-old Aidan would come in and read to me at my nap time. 16-year-old Naomi sat on my hospital bed and chattered with me during her lunch hour on my chemo days. I was the sick one, but I was also the mom who needed to protect them from the magnitude of the terror and pain I was feeling at that time. I loved those children with every cell in my body. And now, somehow, I love them more. To have a relationship with these adults is a treasure indeed. They are 21 and 25 now, wise, thoughtful, wonderful humans. My heart leaps when I hear their voices. It is an ache not to live with them for sure, but it is a worthwhile ache because we get to see the choices they make without us—how they live in the world, how they partner, how they think about things. I have been learning about how to shift our relationship to be adult-adult. I have been learning how to be vulnerable to them, to tell them stories of my own confusion and difficulty. Now we trade stories about our struggles with anxiety, with writer’s block, with self-confidence. They are as likely to offer me advice as I am to offer it to them (and their advice is so wise, so helpful). We grow together.

Then there’s my life at Cultivating Leadership. There’s so much to say there, but on my mind today is the new business we have found ourselves exploring. When Carolyn, Keith, Jim and I gave Cultivating Leadership to the foundation we were creating (you can read more about that here), I didn’t think hard enough about what it meant to now be in the business of giving money away. (I’m sure my partners all saw this coming.) But now the Tilt Foundation has made its first grants as we work to tilt the world towards a more just and sustainable future. We are both supporting important work in the world and also learning in new ways about what it means to be complexity-friendly in this quest to share our resources with others who are doing good in the world. We have been able to benefit from the brilliance of other colleagues who understand trust-based philanthropy far more than we ever will, and I feel proud that the responses from our partners are not simply about the offer of money (although they are cheerful about that) but also about the way we are approaching the partnership together.

And then there’s my life at home. My empty nest is rather more full than I had imagined in this lovely intentional community. I walk into our makeshift kitchen (now that our house is under renovation), and there is nearly always someone doing something. Anna and Vasia making pierogis. Tony with postits on big sheets of paper. Zafer doing dishes in his red Christmas apron. Meg puttering and making things generally better. Wendy cooking something so delicious I will moan out loud when I eat it. We sit around the table each night and offer our gratitude—the ordinary delight in ordinary days. We play games and laugh and tell stories and sometimes cry together. We meet on Zoom (because there are always people far from our joint home) and share our smallest selves along with our biggest ones. I never imagined my life could be so filled with deep loving relationships and that I would sit around the table each night with so many glorious humans.

These nine years later, I am firmly middle aged, which strikes me as a privilege in a woman who had cancer in her early 40s. And there is also a bittersweetness in what it means to be middle aged. When I was ten years old, I was cast as an old woman in a play and before each performance, someone drew lines on my face with eyeliner pencil. I remember squinting my eyes to see what I might really look like when these lines were wrinkles. I don’t have to squint now. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and am utterly shocked by the face that looks back—I reach up to rub off the pencilled-in wrinkles, but to no avail. In these nine years, my skin has become less elastic, less able to bounce back from the gravity that has been pulling at it for all these decades. And yet I do not want to be seduced by the cult of youth. While my skin doesn’t bounce back so well, I bounce back so much more smoothly than I ever did from the difficulties of the world. I am so much less reactive, so much more centred. I have earned that resilience even as I have earned my wrinkles. I will try to love them both.

I offer this small list to you—although it could be an endless list of large and small gratitudes these last nine years. I have seen sunsets so beautiful they made me cry. I have lain on my back in cool grass, my Cultivating Leadership friends all around me, and counted shooting stars in the New Zealand sky. I have relished the black bitterness of my daily coffee. I have befriended an octopus 30 feet under the sea and watched her reach out a tentacle to explore me. I have read poetry so beautiful I can feel my heart open. I have eaten hot chocolate chip cookies rimmed with salt. I have had leaders I worked with years ago tell me I made their lives better long after our time together was over.

It has not all been fuchsia skies and warm cookies, of course. There has been pain and fear and grief. We are mortals, and there is tragedy in all of our stories. Yet through it all, I have learned more about the depths of love than I ever imagined possible. Indeed, I have learned that love is the only bottomless, immortal thing I know, the very reason for our existence.

This is me on the anniversary of my first trip to cancer island. But you had those nine years too (hopefully without that particular trip). You had love and beauty and grief and fear and delight that made you nearly purr. You too have gotten older—perhaps that is etched upon your face as well. And you’ve gotten wiser through it all. What would you most celebrate in your treasure chest of these last nine years? 

One thought on “Nine years

  1. Jennifer, I just love the way you write. Your choice of words and the way you write resonates deeply in my soul. I’m so grateful that you share these thoughts, and so very grateful that you had these nine years. Here’s to many, many more!


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