I’m on a plane, somewhere between Seattle and Frankfurt. It’s my first leg, en route to my last leg, of grad school. I’ve taken this trip often this past few years, the last being about two weeks before this cancer thing presented itself. This time feels different though because, let’s face it, life is different…
I’ve written a bunch of posts about my life after cancer. I’m told that my positive attitude is inspiring, and I’m glad about that. I want people to feel inspired. I feel better now than I ever have, and stronger. Still though, I haven’t done much to describe who I was before cancer, which may help you believe that all this stuff about cancer being motivational isn’t just crazy talk. If I’d been asked six months ago, I may have said that I am a positive, upbeat person. With a little extra probing I may even have claimed that I perfectly satisfied with my life and have everything I had ever hoped for. Truly, there wasn’t much I wanted to change then, (with the possible exception of my uncanny ability to, for whatever reason, make horrible decisions in my personal relationships). Bygones…
Things moved pretty quickly for me after cancer. It was like someone handed me a magic mirror and I saw my authentic self for the first time. Yikes. The story I had formerly spun was that of a fun-loving person who was committed to living life to the fullest, in my own way, the fun way. Kind of like a light-hearted beach read, with a few watermarked pages and bent edges, but loads of personality. The story was true to an extent, but with a few missing parts. The more comprehensive version was somewhere between the beach read and Dostoyevsky. There were, undoubtedly, some dark chapters.
The first truly independent and somewhat sophisticated thought I can remember having came at a very young age. My sister Amy and I were cross-legged on our pink and orange shag carpet, listening to our favorite record, the Sesame Street sing-along, specifically the Bein’ Green song by amphibious pop legend and prophet, Kermit the Frog. Amy, around three or four at the time, sang along innocently, as prescribed. I, just a couple years older, sat in silence, pondering the lyrics. I resolved that there was absolutely NO WAY that Kermit, who opened the 3 minute song with a round of self-loathing over his green skin pigment, could suddenly come to terms with his self-consciousness by the bridge of the song. I had what felt like at the time, a very dramatic realization that my sister and I approached life very differently. For the first time in my young life I felt the weight of being me, a feeling that followed me into adulthood. I was a person who would never be able to unconditionally accept life like Amy did and for that, I was destined to be, for lack of a better term, kind of screwed.
I may have been experiencing the onset of early self-actualization that day or maybe I was just practicing. Regardless, the idea that other people were able to navigate through life with an ease of motion that I was incapable of, given my compulsion to analyse things to death, was a lot. Because I was so young, I didn’t realize the impact of this. It was more like: “Why do I have to question EVERYTHING? Why can’t I be more like Amy?” And again, because I was so young, I couldn’t begin to fathom the implications this would have as I grew up. It stuck, this notion, and has been both a blessing and a curse.
Thinking more doesn’t always mean thinking better. Even Dostoyevsky describes overthinking as a disease. I suspect he was onto something. The complexity of my thoughts became exhausting at times, leading me to make rash decisions in attempt to simplify my life. I coveted the idea of being part of the status quo – marriage, kids, career, that type of thing). I felt that anything else was a reflection of the flaws in my character which, admittedly, remained pretty well repressed until recently.
I’ve always felt that I missed out on some crucial life lessons somewhere along the way that would have saved me from the messes I made. Life, which turned out to be less Brady and more Blume, had some rough spots. I had to do a lot of growing up on my own and got a lot of things wrong. I made many compulsive decisions in my trial-and-error based, auto-didactic road to (relative) maturity, and have had to endure some unpleasant consequences as a result. There came a point as I approached adulthood that I got tired of trying to make sense of things. The innocence of my youth had always afforded me a reasonable level of optimism – a sense that life, flawed as it may be, was pretty awesome. I believed that I would someday end up in my dream job, meet my soul mate, have a couple kids and spend my life in a state of uninterrupted bliss. The problem was that I was still me. Wherever I went, there I was.
My over-the-top need to have it all figured out prevented me from being at peace with myself and with the universe, which has had a negative effect on my relationships. Because I never felt settled, I struggled. Once, early on, I managed three years with one of the most awesome people I’d ever met (until recently, babe). We were a lot alike, compatible, and moved through life astonishingly well together. Like me, he was a questioner and a thinker. We shared the same taste in music, literature, movies, comedy, the works. It may have lasted if I had known who I was way back then, but I didn’t. Being with someone who was basically a more evolved version of myself served as a constant reminder of the disparity between who I wanted to be and who I clearly wasn’t. It made me feel like a fraud, which sucked. Of course, now I see clearly that it was all for the best. I was still restless then, with way too much to learn.
For years I avoided the relationship pitfalls that might trap me, and did an excellent job of not finding the right person to have a meaningful, healthy relationship. Being with someone good for me was terrifying, so I steered clear. I wove in and out of relationships, leaving when things got too real, existing in a state of constant motion. I, as with everything, challenged the notion of happily ever after because it seemed potentially flawed and unachievable. Eventually I grew tired of feeling unsettled. It had become exhausting and I needed a break. I could have done anything at that point – moved to Hawaii and lived on the beach, backpacked through Europe, anything. Instead, I impulsively dove into a marriage that neither of us were ready for and gave the status quo a shot.
It didn’t work out, of course. How could it, when I had become a defeated version of myself? The following years were the best and worst of my life. Having kids made me happy. They were the one part of my life that felt purposeful. I learned to love unconditionally through them, which was amazing. Being a mother grounded me, and I needed grounding.
Through my 20’s and 30’s I felt like my own island, remote from the friends and family who all seemed to have figured out the formula for successful adulthood. I read this book once, Bucking the Sun, by Ivan Doig. It was a long time ago and I’m definitely going to screw up the reference but you know the part where the author always works in the explanation of an obscure title? Doig describes the act of ‘bucking the sun’ as something you do while driving on a Montana highway, heading west. The visor doesn’t quite block the intense light from the setting sun that is almost blinding you. You buck a little, lifting your head higher with eyes cast downward in an effort to avert the glare so you can stay on course. It was like that for me. I just kept repositioning myself, surviving and averting potential heartache. I began the next decade searching for answers…again. Another relationship, another attempt to drown out the annoying voice in my head that constantly nagged me to fix myself, to find my authentic life. That one didn’t end up so great either. Enough said.
Where am I going with this? Here’s the part where I hope an answer presents itself. It would be so awkward if I asked this rhetorical question and then…nothing…
I’ve recently begun to feel genuinely confident that I’m getting it right. Thank you, cancer; at least you’re good for something, you otherwise piece of shit. I’m experiencing a newfound balance between thinking and accepting that has brought me an overwhelming sense of peace. It’s almost like when you get something that you didn’t think you needed but later can’t believe you ever survived without. I used to feel so burdened by my need to resolve my questions. I repeatedly tried to change, to choose my battles, but could never quite get there. I worried that blind acceptance would somehow bury my head in the sand. It was, I see now, a simple matter of self-protection.
I used to feel resentment toward my less than ideal childhood and the less than perfect events of my adult life, but I really don’t anymore. Instead, I feel grateful for the lessons because they’ve expanded my capacity for understanding. Recently, I’ve learned quite a bit about growing through adversity. I’ve learned that when you arrive in a positive place in life you should honor rather than bury past experiences, whether good or bad, because they led you to where you are.
As it turns out, my past happens to contrast with my present in a really beautiful way. Without all those years of questioning my place in the universe (and whether I even had a place to begin with), it took the cancer for me to face the proverbial mirror and start working on a more honest re-write of my story. I’ve heard survivors talk about the loss of innocence they experience after cancer and it’s heartbreaking for me because I feel completely opposite. My hope is that everyone who has gone through cancer or any other adversity be granted a silver lining of some sort. Maybe I paid it forward with the rough patches, and cancer was my bridge, like in the Kermit song. Regardless, I feel somewhat cleansed now, purged of self-deceit and genuinely at peace with myself. The relationship issue? I’ve got that one sorted out, too, and have found someone who makes me profoundly happy. For that, and for everything that has ever contributed to where I am today, I feel blessed. It may be that I’m just grateful to be alive or that the blunt force trauma that rocked my world last spring has scared me straight. Whatever the reason, I have cancer to thank for where I am now, and all that I have. Yeah, I know. She’s a real bitch but come on, it’s not like we’re friends or anything. Sheesh…