Reflections from up high

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…

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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…

People and things…

I feel things so much more deeply these days. I was told this would happen…

One of the first “whoa” moments (yes, it’s a modification of the great O’s “aha” but I can’t just be re-using coined phrases, can I?), came a few days after my diagnosis. Gotta stop here to say that if this is the first of my posts you’ve ever read, that weird little parenthesized aside up there came in much earlier than normal. Not usually first paragraph stuff so I apologize, although you may want to just settle in and get used to it. It’s my voice. What can I say?

Back to business – I want to spend a few posts talking about extraordinary people and things that have made me say “whoa” or “oh my god” or “HO. LEE. SHIT. WOW. OKAY THEN” or even rendered me speechless (rare). All of these things, call them whatever cute little catch phrase you like, are synonymous with my amazement in having the universe just flat out drop things in my lap when I have most needed them. The “things” came in various form: answers, understanding, patience, calm, forgiveness, hope, composure, strength, vulnerability, and love like you wouldn’t believe! These things I’ve been given were made possible by the most amazing gift from a relative stranger that, without question, changed the course of my life.

If I was a director setting the scene, as it was, when this life-changer occurred, it would look something like:

Woman, 47, has just been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and has been basically existing in a state of shock and panic for several days. She hasn’t yet shared the news with family, including her children, but randomly told a trusted colleague and friend, perhaps an effort to practice breaking the news although it is unclear. She is sure she is going to be dead in a year and can barely look her daughter in the eye because it’s too painful to imagine not watching her grow up. It’s pretty bad.

The colleague/friend has shared the woman’s news with his other friend, who is also a highly esteemed oncologist currently on sabbatical. The doctor, not knowing a thing about the woman other than her diagnosis, offers to call her. The friend asks the woman how she feels about that? The woman replies “sure, that’s fine” with little expression. It plays out like this:

And so I was driving, kind of lost. Lost in my thoughts and lost in the confusion of the cancer but also literally lost, as in, I hate my GPS and I’m late and I have no idea how to get back to I-5, lost. I was thinking about being lost, too. About how what I really need now was to navigate through this mess, figuratively, literally, the works. As I am pondering away, my phone rings. It is the doctor, friend of my friend. I had completely spaced the conversation, but found a place to pull over to talk. Honestly, I was thinking it would be about a 5 minute conversation. I doubt he really wanted to be spending his time off (turns out he is also on vacation) talking to cancer patients. I was wrong. Turns out that this man, who has never been my actual doctor, was  about to initiate my healing, over the phone, from Palm Springs.

The first thing he said was that he wasn’t calling to give medical advice, and that because he wasn’t currently practicing, he couldn’t do so anyway. He wanted, rather, to talk about the process I was about to go through. He didn’t use the word journey, which I thoroughly appreciated. He asked me to describe my diagnosis, my family situation, my job, and my life in general. He listened to me go on and on, interjecting only briefly for clarification, until I had, for the first time, shared my story in its entirety. He then spoke to me and, even months later, I can still remember the sensation of my numbness being replaced by something new – hope, maybe? It was electrifying.

He told me that cancer was systemic and that my approach needed to reflect that. Although I would feel overwhelmed by the many doctors and tests and would likely be inclined to look ahead and what is next, I needed to remain in step with whatever tests or treatments were currently being done. All I had been able to think about was whether or not the cancer had spread and to where and how much. He told me that it would be revealed in time and that it was important to stay in the moment. He also told me, as did the radiologist when he unofficially diagnosed the tumor he found, that “cancer is not a death sentence.” A good one to remember.

He also told me that for all the questions and uncertainty that I would encounter in coming weeks and months, there were a couple things I could be certain of.  These “couple of things” ended up being everything – the driving force through which I have been able to manage this crazy ride for the past five months and I am beyond grateful to have them as my guide. Here they are. Seriously, you’re going to want to cut and paste this shit, whether you have cancer or not.

He said (and of course I’m paraphrasing – it’s not like I was writing it down),

“Tracy, there are a couple of things you can be sure will happen.

You are going to experience a lot of twists and turns as you go through this process. You will receive both good news and then you’ll get bad news, repeatedly. It’s just the way it goes. You’ll never know what’s coming next and you shouldn’t waste your energy guessing or worrying. You just need to accept that. The important thing is that you take care of yourself and of your family, and do what you can to facilitate the healing process.”

That was some good stuff, but it got better. The next thing he said is more fundamental to my existence and my relationship to the universe  than I can begin to describe. I have used it to reign myself in when I feel scared by a lump or a cough or a headache. I have drawn on its power when I feel frustrated or impatient or stressed out or when I think I’m too busy writing these posts to sit down with my daughter and talk about middle school girl drama. Most importantly, I use it when I feel like a victim of cancer, or anything else for that matter, and instead, it helps me to feel joy and gratitude for the moments I’ve been given. Again, I paraphrase,

“Lastly, I will tell you this and it is the best news by far. You may not know what the future holds, but know that in the end, you will be better. You will be a better mother, daughter, sister, and friend. And you will be a better person for having experienced cancer. You will be more compassionate, empathetic and grateful and you will help others become better as well. And you know what else? You will love more strongly than ever, and you will hold on tighter to the people who you love in ways that people who haven’t gone through cancer can’t even fathom. I’m sure it’s not the ideal way to achieve this, but it’s going to feel really good.”

This conversation with the doctor – it brought me no closer to knowing whether I would live or not live through cancer. There was no new insight provided that suggested what stage or phase my cancer was in, or whether it was hormone receptor positive or genetic. Months of tests would answer those questions. It was, our conversation, my GPS (one that actually worked) and my salvation. It wasn’t about do I live it was, from then on, about how I would live. It hasn’t all been smooth, and there will always be twists and turns, but it’s good, this living. It’s really, really good.

Note:  I’ve re-gifted this many times, adding my own small pieces here and there. I hope you will, too. 🙂

Love Peace Gratitude 4Life©