Something happens to you when you’re faced with a life or death situation. You are forever changed. As you’re catching your breath, you think, Did that really happen? Am I still alive? You are indeed alive! And the air smells so sweet. Even the noise of crickets and cicadas seems like a song.
I found that out when I almost died from a gastrointestinal bleed in 2007, and the fact was reiterated to me while facing down cancer. We should cherish our brief time on this planet, because it is woefully short. I think the shortness of it all in comparison to even the lives of trees is what makes it incredibly sweet.
To a certain extent in 2007, I came back to this life wanting more. I spent time outdoors, listening to the wind in the trees and to the birdsong. I hugged my kids even more and made sure they knew that I loved them. I tried harder for a while with my husband. My gratitude to him was immense. He took care of me when I got seriously ill after my hysterectomy in 2003. He had been there for me when my mother was dying in 2006. He took care of me when I had the mini-stroke on the way home from Mom’s funeral. And he saw me through the long recovery from losing half my blood. I wanted to be the wife that he wanted. I was a miserable failure at that.
But it was a mere two years later that we lost our daughter. Our marriage fell apart completely. To be honest, I spent a good deal of the next few years praying to join Stephanie. By 2018, I was so lost and depressed that I was seriously thinking of ending it all. How’s that for honesty? A few of my friends reached out and sat down with me. They let me talk about it. My facade had slipped and they could see just how broken I was, despite my efforts to joke and laugh with them. They saw how thin the veil was between me and the other side. Some friends went away and became mere acquaintances. You know how it is with some people. If you’re not sugary-positive all the time, they see you as a drain on their energy. It isn’t that I wanted to feel the way I felt. I just did. Like I said, I was lost.
It wasn’t just me. My ex-husband was lost, too, but he picked himself up and remarried. His life is not without problems. He is not without damage. Our son, too, said himself that he missed out on his twenties because of feeling lost and grief-stricken. You have to understand that we all saw our family unit as sacred, regardless of our problems. And part of our family was forever lost in a moment’s poor decision. That left us lost. In some ways, my son is still feeling a little bit adrift. When I talked to him this week, he said, “I’m just trying to figure it all out…you know, life.”
I think that over the last year, he found purpose in helping me. Now he needs to find a new purpose.
Going through the intense battle with cancer taught me some lessons. One of them is to let what people say roll off your back. (I wish I could do that in my professional life, but I have so much of myself tied up in my work product that it’s difficult. I have to learn to distance myself from that.)
Here’s an example. I heard from someone I haven’t heard from since I started chemo. We used to work together at another company. When I saw her text, I thought, She must be looking for work. Then I chided myself for being so quick to judge. Well, she was looking for work and wanted my advice on something. I helped her out. And then she asked how I was doing and if I wanted to talk about my cancer. I gave her the thumbnail sketch of the last year since she talked to me. I said I was glad to be alive.
And then she said, “Well, fortunately breast cancer is one of those curable cancers.”
I stopped her. “Not curable at an advanced stage. Treatable, yes. My cancer was very advanced and very aggressive. Each cancer is different. Sometimes even the early stage breast cancers come back.”
And then I let it drop. I educated her a little with my statement, but then I let it go. We finished our conversation and went on with our evening.
I can’t tell you how many times people have said something like that. My cancer wasn’t small. It wasn’t benign in any way. It was one of the most aggressive types, so the doctors threw everything at it. I’m very lucky to still be here. Had I gotten this cancer in the 90s, before some of the targeted therapies were available, I wouldn’t still be here. I’m hoping and praying that it never comes back, because when it does, it is almost guaranteed that it will be stage IV. The doctors and I will be vigilant, and we will check out any lump, bump, or pain that comes up, especially over the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, almost every day on the breast cancer support boards, I see that another woman has died from this insidious disease that the world thinks is curable. Most days I want to turn away and put my head in the sand, but I honor them with a note or comment. They lived. They fought. Their families are grieving. And the world keeps turning.
The world kept turning after Stephanie died, too, and I was incredibly angry about that. How could people be laughing and going on with their lives when my daughter was dead?
The world kept turning while I battled cancer, too, and my friends couldn’t be here for me in person because of the pandemic. Some of the things I enjoyed before, like long walks with my dog, fell away. I didn’t have the strength. I was kind of expecting that I’d have my strength back by now. It’s been 9 months since I finished chemo. It’s been almost 8 months since I had surgery. Three months since radiation. Two months since I finished the last targeted treatment. The collateral damage is there. But I am alive!
I’m hoping that as the summer draws to a close and the temperatures drop, I’ll be walking with my dog again. I need to hear the birds and feel a breeze as we walk. We enjoy our backyard, but the bugs have been bad and they love to chow down on me! Must be something that chemically changed in me. I know that my tastebuds changed. There are foods I just don’t like anymore, and chocolate is one that might make that list soon. It doesn’t taste as good to me as it did (and this from a lifelong chocoholic).
Even on days when I’m inside all day, I still feel so lucky. I have some beautiful, loving pets. I have books. I have things to entertain myself with. Life could have taken a million different turns as I chose each adventure. What was beyond that bend in the road I didn’t follow? What would have happened if I had turned left instead of right? What would have happened if I had ignored the signs when the bleeding started of how serious it was? What if I hadn’t called my doctor about the lump?
A little voice guided me. I trust that voice. And that voice keeps telling me to live and to celebrate life! Who has time to be depressed when the birds are singing?