My life can be divided into a lot of befores and afters: lines in the sand delineating shifts in perspective only possible with the wisdom of experience.
Before marriage, after marriage.
Before my parents divorced, afterwards.
Before kids, after kids.
Before cancer, and after cancer.
I open my eyes and try to focus. I begin to see a blurry version of my husband in the doorway of our bedroom. His face is stricken, although I don’t remember that until later.
“We have to go back tomorrow,” he says. “It’s cancer.”
“OK,” I say. And I roll over and go back to sleep.
And so the line was drawn.
I don’t remember much about the weeks immediately following the two surgeries I had for thyroid cancer. The first surgery had been a thyroid lobectomy – no one thought this was actually cancer, and so it didn’t make sense to take out the healthy half of my thyroid gland. The second surgery was just a week later, to finish the job when our best guess hadn’t been good enough.
What do I remember about those first couple of weeks? I remember that I felt incredibly loved. My in-laws stayed with us for a few days. My husband took over all of the household responsibilities, including total care for our two children, who were three and seven at the time. Cards and flowers decorated my room. And people brought food every day. People I knew and loved, and people I didn’t even know very well – they all just kept bringing food. That part was awesome.
What’s coming for dinner tonight?
Something hot and good that I don’t have to cook, that’s what.
I loved having other people cook dinner. I wish there was some way to make that happen all the time. It was definitely a post-surgery perk.
On the flip-side of feeling incredibly loved, however, I was completely terrified. There’s always a flip-side. During those first couple of weeks, I would lie in my bed, moving in and out of sleep as the world continued to spin around me. Kids were fed, lunches were made, kids were delivered on time to school and then picked up at the end of their day. Laundry got done. People at work made do without me. The sun came up. The sun set. And the fact that I was lying like a lump in my bed didn’t seem to stop the world from turning. Didn’t even slow it down.
I was horrified to discover that the world would be fine without me. Sure, people would miss me if I died, but their lives would go on. People are incredibly resilient that way. I was watching the world turn like a fly on the wall of my own life.
I suddenly realized that up to this point, I had defined myself by my actions.
Hi. My name is Lisa, and I work part-time out of my house as a graphic designer so that I can be home with my kids.
I defined my life in one sentence with a name and two verbs. Which begged the question, if I wasn’t currently doing the things that moms and graphic designers do, who was I?
That’s when the flip-side became insight. All of these people were hustling and bustling to keep the world of my household spinning. They were caring for me, caring for my family…all of these people really loved me. Why? Why did they love me? Clearly it was not for my ability to make lunches. Or because I could meet magazine deadlines. Or because I cooked dinner or did laundry or got the kids to school on time. Because I wasn’t doing any of those things at the moment, and they still loved me. So then, what was it?
It was just because I am.
One of the biggest shifts in my perspective since cancer has been an acute awareness of life’s paradox: I am incredibly significant simply because I exist. My mere existence continually changes the history of the world. The flip-side: I am simultaneously insignificant because everyone else changes the history of the world by merely existing, too.
This simple revelation began a spiritual journey for me. First of all, I felt compelled to find some peace. My significance/insignificance told me that I was just as likely to die an early death as anyone else. I had been shown mortality, and it scared me. I didn’t want to live in fear of every blood test for the next five years. I needed to feel somehow comfortable with the idea that no one is guaranteed a next breath. I had a boss once who used to call this “the big bus theory;” i.e., anyone can be hit by a big bus at any time, so when you are counting on one person, you also need to have a back-up plan. For me, the back-up plan became finding peace with the idea that I may very well be the guy who gets hit by the big bus. When I told my husband about this idea, he said, “How about a little less enlightenment and a little more Lance Armstrong?”
But the idea of striving for peace and enlightenment started to fascinate me. I started thinking about the things I had wanted to accomplish in my life, and I came to another simultaneously comforting and disturbing conclusion:
I have already done everything I ever wanted to do.
I had never really written down a bucket list, but when I thought about it post-cancer, I realized that these were the goals that had always been important to me:
- I wanted to go to college.
- I wanted to experience great love.
- I wanted to marry my great love.
- I wanted to be a mother.
- I wanted to sing on stage in front of people.
- I wanted to be my own boss.
These were things I had always wanted to accomplish, and by 37, I had already done all of them. I could think of other things that would be nice to do, like seeing my kids go to the prom, graduate high school and college, find love, get married, etc. etc., but none of these things required my presence. I realized that although there were exotic places I wouldn’t mind seeing, the most important things were all in my own backyard. Anything else from this point forward would be sheer gravy.
Which was both terrifying and comforting.
I ‘ve checked off all of the big things on my list. Comforting.
Does this mean I am done here? Terrifying.
Apparently, I am not done. The evidence supporting this theory is that it’s been over three years since my surgery, and I am still here. I have also written a new list.
- I want to experience joy whenever possible.
- I want to leave the world better than I found it.
These are ongoing projects without a due date; projects that take into consideration the “big bus theory.” How do I accomplish these goals? One moment at a time. I have found that when I prioritize the moment I am in; when I take a sensory inventory and give my complete attention to the present, I am filled with immense gratitude for this precious, crazy life, even when the present moment is ghastly. When I experience gratitude, I am better equipped to offer compassion. And when I offer compassion, I am changing the history of the world for the better in that moment, which fills me with immense joy. Check and check.
The rules of life are incredibly simple, and yet they can be, at times, excruciating to execute. I can understand that to climb a mountain, I simply have to put one foot in front of the other; but the flip-side is that knowledge and understanding do not reduce the toil and ardor of the climb. You still have to actually do the work. Gratitude and compassion are practices that require me to offer reverence and respect to every single person that crosses my path, whether it is the President of the United States or the person bagging my groceries; whether it is the challenging kid in my daughter’s kindergarten class or the person interviewing me for a big job. We derive our greatest joy when we practice gratitude and strive to love unconditionally. This is simple, because all we have to do is love people. It is difficult because we have to try to love all of them. Even the ones who cause us a major pain in the ass. Maybe especially the ones who cause us a major pain in the ass. I am not always immediately successful at this. Sometimes I even screw up big time. But then I have to forgive myself and move on to the next moment where I get to try again. Every moment is a new opportunity to make the world a little better, another line in the sand.
Photo credit: www.donnasmaldone.com