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I Wish I'm Not Reminded of Why I Live Each Day Like It's My Last

When I found out I had cancer in January, I lingered longer, kissed more frequently, hugged tighter, listened better and spoke with more purpose as if it were my job.

Six months later, I’m itching for a day when I can take it all for granted again. I still appear to be living each day as if it were my last, or preparing for it, anyway — planning as if I might not be around for too much longer, even if what will more likely kill me is probably a distracted driver than breast cancer.

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The breast cancer is all-but gone (please, God) along with my breasts. I continue to be thankful every day that it was caught early, although when I catch my reflection in the mirror I’m still startled by the foot-long scars on either side as well as the distinct absence of nipples. At times my gratitude is more of an adrenaline rush, like a kid who stole a cookie from the cookie jar and managed to shove it in her mouth, chew, swallow and sweep up the crumbs before anyone could notice one less Oreo.

It’s not just getting away with breast cancer that reminds me to be grateful, though. It’s everything else, too. A dear friend died of breast cancer last month, leaving behind a husband and two young sons. While her death wasn’t entirely a surprise — she was diagnosed over four years ago and spent the last year and a half knowing an advanced exit was more probable than not — it came a few months sooner then everyone had expected and hoped.

I had the opportunity to see her in her final hours, stroke her hair, kiss her hand and whisper a reminder of promises I’d made to her last summer so that if she could hear me, she could take some small comfort with her in addition to the heaps of it that was provided by her loved ones, who tried so hard to make her last moments as painless as they could manage. I was grateful for that opportunity while simultaneously sickened by the entire experience — for her, her family and all of the shoulda coulda wouldas. It’s neither a way to live nor die.

It’s never a bad idea to appreciate what you have while you have it. But the constant reminders to feel fortunate because of others’ misfortune are miserable things.

As my husband and I walked with dread to her funeral, we acknowledged that we’d just seen too much sadness this year: Death, suicide, homicide, a plane crash — all in our picturesque, delightful little town. I get that when you reach a certain age, bad news can be more common that not. I just didn’t think that age was supposed to be 40.

It’s never a bad idea to appreciate what you have while you have it. But the constant reminders to feel fortunate because of others’ misfortune are miserable things. Sure, those who’ve suffered more than you by choice or otherwise would probably want you to enjoy what you have because they couldn’t, for whatever reason. But when what’s reminding you to be happy is spurred on by others’ misfortune? I’ll drink to that, but more out of necessity than cheer.

In some ways, these days I feel worse than ever if I’m not able to appreciate every butterfly kiss and early-morning cuddle with my kids. Of course even before cancer I wanted to spit fire at anyone who wistfully advised me to enjoy every minute of parenting because the kids will be out of the house before I know it. I wanted to tell them they were welcome to come relish in the cleaning of the poop on the hallway carpet because my little one ignored the early warning signs and failed to get herself onto the toilet in time. Or I had to stop myself from inviting them to come on by with some popcorn and a soda to linger in my place the next time my older daughter threw a nuclear tantrum.

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Now when I’m short with my kids I feel more awful because the time I have with them feels somewhat stolen. It was never a question that I would get a mammogram when I turned 40, but what if I hadn’t? What if I’d found out about the breast cancer after it had spread? I should be picking flowers with my daughters from dawn to dusk, not rolling my eyes because they’ve gifted me with yet another bundle of limp dandelions that I’m expected to artfully arrange in a vase and appreciate until they stink like a back-up toilet, the water slimy and the heads dried up, crumbling into the nether regions of the carpet.

To be sure, having perspective is a gift that not enough people are fortunate enough to receive at the right moment, but what I want tied up neatly with a bow even more is the gift of a little less awareness, or at least a little less often. I’m happy to be happy, but I’d just appreciate fewer reminders of why I’m supposed to be happy.

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