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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.
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.
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.