A few years ago, six months after we got married, my husband was hit by a speeding car when he was walking in a crosswalk. It was surprising he lived, but he did, and over time, he has recovered about 90% from the accident. In the days and weeks and years after the accident, people have often said to him, “Boy, that must have changed your viewpoint on life.” His answer is a cheerful, “Not really.” Dan is someone who nearly always has a pretty positive outlook on life. He mostly knows what he values, and he mostly does what he should to focus on what he values.
Me? Not always as much.
I’ve only ever told a few people about this—I don’t think I’ve ever written about it publicly—but I’ve been thinking about it lately.
When I had my first surgery for what turned out to be cancer, none of us knew it was cancer. The doctor had told me I had a ball of infection on my ovary. It was only after the surgery that I got the sense, from the distraught face of the doctor and the way my brother was curled up in my hospital room chair, that something more was going on. The doctor had asked my family to let me recover a bit before I found out. I believe that they finally told me two or three days later, but they still couldn’t tell me which kind of ovarian cancer I had, and they wouldn’t yet test my broken body to see whether it had spread. Because there was something unusual about the cells, the doctor sent samples from my tumors to Johns Hopkins and Harvard. We had to wait about two weeks for me to find out more.
In those two weeks, I had a pretty miserable time. My incision became badly infected, and after a grotesque re-opening of the incision that I won’t regale you with, my at-the-time boyfriend and I had to clean it out daily. Many of my friends disappeared, not knowing what to do or say in the face of an older woman’s disease in their young friend’s body. I was in a lot of pain. I was a college student and would miss the remainder of the semester, at the least. I didn’t know what would happen, at all.
But one day when I was well enough to be left alone for a little while, when my boyfriend was at work, I made my way onto the back patio of his apartment. It was late afternoon on a fall day, a time when the light is nearly unbearably golden, coming through the trees. There was a pumpkin on the table with me. There was a nip in the air. I was bundled up and holding my swollen belly. I thought about my father, who had come back into my life around my surgery. I thought about those tissue samples at Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and how I didn’t know what was coming. I was 21 years old and thinking how I could be riddled with cancer, how I could have six weeks or sixty years left to live.
I was overcome, and I started to cry. But at that time, I didn’t cry out of sadness. I cried out of beauty. I saw, in that moment, that out of everything in life, it was love that mattered—that in the midst of every complexity and difficulty and hurt in my normal, complicated life, I had experienced an enormous amount of love that had enriched every part of my life: the love of pets, friends, boyfriends, God, family, community members, teachers, acquaintances to strangers, and the love I had offered each of those as well, and the love I had seen others offer to each other. My life had been suffused with love. And in that golden afternoon light on the patio, I knew, somehow, that despite whatever else my life had contained, whatever happened, that bounty of love was enough. . . .
A few months ago, someone Dan was acquainted with was hit by a car while she was walking across the street in a foreign country where she was temporarily living. She has worked tirelessly to recover and have her needs met there despite enormous bureaucracy and an immense language barrier. She recently thanked Dan for talking to her about his own recovery process and emotions. And she told him that the experience did change her life, taught her what to value and where to place her time and energy. She’s working less and enjoying more.
I told him, “The hard part is holding on to that sense and understanding over time. It’s so strong at first . . . and then life creeps in.” I thought back to that hour on the patio that I spent in tears, in a pile of glowing memories of the warmth of my life.
Life creeps in. Bills to pay with limited funds, words spoken and unspoken, unmet desires, half-formed wishes, a million other issues: life is complicated. There’s no way around it, and we must deal with it as it comes. But lately, when I’ve found myself grumbling internally or aloud about whatever is irritating or overwhelming or grievous in my life, I’ve started to wonder: How much do things need to change, and how much is it my perspective that needs to shift? How do I know when to demand my needs be met, and when do I need to be stop analyzing and move into a space of gratitude for what I do have?