Taking the full measure of life


May 18th, 2011 · 8 Comments

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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?

Tags: autumn · cancer · gratitude · on the soapbox · Uncategorized

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mel // May 19, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Beautiful post. You caught in words the feelings I have had in the midst of seeming catastrophic loss or pain in my life. Being able to appreciate life in all it’s forms is a GIFT. Many ask, “why me?”. True difficulty is a chance to stop and appreciate. Thanks for this post.

  • 2 Becca (www.ModernAthena.com) // May 23, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Great post, Sally. In a totally different way I had this same experience and have these same thoughts. When I went to Nepal last October it was mind-blowing and life-changing. It altered my perspective on so many things. I came home feeling totally different…and then, as you said, life creeps in. You forget to appreciate things, you fall back into your complaints and habits, you forget all the “lessons” you learned. For me, I read my travel journals to remind myself or tell other people about my trip, but there’s part of me that thinks I just need to go somewhere again to truly refresh it in my soul.

  • 3 glutenfrei // May 28, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I read your blog more like sher.


  • 4 Jenn // May 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Love this post, Sally! It’s so hard to hang onto those rare moments of clarity when we realize what really matters and that we truly have (and are) enough. Always good to be reminded.

    I have had similar thoughts wondering when (and if) I should wish for more or if in fact I am just not recognizing that all that I already have–including the abundant love in my life–is more than enough.

  • 5 Jenny Chen // Jun 3, 2011 at 10:16 am

    What beautiful post. I completely understand your sentiments – especially “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.” Very well written!

  • 6 Gin // Jun 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    What started out as a search for a good recipe, led me to an inspirational lifting. You took me back to my own “then”. Thank you.

  • 7 Jennifer Johnson // Oct 9, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Thanks for speaking what few people dare to speak. Yes, life creeps in. I find that life is more and more about coming back home to ourselves–remembering over and over to come back to the present moment, to the breath, to gratitude, to appreciation, and to our potential. Many of my therapy and coaching clients have experienced illness or extreme loss. I think the last line in your bio sums it up well– that your goal is “to live life fully, healthfully, and joyfully while taking these changes in stride.”

  • 8 LP // Mar 17, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Wow- was looking for a recipie and was blessed by your insight, honesty and vulnerablity. Thank you…

    “The hard part is holding on to that sense and understanding over time. It’s so strong at first . . . and then life creeps in”. WOW- I can relate SO well and needed to be reminded… Thank you

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