Friday, June 8, 2012

Pandora's Damn Box

When people think of cancer they inevitably think of death.  At first, I was afraid of death.  I was afraid to even mention it.  However, after spending time in the chemo lounge and looking at the examples the other cancer patients made, death became a little bit easier to deal with.  I never really had to think about death before I had cancer.  I mean yes, I had been in a couple of car accidents and other scary things like that, but I never had to actually recognize death.  It was as if death was a box on the shelf that I occasionally took down and thought about organizing, but never really took the time do so.  After being diagnosed with cancer all of that changed.  I have been forced to look through the box and nothing is going to change the fact that I could die and even if I survived this round, the cancer may come back later and finish me off.  It is rarely talked about in the Chemo Lounge and my doctor was extra careful about never mentioning it, but other people are not so tactful.  People with cancer do die.  It happens more often than I would like to think about, but I quickly found out that it’s a subject you cannot avoid. 

Ironically, one of the people that helped me the most to accept my own inevitable death was a cousin of mine that I never even got to know.  Her name was Pam.  She had had cancer before and gone through treatment.  Unfortunately, it came back and this time she was not responding to treatment and the cancer had spread.  I was stunned when I heard this from my mother as I had only ever heard the nicest things about this woman.  I was also, understandably, terrified.  A little while later Pam’s mom and my aunt (yet another wonderful person) died.  At her visitation all of my aunt’s daughters were lined up to receive our good wishes and, of course, Pam was among them.  I’m not going to lie; I was scared out of my mind.  I had nothing but admiration for this woman who was the embodiment of my greatest fear.  However, as we stood in line getting closer and closer I watched her.  She seemed serene and kind sitting in her wheel chair with family and well-wishers surrounding her.  I timidly stepped up to her, leaned over and shook her hand.  We briefly made eye-contact.  I smiled sadly into her eyes and moved on.  The interaction only lasted a few seconds, but it was life changing for me.  Her look seemed to say that she completely understood and that it was okay.  I spent considerable time thinking about this interaction for the next few days and several tears and a panic attack later I realized that she was right.  It is okay.  I am going to die and I am going to be okay with that.  I realize that I am not going to die anytime soon thanks to my wonderful doctors and the support of family and friends, but someday, I am going to die and it’s fine.  Not to say that I will not be disappointed and that I am not scared, but I am okay with dying. 

The main reason I am so okay with dying is that I took the time to think, I mean really think, about my life so far.  To be honest I have been lucky to live the life that I have led.  I have had so many wonderful experiences traveling, I have amazing parents, great friends and family and I have been given the opportunity to have a fantastic education.  The most important thing that I have experienced, however, is people.  I love people.  My whole life I have loved people.  I have spent hours watching people and wondering why they do the things they do.  I enjoy watching people interact with and watch other people even more than I enjoy anything else.  I like watching people work together to complete a task.  I like watching people make connections.  Even more than that, I like making connections with other people.  Throughout my life I have had the opportunity to make several of these connections and receive an immeasurable amount of kindness from them.  These interactions only fuel a desire in me to make further connections and spread their kindness throughout the world.  People matter.  That’s it.  There is nothing else more important in this world to me than people.  When I look back on my life and see all the amazing people I had a chance to meet and see all the amazing things I have seen happen to these people I am happy.  I am genuinely happy for others.  This happiness fills me with so much joy and warmth that it makes everything worthwhile.  My life has been worthwhile because of this.  Therefore, it is okay for me to die.  Sure there are things I have yet to do and want to do.  There are things that I will definitely do, especially now that I do not anticipate dying from cancer at this time, but regardless of whether or not I get to do so, if and when I die it will be okay.  It will be okay because my life has meaning.  My life has meaning because other people have given it meaning and they have given me something that no matter how long or short my life is I can experience again and again.  I would have to say that my life is pretty complete regardless of whether or not I achieve all of my goals simply because the primary goal, that of experiencing others, has been met. 

Recognizing my own death and learning to be okay with it has certainly had an impact.  Being around people in my age group is strange.  It isn’t that they don’t try to understand, they just haven’t had to come to terms with their own mortality in the same way that I have.  Some of them have, but the majority has not and they just seem so innocent.  They experience happiness in a take-it-for-granted way that makes me burn with jealousy.  I watch them live in and move their bodies with beauty, ease and complete abandonment.  This is not something I can do now, or think I will ever be able to do again.  I am working towards a body that does not hurt or is not limited by my experience with cancer, but it will take some time before I can move with such ease and athleticism again.  Even then, I don’t think I will be capable of taking it for granted.  Now that I have had this experience, every minute and every action has a certain weight to it.  There is heaviness, or meaning in everything I do, every word I speak, and every person I touch.  Life itself has come to be heavy.  Heavy in a good way.  It is almost like a genuine appreciation that I carry around with me, a box if you will.  I appreciate everything and everyone.  I appreciate that I am able to talk, be spoken to, act and be acted upon.  I can never take anything for granted again.  This is why it is so strange to interact with others, especially those who are my age or younger.  They have a certain amount of innocence that surrounds them.  It is both beautiful and sad to me.  I wish I could go back sometimes to being like that, but I can’t.  A big part of me doesn’t want to because I now know how important everything is.  I know the true beauty of being able to experience the sun on my skin, the wind, a hug.  Not just experiencing it, but fully living in these moments.  Like I said, there is heaviness.  However, I think this is a good thing.  I thought I understood before.  I thought that I didn’t take anything for granted and that I was mature and “adult” (whatever that means because I have certainly met adults who don’t have these feelings either), but I did take everything for granted and I was definitely not the adult that I thought I was.  Life is truly beautiful and it only took the recognition of my own death to make me realize how lovely it really is.  

I don’t know when I am going to die.  I’m glad that it is not going to be anytime soon.  However, I have to say that I will miss those that I have lost so far.  The sad fact about cancer is that people do die and some of those that I have come to know from this experience have died and/or are dying.  I am sad because I will not get to see them again.  I am sad because they do not get the privilege of interacting with others anymore.  However, I know that it is okay in the end because they were amazing people and got to experience many wonderful connections with others.  I am not sure if Pam realized what an impact she had on my life that day.  She died about a month or two later.  I went to her visitation and learned how very important she was to the world.  Her community loved her and so did her family.  She was known for being kind, wise, and understanding.  She truly made the most of her ability to connect with others.  I can only hope that I make as many meaningful connections has she did.  Looking at her connections with others only further reinforced the importance of people.  People make life worth living and the interactions that one has with people make it okay to die.  I fully appreciate my life and the opportunity I have been given to live for just a little bit longer.  I promise to do my best to take this privilege and run with it.  

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