Breast cancer blog: being in the present
In the weeks after the wedding “save the date” cards were sent out, a funny thing occurred. There was the smattering of congratulations from friends on Facebook (“Oh got the card, wow you look like 29 and forever!”). This followed by phone calls from friends who had a litany of questions about the future. My future. Our future (the fiancéand I). There were a few questions about the wedding, mostly ones related to this great abyss called the future.
A select few even asked me to crystal ball their future. “We are so glad that the two of you found each other at the right time… please figure out our future. Our heads are spinning.”
As the fiancé lives on the other side of the coast the questions spun around this rather unique bi-coastal relationship. So when is he moving here? Is he looking for a job where you are? And then the Godzilla of them all: what about kids?
Indeed, what about kids? The question stunned me. Although well-meaning, it was frankly rude. Who could forecast the weather in this age of global warming, much less the guarantee of a nuclear family? Get real.
There was an optimistic theme in their questions too. There were things to look forward to, things to work towards. There was the F-U-T-U-R-E.
But for me, engagement and walking down the aisle is blissfully enough.
The interesting thing about having gone through a disease like cancer is that it ultimately places the present and future into perspective. This, I think, has been one of the greatest gifts.
My tendency like many people is to fixate or fret about the future. The worries are like little pin pricks and mount at the oddest times, as I’m stuck in traffic in the car, or as I’m waiting in a slow moving grocery line. I was sitting in a presentation recently and discovered that most of my fellow attendees were so busy Tweeting and Instagramming their experiences that I wondered if they were truly capturing and experiencing the moment.
I am often in a daily rat race - those emails must be answered right now. I must get that glowing shot of the steak meal and Tweet out the details of my five-star meal. I must take on yet another work-related project to pad my CV to secure a better chance for a better-paying job in the future. The future loomed like Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. There was the mad scramble to get to the future.
And frankly I was miffed by these future-focused inquiries.
Here I was in my late 30s, engaged, and I had fully expected congratulations from friends rather than questions that I couldn’t answer. It was the same frustrations I felt when I was going through treatment.
My girlfriends, most in their 30s, fretted about chipped nails, bad hair days, and overweight husbands. They wanted another child, a new car, a bigger home, a higher-paying job, and they all wanted to be skinnier. At times I shared their frustrations but a little voice in the back of my head, the voice formed by the unknown mystery of disease, whispered: “Be happy with what you have.”
I thought back to a workshop - at the C4YW Conference for young breast cancer survivors - conducted by Michael Eselun, the chaplain at UCLA’s Centre for Integrative Oncology, who has worked with hundreds of late stage cancer patients. The common thread amongst many patients was a great sense of peace. They were satisfied with “enough”.
I held a memory of the young woman and her husband who I had a casual conversation with at C4YW (we both loved Oakley sunglasses and wrestled with the weather to plunk down HK$800 for a pair of limited edition Oakleys designed for the pink ribbon cause). She’d been battling inflammatory breast cancer - a rare form of the disease - for two years now and told she had six months to live.
How do you continue to live when you are given a life sentence or a death sentence? I couldn’t fathom it and yet here was this young woman and her husband, happy to be feeling well enough to be at this conference, happy to simply be participating. When death comes in the picture, the meaning of life cuts through the chase towards what is most meaningful.
There are realities of course that loom on the horizon, the mammogram and visit with the breast surgeon in May. But I couldn’t place my life on hiatus and hold my breath until after the exam. So rather than fret about the what-ifs of a long-distance marriage or a ticking time bomb of a biological clock, rather than fixate on the questions about future I’d been asked, I’d be grateful for what was on my plate. I would sign up for the two mile open water swim-a-thon in May. I’d focus on the Asian studies conference in Houston and enjoy the conversations with many budding scholars. I’d take a midnight plunge in the pool and swim under the moonlight. I’d focus on wedding dress hunting.
“Focus on the wedding first. One thing at a time,” the stepmother advised matter-of-factly.
The poetry of life was in the present. It was as simple as that.