Today marks an anniversary for me. I should probably write about that—what happened, why it is so important, how it evokes a strange combination of genuine elation and sadness. I did promise, after all, to write about cancer survivorship.
The thing is, I don’t want to write about that anniversary today. I can’t write about it. I’ve stared at this page for long enough now to know that the words are not going to come. They are stuck, pushed aside by a steady stream of unruly thoughts—thoughts that, as much as I don’t like them, might be even more important than anniversaries. This isn’t going to be pretty, but here goes:
- I can’t remember what youthful invincibility felt like.
- I can’t recall the last time I made it through an entire day without thinking about illness or death.
- I am, it seems, constantly aware of the proverbial other shoe, dangling above my head, just waiting to drop.
This—the perpetual awareness of my own mortality, the very real knowledge that every good thing in my life could be taken from me—is one of the unspoken consequences of cancer survivorship. Yes, such acute awareness can help redefine priorities. It is true that it can lend enough courage to pursue one’s passions. But it can also incite tremendous fear, a shortness of breath, cold sweat on a warm night.
It is the later experience that I am most familiar with. It is the demon that I wrestle with every, single day.
How do you wrestle with your own mortality? How can you march forward knowing that the longer you live, the more you will have to lose, and the more it will hurt to lose it? How do you carry on knowing exactly what illness and death feel like?
In the end, you just do. As is echoed in every oncology waiting room that I’ve ever sat in, you deal with it “one day at a time”. Some days will be easier than others, but you shuffle one foot forward and you repeat that motion, again and again.
You go to weddings and book launches and bars—and while there, you talk with the people that inspire you, you hug the people that feel like home, you make plans with the ones that make you a better version of yourself.
You explore your interests and innate talents—and you do it with people that believe in you, that make you smile, that remind you that the space between now and death is what really matters.
You enjoy the little things—a cup of pumpkin spice coffee, a long conversation with your brother, the fact that the cat knows when you’re writing something difficult because he jumps up in your lap.
It’s a choice—a decision—to build a life, knowing that the other shoe is eventually going to drop. Let that knowledge inspire change. Let it inspire love. Let it inspire a life so bright and so beautiful that even death can’t entirely extinguish it.