“In remission,” “no evidence of cancer at this time…” Words uttered tentatively, hopefully, as some members of my writing groups introduce themselves. They’re grateful, of course. “In remission” signals a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, and weeks, even months of treatment regimens. It means a return to a so-called “normal” life, but normal doesn’t have the same meaning it did before cancer, and that re-entry into normality now feels unfamiliar, almost surreal. Treatment gave us structure, a routine that defined the days before us. Now, “in remission,” the way you experience the world has changed, and you realize that returning to life as it was before cancer is nearly, if not completely, impossible.
“In remission.” You‘re one of the lucky ones. Your treatment has been successful, at least for now, because cancer, we know, is capricious and unpredictable. You live with the knowledge that as a survivor, you may not be guaranteed a permanent state of grace. You may have many years left to live; perhaps less. One thing is certain: you never take anything for granted.
There’s something else. You may even feel a little guilty, especially when, in your cancer support groups, you know many whose prognoses are less favorable and who might lose their lives to cancer. You’re relieved, yes, but it can seem unfair. Why have you survived while others may not? You may question your life, how you can make it matter, live in a way that “makes a difference.”
“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former writing group member said. “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive… I believe that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something…a goal for which I need to continue to survive. But,” she confessed “I don’t find that drive in me.”
Her words resonated with me. That self who was so goal-driven before cancer, eyes always on what lay ahead, has all but disappeared. I was missing out on the joy of the present—moments that are ordinary and yet, so much of what living is about. If we are to learn anything from being “in remission,” it’s about living and enjoying each day of the life we have been granted, however long that may be.
What is living about for those lucky enough to be “in remission?” Nancy, a former group member wrote, “I love the things I do day by day. I hike with one beloved friend. I spend time in the wonderful garden of another. I meet others for coffee and conversation. I meet these friends with pleasure and leave them with a joy and benefit to my mind and spirit…”
Like so many of us, Nancy rediscovered comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature. “It frees me from having to make every moment count, she wrote. It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”
It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be…
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?
(From: “The Patience of Ordinary Things,” by Pat Schneider, in Another River: New and Selected Poems, 2005)
I remember Nancy’s words to from time to time because despite my resolve, I sometimes slip into old habits of being, putting my daily life on fast forward as my list of “to dos” grows. It’s easy, I realize, to forget that the real task of being alive is to be present and pay attention to what is right in front of my nose, those little moments of beauty, joy, or laughter. A morning walk with my dog—who finds pleasure every single day, despite the predictability of our route, or the daily frolic of a group of humming birds at our fountain are enough to remind me to pay attention and discover the inspiration waiting, the simple pleasures found in the commonplace.
Ann, who wrote with me at the Stanford Cancer Center for several years, losing her life to cancer in 2012, sent me a poem several years ago while she lived and wrote in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, choosing to spend the final year or two of her life in the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, her source of inspiration and peace. She was much loved by many of us, inspiring in us a reverence for life, the beauty found in the ordinary of each day. Her poems linger in my mind, luminous and alive, even though Ann is no longer here to read them to us. In the poem, “Directive,” she reminds us how precious life is, how abundant the gifts of what we consider commonplace:
Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…
Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…
Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.
(From “Directive,” by Ann Emerson)
Remember the commonplace… Take notice; find gratitude for the simple joys of living. Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy. Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.