My Saturday began on a sour note, worsened by the local heat wave, a sleepless night and throbbing headache. The face staring back at me in the bathroom mirror was unforgiving, my bodily changes wrought by age and illness exaggerated. “Look at you now,” the mirror taunted.
Later, over a seaside brunch shared with two of my husband’s colleagues–a social outing I had been dreading–I found myself recalling the years I spent as an executive in a New York consulting firm. Both psychologists and organizational consultants, his colleagues expressed surprise. I had revealed a part of my history none of them knew, a past life I barely remember, and one that had me running on little more than adrenalin and stress for years.
“How did you end up writing and lead these writing groups?”
“Cancer,” I replied. “Everything changed after that.”
“Would you ever consider consulting again?”
I laughed. “Absolutely not.” I described the writing groups, the experience of sharing lives changed by cancer, and before I knew it, my sour and self-pitying mood had vanished. I only had to get out-of-the-way of my enjoyment.
It’s funny how clarity happens. An an innocent question, paragraph in a book, an expression of kindness from a friend, or telephone message left on the answering machine– all can make us to pay attention, get outside of ourselves and our complaints, take another look at the familiar reflection in the bathroom mirror, perhaps even seeing it kindly for the first time in weeks. To realize, as Wendell Berry reminds us, “there is no going back” to the self we once were.
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were…
When we returned home later in the evening, the message light was blinking on the answering machine. I pressed “play,” and listened. It was a call from the partner of a woman from the Stanford Cancer Center group, a call that made my heart ache. It had only been two weeks since I had last seen Y. She relocated to Davis, but the urging of her partner, came to the September writing session to say good-bye. “For closure,” she said. I didn’t want to contemplate what “closure” meant. I asked Y. how she had been doing during the two month summer break. She answered by quoting her oncologist. “He says I’m dwindling.” Now, two weeks later, those words, “dwindling,” and “closure,” have taken on meaning I hoped to deny. Y. is facing her final days of life.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you…
Y. and those like her who attend my cancer writing groups are the reasons I can never turn back to that old self, the old me who resided in that corner office overlooking Park Avenue, who worried over profit and loss, internal bickering, corporate politics. I experience too much joy in the work I do now. The men and women who write with me teach me what it is to be human, to be present in the world and put my life and minor complaints in perspective. More importantly, perhaps, I am witness the lives of others through shared story. Their stories, lives and deaths, become part of who I am. Each person each changes me in some small way, and I am all the better for the fact of their presence in my life.
I returned the telephone call first thing this morning, spoke with Y.’s partner and then briefly with Y. “I’ll carry you in my heart,” I told her. More and more you have become/those lives and deaths/that have belonged to you. “I am so very grateful you came into my life.,” I said. I meant it. It was as if I’d been given a moment of grace, and I remembered what matters, really matters to me.
I’ve struggled for the words to compose this entry. My heart is still heavy as I write. Y.’s voice, her face, linger in my mind. Knowing that she may have only a short time to live, I feel the swell of sorrow, present whenever someone loses her battle with cancer. Yet even in dying, each person is a great teacher to me. Theirs is a lesson I sometimes need to re-learn: our lives are worth living, no matter what we suffer, and in the sacred process of dying are extraordinary moments of grace. I have learned humility from these men and women, witnessed their courage, how they’ve opened their lives to self-examination and reflection, how their sorrows, struggles, joys, fears, even facing death, are shared so openly and honestly. Each person has so generously given of themselves–to me, and to the others in the group.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
uniting in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
(From: A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979 – 1997, by Wendell Berry)
So what does it all mean? For me, it’s about being in a world where we’ve learned that our lives can change in an instant, and that it’s important to make the life you have matter. We all experience difficulties and challenges out of our control, times that are painful and difficult. But what do we learn from them? How can those events teach us to be generous toward each day? And to give—truly give—ourselves away?