I’ve had my head down all week, buried in preparation for a weekend workshop, reading my UCLA creative nonfiction students’ latest submissions, moving through each day with a long list of “to dos.” On Friday, when my husband asked how we should celebrate our wedding anniversary this weekend, I was taken by surprise. “Oh good grief,” I laughed, “I completely forgot.”
I don’t usually forget birthdays or anniversaries dates of family or friends, but for the first time in 24 years of marriage, I had forgotten my own. I like to believe it’s a function of being too busy, not the memory slights of older age. I’ve redeemed myself. We’ll have an evening out, toast one another with a glass of champagne, and tell a few stories of our many years together, probably thanking other for weathering those rough spots that occur in any marriage.
This morning, I remembered another anniversary. It was on this date, thirteen years ago, that I first learned I had early stage breast cancer–an event that altered my life in profound ways. I don’t think much about that distant cancer diagnosis anymore, but I often think about how my life was changed—in good ways—in the years that followed. I’m grateful I had the chance to create a new chapter of life, grateful I had the love and support of my husband.
Anniversary dates have a particular poignancy attached to them, whether birthdates, weddings or the other events that alter our lives—cancer, a loved one’s death, a nation’s tragedy. Anniversaries serve as a reminder of who we were then, what we have endured or achieved, and how those events shaped or changed us.
In the first anniversaries of loss, trauma or tragedy, strong emotions are often re-ignited: grief, old fears, relief, or happiness. Despite needing a reminder from my spouse about ours, I’m a believer in rituals or celebrations to mark important anniversaries or milestones. We have one ritual, for example, that we share each Thanksgiving Day, to honor my father. He died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, but in the days before his death, requested we celebrate invite all his existing family members and friends to a wake and toast his life with a glass of Jack Daniels whiskey, his perennial favorite. Now, each Thanksgiving, my husband and I take a moment to remember him with that same ritual, sharing a small glass of Jack Daniels before dinner to toast my father and share a favorite story about him. It’s a ritual that preserves his memory, allowing us to honor his life with story and laughter—just what he hoped we’d do.
Celebrations and rituals are important and meaningful in healing, offering a way to acknowledge our experience and place it into the context of our larger lives. We remember. We’re reminded of who we were and how far we’ve come. We are reminded how much we have to be grateful for.
During the past several years, I have often forgotten the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. That’s not unusual. Some milestones recede in importance as life goes on. The pain of loss diminishes. We find new joy, new hope, and gradually, move on, creating new chapters of life. I often recall the words of Alice Hoffman, novelist, writing about her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article, a year after my diagnosis: “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter,” she said. That’s true of so many of the painful or difficult chapters of our lives. As we heal, we have less need to mark the dates of suffering, instead, we live forward, fully immersed in life. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we celebrate rather than mourn. We honor. We give thanks.
There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives. Here are some suggestions from Cancer Net, but they are applicable to many of the milestones and anniversary dates of life.
Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life. Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.
Plan a special event. One of the women in my writing groups celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing her treatment for a recurrence. Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or plan a gathering with family and friends.
Donate or volunteer. When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” I was the interim director for Breast Cancer Connections, a Palo Alto, CA nonprofit. I was impressed by the number of cancer survivors who, daily, gave their time to volunteer at BCC. Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience.
Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual cancer survivor walks hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations. Communities and cancer centers around the country also celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day, which is the first Sunday in June.
Do something you truly enjoy. Celebrating can just be taking time to do something you enjoy, husband taking a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, going to a film or the theater with a friend, placing flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, as I will
Whatever anniversary dates are important to you, which do you remember most vividly? What images or feelings do those dates evoke? Write the story of that date. What happened? Why was it important to you? How did your life change because of it?
As for me, I’ll be sharing a special dinner together with my spouse this evening, grateful for this gentle man who so willingly embraced me and my then-adolescent daughters, weathering our storms in the wake of a husband/father’s death, to create together a loving and enduring bond between us all. Happy Anniversary, John.