Last week, I found myself on the receiving end of a big, fat, loud “Pshaw.”
I guess Pshaw is what you call it, that’s what it sounded like at least. An exasperated sigh plus eye roll; an unspoken, “Oh brother, give me a break.”
Before I explain what prompted it, I must tell you this. I swear that I have very few frequent flyer miles on my Cancer Card, not even enough for free pink shoelaces or anything. While I will admit I have pulled the card out of my wallet on an infrequent occasion, perhaps in an effort to secure backstage passes to Taylor Swift or to explain away some bad behavior on the part of me or one of my sprouts, there is no big outstanding balance run up on it. In fact, I have a great credit rating with the cancer martyr gods because most often, I hide it behind the other cards in the wallet; you know, the divorce card, the single parent card and my AARP card. I assure you that even when the situation practically begs and announces in flashing neon that I will likely secure something bigger and better for me or my kids simply by swiping the cancer card, I don’t. I promise, there are a lot of people I meet every day (who obviously never read this blog) who have no idea I had cancer. And mostly, I like to keep it that way, but that’s another blog altogether.
So that’s why the Pshaw really chapped my ass. I am so not an “I had cancer” whiner. I don’t feel entitled to special treatment because I had cancer, I mean I literally cringe when people look at me like it was some courageous feat to go through chemo. In sum; I don’t own pink.
So, in this rare instance I was explaining to a couple of people why it is that every day counts to me, and why every single day I have with my kids is so very important to me. I explained how after cancer, you never know when that tap will again come on your shoulder…so days, heck even minutes matter. A lot. And when they are taken from you, you kind of panic. Like the best gift ever is being stolen.
And I was met with a double Pshaw. Capped off with an out loud, “You just need to get over that.”
Actually, chapped doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Frankly, it spurned this woman in a “How dare you?” kind of way. How dare you, with your secure f***ing life that has never been threatened, with your life that has been lived bouncing in the sunny endless parameters outside of the shadow of the grim reaper….how dare you minimize my feelings? How dare you, with your dismissive Pshaw imply that I’m being a cancer drama queen for saying that days count more to me now and I don’t want to just give them away? How can you possibly understand that you just don’t “get over” cancer, ever?
Ugh. Okay, so maybe the response in my head was a wee bit dramatic and I didn’t act on it except for in this blog, since I knew I’d find a posse here. But my point is that the sentiment that the Pshaw was cast upon, that being the value of days to cancergirl, was realspeak for me. A dismissive sound was so not deserved. No, I don’t expect to be treated differently because I had cancer, but I sure don’t expect to be ridiculed or minimized for how I see things since those days like it’s some kind of woe is me, histrionic drama.
And I sure don’t expect to be told how I should feel from someone who doesn’t know how it does feel to have a team of docs be candid for a year that they are not so sure what will happen.
Boy, tail feathers are hard to get back down. Mine especially.
“I wish had I spent more time working, or leaving the kids in daycare!” “Boy, I sure am glad I saved my money and didn’t take that Disney trip with the kiddos!” said no cancer survivor ever.
You know why? Because we remember how one day, just between school carpool (where we kvetched about our day’s chores) and dinner, we slipped into a routine mammogram appointment and in that sliver of midafternoon space found out how darn lucky we were to be able to cook dinner that night for our kids. We remember that moment when we found out how many of our chores were actually privileges. We remember how quickly we went from well to sick; how in a matter of days we got our first dose of chemo along with an even bigger dose of an uncertain future. We remember the warp speed of ”What’s that?” as our hands glided with soap in the shower, to “Game over.” And our hair was still dripping wet.
We live differently because we now know breast cancer’s dirty little secret; that the trick is not getting rid of it the first time, but keeping it away. And we now have to live in that liminal space.
I don’t feel, as the Pshaw (I felt) implied, that life after cancer means, “OH MY GOD I HAVE TO STUFF EVERY MINUTE FULL OF MEMORIES!” It’s not a frantic kind of thing. It’s just simple logic; after a near miss with an exit ramp, the days traveling on the road of life now get the appreciation they deserve. We look out the window more, taking more pictures instead of sleeping or asking/complaining how much longer we have to go. So while I don’t condemn other non-cancer peeps for undervaluing the gifts of their days, I don’t want them poo-pooing my perhaps mildly over-valuation of mine.
After treatment, I struggled with how to live in that in-between time, that time between the last chemo and the somewhat mythical, promised land of the five-year mark. I’d be a big fat liar if I didn’t say that a lot of that thinking had to do with how to use that time wisely with my kids; giving them enough of me to sustain their lifetimes. While I didn’t want an “Every Day is Disneyland” life, artificially jacked up in a Wonkaland splendor, I also didn’t want to put anything off. No more, “Some day we will go see Rock City!” for me. We went. I wanted to live, not large, but at least a smidge larger; a hybrid life of bucket list crossed with a second chance.
I pestered my trusted financial advisor (Pop) about how much I should siphon off savings to do some special (previously known as frivolous) things with my kids like Disney and beach trips after cancer. I peppered him (and myself) with the question, ”How much less is it okay for me to work? Can I work just part-time for a few years so I can be there after school, and during the summers?” I would beg the speculation of whoever would uncomfortably listen, “How much of my IRA can I dip into, if there is a chance I may never need it?”
How much was too much, how much was not enough? It seems I wanted permission to live a little larger and wider, and assurance about how large I could go; always hedging against the bet that I could in two years or perhaps four, find myself instantly again too sick to live at all. I wanted to use it up, but how do you use it up if you don’t know how long you need it to last?
I was looking for the sweet spot. Wanting to hit the sweet spot on the ball of living and doing and spending and being.
How do you hedge living and dying? I knew too, that just outside the sweet spot, is the place where performance and results would diminish. Too much or too little, and I would likely miss the sweet in between. The sweet that felt like normal life.
Finding the sweet spot of life with my kids was and still is also fraught with worries for this lil’ psychologist mom. How do I appreciate and suck up the value of my days, without suffocating the endless freedom of theirs? How do I do the impossible and not make a big deal out of shopping for a prom dress, just because I am thinking I may not be there to shop for the wedding dress? How do I make an event that is a BIG TEARY EYED DEAL to have lived to see on my part, normal on theirs? How do I pack their backpacks full (in a way that doesn’t laden them down now) so they have it to subsist on if they find themselves motherless at 17?
Hindsight always offering me balance I now, in a calmer state suspect that the Pshaw was infused with the implication, “You can’t live your life that way.” But I do. I suspect a whole hecka lot of us cancergirls do, especially the mama’s out there. And you know what? I wont apologize for it and I won’t “get over it.” I don’t want to get over it to be honest. It would be like going from Technicolor back to black and white. From living in the sweetness, to living in the bland.
The sweet spot was bigger just after chemo and it has narrowed as the years go on; perhaps as I began to gauge that my pennies may indeed need to last longer, or perhaps as I gauge with deep satisfaction, that I have filled another kind of bank. But then just like that, after twelve years a friend has a recurrence. And it starts it up, the calculation of the exact inverse proportion is again at work; as the possibility that my life seems shorter, the sweet spot of living gets a little larger. It’s not a constant. And I wonder again, just how to live in this space.
“You can’t take it with you,” they say about money. I don’t know if the same can be said about intangibles like memories and good times; I mean I don’t know if I will sit on a bench in heaven and take them out one by one from the backpack that I packed in this life and toted through the pearly gates with me. I hope I will. I do know this, it will be fuller as a result of cancer. And I also know this; what I can’t take with me, I can leave behind. I can leave so much more behind by using life up here, living in the sweet spot of every single day with my kids and family and friends and dog, however long it is.
I can get up each day and figure out how to squeeze every last drop out of that orange. Because the last drop is indeed, just as sweet as the first.
It all comes down to the old quote, “You better get busy living or get busy dying.” The only thing I know for sure is when we are busy living, the sweet is sweeter. Perhaps that is the answer; the sweet spot is crystal clear when we get busy living, but we miss the ball entirely when we get busy dying.
“listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”