Today is my 35th birthday. It probably goes without saying that birthdays mean something very different to me now. I am so thankful to be sitting here today, so incredibly happy to be able to celebrate this day with my family — especially my father, because today is his birthday also. Instead of talking about myself and how grateful I am, I’m going to take this opportunity to write about my Dad. My father was just 23 years old on September 26, 1978, the day I came into this world. I always tease him and say that I don’t need to buy him birthday gifts because I gave him the best gift he could ever ask for when I was born. Dad served four years as a Seabee in the U.S. Navy and left the service to raise me. My mother was pretty young when she gave birth to me and not quite ready for the responsibility of motherhood, so my father stepped up to the challenge and began his new career as a single father. He had help from friends and family so he wasn’t truly alone, but even with help being a single parent isn’t easy. I can’t thank him enough for the sacrifices he made as a young man — sacrifices that most men probably wouldn’t make now, let alone back then. Dad worked swing shifts at the local VA hospital in order to provide for me and it was many years before he met a woman as amazing as him that would lead to the wonderful family that I have now (we’ll save that story for another time). It wasn’t all sunshine and roses — I obviously become a teenager at some point — but we all survived. Dad was always there for me, sometimes whether I wanted him to be or not, and now he is here for me in a way that neither of us ever imagined. Since my diagnosis my father has made the long drive up here too many times to count. He’s driven in Boston to take me to doctor’s appointments and changed poopy diapers, both things that he detests. He’s cooked and cleaned and run countless errands. He’s held me while I cried. Dad, today you are 58 and I am 35. I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me, and for all you will do for me. We don’t have an easy road ahead of us, but I know you will be there by my side the entire way. So today I wish you the happiest of birthdays. You are an amazing father and I love you so very much.
I lie with my head nestled into his shoulder listening to the symphony of thunder, cicadas, and rain falling outside our bedroom window. The sounds of summer, amplified in the close darkness of night. My thoughts drift to another time, a time before the sweet one sleeping peacefully across the hall, before the furry one curled up at our toes. A time when a home, a new car, and a career seemed so distant — haphazard dreams in the chaos of youth. We had friends, disposable income, the incomprehensible vastness of a life yet to unfold. We were not burdened by experience. Our life was full, and it was all so grand.
I turn my face into his arm to smother the tears before he can notice. I press my cheek into his dampened t-shirt and think about the richness he has brought to my life. The moment stretches suddenly before me and we are the same as before, the same as always — a shared space, his arm hooked around my shoulders. We are no longer carefree, we are no longer young. We have added a thickness to our middles and a weariness to our eyes. We hug with a worn, familiar ease but we are not tired. We are Atlas now, together, our knees struggling to support the weight — for our friends, our family, our child — for each other.
I close my eyes and it could be the first summer, or two, five, ten summers past. The sounds are the same, always a melancholy tune to sing you sweetly to sleep and a promise of raucous birds to wake you, celebrating the dawn. I close my eyes and the vision of time passed becomes blurred. It is childish, but I want this moment to last forever. I want the comforting weight of his arm to remain, to remind me that our life is full — that it really is so grand.
Sometimes the words come easily, other times they get stuck — like a clogged drain in your tub or a popcorn kernel in the back of your throat. It’s irritating. It’s not quite writer’s block, it’s more like there’s too much to say. Too much to say and not enough time to say it. I want to write every day but like everything else in life it’s challenging to find the time. There are errands to run, a household to manage, and people to love. So much living to do. Every minute, every second is precious and choosing how to spend that time can be stressful. I sit watching television with my husband and I think, why am I wasting this time watching TV? I know that it’s something we’re doing together, and we quip back and forth throughout the show so we are at least communicating and sharing the experience, right? Is that a justification or an excuse? Watching TV is a waste of time, sure — but it’s an escape for me and probably for him, too. I don’t think about cancer when I’m watching it, unless it comes up in the show. Sadly this happens quite often and I can feel its presence reappear in the room, a lurking, malicious beast that stalks us everywhere. There is no escape, not really.
I try to squeeze in time to write where I can — when Owen is at daycare, before work, on lunch breaks, and in the evening before bed. I need the quiet to think so I prefer to write in solitude, but I hate to be alone. Having stage IV cancer is lonely enough as it is, and when I’m by myself I feel as though I’m stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean. When I’m with others I can at least see the shore. Luckily the time that I’m truly alone is very limited and I am so very thankful to have many wonderful people in my life. It’s a complicated thing to feel so blessed and so cursed at the same time. I walk a fine line of feeling incredibly grateful and being crushed by despair. It’s very hard when you know that time is short, harder not knowing exactly how short it is. The list of things you want to accomplish becomes smaller out of necessity, and your goals change, too. Instead of saving money for a vacation or a new home you are saving for funeral expenses. Instead of cleaning out your closet to make room for new clothes you do it so your husband has less to go through when you’re gone. All the little things you thought you would get around to doing haunt you like last night’s dreams. The pictures you wanted to frame, the books you wanted to read, the junk drawers you wanted to sort. Never mind the bigger things, that’s another post entirely. There are a million thoughts you have about time when you can feel it running out. I wish I could capture them all but my mind is so crowded — with words, memories, songs and poems, hopes and dreams…with life — it’s impossible.
While writing this I remembered a poem I learned in high school, taught by one of my favorite teachers*. We were learning about the metaphysical poets of the 17th century and about carpe diem, and one poem sticks out vividly in my mind. It’s quite racy and probably shouldn’t be taught to young, impressionable teenagers if taken at face value — but the message behind it resonates with me so much more now than it did when I was sixteen. I hope when you read it that you can recognize the urgent and desperate desire for love and life, for time. It’s palpable, and it’s what I feel every day.
* If you’re as lucky as I am, your life has brought you a handful of people that are true kindred spirits. There is a connection made upon meeting that is immediate and it does not deteriorate with the passage of time. It is dependable, loyal, ageless — a bond that cannot be broken. I’d like to use this moment in time to thank my high school English teacher, Mr. Thomas Clark — he is one of these people in my life. He is the one who taught me literature and poetry, the value of debate and of speaking your mind, and most importantly, he’s the first one I can credit with teaching me to see beauty in the little things in life. Even though he made me read Beowulf, I still cherish his friendship to this day. Carpe diem indeed, TC. (And I’m only joking about Beowulf — mostly.)
To His Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart;
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity.
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But non, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in this slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
I know you haven’t summoned the strength to read my blog yet, but I wanted to give you a little something to show how much we have accomplished. I am so lucky to have found you in this crazy world and I want to thank you for the last thirteen years. I hope we have many more years to come and although I cannot promise you that, I can promise that the memories we have made and the life we created together — our beautiful son, Owen, — will always provide comfort to you no matter what the future holds. We have lived an amazing life together and our story isn’t over yet. I know we have a hard road ahead of us but I also know it will be full of wonderful new memories and lots of joy and happiness as long as we are on it together. I love you.
It has taken me four months to write this post. Four months that seem like an eternity. December 27th, 2012 was the day that my life changed forever — it spun out of control and I lost sight of everything. Well, almost everything. In some ways everything became clearer than it’s ever been before. I’ve lost a lot in four short months — a life without worry and fear, the ability to create dreams for the future, my hair. But what I’ve found is love. I don’t mean that in a cheesy, “all you need is love” kind of way. Or maybe I do, because there is nothing else that is more important now than love.
If you’re like me you have always loved your friends and family, even though at times it may have been challenging. This love is there now in fact, but maybe you take it for granted. I know I did. The love that is present in my life now is so much more powerful. It’s rooted in my gut so deeply that I am often overwhelmed by the feeling of it. It’s demanding and relentless, my desperate and constant companion. Every second I spend with a loved one, whether it is a family member, friend, or even colleague, is weighted down with this feeling of love. I always want more and the sadness of someday losing it sends me reeling, grasping to hold on as long as possible while it pulls away slowly, quietly. It dances at the fringe of my fingertips, flirting with me in the most devastating way.
I feel this way towards everyone in my life, even strangers. This is more compassion than love I suppose, but it’s just as deep. I see things in a way I’ve never seen them before. Nowhere is it more present than at my hospital. I look around the waiting room while I’m there and secretly absorb the love that is all around. The elderly husband pushing his wife in a wheelchair, bending down to catch her magazine as it falls to the ground, her baseball cap hiding a fine wisp of hair. The weary mother of a disabled adult, patiently requesting that he speak with her in the hallway as he yells at her and causes a scene, her hand lovingly pressed to the small of his back. The parents of a little girl, her pale and tired form molded perfectly against her mother’s chest, the father bending slightly to brush his lips against the crown of her bald head. I wonder what we must look like sitting there, me and my husband. I wonder if anyone notices our love in such a way, these little details which are now so obvious to me.
One of the things that has struck me since being diagnosed with stage IV cancer is the need to live for the day. Being a planner by nature, this is very difficult for me and something I struggle with constantly. I try to find something beautiful each day to appreciate and remind myself that tomorrow is never promised, not for anyone. Some days it is very hard to see through the dense fog of my disease and I have to consciously seek out that one thing of beauty. Other days are abundant with opportunities. I’d like to leave something here that will help all of us remember to find this beauty in life, and I plan to do this as close to daily as I can manage. Today I’ll leave you with a picture of the most ferocious love in my life, my son. I hope you all have someone who threatens your heart to burst as much as this guy does mine.