Ten years ago, on my 37th birthday, in the elevator on the way to pick up my 20-month old from daycare, the surgeon told me that “they found cancer cells,” and everything changed.
Did I imagine that I would survive and have the life I’m living now? Did I have any idea that I would be working as an environmental lawyer for a state agency, living in a house in the suburbs, single, and with a middle-schooler who is learning to play the violin and loves detective and cop shows? Did I imagine that I’d actually write a memoir and start to take writing seriously?
I was afraid to imagine anything, afraid that my life would be snatched away and my daughter left without me, as an orphan. I started listening to audiobooks in the car because I always started crying when I had too much time to think of the possible outcomes. All I knew was that I had to get through it.
I did get through it, through the slash, poison, and burn. Through the “new normal.” Through a number of boyfriends, an engagement, and then years of learning to accept my singlehood. Together, my daughter and I have made it through the terrible twos (and threes), kindergarten, elementary school, and ADHD issues for both of us.
But I am so grateful to have had these ten years. Here’s what I think I’ve learned:
1. It takes more courage to be alone than to be trying always to meet someone. I always thought I was being brave to put myself out there online dating and asking guys out, but dealing with rejection is easy. There’s always someone new to distract yourself with, more profiles to scroll through, someone who may have just joined the site or walked into the bar. What’s hard is to not have someone in your head to fantasize about, to think about what it will be like when you are together, or when the relationship takes that next step. Not having someone in your head is the only way to truly get to know yourself, to take care of yourself. When you’re always thinking about someone else, how do you know who you really are?
2. Flossing is important. B.C. (Before Cancer), I was in denial and thought daily morning and haphazard bedtime brushing would be enough to keep my teeth and gums healthy. After diagnosis, I didn’t think I needed to floss at all because gingivitis is a long-term thing and so it wasn’t terribly likely I’d have to deal with it. But as the annual anniversaries started accumulating, I thought I’d add daily nighttime brushing, and then flossing. Wow! My mouth is happy, and so is my hygienist!
3. That restless feeling won’t kill you. I remember feeling like I had to do something, anything, just to get out of the house. God forbid I didn’t have plans on a Friday or Saturday night. I would shop, or find friends to go out with. But now, it’s not that I don’t get restless. I still do. But I sit with it. I pick up the notebook, write a little bit. Or I go for a walk. Or to the library. Acquiring things or being with other people won’t calm my brain. My spiritual practices of reading, writing, and walking help the most.
4. Eat the ice cream. Cravings don’t go away. I try to practice intuitive eating, and life is too short to miss out on the pleasures of a quiet house, a good book, a soft bed with warm covers, and a bowl of Blue Bell to enjoy.
5. Don’t be afraid to question the assumptions you’ve made about yourself. For years, I believed that I was an extrovert–I enjoyed being in front of people, talking to groups, and just interacting with other people on a regular basis. But then I started to notice that when I walked with a friend at lunchtime, talking the entire time, I had a terrible time settling down and focusing afterwards. I noticed how when the phone rang, sometimes I didn’t want to talk with the person on the phone, even if they were someone I cared about. I noticed how exhausted I was on days when I had multiple meetings scheduled. It was like all of the interaction spun my brain out of control. I tried putting my headphones on at work so I wouldn’t listen to the goings-on in the hallway and be tempted to join. I started walking alone at lunch. And so I honored the little girl who would rather read, alone, than do anything else.
6. Listen to your body. There is wisdom there, whether it’s saying you need more movement or sleep or broccoli. You just have to slow down enough to be able to feel it.
7. You can only do what you can do. Life is overwhelming, and sometimes things fall through the cracks. We all make mistakes and don’t do things we’d committed to. It’s OK. Try better next time, or, don’t commit to doing so much!
8. You don’t have to say “yes” to every social opportunity offered. This is related to #5. I used to never miss an opportunity to meet a friend for lunch, or dinner, or to do something with other people. I still enjoy the time I spend with other people, but I’ve come to appreciate limited time as a hermit. These days, a great Saturday is one where I walk to the park, get to the gym to lift weights, and finish a book. My brain is clearer, and my life isn’t as frazzled. Sometimes it’s better just to stay home and get a few things done. It makes the week go much more smoothly when there are clean dishes and clothes, and food in the fridge on Sunday night.
Can you imagine all the wisdom I’ll be able to spout when I get to 15 or 20 years? Here’s hoping!