One of the last casts supervised by Auguste Rodin of “The Thinker” in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art (acquired in 1917)
“In short, Beauty is everywhere. It is not that she is lacking to our eyes, but our eyes which fail to perceive her. Beauty is character and expression…The work of art is already within the marble. I just chop off what isn’t needed.” Auguste Rodin
Sculpture is my favorite form of art, so this cancer journey has been ironic.
Cancer has a way of chiseling away at a person, removing what doesn’t really matter, leaving behind what does. What’s immediately apparent, and a struggle is what is lost. In two years, I’ve gone from being a vibrant, “healthy,” yoga-teaching, hands-on-parenting, working, young-ish woman with long curly hair, to being an old-and-sick-looking lady who needs a wheelchair to tour Istanbul with her family. It didn’t happen right away. I put up a good fight. For the first year and a half, I managed to continue running, doing yoga, cooking, eating, working, fighting cancer with every traditional and nontraditional tool in the book…being more or less myself, while carrying the burden of advanced disease and often a bald head. Then, things went downhill fast, as they sometimes do with high-grade cancers. In July, my running slowed down. In August, I gave my last speech. In September, I was grateful I could still deliver empathy workshops virtually. By October, I struggled against pain to participate in zoom meetings, while eating became difficult and cooking impossible. I was grateful to still be able to watch our son play soccer. By November, we realized Thanksgiving at home was not going to be a celebration and opted for one more chance to live here in Istanbul, leaving our kids to celebrate with family, without their parents. It’s a family affair, these losses, including the sense that life is secure, we are immortal, and we will always have each other here on earth.
What is harder to see in the midst of the losses, is what’s found. What’s new. What’s reorganized about people and life. In the dark moments, I cast about, fishing for these insights. In the lighter times, they come easily. There is a certain symmetry to it all. For everything that is lost, something is found. Mostly, it’s a transition from ego to something else…something bigger and more universal. Something beyond the self. Here is what has come to mind 2 years into this journey…
Lost – figure, hair, vanity, whatever I used to think was beautiful…found – how gray my hair really is, appreciation for the pixie cut, and a kind of liberation from society’s gaze. In a way, it’s accelerated aging. This is what women in particular talk about when they say getting older is becoming invisible. It’s sad but true in American society. It hasn’t been an easy transition, but I’m struck by both the shift and the upside of freedom.
Lost – the opportunity to parent our teenage children at close range, including cooking for and spoiling them on holidays and birthdays during this treatment in Istanbul…found – a remarkable village willing to step in and take up the slack, how much goodwill our kids have built, and how incredibly capable our 18 and 19-year-old children are of living in this world (and traveling internationally during a pandemic!). Although I will never, ever stop wanting to cook for, love, hug, advise as needed, and pamper them, I have seen how well they can stand on their own two feet. It’s good for us as parents and for them to know this now. I don’t think I underestimated them, but it’s simply awesome to see them in action.
Lost – countless chances to do work that matters in the world, much of which I was in the midst of doing when I was diagnosed…found – an ever more authentic voice, crystal clear priorities, new creative outlets for pent-up energy, and the hope that work can continue in deeper and more meaningful ways when I am well. I’m grateful for those of you who read and respond to these posts, as well as colleagues who involve me when and as I can work. I’m a recovering workaholic. So this tradeoff has been another struggle, which brings me to…
Lost – the frenzy of doing a lot…found – the good, bad, and ugly of more time. What this means is that I’ve had to face down feelings, history, and the reasons behind my addiction to motion. To deal with them. To resolve them as best as I can, so that when I’m well, I live a more balanced, patient life.
Lost – the relationship I knew with my husband, between two busy, independent, peaceful, and loving people…found – an unexpected intimacy, new interdependence, and depth of soul-to-soul understanding that comes with the deepest conversations of all after 23 years. We never had reason to reflect so poignantly on the life we built together, legacy, a “good passing,” and what we hope for each other and our kids, even in the other’s absence before. We also have an appreciation for all the little things we took for granted, like the moments we’re out to dinner and feel as though we’re on a “normal” date night again.
Lost – a body that moves, breathes, eats, and functions easily…found – appreciation for all the people who suffer physically in this world as well as an understanding of my own capacity for this kind of sustained suffering (before I turn into a raging bitch!). In short, empathy for anyone struck by physical discomfort and disease, especially for the too many cancer victims and their families. I also gained a fierce determination to understand and expose as much of the why/how/what we do about cancer as I can in this lifetime. What I’m still finding, little by little, day by day, is an appreciation for things I used to consider automatic, such as eating without discomfort, walking to the store, cooking a meal again…eventually, even returning to that headstand in yoga for a different perspective.
Lost – the days when I was the one delivering food and comfort to people who were sick or hurting…found – the exquisite beauty of vulnerability and how much joy others take in helping when and where they can. In many ways, vulnerability is a portal to the best of humanity, a view our family won’t forget. I was a pretty extroverted and networked person before all of this went down, but we connect through our vulnerabilities. Sharing this cancer journey has exponentially multiplied the people I’ve heard from since, offering a poignant opportunity to be in the flow of the #CurrencyOfEmpathy. As John Mellencamp sang, it “hurts so good.”
Lost – a sense that life is limitless, not just for me, but for our whole family…found – a realization that limits make meaning. Knowing we don’t have each other forever really does make us appreciate the time we have together more. Of course, I hope it’s still decades to come and there is more after this life as we know it, but the saying that you can only really live when you accept death is real for us now.
There you have it, a sample of the “lost and found” of one person’s cancer journey so far. Perhaps this is just an accelerated version of what we all go through as we age. It feels like that. In the United States, where ageism is real and people strive to look and be younger all the time, we’d do well to realize what we’re gaining as we move along through life too.
Photo credit: Special thanks to Professor John Protesiewicz for the picture of Rodin’s Thinker in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art