At 7a.m. on November 23, 2012, my life stopped. I was 37.
My life had changed before this in big and small ways; mostly good, some spectacular (having two healthy kids).
But hearing the words—sorry to do this over the phone; you have advanced inflammatory breast cancer and you need to drive immediately to the hospital, the oncologist on call is waiting for you; you will probably begin chemotherapy this weekend—took me to my knees. I can close my eyes and see every corner of the room, see my four year old daughter crouching under the coffee table, listening; feel the cold wooden floor in my mom’s house; smell the stale wood smoke from the Thanksgiving fire we lit the night before.
The days and months and years to come would not only be the most intense physical experience I would ever have, but test every emotional and spiritual fiber in my being.
I anticipate this day every year, as the days grow shorter and holiday wreaths are hung on the lampposts. I can feel the day coming without looking at a calendar. And what was first just a date, an acknowledgment of an event, slowly grew into PTSD, grief over my old life and time lost, and a wave of guilt. Because as the years go on, I have lost people I have loved. I had never experienced that beyond losing beloved grandparents. These were young, lovely souls that got sick too early and suffered too much.
This year in particular, I couldn’t shake the guilt that crowded out my joy about still being here, playing Uno with my kids, having date night with my husband, reading a book on the couch with a dog on my lap.
So this morning I picked up The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It’s the book I turn to when I need some serious, immediate spiritual wisdom. (It’s like a hit of spirituality from the comfort of home.)
And I opened the book to this: “Now I’ll Tell You a Secret Thing.” Here, the Dalai Lama responds to a question about how to get through sadness and grief. And he said:
“The way through the sadness and grief that comes from great loss is to use it as motivation and to generate a deeper sense of purpose…with the great sadness of the loss, one can live an even more meaningful life.”
And now I will tell you my secret thing: the survivors’ guilt will be turned into action, into more advocacy, honoring the lives lost. The compassion I have learned during this cancer road trip will only grow deeper. I will take the lessons I learned and hold them close. I will add to the world, in cancer and beyond, pushing the rock up the hill with grace and goodwill (and the occasional expletive).
Otherwise, what was it all for?