Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?
My wife has now finished round six of eight sessions of chemotherapy for breast cancer. We’ve settled into a groove: trepidation, slow decline, feeling like life’s moving at a snail’s pace, gradual improvement, returning of some degree of energy, better appetite, and three to four days of living as normally as possible. And then it goes again.
But we’re comfortable with this. We have found routine in the unsettledness, and we realise what routine-seeking beings we are. We are learning to juggle an energetic five year-old and a waddling eleven month-old.
Now the circular pattern reveals itself to be more of a spiral; we’ll call it an upwards spiral, like a long stairwell found in the tenements of Edinburgh, Scotland, where I spent my youth. At the bottom, the five or six floors loom overhead, and the slightly dank smell drifts up to the frosted skylight fifty or sixty metres above. The broad, worn, cold stone steps which have been there since before Victoria was queen lead up and up and up.
So we’re ascending, but it’s an ascent towards getting her breasts removed and the premature end of her fertility, which is a weird thing to ascend to. We’re seeing the surgeon this evening, and she will discuss with him about getting a double versus a single mastectomy, prior to six weeks of a radiotherapy and then getting her ovaries removed — the latter to ensure there’s no rogue oestrogen floating around encouraging any remnants of oestrogen receptor-positive malignant cells to blossom and flourish.
Many people talk about the journey of cancer, or the journey of life, or the journey of a relationship. All of which implicitly imply this teleological, forward-moving, arrival-seeking, and goal-oriented process.
I’ve been reflecting on this living in the journey. Or another way of phrasing it is: to be living in the middle of what is happening now, without focusing on a destination or achievement. I have been considering this for a while (the past couple of years), but perhaps less consciously so. At the grand age of 35, I have an acute awareness of that well-known principle of time: as you get older, time speeds up. I’m actually a bit terrified of these 80 or so years being swept away from under me and forgetting to enjoy the ride as much as I should because I’m thinking about the destination of each stage. These last three months have thrown an anchor into the rushing current of life and have caused us to slow down and observe ourselves, our children, and how we manage this as a family. For this I am truly grateful. When all this started, I said that I did not believe that my wife’s breast cancer was somehow intrinsically meaningful or sent to teach us something by the cancer deities, but I was open to learning things through it.
So what are some examples of this difficulty we all experience trying to ‘live in the middle’ instead of just waiting for an end point?
In no particular order:
Children — waiting to have children, for children to grow up, for children to move out or move back in, or children to have grandchildren. Waiting for them to start school, complete school, to start university or complete university.
Career — waiting to get that promotion, to get a job — any job! -, or to become a millionaire so that THEN the dream can be pursued. Waiting for career aspirations and goals to happen, despite not working in a job that is enabling them. Tolerating a job that is having an adverse effect on our health because of a hoped-for end point of change or improvement or recognition. Waiting to retire to finally start living…
Partner — waiting to meet The One, or waiting to leave the one you thought was The One, or waiting for The One to change into a better One.
Health — waiting to find the time/motivation/energy to improve our health. Waiting for that ten-day silent retreat to enable us to quieten the busyness of our minds. Waiting for our family’s eating habits to change so we can eat more healthily. Waiting until after the birthday or holiday or religious feast until we change our diet or physical activity levels. Waiting until the kids are older or work is less busy or time has expanded until we improve our health.
Capital — waiting until we have The House to enable us to feel settled and comfortable. Waiting until we’ve worked hard enough to get a deposit together to buy any house to get on the property ladder to climb towards The House to make sure we are safely housed in forty years from now. Working this hard now for security then.
I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching the last weeks. It probably got a bit too much at times; my mind was whirring 24/7 and I was finding it difficult to be present in the moment. This time off work is for me to look after my wife, provide stability for our children, and to look after myself, and what I found was that the last months I have been waiting in the middle of a lot of situations; medical training to finish, cancer treatment to end, eldest child to start school, our baby to sleep through/sit/crawl/walk/talk/triple jump, my novel to be finished. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
And this rush to be finished is driven by anxiety. It’s driven by not feeling comfortable with the discomfort of lack of control and the inability to hurry the natural unfolding of life. It’s driven by the desire to achieve more, gain more control over our future, and the fear of missing out on something.
So I have been learning about slowing down and sitting with this discomfort. It has had a very practical application: waiting whilst my wife goes through energy-sapping, life-changing treatment that is ploddingly regular. Just after I had charted my career path for the next three years (to the end (see?) of what has been a rather tortuous journey which formally began 16 years ago when I started studying) which would result in arrival at Fellowship, her diagnosis exploded my plans and halted this conveyor belt. After nine years of studying, and six-and-a-half years of working as a doctor, this enforced break is throwing up questions and possibilities that would have otherwise escaped me.
I’m learning that in the midst of illness and disruption to life’s usual pattern, as my career is put on hold, as we contemplate mortality and changes within our family, that there is a rich life to be lived. All the usual human emotions — love, sadness, anger, joy, — persist. The same things that brought meaning to life before are those which bring meaning now. Regardless of not getting on that elusive housing ladder, not making voluntary contributions to my super fund, or being able to ‘ensure’ I’ll rest easy when I’m 65 — and THEN I can slow down and have time to pursue what I want to in life — meaning and fulfillment are present here and now. We have never been particularly interested in material wealth or owning a house as soon as we could, for the very reason that to pursue that at this point in our life would mean sacrifices in other areas: my wife having to go back to work due to financial obligations rather than out of career choice when it suits her and our children best; me picking up more out-of-hour shifts, or choosing a more lucrative career in the city. Our choices have been to give us freedom in the present, and to be able to reduce stress as much as possible. We have not been stress avoidant (she is a high school teacher, I am a doctor — not careers associated with minimal stress — and we moved to Australia with a seven month-old baby four and half years ago), but we have tried to maintain freedom from financial or career or general social pressures to conform to expected norms.
And these ‘norms’ may be partially projected by us; we cannot solely blame others or society in general. The last months I found myself slipping in to thinking, ‘maybe if we’d just had $30,000 of savings lying around this would be less stressful’; or, ‘maybe if we owned our own home this would be less destabilising’; and initially, even the thought, ‘maybe if we didn’t have a baby this would not be so terrifying; he needs and deserves so much and we might not be able to provide this’. This is a thought that quickly altered as we gained the confidence that we would be able to provide the stability and love for him which we wanted, along with that for our eldest child, despite feeling emotionally and mentally fragile. As an added bonus, he brings joy and light into our lives and his big sister’s, which has been a daily boost to us. Nothing like baby cuddles and laughs to cheer you up. And we learned from our eldest child’s vivaciousness and energy and ongoing good humour that their needs are still fairly simple — if time-consuming, patience-trying, and energy-sapping.
This morning I’m sitting here after we met the surgeon last night. My wife had a good outcome from it; he agreed to do a double mastectomy which is what she has decided she wants. The road is far from traveled, but we are learning that in the travelling is where the joy is found. We have no idea where the destination will be, which is often exciting, occasionally unnerving, but ultimately we cannot control this. We can make decisions for today. We can decide to be creative, or to immerse ourselves in nature, or do something good for our bodies, or be present with one another and our children, or pursue new ideas and dreams. These are the things which we can invest in (I hesitate to say ‘control’ as seeking control is often counter-productive) and our belief in ourselves, the love of others, the benevolence of the universe (and all spiritual components which that may or may not entail), and the general beauty of life make us positive about our ongoing journey until our final destination.
Sometimes life is no more complicated than sitting at the window, writing, looking at the sea and sky, and drinking from your favourite mug. That’s where the living happens. Happy life in the middle, people.
Originally published at thebreastdaysofourlife.wordpress.com on February 28, 2017.