09 November 2014


How often in your life have you turned some corner—perhaps in a city you visit rarely, or when hearing the voice of a friend you haven’t seen for years—and bumped into a version of your old self. Suddenly you remember—and can almost feel—the twist of anxiety, the bellow of laughter, the fears and delights of the person you once were.

November is a month for flashbacks for me; it’s like walking down that street again and again. I remember last November well. It was ripe with new possibilities.  Sometimes the pictures come up on my screensaver from that time: carefree blonde curls, a ready smile, and the undiscovered tumour ready to change my life. I have such vivid memories—of conversations with clients, long plane rides nestled next to the book I was writing (now finished and in galley proofs), soaking in the hot tub with Michael and the kids. As I peer into pictures or slip into memories, it comes as such a shock to feel so absolutely normal just before everything turned on its head. I think of all the events in life that can do that: the month before the car accident, the week before the earthquake, the day before you bumped into the stranger who would become the love of your life. We are on the cusp of unexpected and shocking change in each moment, and in nearly all those moments the conditions don’t align for that change to take hold. But in the moments when we get the phone call, or have the conversation, or step off the curb into disaster—it is not just our future lives that are refigured, but our past ones too.

Last week I had the last of the reconstructive surgery. A minor, out-patient event in the same hospital where I had my major surgery in January. As I checked in at 6.30am, I could see my former self, suitcase in hand, checking in for the most frightening surgery of her life.  I was struck suddenly by how brave I was then, how terrified (hands shaking so hard it was difficult to sign the admissions papers) and how matter of fact. I remember the tense jokes with Michael and Rob, the room with a view of the car park, the marks on my skin indicating where the cuts would be made.

This time there was no suitcase, no trembling hands. The hardest part were those shadows of that former me around each corner. But oh, what a surreal experience to be awake while people cut and sew my very own body, to hear the casual conversation, chatting about the weekend and the weather, the surgeon singing to Ed Sheerhan on his side of the curtain, while I sang softly on mine, our faces inches away from each other. I was me and also not me, awake and not awake, the star of the show and a bit player.

In the recovery room after of the surgery I heard Stan talking to someone going in, encouraging her in his soft, matter-of-fact murmurs. I heard her tight cheerful laugh, and heard myself in those notes. And I suddenly realised how little I knew then about what my future could be. I didn’t know then what terrible news I could have gotten after the surgery (I could have had triple negative cancer, or many lymph nodes infected, but I didn’t). I knew I was afraid, but I didn’t know how much more there was to be afraid of. And then, along with the sadness of what has been lost, I have the most astonishing sense of gratitude.

Every day there are horrible things that don’t happen. Each day that our life stays sort of ordinary and regular, we don’t notice how lucky we are. We don’t notice the bad news that never came, the accident we didn’t have, the tragedy that never arrived. We should be singing in gratitude each commonplace day. I parted my hair yesterday for the first time in eight months. I was near giddy with the delight of it. I got a papercut and realised that it wasn’t dangerous (as they are during chemo) and I got a strange little surge of joy at the thin line of bright red blood. I agonised over the decision we’re trying to make now about where to live next year, and in the agony and tedium of it, I felt this bubbling spring of happiness—look at the choices we get to make today! We are alive and together and meandering through the days of our lives. Every day we get to wake up and look out at a world that can be so beautiful, every day we climb into bed and set the alarm and look at our calendars for the next day, every day we are breathing and alive—these days are miracles. It is so easy to forget that the ordinary days, because they are so common, are each precious jewels to be strung together on the necklace of our lives.

An awareness of the horrors that could await me might make me afraid and unhappy—and I admit that some days I live in that space too. But the horrors that don’t visit us each day could be a renewable source of energy and exhilaration, a reminder that the ordinary love and work and laughter and tears of our ordinary days could become extraordinary in the face of a coming disaster. Or we could make them extraordinary just by realising that there was almost no chance that we would be here at this moment having this experience, no matter how commonplace it seems from our current perspective (think of all the tiny choices that could have gone a different way and made it so that you were never born, or so that you had a totally different life). We could tap into the spring of joy that invisibly surrounds us, like the oxygen we take for granted. We could run into the shadow of our former selves on a street corner or a hospital corridor, and we could flashforward to now. Because right now is all we ever have: the feel of the sun on our backs, the scent of coffee on the stove, the soft snoring of a dog curled up in his bed.

Or, as e.e. cummings said it better:

"i thank You God for most this amazing"

e. e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)