It’s my 47th birthday. For the past six years, I have spent a least a portion of milestone days wondering if each one was the last. I’ve measured time differently, divided my life into “before cancer” and “after cancer.”
Before became after two months past my 41st birthday.
Yesterday I was writing in my journal about this, racking my brain for some new insight, some lush expression of gratitude, some sagacious epistle, at least an illuminated utterance.
I’ve got nothing.
The truth is, what is forefront on my mind is the daily mundanity – enjoying the ride of my daughter’s last year in her Catholic grade school, puzzling over my son’s careening toward puberty. I really want a paver patio. This weekend we have a basketball tournament, volleyball practice, that long Palm Sunday Mass, and a track meet. I’m anxious to hang some Boston ferns and plant some annuals. And what will we have for dinner tonight? Oh yes, the monkey mind has been busy.
It’s not that cancer has disappeared from my awareness. Obviously I can’t look in the mirror without remembering. Sometimes I get waylaid by a PTSD flashback – the taste in my mouth from a saline push or the uneasy simmering nausea during chemotherapy. But to bring that into the present moment at will requires some serious conjuring.
It’s just not my yardstick this year.
Falling in to my lap yesterday afternoon was a piece by, of all people, the conservative columnist David Brooks in an New York Times’ Op-Ed, What Suffering Does. I think the Buddhists have the definitive answer on suffering when they say that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. I believe that we create our own suffering by clinging to things that can’t be grasped. When I started to read this piece, I got a little hung up in the language, so if you do too, stick with it. His larger points are thought-provoking and sometimes profound.
Brooks makes it clear upfront that suffering isn’t inevitably redemptive, but what you do in the face of difficulty might be. “The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.”
“Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”
Trying to create something sacred has been a driving force behind my work in the “after.” I suspect Brooks is talking about the showy creations – foundations and the like. At this point, we need another breast cancer foundation like we all need new holes in our heads. I certainly don’t regret the years I spent agitating, but the main lesson I learned was how limiting, and limited, it is.
I have been thinking for weeks now about the intersection of the sacred and the ordinary. I am grateful beyond words for my children, who constantly nudge me out of the past, out of the dark ruts of rage and victimhood; whose very existence proves that nature of the universe is change. I try to create a safe and fertile space for their blossoming and along the way feed and fortify my own spirit. I am trying to create a life that honors the light in them, in me, in everyone around me.
What could be more sacred than that?