Five Years to Live

I was online researching the survival rate for a family member’s cancer (I do not recommend going to this scary place, btw.) The five-year survival rate for her type of cancer is 8%. Eight percent. This is rattling around in my brain as I try to grasp that this fairly young woman has an 8% chance of surviving until her kids all graduate high school. In her pictures she looks pale, thin, almost gaunt.

It’s got me thinking. First, I went and scheduled that mammogram I’ve been putting off. But now, I’m thinking about how I would want to spend my time if I were to have such a diagnosis.

Some of the things that pop into my head are silly and some are not. I want to use Grandma’s china every day. I want to finish my degree. I want to go to Tierra del Fuego and to Patagonia. I want to go to Africa. I want to see my kids, my grandkids and to be with friends.

But more than that, I would want to make sure that I get to serve meals to the homeless, to help the less fortunate, to pray more, to serve more. I would write letters to those I love thanking them and telling them what they mean to me. I would refuse to watch any tv show that isn’t wonderful, or to finish any book that isn’t well-written and a story worth reading. I would want to finish my stories and publish them so my friends and family could read what’s been in my heart and on my mind.

And so…this has me thinking. Why wait? Why not live as if I have that death sentence? Because in truth, I do have a death sentence. I just don’t know when the date of my death will occur.

So starting today, I want to live a life of beauty, of love and of self-sacrifice (not easy, for I am a supremely selfish person.) Grandma’s china is coming out of the cupboard, even though it has to be hand-washed. I am going to continue purging my house and my life of the unnecessary, the ugly, the too-broken to fix. I’m going to fix grandma’s rocking chair. It’s beautiful and I love it.

I’m going to put my life in order, so that when that day happens, no one has to search for those insurance records, those retirement accounts, etc. And I’m going to start inviting people to my apartment for coffee. Just because. Because I have a death sentence. And I need to make sure my life counts for something and that I embrace beauty and love.

A Serious Personal Moment

…and aren’t they all personal? As in, I, a person, am living in this moment. So, anyway, that’s all an aside or an introduction or something, but then again, you don’t even know why you’re reading this, and I think I need to start over, so…here goes:

I cannot remember much of being a kid. Much of that time is hidden from my memory in blackness so thick and dark and sad that I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to peek, I don’t want to pry, I want to leave it be. I know it’s painful. I can still feel it. But I only know part of the reason why.

I’m not sure all this introspection is good for a person, especially one like me.

But whether you want to or not, the past, seen or unseen, remembered or forgotten, stays with you. You carry it with you like a load on your back or shackled to your ankles. Sometimes to get free of something you have to look at it and see the past through the eyes of an adult. This adult has a lot more compassion for the people in my past, more understanding of their faults and foibles. And this adult sometimes takes pity on the child I once was. It’s a weird thing to look at yourself this way and to show compassion to that child, to have compassion toward yourself.

I was talking with my priest the other day and he was telling a story about some training he had taken and an exercise that was part of it. The scenario was not the same as the one I had lived through, but the sensations were the same. I felt myself pale, I felt weak and frightened, sick to my stomach. For a moment or two I was in a different place and time, reliving something I would rather not recall. It’s strange really, how the mind can recall things. The right trigger can cause you to see and smell and feel the same things you experienced on that day, in that moment.

It was a “what do you say, what do you do when faced with some horrific thing happening” scenario. Do you shield someone from the worst of it? Do you protect them? Do you allow them to see the difficult horrible thing for themselves? What do you say/do/think?

There at the church, I didn’t say a word, just sat down for a moment, hoping, waiting for it to pass, so that I could return fully to the present.

But I remember the dilemma: Who do you say something to? Who do you make deal with this thing that is too big for you? Where do you turn? Are you hurting the person who you have to tell? Are you responsible for their pain in this matter? Does it matter that it would be tougher to tell one person rather than the other?

Strangely, it never occurred to me to cover up the incident. Not even for a moment. It puzzles me now some 35 years later. It would have been easier. Telling someone what I witnessed was as traumatic as witnessing it. But as bad as all that was, I don’t suppose it would have been better to keep it hidden. Still, I was a young teenager and it took some kind of backbone to speak up. I had no idea what the consequences would be of speaking up, but not speaking up would have been impossible. It would have meant that I let someone be victimized without saying a word. It would have been, I suppose, tacit approval of what was going on. That I could not do.

I was not concerned with whether to tell, only with whom to tell. It would have been easier to tell my mother, and I considered that. But it would have been cruel to wait for her–cowardly, on my part, I felt. She was not spared the horror of what I witnessed, but I can say that she was spared having to decide what to do next. She was spared having the full weight of it on her. I’m puzzled that I told my father first, the person hardest to speak to of these things. I remember forcing myself to go to him, forcing the words out of my mouth. I did not spare him, and I did not spare myself. But perhaps what I did in choosing to do the most difficult thing was to give myself some courage for later things. In some ways, in protecting my mother from the initial telling, I did the kindest thing I could manage by saying some of the worst words I’ve ever uttered in my life. I spoke through a throat that was closing and airways that were choking and feeling as if I might die right then and there, for surely the body was not meant to handle such intense sorrow, fear, pain and anger.

Is there a point to these flashbacks to a time long gone? I wish I knew. I do not wish to wallow in those memories.  I want them gone, or at least sent to a place where they no longer cause me pain, no longer make me want to throw up. I tell myself to focus on good memories, on good thoughts.  But things are stirring inside me again.

How to gain release from these things?  How to be healed?  I do not know.  Can I be healed forever of the horrors of the past?