Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of my diagnosis with brain cancer.
Five years later, I’m still standing and am very grateful. 22-34% of people with my diagnosis do not live past five years.
I am wistful today, though, having just watched Mr. Holland’s Opus with Hannah, Marshall, Mom, and Dad this past weekend. I am thinking about my own life’s opus. What is it?
In the movie, Mr. Holland works for 30 years in the same school, teaching music. His opus is the many students he’s impacted through his teaching. The movie culminates when Mr. Holland directs a surprise performance of the musical work he’s been trying to finish composing during his entire professional life.
Thinking about what my opus might be is something of a self-indulgent exercise. But I am thinking about it, so there’s no use pretending otherwise. What have I done? What has my work been?
It is tempting to look back on my life and try to list some of my accomplishments here, something of what I have done, in an attempt to decipher my life’s meaning. But that is not where my heart takes me now. Unlike Mr. Holland, I have no school or workplace that has housed my career for 30 years. I have no retirement party to gather friends in; I have no gold watch in recognition of how I’ve chosen to spend my time.
I’ve been at home for the past 17 years. I chose to stay home when Hannah was born to try to learn how to live into my values: Having less, at times, than we otherwise might. Giving up a lawyer’s ego. Slowing the pace. Writing. Learning to notice, to see, to be there, to appreciate. Watching Hannah grow, guiding her way. Growing a happy family. Learning to listen better; learning to let go. Figuring out how to forgive myself and others. The years stretch out like sweet taffy.
My work at home has been love. Not bad, as far as work goes.
Living with cancer these past five years has been challenging in many ways. But the hardest has been seeing the impact of my cancer on Marshall and Hannah and my parents. At first, I thought having cancer was all about me learning to face it, learning to deal with it, actively avoiding bitterness, and creating a way for hope and optimism to still flourish in my own heart and life. I did all those things and more. I thought this would protect my family and keep them from being hurt by my illness.
Boy, was I wrong. Cancer silently weaved its way into our entire family, affecting everyone, no matter how hard I had worked to protect my loved ones from its effects on me. It attached its suckers to our tender underbellies, altered currents of our growth, shifted responsibilities, mounted burdens, and built its own cruel walls inside each of us, trying to separate us from one another.
These last couple of years, as I began to see the effects of my cancer on my family, I’ve felt nauseous, hollow. After spending my life building my opus; after learning and relearning over and over and over again what it means to love someone else more than myself, it broke my heart to know that, in my illness, I myself had been the instrument by which pain and suffering had infiltrated Marshall and Hannah and my parents’ lives. I had brought it to them. It had affected them permanently. Knowing this was “no fault of my own” brought no solace. If cancer was the cause of their injuries, I was the vector.
Wow, did I ever sob when I realized this. I have never felt such sorrow. To bring such hurt to the people I love most in the world has, at times, felt unbearable. The wounds are so deep. I stepped over a mental line I’d not breached before, wanting to turn back time to before my illness to prevent all the pain.
But I’ve known all along that is not how life works. Brain cancer is our reality. It has affected and continues to affect each of us in different and painful ways. There is no way to go back in time to our lives before it. These scars are our scars. We carry them with us. The only way forward is to grab each other’s hands and go forward, through it, together.
So that is what we are doing.
Cancer brings pain and suffering to the families it takes up residence with. And it affects each family and each member of each family differently. No matter the extensive steps we take to be open with each other and “deal with it,” it wounds us. It hollows us out. This last year has been hard for us all in this regard. COVID has not made it easier.
And yet, today as I reflect on these past five years, it feels like this suffering is – I’m not sure yet – but it feels like the wounding, the hollowness, is making more space inside each of us in our own way, creating more capacity. For compassion. For love. For holding the sufferings of others and the world. For prayer. We’ve all been injured greatly, but – and I hesitate to admit this – the hurt is also giving us something as we grapple with it.
It is giving us an obstacle. More, it is giving us the opportunity to dig deeply inside ourselves to find – or really, to create or co-create – ways of facing and that obstacle.
When we hit bottom, we’re discovering that there is something even deeper inside ourselves that touches the eternal, something that connects us to the archetypes of humanity, allowing us to recognize our oneness, not only with each other, but with everything that has ever existed.
Growth is painful. All you writers out there know this intuitively. In our stories, our protagonists must grow, for good or for ill. To get them to do this, we writers must set for them a problem or series of problems to go through. So, too, with life. Cancer is the inciting incident to my own transformation. It is the instrument by which I am being made more my true self. In rare moments when I am able to rise above my instinctive desire to protect my family from pain and suffering, I know this is true for them, too.
Please continue to pray for my healing and my spirit daily. Please, please also pray for my parents, for Marshall, and for Hannah. It is not mine to tell their struggles related to my cancer, but we each know and have felt the immense power of prayer in our lives. We appreciate you and thank you for your love and care.
We are each other’s opus.