On September 17, 2013, my 13 year old son Tristan, was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma. The doctors told me, on more than one occasion, that if you were forced to choose a type of cancer, you’d want to choose Hodgkins. (This statement still makes me want to punch someone in the face, but I try to balance that feeling out by reminding myself that it wasn’t Leukemia or a Neuroblastoma, and that my child got to live.)
Hodgkins is highly treatable, and after six months of treatment, Tristan walked away, mostly unscathed. He is lucky. I know this, and I repeat it in my head more often than anyone realizes, because I haven’t always felt that we were lucky. I have felt despair and pain and guilt and soul crushing amounts of anger. I did not feel that, like Tristan, I walked away unscathed.
I tell my therapist that I hate cancer. She nods her head, as if it’s a perfectly natural thing for me to say. Except that it doesn’t feel natural to me.
“It isn’t a person, or a living thing, or even an object. It’s a disease. It’s like hating an idea, and having no one to blame, or to direct that hate, that anger.”
It’s abstract, my seething hate, and so is the cancer that spread to nearly every lymph node in my son’s body. And yet, like all things that produce hate, be it a person, or an object, or an idea, cancer taught me something. In fact, it taught me a lot of things. Nothing new or remarkable, but a string of clichés that now have real meaning behind them. They are no longer abstract ideas that we routinely and flatly repeat, but tangible lessons that I learned firsthand. They remind me constantly of the fragility and fleeting nature of life, about the things that matter most, about bravery and survival and grief and paralyzing fear.
Because of cancer, there are more moments in every day that I sit in the middle of a dirty and chaotic house, and feel an intense wave of gratitude wash over me. For this home, for these children, and for the dirt and the mess and the chaos they bring.
Because of cancer, I laugh more often, and at so many things I wouldn’t have previously found funny. I’ve learned not to take myself so seriously, not to take life so seriously. I learned how humor, as inappropriate as it may seem, is the only surefire way, straight through tragedy. It is not the masking of pain. It is grace under fire.
Because of cancer, I learned that so much is temporary, that all things ebb and flow, begin and end. I learned to survive one day at a time, and sometimes, one hour at a time, because nothing is static. Change is inevitable, and fighting against it is as useless as swimming against a riptide. These days, I let go of what I can’t control, and I relax into that feeling, and let life carry me.
Because of cancer, I know that no one gets dealt a good hand every time. Sometimes, we get dealt a shitty hand, every single time, over and over again, and it feels like our bad luck is never ending. Almost nothing is predictable, and almost everything changes. And because of cancer, I’ve learned to live a life of improvisation. Sometimes, every step forward results in two steps back. And when that happens, as it frequently does, I veer off into an unbeaten path. I alter the plan. I find my way. I reinvent myself, because I know that there is only one way for me to find joy in this unpredictable, chaotic, dirty, hilarious, and ever-changing life.
This is life. Improvised.