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Living through uncertainty

“We are always getting ready to live, but never living.”

This cautionary quip by Ralph Waldo Emerson goes all the way back to my high school yearbook, where I selected it as my senior quote.

First, can we pause for a second to reflect on the fact that this is a pretty gloomy selection for 17-year-old me to have made? But it’s accurate: as a freshman in high school, I made a list of 18 things I wanted to do by the time I graduated, 17 of which I achieved. And one of which I didn’t (getting a date with Mike Westphal).

And second, did that quote foreshadow the conversation I would have twenty years later with a therapist who observed that, although my resilience was impressive, it also had a tendency to keep me powering through bad situations, living for the light at the end of the tunnel?

(Life would be better, I told myself, after that big media plan recommendation; after the kitchen renovation; after we had kids.)

“You need to create a life that you enjoy living now,” she told me.

Today, I wonder if that is what makes living through cancer treatment so difficult.

I have 100 plans for my post-chemo life. These include everything from a trip to Rome with girlfriends to buying a pair of studded Valentino heels to paying a dermatologist to strip off as many layers of my rash-torn face as it takes to start from scratch.

My chemo life, on the other hand, is bogged down by too many trips to the bathroom and foods I can no longer taste. At night, when I can’t fall asleep, I torture myself thinking about whether I’ll die before I can get rid of this rash, before I can grow back my real hair.

Maybe not surprising that I’ve convinced myself that things will be easier if I get some sign that this is all going to turn out alright.

I ask for that light at the end of the tunnel, and I hear the voice in my head responding in various ways:

Do Not Be Afraid

You Are Brave

You Are Safe

But I keep pushing. I want something more specific. These macro assurances aren’t so reassuring, frankly. What I want to hear, ultimately, is that I will get through this—that in ten months I’ll be cancer free and stay that way.

I really need that certainty, I explain in my head, to power me through the next ten months.

I swear to God, I feel the universe winking at me, and this time the voice comes with a smile:

You don’t get to be certain.

None of us do, really, if we are honest with ourselves. I’m pondering this thought when I bump into an old friend.

She tells me her husband had a stroke last weekend. He walked away from it, thank goodness—much as he did his last health scare, a number of years prior, overcoming incredible odds to recover completely.

“What is the universe trying to tell you??” I ask her.

“Maybe it’s more like what did we forget,” she responds.

The run-in does not feel accidental.

It feels like an underlining, a punctuation, reinforcement of what I didn’t really want to hear.

I don’t get to be certain.

So we make different choices today than we did before. We spend more time over coffee and more money on experiences. The house stays messier longer. We went to Summerfest this weekend – I can’t remember the last time I’d been, and I wanted Per and the kids to go on the bucket ride, to taste the fried eggplant, the sour cream and chive fries, the Wong’s Wok fried chicken. “Isn’t this great?!” I ask them, and they humor me. We watch Billie Eilish together, and we hear the songs that were the soundtrack of our trip to Sicily.

We are happier, mostly. Of that, I am certain.

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