On a new normal

This is a strange space to inhabit. I’m not feeling that sick at the moment, and in my dreams I am still healthy. So I wake most mornings feeling perfectly fine. The emotional intensity of the first weeks after my diagnosis has diminished. My time has stretched longer than it might have. The better I feel, the stronger my impulse to live life as I used to, choosing my day’s and the season’s activities with a tempered expectation of longevity. I have to remind myself sometimes that I have cancer, that I am dying. This is hard when I feel well. I was blessed in this life with a great deal of vitality, so even with it now reduced, my natural mode is to be excited about all I might do in a day, in a lifetime. My garden beckons me to tend it. My studio is full of things to make art. My head is still full of questions to research and ideas to write about.

I spent a bittersweet afternoon in the wonderful City Lights Books in San Francisco last week: how inspiring to be in a room full of poetry, to scan all the shelves of brilliant fiction and non-fiction! But I won’t have time to read more than a few books now (how to choose!), let alone to write.

Those choices about how to spend my time, which were always so difficult for me, are even more fraught now. As I’ve settled into this new but temporary normal with the chemo slowing my disease progression, I feel there are more things I should try to do. Finish that manuscript. Start that charitable fund. But often all I want to do is enjoy my garden.

How does one live fully while dying? Because we are all ultimately on the road to death, this question is relevant even while still healthy.

2010-09-06 01.15.47

Rabbit murals in Berlin. I loved these representations of life and death, just around the corner from each other! (Poor quality photo by me, five years ago.)

Nowadays I try not to bring too much pressure to each day, wanting to avoid that sort of stress. I recently took a vacation, a week away with my boyfriend and my sons. I’d never done this before; my last big trip was over five years ago with my entire extended family and before this relationship. Someone called this last vacation a trip of a lifetime, but I didn’t want to think of it that way. I didn’t want expectations that would be too high to meet. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I feel that way about most things now. I’m okay with things being less than perfect, with flawed beauty, with irritations in my bliss. That is the way life is, after all. Never perfect—or at least not for long!

Mostly, taking each day as a gift is my main strategy, though far from an automatic attitude. It takes effort, reminders. A regular meditation practice would certainly help. But I’ve never been very good with maintaining structure or routine. I can see why so many spiritual traditions have some sort of daily ritual along with seasonal ones. It keeps people—we’re so easily distracted!—faced in the right direction. Without that, I’m prone to losing days, weeks, sometimes longer, to a dulled sensibility, joylessness, even pettiness. Or perhaps this variability is just a normal, cyclical part of being human. I don’t know.

It’s always hard to adjust to change, though change is the one constant in life. Nothing ever stays the same, even though some moments seem to stretch out for a long time. So I try to live this new, temporary normal for this little while. A small flat period in this big transition towards death. And I try to gently make it as meaningful and worthwhile as I can. Which isn’t so different from the way I’ve always lived.

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About susanbriscoe

English teacher, writer
This entry was posted in Essays: On Dying and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On a new normal

  1. Katherine says:

    Your posts are really inspiring. A reminder to live each day to the fullest, but with patience and kindness and for what it is. It’s easy to forget to live in the moment and to always be rushing to the next thing. I appreciate what you’ve been doing here and will continue to read along. Thank you. Love always, your cousin Kat

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Zil says:

    Relevant to us all. You write beautifully and so honestly. Thank you.
    I am approaching 62, a significant age for me as it was then my namesake, the mother of my mother, died. I have always kept in the back of my mind a timeline for myself that ends as she did.
    I just turned 61, so I tell myself that this summer is maybe the last; that I have one fall left or snowy winter. In this parallel life each day becomes heightened, deepened with a sense of finiteness, preciousness. This helps me to appreciate my blessings and not fall into pettiness (perfect description you wrote) Yet my timeline is imaginary, or at least I think/hope it is. I miss my friend Leslie as she lived for a long time anticipating her death and was so good at talking about it.
    As I live without knowing my death date I wonder if I can hold this reverent space open as I live on ( if ) into the years of aging, with all that brings, and continue to feel blessed.
    My mom said the problem with surviving is you lose all your friends. She was 84 when she died.

    Liked by 1 person

    • susanbriscoe says:

      Thank you for sharing this! I’m not sure why it’s so hard to hold onto that “reverent space”. I suppose it gets in the way somewhat of the business necessary for surviving. But I’m sure you will keep it to some degree in those years past 62! And I hope there are many.

      Like

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