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.
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.