Let me tell you about M. She was an older student working on a Ph.D. after raising her family. Before she finished, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Juggling classes and chemo, determined to write that dissertation, she died before she could finish her degree. I remember vividly when I visited her once, she picked up a stack of bills and laughed. The bills were so astronomical, she said, all she could do was laugh. You know that cosmic laugh Buddhists write about? M. had it.
Here is what I want you to do. Get out your favorite pen and a stack of index cards. If you are crafty, try markers or watercolor pencils. Clear a place on your dining room table. Turn on some music or open the windows so you can hear birds.
N. was a great aunt. She had lived a tempestuous life in her early days, dressing as a flapper. This was before she died of metastatic breast cancer. N. was an intelligent woman who had gone to college at 16 only to leave to pursue a traditional path of following an important man around the world. While I remember her drinking too much late in life, I also remember her study. She was the first person I knew who had a whole room – a sun room, in fact – devoted to books and a desk, with photos from her travels and loved ones neatly arranged. I played with that study the way I played with her jewelry box.
Start naming your role models. Begin with their names or nicknames. Write each down on a different index card. Then think of a word that captures the biggest lesson you learned from knowing each person. Write that down. There are no hard and fast rules here. You can write three words down. Seven. Write your heart out.
I got to know A. through her poetry and cancer activism. She was a woman living with metastatic breast cancer. Her life so full and vibrant that the only word I could think of to describe her when she died was the same one I used when she was alive: luminous. A. was spunky and loving and brilliant and fine. Her death rattled me because she had defied the odds for so long. A. died too young, but she lived a full life ever single step of the way. Her colorful mind and headscarves, and her love of her family and friends, will remain a beacon.
Last, after you have finished the set of cards to the best of your recollection, draw a symbol on each of them to represent the role model. It could be a flower or a fork. It could be a yellow sun with rays of all colors of the rainbow. Do not let what you think is a lack of artistic ability inhibit you. See where you go with this image-making. It will surprise you.
E. taught me how to make preserves. I thought I knew how to make preserves. Had I not watched my mother? Had I not made preserves for years? E. makes preserves with the passion of a surgeon saving lives, not unlike the surgeon and other doctors who saved her young life when she was diagnosed too early with breast cancer. When I am making preserves, I see E. at my stove, blackberries bubbling over. Thanks to her, there are tools I now use. And if I forget what a particular wild berry is called, I am still so fortunate to be able to text E. a photo and ask.
After you finish your set of cards, hold it in your hand. Is it thick? Because I am over 60 and have had so many role models with cancer over my entire life, it is thicker than I would like. But that is OK. Do not worry if yours is thin. Quality is more important than quantity.
For M., a green heart with a laughing pair of lips inside it. For N., a book cover with her name on it in all caps encircled by a strand of pearls. I picture for A. a paisley leaf with the alphabet marching up and down each curve, an exclamation point accenting the leaf. E.'s card is bordered by wild berries and cherries.
Hold your own cards close to your chest. Shuffle them when cancer is making you feel a little blue. Pull one randomly. Read this name aloud. Picture the role model and the lesson. Smile.