This morning, I woke up in my new house next to my new boyfriend, his warm body wrapped around mine. The scratch of his beard against my face is becoming familiar to me now. I got up and walked quietly into the kitchen to make my morning coffee, which I took to the back deck. I watched as the night sky surrendered to the light, illuminating the treetops and casting a radiant orange glow over my new town. Had I known I'd survive, I would have missed this breathtaking view.
There is an internal shift that occurs when you're told you're going to die. I was 35 years old when I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and given 18 months to live. I wrote letters to my then 15-year-old son Sean, to be given to him at major events in his future. I had planned on asking my sister to deliver them, knowing she was strong enough to handle such a thing. I threw away things I didn't want to be found after I was gone (who needs that many vibrators anyway?) and made lists of who should get what when I passed. All shoes were to go to my fashionista niece, Emily; my fur coat to my PETA-loving friend, so she can fulfill her desire of tossing paint on it. My hippie best friend would want my crystals to meditate with, so I wrote that down, too. I pushed through each grueling treatment, hoping for just a little more time with this wonderful cast of characters.
Now it’s five and a half years later, and I've been cancer free for the last two.
While each clean scan brings feelings of euphoria, there remains a lingering doubt. Will the next scan cause me to hand my body back to my doctors, praying they can once again fix me? Learning to cope with that fear is a struggle, but it's also been one of the most freeing experiences of my life.
The fear of dying helped me to overcome my fear of living.
Cancer forced me to take a hard look at my life. With an acute awareness of time, I reflected on what brought me joy and what depleted my soul. It didn't take long for the cracks in my marriage to become glaringly apparent. Had I known I'd survive, I might have settled for the safety of a long marriage that was little more than going through the motions. I would never have met the man who made me understand that love at first sight exists. I'd have missed the awkwardness and excitement of my 'new naked,' the peculiarity of being called someone's “girlfriend” at 40 and the pure delight of being with a partner not because we have a history but because we want to build a future.
Had I'd known I'd survive I may never have traveled the world. I would have been too worried about nest eggs and rainy days. I would have missed climbing the Acropolis in Greece, the ice cold water spraying my face as I sailed the Norwegian fjords, and watching the sunrise after partying all night in Barcelona. I never would have had that argument with the German cab driver who supported Trump, stormed out of his cab, found the first bar, and stayed there drinking beer until closing. I learned how to play the accordion that night from our Hillary- supporting waiter: Wayne.
If I'd known I'd survive, I may have remained a helicopter parent, instead of allowing Sean to make mistakes. I wouldn't have noticed that I was suffocating his growth. Not knowing how much time I had left allowed me to simply enjoy being with him. I noticed how the hair I’d always complained was too long fell adorably over his eyes. With our guards down, he would allow me to brush it aside and let my hand linger on his cheek. I studied his face; the gold flecks in his eyes, the creamy complexion he got from his father's side. When you think you're going to die, you know these moments are precious, and you hold on to them with everything you have. You pray that your memory will be the last thing to go.
I moved into my new house by myself in June, 2016. Having had a child when I was only 19, living alone was one of the things I felt I’d missed out on. But people asked: What if something goes wrong? What if you get sick again? My answer: Right now, at this moment, I'm healthy. Right now, I'm ridiculously happy. Right now, I will walk in the direction of my dreams.