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A four-time cancer survivor shares the advice her father gave her as a young child during her first journey with cancer. The words he uttered made her shift how she has looked at life.
When I was a little girl, it was a common ritual to visit Pinelawn Cemetery to see the grave of my dad’s mother. I would be curious with anticipation every time we got there to explore, learn or guess about the history of the mysterious people who were behind those granite mausoleum stones. As my mother would set about giving my sister and I tasks to do, such as go to the water spigot and fill a bucket with water for the flowers we would plant, instead I scurried about, and I entered into a tunnel, into the final resting places for so many, surrounded by squares with names and dates. There were those who had passed on very early in life, some had lived for years and years, and then some had very small squares where their name was engraved.
“Mom, why do some of the people that died have such a small square?” I asked curiously.
My mother replied, “Those people were cremated, and their remains were placed in the wall.”
“Hmmm”, I thought in my head. “That makes so much more sense to me. Why take up space when you’re dead? I’ll do that when I die, a thousand years from now,” my eight-year-old brain was reasoning. Death had yet to become a fearful concept for me. And I realized as I got older, FEAR in general doesn’t paralyze a young mind. As we grow, we learn to become afraid.
I was 11 years old when I found out that I had Hodgkin’s disease. Barely entering middle school and the word “death” was introduced into my personal life. Carefree days of playing tag, riding bikes and hanging out in my friends’ basements creating fictional stories came to a halt. I was suddenly faced with that word, “FEAR”, devirginizing me from the innocence of adolescence that I had been blissfully ensconced in for my first 10 years on this planet. And I did not know how to come out of that bubble into the harsh realities that for the most part, only older people have to face. Could I end up a square in Pinelawn? All of those names that I had looked at, that I had read like a delicious book that I could not put down. I had given them all a personality. I had given them a face in my mind. I thought about how they had lived their lives. Did anyone remember them now that they were behind that stone in the wall? I was not ready for the wall or a square yet. I was not even ready to think about what would put me there.
Pushing through a grueling regimen of surgery, which included a staging laparotomy that doctors said I may not survive and heavy chemotherapy, I was living in a very different world than the carefree one that seemed just moments before. My mother attempted to keep our life consistent and structured in some ways, so our visits to the cemetery continued. There was a huge expansion of grass that seemed as long as a football field between my grandma’s grave and the other crypts across the way, and I liked to run or skip across it and hear the small jet planes fly overhead from the nearby private airport. The buzz of those engines was always calming and would resonate with the memory of my grandma to this day.
One day my father took us out to see his mom. She had passed away in 1975 from breast cancer. He always looked so pained when we would go see her stone, and I asked him why one crisp morning as we stood in front of it. He turned to me and said, “She isn’t here. It’s just a stone.” At first, that upset me. But then he explained something to me, that I used to strengthen me for the rest of my 35 years of survivorship.
He said, “She left that body, and she is in another place now.” I became hopeful! Was he saying life goes on? This is not the end, behind the square?
“Jessica, life is a BLINK” he went on. “When you close your eyes and then open them, half of your life will have gone by. So hold onto every moment. It’s just a blink.”
As I traveled on and fought through four cancers, that word became a CODE word for my father and I whenever I felt I could not fight, that it was too much, he would just say “BLINK,” to remind me that what I was experiencing in time would then end, and things would get better. But also, to remind me to hold on to each moment, and make something of it.
I now have the word inscribed on my left shoulder with lashes on the “K.” And when others ask me, “what’s BLINK?” I am able to impart on them the wise words that my father shared with me, which shifted how I looked at my situation and life in general. He was right. We have a choice, but time is always moving. Blink and it is gone. So make it happen in the “NOW.”
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