What Matters

We take so many things for granted. It is human nature. And there’s no escaping it. No matter what.

People are always asking me if I “see life differently now.” I suppose this is another way of asking if I don’t take certain things for granted as much as I did before. Or at least that has to be part of it. My response to this question is always “of course.” How can I not see things differently after the last nine months? I’d have to be an idiot. Or just really really set in my ways.

But it’s complicated. It isn’t black and white.

I do not have what you would call a quiet mind. Far from it. In fact, there have been many times when I wish my mind would shut the fuck up, but it has no intention of doing so. Ever. For instance, the whole time I do yoga, which I haven’t done in a long time but will take up again eventually, my mind is leaping around. And I can’t take a nap to save my life. Here’s how literal I am being — I have not taken a single nap in the last nine months, from cancer diagnosis until right now. Not one. Not even the day of my surgery or the day after. Not even after chemo. If I try to nap I will just lie in bed and my mind will race. Synapses firing. Problems being uncovered, to-do lists growing. A few minutes after they woke me up from my surgery I was ordering my husband around, telling him which emails to send. Totally mental, comme d’habitude.

I’d like to have a Kevin Costner method such as in For the Love of the Game when he is on the pitcher’s mound with all the noise (one person is even yelling at him that he sucks) and he just says to himself “clear the mechanism.” And it all goes away. That would be groovy. But alas. I am not Kevin Costner. That doesn’t mean I never quiet my mind. I do it sometimes. But I’d say that its natural state is pretty fired up. There’s a lot going on in there.

This has not changed. I do not believe it will change. It is the way I am.

But what I think about has changed. In so many ways that it is hard to sit here and even think about enumerating them.

Here’s a big one: I don’t think about death the same way. We all know rationally that we are mortal, but to really believe it, to really feel (I hate split infinitives but I’ll get over it) that way is something. I think that there are a lot of people who just bumble (or stumble, or both) through life assuming that everything will be all right and that nothing bad will ever happen and then of course even these people will eventually have something happen because no one has lived forever, yet.

Particularly after becoming a parent I had, naturally, allowed my mind to wander over to the dark side and consider what it would be like to die. Not to die of old age or at an old age, but to die before my time. To be robbed of a long life. To be robbed of precious time with loved ones, with children, with a husband, with parents and family and friends. But only occasionally did my mind go there and it got the hell outta there PDQ (that’s pretty darn quick — do we have that expression in the UK? Do tell, English contingent).

I let it go there more often now. It is not just some crazy thought that flashes by. No longer a pesky smear on my windshield that I can just spritz away. Shake my head and drive on. It’s more like a chip in the windshield now. It’s a crack. Repaired but present. The windshield is intact but it will never be the same.

Do I appreciate things more now? Like time with my children and my husband and my family and friends? Yes. I definitely do. Sometimes I try to sit back and breathe deeply and just inhale the moment. Just take it all in and bask in the present. It was always precious but it’s more precious now. Sometimes it feels more fragile.

Do I still sweat the small stuff? What about the big stuff? Well, I do still experience stress. But so far, not as much. In fact, I would venture to say not nearly as much. I do still tend to get ticked off when people waste my time. Time being precious and all. And I don’t like mediocrity and carelessness. Life is too short for those losers.

Here’s an example: We are renting a lovely Edwardian house in front of which is a hedge. Part of the hedge has been losing its battle with old age or whatever is afflicting it for some time now and has become an eye sore. For months I have asked that it be dealt with and finally, finally today, the gardener came and did something. “Something” is a generous word for what he did. What he managed to do was leave it looking far worse than it looked before. He uprooted about one half of the dying portion of the hedge and then in its place clumsily planted three new plants. So now there is healthy green hedge in bad need of a trim next to dying ugly yellow hedge next to much shorter and father set back green leafy plants. It’s bad. It looks as though he did it all blindfolded with a chain saw after a three-day bender. And the detritus that he left in front of the house was so astonishing that when I returned home today I nearly walked past the house because I saw all this crap out on the pavement and thought oh how awful what asshole left that mess in front of his house? And then I realised it was my house.

Why did I tell you that story? Because that kind of shit still bothers me. I am not going to lose sleep over it. But it pissed me off. Mostly because it involved carelessness, laziness and ugliness. Those have no place in my life. Too bad they’re around so much everywhere you look.

But maybe they are there to allow us to appreciate all the beauty. One of the most beautiful things has been friendship. Friends and friendship. I have such wonderful friends. I don’t know why I have been so lucky. I feel that I’ve received far more than I’ve given. Not really fair at all.

I have some humdingers of old ones but also a good number of new ones — people I have met just since moving here. People who rallied and supported us, cooked us dinners and took me out to distract and entertain me. Friends who went and picked up my wig and smelled it first to make sure it didn’t reek of armpit anymore (read Armpit Wig if you don’t know that story; it will make you laugh unless you are brain-dead). Friends who carried trays of roasted chicken with all the trimmings down the street that must have weighed 10 kilos. Friends who gave me Wimbledon tickets which we enjoyed even though it rained (who cares it was just some rain). Friends who don’t mind that I bought the same coat even though we are going to be seen all over town wearing it at the same time (well she did already buy the same shoes I had so…). Friends who came to chemo with me. Some more than once. Or across an ocean. People who had been through similar experiences and shared their own stories (and reconstructed boobs) with me. Mostly in random ladies’ bathrooms. People who had never been through anything like what I’ve been through but have listened to me go on and on about everything. Being patient. People who read this.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about whether I see life differently is that although the answer is yes, it isn’t always automatic. It is, for me, a learning process. Sometimes I have to step back and tell myself to stop [stressing out] [obsessing] [freaking out] [beating myself up] over something. Or to appreciate something more. To savour. To roll the taste of an experience around on my tongue and consider it as I chew.

I know more what matters now. But I’m also still learning.


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