Friday, January 18, 2013

Waking Up All Over Again

Wheat Field, Vincent van Gogh
I have learned that waking up to reality means waking up over and over - these can be called realizations as opposed to more mystical epiphanies.  You realize something.  Then years later you realize it a little better, more deeply.  This is about one that took me fifteen years.  Therein lies a tale.

It is the story of when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 - a diagnosis that put me into the second half of my life in an instant.  By that I mean that all six urgent imperative things on that day's to-do list crumbled to dust.  Goals, dramas, everything - my God, you mean I could die?  Let me emphasize that:
  I could die?
What, at 53? 

I had no symptoms, no family history.  The growth was found on a routine annual mammogram that I'd put off for six months because, you know, I hate mammograms.  They hurt.  The small but mighty growth was already invasive.  The surgeon told me that by the time a lump was noticeable, it would have metastasized everywhere in my body.  I am alive today only because I had a privileged life that took good health insurance for granted, and I was raised to be a dutiful person.

My body will die.  You may think you know that, whatever age you are, but what I've learned is that most people don't, really.  They can live to be 90 and get mad that they're dying.  Astonished that their 80-year-old mother dies.  I knew a woman of around age 50 who died of a heart attack in the recovery room after an elective surgery, but was revived.  I visited her in the hospital and she was so delighted and relieved to be alive.  She was in a weekly group I was in, so I saw her bright eyes glaze over as the weeks went by until she was her old self again, overscheduled, on yet another fad diet. Sleepwalking.

After my own surgery I went for radiation therapy five days a week, all by my brave little self.  It was wretched.  They strap you down, they shut a big lead door.  You have never been more alone in your life. 

I was so anxious that through all those treatments I recited the 23rd psalm over and over to myself in my mind.  I belonged to a Unitarian church, and it had been decades since I would have called myself a Christian, but I had not rejected the good parts. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.......That's what came to me.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul.
Water Lilies, Claude Monet

 I often waited for my treatment in a tiny waiting room, shivering in my hospital gown, with a cheerful African-American woman named Mary whose kids had bought her a beautiful yellow satin pajama top because none of the gowns were big enough for her.  She wore a pendant with a portrait of the pretty Caucasian Jesus of my Sunday School posters. Maybe that had inspired me.

One day we were talking aimlessly and she said, "At first I thought, Why me?  Then one day I realized, Why not me?"  I took that in, but I knew I didn't quite get it, though "Why me?" had not been one of my own thoughts. I don't know if I had thoughts, or just panic.

Here's what I think now:  "Why me?" comes from being located in our small individual self.  It's easy to see that you have friends whose lifestyles are way worse than yours, and you eat right, and yet you're the one who got hepatitis - it isn't fair.  In some subtle way, we believe things should be fair.

I don't know what made me think of this recently, but when I did I said to Tom, "Oh.  I get it. Why not me? comes from realizing our oneness."  Buddhist talk, meaning that the larger point of view understands our common humanity and mortality.  Everything and everyone's going to die - why would I be the exception to that?  Everyone's subject to accidents, why would I not be? 

If the idea gives you the shivers, The Five Remembrances are printed at the bottom of this blog.  This traditional Buddhist chant has helped me get used to the idea.  Well, somewhat.


  1. I don't know Jeanne...I'm still working with the whole "why me" concept in all that I do. Keeps me on the straighter and narrower. Kinda. I'm glad you made it through that cold, lonely time.

  2. It was never an accident to wake up, though.

  3. you might like this article, You are Going to Die: