If I were a camel, I would have surely buckled under that slender straw, which took the form of a nail file. Searching my bedside table drawer for the six-inch metal instrument, rifling through paraphernalia such as dog-eared business cards, highlighters of every hue, numerous white packets stamped "extra buttons," crumpled to-do lists, nonworking wristwatches, orphan earrings and a green tea scented candle in a tin, I failed to find the tool.
Then the straw: stirring up the scads of expendables I should have tossed years ago made the drawer impossible to shut.
"Away with it all now," I thought, not just for myself, but for whoever would have to clean up after me should I die suddenly by accident, or slowly from the cancer that may still lurk within. Last week's CT scan had shown that one of the small "ditzels" in my lung seems to have grown a bit; if I needed more treatment, who knew if I'd have the time or energy for spring cleaning?
I resolved to trash, recycle or donate everything but the barest necessities (thankfully, I didn't find anything in the drawer to compost!), and commenced my winter cleaning-sorting spree. Along the way I learned, or re-learned, several lessons many people conveniently forget because they think that they have all the time in the world. Not so for those of us punched by cancer.
Cancer. It teaches so much, even as it confounds and confuses. James Dean, whose young life was snatched not by cancer but a car crash, wisely advised, "Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today." But where does that put you in terms of retirement savings or long-term care insurance? To splurge or not to splurge? That is my question.
There really is no absolute truth for people in my -- or any -- situation. Achieving balance is a life's work. But one thing became incontrovertibly clear as I stared down at the junkyard of memories: I had to take advantage of this opportunity to gain control by letting go, to defy life's contradictions by holding them all true, and to solve life's mysteries by embracing their insolvability.
Heretofore is what I re-learned from $#!*$%! cancer and the drawer that stayed stubbornly ajar until I rended it from its runner and gutted it clean.
1. Let go/Hold on
• Let go of unessential objects. If something takes up physical space, it likely crowds your psyche too. You deserve room to breathe, create and discover. (You may discover buried treasures as well as nail files in the process.)
• Purge yourself of impossible expectations and unattainable goals. Accept that you will never learn Swahili or meet Sting; stop expecting to hear gentle words of love from those who don't know how to speak them. As the saying goes, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
• Let go of people who don't fulfill, but consistently disappoint you. Just because you've had a relationship, however unsatisfying, for decades doesn't mean you must continue it.
• Hold onto and nurture relationships that do feed you. Make time for people who understand you, who keep you nimble with challenges but also safe with tenderness, who make you laugh and let you cry.
• Hold onto someone, preferably someone you like. An embrace or hug releases the hormone oxcytocin, which stimulates feelings of love and quells anxiety.
• Hold fast to the seven items you'd grab if your house were ablaze. My list includes my son's Femo sculpture of a breakfast-in-bed tray, a treasure I found in my untenable drawer.
• Hoard chocolates. If you buy a box of handmade truffles for a friend but know you secretly bought it for yourself, admit it and keep it as your private stash. Better yet, buy two boxes, one for your cherished and one for yourself.
2. Finish what you start/Just walk away
• Finish that letter to your daughter that you started, just in case something should happen to you. Put the final punctuation on that poem. Complete that oil painting that's never quite dried.
• Walk away from everything that is not absolutely crucial. Don't beat yourself up for closing the page on that book that didn't hook you. Leave that half-finished basement room the mess it is, and never enter it again. Walk away from acquaintances who promise lunches that you know you'll never share because you really truly won't have time. Ever.
3. Just say yes/Just say no
• Just say yes to a leisurely lunch (hold the guilt sauce) with someone you really care about, even though you're way too busy, and won't have time. Ever.
• Accept an offer of help, even though it's not your style, when you know you need it. 'Nuff said.
• Say yes to staying in your PJs until 6 p.m., and designate a "National Do-Nothing Day" when your mind is bone-tired, your bones won't seem to support you and your soul wants to crawl under the covers and stay there, just for now. Celebrate this holiday with gusto.
• Just say no to requests for assistance -- letters of recommendation or board appointments -- if you're too busy or tired, even though you're flattered and would truly like to help. (If you can't say no straight out, at least take a week to deliberate.)
I realize now that I have learned loads more lessons from cancer than I've listed, and I've only just begun! But I'm going to say yes to something else now -- lunch with myself. And the space for you to share some of the lessons you've learned.
Feel free of course to just say no, let go, or walk away -- whether you've had cancer or not. It's your bedside drawer. Your time. Your life -- which could last a half century. Or just a day. But certainly not forever.
By Lori Hope
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A cancer survivor, Lori Hope has written and spoken about cancer support for almost a decade. Her best-selling cancer support book, Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know, was released this September in a new, expanded second edition that includes a foreword by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., a survey of more than 600 survivors, new sections on gender and cultural differences and childhood and adult cancers, and a "Quick Guide to Cancerquette." Hope's essays and articles have appeared in publications including Newsweek, and cancer-related and college English textbook anthologies. Her work has been featured on Oprah and The Today Show and in Time magazine and she has spoken before staff and leadership of the American Cancer Society, the Oncology Nursing Society, and dozens of other groups. To order her book and to read her blog, visit Lori on www.LoriHope.com and Red Room.