I had a friend during my early university years who was fond of lifetime to-do lists. His was distinct from the usual fare since he capped off the more predictable “get an education, get married, travel, learn French” with the item, and I quote, “And then die, baby!”
It was such a cheerful reference to the one aspect of existence you can never fail to experience. I marvelled at his apparent ease in conjuring his 80-year-old self casually placing a check mark next to that final to-do item, then serenely gazing at the grim reaper armed with the satisfaction of having accomplished all goals.
While I never had his level of congenial glee about my own mortality, I have never been afraid of it either. That’s probably because, like most healthy young people who had never even had a cavity, I always thought I had plenty of time to get used to the idea. After all, the average lifespan for a woman in Canada is over 80.
And though I was rarely sure about anything in life, I was certain that at least I had one thing in the bag – a long life, reflective of my good habits of eating healthy and being active, and growing up in a relatively pristine non-industrial setting of former Yugoslavia, where I was showered with organic food and love.
Then came May, 2010, when I found out I had breast cancer and could be checking dying off my list quite a bit before my planned octogenarian target. Suddenly, I was a few months shy of my 32nd birthday and staring death in the face.
The damning diagnosis was not the only thing that shocked me: I was surprised by my own reaction to it. I have always been a deeply emotional and temperamental individual who mourns every loss in life with a sturdy dose of grief and anger – the kind I felt was indelibly etched in my poetic Slavic soul. I expected enraged torrents about my unfortunate fate and days of wallowing in depression in my sunless little apartment feeling banished by God and destiny.
And yet, to my disbelief, few of these feelings materialized. I cried only once, and long after the diagnosis, as I awaited the results of scans that would show whether the cancer had metastasized, and was therefore incurable. It ended up being just a notch below that – an aggressive tumour that was still potentially treatable.
I felt some anger over the fact that I belonged to a tiny group of younger women with breast cancer. It’s an exclusive club for which you have little chance of being selected. Never having cared much for elitism of any kind, I was not particularly grateful for the offer of membership.
It was as though I had been kidnapped by some mysterious death squad and was slowly marching to the execution site, with the slight hope that guerrilla rebels in the jungle might free me before it was too late.
However, deep down, I felt a sense of calm. I think this feeling sprang from the awareness that this cancer was giving me a unique opportunity to heal from some intense emotional scars I had been dragging over the years. Maybe it was the sudden awareness of how quickly my life could end that allowed the cancer to perform an emotional exorcism of sorts, so that the things and people that used to anger and wound me were now refused soul space.
I feel as though the illness has allowed me some sense of absolution over my past mistakes. It has imbued me with a healthier and more serene sense of self. It has made me want to gasp in profound gratitude with every breath I take. It has made me want to etch every moment with loved ones onto eternity.
But, for all those positives, the healing journey hasn’t revealed a sense of purpose for whatever may remain of my life – at least not yet. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting: a genie-like mentor who would magically swap my post-chemo nausea pills for some profound sense of destiny? Not exactly, though I certainly wouldn’t discount, much less refuse, a touch of the supernatural.
Deep down I know that the purpose I am longing for has to come as a result of constant and courageous efforts on my part. But I find it difficult to muster that kind of courage and discipline right now. I know that whatever the fruits of such efforts may turn out to be, they can be taken away much more quickly than if I had never had cancer.
Sixteen months after my initial diagnosis, having undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, I am faced with the need for a new kind of courage – to try to give my all to my own life despite having no guarantees of its length.
It’s the determination to live as though I have my whole life ahead of me, even though I know I could never again fully believe that statement, at least not with the kind of smug self-assurance I had before my illness.
It would mean truly living for the journey regardless of the outcome, or at the very least not judging the journey’s worth by its length and the final result.
So, here I am, trying to stop holding my breath, and slowly exhaling into the hopeful unknown.
Sonja Grgar lives in Surrey, B.C.