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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

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It’s often been said that without darkness, there is no light. Or, at least, without the contrast of dark, light appears less bright. More and more in my life, I am finding this to be true.

Just over three years ago, everything was going well, but I didn’t feel exactly happy. I was content-ish. Things were fine, but I was too busy chasing better to appreciate things as they were.

Then my health began to waver. I woke up one morning with a numb hand. Then I started twitching. Symptom after strange symptom accrued and before long, I was seeing doctors more often than my friends. Recklessly, I googled my symptoms and became semi-convinced I had a fatal disease. Sleep evaded me. I lived in a strange nether world of uncertainty, anxiety, exhaustion and terror. Each day felt like three.

As I awaited further testing, the murk of everyday striving and busy-ness lifted. Things became very clear. I didn’t know what my life would look like in three months, but I had right now. So I began actively enjoying it. I got down on the floor and played with my boys more. Instead of rolling my eyes over the interminable process of getting them to bed each night, I relished their cuddles and questions and sweet avowals. I said I love you whenever I felt it, even if I’d said it only five minutes before. I paused to feel the sun wash my face in warmth. I ate the cookie.

I was more mindful of how I spent my minutes, uncertain of how many more I might have. As much as I longed to return to my presymptom life, I couldn’t deny the unintentional resonance they lent my existence. By being sick, I felt like a new person, reawakened to the imperfect joys of being alive.

It didn’t last. Months after the onset of my mysterious symptoms, my tests came back clear. Every single one. Doctors shrugged and sent me on my way. My symptoms persisted, but with the dire possibilities ruled out, I could at least sleep again. With my doctor’s blessing, I gradually discontinued a medication I’d been taking for years, hoping it to be the culprit. Over the next two years, my symptoms nearly resolved. My doctor figured the medication had been at least partially responsible.

I stopped googling. I relaxed a little. I relaxed a lot. And I got sucked back into the minutiae of everyday life: renovations, navigating schoolyard slights, social-media FOMO and the never-ending quandary of what to make for dinner. I forgot to appreciate the blessings in my life. My mindfulness muscle atrophied. It was as though without my hackles raised against impending death, I was unable to fully savour living.

The symptoms started again a few months ago. I was sitting on the floor the day before Halloween, painting my son’s robot costume, and my foot started tingling. It felt like an inchworm wiggling around under my skin. At first, I shrugged it off as a weird, one-off sensation, but it intensified and ascended my body as other symptoms developed. Numbness. Pain.

I found myself back in my doctor’s office. Again, the battery of blood work. The requisitions. The waiting. The uncertainty. The sleeplessness. The fear.

But something else is back, too. Gratitude. Attuned appreciation for all that is bright in my life. With the threat of illness looming and the possibility of a grim diagnosis, I am able to skim over the blah or not so great and zero in on the light, the lovely, the essential. Because, again, I’ve realized I don’t have time to entertain anything else.

My children’s incessant arguing annoys me less as I focus on the funny zingers that fall from their lips. Being kitchen-less for four months and counting in a problem-fraught renovation strikes me as no biggie, given that it will eventually be finished, and in the meantime I have electricity, heat, running water and a roof over my head. Instead of dreading the push-ups in my workouts, I celebrate the fact that I am still able to do them.

Before Christmas, I splashed out on the expensive seats for The Nutcracker. No one knows what the future holds, and even if I’m healthy and able, my son may be over ballet soon. I am saying yes to my kids’ requests for treats (I’ll worry about their teeth after Easter). As someone who tends to avert her gaze every few seconds, lately I’ve caught myself looking people in the eye. Willingly.

I am also focusing on serving others in any way I can. Several friends are going through tough family situations. One just had a miscarriage. Providing help and comfort to others helps and comforts me.

My birthday is coming up. My husband will undoubtedly ask what I might like as a gift. Normally, I could provide several options, but this year I don’t desire any thing; all I want is good health and more time.

My symptoms are a constant reminder of what might be or what might be lost. My mind is still a minefield I can’t evade, but I am staying off Google. Mostly.

Ironically, my only escape is the present. I am sinking into it more than ever and feeling happier than I can recall.

Suzy Royle lives in Perth, Ont.