Last Fall, i was diagnosed with an incurable, though I’m assured highly-treatable, form of cancer called Multiple Myeloma. I am a mom of three young children – now ages 8, 6 and 4 – and the Fall has historically been my favorite time of year. I love back to school, soccer season for the kids and the autumn weather (and, I’m not ashamed to admit, all the great clothes that come with it… boots, jeans and sweaters. YEAH!) Before this year THAT is what Labor Day weekend meant to me. We would have our swan song at the town pool, pack away the bathing suits and water guns and get excited for the promise of a new school year.
This year though I’m having a hard time looking ahead the way I usually do – and I feel like I’m spending a LOT of time looking back. It seems these days we get a lot of reminders of the past. If your Facebook feed is like mine, it is crowded with walks down memory lane for yourself or your friends. And I usually love these reminder of days gone by – I love seeing pictures of my kids and and memories of the things we have done. It’s fun to see much we have all grown and changed over the years.
But now I find myself waxing nostalgic all the time, constantly thinking “This time last year…” , filling in the blanks with whatever it was we were doing one year ago today, two years ago today…. The challenge is that it’s not your usual reflection on happier days. Now everything feels like it’s falls into one of two camps – BEFORE Cancer or AFTER Cancer. There is a line that now permanently separates the two parts of my life.
I imagine most of us think of our lives as before or after something. Before meeting my husband, it was probably my single girl days versus when life “started” after we got married. Then the line jumped again after having kids. I don’t think anyone with children would argue that life is forever different after the birth of your first child. EVERYTHING changes in those first few moments, never to be the same again. When you have three kids, people will often often ask “what is the hardest transition…going from one to two kids, two to three, etc.” My husband’s spot-on response? Zero to one. And it’s true. We had three kids in three years – I always say we don’t know anything but craziness in our house. But after our son was born? Nothing prepares you for how life will change when you go from being a couple to being a family.
Now we are a bigger family with a new line – life before and after Mommy was diagnosed with cancer. This time last year I was sending our son to second grade, our older daughter to kindergarten and the littlest one off to her first year of ballet lessons. We were volunteering at school, working too many hours and planning a dream vacation. Life was good. This time last year we were still innocent – I had not yet introduced our family to things like chemo and stem call transplants, there were no extended hospital stays and and Mommy still had all of her hair. We had no idea what Multiple Myeloma was – let alone realized it was lurking inside of me. I didn’t have a port subtly hiding just beneath the surface of my skin providing “quick access” for blood tests and to administer medicine. I didn’t feel like there was a clock ticking over my head all of the time.
Even looking forward for me is sometimes difficult now. For the most part, I physically feel well. When I do think back to that day when I wound up going to the Emergency Room, and I look at how far I’ve come, I am amazed. It was a tough journey and I have fought every single step of the way to be well. Cancer and I have had many conversations in the dark of the night where I have not-so-politely explained that I am not interested in being a statistic – that I will see my children grow older, graduate college and give me grandchildren someday. This time last year though? There were some pretty serious conversations about whether or not I would make it home, let alone make it this far.
Tomorrow is the birthday of a dear friend of ours who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December of 2013. I so vividly remember when the call came, telling us the news. My husband spoke to his childhood friend about his wife’s diagnosis while I silently cried in the background, googling the poor prognosis of almost all those unfortunate enough to get the same news. As I’ve said before, I used to think there were “good cancers” and “bad cancers” – now I realize there is no such thing. They all just SUCK. But even then I knew pancreatic cancer was one of the “bad” ones, notorious for claiming its victims quickly and painfully. And in what seemed like a blink of an eye, she was gone just nine months later. She too was a young wife, mom, daughter and sister. She too had much to live for and every reason to fight. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. I remember when I was in the hospital that first time and the doctor told me I could have cancer. I remember thinking “it’s not possible that two best friends – in their FORTIES – could both have wives with cancer. Life couldn’t be that cruel.” The plain truth is that life, in fact, CAN be that cruel.
This time last year our friend was celebrating her 47th birthday, only to have her life cut too short a mere 24 hours later. This time last year our friend lost his wife, his kids lost their mom and I know I hugged my husband and kids just that much tighter, angry with the realization of just how cruel life can truly be. At her funeral the priest talked about how she fought with pride and how she never once uttered “why me?”. Knowing her well this didn’t surprise me but that idea struck me – what an incredible person you must be to face this beast with such grace and dignity. This was before my own diagnosis and I still think of it often – hoping I can be that strong. I reflect on the fact that, while I’m frustrated many days by the fate I’ve been handed, I have already had more time than she had. I have had the luxury of reflecting on “this time last year” and even being bold enough to think about years down the road. I can look both backward and forward – something she wasn’t lucky enough to do.
This time last year I had no idea the challenges – and lessons – that were ahead of me. And what I have learned is that it’s okay to look backward as long as it is with goal of reflecting on how far you have come. There is far greater joy however in imagining how many more amazing things are still to come. None of us has any idea what our destinies are. As I have learned life can change in the most unbelievable ways when you least expect it. The best we can do is look back with gratitude on what we have and look forward with eager anticipation what lies ahead – for both are a gift.
In Loving Memory of Jayne Brzozowski Buttenmuller