I think about it all the time. My future. Or what was to be my future. After two and a half years of living with metastatic cancer you would think I would have been able to move on. To come to terms with living condensed. You’d think I would have found ways to concentrate my life. Find aspects of my dreams and ambitions that I could act upon in the short period that is my life. But here I am two and a half years in and I’m still mourning. I’m still grieving and I’m still desperately trying to hold on to threads of what was my life before cancer.
Since I was a small child I have always been driven to succeed. My imagination was precious to me and I would spend hours and hours inventing. I would invent worlds, adventures, creatures and friends. The sky was the limit. I remember spending recess in the back field of my elementary playground pretending I was a wild horse. I would kick up the snow imagining I was a part of a giant herd. I believed in fairies and would find evidence of them everywhere I went. My neighbourhood friends and I built a fort out of pallets on a vacant lot. I believed we would all move into it when it was finished. It would be a house for all the neighbourhood children. That time in my life my imagination was my only limitation and I could glide from fantasy to invention with little effort.
I can see that drive to create in my son. He brings home piles and piles of drawings and scraps of objects that he has carefully fastened together. Like me, he is driven by his imagination. It is messy and scattered and incomplete and he thrives in that world. A couple days ago he came to me with an idea. He wanted to make a tower with electrified green water. He explained it to me with a deep and frantic passion that I recognize in myself. His words were quick and his sentences were incomplete.
I smiled at him and asked him to draw me a picture of what he was thinking. He came back with an image of tower with twisting lines cascading into a pool of green. He patiently explained all the components and how he wanted the electrified green water to go up the tower in a pipe and then pour into a pool below. I looked at it carefully and tired to extract the important features of his invention so we could make his dreams possible. The drawing became a spray bottle pumping water from a plastic container up a cardboard tower into a clear plumbing pipe that depositing the water back into the container below. It was important for me to do this with him because I want protect and nurture the freedom to live in a world where your imagination is the only limit.
When I was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was consumed by a deep terror that my life would be over before it had begun. My dreams and ambitions for myself as a human being and as a mother were crushed under the knowledge that I could die soon and at any point. My son was two going on three and my daughter was 6 months. All I could think about is how I would break their hearts and cause them pain. To say my life was interrupted implies that I would have to chance to rebuild it and return to my pre-cancer dreams and ambitions, but for me there is no after cancer. It is not going away and I cannot change the fact that the culmination of my all to short and tragic life will break the hearts of the people who love me.
Although it is true that everyone’s death breaks hearts, but it is completely different to die in your later years then it is to die young. I want to own and face that difference because it is my truth. I will die tragically before I’ve had a chance to build and develop my story and my body of work. I will die before I have figured out what I want to say and before I have the change to live to my full potential. I will probably never see my children as adults. Most likely I will miss their awkward and difficult teenage years. Their first heart break, their graduation and so many of their important milestones.
Cancer has stolen my potential as a mother, as a wife, as an architect and as an artist. In cancer’s wake I am left grieving and desperately trying to put together all the remnants of who I am. I have had to give up and let go of a lot and I’m not okay with that. I want the freedom to live and dream big. I want to reach my potential in my career. I want to build a home for my family. I want to create beautiful imaginative places for society. I want to see my children become teenagers and adults. I want them to remember me and know me as a human being. I want to nurture and love the special things that make them unique. I want them to know that they are loved unconditionally.
When I look into my husband’s eyes I often see fear. For he along side me is facing loss and uncertainty too. My cancer has changed his life forever. The career he was building has also been interrupted. The trauma of the ebb and flow of my illness and the uncertainty of how long I have left can be all consuming. He like me, is ambitious. He likes to dream big and accomplish the impossible, Cancer has interrupted that. He is exhausted and now carries the entire burden of supporting our family on his shoulders. In his 30’s he will most likely be a window. A single parent. He will no longer have the freedom to work long hours and devote himself to his job and career.
It is not until my cancer spread to my brain that I began to fully realize and accept that I am ill and in the not so distant future I will die. It may be this year or in five years but the hard truth is I will die. As I carefully begin to reconstruct my life in the reality of my situation I have to come to some hard truths. The sky is not the limit. The stress that trying to condense my dreams and goals from my long life into my condensed life can be harmful to my family. There is no way to to jam all that I could have been and accomplished into the short time I have left. I have to let go. I have to discover and accept who I am now. To find a way to dream in three month segments. I have to focus on achievable goals and ensure they do not harm my family.
In the remnants of my past life and trajectory I have to find the root of what makes me happy. I have to balance the needs of my family who is living a full and long life with my drive to live hard, fast and condensed. I have to let go and grieve the future I thought I had and learn to build dreams out of the essence of my passions and drives. I need to look at my life and embrace it as layers of incompleteness. I need to find the beauty in that. The beauty of my unwritten story. The beauty in the gesture of my potential. The sky may not be limit for me anymore but I can find sustenance in the ground beneath me. I have to find beauty in the process of grieving. In what it is to let go in order to work through my disappointment and pain.
Thank you. Our family prays for you, Ian, Elliott and Maelle every day.
I am busy trying to figure out how to live condensed, but how not to undo everything I have ever worked for because I worked hard to be where I am. Shaky jello ground we stand on. I hope you live the most wonderful condensed life you can. My heart goes with you.
Thank you Mandi…. That is my struggle is trying to navigate between all that I’ve worked for pre cancer and living condensed. Is allowing yourself the freedom to dream big worth having to grieve those dreams when things change and get hard?…. Is dreaming in scale even possible? How can you balance living condensed with the needs of everyone else is living long term? Thinking of you too.
I find beauty in your words Anna… I hope you find the beauty and balance you are seeking, it’s there.
Thank you Carolyn… me too!
Hi Anna, this is a truly beautiful piece, written both honestly and gracefully. I am 33 years old and living with metastatic osteosarcoma. I have faced this horrifying illness for 30 years (in my pre-metastatic life I was considered a five-time cancer survivor). Stage four definitely changes everything. I have so much to say on the subject and would love to connect with you (if you don’t mind). I deeply believe that we need more advocates for young adults living with metastatic cancer. We are often the forgotten few. You can find me at my blog that I’ve just created over the last little while: http://www.cancergirlsmiles.wordpress.com Hope you will stop by and say hello, as I’d love to hear from you! Sabrina xoxo
Thank you. I would love to connect. Cant wait to check out tour blog.