Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Life Changes Fast

Life changes fast. It’s one of those things that we understand intellectually but don’t fully grasp until something big happens. Those of us in CancerLand know this. 

We have at least one memory of a perfectly fine day—until the phone rang, or until the doc came back into the room, or until a nurse said, “The doctor would like you to stay for a few more minutes.”


Many years ago, on September 11th in 2001 we all got it.  Then again in 2005 with the Indonesian Tsunami. Then in 2012 with the shooting at Sandy Creek Elementary School.


Those incidents were huge, but now they seem to come faster: a shooter, a bomb, a natural disaster. But the aftereffect doesn’t stay with us as long each time. It’s as if there is a half-life of consciousness after having a couple of these “Life is short” experiences.


That is true in CancerLand as well—now we brace ourselves for the next news, the next scan, the next colonoscopy or mammogram. We have quiet, whispered conversations with ourselves that go like this, “OK, if this is bad news I’m going to go to Paris first.” Or “If this is bad news I won’t tell anyone for a week—I have to sort it out myself.”

We know that bad things happen in the greater world too. 

We keep reading about how life makes these sudden shifts for other people.


We know it happens more frequently in other countries—and in places where people don’t look and sound like us. But when it happens in Colorado, Connecticut, Arizona or Ohio-- places where the skin tones and consonants are more like ours, we get it again, and fast. 


As much as we believe that life follows rules like, “What you put in is what you’ll get out,” we are shown again and again that planning denies life’s absolute uncertainty.


Your life will change in an instant, in a New York minute, in the blink of an eye, and on a dime. 


I’ve seen it happen in the lives of people I love. A friend lost her home and everything in it--burned to the ground. All gone: checkbook, toothbrush, computer, family Bible. Not even a pencil left to tally all she lost. Her family was safe, and for that we say, “Thank God”, but really…


Another friend was crossing the street. The light was green. She remembers stepping into the intersection, then--days later--regaining consciousness in the ICU badly broken.


Another friend was taking a quick bike ride before work, a car turned left, she was in the blind spot. So beautiful, so young, so gone. A family devastated.


What about the to-do lists in their handbags? Their responsibilities at work? And the library books they always returned on time?


Twice I had to suddenly look at my life in a new way. Both times doctors holding clipboards were my wake-up call.


I’d always measured myself by my work, but that changed quickly. Someone asked me, “What about your career?” and I answered, meaning to be flip but surprising myself with the truth, “I don’t have a career, I have a life.”


That insight had incubated over time by too many funerals and too many days in Intensive Care waiting rooms watching family members die.  That was an incredible wisdom school—and in many ways a gift—but that’s a school with a very steep tuition.


So, in the midst of the shootings and terrorism, and this COVID-19 virus gobbling human lives like Pac Man, there may be a bit of buried treasure. 

While we can’t control everything that happens to us, we do get to make choices. We can love others, we can allow ourselves to be loved, and we can say Yes much more than we say No.


One day it might be that lone package on the train, or a screech of tires, or a fever and a cough that won’t quit. Or that call-back from the doc. Knowing we might die can paralyze us or it can liberate us.


Life changes fast. So, what do we do about that?


I vote for living it. Starting right now.