Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Fallacy of Waiting Until Life "Settles Down"

Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
-John Lennon, from "Beautiful Boy"
-cartoonist John Saunders, Reader's Digest, 1957

One of my favorite quotes is "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."  Although it's been attributed to John Lennon, and was a line in the lyrics of his song "Beautiful Boy," a little digging reveals that it was attributed to cartoonist John Saunders in Reader's Digest in 1957. It is a quote I try to take to heart.

I've written multiple times about the lessons cancer has taught me - is still teaching me. One that I am working on is to stop saying, "When my life settles down."  I've been saying it and; worse yet, believing it, for my entire adult life. I repeat it without thinking it through.  Yes, I have a busy life, as many of us do. Yes, I don't always feel in control of the "busy-ness" of my life. The truth is that there is much in my life that is of my choosing. And, like most everyone, there are things in my life that are not of my choosing. But every bit of it is just a life.

This lesson is like a two-by-four upside by head once again as I contemplate the fact that Jessica graduated from college, and Alex finished going to school, five years ago this June. I thought that not having Alex in school, and not having Jessica in Boston and in college, would mean things would "slow down." I wasn't entirely sure what was next, but I somehow thought the pace of our lives would change - would lessen, become somehow more "manageable."

That thought is laughable.

Looking back five years instead of forward, I could not have scripted, nor even imagined, the five years we have lived through. Not that it's all been bad, but it has been filled with many significant events and emotions.

It's a darn good thing that my crystal ball didn't work, because I wasn't prepared for what we have been through. As usual, life has to unfold in its own way, in its own time, in order for me to absorb it all.

Five years ago, my mother-in-law was still "her." She was vibrant and funny and loving and an important part of our lives. We lost her painfully, slowly, long before her death a year ago.

My mother was living independently and beginning to have some serious health issues, but still managing to take care of herself. The past three years have been tumultuous for her (that's putting it mildly, to be frank), and she is now living safely and contentedly in a great facility. I am grateful that she is well cared for, but I see her slipping away physically and mentally.

Jessica graduated, spent three weeks at home, and then John and I drove her to her new life and dream job in California. We visited her many times and watched her grow into an adult and began really figuring out this whole parent-of-an-adult relationship. She flourished in her job, she married, and then she got an out-of-the-blue job offer in Wisconsin. This was something none of us ever imagined would happen. But here she is, less than 25 miles away, in her new home, with her new husband and two dogs, finding her way at a new dream job.

We have a wonderful son-in-law as part of our family. If I had hand-picked someone for my daughter to marry, I could not have done better. He is smart, talented, funny, and fiercely loyal. He understood right away all that comes with falling in love with someone with a special needs sibling. We are all so very lucky to have him in our family.

Three of my four siblings have faced significant health issues of their own over the past five years. My oldest sister has lost her son and her husband, and welcomed twin grandsons. As we grow older and face loss, illness, and other challenges, I feel that we've grown closer.

We've lost a number of friends and family members over the past five years. It just never gets any easier. Soon we will mark the first anniversary of our friend, Jeremy's, passing.  Rusty's dad, Mark, died only four and a half months ago. My brother-in-law, Don, passed away just over three months ago. I don't think he ever got over the death of his son, almost five years ago.  He seemed to age overnight. These are only a few of the people we lost. So much loss in so short a time, and each one leaves a gaping hole and a grieving family.

Alex moved out three years ago. He was (is) thriving in his new home - becoming more independent and forging new relationships. He had a part time job and blossomed.

John and I were "empty nesters," figuring out life with no children at home. I learned to fly. I joined an EAA chapter and became secretary and newsletter editor. We bought a plane. John and I traveled. We visited Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Maine, Niagara Falls, LA, San Franciso, San Jose, London, Disney World - trips with and without our children. Things we could only dream about doing as young parents.

Then cancer came calling. Our choice was to let it crush us, or stand up and fight. That choice is no choice, not really. We found strength within us we didn't even know was there. We became closer as a family. We learned how beloved Alex really is. We learned who we could really, truly, count on.

Alex is in remission and doing well.  I don't yet feel like we're entitled to call him a "survivor." I'm not sure how much time has to pass, or even if there's a "rule," but it somehow feels like tempting the fates to use that word. His next PET scan is in three weeks.  I'm already getting nervous.  I don't want to miss this moment by worrying.  We've had many wonderful moments with him in the 4 1/2 months since his transplant.  I hope there are many more to come.

I am trying to embrace the lesson that our old life is gone, that the overused phrase "new normal" applies to us now. We are not the same individuals, nor are we the same family, that we were before Alex got cancer. I don't really understand exactly what this "new normal" means for us.

I don't feel invincible. I feel like I can't afford to waste a moment. I feel like the moments need to be savored more, enjoyed more, embraced more, but I don't really know what that means. Life still has bills and work and responsibilities, yet everything feels different.

I don't know what the next five years will bring. For the first time in my life, I don't really want to know.

"Where do you see yourself in five years? in ten years?"

I can't answer that question.

I doubt that my life will "slow down." I can't predict what will happen. I can't live in fear. I have to believe that whatever unfolds in the next five years I will be strong enough, and wise enough, to embrace it.

And I hope I have learned to have the good sense to appreciate and relish all that is good.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mid-Life Crises and the Meaning of Life

Life's a piece of shit, when you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see its all a show, keep 'em laughin as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

Monty Python - Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life Lyrics 

I've always approached my life with certainty - I knew where I was headed, and why.

I've had to learn, repeatedly - because the lesson comes hard for me, that I can't control everything and that I must make many adjustments.  (Read Turbulence.)

I'm told that the summer before kindergarten, I planned what courses I would take by writing it all out on paper with a crayon.  My older sisters were in high school and planning their course work, so I thought I should do the same.

I would take reading, art, and music.

I would not take math or PE.

Mom told me it wasn't up to me.  There was no choice in kindergarten.


As an adult, my plan has included my family and a career I'm passionate about.  It's included community service and a variety of pursuits - theatre, travel, aviation.

I didn't grow up wanting to be a teacher.  During my high school and early college years, I envisioned life as a family attorney or in politics, but I had an epiphany when my "fall back" plan of a degree in elementary education on my way to law school turned out to be what I was meant to do.  When I started the courses that took my into classrooms with kids, I felt I was "home."  I knew that was where I belonged.  I wanted to make a difference.

Even as a young mom, devoted to my family, I didn't want to leave teaching.  Aside from obvious financial reasons, I worked for a purpose.  Leaving my own family was bearable because I was making a difference in the lives of others.  I liked the personal challenge, the creativity, the autonomy. Teaching is hard and rewarding work.

John has likewise been devoted to his work.  He is a born problem solver, and the favorite part of his job is finding solutions to problems.  He doesn't like being away from home, but he loves start ups. He has many stories of hours and days in a mill starting up new machines - times where he would rotate through 24 hours of shift changes and not have left the mill himself.  He has long standing relationships with his business partners and the people he works with.  Although John is a part owner of his business, and has been for almost 25 years (I really don't remember exactly how long), he will never, ever say a colleague works "for" me.  It is always works "with" me and the fact that he is an owner will only come up if it is truly relevant to the conversation.

For the first time in my life, I am struggling to find the meaning and the purpose.

Maybe it's just a stereotypical mid-life crisis.

Maybe I should have been trying to "find myself" decades ago and I'm just behind.

I don't know.

Teaching is hard work, and it's really a hard time to be a teacher right now.  I know that many of you think teachers are whiny, and I'm sorry that you feel that way.  I don't need to be adored, but it's really hard to be vilified.  There's been lots of action on the political front, blaming all sorts of things on teachers.  That's hurtful, but not as hurtful as the friends, acquaintances, and even some family members who have piled on.  I don't mention this to start a political debate about teachers - that's a conversation for another time and place - but to say that, as a teacher, that message is hard to take.  It is painful.

Even through Alex's illness and transplant, I was driven by purpose - taking care of Alex, taking care of my students, taking care of our family.

Today, Alex is day +128 post transplant, in remission, but early on.  I am learning (or trying to learn) how to live with the specter of relapse hanging over our heads.  I am trying to appreciate that today is a good day.

But I find myself with a whole lot of "YOLO" going on.  That's all great in Facebook memes and pop culture that tells you to live for today, but it isn't that simple.  I have an established career that I love, I have responsibilities, and bills to pay and a retirement to save and plan for.  I'm only 53.  I'm not ready to retire, but I find myself wondering, what next, what now?

I've lost the fire, the certainty of purpose that I knew what I was doing.

A year and a half ago, I understood my life.  Then cancer came calling.  And I had a new purpose - save Alex.  Save Alex, and try to keep the rest of my life going at the same time.

And now Alex is doing well.  He's recovering.  He's in remission.

But my old life doesn't feel the same.  I'm not the same.  And I can't tell you yet what that means.

I do know that cancer makes you re-evaluate everything.  I know that's not a news flash to anyone else who has gone through this, and I also know that I'm not the cancer survivor, but I am a survivor of sorts.  Alex's fight was our fight because he couldn't do it alone.

I feel like I don't have time to waste, and I'm afraid to put my life off until later.

In the past year and a half, I've also lost several people who I care about. People who are gone too soon. Lives that were not yet finished.  It makes you wonder and it makes you re-evaluate.

I don't have the answers; just the questions.

Spending time with my kids makes me happy.  Spending time with my husband makes me happy. Flying airplanes, friends, my dog - those things bring me joy and contentment.  I'll keep doing those things as much as I can while I try and figure the rest of things out.

I'll take a cue from "The Meaning of Life" from Spamalot.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life