For the Week of June 5, 2016: Anniversaries

He remembers the day with roses,

one for each healthy year, five pink buds,

not red.  Red reminds too much

of blood, the counting of cells…

But she is here, to take in his arms tonight

And tell her she is still beautiful…

(From:  “Five Year Anniversary,” by Kymberly Stark Williams, In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001, Karin Miller, ed.)

One week ago, my husband and I returned from a short vacation, an anniversary road trip that took us from San Diego to Gig Harbor, Washington and back.  Along the way, we stopped to explore the Paso Robles wine country, celebrate our anniversary with old friends in the Palo Alto area, take long walks and share an evening with a dear friend in Ashland, Oregon before arriving in Gig Harbor, where we stayed with an old friend and his wife before making our way back to San Diego south and through the Willamette Valley.  It was an extended anniversary celebration:  nearly two weeks of driving by day, but time together rich with memories, reminiscences and reflection:  who we were when we first met, the significant events along the way and where we are now in our life together.  Isn’t that what, in part, anniversaries are?  A time to remember, to consider what we’ve endured or achieved, and how those events shaped and changed us.

Another, different anniversary occurred while we traveled, although I’ve all but forgotten it.  Sixteen years ago, the day before our wedding anniversary, I sat in a physician’s office and heard the word, “cancer.”  At the time, I was numb with shock and disbelief. Even though I was told it was “early” and “very treatable.”  I rarely remember that distant cancer diagnosis now, but I often think about how my life changed in the years that immediately followed.  I had the love and support of my husband and daughters, and with their encouragement, I embarked on a new and different life, something for which I am deeply grateful.

Whether birthdates, weddings or other events that alter our lives—cancer, a loved one’s death, a nation’s tragedy–anniversary dates often have poignancy attached to them.  In the first years following loss, trauma and tragedy, anniversary dates often ignite strong emotions–grief, old fears, relief, or happiness.  Rituals or celebrations marking those anniversaries are a way to remember a lost loved one or a significant event in our lives, but they also provide a chance to reflect on our lives and move on.

Last month, when the women’s writing group I lead met on a Sunday afternoon, one of the members arrived with a box of decorated cupcakes, part of her celebration of a five year milestone since being diagnosed with lung cancer.  Just last week I wrote about my father’s family tradition of visiting the family gravesites in Northern California each Memorial Day, and my aunts and uncles sharing stories of their deceased parents and siblings as they stood around the headstones.  In the weeks before his death from lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, my father asked that we not linger in sorrow, but instead, invite his friends and family to share a glass (or two) of Jack Daniels whiskey and share the humorous stories of his life.  We still mark the anniversary of his passing every Thanksgiving with a small toast of his favorite whiskey and share a story about him, a ritual that preserves the father we knew in life—not death—and honors him with the tall tales and laughter  as he did throughout his life.

Celebrations and rituals can be an important and meaningful way to assist in healing, offering a way to acknowledge your experience and place it into the context of your lives.  You remember. You’re reminded of who you were, have become, and how much you have to be grateful for.

Certain milestones may recede in importance as life goes on.  The pain of loss diminishes.  You begin to discover new joy, hope, and gradually, move on, creating new chapters of life.  I often share the words of novelist Alice Hoffman with my cancer writing groups.  Recalling her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article, Hoffman wrote, “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter.”

That’s true of so many of the painful or difficult periods in our lives.  As we heal, we have less need to mark or dwell on the dates of suffering; instead, we move forward, immersing ourselves in the work of living. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we celebrate rather than mourn.  We give thanks.  We honor.

I’m running for Pete, because she couldn’t be here today…

Pete shed her breast, then her hair, and finally her whole body.

So now I’m running with thousands of other people all in the same T-shirts.

And Pete’s name is carefully lettered on the pink sign on my back.

I’m running for Pete, because she couldn’t be here today.

(From “Peter Rabbit,” by Carol Grommesh, In:  The Cancer Poetry Project 2, 2013, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives.  Here are some suggestions from an April, 2016 Cancer Net article by Greg Guthrie. While these suggestions are written for cancer survivors, they are applicable to many of milestones and anniversary dates of many significant life events.

Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life.  Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.

Plan a special event.  One of the women in my writing groups celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing  her treatment for a recurrence.   Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or plan a gathering with family and friends.

Donate or volunteer.
When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” I was the interim director for Breast Cancer Connections, a Palo Alto, CA nonprofit.  I was impressed by the number of cancer survivors who, daily, gave their time to volunteer at BCC.  Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience.

Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual cancer survivor walks hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations.  Many hospitals and treatment centers hold events for cancer survivors or join in celebration of National Cancer Survivors Day and/or World Cancer Day.

Celebrate Your Way.  Celebrating milestones doesn’t have to involve elaborate or expensive activities.  Simply do something you truly enjoy.  Take a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, go to a film or the theater with a friend, place flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, share time with family or friends, those who supported you during the roller coaster of treatment and recovery.  Cancer, or other difficult events in life, isn’t, remember, your whole book, only a chapter.  Celebrate your life.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

(“Love after Love,” by Derek Walcott, in Sea Grapes, Noonday Press, 1976)

Writing Suggestions:

What anniversaries are important to you?  Which do you remember most vividly? What images or feelings do those dates evoke? Write the story behind that date.  What happened?  Why was it important to you? How did your life change because of it?  Do you celebrate that anniversary?  Why or why not?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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