Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2007
I’ve been asking myself how do we come to terms with the impermanence of life? How it constantly shifts and changes? How do we come to terms with our own inevitable mortality or with the sudden and inexplicable losses suffered in a mass shooting, or the natural disasters of hurricanes and wildfires?
It’s difficult for me to begin this post this week, to find the words that will capture the thoughts and emotions triggered by the enormous losses of human lives, homes and belongings in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, three powerful hurricanes, and the wildfires raging in California. This morning I learned that two of our friends lost their family home and all their belongings in the wine country wildfires. Last week, I received the news of two dear friends diagnosed with cancer, and one of them metastatic. The news shook me out of my daily zone of comfort and small, everyday worries, and the next day, the poem, “Elegy,” by Linda Pastan, appeared in my inbox–a daily “gift” from The Writers’ Almanac.
Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor
to the birds, the squirrels.
It’s a relic
of the days when dogwoods
When I took for granted
that the world would remain
as it was, and I
would remain with it.
(From: “Elegy” by Linda Pastan from Insomnia: Poems. © 2015)
Life has its seasons, ones we know well and expressed in Pastan’s poem; ones we observe in Nature annually; ones that are the metaphors for our lives, beginning, maturing, and gradually ending. Yet the unexpected, the disruptions to this natural cycle throw us off-center, leaving us with questions we cannot answer, and wounds that take a long time to heal over–though some never do. These are the times when one’s sense of mortality, of the certainty of life we thought we knew, changes abruptly and we are propelled into unwelcome fears of the outcome.
I remember the sudden loss of my first husband. We’d separated and were navigating a push-pull round of emotions, never in sync with one another, when he died suddenly in a drowning accident. I was overcome with emotions and questions that took years to resolve. When I learned of our friends’ home being lost in a wildfire, it ignited the memories of the night my family’s home burned to the ground, and in the years that followed, how my parents never completely recovered from the loss. Then, years later, I collapsed on the pavement a block from my home and was diagnosed with heart failure, something that, for months afterward, kept me tossing and turning at night, a fear of sudden mortality my regular visitor.
This too, is life. Any unexpected hardship, life-threatening illness or loss thrusts us into new and unfamiliar territory, into a different chapter of life than the one we thought we were living. “The knowledge you’re ill…” Anatole Broyard wrote “is one of the momentous experiences of life” (in: Intoxicated by My Illness, 1993). So momentous, in fact, it sometimes overshadows everything that came before it. It’s what I witness in every cancer writing group: shock, pain and yet, inevitably, the resilience of the men and women living with cancer. When they first hear the word, “cancer,” it’s momentous and overwhelming. Many will recover, but for some, it may signal their final chapter of life. Yet I think of so many who, facing their final months of life, do not let cancer define them.
Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter, Alice Hoffman said, writing about her cancer experience in a 2000 New York Times article. I often use her words in my groups, because they remind us that although our lives may be turned inside out by cancer—or any other sudden tragedy or life threatening event– loss, illness, or our belongings–it does not define who we are. I think of A., a former member of a writing group, who died two years ago. She often said, when introducing herself, “I may have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.” What cancer taught her was to live as fully as she could, to be present to life, every single day of however long she had.
Any life threatening illness, significant loss or tragedy changes us. As sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank said, “…by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in: At the Will of the Body, 2002). Who we are, truly, may become more apparent how we choose to deal with our illness or loss. This is what makes us uniquely human–our spirit, determination, resilience—and they are never more apparent than when illness or loss strips all pretense away.
Life will sometimes wallop us, brings us to our knees, to tears, and yet it is our greatest teacher too. It says, “Listen up,” and teaches us something about ourselves. All we know is that life will change again–and again. We will be affected, perhaps multiple times, by a triggering event, whether tragedy, illness, unimaginable loss or awakening to the reality that we are moving toward the winter of our lives and the realization, as Pastan says, what we took for granted, “that the world would remain/as it was, and I/would remain with it.”
I don’t have answers–for myself or anyone else. I’ve sat with the sorrow and losses of the past few days. I’ve written about them, trying to make sense–yet again–of life and how it can change so dramatically in a single moment. Yet I am reminded, as I have been before, of how precious life is, and how I constantly have to remind myself not to squander it–rather, to learn, again and again, to be mindful of how I live my life every single day.
What is the most significant event you’ve experienced thus far in your life? Describe it in as much detail as you can. Then take a break. Re-read what you’ve written. Turn to a fresh page. Now reflect on how your life changed after that event and what you learned from it. How does it continue to inform your present life?