A little over three weeks ago, a friend died of a rare form of cervical cancer at the age of 31. I wrote about her briefly here and her own blog, Potato 2 Paleo, is an archive of beautiful and inspirational writing on health and death.
We weren't close in the intervening years between undergrad at McMaster and this year when we reconvened. Jen and her sister rented my Vancouver apartment for the 2010 Olympics and we discussed her then new interest in CrossFit. At her funeral, her CrossFit coach itemized her max lifting weights for various movements. Jen became a beast because of CrossFit and she took her beast into a debilitating cancer experience. Doctors remarked on her strength every step of the way. Last summer, a friend told me she had cancer and that it was very late, aggressive. I didn't reach out. I didn't make myself available. I was busy but we are all busy all the time so that's a bullshit excuse.
Then, in February or March of this year, Jen posted on her Facebook wall that she was nearing the end if she didn't find a viral oncolytic trial ASAP. She had even hired a consultancy firm to do part of this work. I didn't even know these firms existed. So I finally reached out and we had lunch. She was so thin, but still the same personality as when we met in undergraduate. Kooky, aggressively smily and very, very frank. We talked about poo and pee and cancer sex, because I am cool with that. My husband and I, Jen and another couple from undergrad all played board games the Friday night before the procedure that led to sepsis and, eventually, her death in May 2015.
Her funeral was an ode to a full life at 31. That should be an oxymoron. It isn't.
Someone posted this one minute video to Jen's Facebook wall the day before her funeral. I believe it was taken in relation to her involvement with an online support group for cervical cancer.
Notice the sunshine.
I am trying.
But a totally fine young person went from extremely fit to dead in under two years. Hundreds of Aboriginal women in Canada have gone missing without generalized outrage. Millions of young black men live under a cloud of suspicion, not of their own making or fault, in the US. A few million children in Canada live in poverty and probably won't get out, ever. The world is brightly unstable.
And yet I have such sunshine: I am happily married, healthy and heading into a career I chose for myself. I am in ridiculous debt but not worried about it sinking me. My parents are alive. I have few regrets. My childhood involved zero trauma.
My cousin Angela inhabits a similar space in that, while she has experienced transformative grief through the passing of her father in his 50s, she has lived a really awesome life while working in social justice. Through her work, like me, she has borne witness to really bad stuff.
So I asked her how she frames it. For her, it's rooted in gratitude. Our parents went through some real hell to give us this much goodness. They aren't interested in seeing us feel guilt as a result. They want us to enjoy it all but to keep tethered to the lived experience of many different kinds of people in the process. To never, ever, ever feel entitled to having everything always work out.
I use Jen's advice to combat persistently feeling like the other shoe is about to drop. I joke with my husband about him getting kidnapped while out running errands. He's 6'6" so this is a ridiculous concern. I totally see that this anxiety is incongruent with reality. So I use mindfulness tools, exercise and positive self-talk to sit and enjoy all the goodness while it is here. If it ends, I will have had those good times. If it ends, it's likely for reasons out of my control. If it ends, is the goodness really over? I saw Jen experience goodness while she was literally dying of cancer in front of our very eyes. She sat in that turmoil and refused to be swallowed whole. Her post on Climbing From the Dark Place should have a permanent home on the internet. So the goodness that surrounds me will be available even if something were to change. Even if something were to fall apart.
If you're sitting in worry right at this moment, right now, just hold on a gosh darn second and notice the sunshine.