What Happened When I Let Go of Who I Used to Be

Today marks an anniversary: 4 years since I found out I had breast cancer. Or as I like to think of it, now I have a BA in life post diagnosis. I haven't written about this here, and likely won't again. (If you want the breast cancer story, it's here.)

On previous July 23rds, I would look for something to do that would somehow symbolize where I was. The second year I tried and failed to walk a perimeter line around Manhattan. This would prove I could be strong again. Last year I shopped for and bought an overly expensive bottle of perfume. This meant I was taking care of myself again, that I might feel pretty again if I tried hard enough .

And so again this year, I looked for things to do. I tried to sign up for a tree felling class, but it was full. 

I look for symbols to cling to, because, hey, I'm a book person. 

The diagnosis changed me, in more ways than I can ever know. In the days after my quickly-scheduled mastectomy, I felt a distinct splitting of my self - the old me still lurked, but she was packing things up, leaving the light on when she left.

But don't go, I said. I begged. She was imperfect, in myriad ways, but she was me, the me I knew. And for years, I looked for the thing that would bring her back. Trying to trick myself into embracing my stitched and scarred new body; returning to childhood activities, like horseback riding, to try and right the course -- do things right this time. Go back to the beginning of the level, and make it through without losing a life.

Each time I settled on some new thing, I would think: this is it, this is what will work. This is the one thing that will save me.

What exactly was different about me? Physically — I had no breasts, was weak, burned, scarred. Less bendy, more tired. Full of odd muscle memories, so that one the dad anniversary phantom pain would pop up and pull me right back t the hospital. And my brain — yikes. Scared of everything, hurting, hurting myself the worst.

I got halfway through a Fulbright application before I realized I wasn't ready to sever ties with my team of doctors. I changed jobs, leaving a flexible gig at an artist’s studio to a formal 9 - 5 at a cancer nonprofit. This meant I was growing up, and that. Me having cancer would finally mean something. 

At some point, while tapping my keyboard on the 18th floor of a Manhattan high rise, I began to think about my life in a different way. Not about what it had been, but about what it was right now. I love nature, but I was so removed from it that sometimes I mistook a light left on in the conference room for the sun. I went hours without knowing what the weather was. I love the country, I love farms. My hope was that when I was retired, I could have a farm with goats and ducks and all sorts of other creatures. 

But I began to wonder at how ready I was to delay that wish -- to tell myself I was unworthy of it, that I didn't deserve exactly what I wanted yet. I had to pay my dues in the kind of life that's expected. 

Little by little I started caring less. Giving fewer fucks. (There is power in giving zero fucks.)

But though a life is made of choices, it is not a choose your own adventure book, where you can flip back and try again, and see what might have been.

Over time, I came to accept, albeit bitterly, that I was irrevocably different. Stop, I said. Stop trying to go back. It won't happen. And I grieved; spent the summer crying all the time, and telling well-meaning folks that I wasn't depressed but sad. And that that was important.

Cancer changed me, and fuck cancer. But at least things felt more settled. The summer of crying was also the summer of looking at houses in the Catskills, and by the end we found one. This one.

In December it was ours, and we’ve spent nearly every weekend here since. Fixing up the house, taking woods walks even on the -18 day.

This past spring, I was walking through our newly growing meadow, wondering at the new blooms and creatures that appeared week by week. Each time I walked, it was as if somewhere new -- there was always a new bird or wildflower to puzzle after. And when I realized that the grass (grass that had been cut short in the style of a suburban lawn for 40 or so years), when allowed to grow, contained multitudes, I thought, Oh. I would have changed anyway.

Because we change. It's what we do as living things. We are changed by frost or sun, being shorn or allowed to grow. We are changed events, ideas, people, emotions -- and thank god for that. We change as a species, but also evolve individually. All the time. 

Just this taste of change unleashed a hunger I had been denying. Just last week, I left the full time position and am officially freelancing. Spending as many days as I can up here, in the nature and weather.

I am not healed; I am not better. I am merely changed.