My mother's modus operendus was an attempt to foresee potential danger lurking in the future and plan a strategy to avoid it, thus earning her the nickname "the General." Averting unseen disasters meant that I was not allowed to snow ski, or, as an avid horseback rider, take a horse over a jump. Too dangerous. After all, why tempt fate when one could play the piano or read a book.
Thus, an exuberant childhood activity such as turning a cartwheel was out of the question lest I freeze midway and break my neck. My mother's fears infected my psyche like lice to hair in a kindergarten classroom. So when my doctor called me one spring day in early March 2011 to tell me I had cancer and that I had to come in right away, my reaction was atypical: "I am leaving for South Africa in two weeks for the premiere of our new documentary, then going to Switzerland for the premiere there. I can't come in until early April." Sensing an intractable patient, he feigned patience and replied, "OK, but don't wait any longer than that. You need to get into treatment soon."
Off I went to South Africa and Europe with cancer still an abstraction that belonged to someone else. Who'da thunk I would be so good at compartmentalizing, but then again we don't really know ourselves under normal circumstances. Under duress, the boomerang effect of the perfectly synchronized universe will deliver to your threshold plenty of demons, angels, and other neurotic sub-personalities, if having children isn't good enough for that purpose.
With the joyous overseas ride over, I woke up the morning after my first PET/CAT scan to the news that the cancer had already spread to a lymph node. Suddenly the compartment walls dissolved as I stared through a dirty kitchen window at distant hills, not really seeing them but rather viewing my interior landscape. The big question "to live or not to live" rose up with a gray softness that was undramatic, neutral and pervasive. I have heard that one "fights" cancer, that people are "survivors," as if the war for freedom and democracy had been projected onto a cellular event.
Two weeks passed in this demilitarized zone. Into week two, my sister flew in from Boston for what had previously been planned as a birthday visit but now was transformed into a "let's get ready for the cancer" love fest; two former New York super Jews with at least two Ivy League degrees between us. We researched doctors, diets, and blenders, whilst dancing around the island in the kitchen like cannibals over a boiling cauldron shouting, "Yes we can!" with raised fist.
But I still hadn't decided whether I wanted to live or not.
Rinpoche once told me that his teacher told him, "May you die with no unfinished business." If having adult children meant unfinished business, then no, I didn't want to leave the mortal coil so that they could sing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." My husband of several decades would miss me but I could already see the line of 50 something women queueing up for an audition. Did I have to keep on living just so that no one would be sad for a year or two and then remember me fondly?
I remember the exact moment that the dice rolled to a stop and the outcome read 'stay.' I was on the phone with my then thirty-four year old son who is wiser than me. He wasn't trying to convince me of anything but he listened. A spark ignited somewhere in the depths of my body cavity and I knew there was more to learn. I hadn't cracked the code yet of how to live in joy.
I still have no idea why I am here, but that is exactly why I decided to stay. As the person who always reads the last pages of the book before starting at the beginning, as the person who always wants to know how the movie turns out before I see it, accepting the moment is a huge challenge to that demoness who needs to know the story from beginning to end.
If I ever find out I won't tell you, because I don't know anyone else who reads the last pages of the book before they start at the beginning.