Anna Donald: Making meaning in the now, for the now

First, I want to thank the many people who have posted such thoughtful comments to this blog. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed, though not surprised, by people’s generosity (again and again, cancer has revealed to me the kindness of strangers as well as friends). To my embarrassment, I haven’t been able to get my login details to work, so haven’t posted replies. I will certainly reply to several people’s kind suggestions once I figure out how to do so. (BMJ help!)

Second, I’ve been slow to blog due to an eventful week. The son of a close friend was one of six young people killed in a boating accident last week on Sydney harbour, just below Taronga Park Zoo. Earlier that day, I had remarked to another friend that there are many people concerned for me living with advanced cancer. But, because I know a lot of people, by chance alone a few will probably die before me. And now this. I guess we’re all in a state of shock.

It brought home (again) how Shakespearian-fickle life is – I really don’t know what’s coming next. I had no idea I would get Stage IV breast cancer – that was what unfortunate young women got, not me! And tonight, I am alive while my young friend is dead. It made me reflect, again, how lucky I’ve been – I’m already twice his age. I have travelled the world, married happily and had every job I ever really wanted – all before I was 40. Maybe I wasn’t ambitious enough. But it was enough for me. I don’t want readers to think that I’m not interested in (many!) more years of life. But I was struck, again, by how happy I am, already, with what I’ve been dealt. More would be great, but not essential to being happy now. I hope I see Vietnam and Iceland, but it will hardly be a tragedy if I don’t.

No doubt, I’d prefer quality and quantity. But more life is just more – and how much more do you need? – in this horrifically banal age of eat till you drop because there’s nothing else to do: 1000 films to see before you die! 1000 albums to listen to! 1000 destinations to visit! 1000 books to read! Eat! Eat! I feel tired thinking about it, like some kind of laboratory rat. (I know about such things. My engineer-uncle used to design rat cages for the psychology department. No matter how many pellets they’d already eaten, the rats would keep pressing the food lever like demented – well – rats. My job, aged 3½, was to let them run around inside my playpen on the lawn, which involved several mass break-outs and a lot of scrabbling beneath azalea bushes to retrieve them before the kookaburras did).

Of course it’s nonsense – worse – sacrilegious – to suggest that life is a rat’s cage. From where I stand now, I would argue that life is absolutely sacred. More life means time with people I love: my husband; my parents; my brother’s family. For these people alone, never mind my extended family and dear friends I will do whatever I can to live longer. It’s just that if quantity isn’t possible, as it wasn’t for my young friend, then you want to know that you’ve jolly well made the most of what you have.
Early last year, I woke up in University College Hospital after the day of tests which revealed the extensive nature of the cancer. I remember laughing at myself because of the relief I felt that all the youthful angst and navel gazing was worth it: the therapy, the workshops, the earnest conversations, the meditation, the reading – because I could honestly die free and peaceful, if that was my lot, at the ripe old age of 40. I hadn’t lived a perfect life by a very long shot, but I’d honestly tried to work away at those parts of me that left me (and others) less than impressed. Not that I’d always succeeded. But at least I knew I’d tried pretty much as hard as I could and the relationships that really mattered to me were in reasonably good shape.

That was all very well. I didn’t die. I kept living, with the scary knowledge that it really, really matters how you live. So it’s not OK to shop till I drop. It’s not OK to sow misery and depression among others. It’s not OK to sit like a blob waiting for – what? Death? More treatment? Godot? Which is why I spend most days reading, reading, talking, blogging trying to make something of this time, however long I’ve got. Rubbing off a few more rough edges. Taking a brush to my more desultory habits without becoming a prude (unlikely) or a moralist (eminently possible; please God and Readers strike me down if I start to sound like one). Making meaning in the now, for the now – probably the only life insurance policy I’m able to have. It’ll do me just fine.

Anna’s 4th blog: Wednesday, 07 May 2008