RUTH: This is the end of my second week of pursuing my own writing. I always live in fear that I’ll end up on the couch, eating bon-bons and watching TV and swelling into a small human mountain. But, so far, I’ve kept reasonably busy.
This week, I wrote an essay about how I never expected to get old — or, shall we make that older — after being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45, more than 12 years ago. It’s so easy to concentrate on the wrinkles and sags and exponential number of years, instead of on the sheer privilege of living to see my children grow up.
9/11 always reminded me very much of a cancer diagnosis. It was staggering — dividing life into categories of “before” and “after.” It left most of us thinking that life would always be different after that momentous event. Remember when the famous magazine editor declared that “irony is dead”?
But the days and years mount up and, in spite of ourselves and our best intentions to remember what that dramatic event was like, most of us return to life as normal. We become less alive and awake. We forget our great good fortune to have survived and forget, too, the clarity we can find in a catastrophe — the realization of what’s important and what isn’t.
That’s what I was writing about in this essay. I’ve lost so many dear friends to cancer — Donna Ryan, Katherine Sorensen, Kathleen Holland, Cindy Doran, Alice Arndt, and others. I can never forget what a privilege these wrinkles and sags and aches and pains are.
So I sent out that essay and feel hopeful about it. I also wrote an essay (and sent it out, of course) about my general ill will toward the hordes of people who tell you what to do when you’re diagnosed with cancer. They tell you to fight it. They tell you to be optimistic. They tell you everything happens for a reason.
In fact, after I was diagnosed with cancer, I was even being stalked by an optimist for several long days. Every time I walked out my front door, it seemed, she was there, grinning fervently and spouting advice. I thought briefly about buying an attack dog to take care of this particular problem. But finally, she disappeared and is probably shadowing some other poor soul with a bad disease and worse attitude.
Anyway, I digress. The essay is about how we all handle a difficult diagnosis (and God knows, any other serious event) differently. I tend to crack inappropriate jokes and I’ve never really understood the whole glass is half-full/half-empty dilemma. I always want to know: Half full of what? It makes a difference, you know.
So, I’m sitting here in my office, feeling hopeful about my writing, perpetually annoyed with the continued incompetence of the Bush administration, and determinedly happy to be alive.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)