The late afternoon was beautiful — sunny and warm. I decided to walk the 30-some blocks to get to Times Square. I was meeting an old friend there for an early dinner before we went to a preview of August Wilson’s play, Fences.
Walking there, I tried to see the world with new eyes.
I had just read an essay that had deeply shaken and inspired me. An Internet buddy, Christine Gross-Loh, had emailed the essay, which was written by a friend of hers. The author, Marie Pechet, is a 47-year-old woman from Cambridge, Massachusetts, a wife and mother of two young sons. The essay is about her determined search for fun for her children — joyous experiences they can all remember — while she lives with metastatic cancer. I haven’t read anything in years that affected me so profoundly.
Pechet and her sons go to a store to buy a planter for their deck the day she learns her cancer may have returned. The boys frolic in the store’s fountain, soaking their clothes. In the car, they strip off their clothes, laughing, and enjoy a “naked ride” home. In the months that follow, as Pechet undergoes surgeries, chemotherapy, and violent nausea from the chemo, she still tries to find lighthearted occasions for ski trips and Disney World visits for her sons.
She cites words from a children’s song that reflect what she’s trying to do. It isn’t what you’d expect, though. It’s from “Frosty, the Snowman”:
Frosty the Snowman
Knew the sun was hot that day
But he said let’s run and we’ll have some fun
Now, before I melt away….
Before I melt away. I kept hearing those words, mentally humming that melody, as I walked through the streets of New York. I thought of how fortunate my own life had been after my own cancer diagnosis in 1995, when my own children were 13 and 9. I thought of all the “extra” years I’d had, the graduations I’d attended, the trips I’d taken with our kids and my husband, the luxury of a life that had somehow extended with no further health problems, no complications. “It recedes into the past — eventually,” I tell friends who are going through cancer diagnoses and treatments. “If you’re lucky, you forget about it for days at a time.”
If you’re lucky, you forget. But you forget too damned much. You forget to notice life carefully enough, to be grateful for what you have. Even New York, which had dazzled me in the first days and weeks we were here, had become more routine to me. I was gradually failing to notice it closely enough.
So, I walked along, trying to see and feel it all. I watched the golden sunlight stretching through the tall buildings, the budding trees, the busy sidewalks. A middle-aged man guided his young daughter, who was wearing maroon angel wings, and loudly talking to him. An elderly man, patrician and erect, sported a bowler hat and velvet coat; who was he and where on earth was he going? At Columbus Circle, a young guy reclined on a couch someone had thrown out on the sidewalk, telling his friend, “You know what? I just got tired of the academic world.”
Closer to Times Square, the natural light merged with the artificial — the jumbo screens of faces and fashions and digital news. I recalled how fortunate I was to be meeting a dear friend from my Dallas days. I told her the story I’d just read and felt my eyes grow damp. After the play, I took the subway back to our apartment and told my husband about it, too.
What was it about that song, that familiar children’s song, as Marie Pechet had used it, that was so stark and compelling? It was simple and straightforward. It lacked illusions, but not hope. Most of all, it told a hard truth we all learn and forget and re-learn, over and over again, throughout our lives. Both life and death lie in those words. But, in the uncertain distance between them, we still have something.
God, I wish her well, this mother who’s searching for fun for herself and her family. And I’ll never hear that melody and those lyrics again without thinking of her.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about about
what I really wanted from my last medical test
Me either. Thanks for this lovely piece, Ruth.
It is incredibly touching and eye-opening. It is easy to forget to live in the moment when we are so busy worrying, worrying, worrying. There are wonderful things each day, each moment to enjoy and I am trying to notice them more.
The reminder is so important and eludes us so often. As a cancer survivor, sometimes I could just kick myself for not remembering to be mindful of everything around me. Thanks for this, Ruth. Beautifully said.
Thanks for your beautiful essay. I am shaken and inspired as well.
Carpe diem. After my mom’s death, I started trying to appreciate the mundane on a regular basis – the blue, blue sky, a soft breeze, flower buds poking out of new mulch …
Ruth, this is heart-breaking.
Ruth: When I decided that I was going to survive my cancer, all those years ago, I began to see so many things I had not tried that hard to see before. From then on, I noticed and noticed and noticed. And mostly I still do. But sometimes I get busy and move too fast and forget to notice so much. Then something always seems to remind me. Your blog post today reminded me again. Thanks for that. M
I came across this quote today: “We are surrounded by miracles, but we have to recognize them, otherwise there is no life.” (Thich Nhat Hanh). That struck a chord with me today, and I especially loved reading your blog post. Good timing!
I was touched by that essay – and yours. Thank you.
Awww, what a beautiful piece! Ruth, I am continually awed by the way you turn the bland details of life into beautiful prose. 🙂
Ruth! You got a Christmas song stuck in my head! In April! Dangit. 😉
Though, I’d say it was worth it for this wonderfully thought-provoking post.
I have long associated melting with death. The Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz – 1939) was doused with a pail of water by Dorothy and melted. One of her guards knelt by the witches steamy empty garb on the floor and said, “She’s dead. You’ve killed her.”
But I had never associated the same for melodic Frosty (“Frosty the Snowman” – 1950, Lyric – Walter E. Rollins). What an interesting goal, this knowing the end is near, yet planning fun right into the advancing fade of life. It’s noble, bittersweet, Frosty planning fun for all — except him, knowing he will succumb to the heat in the process. Yet cheerfully, he leads all toward joy and future good memories.
I have realized Frosty reflects the attitude of Judith Traherne preparing for her own certain death from a recurring brain tumor (Dark Victory – 1939). There will be no symptom until very near the end. Just a quick fading of vision then all will be over. Her cancer-researcher husband is planning a trip to NYC to present his latest findings. Just in the last minutes before his departure, the light fades. But without any comment about it she cheerfully sends him on to NYC to enjoy his rewards with fellow professionals. Then with her best friend at her side digging the holes, blind Judith plants a row of bulbs of her husband’s favorite flowers for him to enjoy in the coming spring. Happily, she sends her tearful knowing friend away, reminding her to comfort her husband on his return, feels her way up the staircase, enters her room and lies down to await the moment of melt.
An ending — a melt — is inevitable for all of us. We should each make ourselves be aware of the journey and take note of all things — a friend’s unique laugh, the twinkle in a stranger’s eye as he watches his grandchild flying a red kite, yellow-splotched leaves rollicking in the wind, a sudden chill at the shore and how it recalls a warm hearth from another time and who was there with you. Frosty’s deceptively simple song reminds us to do this. That lyric will never be the same for me.
What a beautiful write-up. I was really touched. Thank you for your well wishes and support, and thank you to everyone for your positive and thoughtful comments.
To everyone else (plus Ruth),
It feels like you are all sending light, so I want to send light right back to you!
“Now, before I melt away.”
Wow, another wake-up call. Now is all we have, all we are guaranteed. Why is it so dang hard to know this down to the bone and to remember daily? Why do we need constant reminders?
We need to notice and enjoy life NOW. Thanks to you and to Marie for the reminder.
You had me at frosty. Oh, so bitter sweet.
Beautiful essay, Ruth. And thanks for the reminder to really look. I’ll try to be as observant as you are, and cherish the moments.
I’ve always envied Frosty’s attitude toward melting away. And I LOVE IT when the people you write about post comments here!
Wow, Ruth. I too was completely blown away by Pechet’s essay, but the way you were able to take it and reflect is just amazing. Lovely writing.
Beautifully lyrical piece of writing Ruth
Her attitude reminds me of Randy Pausch’s in the Last Lecture. As parents we don’t often enjoy the little moments. With my kids I do a ‘Sunday night snuggle’ where I spend one-on-one time with each one just talking about whatever. It makes me slow down and really listen. Thanks for the reminder to do that more often.
Amen. Well said.
So many of life’s lessons lost by our failure to intentionally nurse them. After cancer, you want life to return to normal. Most of us just go back to work and life in a few weeks or months. But should life return to normal, all too often the lessons learned disappear with the pain and the fear. We need that middle ground–lose the pain and fear; keep the joy.
Beautiful. Just beautiful and so very true and real on the most core level. Thank you.
Wow. I didn’t expect to cry tonight. I’m in the Frosty Club now.
What a beautiful essay, Ruth. Life goes so quickly. I needed to be reminded to find the fun. Marie Pechet, you are a heroine.