In the summer that I was treated for thyroid cancer, I learned what it meant to be literally exhausted, to have no energy. I was a young woman then, so it seemed pretty simple: Normally, if I was tired, I’d rest, sleep in late over the weekend and be back to normal. But not now, not this time.
During those months of treatment, my body would often scan for some higher octane, some metabolic starter fluid, but there was none. My body wasn’t making any thyroid hormone after the Thyroidectomy, and I wasn’t allowed to replace it chemically yet. For the duration of the treatment, it was the way it had to be. I wasn’t a very good patient either; life for me was still about Doing, not enough about Being.
I didn’t yet understand that cancer strips you bare. Who are you now? With no energy to engage with the outside world, I was terrified that I couldn’t answer that question. There were days when going to the grocery store was the big event of the day. I would stand in the aisles like a zombie, holding a peach in one hand and a tomato in the other—what was it I wanted? Sometimes, I would graze on a few fresh green beans because I was invisible; people flowed around me like I wasn’t there.
Towards the end of September, when the slant light was lengthening on the patio and the dark green lawn chair was hot against my bare legs, I started to think about what it would mean to get old, since I felt so old already. It was a painful exploration, but I looked it in the eye. There was no choice really. There had been weeks and months of a gradual decline; the loss of energy and vitality and spark until I felt slow and depleted and used up, a dress rehearsal for someone quite a bit older, someone whose health was under siege. I grieved my energetic, youthful self.
But after a few months of stillness, something began to change. Fear didn’t govern my days nearly as much. My inner world took precedence over everything else. Though my muscles were weak and I slept twelve hours a day, I felt a new gentleness and compassion for myself. I befriended myself in all my weakness.
And it occurred to me to prepare intentionally for what I will need should I become this physically and emotionally vulnerable again, what I will need when I am old. I peeked into the future and saw myself. I will like that old woman when she comes, she has made friends with the invisible. She grazes on green beans in the grocery aisle.
I’ll tell you now what I’ll need when I’m old.
I’ll need beauty and stillness, and some intelligent conversation from the heart now and again. I’ll need music, books that make me think, and flowers. I’ll need big people and little people and animals coming to visit, and I’ll need to be able to visit them. Most of all, I’ll need the tiniest piece of garden (could be a pot on the windowsill) on which to drop a few seeds and water them and wait for the magic of life.
I will need my friends and family to take care of me. And I want something to take care of, something that needs me—even at the end of my days. I will need my family to help me shield myself from the things that are not important. Help me stay in touch with my soul no matter what.
Even now, with the cancer behind me, I can’t return to the way things were before. Cancer has rewired my circuitry and it’s not very predictable now. The most obvious sign of my new wiring is my skin—it feels alive and permeable, open to feeling in new ways. Sometimes, when I least expect it—a red leaf, the eyes of a friend, a new thought—my skin will turn into a receiver for some heartbreakingly beautiful thing.
A friend once called me to ask how I was doing and I said, “Okay, but I still cry a little every day.” Because he is a wit, I thought he would joke about it. You know, suggest a good therapist or something. He didn’t. He said, “You are so lucky.”