I had come to accept that when I turned 60, it would be time to begin looking over my shoulder, watching for signs of the pancreatic cancer which had taken my father, an aunt and my brother. Being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 52 knocked me for six and changed my life and body forever.
Being Mortal: The Loss of Innocence
When I was around nine, one of our five dogs, Caesar, an Alsatian, died. Caesar carried the reputation as the dog who had reached up and helped himself to the Christmas ham while we were busy getting ready to eat it. I was present in his final days and I remember how my mother gave instructions to make his last moments comfortable—a hot water bottle and blankets when he shivered, fanning him if he seemed hot, talking to him in a low calming voice.
When I was 17, I feared dying by violence during the political unrest of the seventies in Jamaica, horrific crimes replayed in my dreams with me as the victim. It was the decade for burglar bars on windows and doors, changing the architecture on the island forever.
At nineteen, my best friend in college attempted suicide with pills—I was the one to find her.
At forty, my 88 year old neighbor, Tom, became my friend and when he took his last breath, some years later, still sitting up in his favorite chair, I recognized it as a privilege to be able to sit with him and his family—my first time in the presence of a dead body.
Over the subsequent decades, I have known many who have died, or faced death.
And then came my turn.
This was life—sudden and unpredictable change.
Nothing can prepare you for those four words spoken: You have a tumor. With that announcement, I lost the illusion of invincibility—I was forced to contemplate a shorter lifetime. Immediately thrown into a medical and emotional vortex, I gave nearly two years of my life to tests, surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. I had an ileostomy and wore a bag for 7 months after which, thankfully, it was reversed.
My job came with excellent insurance coverage and I was fortunate to be treated by the best surgeon at the best facility in New York City; friends and family rallied around to support me in all ways throughout this devastating time. While I would have happily skipped this particular coming of age experience, it was an excellent crash course in gratitude.
After receiving the diagnosis, my ex-husband of 25 years sent me this gorgeous, colorful celebration of tropical life. A friend added the yellow ball to represent the tumor and named the still life, “Flowers Prevail”.
It was the start of my gruelling cancer journey, my most powerful face-to-face encounter with mortality.
After all treatments and surgeries were complete and my prognosis was excellent, it was time to ask myself:
What is it that I want to do with the remaining years that I’ve been given? What is really important?
There were the usual resolutions—making more time for family and friends, taking more care of my body, but there was something else there as well, something trying desperately to get my attention, something resurfacing that had begun nearly 10 years before with my decision to leave my “quite good” 25+ year marriage.
My cancer journey was offering me a dramatic opportunity to be even more of who I was meant to be. I did not want to be restrained by any institution, I wanted to create a work life where the only person I had to consult was myself.
The only way to honor this was to leave my “quite good” 25+ year librarian job and start my own business. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act—nicknamed Obamacare, for the first time entrepreneurs (particularly those with a pre-existing condition) could not be turned away nor could premiums be manipulated unfairly. Because of this less-than-perfect, but oh-so-important government commitment to health care for all of us, I could indeed leave my job.
I gave notice 2 months after my last treatment. I was terrified. This new path could be successful or could just as easily flop and leave me economically vulnerable—I was using almost all my savings, refusing even to consider business loans or anything that might delay or constrain me. It was risky, no doubt, but I felt I had more to lose if I did not step bravely into this space.
As the business plan took shape, windows and doors started opening and things fell effortlessly into place. The perfect person who shared my passion for early literacy, juggled her life so she could join me on the adventure; the perfect location in my own neighborhood (which was filled with young children), miraculously became available complete with a landlord enthusiastic about my mission. Baby Wordplay was born.
This was just the beginning. Eight years later (until Covid-19 stole our joy) it had grown into an important family destination with 3 locations serving hundreds of families each month and outreach to schools and other community venues. It was my beautiful business.
“Some people don’t know they’re alive”.
I came across this line long ago, and it stuck with me. Being mortal and being alive are so inextricably entwined.
What does it mean to be alive? While I can have some impact on how I age, I cannot change the end of the story. It is very difficult to look yourself in the eye and tell yourself that you are dying, but this is what it means to come face to face with one’s mortality. I have been examining how, in addition to living a healthy lifestyle, I might live successfully, in other words, how to be alive until the end.
To Live As Though I Am Alive is to
Acknowledge that I am aging and I will die and therefore, I must strive every single day to live a genuine life.
Acknowledge the gifts and talents that I have been entrusted with—to take care of them and share them whenever possible.
Be present in my new role as grandparent and offer practical help, elder wisdom and guidance as needed.
Be kind to others because I never know what someone else is going through.
Lifting our own head
A couple weeks ago, my daughter called me all excited—during tummy time Baby K, with great effort, had lifted his head and turned it so as to follow Dad across the room.
It made me think of how much we have to learn, how much we have to grow, from lifting our own heads to walking on our own feet to living our own genuine lives until the very end.
⭐ I give thanks for the journey and for the sweet joy that the little ones bring.//