Cancer log 205: Wanting to do everything

Cancer log 205: I was listening to Hamilton on my way in to the hospital for a pelvic ultrasound (it’s probably nothing, but they’re checking, and I’m fretty), and “One Last Time” came on, which is probably not the song that hits most people the hardest, but it gets me every time.

“I’m stepping down, I’m not running for President
I’m sorry, what?
One last time- relax, have a drink with me
One last time.
Let’s take a break tonight, and then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye
To say goodbye, you and I
No, sir, why?”

I’m only at the middle of my career, not the end of it, hopefully. But this is one lasting effect of having had cancer, that the feeling I’ve always had, of wanting to do *everything*, to live my life as if I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, has intensified. By, like, a million.

I need to talk about it with a therapist, I’m pretty sure, work through it (in the queue: schedule therapist), because it leads to me driving myself too hard, trying to do too much, and that exhausts me AND paradoxically makes me less productive, because all the balls I’m juggling start smashing into each other. No good.

But it’s not going to be easy to work through, because I’ve been working for oh, 25-35 years, depending on what you’re counting from, and I’ve accumulated some knowledge, maybe even a little wisdom, and there is SO MUCH that I want to teach…

“I want to talk about neutrality
Sir, with Britain and France on the
verge of war, is this the best time-
I want to warn against partisan fighting
Pick up a pen start writing
I wanna talk about what I have learned
The hard won wisdom I have earned”

I was talking to a friend a few months back, my college roommate, and she said that what she found most valuable about this blog were the times when I taught here, when I laid out the steps to do something — whether it’s something domestic, or writing-related, or dealing with cancer, or maybe just relational. (Sometimes I think the conversations I’ve had with Kevin about chore distribution are the most useful thing I can pass on!)

I’m an analytical person (also emotional — on Myers-Briggs, I test smack dab in the middle of the line on that one), so my response to problems is always to look at them structurally, to try to think through the best process, best practices. And then, because *teacher* is a huge part of my identity (and family history — many in my family were/are teachers, it’s in the blood), my instinct is to pass the knowledge on. Mostly through blogging right now.

“As far as the people are concerned, you have to serve
You could continue to serve”

When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 (I’m fine now, hopefully), the very first thought I had was that I had to sit down, immediately, and make videos for my children. One for every year of their childhood and early adulthood, telling them everything I might not be there to tell them, and of course it would be woefully incomplete, but better than nothing…

There’s a bit in a Bujold novel, when Aral Vorkosigan is talking about how the worst thing isn’t sending your troops out to battle — it’s sending them out, knowing you haven’t had time to teach them *enough*… That’s how I feel all the time these days, in the back of my brain.

I hope y’all are stuck with another 50 years of me, or more. I think one of my great-grandmothers lived to be over a 100, and I have access to much better healthcare than she did, the scientists and doctors are always learning more, so who knows? In my Jump Space universe, set a hundred or so years from now, the default human lifespan has increased to around 200. That would be nice.

But whether I have another year, or ten, or a hundred, eventually, you know, it’ll be time, and regardless of how much I’ve managed to download from my brain in the process, it still won’t be enough. (Maybe we’ll all be uploading into the cloud and living forever by then, but if so, a) it’ll be different, and b) I’m not holding my breath.)

“No. One last time, the people will hear from me
One last time, and if we get this right
We’re gonna teach’ em how to say goodbye
You and I”

Someday, I’ll have to stop, regardless, so maybe it’s time to start practicing that a little? Trust that I’ve taught as much as I reasonably can for the moment, and that it’s okay to take time to breathe a little. I don’t have to teach EVERYTHING.

Kavya’s been watching Friends, and yesterday I had to tell her that I thought Ross was a really terrible boyfriend, and I hoped she never dated anyone who treated her like that. Thankfully, she agreed with me. Chandler is her favorite character, and mine too, so maybe it’s okay if I don’t tell Kavi *everything* I know about dating. She’s got good instincts; she’ll figure it out on her own, and with luck, won’t make the same mistakes I made. She can make new, different mistakes, and hopefully none of them are irrevocable. Maybe that’s enough to teach her.

(That’s my main parenting wisdom, by the way — try to avoid doing things that may hurt you in life-and-death ways you can’t recover from. Drinking and driving. Hard drugs that will mess with your body and brain. Unprotected sex. But most things that frighten parents actually are recoverable, thank all the little gods. I was terrified to call my parents and tell them that I’d flunked calculus fall quarter freshman year — I was actually crying when I made the call. In the long run, though, it was just fine. All the videos I’d make for the kids? I’d end each one with that message.)

Last weekend in D.C., Elaine Martyn had us do a little exercise — she’d brought these cards full of images, spread them out on a table, and asked us to choose one that represented our legacy. Legacy is on my mind a lot these days, as you can see — the inevitable consequence of increased awareness of mortality.

I chose one that I sadly don’t have a copy of, so it’s not quite this image, of a crowd of penguins. Imagine the same crowd, but with one penguin a few steps away from the others. That’s me; that’s my job in life. Captain / navigator. Let me explore a little further, away from the crowd, maybe walking onto thin ice. I’ll report back.

Many years ago, I went to Switzerland, and got off the train in Basel to visit Benjamin Rosenbaum and his family. Ben met me at the train, and we started walking, and after a while he said, startled, that we were walking the wrong way. I’d started walking, and he’d just followed me, assuming I knew where I was going, even though I’d never been there before. He claims I have mutant leadership powers.

Perhaps. But I definitely go the wrong way, a lot. I think drowning myself in frantic work, the last few years, trying to do all the things, was the combined result of Trump’s election and cancer — my ‘fix the world’ instincts leapt into overdrive. And now I’m trying to document where I went wrong, and set up better systems. Iterate. It’s okay if you don’t get it right the first time.

“Mr. President- they will say you’re weak
No- they will see we’re strong
Your position is so unique
So I’ll use it to move them along
Why do you have to say goodbye?
If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone”

This past weekend also reminded me that I’m not actually in this alone. I was in a crowd of fabulous women, so many of them working in government and non-profits, saving the world, one step at a time. Just looking at my sisters — both of them doctors, saving lives, but also one is a researcher working on AIDS and the other is training the next generation of doctors, iterating and questioning and creating new best practices, both for working with patients and for existing as doctors and humans, because gods know, there’s plenty of work to be done on that front.

And they’re raising beautiful, brilliant children, who will undoubtedly outshine us all — I am astounded daily by the thoughtful, conscientious, loving care that so many parents around me are pouring into their children. *There’s* a legacy for you, one that gives me so much hope. I don’t have to do it all. I can’t do it all. That’s okay.

I may have tried to pack too much into this post, as I’m having a hard time coming up with a single point to end on. I’ll leave you with Hamilton instead, and where I am right now — not ready to retire yet, not by a long shot. But I’m trying to slow down, be more deliberate. Unpack my thoughts more, communicate with the people who work with me, instead of expecting them to read my racing mind.

Go back to beginner mind too, and accept how much I don’t know, possibly *can’t* know. (That last is a hard one for the Hermione Granger in me, the girl with her hand up in the air, who wants to know everything.) Also trying to spend time and repair relationships with family and dear friends that were woefully neglected the last several years (because as much as I’d like to blame Trump and cancer, some of this is just me and my personality — those two factors just accelerated my natural tendencies). Trying to delineate where I went wrong, which will hopefully help someone.

Mostly, when I’m tired, rest. I am so bad at that.

Working on it.

“Like the scripture says,
Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made
I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade

At home, in this nation we’ve made…”

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