Make Every day Matter
Cancer is teaching my family how to live in the moment.
Ever since my stepmom, A., received a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis last September, we’ve been taking life one day at a time.
The nature of her illness is such that long-term plans are tentative so we make do with modest achievements instead. Like going to the farmers’ market on Saturday, or spending a couple of hours in town, or having my stepbrother and his partner come round for dinner.
Illness has upended our perception of time, making us aware that what was seemingly limitless no longer is.
We now approach every new dawn with gratitude rather than indifference.
Doing so means accepting new limitations, too. Much as you yearn to, you can’t push yourself when you’re that sick, your body won’t allow it anymore.
My stepmom went straight from a round of heavy chemo to oral chemo without a break and the side-effects were traumatic. Every time she was so sick she couldn’t even sit up, she expressed immense guilt at putting my father through this ordeal.
“I’m worried your dad is going to collapse,” was the soundtrack of the three months I spent in Europe, concern for her own wellbeing always coming second. No matter how often Dad and I reminded her to focus on herself because we were OK, she couldn’t let go of that guilt.
So my father came up with ways to deflect it and reframe their new reality instead.
Love is what keeps us all going.
We closed ranks the minute the diagnosis hit. Because I live on the West Coast of the US and my parents in France, I immediately started thinking about how best to be present for them. Being a faceless voice at the other end of a phone line wouldn’t do.
“A. comes first in everything, everywhere,” Dad tells me within a few hours of my landing in Paris, to make sure I understand how co-habitation is going to work. To me, the ground rules are self-evident and I expected nothing less. But he’s the master of the house and, to him, I’m still the chubby baby mooning the world in my cot so I listen intently.
He explains that things are wont to change dramatically from one hour to the next, be it daytime or nighttime.
Acknowledging good times and small steps forward is therefore paramount to keeping A.’s spirits up.
“It did us both a lot of good getting some air and sitting on that bench for a while, didn’t it?” Dad asks A. after they return from spending an hour outdoors in the small park by their condo. “See, you’re doing alright,” he reminds her.
In the three months I spend with my parents, not a day goes by without A. or Dad recalling their many travel adventures of the last 20 years or so. As I learn from both of them, happy memories have the power to carry you when the going gets tough.
Many are the hours we spend sitting around the kitchen table laughing so hard our stomachs hurt.
No one can ever be prepared for cancer.
Even when it’s not a delayed death sentence, it has the same effect on a patient and their relatives as an earthquake in slow motion.
In my stepmom’s case, much as we’d like to contain it, we’re not sure it is even possible so we’ve learned to remain upright on shaky ground. And when one of us falters, there’s always an outstretched hand to grab hold of.
My parents are a miracle in motion: Dad draws strength from his wife not getting worse while she draws strength from his obvious delight at her satisfying medical news, which happen anew with every new blood panel. “Not worse” is good news these days because we’ve had to adjust our expectations to accommodate the possible. At this stage, magical thinking is a luxury we can’t afford.
Many of us are so busy projecting ourselves into a distant future that we tend to overlook the present.
And yet, you don’t have to suffer from a terminal illness to make every day matter and start celebrating small victories.
Once you pause to acknowledge all that is good in your life, you might be surprised at how accessible and plentiful contentment is.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.
Make Every day Matter
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