Moments of Happiness

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I never thought for a second that I would feel happiness in its truest unadulterated form ever again. I was certain that every second in which I felt even a modicum of happiness at seeing Mia grasp concepts like the solar system or pride in watching Belle walk fearlessly into her first day of school would be forever tarnished by cancer and that cancer’s ominous presence would invariably invade every moment of my life going forward. In many ways, what I suspected would happen has happened. The joy I felt in watching my little girls dance with abandon under the flashing lights of another child’s birthday party last weekend was marred by the thoughts in my head about how many future moments like this I would not be able to witness. In the midst of all that music and raucous screaming, I cried for all the things that I might never see. That night when Mia told me that the tooth fairy was going to come for her tooth and leave money under her pillow, I responded that the tooth fairy wouldn’t be coming until she was at least five or six years old. All the while I wondered if I would be around to be her tooth fairy, and if I weren’t, I worried about how my sweet sensitive Mia would cope with my absence.

Even without the cloud of cancer hanging overhead, happiness can be an elusive feeling that flits across the consciousness like a fast-moving fly trying to sneak a morsel of sweetness before it’s chased away. Anyone who raises young children understands the often times soul-crushing monotony of life’s routines, of battling through fatigue to get up every morning, of rushing the kids off to school, of withstanding the stresses of the oh-so-necessary paying job, of cooking healthy dinners that will likely go uneaten by irrationally picky children, of relentlessly negotiating with the kids over important things like when to brush teeth and what clothes to wear the next day and what treats they can have if they eat tomorrow’s lunch. Before cancer, occasionally I would find flickers of the pure joy that everyone says children bring. Happiness came when Mia said something clever and funny or when Belle wrapped her little arms around me and hold me like I was the most important person in the world. Joy came too when I spent a long weekend away with Josh or hung out with friends during a rare evening out without children. But for the most part, life before cancer, which consisted primarily of working and parenting, was plain old hard and thankless. Don’t get me wrong — I always appreciated what I had, my children’s health and our comfort and well-being. I didn’t need cancer to give me a wake up call about being grateful for everything I had in my life. Growing up a poor immigrant and legally blind had already taught me everything I ever needed to know about gratitude and appreciating life, truly. Rather, my life before cancer had settled into a routinized contentment and acceptance of the status quo, as opposed to an existence dominated by moments of happiness, defined as elevated feelings of pleasure, delight and euphoria. After the cancer diagnosis, I simply assumed that whatever few moments of pure joy would be tainted and that unadulterated happiness going forward was a total and complete impossibility.

But my assumption was wrong.

Last Thursday, I was sitting across a table from my former obstetrician, Dr. A.C., at a nondescript eatery buried in the dinginess of lower Manhattan. We were sharing a late lunch of spinach, brown rice and roasted vegetables, which was incidentally entirely anti-cancer and anti-diabetes compliant. We were in the midst of a conversation that had been going on for two hours, one that had begun in the lobby of my gym after my workout where Dr. A.C. had met me, one that would go on for another two hours as we continued to walk through the streets of Chinatown. Our conversation was about everything. We first talked about my cancer diagnosis, how it had come to be, potential medical causes, my CEA level, possible future surgeries, the merits of going outside of New York City for additional treatment, her belief in my ability to beat this cancer because, in her words, there is nothing typical about me. We talked about Dr. A.C.’s recent trip to Uganda, the reverse culture shock she was experiencing and her plans for the future.

It was in the middle of this conversation, that I blurted out to Dr. A.C, completely unbidden, “You know what? I’m really really happy right now.”

Even I was a little surprised at my own declaration. How is it possible to have stage IV colon cancer and feel for even a second, much less the many moments of that afternoon, the kind of carefree joy that would prompt me to make such a statement?

Much of it had to do with Dr. A.C., herself. Indeed, there is nothing about Dr. A.C. that is remotely typical either. Dr. A.C. had just returned two days earlier from six months in Uganda volunteering at a hospital with 550 beds to which people would travel for days and at which patients would sell a cow to pay for surgery. She showed me pictures of the hospital nursery which was nothing more than a table where babies lay, with their mothers’ blankets wrapped around them as the only proof of maternity (for there were no ID bracelets). She told me crazy stories about how she had sawed off the gangrened arm of a pregnant woman who had been gored by a bull and how she had to remove a mother’s dead fetus as well as the remnants of her ruptured uterus after a failed home delivery, all under harrowing conditions where anesthesia, electricity, resources and expertise were in short supply. Dr. A.C. had shut down her practice of 25 years, during which it felt like she had delivered nearly every child in TriBeCa, in order to go to Uganda as part of a commitment to service under-served areas at home and abroad, a commitment she had made when graduating from medical school. When she closed her practice and left for Uganda, I doubted that I would ever see her again because it was clear that she had no intention of returning to New York. I had written Dr. A.C. an email a couple weeks earlier to let her know about my diagnosis, not entirely expecting her to respond. It was only upon her return to the U.S. that she read my news and contacted me immediately to convey her shock. I asked to see her then, told her in fact that I absolutely needed to see her.

Dr. A.C. since the day I met her has always made me feel safe. She diagnosed me with gestational diabetes with both pregnancies and forced me to keep, and email to her, a daily food journal that recorded everything I consumed as well as my blood sugar levels at specific times during each day. Just as she did for all her other patients, she showed up at the hospital the moment I arrived (as opposed to the end of labor as so many other obstetricians do). She, and not a nurse, held me when the anesthesiologists administered the epidurals. She coached me through the pain of labor and delivery and was essential to the healthy arrival of Mia and Belle into this world. As a solo practitioner, she did not take a single vacation in the 20 years prior to closing her practice, and in return for her devotion to her patients, her patients have an unwavering loyalty to her.

I know my friends who are also former patients would have loved the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Dr. A.C. The truth is that the only reason Dr. A.C. took an afternoon out of her limited time in New York before she moves onto the next phase of her career to talk to me was because, as unlikely as it is, I have cancer. If she were still practicing and I didn’t have cancer, we would have never talked about our lives in such an honest and open manner that went beyond the conventions of the doctor-patient relationship (even that unique one that sometimes forms between a woman and the physician who delivers her children) and into the realm of a friendship that will hopefully endure for years to come. It is a privilege to have been cared for by Dr. A.C. It is even more of a privilege to know and be inspired by such a good and courageous human being who wants to, and indeed does, make a true difference in the lives of everyone she touches. In spending time with Dr. A.C., I was happy because I didn’t expect to be. I was happy because out of cancer had come this new relationship and a new understanding about another human being who had already been so important to me and my family. I was happy because through knowing and talking to her I felt in those moments an enrichment of my life and soul.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the moments when I’ve been the happiest in my life. You might expect me to say it was the moment I married Josh or the moment I held my squirming daughters for the first time. Alas, no — sorry Josh and Mia and Belle. As honest as I am, I have to admit that marriage and bringing forth life, while filled with joy, were too fraught with anxiety to be truly purely happy moments. I wondered, subconsciously anyway, as I stood by Josh’s side in my pretty white dress whether our relationship would endure. As I learned to hold my firstborn against my body, I wondered if I were going to break her fragile body or otherwise fail her as a mother. It would have been naive and arrogant of me not to have those thoughts then.

No, when I think of the happiest moments of my life, free of anxiety and worry, I think of the time I sat atop a hillside with three Tibetan monks in the distant province of Gansu, China at age 19, listening to the haunting chants from the monastery below. I think of sitting in the zodiac on Thanksgiving Day 2005, making my way through white, green and blue water towards the Antarctic coast under the brightest sky and sun I’d ever seen, on my way to meeting hundreds of wild penguins. I think of riding on a bicycle rickshaw through the country roads of Bangladesh too narrow for a car, under a star-filled sky with hundreds of fireflies lighting our path, These were the most euphoric moments of my life, moments where I was at peace, however briefly, where I had no worries about my past or my future, where I had traveled alone long and often difficult distances to reach my destination, where I felt gratitude in the breathtaking beauty I was so privileged to behold, where I felt like my soul was expanding to encompass a rare and even divine part of the human experience, to see and feel places of such extraordinary natural wonder that they must surely have been touched by the hand of God.

As shocking as it may seem, cancer has brought me moments of happiness. My moment of happiness with Dr. A.C. wasn’t so different from the moments of happiness I’ve experienced during my travels before cancer. While cancer has the capacity to tarnish my happy moments with my children, to taint them with doubts about the future, cancer also has an incredible ability to strip away the ugliness and the things that don’t matter and to put everything in perspective. With Dr. A.C., I forgot about the dreariness of that restaurant. I forgot about the uncertainty of my future. Instead, cancer gave me an ability to focus on the present, to really listen to everything Dr. A.C. told me, to enjoy and marvel at her stories and her as a human being, to feel gratitude that I had come out of my cancer diagnosis and to have her in my corner. And because cancer forces me and other to refocus on what matters, what I have found, as with Dr. A.C., are people coming forward to strengthen, reestablish old, or establish new, relationships — former doctors, high school classmates, fellow parents, distant friends, people I’ve never even met. It’s these relationships in my life, a life that for better or for worse is so defined by cancer now, that matter to me most these days, that make me truly happy. It is in these relationships that I am finding the breathtaking beauty, peace and divinity that I once ascribed only to my solitary wanderings.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Shan
    Oct 12, 2013 @ 13:53:50

    I love this post – it’s relatable on so many levels. May you find many more moments of euphoria…


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