Dreams Reborn

I wrote a post two months after my diagnosis called Dreams Forsaken in which I mourned the loss of certain intertwined dreams because of cancer, namely my ability to have another child and to have a weekend home that would facilitate raising three children in the city. I declared then that I was done making plans and having dreams, that I had to grieve what I had lost, although I did have the presence of mind to acknowledge that one day I might be able to dream once more. Even as I wrote those words, I never thought I would dare to dream big again. Back then, my idea of dreaming big was getting a dog or planning a trip to Disney World. I could not conceive of a scenario where I could really dream about something more significant in the future that involved true risk and uncertainty for it felt like cancer was risky and uncertain enough and that it would completely dictate and indeed inhibit any future I had. No, the last two years have been primarily about getting through the days, weeks and months, about putting one foot in front of the other and living in the moment.

But that is no longer so true.

To that point, I have very exciting news, which I feel I can finally share broadly. And no, unfortunately, it is not the shocking discovery that the scans showing mets in my lungs are in fact someone else’s scans – I wish. The news is that Josh and I have signed a contract to purchase the apartment next door for the purpose of combining it and our current apartment to create a 2,529 square foot abode that will likely feature 4.5 bedrooms (two of which will be master bedrooms) and 3.5 baths. For those of you who are not aware of the nature of New York City real estate, the opportunity to purchase a neighboring apartment and combine is a highly coveted one and one upon which people pounce (assuming they can cobble the money together for the purchase), not just to assuage the need for space but also for investment purposes. That opportunity is even more unique in a well-constructed, historically significant and landmarked building, as is the case here. The influx of money by foreign investors who find New York real estate to be a safer depository for their wealth than their home countries’ banking systems has driven real estate prices up to levels that are unfathomable to those who do not live in this great city. It has also pushed purchasers out of Manhattan and into the less expensive surrounding boroughs, particularly Brooklyn (which is where I live).

Already feeling the need for more space with two little girls, Josh and I had casually daydreamed about the possibility of buying a neighbor’s apartment right around the time I was diagnosed, and considering what we believed was the improbability of a neighbor selling, we settled on the somewhat less attractive alternative option of buying a little weekend home in upstate New York – the home that we were on the brink of purchasing two years ago when I was diagnosed and the dream which we abandoned because of that diagnosis. Well, what was improbable two years ago has come to pass – our neighbor has outgrown their apartment and is selling their two bedroom home and to us no less in a privately negotiated transaction.

Even though I had idly dreamed of a combination more than two years ago, when I learned (from another neighbor) that the neighbor was going to sell their place, the thought of purchasing the apartment didn’t even cross my mind. Instead, I thought, “Oh no, Mia and Belle will lose another playmate in the building.” I didn’t even think to say anything to Josh for an entire week. But when I did tell him, “H and T are selling and moving,” Josh’s eyes seemed to pop out of his head and he declared excitedly, “Are you serious? This is our chance!” I looked at him blankly, not understanding what he was saying.

It was as if in the same way that cancer had denied me the dream of owning a little country home, it had also blocked the idea of this other more desirable dream. In the millisecond it took for me to understand what Josh was saying and before I could allow myself to envision a gloriously expanded apartment, all the horrible complications that cancer might bring to bear on a tremendous project like this flashed through my mind. As much as I can push cancer to the recesses of my mind, especially when I’m on vacation or otherwise truly living in the moment, any action or consideration that requires even the slightest contemplation of the future is always, always burdened by speculation about the potential and as-yet-unknown behavior of my cancer and its impact on my mind and body. What if in the middle of renovations, I needed surgery and could not oversee the project (because it would be me, and not Josh, overseeing this project). What if, worse yet, I died before the completion of the combination? How would Josh, who is so atrocious about the finer (and some major) details of life manage? What if we had to move out of our apartment? What about the financial obligations and what if we needed the money for some surgery or other treatment not covered by insurance? What if…what if…what if…

I instantly also saw the wonderful potential of what Josh was proposing – a phenomenal money-making investment (although not necessarily from which I would benefit directly), an apartment where the girls would have their own rooms (because I am sure at some point, they will tire of sharing their full-sized bed), a place big enough to accommodate my parents and in-laws and other who can and will help me, Josh and the girls as I become sicker and after I die, a place big enough to accommodate a hospice bed when the time comes (as I had often wondered whether I would be able to spend my last days in this home that I love given the space constraints). Four bedroom apartments with that kind of square footage are highly coveted commodities in New York City, and if constructed well, ours would be a wonderful place in which the girls would grow and thrive, a place that could be passed down from generation to generation, a labor of love by me and the single greatest physical and tangible legacy I could leave for my beloved children and husband. For both Josh and me, it would represent the realization of an ambitious dream that harkens back to the pre-cancer days, despite the cancer, evidence that life can and does go on after a cancer diagnosis, even an incurable one; it would be a powerful symbolic affirmation of life and living and optimism for a future that is bigger than myself, of beauty and comfort and love and commitment.

But what about all the what-ifs. My mind went into problem solving mode. We consulted with our financial advisors and poured over detailed cash flow analyses. We spoke to architects, bankers, lawyers, realtors, building representatives and others. Based on those many conversations, we grew comfortable that a combination was doable from every perspective, including design and construction, legality and financing (including the assurance that we would not need to move out of our current apartment since nearly all of the work would be done in the other apartment and would be completed before any wall were torn down between the two units). But with respect to my paramount concern – the cancer and its potential ability to rob me of the ability to oversee this project (possibly leaving Josh in an even more overwhelming position) – I spoke to my brother and sister. They both instantly loved the idea; among all the obvious benefits, they believe that a project like this will “keep me going.” More practically, my sister is an architect by training and I know, and she confirmed, that if I were not able to complete the oversight of this project, that she would be ready, willing and able to step in to make all those little decisions that may come up. Of course, so much of the decision making will be made initially, during the design and planning phase (especially when the right professionals are hired), and I have every intention of being around to set the plans in place. And then, it will just be a matter of those professionals executing based on the plans.

As my sister told me, the most important person in this whole process would be the contractor and fortunately for me, I have a contractor who I absolutely adore. Now, how often do you hear that statement? He worked on the redesign of my great room last December, the month when I learned of my recurrence and incurable status. The poor guy chose the wrong time to call me days after I received the news and ask me how I was doing, for which he got an earful of my tears. I think he must feel really sorry for me because since then he’s been so very kind and concerned and has even come by to replace light bulbs. What contractor comes by after finishing his job to change light bulbs for former clients? Apparently mine! I asked him to come by a couple weekends ago to look at the other apartment so he could give me a very preliminary cost estimate, during which I had a frank discussion with him about how I would need to be able to trust him implicitly to carry out my wishes with respect to the combination if I got too ill or did not survive long enough to see this through to the end. He was immediately alarmed, wanting to know if there had been negative health developments. I assured him that I appeared to be stable but I had to always prepare for the worst. He looked me in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder and declared, “Nothing is going to happen to you. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” I was so moved by his obvious concern and his belief that he could somehow affect the course of my disease. That kind of support is priceless.

Ever since I was diagnosed, I’ve learned that so much of life’s hardships become more bearable when you are able to build and lean on a network of loyalty, support and love, and gather around you people (even your contractor) who will stand by you and help you. But the thing is you have to let them in; you have to let them see the heartache, pain and vulnerability, and not cloak those things in a shameful darkness, and then you have to let those people who care about you help you.

Finally, I asked my oncologist for his blessing. I felt like I needed his formal blessing most of all; actually, his blessing was the only one that truly mattered to me. His response was rather comical in its briefness in light of how much thought I had given to the cancer in making this decision. “Do it!” he said. My cancer, this thing that has often felt like it controls every part of me and my life, seemed to be such a non-issue to him in this regard. He was telling me in the brevity of his words that I and Josh had to keep on living our lives and that he would consent to anything that promoted my living to the fullest extent possible. He is yet another person in my support network whom I absolutely adore.

And with Dr. A.C.’s blessing, we have moved forward. It will be a few months yet before we can start the construction work since we have to still decide on the conceptual designs, obtain building and city approvals and finalize the financing. But signing the contract, which happened this week, is the first big step.

It has taken me two solid years of living with metastatic cancer to realize an important truth and that is the following: Barring some physical pain or other physical impediment brought on by cancer or its treatment, it isn’t cancer that denies me my dreams; it isn’t cancer that would prevent me from going on vacations or buying a new home or doing anything else that I long to do. Rather, it is a paralyzed mind succumbing to the fear and unpredictability of cancer that would deny me my dreams. In its paralysis, it groups into one category all dreams that are truly gone (such as having another biological child) with dreams that can be reshaped and redefined or even new dreams that are derivative of a cancer diagnosis. In its paralysis, the mind cannot form contingency plans; it cannot be brave and bold and forward-thinking; it cannot accept what is without running from what will be. In one of the many ironies that have come with having an incurable prognosis, it is as if by accepting the inevitability of my death from this disease, I have freed myself from the paralysis. As I wrote in my previous post, in accepting my death, I have learned to live more fully and completely than I have before. Similarly, I can move forward now with some degree of certainty; I can plan for myself and my family, for as much as a I emphasize living in the here and now, living and loving those who we love by necessity requires some degree of planning, of thinking about what might be, of dreaming for them if not necessarily ourselves. I rejoice in my liberation, in my own courage to move forward, in the rebirth of a dream I once thought was forever lost to me.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Domitilla
    Jun 26, 2015 @ 02:43:39

    It’s indeed great, great news, Julie! 😀 The score now is Julie 100 – cancer 0! 😉 congratulations to you, Josh and the girls! Look, it’s going to be an exhausting time with all the concerns about buying, renovating and furnishing a new home…we made this last year, even moved to another region of Italy, some 700 km north from Rome, and six months later we are still to be done! Nonetheless it is surely one of the most exciting experience one can get. Planning is! Let your mind conceive something great for your future. Let Life get in your life! I think this was a great idea, Julie. Even a therapeutic one. Thank you for sharing. You made my day! Love you all! ❤️

    Reply

  2. Maia
    Jun 26, 2015 @ 05:56:08

    Julie, this is fantastic… this is LIFE. So happy for you, Josh and the girls ❤️

    Reply

  3. Heidi
    Jun 26, 2015 @ 09:30:45

    I have followed you for a while now and have shared stories with you about my husband, Chad. Follow your dream and keep fighting.
    Chad lost his life in March to metastatic colorectal cancer. I, too, have two children, 2, 10.
    We as well wanted to upgrade our home and were looking at house right up to the month before he was put on hospice.
    Good luck and enjoy this adventure! As you and your husband know – cherish every minute.

    Reply

  4. Maxine
    Jun 26, 2015 @ 14:58:22

    How exciting…something wonderful to focus on and watch its progress. Such happy news. Miss you and love you.

    Reply

  5. Cindie
    Jun 27, 2015 @ 06:17:08

    I am so happy for you and your family! You have really touched my heart and opened my eyes to see that it is so important to move forward with important hopes and dreams and not to be “paralyzed” by the what if’s of a terminal cancer diagnosis! As you said, you are leaving your imprint, your legacy, to your family for the future!

    My husband has stage 4 colon cancer with mets to liver, lungs, and peritoneum! He was diagnosed about a year ago. He is getting chemo now. He is tolerating the chemo quite well and currently his disease is stable. His QOL is good! We just signed a contract to do major remodeling to our home; it’s something we had
    talked about doing before his diagnosis. We too are moving forward after checking out our finances, etc. It truly seems to give him hope and strength and purpose each day. We are living in the moment and enjoying life! I look forward to hearing more of your plans and progress! Thanks so much for sharing from your heart!! You have truly encouraged me and given me a new perspective!

    Reply

  6. Eve
    Jun 27, 2015 @ 15:03:47

    Damn, Julie, you’re smart. You just keep beating that unbeatable cancer again and again. I recently lost my dad to CC after five years with widespread stage 4 disease. Your writing is such a gift. I feel your words make me smarter, better and tougher. Please Know you’re an inspiration to people all over the world (I’m from Israel). Amazing news about your home. Thrilled for you and your family. Thank you.

    Reply

  7. tyler
    Jul 01, 2015 @ 08:47:05

    This is terrific. Your nest will be in order and this project will become the thoughts in your head. I love this idea, although I have never loved the bumps in the road with construction. I think that you have a fantastic plan in place. I can’t wait for your grand opening event!!

    Reply

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