Intellectually, I understood the future was just a fiction, a mere projection of my hopes and fears. It might loom pleasantly or it might loom darkly, but my future always loomed. It was always there.
Six years ago, at the age of forty, while making plans for summer vacation and writing the Great American Novel, I was brutally reminded that this future life I had been planning, imagining, living in, didn’t actually exist. With a wrench in my gut, I knew this because the doctor was telling me I had cancer, the kind that had ravaged and killed my mother twenty years earlier. It feels too dramatic to say I dropped to my knees, but I did, cradling the phone, the balance of my life, the actual balance, hanging upon every word my doctor said. And just like that, one brief phone call, one little word uttered on a cold winter day, and my future vanished. The Here and Now was suddenly the only place I was certain I would live.
When I got well, there was no time for sleeping in, dishonesty, fear. Nothing scared me, except, of course, the cancer coming back. Every day became intense, almost painfully short as I tried to live the rest of my life in the one miraculous day that was today. Eventually, I was exhausted. The miraculous days took on a tortured, demanding quality. How, I thought with some post-traumatic distress, do I live with this kinetic awareness that life, my life, any life, is so very precious and could end at any given moment?
Solace came in the remembered words of a philosopher whose name (no time for dishonesty) I have forgotten: “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.” Every day, in the smallest decisions and the large ones, the choices made it clarity and the ones made in the darkness of emotion, I had chosen my life. In the kindness to a friend, in forgiveness of myself after harsh self-examination, in daily listening to that small inner voice that always knows the way, I had, as best as I could, been paying attention. When the doctor told me I had cancer, I had cried out in anguish, but I also immediately knew that my life held no regrets. It was a powerful, stabilizing force—having no regrets—and it helped me rise from my knees. Cancer, then, need not be such an unrelenting, ongoing thief. Cancer could serve. It could remind, amplify, and spotlight my daily choices so that I might choose my joys and sorrows in the brightest possible light. Cancer could help me see.
Only as I take my last breath will I truly know which futures only loomed and which one has uniquely come to pass for me. But my path, well illuminated by cancer, has only intensified my belief that I only have this present moment to live, to choose, in gratitude and joy, a life that will continue to hold no regrets.
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