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The Day I Died

With my cancer diagnosis came a loss of life as I knew it to be, but with that loss came life in abundance, as I never knew it before.

My mother said that on the day that I was born, there was snow on the ground. It was unusual for the early part of October, October 8 to be exact; but I was smiling anyway when I arrived.

Last year I decided to take a week off for my birthday to play catch up on my life. You know, all the things that get in the way of really living…the oil changes, the laundry, the yearly check-ups.  I was at least four months behind, so as a birthday gift to myself, I took the week off.  That was the week before I died.

I knew I had a lump in my breast, but I was able to dismiss it because prior mammograms had always turned up negative. The pain in the lump had increasingly begun to throb, which concerned me, but nothing that wouldn’t show up on a mammogram; or so I thought. In hindsight, prior mammograms had given a false negative.

A week after my birthday, after burying myself in corn at the corn fest and hiding in the corn stalks while trying to scare my daughters, and considering stealing an ear of corn only to be lectured by my eldest that they would kick me out and never allow me back in the corn maze again, (not ever!), we innocently laughed.  We laughed while eating barbecued pork sandwiches on cowboy style benches while being entertained by a little boy dressed in a super hero costume; we laughed while taking goofy pictures on the bridge that looks over one of the biggest corn mazes in the Country.  I basked in my favorite time of the year, autumn, the time when the crisp of the new season is a reprieve from the hot summer air and the leaves show hints of oranges and reds and dance upon the ground.  A week after we laughed, I received the letter.

At that moment, everything I believed and thought and held to be true vanished; at the moment when innocence was lost, I died; and that was the last of the girl that I used to know. 

It was poetic really, a beautiful end to my life during my favorite time of year, while simultaneously the leaves continued to turn color with the season’s change.  Knowing that Christmas carols would one day ring without me was a painful epiphany, and I grieved with that new knowledge.  But knowing that Christmas carols would ring without me was also liberating. The world would rejoice in all the beauty bestowed upon it, with or without my existence, and in that I found the freedom to let go, and in that very moment was when I also found the freedom to truly live.

I can’t speak for others, but the day I was diagnosed with cancer was the day the squealing of the tires came to a screeching halt, the movie stopped, the lights went out, and I found myself alone in darkness and silence. People often ask me “What stage?” But when I was diagnosed, there was no stage, there was finality. No tomorrow, no yesterday, only the here and now; this one breath that I am able to take right…now, this very second.  Stage? Oh I wish it were so simple to explain in a stage, but let me describe the truth of my diagnosis, the moment when I realized that death is a very real very inevitable part of life.

My cancer diagnosis wasn’t a matter of how long I had to live, but of an even greater truth that my physical being will eventually die.  It may not even be from cancer, it could be from falling in the shower and hitting my head, or a multitude of other things.  It wasn’t the cancer diagnosis that I feared, it was the finality of death, and that knowledge came to me, screamed at me in painstaking agony via the cancer diagnosis.  It was really as simple as that.  In that knowledge, I cried, hard.  I grieved.  At times I couldn’t breathe it hurt so badly and I gasped for my next breath. Sometimes I cried so hard that I could only open my mouth, yet the pain was so overwhelming that no sound came out. I screamed without words. I cussed, and I sat at times in silence drained of all feeling.  I reminisced about everything and everyone I ever loved and the unbearable thought of losing them. The “stage” couldn’t be summed up in a number, but in the enormity of grief. And then slowly, oh so very slowly, by allowing myself to grieve the loss of myself and all the innocence my life had encompassed, I learned to live again. 

A year has gone by, and my favorite season is upon me.  I am watching a hummingbird take in the aroma of the last of the summer wisteria blossoms as I write this. I had to stop to take it in. That’s what I do now when I see beauty, I stop. I bask. I live fully in the moment.

Over the past year I have learned the very meaning of life, unlike I knew in my former life. Unlike I understood when I heard clichés that I readily dismissed as soon as the next item on my to-do list popped into my head. I actually stop now to smell the roses. I stop to watch hummingbirds. I stop to laugh.

In all of my innocence and hope and childlike fantasy that life would last forever, approximately one year ago, I did in fact, die.  But paradoxically, the autumn colors are brighter than before, the sound of music, more beautiful, and with my death, in abundance, came life.

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mbarros October 05, 2012 at 03:05 AM
Thank you for sharing, this is beautiful. I am guilty of not stopping to smell the roses. Life is too precious to rush through it. Bless you and your family!
Renae Wilber October 05, 2012 at 04:16 AM
Thank you Mbarros for your kind comment. I think we have all been guilty of getting caught up in the rush of life, but this was a wake up call for me, and I just hope I can remind others through my experience, to slow down and take it all in because there is so much that we miss in the process of rushing.
Trish Bell October 05, 2012 at 09:05 PM
I too was diagnosed with cancer, not one but two, within 5 months. When I was told I had uterine cancer, I couldn't get out of the office fast enough so that I could weep in my car. All I could think about was my son and how I wanted to see him play just one more year of high school Football....the surgery was a success, but a full hysterectomy was performed, and the cancer was contained and I was staged: Stage 1-but a polyp was seen in my intestines and 5 months later I was under the knife again...this time it spread. Chemo was planned. My son watched me wither away, and yet I trekked to each of his games. He saw me fight, and yes I did re-evaluate my life. Cancer does that, and a survivor told me, one day I would thank my cancer....I didn't think I would, but we can because it does give us the gift of appreciation. Hats off to you for your fight...we are now survivors, and sharing our stories helps others. I plan to take a walk today and take it all in.

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