Have you ever had one of those days that are so full of joy that you just want to bottle the euphoria up in a jar and save it forever? Last Sunday, teetering on my skis high atop a snowy mountain in the Andes, I wanted to do just that. There I was, 10 months post-diagnosis: healthy, happy, and enjoying some of the most amazing scenery that surely must exist on our planet.
This weekend, Jon and I joined my best friend Randi, her fiancé, and father at Portillo ski resort located near Mt. Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia) on the road to Mendoza, Argentina. Although Portillo is only a two-hour drive from Santiago, it might as well be a world away. Even though Santiago is surrounded by mountains, on busy days I forget to notice them. The tallest peaks are often shrouded in smog, making it hard to distinguish their outline from the grey nothingness of the sky. And yet, they are always there, a reminder that not everything in the world is ugly or difficult or created by man. Ever since my diagnosis I have made a more concerted effort to pick my head up from the daily grind and notice things like beautiful, clear-sky days, fantastic pink and purple sunsets (the smog helps with these), and rays of sun glinting off the Santiago skyline. However, some days my feet are tired from standing in heels all day, and my raging, teacher’s headache prevents me from noticing them.
Saturday, the day we drove to Portillo, was gloriously sunny with not a cloud in the sky. I am not a religious person, but the sight of the Andes peaks covered in fresh, powdery snow never ceases to take my breath away. It was almost as if God, or Buddha, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, had painted those majestic white cones themselves for mile after mile on a background of heavenly blue. They were absolutely perfect! Sometimes, when nothing is going your way, it is hard to remember how amazing life can be. But, just a short drive from my house you can escape the pollution and endless lines of cars filled with people darting from endless task to endless task and you can immerse yourself in glorious mountain scenery. This year, I’ve decided, I must do more of that! In fact, I have already pretty much planned every possible vacation from now until February.
This may seem a little manic to you, and maybe it is, but I have never felt so much joy before while adding things to a calendar. It’s like every time I add another thing, whether it be a Halloween party, or a vacation in Rio for New Years, or even a simple dentist appointment, it means that there is something for me in the future to look forward to or plan for. Ten months ago I was living basically day-to-day. I couldn’t even plan a week in advance because I didn’t know what doctors appointments I needed to attend, what torturous medical test was coming on the horizon, or how I was going to feel after my treatments. I feel very lucky that I can now look at a calendar and tell you with a good amount of certainty what I’ll be doing on a particular day. This gives me a great deal of comfort and reassurance that my life is back to normal.
After spending a weekend in winter paradise with Jon and Randi, I also realized that not only am I lucky to be living, but that I’m lucky to be living the particular life that I lead. One of the scariest things about growing up is hoping that you made the right choices in life. Did I choose the right college? Did I make the right friends? Did I make good, healthy decisions? Did I pursue the right job? Did I marry the right person? Did I make the right decision about moving abroad?
During my twenties I questioned these things over and over and drove myself crazy thinking what my life would have been like had I taken a different path. I now feel very certain that I am happy (mostly) with the decisions I’ve made. Although I definitely made some bad choices along the way, I’ve tried to learn from them with varying degrees of success. One of the best decisions I think I’ve made is my decision to become an international teacher. I love living abroad. Although I am no longer as close with some of my friends and am sad that I don’t get to see my family as much, I have had so many travel opportunities and experienced so many amazing things during the last five years that I can live with the consequences. I most likely will never buy a house, settle down, and raise a family the traditional American way and I’m okay with that. Although I often have to say goodbye to people and places that I love, I like the excitement of knowing that someday I might live anywhere in the world. I’ve done things and seen things that most people only dream about. And in that way I’m SO lucky. I’m also lucky to have had friends and family visit and share my traveling experiences with me.
But, let’s go back to the euphoria of this particular weekend. Sunday was my third time ever on skis. Although I’m athletic (or at least I used to be…) I wouldn’t really say I’m all that coordinated. I fall often and without warning. During soccer and softball season my knees and the tops of my shins were basically one continuous, bleeding rug burn. Needless to say, skiing presents certain challenges, especially when taking on and off the skis. Jon also isn’t a regular skier, but he’s certainly more experienced than me, and on Sunday he offered to stay on the bunny slopes with me until we worked our way up to one of the more difficult runs. Normally I’m not very coachable and I get easily frustrated, especially when I’m not good at something. Luckily, my first three bunny hill runs went very well, and despite the aches and pains in my calves and ankles, it appeared I was ready for a more difficult challenge. So up the ski lift Jon and I went with Randi, Matt, and her dad in tow. The view from the top of the slope was gorgeous! A storm was approaching which somehow made the mountains seem even more out-of-this-world; it truly felt as though we were at the highest point on earth.
After stopping for some photo-ops, off we went down the mountain. For the first 20 minutes I was doing well, zigzagging from one side of the run to the other, cutting the skis appropriately to help me turn, fully in control of my speed. Randi was in front leading the way and videoing my skiing success. Jon was behind, cheering me on and telling me when to turn, etc. Normally that kind of obnoxious encouragement would bother me, but for some reason, on that day, I found it completely endearing. How did I get so lucky to have such a wonderful best friend who brings me lymphedema compression sleeves and bras without underwire all the way from LA to Chile? And more importantly, how did I find such a kind, patient, supportive man to fall in love with me? He puts up with all my ridiculousness and loves me still. And in five months time I get to celebrate my relationship with him on a beautiful Caribbean beach. And then, in May, I get to stand beside Randi as she weds the love of her life on a beautiful beach in Malibu. So much to look forward to!
On the car ride home I felt exhausted yet exuberant. Although I didn’t quite make it all the way down the 2.7 kilometer run, I was still very proud of myself. My energy gave out about ¾ of the way down and I knew there was no way I was going to make it the rest of the way down. In the end a nice American ski patrolman helped me walk over to the nearby road and I hitched a ride back up to the top of the mountain. I was slightly embarrassed at giving up, but in all fairness, it was the longest run Randi or her dad had ever been on AND it is the same run that the national US and Austrian ski teams use for their training runs, so I don’t feel so bad about not completing it. There was no time to sulk. Instead, I put my tired feet up on the dashboard and watched the beautiful Andes mountains glide past my window on our way back to town. “Yes, indeed, life is quite grand!” I thought.