A year is comprised of 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes and countless seconds. Depending on your circumstances, a year can drag by as slowly as a thousand dreary afternoons waiting in line at a civil service office. Or it can go by so quickly that you feel the force of its breeze as it races past your face. Looking back at this particular series of 365 days, I am struck by how much can change in a year and yet, manage to stay exactly the same.
This week, October 1st, marked the one-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. Even though I have managed to lock away many of the horrible and fearful moments of the past year, I know I will never be able to forget that particular day. Just as all those living in the United States will never be able to erase the eerie images of fire engines rushing down deserted Manhattan streets, and pieces of office paper drifting lifelessly in the air, I will never forget October 1st. Although I don´t remember exactly what Jon was wearing or what song was on the radio as we drove to the doctor´s office, I remember exactly the way the doctor´s blue eyes stared at me compassionately, yet firmly, as he told me that not only did I have breast cancer, but that it was very advanced and had already spread throughout my bones, lungs, and liver. I will never forget how surreal it was to hear that my spine was severely compromised by lesions and that I was in danger of being permanently paralyzed. I remember how my voice trembled and wavered as I tried to answer his questions about how to proceed. I remember how forcefully Jon gripped my hand when he led me to the car and how intensely the sun blinded me as I sat on my patio and wondered how I should tell my family. I remember hearing the horror in my mom´s voice and my sister´s sobs in the background as the words came flooding out. I remember crying until my body was completely numb and falling asleep that night with my arms wrapped around my dog. I remember thinking about what death would feel like. “Would it hurt? Would people remember me? How would my family recover?” I remember realizing I would never make it if I continued to think that way and forced myself to stop thinking altogether. Fortunately, miraculously, I still haven´t had to confront those thoughts, even one whole year later.
To help commemorate my cancer anniversary Jon had secretly arranged different activities for each day of the week. Colleagues sent me songs, e-cards, flowers, and wore pink in my honor. Coincidently, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so Santiago is hosting their annual Race for the Cure event this Sunday in which I, and several others, will be participating. This is to be followed by a brunch at our place (cooked by Jon) to thank everyone for all of the support this year. As I realized what Jon had done, I was very touched. He truly is the sweetest man. But also, I was a little embarrassed to have people continue to go out of their way for me, even though life has pretty much returned to normal. If you didn´t already know that I had cancer, there is absolutely no way you could have guessed that I am still wearing a wig and that the reason I didn´t play in the faculty soccer game was because my bones are too weak. That is how normal my life has become.
As poignant proof of just how differently this week played out compared to the same week last year, the week of September 28th- October 5th was a particularly active one on my calendar. It started off on Saturday with a cupcake baking session, followed by a wedding celebration for our friends Meredith and Regan, as well as a hung-over Sunday morning on my couch. On Monday, 140 7th grade students and teachers went on a field trip that my teaching partner and I had planned to a mosque, synagogue, and church. On the same Monday I also passed a frustrating hour asking my afterschool Model United Nations club if they really thought “wikianswers” was the most credible website for researching Russian statistics on child labor. Monday evening I also watched Jon´s 6th grade basketball team scratch and claw at the Alliance Francaise team that was, on average, at least 5 inches taller than every boy on Jon´s team.
On the actual day of the anniversary, Tuesday, I took a friend out for a tasty birthday dinner. Wednesday afternoon I finished the day with a 90-minute planning session for our first faculty Glee club performance in November. Afterwards I sped home to prepare a simple dinner for ten, because I was hosting a book club gathering with the author and his family in attendance. Thursday and Friday I spent two extremely long days individually helping students with their first compare and contrast essays and desperately attempting to manage computer lab behavior for my class and my partner´s class, since she was absent. At the end of the day on Friday I finished typing in the descriptors for our social studies department rubric while simultaneously texting Jon that he needed to pick up our wedding invitations that had just been delivered to the administrative office. It was finally the end of the week and part of me wanted to change into my party shoes and go out dancing in celebration of all that I am still able to do, despite having had Stage IV breast cancer one year ago. However, since my lower back aches according to how exhausted I feel, I decided to give in to my new normal life. “Wow! I cannot wait to sit my ass on my couch, watch some TV, and go to sleep early…” I decided.
As I left the Middle School office and wearily hoisted the green Jumbo bag full of Tupperware that contained the leftover department meeting snacks and Lunch Bunch meal I was responsible for bringing that day, I glimpsed one of my former high school students standing outside the library. I had taught this particular student my first year at Nido, and he absolutely loved history, particularly wars. In tenth grade he was a scrawny boy, extremely short and thin, with huge glasses and a high-pitched voice. Now, looking at him, I could barely recognize the tall, facial haired senior who asked me in a deep, booming voice, “Ms. Timms? Is that you?”
To me, it seemed like just yesterday that I had listened to him ruminate on the tactical reasons why America was justified in dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. Contrarily, he looked as though he had seen a ghost. He had no idea I was back at the school and was genuinely shocked to see me. We stared at each other for what must have been a minute or two, both trying to recognize each other despite the physical changes that the year apart had brought. In the past 8,760 hours since I had seen him last, the student had obviously been through the life altering physical changes associated with puberty. I, on the other hand, had experienced a year filled with cancer drugs, radiation, inactivity, and facing my own mortality. The combination of these factors had aged me in subtle, yet noticeable ways.
After a slightly awkward moment while he looked at me quizzically as I explained that indeed, I was back, but teaching in the middle school, he looked at me with sadness, yet also hope. “Miss…. are you all better now?” he asked.
I thought for a second and a tear almost fell from my eye as I smiled. “You know… I AM all better. Thanks for asking!”