Returning to Normal Life

I remember a few years ago that when Friday afternoon rolled around, I used to be excited for the weekend, for the freedom and fun it promised. At my first job someone used to come into the office and do a Friday dance to get us all in the right frame of mind. I couldn’t wait to find a Happy Hour while kicking back and forgetting about the workweek. This past month I have returned to work, so I have also been excited about Fridays, but for other reasons… I get to lie on the couch then crawl into bed and sleep as much as I want. That’s right, folks: Eli, former queen of the nightlife, has gotten old. Now, a fun Friday night for me consists of a meal that I don’t have to cook and possibly a movie, if it is entertaining enough to keep my eyes from resting against their lids. All you parents out there are probably thinking, “Welcome to my world…” but I definitely get it. Kids are tiring. Work is tiring. Life is tiring. I looked at myself in the reflection of the computer screen last Friday afternoon, after the last school bell rang, and all I could think about was how exhausted I looked and felt.

Since learning that my treatment worked, I’ve been back in the saddle, busy as always. At first I had some trouble doing the things that other human beings do, like hitting the alarm button, getting ready for the day, grocery shopping, attending meetings, taking the dogs for their walk, cooking dinner, and planning and attending social events. On the one hand I enjoyed doing things again, teaching my 6th graders, and going through the daily motions like everyone else around me. I liked being part of the real world again. However, I was also exhausted, both mentally and physically: I wasn’t sure I could rejoin the world as it all seemed so mundane and unimportant compared to the life and death struggle I was faced with five months ago. But I managed to leave all that emotional baggage under lock and key and get back to the business of living my “normal life” again.

When I was newly diagnosed and had just finished my whole brain radiation treatment I read a collection of short stories about American marines in Iraq called “Redeployment” by Phil Klay. Oftentimes, war metaphors are used to describe the struggles that a cancer patient goes through. Patients are often encouraged by phrases like “keep fighting” and “win the battle” against cancer. Of course there were very obvious differences between me and the Marines; I have never been fully dressed in camo in an extremely hot desert, wondering if the next person that passes is going to try to harm me. I have never killed someone and then had to deal with the consequences. However, despite the many differences I was surprised at how many of my own feelings mirrored those of the soldiers in the book. Both soldiers and cancer patients live with a tremendous amount of fear and thoughts of death. At once, I began highlighting sentences and adding personal notes and connections to the stories on my Nook.

I think the most striking similarity between the two groups is how hard it is to reenter normal life. No one, especially spouses and children, understand what the soldiers returning from war went through. It becomes essential for the soldiers to stop thinking about what happened “over there”, even though they may feel guilty about their actions or traumatized by what they saw. In order to remain sane, they can’t think about their life during war, or else risk lashing out at loved ones or simply breaking down entirely. The only thing they can do, is try to go back to being the person they were before the event. That sentiment I can definitely understand because I’ve struggled with it. It is almost impossible to return to the person you once were, especially if you’ve been changed physically or mentally.

Luckily as I got more comfortable with the routines of normal life, I was able to put cancer on the backburner. Instead I spent my time trying to be a good teacher and answering the interesting questions that 11 and 12 year olds often come up with on a daily basis. Every day that I didn’t have to lie down and give in to my fatigue was a good day for me. You see, when I was diagnosed for the second time I really did think I was going to die, and I was ready for that. I expected to steadily get weaker and sicker until I just faded away. I never expected to go back to school. Instead, I envisioned a future for me and my loved ones that was full of pain and suffering. Right now, I’m teaching about Buddhism, and Siddhartha (the Buddha) realized this too, when he left his palace walls and saw aging, sickness, and death for the first time. And it’s true, there are a LOT of sad and unpleasant things in the world that can consume you. Every time I turn on my BBC news app I expect to read about something depressing.

After the Paris attacks I read a few stories of the survivors and relatives who lost people in the tragedy. Many claimed that, “You never know how strong you can be until you are forced to deal with something terrible”. This is extremely true. Before having cancer I really didn’t think of myself as a strong person. I wasn’t the best wife, daughter, friend, or sister. I definitely made many mistakes and I made bad choices. However, it has taken two bouts with cancer to help me realize that being liked and being perceived as successful, is not what’s most important in life.

Last night I watched a documentary called “Happy” with some friends, which helped me piece together all the thoughts that have been going on in my head the last few weeks. And what it comes down to is that your level of happiness in life is up to you. It’s okay to get sad when tragedy strikes, but it’s also important to enjoy everything around you, even the small things. I appreciate the sun shining on my face. I enjoy laughing, because I haven’t done a lot of that over the past few years. I appreciate taking walks in Parque Bicentenario, while Jon and I watch Kubi and Chingy sprint from bird nest to rabbit hole. I love seeing them run through the orange poppies of the park’s hills. In the late afternoon warmth, this is often the best part of my day.

I’ve also realized that my family and friends are the most important things to cherish. No matter what’s going on in your life, if you have these people and spend as much time with them as possible, then you really have no excuse but to be happy. Next time I blow up about something small and stupid I’m sure Jon will throw all this back in my face, but… in my defense, it’s hard to be happy all the time and people aren’t perfect. I like to complain as much as anyone else and scream and cry about the unfairness of it all, however that doesn’t really get you anywhere. So, since I don’t have any other choice, I’m going to do my best to enjoy my normal life and be as happy as possible. Here in Santiago, we only have four more weeks till summer break and Christmas with my family back in Houston and then on the beach in Mexico with Jon’s family. Then my wonderful husband and I are going on the trip of a lifetime: a three-week safari in South Africa. I can’t wait… so many happy times to come.

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The pictures above are from an event I helped organized called One Mic Stand.  It’s a benefit concert that the teachers put on every year.  I sang, danced, and even rapped with my group, Divalicious.  We were also able to grant a wish to a lovely 11 year old girl named Kamilla, who played her new electric keyboard and sang a Violetta song in Spanish, accompanied by one of our students.  It was a wonderful and happy moment for me, even though it definitely brought me tears.

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