Three people in my extended family have been diagnosed with cancer in the past year: my step-father, my cousin and my sister. And that's in addition to my dad, who's lived with prostate cancer for the past five years. Statistically speaking, not all of them will be around five years from now. Just writing that makes my throat close up and my chest constrict.
I'm afraid of loss. I admit it. I am terrified by the thought of losing these people, so close to me. In the case of my sister and cousin, I'm in tears at the thought of their kids growing up without them. Hell, I'm in tears at the thought of my kids growing up without them. And, more selfishly, their illness makes me worry about myself, and my little family.
Of course, statistics mean nothing in individual cases, and for each of them, the chances of life are actually better than the chances of death. I cling to that.
But the fact is, we will all suffer losses. I've been incredibly lucky so far, in that the only people close to me who have died have been grandparents. Eventually, though, we will all die, and unless we ourselves die early, we'll all lose our parents. Handling that knowledge — let alone the reality of it happening — can be a hard, hard thing. But we can do it.
So what do we do?
Since my sister's diagnosis, I've gone into research and self-protection mode a bit. I already use non-toxic cleaners in my house, garden organically, and try to buy organic food where I can. I've been thinking a lot more about the other toxins in our lives though, from plastic food storage containers to the sweet poison that some claim sugar to be. I want to know that I'm doing everything I can to protect my family from illness and loss.
But nothing will be enough. We will all die.
That doesn't mean we have to spend our lives in fear. Despite how it may feel the day after your boyfriend dumps you for another woman (and as for husbands dumping you, let's not even go there!), that old cliché is true: it is better to have loved.
And that brings me back every time to living and loving well, in the present.
I read a study once that looked at how we remember and experience time passing. One interesting idea was that in periods like early parenthood, when the days are all very similar and we tend to be fairly stable, the days seem to pass slowly but the years go by quickly. Because we don't have so many memorable changes in our days, nothing stands out for us to hold onto in our memories.
This is just one more reason to pay attention to the moments. Did you notice the amazing color in the sky when you got up to comfort your crying toddler at 5:30 this morning, or as you drove in to work? Did you see the colors reflected in your child's eyes when she looked at the sunset last night? Did you notice the sunset yourself?
For me, if I can remember one or two moments in the day where that blurry time stopped, and I really noticed something, I feel like that day was a success, regardless of how big the pile of wash still is, or how many emails I have in my inbox.
I realize that it's the moments when I really notice the world with my different senses, along with the moments when I truly pay attention to (one of) my children, that stand out for me as special and unique. These are the moments when I've slowed down enough to pay attention, to stop focusing on what needs to be done, and to simply breathe and feel.
The years will keep rolling by, but you can make the moments count by stopping, even just a few times a day, even just once a day, and noticing something you usually don't notice. You can make memories by mixing things up a little, whether it be eating afternoon tea outside, picking up your kids from school instead of letting them take the bus home, or simply putting cinnamon in your morning coffee and noticing how different it tastes.
I can't control who lives or dies, today, tomorrow or in five years. But I can practice noticing them while they're here. I can practice listening, looking into their eyes, and seeing them. I can practice it each and every day. I can practice it now.
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