Autumn time in England feels like it was made for introspection. How does one walk down the leaf-strewn streets of London’s suburbs, amidst the tall deciduous trees that line the periphery of every pavement and not think deeply about life? Perhaps other people are able to walk and not contemplate all the chaos, not ruminate over one’s place and one’s purpose in this enigmatic universe of ours. Or perhaps it’s simply everything that I’m going through that’s making me extra self-reflective.
Regardless, autumn in London is radiant, even when your life is falling apart.
I guess that’s a little dramatic. It’s not falling apart per se as it is, falling into a new direction. Which has me thinking about paths and directions and all the potential realities we could find ourselves in but don’t because of circumstance and chance happenings, because of luck and decisions and illness.
Potential lives. Do we become who we are supposed to be regardless of what happens? Or we do become someone else because of what happens? Can we ever know who we might have become had a certain thing not happened? These are the type of philosophical questions that cross my mind as warm afternoon sunlight spills through the sinewy branches of the trees and the blue-sky fades into a soapy lilac.
In the past month my life has taken a radically different direction that I could have ever anticipated. I remember about 8 months ago, sitting at my desk at my old job in Ecuador, daydreaming about moving to London. I applied to around ten different masters programs, writing cover letter after cover letter, imagining which school I’d end up going to, where I’d live, who I’d become. The ideas in my head all centered around me having this ideal experience. I’d have the best year of my life. I’d get involved in loads of extra activities, I’d make all these new friends, I’d socialize on the weekends at bars and parties, I’d meet lovely boys who’d take an interest in me and I’d invite them back to mine and impress them with my warmly lit apartment. I had all these ideas of exactly how my life would be, how I’d squeeze the juice out of every day, how I’d not let a single second of it pass me by.
I was always someone who lived life quite intensely, even before getting sick. It was like I possessed this philosophy that I couldn’t miss out on a single experience. Perhaps it was less of a philosophy and more of a deep-seated insecurity, a need to show up in fear of being forgotten. Nevertheless, I’ve always struggled to say no. As a teenager this led me into some trouble. After my first dance with cancer, coming face to face with the things I feared the most, being weak, being ill, being isolated, being inundated with needles and hospital waiting rooms, this voracity for life and experience only seemed to grow. Now I had seen the low side of life, a side that I loathed, I wanted the extreme opposite of it and I wanted it in abundance. This is most likely what led me to the other end of the world and into the Amazon jungle. As far away from what felt like imprisonment as possible. There I was the freest I had ever been. Wild and untamed and liberated from all the weight and woes of sickness. Evidently, this kind of lifestyle wasn’t really enough for me either. Because as much I love being lost in nature, I also thrive on deep conversation and mental stimulation. It wasn’t long before I found myself fantasising about living in a first world city and doing a masters program and meeting all sorts of interesting people.
And it’s crazy to reflect on all of this actually because, in the end, I got exactly what I wanted. I got into the top journalism school in London and I got the warmly lit, cozy apartment and I got the classmates who go for beers after class. I got everything except the one thing a person needs the most to function effectively in this world. The one thing we take for granted the most, especially when we’re young.
I wonder if it was too good to be true. But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think the universe was purposefully trying to deprive me of this experience. I think shit just happens. And unfortunately this shit just happened to me. It does make one think about things a lot though. For me, the hardest part is simply the feeling of missing out. Missing out on an experience that I know, if I was in an optimal state of health I would have excelled at. I would have been engaging in all the tasks and projects, going out and drinking and dancing, and probably exhausting myself as I’ve always done but still, I’d be squeezing all the juice that this experience has to offer.
Except that, as we know, things don’t go the way we plan. Instead, while everyone heads to the bar after class, I head home to pop painkillers because the cancerous lymphocytes in my chest are pushing against my ribs and making my muscles ache and breathing more difficult. Because my insides are bruised from the surgery I had yesterday to remove eggs from my ovaries and freeze them so one day I can hopefully have children because there’s an 80% chance after chemo I’ll be infertile. Because these aren’t things I ever thought I’d have to think about at 25. But then again, that’s life.
I’m not mad anymore and I’m reaching a place that’s above the sadness now. I’ve gone through the million stages of grief and I’ve finally got to a place that’s somewhere half-way between acceptance and surrender. I’m ok. Still, I can’t help but reflect and ponder over the what-if’s. What if the cancer hadn’t come back, whom might I have met, what might this year have looked like for me?
But, in a way, going through this again, facing all the scary realities of this illness seems like it was destined for me all along. I can’t quite understand that sentiment yet but it’s as if maybe this was always meant to be my path. Like I’m meant to do something with this struggle. Turn it into my power.
So I don’t get to be at the top of my class. So I don’t get to be the party girl this year. So I don’t get to always go for beers after class and hand in the best project and take the nice boy from the club home to my warmly lit apartment. But maybe I get other experiences. Wasn’t that what I always wanted anyway. Experience? And isn’t this exactly what experience is, challenging and scary, stimulating and new. I’ve always wanted to live an extraordinary life, to never be bored. And I guess, when you really think about it, what could be less boring than cancer? What could be more of an experience than everything I’m going through right now?
I’ve clung so much to this narrative over the past few weeks of normalcy. How much I crave it now that it’s out of my reach. How much I wish I could just slip between the cracks and be a normal 20-something student, fitting in and staying in the shadows. Except I know that reality was never made for me. I know I was meant to inspire, to use my voice, to shake people awake through the persistent pursuit of truth. It’s as if through healing myself I am going to help heal others. I just need to do the work first. I just need to go through the dark and then, then I can spread the light.
I wanted this perfect experience and what I’ve got is the opposite but perhaps it is the experience I need to become the person I was always supposed to become. Perhaps we never miss what is made for us? Perhaps we are always in the right place anyway. Perhaps the person I wanted to be is the person I am being carved into right now through all this pain. Perhaps a few months down the line, I’ll meet that person I was always meant to meet at the right time and the right place and he’ll see the depth in the scars that line my arms and my chest and we’ll go back to my warmly lit apartment and lie in my cozy bed, reading books and talking for hours and it will all somehow have worked out the way it was always meant to.
Maybe it’s not about the experience you didn’t get, the potential you don’t reach, and the things you think you miss, but rather a holy and peaceful acceptance of what you do get. An appreciation of the things that do happen because maybe, just maybe, they are shaping you into the person you were always meant to be and leading you to the places and people and opportunities you were always meant to reach.
And that’s kind of a nice thought to have walking down a London street in autumn.