The Gifts of Unexpected Things

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead, let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”


Last February 1st, I had finished one month of a chemotherapy-free life. My first shot of a new vaccine was on the horizon and with it, the promise of a more “normal” life. Normal, as in the life before COVID and cancer. I was full of hope and the promise of better days to come. Cancer free now and forever! Vaccine-protected, I was toying with breaking free of the walls of fear, unmasked and unleashed!

I did not remember yet that any “life before” is never regained. Perhaps bits and pieces, yes. But life moves only forward and takes us with it without even asking for our opinion on where it is going to set us down next. Indeed, it may turn us upside down when we least expect it.

One year later, on this February 1st, I was making my way through the last free days before I begin a new cancer treatment and all the uncertainty that that entails. And I was coming to terms with the reality that as an 80-year-old with cancer, evidence is piling up that I’ve never been as protected – or in charge – as I thought I was anyway.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

The cancer journey of 2020 turned my life upside down, of course, as cancer always does. And Rumi is still wise: it also changed me and gave me a life that has been even better than the one I left behind.

Gratitude runs deeper, calm shows up in the midst of chaos, resilience is visible every day, fear has been (mostly) relegated to the background and hope has become “the better side that is to come.”

I do indeed have “new eyes.” I still have cancer, but I am not afraid. I have now moved from dwelling on what is happening inside, to what is happening outside of cancer-me. One simple step, and I have new vision.

Last week, I sat in two different waiting rooms at Mayo, waiting to be called for tests. I had decided not to take my iPad along, a serious change. It would be one less thing to have to carry. Instead, I quietly and slowly turned my gaze upon the people with whom I was sharing this time of waiting. All of us, there because something has gone wrong. And we are all waiting to find out how it might be made right.

My gaze was caught by a young Muslim girl and her hijab-clothed mother. The girl was maybe 12 or 13, her head covered with a long, large scarf, her eyes dark-rimmed with suffering, her stick-thin legs covered by jeans. So young to be needing a scan…What was her story, such a short story yet?

Then I noticed a thin, old, wizened farmer of a man, his jeans held up by sturdy maroon suspenders, a plaid flannel shirt underneath, his grey hair covered by a hat that was lined with sheepskin, the side flaps turned upward. His thin, gnarled hands hung by his side, his fingers curled up and inward, his stiff fists crippled by arthritis. I could imagine him, young and outside in all elements, working his farm 24/7, maybe with his children way back when. His very large white-haired wife was in a wheelchair, but he wandered stiffly around the big waiting room, exploring, curious, passing the time. What was their story, so long and full of years together? So physically crippling?

I found myself caught up in a sense of connection, of commonality, of kinship and hope, of a community of the waiting. This day was no longer just about me and what I was waiting for. And I saw the future that has come upon me not through a solitary heart that struggles sometimes with what is happening now. But with a heart that is connected with every other heart. With my companions on the journey.

And that changes my direction. I like where it leads me.

“We are here to live out loud.”

Emile Zola

Right now, in this new journey, I want to “live out loud.” Not being obsessively caught up in my own little world, living inside it and all of its uncertainties. But staying connected with every other life that is looking for its own healing and peace and meaning. Living our stories side by side.

And I think that’s going to be a very good way to live while the world is turned upside down. Living with the grace of sharing an upside-down life with strangers who are not so very different after all.