Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Go Time

Today between one and three o’clock, I will call Faulkner Hospital for tomorrow's surgery time. I remember Dr. Nakhlis saying her first surgery of the day begins at 7AM and since I need to be there an hour and a half prior, and since we’ll leave ourselves an hour of travel time, there’s a chance we will be leaving our house at 4:30 tomorrow morning. In that case, I won’t have time to write (at least I hope not -- fingers crossed that the Ativan can at least get me to 4!). So I’ll treat this post as my last one before my surgery.

It will be five weeks ago tomorrow that I found out I have cancer.  In those five weeks, I have never felt so tormented, and I have never felt so loved.  I could try to reflect on that time in a retrospective piece, to summarize it all in a neat and clean little post, but I don't think that will ever be possible. Each of my prior posts (and I just checked - there are 41 of them!) tells that story, and I'm not interested in trying to invent a quaint summary now.

I'm also not interested in talking about tomorrow. I'll just end up in tears (then you probably will too), and September 11th doesn't need any more of those.

But there is something I do want to write about, and that's my future.

I don’t remember where or when I first learned the strategy of envisioning an outcome in an effort to make it become a reality. I think I probably started to use the technique loosely in my days as a gymnast, which began over 20 years ago. I remember my coaches telling me to envision my floor routine as if I executed every single trick to perfection; or to envision each element on the balance beam, ending with a solid "stick." I remember using this strategy when I played basketball in high school, imagining a swish as I let the ball roll off my fingertips. Now don't get me wrong, I am far (far!) from perfecting this technique, and countless times, I fell off the beam, clanged ugly shots off the rim, or just plain air-balled it. (It was Brianne who had all the swishes.)

But even as I got older, I stuck with this technique.  As a teacher, I rehearsed lessons in my head exactly as I hoped they would go in front of my classes. (They rarely went that way, yet somehow that's why teaching is so much fun.)  Even now, before client calls, I imagine questions that I think could come up and I envision how I would answer them, just right. And in my rare golf outings, I stand above the tee anticipating that perfect "ping" sound of my club striking the ball. Still, I’ve fumbled answers on conference calls, and I've cringed at the "thud" that came instead of the "ping." Nonetheless, I believe in this technique, and I’m using it now. And this time, there will be nothing but a solid stick, a swish, the perfect lesson, the articulate answer, a perfect ping. Thudding is not an option.

Of course, I'm in a tricky situation. Sure, I’d love to imagine waking up from surgery tomorrow to my family beaming at my bedside, having received news that the surgery went great, my cancer is contained, and my road to a cure will be a promising one. But the final pathology results won’t even be in for a week, so the waiting game will continue. Plus, I’m cautious of that precise hope, because I know the suffocating disappointment that would follow different news.

So I’ve thought a lot about what I can envision, what I can believe in, what I know, or in my darkest moments, what I will continue to convince myself that I know. And this morning, I'm going to skip through my whole journey through cancer treatment to the end. I'm going to provide a huge spoiler, and tell you a bit about the post you will see on the day I hit “publish” on my “I’m cancer-free” entry to this blog.

I am envisioning it now. When I press the little orange button to send that entry into the blogosphere, the sun will just be rising. I will be sitting in our playroom, at my desk, just as I am now. My kids will be sound asleep upstairs, just a few minutes from waking up and yelling for me and Brian. Brian will have shifted to my pillow like he always does when I get out of bed before he does. My parents and siblings and friends will have fallen asleep the night before to the victorious feeling that we beat this. Total recovery. Full stop. Checkmate. We won.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to publish that entry -- it could be a year from now or maybe ten. I don’t know what parts of my body will be missing at that point, how many surgeries and how many drugs it will take to get there. I don't know how I’ll look, or how I’ll feel. I don't know how far I may have gotten into drafting the book I'm shaping in my head. I don't know what kinds of activities my kids will be into then (although I'm going to guess hockey will be one). There's a lot of uncertainty there.

But there's a lot of certainty too. Between this entry and that one, I know that I will have the best of the best with me all the way. The mornings may still greet me with that worried sick feeling, the days may still have their extreme highs and lows, and the nights may still scare the hell out of me, but at the end of each day, I'll fall asleep next to the love of my life with our kids down the hall and my family and friends down the street. And we'll all wake up the next morning one day closer to my cure, and the cure for others fighting the same fight.

I've also already decided on the passage around which I will base that entry, so there's certainty, and a vision, there too! Spoiler alert, here it comes. It’s a passage that brings us back to South Africa, a passage from the last chapter of Nelson Mandela’s book, “Long Walk to Freedom.” I loved these words from the first moment I read them over twelve years ago, and at one point, I even wrote them all out in a notebook I used to keep of my favorite quotes and passages from books I've read.

Now let me be very clear -- by no means do I compare my situation or my character or my strength to that of this heroic leader. And I'd never compare my struggles to those of the millions of oppressed or sick people around the world today. My five weeks of torment does not compare to the pain that so many are forced to endure for years, or even lifetimes, without the support and the hope that surrounds me; those weeks just make me wish more than ever that I could somehow help to obliterate that pain for those who endure it.

Nevertheless, this passage resonates with me. It doesn't matter that it comes in the context of overcoming apartheid, rather than overcoming cancer. Still, the passage sings to me, and as I read and reread these words, my hope muscle flexes again. And in five weeks, thanks to so many of you, that muscle has bulked up.

I’ll explain more when the time comes, but for now, here’s the preview to that entry that I know I will publish one day (if I haven’t already been bagged for infringing copyright laws…I should have taken that copyright class in law school...for now, I'll just play dumb, wrapped in my "so sorry, but I have cancer!" shield).

Anyways, here are Nelson Mandela's words to which I will return when I am cancer-free. Finally, finally, that flight takes off, and that fight begins, tomorrow.

I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free — free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.

It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken from me, that I began to hunger for it. At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself, the transitory freedoms of being able to stay out at night, read what I pleased, and go where I chose. Later, as a young man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honorable freedoms of achieving my potential, of earning my keep, of marrying and having a family — the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life.

But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. That is when I joined the African National Congress, and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.

It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.


  1. Dear Tara,

    As I have read your posts, I am constantly impressed with your eloquence and ability to delve in and extract your inner emotions and put them on paper. You have indeed over the last weeks built up your strength and as you aptly put it, your "hope muscles." I will be thinking of you tomorrow and know that you are armed with love and support, a meaningful playlist to ease the way, and determination that you will indeed publish that amazing work once you are cancer-free. Meanwhile you will have your beautiful family and your friends at your side and your inner resolve to guide your way. Total recovery is in your sights. Be strong.Twenty-six years ago, that was my mantra, and today it is yours. Take good care.

  2. Will be thinking of you tomorrow Tara. Have read your blogs and they are truly amazing and so are you! I can't imagine how you feel today, but one thing I have gathered from your blogs is that you have the will and mental toughness to kick this cancer's ass! You have so much support to help you do just that! As Nelson said in the last paragraph, which is my favorite, your responsibility is to fight and tomorrow is the beginning of your walk to freedom!

  3. Hi Tara
    I wanted to let you know that I think about you often as I have been reading your blog. It is so wonderfully written and quite inspiring! Not many people can articulate the journey that you have shared with us in such a meaningful, sensitive and yet humorous way. You have touched many lives and I know that you will overcome this and do so well. Your positive spirit not to mention the love and support you have around you will help you through this next part of your journey towards complete recovery. You had my daughters Gina and Alicia at the high school and you impressed me as a teacher but more so as a special human being. We will be thinking of you tomorrow.

  4. Tara,
    Armed with your playlist, family,friends and your expert team of physicians and nurses you begin your journey of walking to freedom in the morning. I wish you inner peace and strength to guide you. Much love !

  5. Tara,
    Each post you write is so endearing and reveals your inner resources and true courage - and a very interesting path that you outline so as to find and hold on to that courage. You have drawn upon so many indispensible sources of strength and energy, beginning with your wonderful husband and family and including sayings, songs, and your own thoughts. You will be OK. You are amazing. Will think about you all day tomorrow! xoxox Jen

  6. Tara, Kirsten Logan is one of my dearest friends. I have been reading your blog from day one. Please know you have an army of supporters in Pennsylvania cheering for you. Your writing is amazing. Thank you for sharing your journey and for giving us the most amazing example of human spirit, determination, and perseverance. You will beat this!!

    Melissa S

    Ps. Try 8 mile by Eminem. Nothing like a good long song about perseverance with a couple f bombs thrown in ; )

  7. Tara, I am a nurse at the Faulkner hospital and your blog has been going around our prei-operative areas. We will be waiting for you and your family with open arms. We will muscle up for you in your sleep and for your awakening. I too beleive your visions are your future and that they are a lifetime of rolling hills. Hold Nelson Mandel's words close to your heart and we will hold you close in our hands.

  8. I can't "believe" I made spelling errors on my earlier post to a school teacher!

  9. Thank you so much for these comments. I can't begin to tell you what each and every one of them meant to me.