Monday, October 15, 2012

Keeping Time

This morning when I woke up and put my glasses on to look at the clock, I was so disappointed that it was only 4:30. I still can't seem to conquer the wake-up-early and fall-back-asleep thing, and I've pretty much given up trying. So I did my usual assessment -- What day is it? What medicine do I need to take? What appointments do I have? Then right away I realized that I no longer felt nauseous. I was elated. So I did what I usually do when I get a burst of energy -- I organized. This morning's task? My work email inbox! Yes, it needed some cleansing.

As I plugged away through emails from the last several weeks, I started to get an itch, an excitement, for going back to work. I had planned on going in this Wednesday for a meeting with my group, a pro bono client appointment, and an open house event. But this morning, I decided that I was ready to go into the office today.

After (literally) dusting off some work clothes and dropping the kids off at school, I enjoyed the commute with my Mom who was headed up to Winchester for her own work day. I'm pretty sure she's going to do anything she can to keep me away from public transportation while I'm on chemo. She took very seriously the little curve Dr. Bunnell drew on the large piece of exam table paper last time we met -- it depicted my white blood cell count at its lowest point 7-14 days after my treatment. We're still not there yet, but my Mom's not taking any chances. (By the way, Dr. Bunnell made his little drawing beneath a message I had left for him on the exam table paper while we sat in the nearby chairs awaiting his arrival. "Please cure me. Thank you! [Smiley face.]" I was kind of joking, but kind of not, and he got a kick out of it.)

It was so wonderful to be in the office today. I work with a group of the nicest people you could ever meet, and I am energized and uplifted by being in the same room as them. I went in o'naturale, no wig and no hat, and no one cared in the slightest. I can be myself around my colleagues, and for that, I feel so blessed.  

As I've mentioned before, I'm a lawyer (and somewhat ironically, I work in the health care field for clients similar to the institutions that I now frequent). Like many lawyers in law firms, I bill my time by the hour, which means I need to keep track of how I spend each and every minute. I'm kind of compulsive about it, and I keep a hand-written notebook of very precise time with a description of the task I completed. At the end of every day, I add up my time, and then I flip the page. I write the next day's date at the top of the clean new page and I make a list of the things I already know I need to get done that day. 

Today, as I started to collect a few random work tasks, I pulled my time-keeping notebook out of my bag. The last page that I had written on said only, "Wednesday August 8, 2012." The rest of the page was blank because I never ended up going to work that day. Instead, I cried with Brian and my family about the fact that the radiologist told me I had cancer. Today, as I flipped to the next page and wrote, "Monday, October 15, 2012," I almost started to cry again. Because a whole heck of a lot has happened between those two pieces of notebook paper. 

Tonight, as I reflected on my emotional moments with my little notebook, I got to thinking that I don't often sit and reflect about the time I've spent as a lawyer. So tonight I'm going to. Not for long, because Dancing with the Stars is calling my name. But for a while, I'm going to sit, and think, and write a bit about those hours that I've spent at my desk as an attorney. About the time that I spend away from my kids.

Truthfully, I am limited in what I am able to write about my job as a lawyer because naturally, much of what I do involves information that I could not and would not discuss publicly. Some of my most cherished accomplishments have been for pro bono clients whose stories are obviously confidential, while also deeply moving and inspiring. In fact, tomorrow I will go to visit one such client. I will ask her if it's alright with her if I share a bit about her in this space and if she says it's OK, then I will. But for now, I'll talk in much more general terms. 

First, I will forever be grateful for my years at Ropes & Gray. I met some of the most wonderful people I could ever hope to meet there, and I know that many friendships I forged with my co-workers are lasting ones. In a few short years, I learned so much about the law, but even more importantly, I learned more about myself than I ever could have dreamed. Ultimately, that included me learning that life at a big corporate law firm was not for me. In the end, it just wasn't how I wanted to spend my hours away from my kids and no amount of money was worth missing even a few nights with them every week. Now, I also realize that I did not live a particularly healthy life style while I was there. I didn't sleep enough and often I thought that I was too busy to care about what I ate or if I exercised. I didn't go to the doctor until I was too sick to function. And honestly, I wonder if I would have made time to have a lump in my breast checked out. I shutter at the thought that perhaps, I wouldn't have.   

Ropes & Gray is an enormous firm. My office was on the 42nd floor of the Prudential Tower and there were seven floors above me and at least that many below me that were fully occupied by lawyers and staff. I remember riding the elevator up every morning, and even after being there a few years, often I would not know most, if not all, of the people who stood next to me. So I would just eaves drop on conversations. And especially between younger lawyers, those conversations would so often start with the same question -- "Are you busy?" I came to hate that question. It had so many annoying undertones. It also reminded me of a huge weakness of my own -- that I thought I needed to be busy in order to be happy. (Even at home, I was the same way. If I was working at night when my sister or my Mom called, I would immediately start folding laundry instead of devoting my full attention to them.) Gradually, I came to cherish the good people who asked instead, "How are you?" If they actually meant it, of course.  

I wish I could go back and erase all of the times I started a conversation with, "Are you busy?" I wonder if there was someone listening to me thinking about how annoying I sounded. Because it's a useless question. Most often, it leads to complaints and implicit, if not explicit, displays of self-importance. "How are you?" on the other hand, could get me somewhere purposeful.

I realized only recently that sometimes life's biggest lessons are learned when we're not busy. When we're not working. When we're awake in the middle of the night, alone. Or reading. Or writing. Or walking. Or just plain thinking. When there's no billable time to record for the day. And I've seen that sometimes sincerely asking somebody "How are you?" or cooking her a meal or sending him a card is the most important thing someone could do for another person on a particular day.

We can all find ways to be busy. We can all find reasons to complain that there's not enough time and that there's too much to do. I guess it partly took getting cancer for me to realize that there's not enough time and there is so much to do. It's just that now I don't mean it in the I'm so busy sort of way. Instead, I mean it in an I'm so grateful sort of way.

In the end, I realize that it's much easier to be busy than it is to be happy. I should know. Because today, on my very first day of feeling good after chemo, I decided to clean my inbox and go back to work. Maybe tomorrow morning I'll go for a short walk. I've never been for a walk at 5AM. I bet it's pretty out there. Or it could be dark and scary -- I'll have to check it out (and don't worry, Mom, I'll wear my reflector vest). I wonder if the whole time I'm walking, I'll just be planning the day's To Do list. Hopefully not. Because maybe after all this, I'll finally understand that I really shouldn't ever be too busy to be happy.

*  *  *

Tuesday Morning Update (6:15AM)

Turns out that it's not dark and scary at five in the morning. It's dark (OK, and a little bit scary on one tiny stretch of my street), but it's absolutely beautiful. I just returned from a 45 minute walk through the center of my town. I enjoyed the quiet store fronts and the mist from a slightly rainy morning. I wore my raincoat -- a light one embroidered "Ropes & Gray" on the sleeve that the firm gave our summer associate class over five years ago. And since I couldn't find my reflector vest, I thought about how I needed to go to Target after I dropped the kids off today to buy one. Then I caught myself. No To Do lists, I told myself. Just a misty beautiful morning. 


  1. Love you, T! Thought I might find another morsel here. Glad you enjoyed your early morning walk. xoxo


  2. Tara, you continue to amaze and inspire me. And I really am not easily inspired. -Cassie