Post 211.

This week’s lesson was to remember to look after myself.

I was a speaker at  ‘Empower’, an event hosted last Sunday by a company called The Sisterhood. Before my turn, Thokozile James, one of the organizers, unexpectedly called up a woman to the microphone. Recently widowed and a mother of three children, she had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks earlier. Watching her, my heart sent a shiver right down my arms to the backs of my fingertips. Unobtrusively, I clenched and unclenched my hands in the face of that killer word, cancer, and its creeping intimacy with so many of our lives.

‘I used to be the last in the office’, she said to us.’ I missed doctor’s appointments because I was busy with work, a degree and children. I put my health last’. Listening to her, I felt my whole rib cage open as if someone was reaching in to grab my heart. I was filled with recognition. ‘Finally’, she said, ‘before I left the office late one evening, I got myself the first appointment with a cancer testing caravan. I was first in line that morning and I am telling you now that I will survive’.

I looked at this courageous, articulate professional woman, committed to her job for more than a decade, but ultimately recognizing that only life matters, and wondered what it would take for her lesson to matter to me.

Over forty now, I too work far too much, exercise too little, and keep going even when I should stop. For some reason, whether it’s from Ziya’s age or starting primary school or my own exhaustion, or both, I’ve had the flu four or five times this year, maybe more, I’ve forgotten, not for more than a few days, and low grade rather than debilitating. Through all those times, I’ve taken cold tablets and keep working, driving coughing or feverish through traffic to get to meetings it seemed crucial to attend, and managing deadlines and teaching responsibilities, despite feeling run down and run over.

Though having long proven myself to be a super-committed professional, taking more than one day to recover, knowing that it might not fit with an office plan, felt like a betrayal of my reputation and the job, as if I was risking being seen as undeserving, irresponsible or unreliable, one of those people bosses warn about not meeting expectations. Amidst this vicious circle of overwork and insufficient recovery, I wondered, is there a point at which women, like the one now speaking to us, who get awards for their loyalty and dedication, can stop proving themselves? Is there at point at which putting your health first becomes something other a negotiation with potential reproach?

Just hours later, I woke up at 3am with a sharply sore throat. Armed with cold tablets, I went to work on Monday. By evening, I knew I couldn’t make it again the next day, on a schedule that meant getting up at 5.30am to get Ziya to school and getting home later than 7.30pm after a meeting. I was about to travel to a conference and back, putting in almost 40 hours of travel time in just four days this week, and I knew I would reach back to work on Monday like a dead woman walking.

It was this woman’s reality that made me stop. If I didn’t listen now, when would I learn? If I didn’t get better, wouldn’t it keep getting worse? And, how would not fully recovering undermine my very professionalism with such low grade, continual effects on my ideas, energy, productivity and efficiency? Who would be blamable in the end, but me?

My own speech that afternoon emphasized that, as women, we all have funny, awkward, dark, sad, passionate, inspiring, life-long learning stories, of making mistakes, failing at getting everything right, falling down before we get up and dust off, feeling guilty, surviving emotional or other damage, and more. However, the story that shook me between my ribs was this woman’s. I learned what I hope I remember, defend and know is right. When women, especially mothering workers, must put ourselves first, no demands matter above our health and life.

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Post 67.

A woman I knew, a mother of three young boys, died of cancer three weeks ago. Tonight another woman, an activist and mother was also taken by cancer. Both were so full of life that whenever I think of them, all I see are two different, but equivalently glowing, smiles. I didn’t use to think about death as I do now. With typical, youthful sense of invincibility, I thought that death was simply the shedding of one physical shell for another unknown form of energy. I glibly thought, well if it happened, my goal would be to say that I lived a full life.

Of course, all that changed when I had Ziya. Now, all death meant was not seeing her grow or being there to help nuture her along the way. Now, I wanted to live as long as I could to witness her life-story unfold. I changed lot of things about my life. I drove my car more carefully on the roads and was glad to avoid the highways. I thought more seriously about my health and paid attention to health insurance. I developed intermittent, low level anxiety about earthquakes and bandits, and whether I’d be able to save her from whatever dangers appeared beyond my control. When work got stressful, I tried to remember that stress makes you ill and so few things are worth the power we allow them to have over our emotions. The most important thing in the world is that Ziya is all right and I am there to see to it that she is.

For her to be well, and to be her best, I’d need to be there with her and be happy, healthy and my own best too. Death became feared, the thought of abandoning my girl to the world became almost my worst nightmare. Now I suffered, as the Buddhists say, from attachment to life and its possible loss. I had to process that this too was a part of, perhaps even just an early phase of, getting used to being a mother and experiencing love more forceful than I had ever before known.

Such worry seems melodramatic in the harsh light of day, but my instinct says I’m not the only one. Forget instinct, I’ve known too many women who are cancer survivors, or not. All I know is that my friends’ death reminded of why I worry, even if it’s completely unproductive and unnecessary. At the same time, their passing reaffirmed the value of thinking of and living for the present as well as being present whole-heartedly and consciously for Zi.

Overcome by both appreciation for the women gone and appreciation for life left in me, I broke a few bed-time rules tonight. Usually I put Ziya to bed in her crib even if she desperately pleads to go to sleep in our bed. And, she’s on her own by 9pm, even if there are a few minutes of crying. Tonight, when she stood up in the crib and said she wasn’t sleepy, I took her out and rocked her in my arms, singing, studying her face in the dark, feeling her warm, soft, pudgy and heavy, and waiting patiently until her eyes began to glaze and then softly close. Time didn’t matter. Only this moment existed. Everything was here. All I could think of was how easy it is to be unaware of life and to let precious moments slip by as we concentrate on chores or complaints, TV or simply tomorrow.

My sistren are gone, I mourn for their children and for the others whose lives they would have touched, but I feel more alive than ever before as I think of them now and the lesson they left for me. I have only right now to squeeze every drop of every day every time I can, and I am going to do so unapologetically. We don’t need fancy cars, brand name shoes or even smart phones, all that matters is life, love, health and family.

To you two, powerful women and workers and world-changers and mothers, you remain full of life in my memory and for that I thank you. May you, beautiful souls who have finally surrendered breath, rest in peace.