The Best Thing I Learned from a Cancer Patient
Photo Credit by the PhotoPhreak; creative commons license
As I write this, it is a Sunday afternoon and I have a few friends coming over for dinner and an in-depth spiritual discussion. Did I say a few? I meant fifteen. Or maybe ten because several just called and said they might not make it because of transportation problems. Or maybe twenty because several just called to say they might bring a couple of friends. I had planned to make chicken cordon bleu but do I double the recipe? What about glasses? I don’t know why this particular gathering is so wavering in projected attendance but it is, and I could be a ball of nerves over everything being perfect, but I’m doing only a teensy bit of stress.
I finally understand what a cancer patient told me over a decade ago.
I met her only once, and I took an instant liking to her. I was drawn to her in a way I can’t explain. She seemed to radiate something I wanted, needed. I know now that that something was serenity.
She had come to see me, actually, at a workshop or speech or some such I was giving in another town even though she lived about two miles from me. She asked wonderfully contemplative questions during my gig, and afterward, the two of us and a few more women sat and talked for an hour or so. That’s when I learned that this vibrant woman in her 40’s was a cancer patient in remission. I didn’t know when I’d ever met someone who seemed so alive. She had an amazing story to tell of how her illness had changed her life, though she really didn’t dwell on the past. She talked mostly about a technique she’d developed that helped her to de-stress and promised to show the five of us gathered around her. She invited us all to dinner at her house the following Sunday evening and told us to wear comfy clothes so she could teach us.
I went home excited. Not only was I going to learn a new stress reduction technique that might actually work, but I was going to spend two or three hours with this astonishing woman who was such an inspiration to the people she met. My then-husband was markedly less excited. He accepted that I might give lectures here and there but to him, this sounded more like a social occasion that wouldn’t include him. It meant he would have to feed our children that night but I would still be home in time to tuck them in. I was going, regardless, but he’d let me know he wasn’t happy about it, and I knew I’d pay for it with a silent treatment.
About two hours before the get-together, I got a voice mail from the woman. I don’t even remember what it was that had happened but something had popped up in our hostess’ life that made it far too stressful to have guests over. Something had delayed her and she suggested we makes plans for another time. She said something else, too, but I was feeling sorry for myself and slightly betrayed at the time. I’d gone to a lot of trouble to make the get-together. Part of me felt that she was letting us down by choosing not to go ahead with the meeting. I was mentally putting myself in her place and knowing that I’d be having a get-together regardless of what else had come up during the day. And I was judging her by my own over-stressed expectations of how I would do it.
The thing she said that has stuck with me all these years is that she really made no apologies for canceling our event at the proverbial last minute. I would have been on the phone begging forgiveness, but this serene woman was very matter-of-fact. She said she knew we’d all understand that the little things in life weren’t worth adding unnecessary stress to our lives and that we could get together another time that wouldn’t be a burden on her. True, but to me, I’d made a much bigger deal of our getting together and what she could teach me while, for her, it was simply having fun people over to talk and learn and eat.
That was lesson she taught me. Not some intricate yoga-like technique but a mindset. Don’t stress over what doesn’t matter. She never said “Life is short” or anything self-defeating like that. She said that life is important and deserving of being enjoyed rather than filled up with stress that didn’t need to be there.
So I’m having people over for dinner tonight and then afterward we’ll sprawl out for hours on the living room floor and discuss Life, Death, and the Universe. I won’t stress over having enough matching glasses and fine china or whether we’ll have chicken cordon bleu. It’ll either be mis-matched or we’ll have paper plates and plastic cups. And instead of chicken cordon bleu, we’ll have a big chicken lasagna and sweet tea and soft drinks. And it’ll be a relaxed, un-stressed evening full of laughter and good conversation.