It was three years ago today when everything in my life changed — when I realized that I had cancer.
I don’t remember now exactly when I had noticed the small lump in the flesh of my left breast. I probably realized it — and acknowledged it to myself — in stages that took a few weeks or a month. I’m not sure. At first, I figured it was something that would just go away, but it didn’t.
It was the late afternoon of the last day of 2011 when I finally decided to call a doctor friend about it. I went over to his house for him to take a look and give me an unofficial opinion. Although the official diagnosis wouldn’t come from a specialist until a week or so later — and the surgery a few weeks after that — it was Dec. 31, 2011 that I really knew what was going on.
There was a realistic chance that I might die.
Since the surgery removed the lump and there’s been no sign of any trouble since then, that might sound overly dramatic. At the time, though, it was an emotional wake-up call. It forced me to think about what mattered and what didn’t matter in my life.
After my friend checked out the lump and offered his opinion that it almost certainly was cancer, we sat on his front porch and talked about life. We talked about things we had both wanted to do and about how certain things hadn’t gone as we wanted them to go. I shot the photo above as we sat and talked in the fading light of the year’s last sunset.
From a distance of three years, it’s even more clear that something changed for me that day. I’ve always been aware of the tick-tock of a clock counting down the seconds, minutes, weeks and years of my life, but the ticking got louder that day.
There’s nothing like the possible approach of death to focus your mind on what matters. Things that had once seemed important became less important to me. Other things — about which I’d once felt were important, but about which there seemed to be plenty of time — suddenly seemed urgent. Although the intensity of the feelings of that day have faded, the day has remained a dividing line in my life.
Once you have realized what’s important in life, the idea of placing so much value on lesser things seems laughable. Everything else other than love seems fairly trivial.
I’ve talked here before about some of the grand ambitions I once had. Over time, I’ve slowly discarded most of them as unimportant or even toxic. I once wanted to be a politician and put myself into the position to run for president one day. I wanted to build a big media company and become wealthy. I had some pretty detailed goals at times.
Nothing could get me to pursue elective politics anymore, of course, but I wouldn’t mind doing something successful that made money. I’m still competitive and love to win. I would love to achieve some things that might impress other people (and myself). I would still enjoy some things about the lifestyle that a nice bank account would bring.
But those things are no longer essential.
All that really matters to me is loving the right people and being loved in return. I want to invest my life in a woman and in children. If I happen to end up with some money and success, that’s fine. But those things are completely secondary.
Having worldly success and having a happy family are inversely proportional for most people, but few people accept the tradeoffs. They think they can have everything. The things that lead to a happy family and the things that lead to success are typically in opposite directions. You can invest your limited amount of time in love or in success. Few people seem to understand that, so they try to have everything.
Some end up with worldly success but live in sterile or even hateful families where there’s no love. Or they live alone. Others try so hard to have it both ways that they’re successful at neither love nor success. And others have such serious emotional or psychological issues that they’re afraid of dealing with that they end up alienating everyone close to them, so their lives become long-term con games. They have something in their lives only to the extent that their latest victims haven’t figured out who they really are.
My life has been influenced by a lot of psychological dysfunction. I compounded the issues at times by focusing on the wrong things in life — things that I was certain would bring me happiness.
But in the three years since I had that cancer scare, I’ve never lost sight of what’s important. For me, I want to be loved and understood — by someone who I love and understand. I want children and I want to raise them with all the love I can — while respecting who they are instead of trying to mold them into carbon-copies of me.
When I thought for a few weeks that I might die, those were the things that seemed important. Three years from that day, they’re more important than ever. The tick-tock of passing time is also louder than ever.
I don’t know how to get all the things I want, because there are things in my life that aren’t within my control. But I know what’s important.
And once you’re certain that love is what matters, caring about the things everyone else cares so much about seems trivial and foolish.
I’m not where I need to be, but I know where I’m going as quickly as I can. The clock is ticking loudly in my ears.