Growing up, I was a planner; in fact, I’ve always been. I carefully structured my life in terms of its payoffs — I knew I had to do well in high school to get into a good college, which would help me get into a good graduate program, which would improve my chances on the job market and give me a better chance of landing a tenure track teaching position. I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was a little girl and sat with my father in his college classes, answering as many questions as I could. Even then, I wanted to learn everything I could about being a teacher so that I could best prepare myself to assume that title later on.
I also wanted to get married, have a house, a family, children. I knew I could be a great mother; all the years I babysat and helped my parents teach RE classes at our UU church I paid close attention to the strategies that worked, what made children happy, how to keep them calm and stable. I kept all my children’s books and a few special toys, thinking I would hand them down to my own daughter someday. I was never the girl who walked around her house with a pillowcase on her head, pretending to be a bride, but I always envisioned that my focus and organization would come in handy planning a wedding. My best friend and I would sit for hours in her basement building houses with legos or drawing the best architectural plans our 6th grade minds could imagine, paying minute attention to things like the width of window treatments and how stable our spiral staircases would be.
These things and the future they gestured toward now seem almost unreal, unfathomable. My planning seems not quite in vain, but as if the ends I imagined I was moving toward were, rather than almost certainties, abstract motivations. The last five weeks I’ve had to give serious thought to which of these things are manageable or realistic given the truncated timespan I’ve most likely been handed and the shape of my life today. I’ve had to reconsider which of my goals are tangible and reachable and which would be a reach and ultimately leave me disappointed. Though that way of thinking may sound hopeless, or like I am giving up hope, I don’t believe that’s an accurate description of what is happening. Rather, I am doing my best to embody what I’ve mentioned here before — I want to be optimistic about living, but realistic about dying. And the reality is this: I have a number of spread out liver tumors, and that, when it comes to lifespan, is not good.
That process has probably been the hardest one to contend with. Giving up most of the dreams you had for yourself in one fell swoop is incredibly painful and shocking. Its effects do not register in a day, a week, or even a month. I’ll have moments when I’m sure I’ve come to terms with these realities, and then moments when the weight of my new world hits me with a force I’ve not experienced before.
A few days ago, I sat with my dissertation advisor in his office and talked about this in terms of my job prospects. He agreed with something I had suspected for a couple weeks — that a tenure track position, the goal I have always aimed for, was most likely out of the question. But, more importantly, that kind of job security, given my shortened lifespan, no longer made sense. I could be more successful and more focused if I devoted my energy to non-tenure track positions to which I could market myself with a particular uniqueness. I could say with clarity and definitiveness that I would would be committed to Boston, and so a job in Boston, for literally the rest of my life. And though I would need some moments of special dispensation, given my treatment cycle and the cancer’s growth patterns, I would always return to work.
He also suggested, in a stroke of heartwarming faith in my ability (as amazing dissertation advisors are wont to do) that I should apply for this kind of position at my current institution, if one were to become available at the right time. Though remaining at the school where you did your graduate work is often frowned upon in the academy, mine is a special situation in which such a move would not only make sense, but potentially benefit all those involved. I’ve done well by my school and they know me well; more importantly, they are intimately familiar with my work ethic while in treatment. While nothing is guaranteed, knowing that my situation is not wholly hopeless but instead opens up new ways of participating in the systems and structures I love helps me move through each day with purpose and joy.
The security of that fact is reassuring, and reminds me that, while I now face the prospect of relinquishing much of what I thought would shape my life, I am trading these things for other opportunities. And though some moments it’s hard to focus on these new opportunities and far easier to be swept away with the rush of loss, it’s also been getting easier to maintain that focus each day. I’m learning to live in the present moment with more vigor and happiness and to accept that what’s waiting for me in the future is different but not wholly bad. I’m trying to direct that happiness positively and determine what new goals would make me the most happy and are the most realistic based on the shape of today, of the now. I’m getting a horse that I know and trust and love and I want to spend at least the summer wandering around with him in the orchards behind my barn. I want to finish my dissertation — albeit a bit more slowly — with my eye on its ultimate form so that I can publish at least one book. Once I’m scaled back to treatment every 3 weeks, I want to take a trip around the West with Cheerful Outdoor Boyfriend and climb every mountain we can jump on, navigate every river we can kayak, and camp beyond the reaches of wifi and cell phones. I want to collect teapots and typewriters, live in a loft, plant another organic garden.
It feels strange to think these are my new goals, but they do give me joy. Moving forward with a truncated future means readjusting my expectations — in many ways, it means letting go of my larger expectations for the future and focusing more fully and more intently on the momentary, achievable, tangible goals that can make me happy in subtle and small ways.
Rethinking the scale of your goals is frightening, and letting go of your expectations hurts. In many ways, this process is not a fair one, but it is the one I have in front of me, and I intend to adjust to it the best I can.