I recently had two friends over for breakfast. Nothing fancy, just your normal eggs, toast and tomato with a simple fruit salad, beautiful chai tea, and Edith Piaf playing on the computer. One of my guests looked up and said, “It’s always such a cultural experience being with you Allison.” the other quickly followed with “Yeah, it’s like going to Camp Allison….like an explosion of life.” I loved this! I love that this is how my friends perceive me from the outside looking in. It almost makes up for the fact that from the inside looking out, I feel a little crazy, like the Tasmanian devil spinning in circles around myself in an attempt to do all that I can. Constantly running on this fear that I might miss an opportunity, or an experience, something life changing and astounding might happen while I am not looking.
I am insatiable. Greedy, in a way. I live with voracity and intensity . . . voracitensity. If I were a color it would be florescent. I am working on subtlety, but it is not yet my strong suit. I live in big, bold, brush strokes.
In the days that followed that brunch, I started to think about where this desire comes from. I mean, why am I so hyper aware of the fact that every moment counts for something?
Then I remembered my mom.
When I was six years old my mom was diagnosed with cancer. For a year she went through hell. Chemo chemicals and radiation coursed through her veins as she fought for survival with every fiber of her being. The chemicals killed the cancer, along with most of her physical strength. In the first months there was a general air of fear and unease. No one took the time to explain to my brother and I what was going on. One day my mom was gone and then she didn’t come home again for a week. No one said anything about chemo, or what it would do to her. I can’t recall what was said. I just remember she was gone.
More treatments. Months passed. And one memory I have forever burned in my brain.
It was the middle of the afternoon, I can’t remember why, but I found myself alone in the house. I wanted my mom. I wanted to crawl into her bed and feel her warm back on my cold nose. I wanted to feel better. My parents’ room was always filled with light. Light and fresh air. My mom and dad could not stand stale air, so no matter how chilly it was outside we had our windows open. No heavy drapes in our house just natural light pouring through a delicate sheet of tightly woven lace dancing in and out of the window frames.
I had woken up in a sweat due to a nasty dream I was having. The cool air on my moist pajamas was giving me chills. I pulled my damp body out of my twin bed and raced down the hall to her. Flinging her door open, I assumed my mom’s room would be as it always was, drenched with light and fresh air; all I wanted was a breath of fresh air. But what I found was the opposite: drapes replaced the curtains and the windows were closed, locked. I could barely see the bed, but was able to make out a lump I assumed was her body. The lime green plastic mixing bowl my family reserved for throw up was next to her bed and as I walked closer I could hear her wheezing. Her breathing was brutal, it sounded almost impossible. The room smelled like old vitamins and throw up. I turned around, walked outside, and shut the door.
The war she was fighting was tortuous. This had become painfully clear. I still didn’t understand what this “cancer” thing was, or why my poor mom was the one having to battle through it, but I knew there was nothing my little hands could do to take away the pain she felt. All I could do was watch and wait.
In the days that followed I saw her turn to an ash gray color and lose all the weight that used to pad her body. They were killing her. It was killing her. Something was killing her.
But then, she got better. With the same quiet potency the cancer had used in its approach, my feisty, tender, sweet mom began to crawl her way back to us.
Amazing. They could rob her of her hair, her curves, and the rose in her cheeks. They could cripple the body that had carried two children, played tennis in the sunshine, and even, for a time, quiet her laughter. But her love for life was beyond anything they could touch. It was invincible. My mother became a warrior for love. She took the challenge head on and came out with a powerful heart and mind. Her tenacity earned her a place in the world that would not be taken away. She survived.
Her unwavering determination became my example. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, but she remained strong. She continued to wear her Este Lauder “Pleasures” perfume and her soft sweaters. She kept life as normal as possible while her white blood cells fought to outrun the poison flushing through her veins.
It isn’t until you see the end of something that you understand its true essence. The value of all things becomes apparent when it seems as though it will run out. I had the painful privilege of witnessing my mom dangle her toes over the edge of her life, and luckily she survived. So many don’t, so many strong, brave, powerful people don’t get the chance to take this lesson into the next chapter of life, which makes it all the more important that I do. I’m inspired by those who fight and win, and live with deep gratitude and respect for those who fight and lose. We can take nothing for granted.
My mom set the example for passion and determination. Through her battle with cancer, she taught me what it is to love life. From extreme violence came ultimate beauty. She still reads a quote from Anne Frank that I keep in my pocket for days when I feel like the best decision would be to hide away.
“As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”
I took her advice to heart and made a vow to fill my life with all I could. At six, I was determined and I still am. I always hit the ground running.
To a fault, I’ll admit. I saturate myself in what I love and I would rather have too much motivation than none at all. I struggle to ground myself in one place for more than a few days and sometimes I plan so many activities that I am racing just to get to the next appointment rather than enjoying the reason they were scheduled in the first place.
There is a balance to strike, my four-year-old nephew is teaching me that. Last summer he came for a visit and I got to have him to myself for one day. I made a plan. I packed our day full of outings and ideas. But as quickly as I made the plans, my nephew changed them. His spontaneity and fascination with the world around brought my plans to a screeching halt. We ended up staying in a one block radius around my apartment. No big outings, just a simple afternoon in Brooklyn.
As we headed home, skipping the cracks in the sidewalk and talking about Luke Skywalker, my nephew looked up at me and proclaimed, “This is the best part of my day ever.” The part with no agenda, no activities, just walking and talking. Amazing.
I needed a child’s perspective to remind me of the immature confusion that led me here to begin with. Valuing existence doesn’t mean over booking. It doesn’t mean more stuff, more content. It just means more me, more attention to the moments making up my life.
Thanks to my Ma. Thanks to my nephew. To the warrior heart and the Buddha soul. My greatest teachers.