“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life. “ – the Misfit from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
In Flanner O’Connor’s fiction, grace often enters the lives of her characters in a shocking manner. “In the land of the deaf, you have to shout,” Flannery O’Connor said.
Sometimes in nonfiction, God also has to shout. Some of us have become quite deaf to Him without even knowing it—or, at least, hard of hearing.
It was a year and a half ago when grace broke into my life. I went to the dermatologist to have a mole checked that had grown all funky during my last pregnancy. There was a smaller, flat but more scattered mole beneath it that the dermatologist noticed. It too was biopsied and a week later, I was called with the results: melanoma. A deadly cancer had been living as a small, unassuming mole on the delicate skin of the underside of my arm.
My tumor was very small. So small, they were pretty sure all trace of it had been removed with the biopsy. However, as I came to learn, melanoma is not something to be trifled with. Since it lives on your skin, and your skin covers your whole body, melanoma can invade pretty much anywhere that is covered in skin. It likes to makes its way to the lymph nodes and from there, travels to other organs of the body. Because of this dangerous and ungentlemanly behavior, no chances are taken with even leaving behind one cell of it. Ipso facto, I had a surgery to remove a large swath of skin from my arm as an extra precaution.
After the surgery, I started full body skin checks every three months with the dermatologist and was told to stay current on my eye, dental and lady’s doctor visits since melanoma can appear in all those locations.
Melanoma brought the reminder of my death into my life. I presumed I was going to die at some point. I just always thought that point was way down the road when I was comfortably in my 90s and had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in my life. This newest diagnosis snapped me out of my complacency. As a Catholic, I had talked a good Momento Mori game. In theory it was “Remember your death.” “Don’t build bigger silos.” “Have enough oil for your lamp because you don’t know when the bride groom will come.” But in reality, it was more “I’m going to die someday, so I better be ready then, when it happens some time well in the future and most likely to someone else.” Now with the three-inch scar on my arm that marked where death had been lurking, my possibly imminent death was all I could think about.
I went through 3 phases of Memento Mori.
Phase 1: I could not get my death off of my mind.
I was paranoid. Every day, I scanned myself, looking for anything that may come to life to kill me. Of course, I had no idea what to look for so it was more of an exercise in anxiety rather than anything productive.
Like how a purchasing a red car makes you notice how many red cars are on the road, getting a melanoma diagnosis makes you notice how many people die of melanoma. I would read about them in the news, hear about them on the radio, see posts about them in my social media feed. Melanoma is certainly a take-no-prisoners type of cancer and, to my Phase 1 mind, it seemed like people were dropping dead of it left and right.
I was constantly holding back tears around the children. The idea of leaving them was like a dagger constantly twisting and turning in my heart and I could hardly bear it. I spent a lot of time hugging them. And since I’m not a natural hugger, they started to wonder if I had started drinking.
I became kind-of hopeless. One morning, I was making little protein bites that let me snack in a more healthful manner and I thought to myself, what is the point? I go through all this trouble to stay healthy and now death’s come chasing after me while everyone else in the world is drinking soda for every meal and eating their body weight in junk food and they’ll all live to be 100 whilst I’ll be in the grave before my 50th birthday. (I always use words like “whilst” when I’m being extra dramatic.)
I even passed along information to my husband about the kids and the household so that he could better inform the new wife he married (once I widowed him, not before) about her new instant family. He took this behavior in good spirits—knowing my need to prepare for any and everything—even a possible replacement once I am dead.
Phase 2: I started to think of all the ways I could die.
Looking back on it, it seems very morbid, but it was actually very helpful. I had another biopsy and it came back benign. After passing through a couple of skin checks with no new sign of anything troubling, I could see a glimmer of hope.
It was at this point that I came to terms with the fact that skin cancer might kill me, yes, but anything might kill me. I could walk out my front door and get hit by a falling airplane part. I could have a massive heart attack. I could get into a fatal car wreck. I could have a stroke. I could have a brain aneurysm. I could get hit by a stray bullet. Death was a constant danger in life and it could come for me at any moment.
The melanoma had allowed me to see that we are all walking around with anvils over our heads. Anvils held precariously in place by a thin string that could break at any moment. Everyone lived beneath one. I had lived beneath one since my life had begun. The only difference was that before I could not see the anvil and I could live in ignorance about the fact that my life could end at any instant by any number of things. Now, God had shown me the anvil and my life drastically changed.
Phase 3: In always having death before me, I really started to live.
Through the lens of death, I found myself reprioritizing my life. If I kicked off today, did I want my children and my husband remembering me as a frustrated, nagging harpy that could never relax? Why had I become that way? Seeing that anvil hanging above me, ready to fall at any moment really helped me to do a lot of internal house cleaning. I kept thinking about Jesus telling Martha that she was anxious about many things and I realized I needed to get better about focusing on the better part.
I started to relax and letting unimportant things go. Who cares if we didn’t get much school done today? The weather was too beautiful to stay indoors and there may never be another day like that. Who cares if we went out of budget a little to buy that bow and arrow? The kids have a blast with their father shooting arrows in the backyard. Who cares if the house looks like a Jackson Pollock painting? My children have not yet learned the hard truth that society says you’re supposed to only paint on paper. They have their whole lives to paint on paper, but today, they can paint the walls.
I began doing things that I’d always put off until later. Later being some murky moment in the future that I could never pin down. I started reading books I’d always wanted to read. I started writing letters to people to let them know what they meant to me. I started to work on my drawing skills. I started to work more on my writing skills. I started reading more poetry, not letting myself worry if I didn’t understand it. I started to read literature, not letting myself worry if I wasn’t smart enough to comprehend it. I started to write haiku and limericks, both of which I used to love to write in my youth, but for some reason as an adult, never took the time. I even finished a children’s book I’d started four years before. It was amazing what I could accomplish when I realized I may not have a tomorrow on which to put things off.
Probably my favorite part of Phase 3 was stopping what I was doing when one of the kids requested a little of my time. In the last year, I have probably spent more time sitting in the rocking chair and reading than all the other years of my motherhood added together. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit. I have also spent a lot of time drawing robots, singing songs, dancing, counting various things, looking at bugs, birds and flowers, hearing about the various books and television shows my children are interested in, discussing current events and telling stories about my parents and my childhood so that they’ll know a little more about me. I have learned to really enjoy my children in the moment, now that I have foreseen a future when those moments will cease to exist.
And then there are the times I get panicked that I’m not going to be able to get something done with what little time I might have left, which is the downside to not being able to assume I had all the time in the world. I have several book and essay ideas that I am excited to write not to mention the ones I have written that need to be drafted. However, I haven’t a lot of time in my life right now, in which to write and draft. I can get quite frustrated when I try to stay up late to write, and one of the kids won’t go to sleep and demands all of my attention. I can get equally frustrated when I get up early the next morning to write and one of the kids gets up with me and demands all my attention. I fall to my knees and scream to the heavens, “Why God? Why must you send me children on opposite sleep schedules?” I have slowly come to a peace with the fact that I may not be meant to get those things done and I relax and try again another day. If I am meant to finish my projects, I will live long enough to do so.
I am now living all the platitudes that everyone is always saying but not really doing. “Live every day like it’s your last,” “Live in the moment,” “Let people know how you feel because you never know when the opportunity will no longer exist,” “Don’t put things off until tomorrow for there may be no tomorrow,” “Stop signs are merely suggestions.”
I have even come to appreciate things that I used to be most unappreciative of. I hate humidity, but I was happy to be alive to feel sticky and gross for another summer. Paying bills was a new way to celebrate being alive. Christmas with the in-laws didn’t have the pall about it that it had had in the past. I may have been breathing under their looks of scorn, but I was breathing!
New things popping up that could kill me didn’t cause me to freak out. The lump they found at my first mammogram was just another possibility in the long list of possibilities for my demise. I can calmly wait until the follow up mammogram in six months before I find out if I need to start giving my husband information to pass along to his next wife again. As Queen Ester said, “If I perish, I perish.” I have zero control over death but all the control in the world over whether or not I’m prepared for it.
Even with death chasing me, I can, on occasion, get lulled into complacency again by life. Wanting to keep me vigilant, the Lord sends me reminders of my anvil. A friend with a melanoma diagnosis, a weird new mole that turns out to be only paint, the death of an amazing man at the hands of melanoma all conspire to keep me alert to my possible doom.
Facing death made my life really come alive. I am no longer enslaved to the misconception that there will necessarily be a tomorrow. I am a better person because every day I stare at the three-inch reminder that there is an anvil hanging precariously over my head and I know not when it will drop. The Misfit was right. Some of us become better women when we have someone there to shoot us every minute of our life.