On January 12th, I submitted my final assessment for grad school. Four-hundred-and-sixty-eight days following my first footsteps into the Poli Sci department at UCL.
I will never forget that day. The loaded book bag that I could barely stand to carry because my breathing was labored. The eerie sense that I would never know my classmates and teachers. The fatigue-induced apathy. I was not myself. I was hopeless and disconnected – because I knew something was up.
And then it unfolded like a perfect train wreck.
Overnight, I went from being a carefree woman with a neatly packaged life, to a cancer patient with, errr … well, that is all that matters. I had become a cancer patient. I will not
re-tell the story.
So much has happened since that day. There were subsequent medical problems and lapses in treatment. And with each one, the erosion of possibility.
I was knocked down again and again, and each time, my priorities transformed.
Along the way, nearly everyone asked me some version of: ‘how do you keep going?’. This same question is inferred when someone now reports that they are ‘amazed’ and ‘inspired’ that I completed the program.
Here is my answer:
My family and friends agree that I am exceptionally stubborn. I have always considered that my biggest ‘weakness’. I asked my sister for a tangible illustration of that stubbornness, but every example she provided was wrong.
So, we will leave it at that.
But this year, I leveraged that stubbornness into a vessel of purpose. That vessel enabled me to persevere despite many emotional blocks. Namely, the incapacity to be care-free and the deep sadness that reality evokes; intense frustration from the disappearance of a future (even though it is never guaranteed in the first place); and, to put it not-so-lightly, an obsession with the inevitability of death and fragility of life (which I suspect occurs after most near-death experiences). That vessel of stubbornness allowed my sense of
purpose to surpass all other states-of-mind, concerns, and insecurities. It prevented me from giving up my dreams.
I still live with those struggles; I always will. But that is precisely where freedom lies – in accepting them as eternal.
In the words of Megan Devine
(via Tim Lawrence):
‘Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried’.
To which, Tim himself responds:
‘Losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed. Facing the betrayal of your closest confidante cannot be fixed. They can only be carried’.
This journey has not been without hiccups. There were at least five ‘episodes’, where I was certain I wanted quit the program. The pressure was intense from all angles. On the one hand, I was being academically challenged more than ever before, and far beyond
what I conceived possible. On the other hand, the day-to-day stress of managing the disease across two oceans was culminating. Worst of all, was the worry that either of these variables would cause stress that made me sicker.
Or, that worrying about the stress would cause more stress … OK, you get the picture.
I cannot articulate this more accurately than in the message (below) I sent to my dear friend moments after submitting my final grad school essay. She knows the world in which I existed this year because she completed a similar program. I am so grateful she did.
‘The masters brought me to head spaces I didn’t even know existed. And in that space, I
often felt very alone and confused. With the added pressure of cancer – which made me constantly question ‘the meaning of life’ – it’s safe to say that I have been in a bit of an existential tornado.’
Part of that is deserved punishment for choosing a Masters in political philosophy, and with no experience in the subject. I get that. Nonetheless, to be challenged to that extent, during the most consequential year of my life, has been transformative. The world is now a different color; not merely because Donald Trump is roaming the White House.
And, while stubbornness, and a dash of luck, got me to this (great) place, that stubbornness is also causing some uncomfortable emotions in the present. I am admittedly frustrated that completing the program is perceived as ‘impressive’. I would rather it be an ordinary achievement, because that would mean that I did not overcome the constraints of a serious illness to be where I am. It would mean that I do not have cancer.
If I accept it as a miraculous feat, then I resign to cancer. If I reject that it is miraculous, I feel a bit closer to normal, but I am unable to appreciate it for what it is (a fucking awesome accomplishment).
What can I say … I truly am a work in progress.
Thanks for reading.
In closing, I am beyond grateful to have been well enough to make this a reality. I continued full force because even when a scan was not good, I never felt unwell. If my health had been limiting, I could not have finished, no matter how stubborn I was to see it through.
I have a host of humans to thank:
Jess, Bryan and the kiddos, for housing me, feeding me, and making me laugh. But most importantly, for enduring all five episodes. Few survived them … there were many casualties! There is no chance I could have made it through this without you. No chance.
Dad and Barb, for putting education on a pedestal and for bearing the lead-ups and fallouts of all five episodes.
My Friends. I have never felt so loved in my life. I cannot wait to be back on your side of the Atlantic.
My Work Family in Louisville and D.C. I fell into a giant pot of gold when I landed that job in 2009. The humans that comprise that office are unrivaled (starting at the top with the Congressman). #1
My teachers at UCL who made it worth staying and fighting for.
Craig, for a VERY last minute edit of my thesis. That was just the love it needed.
Floxie, for her cuddles and stinky farts.
And finally, drum roll please …. The HIGHEST AWARDS go to:
The Absolute Wizards who functioned as ‘drug liaisons’ over the course of the year, transporting Criz from Louisville to London. Also, thank you to those who offered, but the slots were already full. I cannot believe the slots were already full.
Dad; Suzanne; Marina & Kohl; Carly & Robert; Evan & Ryan; Matt; Katy & Claire
‘When the game clock’s ticking, and you’re behind, you take the big shots’ (Tom Marsilje).
Finally, this would not be complete without a few pix.
I completed the program in reverse, so I had the pleasure of knowing two groups of students. Here are a few of my colleagues from Spring 2016.
And a few from Fall 2016
In the main quad at UCL, several days after beginning treatment and having just made the decision to continue studying.
Random picture of me that pretty much sums up the year.
How I feel now. Bliss.