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Inspired by the “Dear 16-year-old Me” YouTube campaign video by The David Cornfield Melanoma Fund http://dcmf.ca/ Day 10 of the WEGO Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge has me going back to the future. Given what I know now, what would I say to to the girl I used to be, at just 16 years old? Would I give her advice? Comfort? Truth?  Would I tell her that family matters, health matters, that she matters most? Let’s see …

Lessons for the Girl I Used to Be …

I know it’s impossible to imagine, but pretty soon, you’ll all go your separate ways, to different universities in different parts of the country. As you know by now, my darling girl, you’re going to decide against reading English at Stirling University in Scotland. You’ll wonder about that decision in years to come. You’ll wonder what if? Instead, you’re going to stay in Northern Ireland for a while longer – at least four years.  Deep down, it feels a bit like settling doesn’t it? Pay attention to that feeling. It will visit you more than once over the next three decades, and you will come to know that when you settle, you are choosing something that is so much less than what’s the very best for you. That’s important.

Right now, I know your head is filled with some things that I promise aren’t really that important, so let’s get those out of the way first:

  1. Your Hair … It is not and never will be easy. If you can accept this now, I promise you will save so much time and money. It is not supposed to be straight. Don’t let an overzealous hairdresser do something “trendy” with it. Insist that they cut it when it’s dry. Short layers will not work, because your hair is too fine. If you decide to color it yourself, only do the roots and then comb it through to the ends.
  2. Your Skin …  discover sunscreen. Soon. Slather it on every single day, and don’t forget your neck. You are going to do what your granny always advised your mother, “follow the sun.”  Hard to believe, I know, when you look up at a sky full of rain, but one day you will live in Arizona, where the temperatures soar above 100 degrees for several months a year.
  3. Fashion … right now, you don’t appreciate your mother’s sense of style, but you will. She is class personified. You need to find your own style too, something that says you, not something some magazine or a friend tells you to wear. If you only wear suits for work, then buy them cheap. Buy things that you can mix and match. A neutral suit goes a long way and a little black dress is always handy. Invest in a good pair of jeans (with no sequins) and a really good leather handbag. Stay away from linen. It wrinkles too much. Don’t ever wear leather on your bottom half or denim with denim. And if you can imagine it on a sofa, don’t wear a pattern. Blue is the best color to wear on TV. Know that often, the best bargains are found in thrift stores. One day, you will have wonderful daughter to share with you in this experience. I’m tempted to show you a picture … she’s almost your age right now, but that would ruin the most wondrous surprise of your life.
  4. Matters of the heart … I think it will work for you to believe that there is something for everyone. As your father sometimes says (but I don’t think you really hear him), “if it’s for you, it will not pass you by.”  Timing is always important. I know your best friend is already planning a wedding. I’m sure you feel a little pressured to do the same, but don’t rush in.
  5. Your health … the real troubles you will face, my dear, are the things that will never even cross your mind. Like breast cancer. How I wish I could protect you from it, but I can’t. I can tell you to eat more vegetables and fruit, not to smoke, to wear sunscreen, to drink plenty of water, to avoid alcohol, to run regularly but I don’t know that any of that will prevent the breast cancer diagnosis that will shake you to your core before your 49th birthday. I can even tell you to go for mammograms – which don’t hurt; they’re just a bit uncomfortable – but those won’t help you either. This sneaky cancer will come in like a thief in the night and turn everything upside down. In spite of the mammograms you will have at 35, 40, and 45. So, Cancer is going to come to your door on 11.11.11 – doesn’t that seem so very far away? It’s not. It’s tomorrow. Here’s what I want you to know. Yvonne, you are going to spend the next 30 years trying to reinvent yourself as teacher, activist, wife, mother, daughter. When that cancer comes, you will feel frightened as you are of what lurks behind the trees on the Dublin Road at dusk, when you are walking home from school. At 49, you will have the first major surgery of your life, to remove the tumor and your right breast. It’s so hard to imagine right now, but you will also be the beneficiary of the kind of surgery that, if I explained it, will make you think of The Bionic Woman.  They will rebuild your breast using skin, tissue, and fat from your abdomen. Can you imagine it? You will have a big scar from hip to hip, but you will be able to run, to work, to do things you used to do. And you will have a loving husband and daughter to take care of you. And they will do it with love and tenderness the like of which you will never have experienced. Cancer will change you. In spite of the many reinventions of yourself, you’ll find yourself returning, once again, to writing. To the kind of writing you do in your diary every night. You will know for sure that you are much loved. You will be far away from Ireland, but you will be closer than ever to your ma and daddy, and you will know who your friends are. Just like you have penpals in Holland and Germany, you will once again write to people in other parts of the world. You’ll be excited to hear from them, sometimes daily, but it will be in a very different world that depends on computers and technology that doesn’t exist yet. You will love that.
  6. Friends and foes … my dear Yvonne, you are going to encounter some mean people in the world. Walk away if you can. Remember if they don’t make you laugh, they can’t make you cry. Choose your friends carefully. Whether we like it or not, by our company we are judged. I know you hear that all the time, and you should pay attention. Sometimes you’ll be left behind, sometimes you’ll win. But don’t waste time on being jealous or comparing yourself to others. YOU are an original. You are going to see the most beautiful, noble expressions of humanity as well as some of the most harrowing. Just as it breaks your heart to see Northern Ireland torn apart, its schools segregated by religion, you will see some of the same kind of hatred affecting the laws in the American state you will eventually call home. You already have the heart of an activist. That, and your undaunted immigrant spirit will compel you to speak out. This is the work that will be the most important, because it will make a difference in the lives of others. It will make the news near and far; in fact, you’ll even read about it in The New York Times, but while the little difference you make may mean all the difference in the world to a group of students, it will not be enough to change policy. By the time you are 50, you will have seen shades of Northern Ireland and South Africa in the America you dream of.
  7. Time … Life is simply going to be too short to spend it doing too much of one thing. Find a good balance, so you can enjoy all the things that make your life yours. Be there for those you love and those who love you. Learn how to prioritize. Working, worrying, shopping, cleaning, waiting, looking in the mirror … The older you get, you’ll learn that people show you who they really are. Remember that each moment of our day, in our life, is not of equal weight. Don’t live that way. Savor those moments that are worth the time.
  8. Money … I wish I could convince you to handle it the way your parents do, but the world is going to make it too easy for you to buy things you can’t afford, to live beyond your means. You won’t be the only one, but it will definitely cause some headaches. In 30 years time, many people will be out of work, out of their homes. You will still have your career, but the cancer will make you nervous. Take care of your money. Pay yourself first and make sure you have medical and dental insurance. You need it.
  9. Honor your parents … You’re beginning to rebel, and you are anxious to find a new rhythm that doesn’t involve school and church. I am smiling as I tell you that you will one day be as interested in gardening and antiques as your father is. You will rediscover the father you adored when you were really little, and all these arguments about music and studying will fade from memory. I promise you. You will rediscover that same father, and it will lift your heart when he tells your daughter, “I love you very much.” All will be well between you. Too, you will call your mother to ask her to remind you of recipes for home-made scones and home-spun truths. You will find yourself thinking about verses she used to recite, this one in particular “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how the grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” Please find time to consider the lilies.
  10. Teach … always. You are going off to college, and you are going to be a teacher. A good one, at that. You never dreamed of being a teacher, and you’re not convinced it’s really what you want to do, but you will find later on that your mother knows you better than you think.  When she tells you that teaching is “a great thing to fall back on,” try just to hear that it’s “a great thing.” Because it is, and it will change your life, just as Mr. Jones has changed yours. You will never forget him, and your Choice of Poets and Modern Irish Short Stories will have pride of place in your bookcase. Always. You will gradually make room for Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and then Seamus Heaney and Edna O’Brien. When you are far away from Ireland, years from now, these last two will bring you great joy. This love affair with music will never end, and that album collection of yours is going to grow. Believe it or not, it will be passed down to your brother. I don’t even know how to explain what will happen to albums, but there will come a time, in your lifetime, when your turntable will collect dust in the closet. Trust me on this too.

As you step out into the world, I want you to remember it is vast and small all at the same time. Be open to all that it offers and ask questions about places where possibilities seem limited. Remember all those summers you spent traveling in Europe with the orchestra, all those stamps in your passport, and how you cried when you waved goodbye to new friends in East Berlin? That Berlin Wall will come crashing down not too long from now. Can you imagine it? If that’s possible, just imagine what lies ahead for you.

Safe travels.

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