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For the 12th day of the Health Activist Writer’s Challenge, I’m supposed to take a trip back in time to the person I was on the day of my cancer diagnosis. What would I say to her?

Cancer. When I heard it got me, I wept as though I had just found out someone dear to me had died. Inconsolable initially, I assumed those great fat tears flowed from finding out I had won the breast cancer lottery and wondering why me? Seventeen months on, I know this searing and early sorrow had more to do with navigating the next step toward the half-century mark without the woman I used to be. Oddly, nobody else seemed to notice she had vanished. Not even the nurse who delivered the news to me the way my mother, in the course of a telephone conversation, will remember to tell me that a childhood friend or a distant relative has died – reverent, hushed, kindly.

If I shut my eyes, I can barely discern the shadow of my former self standing up and walking out the door, affronted by that nice Breast Cancer Navigator informing my husband and me that I had cancer.

Conspiratorial and quiet, reminiscent of whispered speculations about a cause of death when all the evidence points to hard living, on and on she filled our ears with fear, even while stressing that what we were hearing in her dimly-lit office was not a death sentence. Nonetheless, I heard a crack. The sound of a life altered that still has me wondering how to answer Muriel Rukeyser:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.

Today’s as good a day as any to tell the truth. It is my 50th birthday, a landmark occasion. It is not “the new thirty,” nor should it be, but it is definitely different from what I expected. I thought I would be infinitely more evolved than the girl who left Antrim Grammar School in 1981, but it is she who is looking right back at me in moments of introspection.

Over the decades, there have been distinct phases – first, I was just myself, skipping through life. I was talkative, often described by teachers as “too giddy,” and I was always kind to old people. My mother still remembers the day I came home in tears because a boy wouldn’t get up to give to an old woman his seat on the bus. I was the child who would insist on offering to help old age pensioners cross the street even when it seemed to make them angry. In retrospect, they were probably not old at all, perhaps not even fifty and well able to cross the street by themselves.  Next, there was a distinctly uncomfortable phase during which I wrestled with an identity that depended entirely upon my physical appearance and my weight. I grappled with who I thought I was and whether or not I even liked myself. In my thirties and forties, I tried on various roles for size and continued to worry about what other people thought of me and even allowed some of them to convince me that I was inadequate at being me. As if they would know! It is, then, with some gratification that, at fifty, I find myself back to being just myself.


Sometimes I wish I could slip back in time for a quick conversation with that girl and tell her how much I’ve missed her. I’m sorry she’s had to wait so long to fit back in my skin. I would tell her that family matters, health matters, that she matters most, and, that who she is is enough.

Dear me,

Oh very young, look at you, all set to go your own way. You have decided not to study English at Stirling University. In the years ahead, you will question that decision. You’ll wonder what if? You are going to stay in Northern Ireland for a while longer. 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. I wish I could stop you from rushing into things, but then you wouldn’t learn how to find your way back to me – where you belong. So, here’s what I know, as Oprah would sayfor sure” 

  1. Your hair is wild and unruly and will defy every trend, so don’t even bother. Rather than admitting the sad fact that you are sometimes treated shabbily because you are a woman and competent, you will find a way to blame your hair.
  2. Pay better attention to your skin. At 49, you will discover a fabulous moisturizer “for compromised skin,” but only because one of the receptionists at a surgeon’s office mistakenly thought you would be undergoing radiation and recommended it.  Of course, it is expensive and you’ll wonder why you couldn’t just have followed the advice of your mother, who, at 75, looks fabulous and credits Oil of Ulay/Olay which she has used morning and night for as long as you can remember.
  3. You will never acquire the signature style of either Audrey or Kate Hepburn. No one else will either. Mind you, Issey Miyake will become your signature perfume even though you won’t actually be able smell it after using it for twenty years, so you’ll probably be too liberal with it. One day, a friend will point to an outfit in a catalog or a department stores and declare, “This is so YOU!” and you will agree. The little voice in your head should echo this sentiment every time you buy something to wear. This really is solid advice, but you won’t heed it. No one ever does; hence, you will make frequent clothing donations to local charities, not necessarily for altruistic reasons but because you cannot remember where you put the receipt required to return them. I suppose there are some basic “fashion rules” to follow. If you must wear suits for work – and, really there is no good reason for this, other than men started it – buy them cheap at Marshalls or T.J. Maxx or one of the many consignment stores in Phoenix. Joe’s Jeans are the only jeans you’ll wear after a brief dalliance with Long and Lean from the Gap. Don’t ever pay full price for them; you can always find them on Ebay or at My Sister’s Closet in Scottsdale at a fraction of the retail cost.  Stay away from sequins, or anything “bedazzled,” and don’t wear denim with denim. Invest in one good leather handbag. You will ignore this advice, too, and the bottom of your closet will be carpeted with handbags, each of them “so you.” At fifty, you are contemplating the old leather satchel you used to carry to school, and by the end of the day, you will find one online. Avoid linen at all costs. No matter how good it looks in a catalog, it will always look like you slept in it. Don’t ever wear leather on your bottom half except for that one Halloween when you will pour yourself into an outfit like that worn by Olivia Newton John in Grease. If you can imagine it on a living room sofa or an overstuffed chair, do not wear a pattern.
    Blue is the best color to wear on TV or to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. where you will one day have an opportunity to speak to policy makers about formative assessment, something about which you know absolutely nothing right now, but which is integral to teaching and learning and remotely removed from the O-level and A-level examinations that are the bane of your existence. 
    Before you know it, you will be married with a daughter on whom you will bestow all this advice. She will find it boring, confirming for you that you have become your mother. I know you can’t believe this now, but it is true.  I’m tempted to show you a picture, because she is almost your age and every bit as spirited, but that would ruin the most wondrous surprise of your life
  4. The real troubles you will face, are those that will never cross your mind. Like breast cancer. How I wish I could protect you from it, but I can’t. No one can. 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 you reach the half-century mark. I can even tell you to go for mammograms which won’t help you either.  This sneaky cancer will slip into your life 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. 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 be as scared as you are of what might lurk in the shadows behind the trees on the Dublin Road at dusk, as you walk home from school by yourself. At 49, you will have the first major surgery of your life, to remove that 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, were I to explain it, will make you think of The Bionic Woman who will one day sell Sleep Number mattresses late at night on TV. 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. You will stop keeping the diary that is so precious to you, but you will return to the kind of writing you hide in it 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 as you write to your pen-pals 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.
  5. In matters of friendship, you will give away too much of yourself, and you will know betrayal. “If you don’t feel it, flee it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated.” 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 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 the same kind of vitriol 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 right away. You will know again the disappointment in those who make the rules, because by the time you are 50, you will have seen shades of Northern Ireland and South Africa in the America you dream of.
  6. 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 are not equally important. Remember that each moment in a life, is not of equal weight. Savor those moments that are worth the time.The older you get, you’ll learn that when people show you who they really are, believe them. The first time. 
  7. I wish I could convince you to value and handle money 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.
  8. Honor your parents. You are beginning to rebel, and you are anxious to find a new rhythm that does not involve school and church. I am smiling as I tell you that you will one day be as interested in gardening, antiques, and stories about long-gone relatives as your father. You will rediscover the daddy you adored when you were really little, and all these arguments about music and studying and boys will fade from memory. I promise you. It will lift your heart when you hear him tell your daughter on the phone, “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 amazed by her flair for transforming the most mundane task – which you now find exceedingly boring – into something altogether fascinating, like wrapping brown paper packages tied up with string or doing a bit of ironing. In your mind’s eye, she will typically be leaning over the ironing board, smoothing out with hot steam the wrinkles in my father’s shirts, pausing – for dramatic effect – to remind you to “mark her words,” that there will be plenty of time for work and plenty of fish in the sea. She will tell you not to wish your life away, because it all goes by so quickly. And on more than one occasion, she’ll recite, “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.
  9. Teach. 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 is “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. And just when you are ready to donate it to Goodwill, vinyl will make a comeback.
  10. You think you have a really good memory, but this is not the case. You should ask your wee brother about it now, because he won’t think to tell you until you are almost fifty, by which stage you will have forgotten great chunks of information that probably weren’t that important anyway.

As you step out into the world, 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 NEELB 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, because, as you underlined in your A Choice of Poets book, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Can you imagine it?

If that’s possible, just imagine what lies ahead for you.

Happy Birthday. Stay curious. Stay open. Stay a while.

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