Category Archives: Big thoughts

What if?

Many years ago, a friend of me called me, quite fittingly, a “what-iffer”. I laughed at the time, but it really is a great description of me. Perhaps it’s a sign of an imagination that is a smidge on the dark side, but I have never had a problem seeing the worst case scenario, however improbable. Sometimes this quality protects me from making foolish choices, and I suppose that’s good, but often, it also keeps me from taking chances. If there’s something I’m supposed to do or want to do, I tend to take this thing and build it up in my head until it’s become an invincible beast I can’t slay. Then, because I feel there’s no way I can overcome the obstacles that are “sure” to come in my way, I put it off. And put it off some more. And some more, for good measure. I put it off until the opportunity has passed, or I’m forced by some external force to tackle it.

When I am forced to deal with things, I usually find that reality is far from as terrifying as it had become in my mind. Even if it is bad, after it’s happened, I will always find a way to be okay with how it turned out. I have to, because the only thing you can change about the past is your perspective of it. The rest is, as we say, history, and therefore not worth agonizing over. And yet, even knowing this, I find it extremely difficult to break the habit of sticking my head in the sand.

In many ways, we take a chance when we start a new project. We’re taking a chance that we actually have something to say that people will find worth listening to. We’re taking a chance that we have sufficient skill to say it in a way that does our message justice. We’re taking a chance on baring the inner workings of our minds to a world that has the potential to be both beautiful and harsh. Once our thoughts exist as words on a page out there, they no longer belong to us alone. Those who read them will do with them as they please. If it pleases them to stomp and spit on them, they can and will, often with ferocious glee. It won’t be any skin off their noses.

My nose, however, might be rubbed raw, and I guess I assume that it will be eventually. The what-iffer in me can’t imagine anything but failure, but of course, my hypothetical failure is like a hundred other things I’ve built up in my head before. It’s not as terrifying as I think it will be; there’s always life after failure, and where there’s life, there’s another chance to slay the beast you thought invincible.

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The words we leave behind

My beloved grandmother has been gone exactly ten years today. Her death remains the single most painful experience of my life. I miss her more than I ever imagined missing anyone, and that longing has not been diminished by the time that has passed. A decade later, I would still give almost anything to see her again.

When my family was deciding what to do with her things, her death was still too raw for me to contemplate living without her. I didn’t want her things; I wanted her. As I sat there, silent and distraught over being in her house without her, my father slid her wedding band over to me. It’s become one of my most precious belongings. Even though some have told me I shouldn’t, I’ve worn that ring nearly every day since I got it. I don’t care what other people say; I want to look down at my hand and be reminded that even though she’s gone now, she was here once.

Of course, I have other things that came from her. Presents she gave me, cards she wrote. And I was adamant that the red leather photo album she kept under her living room table be brought to our house. It mostly has pictures of my father and uncles as small children, but there are others too: My grandmother as a four-year-old. My grandmother when she was my age, wearing a pretty coat and clutching her handbag. A young version of my grandfather lying in the grass on a hillside, wearing a stylish fedora. Another one of my grandfather with his arm around another woman with the playful caption “boo!” I love looking at the familiar faces in these pictures, but they can only give me small glimpses into that long-ago time.

Her journals provide a somewhat better view. Unfortunately it turns out that my face and laugh aren’t the only things I inherited from my grandmother: her journal entries were every bit as sporadic as mine are. Two small notebooks spanning all the way from 1989 to 1996 are all I have. There may have been others, but if so, my grandmother either threw them away or they just got lost at some point. I wish there were more.

I’d missed her terribly while I was an exchange student in America, so before she died, I had made vague plans to spend more time with her before going off to university. I wanted to get to know her as a person rather than just as my grandmother. And then she was just gone. Now, there are so many questions I never got to ask, and they no longer have answers. Instead I have her words. They are not enough, not by far. But she can still speak to me through them. As I was reading one of the journals today, a particular passage, written in May of 1991, struck right home:

“Maybe it’s because we think that our lives are about to run out and we haven’t achieved what we were hoping for.”

It pains me to think that my grandmother had dreams that went unfulfilled. She probably did; no one ever has all their wishes come true. Some things are outside our control, and there’s no amount of hard work that can change that. I hope she knew that her life was worthwhile, despite the things she didn’t achieve. My life was made infinitely less when she was no longer in it. But even if she did know that, would she have chased a different life if she was given the chance? What would she say to me if she were here now and knew that I’m fighting my own dreams every step of the way, because I’m scared it might not work out? I doubt she’d want me to spend the remaining years of my life as I have spent the past ten. She loved me as much as I loved her. She would want the same for me that I wanted for her: Every dream fulfilled.

On being a woman

As the title suggests, I have plans to be slightly philosophical again today. The reason for that is that this past Monday, I received the results of what’s probably the most important blood test I’ve taken to date: a gene test.

My maternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and passed away at age fifty, just weeks before I was born. Then six years ago, almost to the date, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and while I was fortunate enough to keep her, her illness alerted the doctors to a possible gene mutation in our family. More specifically, a mutation in the BRCA gene.

If you have a normal, non-mutated version of this gene, your body will produce a protein that protects you from various forms of cancer, especially breast and ovarian cancer, but also from a number of other types.

If, however, you have a mutated version, something goes awry in the process of making this protein. As far as I understand, your body still produces the protein, but a far less effective version, leaving you less protected. With a mutated BRCA gene, a woman has a 60-80% chance of getting either breast or ovarian cancer during her lifetime. Those aren’t nice numbers.

As it turns out, my mother is a carrier of a mutated BRCA gene, giving me and my siblings a 50/50 chance of being carriers as well. Being a self proclaimed worry wart and hypochondriac, I was completely convinced that I had inherited the gene, but I was rather calm about it. In fact, the doctors whom I had my mandatory consultation with, seemed to think I had more feelings around the possibility of having this mutation than I actually do.

The way I saw it, I either had the gene or I didn’t. If I didn’t, great. If I did, I would rather know about it and take the necessary precautions. I’m happy to say that I do not have the mutated gene, but like I said, I went in to get the results utterly prepared to be told something different.

This means, of course, that I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about what it would be like to live with the knowledge that I had a significantly increased risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer. The recommended course of action is to get yearly scans, and, after producing the desired amount of offspring, having a hysterectomy, and possibly a mastectomy.

Many women feel that these procedures rob them of their womanhood; I balk at the idea of taking out my ovaries and cutting off my breasts, but for entirely different reasons. I would probably have elected to have both the hysterectomy and the mastectomy in the end, because I think I will always choose life over anything else, but I’m glad it’s a choice I don’t have to make.

However, I can’t imagine feeling less of a woman if I were to get rid of my breasts and ovaries. I’m utterly secure in my womanhood and in my sexuality, and I’ve never found cause to question either. I’m not the stereotype of a woman, and I’m glad for that, because stereotypes are so impossibly limiting. No living, breathing person is a stereotype. We’re all more than the flesh we walk around in, though the world around us always tries to push us into its neat little boxes. Women are like this, men are like that. But we’re not.

Of all the traits I have, you can’t point to anything and say “this is what makes you a woman”, be it physical or psychological. We are not our sex, but living beings responding to the world around us. But everyone’s just guessing; no one really knows what it means to be a woman, or a man for that matter. We just make it up as we go along, whether we apply our theories to ourselves, or to the people we meet. Being a woman, being a man, being human… It’s all just improvisation.