Minutes earlier, when his friend called to tell him about the fire, Gene wandered outside, smelled smoke but saw no evidence of flames. Seconds later, the canyon just beyond the back of his house exploded into a firestorm. By the time Gene grabbed his shoes and raced out the door, his neighbor’s house was fully engulfed.
Three days later when I finally tracked Gene down at a shelter, he described the road out as a “hallway of flames.” Red-hot embers flew through the air igniting everything they touched. When Gene reached the market at the bottom of the hill, his car was on fire.
The home where Gene lived as our tenant for the past 20 years is an investment my husband and I counted on to pay our daughter’s college expenses. Now, it’s just a pile of ash.
Two years ago, almost to the day, another wildfire also ripped through Northern California.
That blaze took our property, too, a different one, and an empty lot languishes there still. Our insurance company, our bank, our government, and the powers of the universe — not to mention the oppressive policies of California’s overreaching building codes — seem like they’ve colluded to prevent us from rebuilding. Ironically, mortgage payments are still due.
Two houses in two years. Cancer. The death of my mom.
I guess it’s fair to say that I’ve experienced so many challenges in this season of my life that I’ve pondered the big “Why?”
“You don’t have to burn any more of my property,” I told God this morning. “You have my complete attention. I’m waving a huge white flag.” In the silence that followed, I thought I heard a giggle. Not a malicious one, just an acknowledgment.
When the world feels crushing, as it does for all of us sometimes, it’s natural to wonder why.
Maybe these hardships are lessons in gratitude and perspective. In the case of these wildfires, it’s easy to be grateful for life, for the comfort of familiarity, for love and support that are everywhere. And in the waiting room at the oncologist’s office, it’s easy to be grateful for the extra years I’ve been granted since a doctor told me I’d be dead in three months.
My initial prognosis was so bleak. Triple negative breast cancer, already spread to my lymph nodes, sternum, and possibly my liver, it seemed like a premature death sentence. I begged God to spare me from having to break the news to my young daughter, to wipe the pain from my husband’s loving face.
But it doesn’t work that way. “You git what you git and you don’t throw a fit,” my daughter’s first teacher used to say. Miss Terrie, a gentle soul whose love for the littlest ones defines her life, teaches parents as much as she teaches her kids.
“What does this empty space mean?” I ask myself, looking at photos of my burned out lots. “What lesson is here for me now?” Maybe the answer lies in that empty space, in the possibilities of a new beginning.
My cancer diagnosis inspired me to see life from a fresh perspective. But now that I’m three years in, sometimes I find myself reverting back to old ways of thinking. I forget, sometimes, that life is precious and that each day is a new chance to extend and receive love.
Today, I resolve to embrace empty space and welcome whatever is to come next. Restored health, I hope. A new beautiful home, I hope. A new sweet beginning. Possibilities.
If these past few years have taught me anything, it’s how little control I ultimately have. All my planning, all my assumptions, a lifetime of work — it can crumble in the space of a second.
I know now that the real work of my life isn’t to amass buildings and wealth and material riches. It’s not to limit my eating to only the most nutritious choices or to exercise ’til I’m slim and buff. Those outcomes can be washed away in the blink of an eye.
My work, far more challenging and satisfying, is to build inner wealth. Love. Forgiveness. Peace. The qualities no fire, flood, earthquake, or lab test can steal.
Today, I chose to see my empty lot as a new beginning. I visualize that otherworldly phoenix rising from ash, creating something new and beautiful, something beyond even my legendary ability to imagine. I let go, and in the surrender, I feel free.
Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.