Growing up, my imagination was easily captured by historical fiction and fantasy books, by the idea of living in a world very different from the one I was born into. Take away modern conveniences, my reasoning went, and I’d find myself somewhere more wondrous, with more room for adventure and self-discovery. My world was too safe and sanitized, too well understood by science. What a life I might have lived, if only I hadn’t been born in the late 20th century.
I didn’t give up playing let’s pretend games until high school, so a lot of my childhood and adolescence took place in an alternate reality only loosely mapped onto my North Carolina hometown. There was an enchanted forest behind my backyard, a castle at my street address, and the little creek in the neighborhood park was a dangerous river through parts unknown.
Even in my late twenties, more than a decade after giving up the fantasy games, I retained the habit of placing myself between the pages of a book and living out a daydream. I’d still ask myself: what might I have become, what experiences might I have had, in a less sterile, more dangerous time?
In August 2016, at the age of almost-29-and-a-half, I got an answer of sorts. However colorful my youth might have been in 19th century America or Ancient Rome, it was now certain what my adulthood would have looked like — or not looked like. If I’d been born earlier, I would have died around age thirty, of cancer.
Thirty is a milestone birthday, and it’s often presented as a time to get serious and start judging oneself. Am I responsible enough, productive enough, established enough, settled enough, fulfilled enough? In what areas do I give myself a passing grade, and where do I find myself lacking?
I never had a list of concrete milestones I wanted to achieve by thirty. What I had instead was an incessant fear of middle-aged angst. Where some people are terrified of instability — of being without a partner, a home, a career —I’ve always been terrified of feeling trapped in a settled life that is stable but deeply wrong.
The most pivotal choices of my twenties were driven by that fear. The choice to abandon a career in health policy, the choice to walk away from a 6-year relationship, the choices to hitchhike alone across the country, to move to New York, to write a novel. Some people think I’m brave because in my shoes, they wouldn’t have abandoned stability for the unknown. But I’m not brave. I’m just scared of different things.
Despite putting myself in the way of adversity (and, I hoped, self-growth), I would have liked to learn fewer life lessons during the past decade. For example, I could have done without learning, at age 20, how to come to terms with being chronically ill for the rest of my life. I could have done without learning how to survive an abusive relationship. And I could have done without learning what it’s like to have cancer.
I always expected that 30 would be a time of self-reflection. Even if my desires weren’t strictly traditional, they were still pressing: have I learned enough about myself to understand what sort of life I want to live? Am I living that life, or at least trying to? I thought I’d feel a sense of hurry, as though time suddenly leapt on my back and pressed down on me with all its weight.
Instead, I feel exhaustion and wonder.
At 30, I am very, very tired. I’ve been through too much in the past decade, and especially the past four years. Not too much to keep going, but too much to face a new chapter with energy. Too much for the kind of optimism that is rooted in selectively forgetting just how many curveballs life can throw, and how hard they’ll hit even if you manage to catch them.
I am weighted down now by how much I know. I know how it will feel when my body eventually gives out, and no modern medicine can save it. I know what friendship looks like: picking me up off the ground — literally — when I’m too weak to walk, leaving family and work obligations to accompany me to the doctor, and spending hours next to my chemo chair playing mancala and reading TS Elliot poems. I know who my friends are and what they’ve done for me, and I know what I will someday be called upon to do for them.
I know how to be kind to myself, and in some ways that feels like a lesson I shouldn’t have learned until decades later. Just when thirty should be pressuring me to speed up, cancer has taught me how to slow down. How to say no to almost every invitation, how to consider a day productive if all I manage to do is eat a meal and take a walk, how to book a vacation where I do nothing but read on the beach and drink smoothies. How not to admonish myself when I can’t write for months on end. How to nurture myself out of deep emotional and physical depletion through music and books and spending time with the people I love.
Yet, through the exhaustion and the knowledge I sometimes wish I could lose, I am also amazed. When I read a book set in Medieval Europe and think, I would have died. When I slip into one of my favorite vintage dresses and realize that the fabric rustling around my ankles predates the first treatments for Hodgkin’s by about a decade. I am reminded, constantly, that what I am about to embark on was never guaranteed. If I hadn’t been born at the end of the 20th century, I never would have had this time to slow down or to hurry, to agonize over or seize or squander. On my 30th birthday, I might have woken up to a death sentence. Instead, I get the gift of a fourth decade.
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