In my last blog entry I wrote about an inspirational composer named David Maslanka. It was over 20 years ago when I last had the pleasure of working with him, but I remember his lessons so clearly. I took a leap and wrote to him, sharing my story, my blog, and his influence (and asking him about a commission, but that is a story for another time…) He wrote back, honoring me with more wise words: “One of the functions of illness is to make us stop and truly pay attention to needed changes. Sometimes illness is the only thing that can get our attention.” These words resonate with me in a powerful way.
Allow me a tangential moment: Some say thyroid cancer is a “good cancer” to get, and others say cancer is cancer. Roger Ebert died last week from papillary thyroid cancer –the most common of the four kinds of thyroid cancer and often referred to as the “best” kind. I can see both perspectives. On one hand, I am so very grateful that I wasn’t diagnosed with a more deadly kind of cancer and it is absolutely amazing that there is a treatment that targets and destroys only thyroid tissue. I know that it could be so much worse. On the other hand, there is danger in minimizing something that is a serious condition. I minimized it myself, which almost prevented me from being open to the lessons that illness can bring.
After I was diagnosed, a conversation with my friends Don and Teri was a turning point for me. I began to take my condition more seriously. Don, who is a colon cancer survivor, talked about some of his reflections that came about as a result of his journey along this path of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Two words in particular stood out: “More joy.”
LESSON #1: More Joy
How simple, yet profound. While I am grateful for having a career that I love, I will be the first to admit that my life/work balance is not always very good. Will I get to the end of my life and regret not working more hours? Wish I had spent less time with friends and family? That sounds ridiculous, but in reality that was the life I was living. I am so fortunate that joy is something I experience in my day to day work, but if I learn this lesson well, it will also be a more regular part of my personal life as well. Summer – bring it!
LESSON #2: Slow Down
When I had my first surgery I planned it in the perfect space between two gigs, neither of which I wanted to give up, and over Thanksgiving break, so I didn’t miss too many days of teaching. When I was faced with the reality of a second surgery and treatment, I met with my supervisor and explained the situation and timeline. He very humanely told me to take the six weeks off to take care of myself and heal. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that a wave a panic crested within me. The first words out of my mouth: “I can’t take six weeks off!” He looked at me patiently and said, “You need to take the time off.” After some back and forth negotiation, we settled on two weeks off, followed by four weeks of a reduced schedule. (I simply couldn’t abandon my students giving recitals this semester.) In retrospect, although it isn’t something I would have done without encouragement, taking the time to slow down and concentrate on taking care of myself was essential. On my better days I was able to prepare healthy food, go to yoga or acupuncture, and take walks. On my bad days, I was able to get the rest I needed and not worry about what I was missing. Making the time and space to slow down and take care of myself is a lesson I need to continue to working on. This time off was a gift, and I used it wisely. The challenge will be continuing with self-care as I return to work full time.
Lesson #3: Ask for Help
This has been the hardest lesson for me. I like to take care of people. I hate asking for help. When my friend Karen was healing from surgery, she made up “The Karen Game.” Every time she asked for help she got points. Every time someone helped her, they got points. Everyone won the Karen game! I started playing “The Tracy Game,” and I was “in it to win it” as my sister Kerri would say. When I asked my friend Morgan to set up a meal train for me at www.mealtrain.com we both got points. Everyone who brought a meal got points, and I got points for asking. When Jenny drove me to my scan, we both got points. My mom, and my in-laws got serious points for coming to Colorado to take care of me, and I got points for admitting I needed their help. What a fun and positive way to realize this simple idea: When someone has an illness, people want to help. People can’t make the illness go away, but by participating in the healing process with a meal, a gift, or a visit; they are doing something, which feels good. When I simply reversed the situation and realized I would want to help, I realized that asking for help is a way to allow others to participate in a meaningful way.
I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the enormous outpouring of support I have received. It has lifted me up and surrounded me in love. It has shone light into a dark time in my life, and made my journey far easier than if I had traveled alone.
Lesson #4: I am loved.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.