commemorate – verb | \kə-ˈme-mə-ˌrāt\
: to exist or be done in order to remind people of (an important event or person from the past)
: to do something special in order to remember and honor (an important event or person from the past)
I was washing dishes one evening last week thinking about my upcoming birthday and the one year celebration of On Being a Writer. Suddenly it hit me: it’s October 19. While the birthday and book celebration were still ahead, I had missed every one of another set of anniversaries that I often mark this time of year. Not once on October 3 or October 7 or October 9 did I think about cancer or those days back in 2007 when I first went to the hospital, when I first heard the word cancer, and when I had my first surgery which changed everything.
Some years, especially in the immediate aftermath of my diagnosis and treatment, commemorating each of those painful days felt important and significant, especially since success in cancer care is measured in years. Not too many people know that my stage IVB diagnosis left me with only a 5-10 percent chance of survival at five years out. I didn’t know it myself until months after my diagnosis. It’s been eight years now. And though I’ve had recurrences—three to be exact—I don’t often mark those exact days. But I do remember the years of those subsequent surgeries and radiation. And more often than not, when I catch a glimpse of my long abdominal scars in the mirror, I count and I count, trying to accumulate as many years as possible between me and my last recurrence. It’s been almost three now.
Sometimes I feel like some kind of masochist, forcing myself to remember the painful details of the worst thing that ever happened to me. Even now, as I attempted to confirm the five-year survival rates of my cancer, I feel a little sick to my stomach. I’m not done living with the fear of cancer. I’m still tested every three months. I still hold my breath and hold back tears waiting for those results. It was like a victory to forgot those anniversaries this year. Now, I’m back to remembering.
But those aren’t the only sufferings I remember. I pause on other dates throughout the year, too, other heartbreaking occasions when family members or friends died or national tragedies happened. Other people remember the date their divorce was final or the day they received the notice that they should pack up their things and not come back to work. We do this. We go back in time to the most difficult moments and force ourselves to relive them.
Of course, we do this for good things, too. My family celebrated my birthday this weekend with gifts and meals out and decorations (okay, I made the decorations myself, but still). In September, I marked the one-year anniversary of the official start of my writing and editing business. Steve and I will celebrate three years of marriage in December. This is my twenty-second year since graduating college. That means I’m celebrating twenty-six years since my high school graduation. We tend to linger over the good commemorations, throwing parties and sending cards and planning weekend reunions to celebrate with others who were there.
Maybe the way we remember the good moments isn’t all that different from the way we remember the bad moments, though. I think it’s the same reason we celebrate Good Friday before Easter. Both have a lot to do with hope.
I certainly don’t hang streamers to commemorate my therapeutic hysterectomy. But I take time to remember because I made it. I lived through it. Despite the worst things that have happened to me, I’m still here, still trying, still loving, still living. Because I made it through October 3 and October 7 and October 9 back in 2007, I can celebrate October 24 and December 28 and other important dates this year. And maybe next year. And maybe even the year after that. Hopefully.
“It’s been eight years,” I said to Steve, after I realized what day it was. “I told someone that it had been almost eight years since my diagnosis, but it’s been eight years already.”
And we smiled and we hugged and then we went on with our lives. That’s what we have to do.
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Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.