Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)
When I was little, we played a board game called Hi-Ho Cherry-O. Each player had a basket with a number of holes in which to put the plastic cherries from a tree that was in the middle of the board. I never liked board games much but it was a simple game and it was over quickly. When you filled your basket, you won! We played it over and over again, trying to fill in the holes and fill up our baskets as quickly as possible. That was the object of the game. No one wanted to be left with an opening in his basket. They wanted a cherry to fill every spot.
Funny how some things changed and some things stayed the same. I was still no fan of board games. I would have rather done 100 other things than sit, roll dice, or move pieces around a game board. I bought Hi-Ho Cherry-O for my kids, though. We played that game a lot. Filling up all the holes in our baskets was fun when we played a child’s game … but it wasn’t so much fun in real life.
We have a calendar hanging on our pantry door. That calendar is where every appointment, ball game, school event, and my husband’s out-of-town trips were recorded. Some people used the calendar on their smartphones but I was a visual person and I needed a real one. I had to write things down so I remembered them. My whole family consulted the calendar because that calendar dictated our life.
Summer started and I was looking forward to the break from rushed mornings, packed lunches, and hurried evenings trying to get it all done. As the school year was coming to a close, the kids started asking about our summer plans, inquiring if it was going to be a boring summer. We had already taken our vacation in April. I looked for things for them to do. I enrolled my daughter in volleyball camp, my son in 2 science camps, and both of them in a week-long vacation Bible school. That was just June.
What was I thinking?
We spent the first three weeks of summer running around from one activity to the other. Softball games were still on the calendar and so were various appointments and events. I was exhausted. The kids were exhausted. Although some of the activities were fun, we were all tired of running. We were just as busy as we were during the school year. My calendar was still full! Summer was supposed to be relaxing. Summer was supposed to be the season where it didn’t matter what time, or even what day it was.
I was feeling overwhelmed. I was one of those people who needed downtime, that relished alone time … quiet time. On top of all the planned activities, there were invitations for lunch dates, pool dates, play dates. It was too much. There was no time. I was constantly running from one thing to the next to the next, juggling scheduled activities and fitting in extra activities that popped up along the way.
One day, I was putting away groceries and I glanced at the calendar on the pantry door. There were 30 days in June. There was something written in every one of those 30 blocks in June. Every. One. I turned back to May .. 29 of those 31 days were filled. April … booked! I didn’t bother to go back any further.
No wonder I was overwhelmed. I was exhausted. My whole family was — and we were all on edge. Just like in Hi-Ho Cherry-O, all the holes in my basket were filled. Only, this wasn’t a board game. This was my life. I knew I never liked board games. I didn’t want to play any more, not like this.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my priorities changed. I didn’t worry so much about work and all those career goals I had set for myself. I spent more time doing things with the people I loved the most. I looked forward to a brand new life – one focused on what really mattered. I was living in the moment, learning to prioritize the good stuff, and letting the rest go. I was thankful for the wake up call to start living the rest of my life the way I was supposed to live it. When I found out my cancer was back, that I was terminal, and that I probably didn’t have much time left; my priorities became even more laser-focused.
I stopped working to spend time with my family. I started doing things I enjoyed but hadn’t made the time to do – like writing, reading, and art projects. I stepped away from activities that weren’t meaningful anymore, that were time-consuming, that didn’t bring me joy. I wanted to make memories with my kids and strengthen relationships with my inner circle. I vowed to cut out all the fluff, the ‘time suckers’, the inconveniences.
I was doing a great job of that … and then the last month happened. Right in the middle of all the camps in which I shouldn’t have enrolled the kids (even though they requested it), I had a petscan. Any cancer patient knows how scans create a lot of anxiety – before, during, and after while waiting for the results. We had family matters that needed addressed. My husband was traveling a lot for work. I had friends asking to plan get-togethers for my kids. I was running all over the place. It just didn’t stop.
I was particularly worried about this scan. There were some things going on that indicated there might have been progression. The days leading up to that scan, those days filled with so many obligations, were difficult. My heart was praying for good news but my mind was preparing for the worst. The question about how much time I had left always popped up around scans. The outcome of those scans could have meant the number of month’s left in my personal calendar was going to be fewer than I had hoped. Fewer months, fewer blocks. Thankfully, my scan results turned out to be the best case scenario. Hallelujah! My lesson was learned again though. I had to make some changes.
When I was overscheduled, I was anxious. When I had too much on my plate, I wanted to retreat. When I was overbooked, I couldn’t breathe. I loved my friends and family but it felt like that one afternoon, that one 2-hour block, or any times that I had available were being sniffed out and everyone was staking their claim on my time. It sounds terrible but when my schedule was full, nothing brought me more angst than the loaded question, “What are you doing next Wednesday?” or “Do you have any plans for the weekend?”. It felt like people were trying to steal from me – not money, credit cards, and jewels … but something even more valuable — my time!
I was a people pleaser. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I didn’t want someone to feel like they didn’t matter or I didn’t want to spend time with them. I wrestled with the thought that I was blessed that my kids had so many outside interests and that so many people wanted to spend time with me and my kids. The last thing I wanted was for my loved ones to think I didn’t care about them — but I needed some space, some rest, and some peace.
I needed to do what was best for my family and my health. I needed to conserve my energy for things that mattered most. I needed to clear my calendar.
I needed to learn to say, ‘No”.
I looked ahead to July. There were a few appointments peppered through the month but there was a lot of white space. I was comforted by that ‘white space’. I promised myself that I would keep it on my calendar.
I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling. She reminded me that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation. God was the only person to whom I had to answer. When I was saying “no” with a pure heart, I was making a decision to put myself and my family first. There was nothing wrong with that. It was okay for me to say that I didn’t have the energy to do something or that I preferred to focus on something else. I thought maybe a part of me didn’t like to turn people down when I wasn’t feeling well because that was admitting that I was sick and that there was something that I couldn’t do because of my illness. I had to accept that there would be days when I didn’t feel up to leaving the house. That was okay. Friends and family who cared for me would understand that and those that didn’t weren’t worth worrying about, right?
As a Mom with a terminal illness, I worried that I wouldn’t be there to see them grow up. Like other Moms, I wanted to see them graduate, get married, start families of their own but the odds of seeing any of those things were not in my favor. I thought about things that others didn’t think about, that others took for granted. I stared at the ceiling in the middle of the night thinking about who was going to comfort my son when he got his heart broken the first time and who was going to help my daughter pick out her wedding dress, or even her prom dress. I thought about what they would remember about me when I was gone. I thought about things I could do now that would help them feel my love for them long after I had left this earth. Not everyone had to fit in a lifetime of mothering into the unknown amount of time before the cancer came back with a vengeance. Not everyone understood my desperate need to control what I did with my time. All I had was right now — so as much as it went against my selfless nature, I had to learn to be selfish… with my time.
I used to want to make memories. I used to think I had to plan special events and exciting activities — but when I got sick again, I knew that special moments were best unplanned. Memories couldn’t be manufactured. The most precious of memories were those that unfolded before us without effort, like those conversations that happened as you tucked your children into bed or those Saturday morning snuggles with bed hair and sleepy eyes. In order to enjoy those moments, I couldn’t be exhausted all the time and neither could my children. The best of times happened when we stopped scheduling magical moments and allowed life to happen.
We were going to do just that.
Let Life Happen.
I didn’t want my children to think that having a full calendar was normal. I didn’t want my children to spend their lives always busy, even if they were busy doing fun things. I wanted my children to know how to be still. Life didn’t happen from 1 to 3 on Monday or every other Saturday at 10am. Life didn’t happen when we rushed from lunch date to play date or from day camp to evening practice. Life didn’t happen when we squeezed in one more ball game.
Life didn’t have a chance to happen when we filled up all of our blocks.
Somehow we had it mixed up. This world taught us that in order to win at life, we had to fill up all of our blocks. Just like the board game, we only won if we didn’t have any spaces left. It took me a second cancer diagnosis and an overbooked schedule to remind me that life shouldn’t be that way. When we were always in a rush, we could not fully enjoy ourselves. We were worried about what was next and if we were going to make it on time. We were too tired to be open to the joy of the moment. We were falling into our beds at night, our bodies and minds completely exhausted, the whole day just a blur. It was a full day … but a day essentially wasted. If I thought back to those crazy, hurried days; it wasn’t the events, the practices, the appointments that stuck out in my mind- it was the few minutes in the car on the way to the field; it was the quick stop at the fast food restaurant to refuel and reconnect; it was the 5 minute conversation about why the sun seems brighter in the summertime while my kids helped me put the groceries away; it was the spontaneous hug from my son as I carried the laundry basket through the kitchen. That was what was important. We needed to remember to allow more time for those moments to happen.
Having a full calendar didn’t mean you had a full life .. it meant that your life was not a life at all, but just a series of appointments.
I wanted a life open to possibilities … not a life compartmentalized into hour-long segments.
I was going to make some changes …. again …
I was going to change what that calendar looked like on my pantry door …
because life didn’t happen in the pen-scribbled blocks on my calendar…
Life happened in the ‘white spaces’.
Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)