As I begin to rearrange all my musings about having cancer into a book, the thought that I’m leaving minor but important details out begins to persist.
Today the vexing detail is time.
Culturally I’m an African, a Nigerian specifically. And we have a different relationship with time.
I don’t mean the so-called CPT upgrade, although to be honest, that is, infuriatingly, a thing.
A party set to start at 9 pm, really starts at 11 pm, so fashionably late is 1 am, but you’ll probably be there until at least sunrise, if you’re a- bluck y and b- staying for the best part.
What people don’t understand is that it’s a thing with a beautiful context.
Allow me a short diversion, as my culture’s time influence is what allows me to deal with the complication of “cancer time” so well.
I hate being late.
To me, being on time is late.
I was even born early.
I make allowances for fashionable lateness in the terms of arriving to parties, of course. But I’m speaking generally.
Slowly but surely, surprise attacks from my body began to make me late everywhere, and I had to start building in 2 to 3 hour delays into my travel schedules.
So in my pre-Uber life I was late a lot. I’ve come to accept it. But I still hate it.
And yet it’s that, or don’t go out.
This new reality took me back to the time I spent living in Nigeria as a child.
Time is different in Nigeria.
Things seemed to move slower there. If two people were supposed to meet at 9 am, they would append the expression “God willing” my father taught me with a wry laugh.
That meant that everyone would do their best, but also not be surprised if ten o’clock rolled around and the meeting had not yet begun.
I wondered at first, how anyone ever got anything done.
Eventually it dawned on me that time and timing moved differently. It was the early 80s and most people did not have landline phones.
And yet quite frequently you could travel several hours to meet family friends, and they’d not only be home, but curiously prepared for your specific arrival.
Things that had to do with time or timing still happened, often with alarming serendipity.
It was as if the absence of phones and a relaxed attitude about time activated a hidden wavelength in us all, that allowed for events to proceed as desired.
How my Nigerian experiences with time gave me clarity
To this day when my life starts to spiral into chaos, the first thing I do is start ignoring clocks.
For example, instead of setting appointments, I just try to catch people.
Which I am sure sounds crazy to anyone who’s even a little bit American, never mind someone born here as I was.
It probably sounds a little new age-y to some people. But ignoring clocks connects to that Nigerian serendipity. Where I’m letting things happen in their own due course. Instead of forcing them.
Which is useful because one of the most upsetting things about having cancer is how the pace of your life has to slow way down. It puts you out of sync with the rest of the world.
If you stop thinking of time as this entity you have to manage and fight with to conform to you, the journey is a lot smoother.
See, if you weren’t already used to slowly checking your body systems before your carefully and gingerly roll out of bed? It’s quite an adjustment.
Especially if you have to pee.
Things that used to take you five minutes may now take an hour. You might have to then rest for an hour before you go on to the next thing.
Before you know it? You’ve spent half the day getting ready to have a day.
If you have already come to the understanding that time is your servant rather than your master, you will be at peace. You’ll believe that things take however long they take.
But if not? As I can attest to on the days I backslide, you will become impatient with yourself and feel like a loser because you can’t get to “done” as fast as everyone else.
Either way, after some time, you might find it’s a better idea just to stay in bed or a comfy chair than getting dressed to go out or downstairs where the rest of the world is.
You also get the sense that life is passing you by.
There are probably people in your life you speak to every day.
You’d be surprised to learn how much effort even a simple phone call is- once a day can turn into once a week pretty quickly.
You can’t always go out. So birthdays pass. Holidays too. Family automatically doesn’t include you for outings celebrating your parents.
You know they’re being practical. It hurts all the same, even though you know you couldn’t possibly go, it’s nice to be invited.
On the other hand, not being so worried about time is also very freeing.
You don’t have to rush to be anywhere- well except the doctor’s office.
But you learn to get up really early the night before or fall asleep in the sweats you’ll be wearing there.
(Don’t forget to crank the air conditioning to keep the occasional Lymphoma night sweats from stinking up your clothes. Some people still have them even after treatment starts.)
You also start to have a better appreciation for silence and how it can help order your thoughts. A sense of peace enters your life.
Well it does after you learn how to deal with all the thoughts you have in this new vast expanse of time.
There’s no way to hide from your thoughts when you have cancer. A great many of the things you’ll be doing differently take away the ability to be on your phone constantly. You’ll have watched anything that interests you on Netflix by the end of the first week.
And if you’re sick during summer months, there isn’t enough new summer programming to fill the time deficit. There are only so many movies on cable.
At some point in time, you are left alone with your thoughts.
When this happened to me, I’d already had a head start dealing with my own mortality.
It’s been since my 20s since I had any real fear of death beyond whether it would hurt and how much.
Still I wondered if I would die.
How it would affect my family.
And if I didn’t, which was most likely the case, how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
I believe this is the reason you have so many people whose quality of life increases after cancer, or who seem to turn their lives around in some way.
You learn, within all this time and silence, in a tangible way, that time is not an endless ocean in which our everyday lives are a single drop.
It’s always ticking, every moment, every single day, it slips through our fingers in a way we can’t remind.
But the beauty of realizing that is the realization puts you in the frame of mind of wanting to control the quality and quantity of your smiles and hugs.
Any time with friends and family is not wasted.
And any time doing things that do waste time can be thrown out, carefree, with a simple justification.
If you find another movie that makes you laugh, after a week of rewatching things you’ve already seen, or not watching films at all, it’s a happy moment in a way you’ve never felt before.
It’s touched by the thought that this may be the last time, or one of them.
But instead of making you sad, it makes every chuckle more precious.
Time is one of the things we humans can’t seem to stop, roll back or otherwise bend to our will. But there is a way to master time.
And that is to treasure whatever you have in this moment right now.
Because really? It’s always Right Now.