“Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Today is the seventh anniversary of the day I found out I had cancer. I call it my cancerversary as a way of continuing to struggle within myself about the importance of a day that no one remembers but myself. Every time this day has passed, I have felt its weight. Years one through four seemed so heavy and painful. Year five seemed like a lifting, like finally taking a gasp after years of holding my breath. Six was so much easier. Since it traveled by a year ago, breathing has become almost natural to me, and so, after a twelvemonth of such breathing, I am now at year seven.
Lucky number seven, it seems important. It feels eerily familiar. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I think it feels like exhaustion.
I know a lot about exhaustion. Cancer was exhausting. Wait, no… cancer was some word that does not exist, a word that goes about a thousand times past exhausting. It was month after month of relentless, debilitating fatigue. A tiredness that physically hurt and was unquenchable. Sitting down would not lighten it, and laying down was of no use. Even when I could sleep, it made no change in the dreadful feeling. I awoke as tired as when I lay down.
For this exhaustion, my doctor prescribed only exercise. She had scientific studies showing that the more cancer patients exercised the less fatigue they felt. So every day, no matter how wretched I felt, I rode a stationary bike as if my life depended on it. It never made me feel any better, but I did it regardless of how it made me feel. There was no way to relieve the exhaustion. No way to rest or relax or exercise or even sleep it away, so I learned that there was no point in listening to it.
I learned to ignore the fatigue. I had a baby. No one else was there to wake up at night to care for him or during the day when he seemed to never sit still, so I did not rest; I cared for my baby. There was work to be done. I was the sole provider, so I worked whenever and however I could. There were support people who I depended on and owed. There was no one else who could make things right, so I pulled as much of my own and my son’s weight as I could. Then when the cancer treatment had passed, there was a life to rebuild. As a single mom, there was no one else to repay the debts and create a new future, so I did it. The tiredness could not help me, so I learned, minute by minute, not to ever listen to it.
Not listening to my own tiredness is now ingrained in me. I carry the memory of that debilitating fatigue with me daily, and it affects me more than any other memory of my illness. The memory of numerous surgeries do not cause me physical pain, and the memory of vomiting does not make me nauseated, but even a little whiff of tiredness can bring back panicked thoughts of those excruciating days when it felt like exhaustion would crush me. When these memories haunt me, my immediate impulse is to move… busy myself with caring for others, revolve my legs like a hamster on a wheel, do something productive, or if not possible, then something frantic and irritable. When I am tired, my reflex is to ignore any impulse to relieve it and push myself ever further. I envy people who can nap. I cannot nap in the daytime even if I lay down utterly spent and close my eyes and try, try, try. If I wake in the night, I will be wide-eyed until dawn.
In this pattern I have passed these last years, and now it is year seven, and I find myself mentally starting to relax. In those moments when I no longer feel the constant tension of fight or flight, I feel the tiredness of seven long years soaking in upon me. It is frightening, truly frightening, but it seems like year seven is the proper time to face it.
The Bible reveres the number seven as the number of perfection, completeness, so because of this, seven is the number that signals a time that is finished and commands a final rest. The seventh day of the every week is the Sabbath, a day to rest from labors and turn inward to quietness, stillness, and simple pleasures. The seventh year of every cycle is commanded as an entire year of Sabbath rest for both land and people. Farmers were to let their land lay fallow and do no work to tend them or gather, leaving any fruits that chanced to grow to be gathered by the poor. Anyone who owed a debt was to have it entirely canceled, and all slaves were set free. What an amazing time this must have been! An entire community suddenly relieved of labor and all members relieved of debts and walking free for an entire year staggers my imagination. Modern Jewish families describe what an amazing change comes in their outlook on life at the end of just one Sabbath day of rest each week. I wonder what kind of change could possibly occur in the life of someone who might choose to devote a whole year to rest.
I have known many survivors who were determined to not let cancer change them. Sticking doggedly to their schedule and plans, holding even the tiniest parts of themselves as fixed and static as possible, I have heard many friends, and even my own family, express that the only way they believed that they could defeat cancer was by not letting it change their life. I was never one of those people. From before the very first moment, in the days that I spent waiting for the dreaded test results to come, I knew that when it did, when I finally heard the diagnosis, that I wanted it to change me.
To have such a tremendous occurrence and not let it change my life would have seemed to me like an incredible waste. I had known for a long time that I had lost my true self in decades of striving to please others and serve the world. What I did not know, until the cancer came to tell me, was that my self was worth finding. I’ve spent the last six years letting this journey change me more and more into the kind of person who could discover and hopefully appreciate the girls I have been and the woman that I have become. I have longed for my life to change, and in so many ways, good-bad-or-otherwise, it certainly has.
I want this seventh year to change me as well.
To let it, I would have accept all that seven represents. I would have to stop and listen to the tiredness. To look for ways that this tiredness could actually help me. I would have to embrace a year of Sabbath.
I have fought a long fight. I have worked and pushed and planted and struggled through this long cycle. It is time now, I think, to draw an end mark on this piece of my time line, to set apart a time to be different. I need to rest from my labors and turn inward to quietness, stillness, and simple pleasures. It is time to let my land lay fallow. This, I admit, will be hard, so hard.
The land I tend most often is my home. I dislike clutter and mess. I prefer any space that belongs to me to be clean and orderly. I do not like the process of cleaning, and I get frustrated when the orderliness doesn’t last. Yet, I will let tiredness push me to use all my free time up in chores that I do not enjoy in search of a clean house that simply will not keep. I think this attitude, especially at this time of my life, is not healthy for me. I could let my house lay fallow. I could accept that, for a season, my house is going to be filthy and disorderly and allowing it to be so could be good for my body and soul.
The other ground I tend is my career, which is easily consuming, frequently draining, and often not fulfilling. It seems foreign to me, a physician, to even consider that I could be honoring God by choosing not to work. But my heart has been drawn to other forms of service. I would not have to take every shift I am asked. I could choose to let those extra hours lay fallow, and spend that time in ways that are restful and filling to my soul. Who knows what unexpected fruit might pop up in the process and what blessing the needy in my life might receive from letting other sides of myself have time to grow wild and free.
The seventh year is time to forgive debts. I have much I need to forgive myself. I have people in my life that my feelings have told me I will owe a debt forever. Yet, unrelenting debt does not seem to be part of God’s plan. I think it is time to free my heart and mind from the weight of these imagined obligations, and time to strike through the parts of my past that I tend to hold against myself. If I can rest enough to gain the strength to do this, the result might be a newness in my relationships, both with myself and others, that might carry into my future in surprising ways.
The seventh year is time to let slaves walk free. Perhaps, if I embrace this Sabbath enough, I could even learn how to walk unburdened with myself. Perhaps I could find the strength to search for the enslaved parts within me, to name them and set them free. A free self, walking slowly, restfully, into all that a year of Sabbath could bring me.
In Hebrew the number seven is associated with the word “gad” or luck, and “mazel” or good luck. My heart tells me I have completely lucked out just to arrive at this year. I want to embrace its full potential. If I can welcome some rest into my life, then hopefully I can keep on letting this journey change me… with any luck for the better.