At age 10, life changed overnight for me. A childhood cancer turned my life into a series of weekly chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I spent hours in the hospital’s sterile, cold waiting room with kids screaming and crying, many of whom had lost limbs to cancer. This was what childhood cancer looked like in the 1970s. With fewer available treatment options for childhood cancer, amputation was common. I pretended I had nothing in common with these kids and made my mom open the hospital doors so I wouldn’t have to touch anything.
Later in my teens, I learned from my parents that the doctors had given me a 20 percent chance of survival. Perhaps I unconsciously knew this, for throughout my years of treatment, I often envisioned myself on a tightrope – walking a thin line between life and death. I didn’t feel fear so much as a determination to keep my balance. My mother worked hard to keep me on my feet: “You’re going to be fine,” she told me, and I believed her. Even so, I felt empty as I tried to understand what was happening to me. No one talked to me about what I was feeling.
Out of nowhere, I started to pray. I told no one. I poured out my heart to God. I pleaded to live to age 20. If I made it that long, I told God, I would experience life. This simple prayer changed everything and soon a beautiful presence settled upon me- the vast and mysterious presence I now call God. I no longer felt alone.
The world suddenly looked different. Now I appreciated just being alive. I delighted in the light of the afternoon sun falling on the trees, the magnificent colors of the lilies in the garden, the vivid blue sky that expanded endlessly above. I felt a new sense of aliveness. I am here, I thought. This is all that matters. As a teenager, I learned to live only in the moment because that was all I could control. (Later I found that living in the present at times needs be tempered with an eye to the future. But that is another story.)
Gratitude for being alive, I carry with me to this day. I do not take things for granted. The prospect of dying at a young age created the conditions that led me to open my heart. Opening your heart leads to life. When we open to the present moment, we discover a world beyond what we can see with our eyes. We learn that we are not alone. And it’s quite possible to arrive at this opening without a life-threatening crisis. The more we understand that opening is a choice, the more we can get there without such a crisis.
The path to opening may include breathing, mindfulness, meditation, and prayer. To be fully alive means living right now. As Eckhart Tolle says, “life is always now.” It takes courage to open and hold all that life brings – the good, the bad, the ups, the downs – and to stay present. Beauty is all around us. Breathing in and breathing out, in and of itself, is a gift.