Can yoga help us live as mindfully as we would if we were dying?
My maternal aunt died of melanoma in her early thirties; I never got to meet her. I have moles galore all over my body, so I’m pretty diligent about getting them checked by a dermatologist every six months. It seems like in the past few years, there’s always at least one mole that the doctor wants to remove, but thankfully I’ve always received a voicemail saying “Good news, no concerns—we’ll see you in six months!” Last month, a couple of weeks after two mole removals, I got a much more chilling voicemail. It said something like “We’re calling about your biopsy results. Please call us back to discuss.” My heart started racing. I called back immediately, but realizing it was 5:01pm, I found the office closed. My heart sank now…I knew I had a long evening and night ahead of me, counting the moments until I could reach someone the next day. I took some deep, ujayi breaths and kept doing what I was doing.
Over the course of the evening, I watched my mind scroll through things I couldn’t have predicted. The main anchor of grief I kept feeling was the thought of my boys without a mother—my eight month old Elias and my three year old Lucca. Would Lucca remember me at all? How would it affect Elias to have no memories of his own, only stories and pictures? Would my husband be able to find another wife? He’s so soft-spoken…and would be too swamped with raising two boys to meet women. And she’d have to want to raise another woman’s children… On and on…reeling, reeling. I didn’t even try to stop my mind. I tried to witness with compassion, not becoming the anxiety but not pushing it away. I floated back and forth between the two extremes of calm witness and anxious, protective mama-bear.
When I got home later that night, I told my husband about the message. I told him I was scared. He was mostly silent and I could tell he was scared, too. He was kind and supportive, but there wasn’t really much for either of us to say. There was a moment a little later that evening, where my husband was telling me something and had to stop to think about it for a minute. After some silence, he apologized—and I’m sure it’s because quite often, I’m impatient in such moments. But this time, I had no impatience at all. Zero. The words “it’s a privilege to be here with you right now” came to me, not so much a thought in my mind as much as a deep truth descending over my whole self. Sitting on this bed, in this home, with our boys sleeping beneath us, whether I’m waiting for you to finish your sentence or not—it’s all a blessing. A deep blessing that I so often—that all of us so often—take for granted.
I woke up a few times throughout the night under the weight of my worries. I thought “This is the last night of wondering one way or the other. In twenty-four hours, I’ll either be relieved and celebrating, or in complete shock and terror.” How strange it was. At the same time, I did better than I would have done several years ago, before yoga became a way of life for me. I kept my body as calm as I could with various pranayama exercises, and was able to get back to sleep after waking, if not right away.
The minutes ticked until 9:01am when I called the office back. I got a voicemail and asked that someone please call me back as soon as possible to discuss my biopsy results. A half hour later, when I hadn’t heard back, I called again, and reached a medical assistant who told me that unfortunately, the assistant for my doctor, currently with another patient, was the only one who could help me. Another half hour or so later, she called me, and I braced myself. I remember thinking “this is the call…if I have cancer, this will be the call that tells me so. This call.” The assistant proceeded to tell me that she had good news: there was no cancer. A sigh worth a hundred sighs tumbled from my chest. She went on to explain that they had found irregular cells, which can sometimes, if left untreated, turn into cancer, and sometimes not. I knew about this phenomenon of “pre-cancerous” or “irregular” cells, and while I wasn’t thrilled about them, my gratitude for not having melanoma overwhelmed any fear about them. It felt like a new lease on life. I hung up and began crying. I hugged my boys tight. I squeezed and held my husband’s hand.
So the question is: can we find moments like the one on the bed with my husband–aware of the privilege of life–on a more daily basis? Can we, without the fear of dying, eek out moments where we fully understand the reality that any of us could go at any time, and that each moment is sacred, a gift? I don’t expect any of us to live from that place all the time, but couldn’t we feel it more? Let the small frustrations go? Swell with gratitude for all the health, joy and love we enjoy? Why is it so hard?
Here’s to remembering that which is most important more often, and here’s continuing to inspire one another when we forget…