Six o’clock in the morning is never a good time to encounter one’s image in the mirror. Certainly not for me. My eyes still heavy from sleep, hair askew, and face washed clean of make-up the night before, I see a face that looks more and more like my father’s in his older years, and less and less like the image of myself I carry in my head, the one when I was somewhere around thirty-five, the barest hint of lines forming around my eyes, my hair thicker, longer and a shiny chestnut brown. Some mornings, more frequent in these long, mind-numbing weeks of the continuing pandemic, I stare in disbelief at the reflection that looks back at me. “What happened?” I mutter to my reflection. “When did I become this older, grayer self? “
In the 1991 award winning Irish film, The Commitments, a mirror figures into the storyline as an ambitious Jimmy Rabbitte cobbles together a group of misfits into an almost-famous American style soul band. The group briefly succeeds then falls short of stardom, due, in large part to their inter-band bickering. But Jimmy imagines fame, and in several charming sequences converses with himself in the mirror, pretending he is the interviewer and the interviewee,. By the film’s end, the band has failed, and Jimmy is once again back at the mirror, reflecting on their demise and what he has learned from the experience.
We all have hopes and dreams, and some of them are tied to the fantasy that our bodies will never age or at least, not betray us. We learn to deal with aging, that gentle nudge of reality as our joints stiffen or our hair thins or turns grey. But when our dreams and desires are thwarted and we’re confronted with unexpected obstacles or events, we’re forced to reconsider and reflect, just as Jimmy Rabbitte, on what happened and why.
Cancer is only one of the life events that throws our lives into turmoil. When that happens, we’re forced to re-evaluate and change, and that’s not a task for the faint-hearted, confronting the self we imagined ourselves to be and the thwarted dreams and hopes we once envisioned. Even though they can be challenging, those necessary re-evaluations of our lives can be enlightening.
I recently read Between Two Kingdoms, the inspiring memoir by Suelika Jaouad (2021). At 22, Jaouad was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and given a 35% chance of survival. Her hopes and dreams dashed, much of her life was spent in and out of hospital for the next five years until a successful bone marrow transplant put her cancer in remission. While Jaouad had waged a heroic struggle during her illness and emerged cancer-free, she realized that though she’d survived cancer, she no longer knew how to live. She embarked on a 100-day journey, accompanied only by her dog, travelling across the United States to visit people who had written her letters of support during her illness. Her journey also gave her the needed time to reflect on her five-year cancer ordeal and how it had altered her life and shattered the dreams she once had. How would she re-define her life now that she was finally cancer-free? In an NPR interview, Jaouad remarked, “The truth is that, for me, the hardest part of my cancer experience began once the cancer was gone…But being cured is not where the work of healing ends. It’s where it begins.”
It’s a different spin on healing, isn’t it? Healing involves not only looking back, but the hard work of re-defining dreams and goals that are no longer relevant to who we have become. Life teaches us, through unexpected disruptions, hardships, and disappointments that we can take nothing for granted. And more, it means we have to take a tough look at ourselves in our own mirrors and come to terms with how our lives have changed—something Jimmy Rabitte and Suelika Jaouad also experienced.
It’s a process of slowing down, making the time to reflect and revise the way we want to live our lives. It’s not unlike the hero’s journey we read in a good memoir: a vulnerable, searching narrator tries to make sense of his or her life in the wake of tragedy, upheaval or hardship. Each is slowly transformed by their experience, and their lives changed. This isn’t a struggle confined to memoir or fiction: our lives demand the same journey of us in the aftermath of any upheaval, tragedy, or life-threatening illness. We too must hold up our metaphorical mirrors, remember who we were, but accept and honor who we have become; who we are now.
LOVE AFTER LOVE
by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
(Collected Poems, 1948 – 1984)
Begin with a photograph of your younger self—before cancer. Reflect: What was important to you then? What hopes and dreams did you have?
Then, compare that younger self to the person you are now, after the experience of cancer, of life having left its mark, visible or not. Reflect on how your life has changed. What dreams, hopes or goals do you have for yourself now?
(If you’re having trouble getting started, use a simple “brainstorming” exercise, making a list of “I used to be ________________ but now I’m________________. Then choose one or two of the points and expand them in your writing.)