He remembers the day with roses,
one for each healthy year, five pink buds,
not red. Red reminds too much
of blood, the counting of cells…
But she is here, to take in his arms tonight
And tell her she is still beautiful…
(From: “Five Year Anniversary,” by Kymberly Stark Williams, In: The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001, Karin Miller, ed.)
This past week, my husband and I drove to Niagara-on-the Lake for quiet celebration of our 33rd wedding anniversary. It was a lovely two days, and like any anniversary, inevitably led to reminiscences: who we were then, significant events along the way, and appreciations of our continuing life together.
Yet there are other anniversary dates that linger in our memories. Every July, I, along with my daughters, pause to remember when their father, my first husband, died tragically in a drowning accident. The memories of that day remain vivid, along with the many, many months of grieving and upheaval. Now, as I remember him on that day, there is a softer nostalgia coupled with the wish that he could witness what extraordinary women our daughters have become.
Another anniversary occurred twenty-two years ago, just the day before my 11th wedding anniversary. I sat in a physician’s office and heard the word, “cancer,” for the first time. I was numbed by shock and disbelief. Now, I rarely remember that time, overshadowed by the ways in which my life changed for the better in the years that followed. With the support of my husband and his encouragement, I embarked on a new and different direction and began my first writing workshops for cancer patients, something for which I continue and for which I am deeply grateful.
The workshops I also now facilitate for cardiac patients also emerged out of my “lived experience,” diagnosed with heart failure just weeks before my first grandchild, was due. I burst into tears when the cardiologist delivered my diagnosis. “I can’t die yet! My first grandchild is about to be born!” He quietly reassured me: “You aren’t going to die, not yet anyway.” Less than a month later, my grandson was born, and I was on hand to hold him in my arms. That was over thirteen years ago, but I still remember the joy of his birth, and I remain grateful that I have been able to witness not only his growth year after year, but those of my two younger granddaughters.
Whether birthdates, weddings or loss of loved ones, serious illnesses, a nation’s tragedy–memories and poignancy are part of anniversary dates . We remember where we were, what we were doing, and even old emotions may rise to the surface. In the first years following loss, tragedy or trauma, anniversary dates can still ignite strong emotions–grief, old fears, relief, or happiness. Rituals or celebrations marking those anniversaries are one way to remember losses or mark a significant event in our lives, but they also offer a chance to reflect on our lives and move on.
Our anniversaries are an important part of life. Celebrations and rituals can be an important and meaningful way to assist in healing, a way to acknowledge your experience and place it into the context of your whole life. In the weeks before his death from lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992, my father asked us to not linger in sorrow, but instead, invite extended family and friends to share their humorous stories of his life over a glass of Jack Daniels whiskey. We still mark the anniversary of his passing each November with a toast to my father, a ritual preserving the man we knew in life—not death—and as someone who always appreciated a good tale and laughter.
Certain milestones may recede in importance as life goes on. The pain of loss diminishes. New joys and hopes are discovered; new chapters of life created. I often share the words of novelist Alice Hoffman with my cancer writing groups. Recalling her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article, Hoffman wrote, “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter.”
There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives. Here are a few suggestions from a 2016 Cancer Net article by Greg Guthrie. While Guthrie was writing for cancer survivors, his suggestions are applicable to milestones and anniversary dates of many significant life events we all share.
While we all can experience many of the painful or difficult periods in our lives, we have less need to mark or dwell on the dates of suffering as we heal. We immerse ourselves in the work of living and gradually, move on. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we learn to celebrate rather than mourn. We give thanks. We honor.
Marking an Anniversary
Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life. Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.
Plan a special event. One woman from an earlier cancer writing group celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing treatment for a recurrence. Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or a celebratory gathering with family and friends.
Donate or volunteer. When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” it was a turning point. I returned to writing and shortly, initiated the first of my expressive writing groups for individuals living with cancer. That initial series has grown and expanded to include cardiac and transplant patients, as well as others. I never saw the workshops as an “occupation,” but rather a “vocation”, meaning taken from the Latin “vocare,” work of the heart.
Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual walks hosted by patient advocacy groups or national organizations.
Celebrate your way. Celebrating milestones doesn’t have to involve elaborate or expensive activities. Simply do something you truly enjoy. Take a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, go to a film or the theater with a friend, place flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, share time with family or friends, those who supported you during the roller coaster of treatment and recovery. The difficult periods in our lives or “anniversaries” significant loss and serious illness, is not as Alice Hoffman reminded us, our whole book, just a chapter. Celebrate your life.
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.
(“Love after Love,” by Derek Walcott, in Sea Grapes, Noonday Press, 1976)
- What anniversary dates are important to you? Why?
- Which do you remember most vividly? What images or feelings do those dates evoke?
- Write the story behind an anniversary date. What happened? Why was it important to you? How did your life change because of it?
- How do you honor your anniversaries of those challenging life events?