Anniversaries: Markers of Life Lived

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)

Writing Suggestions:

  • 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? 

September 14, 2020: Remember: Rediscovering Inspiration

In the long days of the continuing COVID pandemic, I’ve complained that my muse has gone into hiding.  My daily habit of writing has suffered.  Oh, I still open my notebook and write, often beginning, these days, with the weather–a few words to get my pen (and my brain) moving.  But I confess to a spiritual malaise, a lassitude, that I work to fend off daily.  My notebook pages attest to the lack of inspiration, the aimless paragraphs that seem to go nowhere, broken only by the periods I lead writing workshops for Gilda’s Club, buoyed by the inspiration that ignites in me.

It’s not just cancer that gets written about in these groups, but life–the places, people and experience that make up one’s whole life, not just the cancer chapter.  The shared writing in my cancer writing groups got me to reconsidering my other blog,, previously focused on the lived experience of heart failure, a condition I have.  I’ve experienced decreasing motivation to create new posts for it for the past many weeks.  Ironically, my heart just hasn’t been in it. “Heart failure patient” is not an identity I want to claim—other than its necessity in the routine checkups with my cardiologist.  To continue to write about living with heart failure was only making me feel depressed.   I was heading down a rabbit hole. 

I decided to completely re-vamp the heart blog site from writing about theheart experience to, rather, what we “carry” in our hearts—events, places and people who’ve mattered; the memories of who we were at different times in our lives.    I returned to a favorite quote from novelist Alice Hoffman, whose oncologist wisely reminded her that that her cancer was not her whole book, only a chapter.  The same is true for any of life’s crises.   Many writers, well and lesser known, began writing from a crisis, as poet and MD William Carlos Williams once remarked.  Writing gives us a means to express the tumultuous emotions accompanying unexpected loss, trauma or serious illness. It’s one of the most important aspects of its healing benefits:  getting the words on the page as a way to make sense of what we’re feeling and release the negative emotions from the body.  But once the crisis has passed, then where do we find the inspiration and motivation to continue writing?   Er, Doctor, heal thyself? I needed a dose of my own advice.  

Where do we find our inspiration?  It’s in the raw material of life:  the people, places and experiences we’ve had.  I remember the inspiration of artist and writer, Joe Brainard, best known for his memoir I Remember (1975), described as “a masterpiece,” “completely original,” and “funny and deeply moving.”  Brainard captured his life story in a series of brief sentences, each beginning with the words, “I remember,” observations about his life growing up in the 1950’s.  For example, here are a few: “I remember Davy Crockett hats…,” “I remember Easter egg grass,” “I remember birthday parties,” or “I remember pink and brown and white ice cream in layers.”  Not surprisingly, his “I remember” lists inspire us all. A single “I remember” can take us into memories and stories of our own.  Poet Kenneth Koch was inspired by Brainard to first use “I remember” as a writing prompt in his classes.  Natalie Goldberg later suggested a similar exercise for writing memoir. I have used the same exercise in my writing groups. Sadly, Brainard died in 1994 of Aids induced pneumonia, but his book continues to delight and inspire anyone who reads it.   

Memories, the stories of our lives, are also triggered by our everyday objects, our keepsakes, the artifacts of life. I remember the first time I met Pat Schneider, former founder of Amherst Writers and Artists.  I’d signed up for a week long workshop with her at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley shortly after completing seven weeks of radiation and a painful experience of downsizing a nonprofit.  I hungered to rediscover something creative in myself.  Writing was something I’d done all my life and loved most.  But I did not expect to find so much inspiration in the ordinary.  I was very much mistaken.

 The enduring memory I have of that week is in the very first exercise Pat offered to the group. Once we’d introduced ourselves, she quietly spread a cloth in the center of our circle of chairs.  Without explanation, she began taking objects from a large wicker basket and silently placing each on the cloth.  The objects were random ones that seemed to have no connection to one another, things like a metal hook, a rosary, an old shaving brush, a wooden spoon, a ring of keys.   When her basket was empty, she began speaking: “Every object is full of story, she said. “Objects are how the world comes to us.” Then she invited us to take something from the assortment of items on the cloth, hold and study it, then begin writing.   

I remember staring at the objects, my heart racing.  We had only twenty minutes to choose something as our “prompt” and write.  I scanned the assortment and quickly chose a half empty pack of old Camel cigarettes.  It smelled of stale tobacco, and I was transported to my pre-adolescent years and a memory of my father, one hand on  the steering wheel of his old Chevy pickup truck, a cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, resting on the driver’s side window, opened to draw out the smoke, and allow his occasional flick of cigarette ash.  We were driving the back roads of Siskiyou county in Northern California, delivering appliances to rural customers.  It was something special to have my father to myself.  I listened with rapt attention as he regaled me with stories from his childhood—largely true but always adorned with fiction.  I began to write, pen racing across the page.  For a time, my father came back to life—he had died of lung cancer a few years earlier—his face, the twinkle in his eyes as he told me his childhood stories–all triggered by a half-empty pack of cigarettes.

Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined.  They trigger our memories, just as making a list of people, places, events you remember will do.   I’ve taken my own prompt in hand now as I dig my way out of the “dry spell” induced by the months of life being “on hold” during the pandemic.  I’m on a mission to write my stories and memories to share with my daughters and grandchildren.  It’s about writing from life, not just the tough stuff it hands us, but the innocence, humor, events that shaped us, the people who mattered.  In all these many weeks of feeling empty of anything creative, being bored with my own words, inspiration has been here–not hiding, but in plain sight.  All I had to do was remember.

Writing Suggestions: 

  • Try the exercise inspired by Joe Brainard’s book, I Remember.  Set the timer for three minutes.  Begin making a list of “I remember” …  be specific, but brief.  For example, “I remember my grandmother’s gold Bulova watch.”  “I remember the class valentine box in my kindergarten class.”  “I remember hiding under my raincoat when I went to see the film “Psycho.”  “I remember the smell of baking cookies in my grandmother’s kitchen.”  Once your time is up, read over your list of “I remember.”  Choose one.  Set the timer again, this time for 15 minutes and begin writing in detail the experience associated with that single “I remember.”  Chances are, you’ll want to write more than fifteen minutes allows! 
  • “Every object is full of story.”  What objects or keepsakes do you have tucked away in drawers or placed on shelves or tables?  What memories and meaning do they hold?  Think of those objects as the keepers of stories.  Choose one (or more) and write the story or memory that each represents. You might be surprised at how much you have to write about.