There are several distinct moments in my life that I remember with crystal clarity for the sharpness of their pain, and for the way my life changed as a result.
One of these moments came on a warm day in early May after I had completed my freshman year in college.
I was home for the summer, and was lounging in the backyard of my childhood home.
As my parents approached me, I immediately knew something was wrong.
I would learn my dad had cancer.
My parents sat by my side as I felt the world crashing around me. I absorbed the information and contemplated how quickly the peaceful and sheltered life I had known for 18 years could vanish in a matter of seconds.
The ultimate irony of life, it seems, is that we are unable to fully appreciate all we have until we are face-to-face with the prospect of losing it. To move through life blissfully unaware of the preciousness and delicacy that each moment holds is not a life I ever want to return to. For the understanding of life’s fragility opens us to a deeper appreciation for everyone and everything.
While that summer would bring my teenage self a paralyzing sense of anxiety and doom, I look back now with such compassion for that girl, and with a heart full of gratitude for the painful uncertainty and raw emotions that awakened and have forever changed me.
I subscribed to the idea that the purpose of life was to be “happy.” I believed that happiness was the ultimate destination, an end goal that could be sustained by maintaining control of my life and health, and that of my loved ones.
But that’s just not how life works.
Sometimes bad things happen. And despite what we’re told, there’s usually not a reason for it.
I’ve abandoned the idea that “happy” is the goal. Rather, I believe that meaning comes from feeling it all. The beauty in feeling it all is that we open ourselves to deeper connections, support, and love—which last much longer than a fleeting emotion.
That summer, I accompanied my dad for his cancer treatment every day for six weeks. I had a newfound understanding that I had control over nothing around me, but a deep conviction that my dad would not feel alone for even one step through this experience.
I let go of my desire for happiness, and allowed myself instead to feel the full spectrum of what was in my heart. In embracing my painful thoughts and feelings with tenderness, I actually found some space to breathe.
I drove my dad to the hospital every morning, as we sang together to Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Young—my dad’s favorites.
After radiation, we would sit together eating breakfast—a ritual we created, a gift of time. I do not recall the conversations we had, and the words exchanged do not actually matter. Simply sitting side by side, unhurried, cherishing our relationship in the present moment, with a deep feeling of alertness to life’s impermanence, is what I’ll never forget.
I have come to learn that life brings what it will, and thus, I’ve learned to soften my grip. The control we feel over our lives is but an illusion. All we can truly do is show up each day with an open heart, bearing witness to whatever is in store for us.
In a way, isn’t that a relief? For our only job is to live with intention; to move through the seasons of our lives with the wisdom that the mundane moments are actually the sacred ones: breakfast with a loved one, a walk in nature, the companionship of a furry pet. Each moment is profound, as we balance on a tightrope of the unknown while embracing the sheer joy of our existence.
That summer was 10 year ago. Life has been a beautiful ride, even as the journey is unknown.
About five years ago, my dad was diagnosed with another cancer, this time right after my college graduation. It was much worse than the first time.
There were some rock-bottom moments: hospital stays, surgery, trips to the emergency room, even crying on the floor in heartbreak. While these memories are painful, they are sacred to me because they signify a love that is boundless. These emotions are a physical reminder that I am alive and capable of feeling it all.
In recent years, I’ve arrived to a pretty regular state of joyfulness. It’s a joy that comes not from feeling happy all the time, or from getting my way, but rather from a place of gratitude. I feel awake to how precious each moment is. I know that nothing is permanent and life will continue to deliver painful moments.
Holding that knowledge in one palm, while my heart remains open to the beauty and endless possibilities that each day holds is the essence of being human.
My dad is coming up on six years of living cancer-free. In those years, we have continued to celebrate life with family and friends—from anniversaries to 100th birthday parties, to summiting snowcapped Rocky Mountains, to long conversations about life and laughter over shared meals and glasses of wine. All we can do is just keep living.
Recently, my dad and I found ourselves watching “The Karate Kid.” At one point in the movie, the enlightened mentor says to the Karate Kid, “Sun is warm, grass is green.” My dad and I looked at each other and smiled.
None of us know what tomorrow will bring, and that’s okay. We are here right now. Our feet are firmly planted on the soft Earth. And the sun is warm, and the grass is green.
And that really is enough.