Until my cancer diagnosis, I always imagined I had all the time in the world. I put things off, supposing that one day I would fulfill my childhood dreams of visiting cities I had only read about: Paris and Vienna and Venice. I dreamed of the Adriatic, of the desert, of alleyways filled with cafés and ancient cities with cobbled streets. But every year there was too much work to be done, or not enough money, or a host of family demands. Every day became one more day when I was too busy, too set in my ways, too unwilling to put myself first.
The great shock of illness reverberates for different people in different ways. For me, time shifted into high gear, moving faster and faster, like a child’s windup toy. During my year of treatment, and in the 12 years since, I have kept my dream itinerary alive. Although I have recovered, I still see time as I did on the day of the diagnosis. Because of that, there is an intensity to whatever time is left, an acknowledgment that time does indeed run out and that using it “wisely” is sometimes not the wisest thing to do. Sometimes the wisest action is to use it well.
My dreams have become my reality: I journeyed to Venice and stayed in the room where George Sand met her lover, took a speedboat to the Lido, sat in a café in St. Mark’s as twilight fell. I walked along the Seine in the summertime when the sunlight was tinted orange and the water appeared a deep green, and sat outside the Louvre on Bastille Day, when the Eiffel Tower was lit with pink lights. I’ve been to Rome and Vienna and Capri, to an oasis in the desert surrounded by date palm trees, on a sailboat in the Adriatic—all the places I dreamed about when I was a little girl, the places I longed for while I was on the radiation table.
Time is still more precious in the years after my treatment. I didn’t expect the gift that battling and surviving cancer gave to me: the desire to make dreams real, to truly experience whatever time I had, to take the risks that made every day worth living.
Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Red Garden, will be out in January.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of More.