I am going to go for the obvious first.
Life gets boiled down to purity.
You thought your child's special needs broke everything down to a clear understanding? Healthy is good. Eventually is a fine timeline. Love is important. Perfect is negotiable.
Enter cancer. I guarantee that what is important is broken down to an even more primitive importance. You are alive. It's a good day. Your kids are alive. It is a fabulous day. Right now is all you need to worry about. Your family is together, your day is perfect.
Nothing like death peeking over your child's shoulder at you to tweak that perspective even more.
In light of the numbers we were given on that dark day in February of 2004...we went from "Aww...Our child has Downs, what will her life be like?" to "Our child has Downs, fantastic!!! She has a fighting chance!!!"
Our child's survival was never a given. Cancer is not an adversary that you take lightly. It is the ultimate serial killer. When your child is less than 20 pounds and still wearing footie jammies, they don't look like they could take Elmo in a fight, much less the big "C".
Elise had been battling thrombocytopenia (low platelets, a pre-cancerous condition) for a full year prior to her diagnosis. She was a measly little 13 lbs at her diagnosis, at the ripe age of not yet 2. She was not walking or even cruising furniture. She didn't have the strength to do anything but survive. She was not one who you would put good odds on.
In the months during her inpatient treatment, we watched other families suffer and struggle...we watched tiny children lose their battles. We watched teenagers lose their battles... After her treatment concluded, we watched friends relapse and lose their battles after they thought it was won. We suffered from survivor's guilt. Oh, yes. And it is dark...darker than you'd expect... You know that your awesomeness was not what tipped the scales of your baby's survival. If amazing parenting was going to get immunity, you know it shouldn't have been you. In our case, we know that our child will not be the person that grows up to be the scientist that will cure cancer....so they are not being saved to meet their destiny "super-ness". You wonder if God made a mistake and took the wrong kid. I'll save you the rest of the rabbit trails that my brain chased in the dark of night...
Ultimately, I came to the realization that life is a gift. Lest you think that is trite, hear this: You do not deserve a tomorrow. It is not a given. It is not a right. It is a celebratory excuse just that you woke up today.
The separation between life and death becomes fuzzy. Tomorrow and heaven are pretty much the same thing...after seeing friends lose their babies to cancer, the separation of their life and our lives is pretty much a piddly veil, it is not as big a chasm as you think...not really. It doesn't take much to slip behind that curtain....life is fragile. It will not last. And you have absolutely no security that you or anyone you love will die peacefully in their beds at an old age after a full life. There will be no point in their life that those who lose their beloved will "get over the loss". They will always wonder what their life would have been like if their child had survived...the loss will always be there, even in their joys, in the periphery...
In the face of cancer...and loss in whatever form...Heaven becomes more than a nice place to hang out, with pretty castles and nice stuff. It becomes the only place that you know all your dreams will come true. It is the only place without loss. It becomes the yearning of your heart. Heaven becomes...well...HEAVEN.
Cancer casts life in the right light. The honest light, the bright and all-showing, bald sun or fluorescent lighting...there is no delusion...You do not deserve tomorrow. You must celebrate the boring, the annoying, the exhausting...because it WAS. And as such was a gift. You should live today because it is an opportunity. Today is the time that you must take to live the fullest because it may be the last. There are no promises.
Sometimes I feel like pulling a Paul Revere, and racing through the streets at the dark of night shouting "Live!!! Celebrate!! Find Joy! Live with passion!! LOVE!!! You don't understand how important it is!!!" I'm feeling a bit Our Town-y, but that play is poignant because it speaks the truth. Life is fleeting, and it is pretty great, even the boring stuff.
"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures."
— Thornton Wilder