John and Jackie at Kadikoy Market
Integrating life experiences can be tricky. People come and go. Locations change. We grow up and out of certain mindsets. We move on from relationships, sometimes necessarily.
Perhaps one of the hardest things of all is to remember who you were and are before and after trauma. Cancer is one such traumatic journey that can rob us of our innocence and ignorance of mortality. Of course, it also deepens our appreciation for so many things. But can we sometimes recapture the carefree side of ourselves…the person who was able to have FUN…on the other side of cancer, or even in the middle of it all?
It’s not always easy, but today, I say yes.
We just finished a beautiful tour of Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul. Our “work” (chemo, daily life, zoom calls) happens on the European side in the health district, and these tours take us to the places more carefree visitors enjoy when they come to Istanbul. I find any and all glimpses of the water especially healing too. Just crossing the bridges is breathtaking. Like all Istanbullular, I’m pretty obsessed with the Bosporus. The Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara are special too.
Kadikoy is a seaside town with one of the most vibrant fresh markets in Istanbul. It’s easy to get lost in the sights, smells, and tastes of fruit and vegetable stands; fresh fishmongers (with fish swimming in barrels in front – it doesn’t get much fresher than that); specialty stores with olives, cheese, fresh grape leaves for dolma; nut and dried fruit purveyors; Turkish delight and candy stores; kahve (coffee) shops; backgammon and game shops; cafes and bars.
Scenes from the market and Ottoman lunch
My mind wandered to markets I’ve walked through in other countries, as well as Detroit’s Eastern Market, which I visited with my dad and where my grandpa used to buy goods to sell at his grocery store years ago. More recently, I have special memories of the Shaker Square Farmers’ Market where we enjoy shopping at home and our daughter and her friend sold homemade natural beauty products one summer.
Kadikoy has residential areas as well, around all of this activity. In that way, it reminded John and me of our early days of dating in Lincoln Park, Chicago. Stopping to have a beer and a glass of wine (in the middle of the day!) was reminiscent of a time before cancer, before kids, before marriage even…when we had few cares and more free time. The sun was shining. People were passing. The whole scene was brimming with life. I was transported to being a young adult, newly in love, looking forward to a bright future.
A dear friend is expecting a baby this summer! So, our conversation often turns to the feelings of impending parenthood – all of the excitement and responsibility. Some of it one can imagine ahead of time. Most of it, one cannot. It reminds me of those early days when Sophie and Grant were twinkles in our eyes before they became people that blossom over and over in ways that make our hearts full. I remember that time when they were very young too, with such tenderness…even as we recount with clarity the bleary-eyed exhaustion of parenting newborns and toddlers. Despite the challenges, the miracle of it all was never lost on us.
Driving back to the European side, realizing this is a week “off” of chemo and I’m back on next week…I’m forced to integrate my current experiences into this crazy, nonlinear life as well. Our plan was to retire and travel, not to travel just to stay alive. But here we are, living on borrowed time since I’ve been told more than once I would be dead before now. While I hate the work of chemo and being far away from our kids, I love the adventures, big and small, I have in Istanbul together with John and with friends. Nothing is really worth having to go through chemotherapy, but if I have to do it (and since the US system left me for dead after round 1), I may as well be here, integrating my middle eastern heritage with my American-born self.
On a day like today, I can feel a certain integration across life, even with all of the physical and emotional trauma of the last 2 years. Thank goodness (Mashallah, as the Turkish say) our kids are managing well with the help of friends and family, and our relationships are more than intact. They are stronger. Those relationships are crucial to integration. It’s that love and empathy that forms the unbreakable thread running through the various facets of who I am and who I’ve been.
I’m the same girl who loved…perusing markets with her dad…traveling the world, learning languages, trying new foods, drinking up local culture…enjoying a lazy afternoon beverage with her boyfriend while people-watching in a vibrant city…and preparing together to parent two kids who would constantly amaze us. That John and our kids haven’t looked at me differently (honestly, I can’t understand it) since I lost my hair, my figure, and almost my life, is certainly a big part of why I can still connect to those other parts of my life. They feel both far away and like yesterday. Time is magical like that. Their empathy is the river that runs through it all. I don’t take any of that emotional support for granted. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to be on this cancer journey alone…and I can’t tolerate more than a millisecond. It’s hard enough as it is.
It certainly helps to remember. To re-member, meaning pull my selves together into an integrated whole who might even be more than the fragments when I am living, please please (Inshallah as the Turkish say), beyond cancer. There can be a temptation to shut off one part if it was too painful, but it will just come back to bite us, subconsciously if we don’t transform the trauma. Or maybe it’s too hard to remember the good times because the losses are too many and so profound, but those blessings are also part of the fabric of our lives, important to remember or we might become bitter. In some ways, life feels like a big quilt to which we keep adding pieces. Some are neat and colorful. Some are more bleak and messy. They are all true. Or maybe life is the stew you make from all of the beautiful ingredients you find in a fresh market. In any case, the whole is something creative, new, and more than the sum of the parts. A kind of alchemy.
Integration is important if we hope to live a whole life. Living a whole life is important if we want to keep growing our souls. Growing our souls…is why we’re here. So, integration seems to be part of our work.
In that case, it’s a gift to have a day when I can so clearly remember being “that girl,” all along the way. I hope you have these opportunities to re-member and steady, true, empathetic relationships that help you feel integrated too. We all need them.
Thanks to Hakan Gurger for another wonderful day, soaking up Istanbul.