It Took A Crisis To Teach Me To Stop Saving The Best For Last

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always saved my best for last. As a young child, I had an eraser collection. When I needed a new eraser at school, I’d select my second or third favorite from home and place it in my backpack. There was no way I’d be taking my favorite. The same went for clothing, for books, for accessories.

It didn’t change much once I became an adult. I saved my favorite outfit, favorite earrings, favorite book for one day or some day. Then I got cancer and realized that “some day” or “one day” might never arrive. What was I waiting for? The time is now to stop saving the best for last.

The other day, I walked into my closet to pick something to wear to my radiation treatment. I’d already endured twelve rounds of chemotherapy, and now I was in the midst of thirty-three rounds of radiation. It dawned on me, as I stood looking at the row of clothing, that I’d been, once again, saving my favorites for a special occasion that never came.

Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years with no big event or glaringly obvious reason to wear the floral maxi dress, the dusty pink heels, or the poofy-sleeved top. I chastised myself. What have I been waiting for? Why do we have to have a reason to wear what brings us joy?

I have spent a lot of time in medical offices wearing their faded gowns or robes while waiting for the specialist or tech to walk in. You know, those gowns that snap in the front or tie in the back and never fit quite right enough for you to get comfortable? I’ve had X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, been poked with needles, and experienced more breast exams than almost anyone I know.

My life feels like a revolving door of terror and relief. I have spent so much time getting to and from appointments, trying to save my hair with a process called cold capping, recovering in bed from surgeries. I share this to say, I’ve spent a lot of time wearing exactly what someone else tells me to, because it’s medically necessary.

On the days I do have a choice, I should wear what makes me feel good. I’ve already lost so much, including most of my hair and both of my breasts. Why would I give up my power, in even the smallest decisions, in the hopes that in the future I’ll have some perfectly magical day in which I can wear and do all of my favorite things?

The time is now, no matter what you’re facing in life, to do, be, and wear what makes you happy. I know this sounds cliché, but it’s true. Life is precious, sacred, and fragile. If I really want to drive this point home, I’d tell you that life is short and we only get one shot at it. If you (or I) wait to get all our proverbial ducks in a row to enjoy the best, we may never get to enjoy the best.

I have a type A personality, so I like things to be in order. I like organization, expectations, and boundaries. In fact, I thrive in knowing the details and then taking care of them in a prompt manner. However, I have discovered that life is hardly ever what I expect it to be. In fact, life is downright messy, chaotic, disappointing, and heartbreaking at times, sometimes for long seasons.

Waiting to find joy instead of create it is no way to live. Instead of letting life happen to us, we need to create the life we want — as much as we can — and by all means, enjoy it.

Each week when I sat in my chemo chair, I was surrounded by people with various levels of health. Some slept through treatments, while others (ahem, me) were on high alert. Some were puffy from steroids, others were coughing, and some were trying to distract themselves with books or their phones. We might chat with the nurses or the person next to us, as best we could through our masks. No matter how cheerful we made it, the fact was there. We were cancer patients, we were sick, and our treatments could determine life or death for us.

The reality is, none of us are promised tomorrow. Again, I know it’s cliché to say, but it’s true. There were those patients around me who will never ring the golden bell, signifying being done with chemotherapy. Sometimes this is because they will be on treatments until they die or decide to stop. Sometimes it’s because they die before they are even done with treatments, the chemo not being enough to restore their health.

Sitting among these precious souls reminded me that I don’t have a reason not to make life what I want it to be. I’m not talking about some ableist, privileged goals. Rather, I’m talking about my overall attitude toward living and experiencing life in a way that celebrates the honor of still being here.

What makes you happy? What brings a smile to your face? What are you passionate about? What’s your favorite color? The thing that make us our truest selves are so beautiful, yet we so often neglect them — assuring ourselves that they will manifest at another time in the future.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic or dark. I’m not trying to lure you into wondering what if it all ended tomorrow. However, I have seen how absolutely fragile life is, and due to my ongoing treatment, I’m reminded of it often. I don’t want any person to live in a place where they plan to enjoy what they have and can do — and that day doesn’t come. That’s absolutely tragic.

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