by Annan Paterson
“Death is like a deep canyon.
Once you look into it, you’re never the same.”
— author unknown, used in solo show Deep Canyon
I’ve seen our son graduate high school, cried when I left him at his college dorm, cheered when he got his diploma, witnessed his wedding vows to his love. My stepchildren are almost middle-aged now, and are loving people who have blessed us with four grandchildren.
When I was diagnosed with early stage ovarian cancer, in 1989, my step-children were fourteen and twelve, and my son was four. My greatest fear was dying and leaving my little boy.
In 1991, I wrote and began performing a solo show, Deep Canyon. It was my poem, my painting, my song to reveal and share my cancer journey with death knocking on my door.
Shortly after my first version of Deep Canyon hit the stage in Fresno, Berkeley, and San Francisco, I found a flyer about a new conference, Cancer as a Turning Point: From Surviving to Thriving, displayed in a health food store. Intrigued, I contacted “Jan” and invited her to a performance of Deep Canyon. Eventually, after some polishing and professional direction, it was ready for a conference.
At my first Healing Journeys’ conference, in 1999, acting at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium was a pinnacle. I felt connected with the show, the characters I portrayed, and the audience. When I finished, there was silence in the large hall. I let it settle around me. The response of the audience was an actress’ dream come true. And as a cancer survivor, touching the hearts of my fellow travelers meant the world.
Thanks to Jan and her most excellent skills as a producer, I performed at other Healing Journeys’ conferences around the country. It was a thrill and so gratifying.
I embraced life “after cancer” and catapulted myself into the stratosphere of work, theater, community work, social justice, and being all I could be. I wrote another solo show. Truthfully, I dreamed of becoming a commercially successful actress. In my day-job as a school psychologist, I saw myself as a champion for students and fought for social justice in the educational system, which made me a lightening rod for controversy. Climbing further, I ran for political office, not once, not twice, but three times.
I was just as out there as I could be.
My look into the deep canyon in 1989 was a blessing, and a curse. It was both, as I struggled with my desire to live life to the fullest and be a good mother and wife at the same time. I was away from home and self-absorbed, while I also longed to have real connection with my loved ones.
This past decade, I have experienced some colossal “failures.”
I have not achieved the heights of success I sought. I lost all three of my elections. My treasured marriage of 30 years fell apart and I moved out. I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
“What? I have MS? But I’m a cancer survivor! This cannot happen to me!”
That was 7 years ago. Now I walk with a cane and over that time have felt my right leg slowly lose its juice. My right hand is becoming weaker and I can see the change in my handwriting. I am considering getting a power scooter as walking becomes more difficult.
It sucks. And yet, I just cannot get too down about it. For one thing, I have to live with it every day, every minute. But most importantly, I am alive. I have lived, and am living, such an incredible life.
In recent years, Jan has asked me if I could perform Deep Canyon again. I have said no. The physical energy and psychological stamina to rehearse and perform are not impossible to summon, but I choose not to spend time and energy in that way. As much as I love performing, especially for Cancer as a Turning Point brothers and sisters, I don’t have it in me.
Now, in the year 2015, I have reached the age of 60. My adult kids are wonderful people, and the work I do now with students is based on truly connecting one-to-one versus “how can I save them and their world?” My husband and I worked long and hard on reconciliation and are now living our dream come true on the north coast.
Which is where I saw the sun rise this morning. I am so grateful to be alive, some 25 years after my cancer diagnosis. Still, I know I am going to die. Someday. Sooner or later. I don’t like it, but I can see it. Life continues to show me my deep canyon with all its sad depth and glorious mystery.
Bio: Annan Paterson performed her original solo show Deep Canyon for Healing Journeys’ conferences in several cities. This story is the continuation of her healing journey, as described in the Deep Canyon drama