I quit my job yesterday.
When I pressed send on the email, I shed my identity. I shed the woman I thought I was. I shed the mask that was so worn in it almost felt like my own skin.
I felt like I was going to throw up. And then I cried. And as the tears streamed down my face, I thought about all the other people I could have been.
This one, this professor one, is one person I could have been. One person I was. And I am not her. Not today.
I could have been a zoo veterinarian- a modern day version of Jane Goodall. For years I imagined writing that story. But there it is, a chapter unwritten, a path not taken, one I did not live because my heart got all tangled up with people and communities. And also sometimes, I think I got scared by a sixth grade teacher, who told me I should be in the “average” math class the first day he met. Before he saw me do any math at all. In retrospect, a very clear moment of tracking a bright girl out of STEM.
Then there was the me I swore I’d be to my high school econ teacher- living in the Brazilian jungle in a hut, collaborating with local people and eschewing capitalism. Her story began in part to get out of a budgeting assignment (and bless his heart, this teacher played along). But a little piece of my heart was there too, desiring something outside of the very normal budget that assumed a very normal job and a very normal life that seemed very, very boring to me. And by normal, I mean big house, big job, lots of cars, vacations, and Whole Foods.
There was me, the filmmaker. She dabbled with youth and loved being behind the camera. She didn’t really think she was good enough, though, and so she poured herself into theory even though she loved being behind the camera and in the editing suite so.
There was me, the solo traveling woman- the bronzed one (OK, we all know redheads don’t tan, but whatever) who spends hours on the beach and makes beaded leather and knows all the ways to get around travel zones easily. I could have been her, except I’m pale and freckly and I have a husband and three babies.
There was me, the artist. I still flirt with her.
There was me, the play director. I got my start early, directing the other children around in my productions. Unfortunately we live in a patriarchy and I got labeled bossy because I was a girl with an opinion, and I left my playwright and directing career in the treehouses of my childhood.
There was me, the social worker and me, the immigration attorney. There was me, the MBA and me, the classical oboist, and me the jazz oboist defying all expectations about how oboes are for classical music, while wearing a sequined dress. Me, at the helm of a cat rescue organization and me, the President. Me, the marine biologist counting fish in the sea and saving dolphins and understand marine life. There was me, the trophy wife who shopped all day (perhaps most accurately expressed as me, the cheerleader which lasted only a couple weeks) and me, the inspiring, world-saving, life-shaking activist. Me, the Doctors Without Borders pediatrictian. Me, the NICU nurse. Me, the airplane pilot. Me, the foster mom. Me, the smart technologist and me, the person who discovered something great. Me, the business owner. Me, the school principal. And so many other mes-
Ah, so many mes.
So many chapters I only titled.
So many branches that never blossomed, because I ran wildly in the other direction.
I love this life I do have, this chapter I am writing- the one with the twin girls and the brilliant miracle baby, and the musical husband and the crazy dog and the wild uncertainty.
But the uncertainty is scary too. Things are uncertain, because I don’t know what tomorrow will look like. I can look back in time, and see all the chapters unwritten, all the paths not taken- but I cannot look forward.
I can see I am at a fork in the road, I can tell the professor me is in the rearview mirror, but I don’t know what she looks like next.
I do know I love my three girls. I am excited for possibilities. I am hopeful.
But I am almost as uncertain as when I wasn’t sure if I’d survive five years, or even three, and it’s scary. To be clear, I'm not afraid of dying soon anymore, so it's a bit of stretch to say I'm almost as uncertain as then, but it does feel like these are familiar threads- familiar not-knowings, familiar impossibility, familiar wobble, familiar fear.
When I had cancer, the future became a foreign language I wasn't allowed to speak. For months and years afterwards, I would only speak of the future with my cancer friends, and tentatively at that. They were the only people to whom I would make future promises, and the only people with whom I'd share future dreams- only they could understand a statement about the future tinged with "unless I die," and actually understand I really meant, "unless I die" as a discrete possibility.
And here I sit, six months from five years since diagnosis. A milestone (even though I can hear the oncologists reminding me my risk of cancer killing me won't go down until ten years and even then, only a bit). I have learned to speak the language of the future again. But it's no longer my native language. They took it out of me, that native language, and when I tried to learn it again my cancer-accent was thick. I cannot un-know cancer. I know what it feels like to know I might die. I know what it feels like to watch my cancer-friends die- it feels unbelievably unfair. I know what it feels like to lose the promising, shiny career ascension because you're puking your guts out and watching your hair swirl down the bathtub drain.
But... I can't get the other lives back, the ones I would have written if cancer hadn't intervened- the ones I was writing when I found the lump, when I got the biopsy results, when I started the treatment that saved me but made me feel like I was dying in order to keep me alive.
There is only forward. After cancer. I hate that. But it's true.
I don’t yet know who will be written next, or even the title of the next chapter.
And so I sit here, in this leather rocking chair I picked out for the twins nursery before they were born, only to later favor the hand-me-down, mismatched glider that is much less sexy. I sit here, and I wonder at all the mes that exist inside of me, or outside of me, or in some other version of me, and I wonder who I will become.
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.