A caregiver reflects on 'the good life'

Marcella Egan standing next to her partner in a hospital
After her partner was diagnosed with cancer, Marcella Egan (standing) became her caregiver. Photo courtesy of Marcella Egan

I thought I found the good life many times. In fact, my concept of the good life would change as I got older. What may come as a bigger surprise is that I actually discovered the good life once my partner was diagnosed with cancer. Let me explain:

At 16, 18, 21 and even 30 years old I thought I had it all. I always had nice cars, great jobs, an education, and friends I could party with and have a good time with. What could be better? The world revolved around me.

Then, at 32, everything changed. My partner was diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable blood cancer, multiple myeloma.

[The writer] David Foster Wallace said it best in [his speech,] “This is Water”: “There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of.” Ego (our default setting) and self-centeredness are evil things that I feel will ultimately keep us from the good life. Wallace also said: “The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums along merrily in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.”

It was then, at 32, I knew I had it all wrong. How could I have been wrong all this time? I was the person so frustrated after a 10- to 12-hour day at work that I needed to go out with those friends, have a beer and unwind, and, well, bitch about how unhappy I was at my great job. I was also the person who was aggravated in the checkout line at the grocery store because the elderly couple was writing a check or because the mother of three was trying to shuffle through her purse for coupons and keep control of her kids. I was that awful person who never thought about what those people might be going through. I never put myself in anyone’s shoes.

Similarly to Siddhartha, I had to go out on my own and try to figure things out — no one was going to tell me what, when, how or why. My ego, like Siddhartha’s, told me that I knew it all and life revolved around me — well, until it didn’t.

Now back to me at 32: I was not working, not hanging out at bars drinking with friends, and not posting great adventures on Facebook. At 32, I became a full-time caregiver to my partner, which entailed doctor appointments, chemotherapy and making sure the kids were OK because they did not understand what was happening to Mom. I would sometimes stay up all night to be sure the new medication she took would not cause a reaction; I would wake to my alarm, sometimes every two hours, to give her the medications she needed.

Suddenly, life was not about me anymore, and that was OK. Soon, I realized that every day was a blessing and a gift. Every day that we wake up living and breathing, that is the good life.

[In “This is Water,”] Wallace talks about “capital-T Truth”. He states: “It is about … simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

I, like Siddhartha, had it in me all along, I am sure — it just took, in my case, a tragic event to bring it out. Today at 38, yes, sometimes I slip — I am human after all — but I am more patient, kinder and more grateful. I walk in others’ shoes and like life in the slow lane rather than the fast lane. Every breath and every moment is the good life.

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