The first time I fantasized about early retirement, I was 22 years old. It was a rainy spring morning in Paris, and as I waited for the Métro to take me to my new paralegal job, it occurred to me that I’d rather be sleeping in, or playing hooky at the movies, or sailing around the world. I felt grateful to have a job right out of college, but the “real world” that I discovered – long hours at the office making copies and taking orders from the all-male partners of the firm – was a rude awakening. I got a glimpse of a life that the French describe as “Métro boulot dodo” (subway, work, sleep).
I was also just plain tired. I didn’t know it then, but my fatigue turned out to be a symptom of something more than just the predictable reality check that 20-somethings experience when they step out of the college bubble. Three months later, I was told I had leukemia. And with the cancer came the beginning of an unpleasant and unexpected type of “retirement.” Overnight, I had to leave Paris, my apartment and my job to move back into my childhood bedroom in upstate New York. I had gotten a break, but certainly not the one I had imagined. Now I had a new routine: chemotherapy, doctors and the view of the ceiling from my hospital bed.
Too sick to work, I suddenly had all the free time in the world but no energy to do anything with it. As I battled my cancer, I also found myself in a fight against boredom. Friends and family brought me books and movies to keep me entertained. Even amid the shock of my diagnosis, I held onto the hope that I’d be able to make the most of my down time by catching up on reading or watching all those Criterion Collection movies I’d always meant to watch. When a friend gave me a copy of Tolstoy’s 1,440-page “War and Peace,” I had to come clean: the fatigue, nausea and chemo brain I was suffering from made reading even Us Weekly a chore.
Dozens of chemotherapy treatments and one bone marrow transplant later, I wish I could say that I’ve mastered the art of not working. But there are still days when I wake up feeling simultaneously restless and bored. I try to remind myself that getting healthy is now my full-time job. But I didn’t choose cancer, and it can be hard to accept not having a more conventional job to go to each day. There are days when I even long for the paralegal job that once upon a time made me so miserable. It wasn’t the perfect fit for me but it was satisfying to go to sleep each night after a hard day’s work at the office.
Today marks the two-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, and I’m noticing how different I am from that girl waiting for the Paris Métro. Looking back, I don’t think my 22-year-old self was trying to get out of work – I think I was struggling to find purpose in my work.
It turns out that I have zero interest in sailing around the world (for starters, I get queasy in boats and I have an irrational fear of sharks). But I realize now that sailing might just be a metaphor for the struggle young adults face as we try to figure out who we want to be and how we can find meaning in what we do. Although I will never go so far as to call cancer a gift, not being able to work has not only taught me how much I want to work, but also how much I want to do work that matters.
The New York Times
May 2, 2013