“We are either crushingly unaware of the gifts of “ordinary” time, or we are aching to get back to that kind of time that is out of reach.”Tweet
– Tallu Schuyler Quinn
Tallu Schuyler Quinn was diagnosed with glioblastoma – an aggressive form of brain cancer – in 2020. In reeling from her diagnosis and learning to live with her illness as it launched her closer to her death by the day, she wrote about what was happening to her body, mind and heart in a series of moving essays. The collection, which was released in April under the title ‘What We Wish Were True’, is a joyous, fearful, urgent call to engage in the preciousness of each passing moment and to treasure the gift of our lives. In this excerpted essay, Quinn pays homage to the ordinary, as her cancer began to take normalcy away from her during the time of the pandemic when people around the world were finding their lives irreversibly altered.
After the Covid-19 pandemic started, our two children began wearing our T-shirts to sleep in. With virtual school, we parents were “choosing our battles” and became very lax about things like getting dressed for school in the mornings. One day our daughter silently mouthed to me during class, “Mom, can I turn off my video to put on some pants?” Anyway, most days our kids had been staying in the oversize T-shirts they slept in the night before. The T-shirt Lulah wore one day was a faded chocolate-brown color—nearly twenty years old, I bet—from our beloved church camp here in Tennessee. On the back of the shirt there is a passage of writing by Mary Jean Irion, and in this new reality for me and my family, the words offered new per- spective, truth, and beauty:
Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomor- row. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.
A normal day is rarely the kind of passage of time we consider celebrating, I guess until something devastating happens and threatens it, and then, as Mary Jean Irion writes, we wish, more than anything, for its return. In life it seems like we are either crushingly unaware of the gifts of “ordinary” time, or we are aching to get back to that kind of time that is out of reach. As awake as we try to live, we still miss the gifts. Perhaps this is part of the human experience—always a longing for what eludes us.
During my radiation and chemo treatments, I found a rhythm, with the help of my husband and our families, and I genuinely cherished every smile and good morning and joke I received from the incredible staff at Vanderbilt I encountered every day. But I was also very tired and generally overwhelmed and worn down. I think about that “normal day” that is now beyond my grasp—one in which I make breakfast for my family, start a load of laundry, scroll the headlines while sipping coffee, drive myself to the job I love, make dinner, clean off the kitchen counter that is like a mag- net for stuff, read my children bedtime stories, wash my own hair, and change our sheets. The list of these ordinary things goes on.
“A normal day is rarely the kind of passage of time we consider celebrating… until something devastating happens and threatens it, and then we wish, more than anything, for its return.”
I guess none of us have been living in “normal” times, given we were all coping through a global pandemic, so I’m not sure whether this passage offers you all a fitting point of reflection right now. Earlier in the summer of 2020, maybe in June, before any symptoms of my brain tumor set in, I remember saying to a cou- ple of my closest co-worker friends, “Twenty-twenty, man, the hits keep coming! Surely this is it, right?” without knowing of course that in a matter of weeks my new “normal day” would be navigating how to manage living with brain cancer.
Even in this new normal, I love my life so much. I love what it has been, and truthfully I love what it is now, even though I spend a lot of time feeling very, very sad. What else are we to do but sur- render and accept what is in front of us? The alternative is either delusion or despair. However many days I have left, it’s too few to live in denial or inconsolable anger. So my new normal day now includes more deeply felt sadness. I think that the same is true for the people who love me—a new and deep sadness that cannot be pushed away or covered up. I do not know what there is for us to do but embrace the sadness.
Wherever these words find you today—paying bills, rolling trash bins down the driveway, helping your kids with homework, going on a walk, folding clothes, brushing your child’s hair— I hope this normal day holds you as only this day can.
Excerpted from What We Wish Were True copyright © 2022 by Tallu Schuyer Quinn. Used by permission of Convergent Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.