Today is the first day of classes at my university. I’ll walk into my first-year writing class a few minutes before nine, and I’ll be nervous. I’m always nervous on the first day, even though I’ve been doing this a long time.
We’ve been going through the beginning of the Fall Semester ritual for a few weeks now. The meetings, the ceremonies, the social events.
You always get to begin again when you’re a teacher or a student. New books, new clothes, new school supplies. I get to redesign my courses with a new syllabus for each one.
New beginnings and the rituals of a new year used to make this my favorite time of the year. Until four years ago when the new academic year and my cancer diagnosis got twisted together in my brain.
As the term approached in 2012, symptoms of my cancer became pronounced. I was diagnosed on August 29th during the second week of classes.
For every meeting or social event, I have a paired memory of cancer. On the first day of class that Fall, I was too distracted by symptoms to be nervous about class. We had to leave a party at my husband’s university the weekend before I went to the hospital because of my discomfort.
I made it through classes on the second Monday of the semester and then went to a meeting before finally going to the doctor’s office. She sent me directly to the ER, and after a four-hour wait I was admitted and the testing and IVs and procedures began.
It was a long wait over the Labor Day weekend that year to find out the results of my biopsy. The whole time I was desperately trying to make up for missing classes in the second week of the semester, trying to behave like a college professor.
Since 2012, the strings of memory have gotten all tangled up. Convocation and the first day of class, the Labor Day weekend and new syllabi are knotted up with CTs and catheters and waiting, waiting, waiting. The ritual of a new year is twisted with the fear and dread of cancer.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I know that. So, I’m working this year to separate the strands. I’m unknotting the ritual from the dread, the anticipation of the new from the fear of the unknown.
My head knows, and is reminding my heart, that the beginning of a new semester isn’t a signal for concern. As I unwind the memories from each other, I’m going to lay them side by side. And then I’m going to take the cancer memories and put them away in their own box.
I will celebrate what is left, the excitement of meeting my students, the freshness of a syllabus with new ideas and plans, the feeling of a new dress and a new notebook to start the semester.
I will probably always open that box on August 29th, but I’ll try to keep the strands of those memories untangled from memories of new starts.
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