The Orchid Garden was a typical Chinese restaurant on the Gold Coast which was nothing to write home about. It had cheap, paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and large laminated menus on the dining tables. It’s the typical annual family beach holiday restaurant.
This was us – The Contarini Family – January 1979. It’s also a really awkward place to be told your mum is dying of cancer. I can still see those words falling out of my dad’s mouth. Cancer. Cancer. The word was deafening. At 49 mum was too young for cancer and at 14, I was too young to hear it. Dad calmly explained that mum had knocked a small, black mole on her left upper arm a few weeks ago which bled uncontrollably. The doctors had confirmed it was a Melanoma – a type of skin cancer caused by overexposure to the sun. Mum was to go into hospital to remove it. Simple as that. It was all going to work out fine.
Over the next two years our family – my two older brothers, my hard-working father and my beautiful, caring, compassionate mother – slowly and surely disintegrated. One operation turned into two and two into twenty as mum’s cancer took hold. The cancer had spread from her arm to her chest and then into her lymphatic system – the body’s superhighway – the entry ticket to every organ in the body. Typical days were filled with short-stay relatives and friends trying to cloak us in a dome of normalcy – getting to school, going to work, cooking meals and visiting the hospital. The hospital. Endless bright, tunneling corridors. Chrome tables and beds on caster wheels. Lifeless food which looked like it’d been tested in a laboratory. After a while dad made the decision to bring mum home – to die. It would be better that way. More familiarity. Less doctors.
Mum died just past midnight on the 6th of January 1982, exactly two years after her diagnosis. I remember waking to the news and walking into mum and dad’s bedroom – her bed was made, the air deodorized, the room cleaned. No more calamity, no more trauma, no more pain. At 16, my mum was gone, along with the innocence of my childhood. Predictably, my family (the remainder of it at least), struggled to keep our shit together. Over the summer of 1981-82, while most families were at the beach on holidays, with kids having fun burying their dads in the sand, I buried my mum. The rest of the year was a blur.
At 50, these memories are still raw, yet I survived by placing one foot in front of the other, day after day, month after month. In 1996 my dad died – also of cancer (multiple myeloma). Over time I’ve been able to evaluate these tragedies to find the ‘gift’ in each one. One gift was the ability to have spent time with my dying parents and share my love for them before they passed away. Many people don’t have this opportunity. But by far the greatest and long-lasting gift from my parents has been this: to prevent the preventable – to do everything I can to be as healthy as I can.
You see, being healthy and preventing disease is my why. My large, powerful and compelling why. The why which gets me up out of bed to exercise in the middle of winter. The why which makes me cook healthy meals. The why which prepares my lunch the night before. The why which tells me not to choose the fast food drive-through. The why which says ‘what-ever it takes’. The why which bubbles up each day and makes me do what I do.
People often tell me “But I don’t have time to exercise and prepare healthy meals….” I usually respond with “It’s not about finding the time, it’s about finding the why. Once you’ve found your why, you’ll find the time”. When we decide to make healthier chooses, many of us know what needs to be done (stop eating junk food, begin exercising) and even how to do it (eat more regularly, exercise at least three days per week) but until we know why we are doing it and use this as our motivating force – our efforts will be in vain.
My why serves me well. It will serve you well too. Out of all the strategies to move you to a higher self and a higher health, finding your why is, in my experience, is the most powerful. It will get you to your knees then get you to your feet each and every time.
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