Reflections: One Year Post-Surgery

“You could leave life right now.” – Marcus Aurelius in his private journal

Death has been a ubiquitous theme in art. There is a myriad of art forms that can be crafted from it – a painting that depicts a decaying plant, a poem about someone who passed away, a hum or a tune associated with grief. It’s somewhat strange that it has been a year since my emergency surgery, which I have always considered as a near-death experience. It left me confused and scarred for months (figuratively scarred, although my physical scar from the stitches is with me forever).

[TW: may have content that trigger traumatic experiences of depression, anxiety, and/or eating disorders.]

handcut paper art of a woman's silhouette decorated with florals and lace by papercut artist Yang Cuevo
“Courage 2,” Woman with Lace Handcut Paper Art | (c) Yang Cuevo

Imagine hearing a possible number of days left for you to live if things did not get addressed immediately… I was very fortunate that what I had was something common and very treatable — it’s just the urgency of it that could have made or broken my chances of survival. But I think of my brother, and all the other people who were diagnosed with something that is yet to be absolutely treatable, or the people who were diagnosed too late, or those who do not have access to any form of healthcare at all.

While recovering at home, I recorded short video clips almost every day. They are footages of the most mundane things: plants by the windowsill, the kettle boiling, or the quiet road on the way to the hospital. I also took photos of myself gaining my weight back since the operation (I shared some here. They are important to me because I never saw myself that vulnerable in photos before). This is a tangent; but I feel like no matter what the scale tells us, nothing matters more than the figurative weight that we are carrying when we lose someone we love. You try to look back to fond and happy childhood memories but you are brought back to the present and it is unbearable all over again. There are endless types of pain but grief is the trickiest for me. You try your best but you will still find yourself as an emotional wreck. You search for the positives and focus on the good. However, it is injustice to discount the fact that you are and will always be in pain. It will never heal. You just choose not to look at the wound sometimes.

With these truths in consideration, I still value the lessons and realizations I’ve harvested since that unfortunate train of events: from flying home to care for my brother, to sitting in a surgeon’s clinic only to find out I needed to be in an operating room instead, or else. I found encouragement and solace not just from loved ones, but in written words and visuals. The quiet scenes in an ordinary home that I see in photos or videos, the serene appeal of trees that are all lined up perfectly whenever we pass by Lakeshore drive, and the printed words in books that have accompanied me even during my recovery period at the hospital bed.

1. It is all ephemeral.

Everything can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye. So make sure you’re not spending too much of your life accumulating – whatever those things may be.

2. Transience will reveal who and what really matter to you. And it’s not a lot.

This experience gave me perspective on what I truly treasure in my heart. The thoughts while I was being wheeled around the hospital for tests and procedure were never about the complexities of life or the stressful problems that we face. It all goes back to the people that you love and what you did that you love and are most proud of.

3. What are you leaving behind?

This broke me to tears.

There was a moment when I told myself, “I guess it wasn’t so bad. I think I’ve had a good run.” I got to take care of my brother and be there for my family during a really tough struggle, my husband is on his way to fulfill his dream after passing the board exams, and I was able to finally become an artist – make art, sell art, share it to the world, do shows, teach art, etc. I was thinking to myself, “HA, so that’s why I was able to do all those things.” And I started sobbing.

4. Do it now. Even if it means failing NOW.

I still struggle with the fear of failure. I was made aware that this may stem from past disappointments, insecurities, and even laziness, yet it holds true. Aiming for perfection is lazy. It has been loosely used to get out of taking action. When you’re running out of time, the line between failure and perfection completely blurs until it fades out of sight.

I’m still quite the same. After that “close encounter,” I did not completely turn around my life and started accomplishing milestones after milestones, checking off items in a proverbial bucket list. I took my time. Everything is temporary and you should not be wasting your time – but I truly believe that taking my time, motioning through each of my days, is also a thoughtful way to spend it. Taking my time is so intentional. Taking my time is so well-deserved. And I think this tug-of-war between self-care and productivity is another story, which I would happily explore and share my thoughts about very soon.

Thank you for reading!

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