In February 2012, I was diagnosed with two cancers of the blood, Stage 4 Lymphoma and Stage 3 Multiple Myeloma. This blog is an attempt to share my journey, learnings and insights with you through this process. Continue reading
Niagara Falls, Ontario – November 20, 2015. I love traditions! In the Premji household, we certainly have our share of them. Some are old traditions, some emerging. One of our enduring traditions is having a Family Thanksgiving turkey dinner at our home. Every member of the family – from the youngest to the oldest – take turns to talk about what they are most grateful for that year. I find it so special to be witness to it.
When Sabrina was little, a tradition for a few years was when the family would get together in the basement every Friday night. Sabrina would organize events for us to participate in – chalk painting, cartoon drawing, story-telling, creating logos, tea party complete with little cups and small pastries. It was a delightful way for us to spend time together as a family, doing stuff that was often out of our comfort zone! Fast forward to today. Each time Sabrina comes home from whatever part of the world she is residing in, my mom will make her “khima biryani”, a rice dish with mincemeat, to welcome her back. It’s tradition!
My most favourite tradition of all is how we put a sign up at the door every time a family member returns home from school or vacation or a business trip. I’m not sure when this started but it is beautiful to see a note at the door welcoming you home. And this is largely unplanned. Sometimes, Nagib will stick the note on the door, sometimes my mom or my sister, or Shayne or Sabrina. And the notes are different each time – – basic and informal, computer generated, small or poster-size, with personalized art work and personal messages. Even our postman knocked on our door one day to say how much he looks forward to seeing the welcome signs!
When Shayne and Sabrina were at school, one tradition I reveled in was to take them out of school, once a month, for the afternoon. After all these years, this is something they both remember vividly – watching movies, having Greek food, playing board games. And then there is Halloween! For many years, Halloween evening was particularly special when Sabrina’s friends would come home. The meal was always spaghetti and meatballs, with make your own sundae for dessert. Everyone would dress up and we would scare all the neighbourhood children. I miss those days!
Many of our traditions happen at this time of the year.
Christmas Holidays are the best! For the longest time, in the week before Christmas, Shayne, Sabrina and I would go downtown, stop by Scotia Plaza and sing Christmas carols in the Atrium, go skating at Nathan Phillips Square, coax Nagib to leave work and then eat or watch a movie together. Sometime during the holidays, Sabrina and I will watch, “The Christmas Shoes” and cry together. And we will watch “Elf” and “Home Alone” and every other Christmas movie on TV in our pajamas. Nagib will force us to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Shayne, with a lot of fanfare, will organize a family event where we will all watch “Phantom of the Opera”. And, of course, we will all watch multiple episodes of “Mr. Bean”.
On Christmas Eve, we go downtown as a family and distribute money to all the homeless people we see on the street. And then, on Christmas Day, we get together with the extended family where we play the gift exchange game that takes every bit of strategy and cunning to get the gift bag you want, even though you have no idea what is in the package (one year I ended up with 200 dental flosses packaged beautifully in a pink bag with exotic ribbons!). New Year’s Day tradition is about being in pajamas all day, watching College Football Bowl games, or spending time at my cousin Zein’s place from breakfast right through dinner. Watching an Indian movie and eating a ton of caramel popcorn is just part of the traditional holiday festivities.
With Shayne and Sabrina in different corners of the world, Nagib and I are making new traditions. Watching “Homeland” together and having long and lazy breakfasts out every Saturday morning are some of our newer traditions. At the first of each month, I look forward to Nagib’s new tradition where he will playfully wake me up with a “pinch and a punch, it’s the first of the month!”
Over the past few months, I have noticed that another new tradition that is emerging is one where Nagib and I go to bed earlier than usual, each with a book, Kindle or iPad in hand. We are voracious readers and now take time each night to read. Currently, Nagib’s reading the latest John Grisham novel, “The Rogue Lawyer”, and I’m reading “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”, a Lisbeth Salander novel (remember, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” ?).
Which brings us to today, November 20th. On or around November 20th each year, Nagib and
I go to Niagara Falls for our “going steady” anniversary! It was November 20, 1980 when Nagib
asked me to be his girlfriend. We celebrate this day almost as much as our wedding anniversary on May 1st. A week in Niagara Falls was the best we could afford back then.
And while we are there, we are sure to visit the Burger King on Lundy’s Lane, where we had our first meal together as husband and wife. Why? Because it’s tradition.
Happy Anniversary — my love.
It’s been two weeks since I left work and it feels weird.
On the one hand, it has been delicious to be able to sleep in occasionally, to listen to talk shows, to lounge with friends, and to not worry about details and deadlines.
On the other hand, I feel guilty about putting myself first, about having time, about not getting paid. It’s an odd feeling. I’m almost embarrassed to have this time to myself where I have virtually no responsibility or accountability. I am slowly learning to enjoy this time and take advantage of this unexpected blessing. I have also had to learn to manage my energy at home. I received polite feedback from family members that my uncurtailed energy can be overwhelming to the people around me as I rush headlong like a bull in a china store to get things done.
So while I celebrate and come to terms with the new calmer me, here is what I have been up to in the last two weeks:
- Signed up for a 12 week program called “the Science of Everyday Thinking”, offered by the University of Queensland. #learningneverstops
- Spent an hour with my talented editor, Susan Renouf, and worked on a plan for my book. #thecancerwarrior
- Went out for lunch and dinner with friends six times! #woohoo!
- Took a friend for a tour of the Ismaili Centre, the Aga Khan Museum and the Aga Khan Park. #proudtobeismaili
- Went to the gym 6 times. #thinthighsin30days
- Met with the Habibs (Afzal’s parents) to discuss engagement and wedding plans while skyping with Sabrina in New York and Afzal in Kenya, to understand their vision for the wedding. #motherinlawintraining
- Looked forward to daily scheduled calls with my cousin Zein to source potential reception venues for the wedding. #bestpartoftheday
- Watched all episodes of Heroes Reborn. #sittingontheedgeofmyseattv
- Co-designed a workshop on Effective Communication for a client for delivery next week. #nicetoworksometimes
- Met with my violinist and keyboard player to lay down the tracks of a cd that I am recording with friends. #creativejuicesflowing
- Sourced, interviewed and negotiated crazy wicked pricing for multiple tree pruning.
- Visited a friend who has Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma to reminisce on shared experiences, and help him prepare for the stem cell transplant process.
- Bought a brand new iPhone and bid a tearful farewell to my Blackberry Z10.
- Went to Jamatkhana times regularly for morning and evening prayers.
- Ordered 6 books from amazon.ca for reading over Christmas.
- Coached two clients to support their life goals.
- Organized and cleaned the garage.
- Learnt how to make potato and leek soup.
- Participated in the November executive team meeting for the Toronto & District Multiple Myeloma Support Group. #greattogiveback
- Agreed to lead a short project for a program that will run the first week of December.
- Said “no” to two volunteer opportunities because they were not the right fit for my skills. #learningtosayno
- Possibly said yes to doing a motivational speech for an event at the end of November. #oldhabitsdiehard
- Planned an event at our home for November 21st.
- Wrote 3 blogs.
Can’t wait for the next two weeks……
Toronto – Friday, October 30th, 2015.
Today my consulting assignment with Sanofi ends, and it is my last day of work.
There is a part of me that’s sad because I love the work I do and find fulfillment in it. I will miss the work. I will miss the people. I will miss not having somewhere to go when I wake up each morning. Sanofi has been my lifeline. First, for making Mozobil available to me that enabled me to get a stem cell transplant. And then for taking the chance to hire me again once I got better. I have worked with Sanofi as a consultant three different times over the past 10 years and it is an organization that i am so proud to be affiliated with.
As I look back, I realize what a miracle it is that I ever went back to work at all. One full year of chemo treatment had rendered my brain useless. I could not process information or make sense of things. Everything was a blur and a struggle. Six months after my stem cell transplant, my oncologist gave me the okay to work one day a week. I was ecstatic! The very next day, my friend Jo Anne – – who also happens to be the Head of HR from Sanofi – came to visit me at home. Once Jo Anne heard I could come to work, she moved fast and made it happen! And just like that, I was back at work – – a little bruised, a little battered, and mostly hopeful…
The first six months of returning to work were tough. I was weak. I was fatigued. I had no hair. Walking from the parking lot to the office was tough. I often had to hold someone’s arm to keep steady. I learnt to trade my high heels with flats because it was now all about comfort, rather than looking good Slowly, over time, I got stronger. Things started to make more sense. I got my bearings. One day of work per week, turned to three, and then five days. Travelling to the U.S. for work got easier. And today I am at full strength, with my brain firing on all cylinders! And sadly, it’s time to leave.
I see this as a message from the universe. I’m not quite sure what this message is yet and will need to figure this out. Is it taking on another role? Is it focusing on health and vitality? Is it trying to find that elusive balance which I lost this past year because work took up so much of my time? Is it to write a book? Is it doing something entirely different? Is it time to focus on giving back to the community? The fact that I have so many choices is a blessing in itself. Shayne, my son, often asks me, “what is your big game?” I don’t know the answer to this yet. I am beginning to explore this by asking myself another question, “what would I do if I knew I wouldn’t fail?” And there is excitement about sitting in this place of “not knowing” and being open to the possibilities of what lies ahead.
For the next week or so, I plan to play, to sleep-in, to meet friends, to watch movies, to totally take a break and do absolutely no work. After that, look out world!
We have known for a few weeks that this would happen! Afzal connected with us on Skype from Kenya and told us that he was going to propose to Sabrina. He told us he loved Sabrina with all of his heart, and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He asked for our blessings and showed us the ring that he planned to buy for her. He also told us that he had not decided when the actual proposal would happen. His one wish was that it would be when she least expected it. Since that day Nagib and I have been sitting in this place of joy, of suspense, of anticipation. It is like we are characters in this story but we don’t know the whole plot. Would the proposal be in New York in September when Afzal bought the ring? Perhaps in Beijing in October? Or in Johannesburg where they are attending a conference in November? Or In Toronto in December?
Well, it happened today. In China. At the Great Wall of China. Afzal proposed and Sabrina was too shocked to say anything until she found her voice and said, “Of course. Of course. Of course, of course. Of course”. And we could not be more ecstatic. Ecstatic that these two exceptional people found their way to each other. That, out of 7.3 billion people in the world, the two of them met, connected, became friends, started dating, opened up a business together and got engaged! I can still remember vividly cuddling in bed with Sabrina and reading Dr. Seuss books together. When did my little girl grow up?
Watching Afzal and Sabrina together is a treat. They find delight in each other. They live their lives fully and with no regrets. They bring out the best in each other. They push each other to be the best versions of themselves. Afzal is gregaroius and fun with a big personality. Sabrina is thoughtful and reflective and likes harmony. He is smart and creative and lives in the world of possibilities. She sees patterns and connections, likes structure and is fearless. Like yin and yang. They are equal partners and are each other’s best friend. Shayne has coined a term for the two of them and sometimes affectionately calls them “Subzal”, Recently, I remember asking Sabrina, where home is for her, given that she travels extensively between New York, Nairobi and Toronto. Her response: “Home is where Afzal is”.
Individually they are strong. Together they are an unbeatable team. They believe in the impossible and make things happen. Like starting a social enterprise in the slums of Africa against all odds. Like taking the road less travelled. Like designing their lives and creating their own destiny. They have made believers of us of what is possible with hard work, faith and luck. And what I find so striking about them, individually and collectively, is that they are open to learning, generous with people around them and fun to be around. I have noticed that when they are around, the laughter quotient goes up exponentially in the Premji household!
Right now, I keep hearing a tune in my head from the movie Moulin Rouge. The refrain from this song is, “the greatest gift you’ll ever know, is just to love, and be loved in return….” How incredible that these two people found this precious gift in each other.
I am so thankful that I am alive to witness this milestone event in their lives. And I wish for them the most brilliant, radiant and illuminated life, a kaleidoscope of opportunities, the greatest adventures ever imagined and a love that transcends space and time!
Congratulations Sabrina and Afzal!
I was in awe and wonder at first sight. He took his time to appear in the world, and finally arrived at 4:25 AM, after I had been in labour for 12 hours. The minute Dr. Ross put him in my arms, he stretched in my direction, craned his neck and looked right into my eyes. And I knew right then that my life would never be the same again. That tiny little boy had completely and absolutely captured every inch of my heart.
And I made many promises that night. I promised that I would love him. That I would protect him. That I would take care of him. All 5 lbs and 6 ounces of this precious baby with beautiful brown eyes. And for the next 6 months, Shayne and I were companions. We hung out together and spent time doing stuff. I enjoyed carrying him in this blue baby pouch sling that I wore in the front of my body. Shayne would nestle in comfortably and I could hear his heart. I remember speaking to him constantly. I would tell him everything I could see as I carried him – the street, flowers, McDonalds, a bus, a red car – and he would listen intently, almost as if he was absorbing everything I was saying. And I would sing to him songs from Mother Goose and Sharon Lois and Bram, and he would reward me with gurgles and chuckles.
Shayne, today is your birthday and you are 29 years old. I don’t know where the time has gone. I still remember you as a kid playing baseball for many years. It was such a pleasure to watch you and everytime you hit the ball or fielded the ball cleanly, I would yell, “That’s my boy!”. That’s how I feel everytime I see you Shayne — I just want everyone to know that I am your mommy! You make me so proud!
I love your big, bright yellow energy, and how you fill a room with your personality. I love how smart you are, and how you send me cool stuff to read everyday. I love your stories and the life you have created for yourself in Nairobi! I love how you took Daddy shopping in your closet and got him to stop wearing “Dad Jeans”! I love how you introduce us to your music, and the latest fashion in clothes. I love how you like to hang out with us by choice! I love how your faith guides your actions. I love what a great “brother bear” you are to Sabrina. I love your Emogies (even though I don’t understand most of them!). I love how you challenge me to live a Big Life and to think about where I am spending my energy. I love how compassionate and caring you are. When I was in the hospital, the nurses would often tell me how you would visit me late at night after work, and sit with me for a couple of hours while I slept. Most of all, I love how you open your life to us and allow us to be a part of it.
And you will be pleased to know that everytime we pick up something unhealthy, we have you in our conscience! Gone are the days of Chocolate Dipped Donuts and Big Macs, Now it’s all about green smoothies, protein powder, tahini, almond oil and berries. And, even though I was mad as hell at you for putting us through this health kick journey, you should know that you’ve been successful — we now eat healthy, even though you are not watching!
Shayne Aman, your name means “Gracious Gift and Protection of God”, and that is how I think of you. Until you came on the scene, I had no idea what it meant to be a mother. I learnt by interacting with you. You have easily been one of the best parts of my life, and I know that God danced the day you were born.
On your birthday, my dream is to see you happy, healthy and fulfilled. My hope is that you live your life fully and fearlessly, with no regrets. I wish for you a life of love, enduring friendships, exciting adventures, many travels around the world, strong faith to guide you and success in everything you do.
I know that you are all grown up now, but I remember how, for many years, when I put you to bed at night I would sing to you: “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always. As long as you’re living, my baby you’ll be.”. Love you forever, Shayne!
Happy Birthday, Shayne!
It all started innocently enough. A friend put up a video on Facebook that showed a man and a woman meeting for the first time to see if they were compatible and wanted to get married. The man was an accountant – likeable, easygoing and funny. The woman was a psychiatrist, rather stuck in her ways, seemingly comfortable about making the rules. They agreed that they would take turns asking each other 20 questions to decide if they wanted to pursue a relationship. Next thing you know, Nagib and I are watching the entire clip, because it’s Florida and we have time!
Over dinner at John’s Pass Village, sitting under the moon with a live band playing to the crowd, I suggested we play 20 questions and what started as a fun game became a surprising discovery about each other. The only rule of the game: We had to respond quickly, with our first answer.
The first few questions were simple. Favourite food? Best vacation? The answers were predictable and comfortable.
Then the conversation became more serious. What is your biggest wish for Shayne? For Sabrina? And we were aligned in our responses.
Most important goal over the next 3 months? Surprisingly, we both had the exact same short-term priorities.
Biggest fear? This was a tough one for us to talk about.
Most embarrassing moment?
One thing we were most proud of? That made for an interesting conversation and we landed on the same answer based on a shared experience.
Qualities we like – and do not like – about each other?
One thing we want to learn to do? Quite a few surprises here.
What we want to be remembered for? We came to this question from two very different places.
One person we admire the most? Nagib had to do some deep thinking on this. I started rattling lots of names until Nagib complained that I was not playing by the rules (which stated, one person).
One place we want to visit? I could never have predicted Nagib’s response.
And so it continued until the last question of the night which was: In this moment, Happiness Level, on a scale of 1 to 10? We both said 10! It’s hard not to be a 10 when I’m holding the sun and feeling one with the universe! Florida makes us happy!
The questions – asked with curiosity and no judgement – were a great way to learn about each other all over again. And after nearly 33 years of marriage, there were quite a few surprises. And that’s what makes relationships fun and interesting!
There is nothing quite like it. Sitting in a small ballpark, with the sun on your back and a gentle breeze to fan you. Being in the company of like-minded baseball fans, the little ones in strollers, the older folks in walkers. Feeling like a part of the community where baseball is king. Eating a hot dog. Drinking sweetened iced tea. Being so close to the action that you can hear the players talking to each other, cheering on their mates. That’s what it was like as Nagib and I went to our first spring training game in Dunedin, Florida, where the Blue Jays took on the Orioles.
This was on my bucket list of things I wanted to do, and Nagib made it possible by getting us tickets for two spring training games.
Jose Bautista is clearly the leader on the team and he very much enjoys interacting with the fans, whether in person or on his Twitter account. His appearance at the plate got the biggest reaction from the fans. Edwin Encarnacion continues to be my favourite Blue Jays player. (ICYMI, here’s my interaction with Edwin at Toronto General Hospital: Click here.) Jose Reyes has quite the pre-game workout ritual. Justin Smoak is a tall presence at first base. Mark Buehrle pitched efficiently, as he always does. I predict that Russell Martin, our new catcher – and a Canadian to boot – will be a big draw this year. The rookies — and there are so many of them this year!! — seemed to be having fun, although you could sense the nervousness in their laughter. By far, however, the fan favourite was Munenori Kawasaki, and I can see why. At the end of the game, he took a lot of time with the fans taking pictures and signing balls and jerseys. He asked a kid if he played baseball. When the kid said yes, Kawasaki responded by saying, “me too!!” When a fan was having trouble with her camera, Kawasaki said “don’t worry, take your time.” That’s classy. At one point he told the fans, “I’m sorry. I’m late. I have to go”. After which he proceeded to stay and talk to the many more fans who were lined up to see him. He also took time to teach some of the fans a few phrases in Japanese. It was beautiful to watch!
Before the game, we met Jerry Howarth, the long-time voice of the Blue Jays’ radio broadcast. It was the highlight of my day! He is so human, so down to earth, and charming to boot! We talked about the team’s chances of making it to the playoffs this year. He told us that he was from San Francisco. We remembered Tom Cheek and talked about his most famous phrase: “Touch ’em all, Joe! You will never hit a bigger home run in your life”, when Joe Carter hit the World Series-winning home run in 1993. Nagib reminded Jerry of his graciousness in allowing Tom Cheek to call the bottom of the ninth inning the previous year, in 1992, when the Jays won their first World Series in Atlanta. You see, Tom and Jerry alternated innings, and it was Jerry’s turn to call the 9th. Since Tom had broadcasted every Blue Jays game since the first ever game on April 7, 1977, and with the Jays leading 3-2 and three outs away from winning, Jerry ceded the microphone to Tom. We told Jerry that our wish is for him to call a World Series championship for the Jays this year!
I wish I would have told Jerry Howarth that, during the first year of my cancer, he — and the Blue Jays — were a lifeline to me. When I go back to that time, I remember being so sick that I had lost interest in almost everything. It was the Blue Jays – and hearing Jerry Howarth call the game (“Yes, sir! There she goes!”) that distracted me from my illness many a times. In fact, I remember a couple of times when I needed to go to Emergency because of very high fever, and I would agree to go only after the Blue Jays game was over. My family learned not to argue with me!
I’m not sure what it is about baseball that I love. Nagib took me to my first baseball game at Olympic Stadium in Montreal on our first anniversary, nearly 32 years ago. The Blue Jays were playing the Montreal Expos in the Pearson Cup – an exhibition game. From that moment on, I was hooked! Since then, we’ve been to many stadia around North America: Yankee Stadium (old and new). Tiger Stadium. Fenway Park. Dodger Stadium. Each one has a unique story. But that’s for another time.
For now, having experienced my first taste of spring training, I think I’m ready for more! I can’t believe we waited this long. The players, the staff and the fans are so relaxed. I heard from a spring training groupie (who comes to Florida every year for spring training), that one time, when Colby Rasmus was still a Blue Jay, his daughter (who would have been 2 or 3) yelled to her dad, “You can do it, Daddy!” when he came out to bat. He smiled and waved back at her! Even cuter, she was sporting a jersey that said “Little Rasmus” at the back! The ushers invite you to move to seats closer to the action if they are available. People actually talk to each other. Surprisingly I did not see anyone on their cell phones, except to take pictures.
I suppose baseball, and spring training in particular, is a reminder of simple times and simple pleasures. Like having sand in-between your feet and a sunburn on your nose.
Opening day is Monday, April 6th – Blue Jays at the New York Yankees.
OK, Blue Jays, Let’s Play Ball!