July 28th, 2018
Yesterday was an uneven day, and not the first one I’ve experience of late. As my emotional energy waxes and wanes unpredictably, so does my morale. We’re not talking about dramatic mood swings, but of something more interior. One minute, I’m all there, fully in the moment, and the next, I’m inside the bubble of darkness that is my cancer.
That’s how things are right now, and though it seems obvious that it should be so, it has also ambushed me.
Perhaps the darkness is always there for all of us —even the most Zen; even the most spiritually enlightened; even the most insouciant. No amount of meditation and yoga can eliminate the fear, the sadness, the pain that also make us who we are.
Recently though, the bubbles of despondency have caught me unprepared because up to now (I’m so fortunate) into almost every day, so many seeds of love, presence and joy have been sown, expertly, by my sons and many others who care about me and whom I love, that I was blinded. My two best friends in the world came to visit last Wednesday, arriving at 2 pm and staying till 10 pm (I’d forgotten just how easy it is for us to lose ourselves in companionship); Thursday, my husband came to spend the middle part of the day exploring my new neighbourhood with me; and Friday, Christian organized a fourth D&D quest with Simon and their (and now my) friends—a day that began just after lunch and ended well past 10:30 pm.
And yet still, pressed into each of those days were moments of concentrated anguish that brought me to tears and to the edge of something vast and inconsolable. So far, I’ve rescued myself from that fall.
There’s a kind of weeping that demands all of the body’s energy: it hits without warning and quickly swells, and there you are, your heart pounding, your throat choked and your chest under such a terrible pressure that it’s all you can do not to surrender to its anchor-like pull and just gasp and heave and sob and let the snot run and clog your breathing.
A few times, I’ve let some tears slide down my cheeks, let them flow just a little, in private and as quietly as possible. They often come at day’s end, at bedtime, and to me, they’re a little like the flares that sinking ships send up into the sky. They’re an acknowledgement of a vast and terrible peril, and of the sense of isolation that is so often its concomitant. They’re the expression of fact—a reluctant S.O.S.
The last time we were at the surgeon’s office, my son Simon asked her if she could perhaps prescribe a sedative for me; something to ward off the stress hormones that make everything worse; something that would help me to sleep. His presence of mind has given me the reassurance of a good night’s sleep, no matter the shadow of what lies ahead.
I haven’t let myself cry for very long yet because of its ill effects on me: my wobbly heart, my flagging hope, the lowering of my clenched fists. Right now, crying makes me feel fragile. Shaken. Despondent. It amplifies the wrong things. It makes nothing better. It releases little.
It’s too soon for crying. There’s so much to do, so much ahead. There’s living as long as possible. There’s trying to survive as long as possible. Learning and accepting the difference between the two is what’s been sending me into the darkness of the cancer bubble.
On the day that I had my first and only colonoscopy, just as the procedure was to begin, the gastroenterologist said to me that in a few seconds, I would feel the effects of a sedative the nurse was preparing to inject into my I.V. catheter and sure enough, almost instantly, it felt like a warm, liquid blanket was slowly covering me, and I was completely at peace, despite what my eyes could see on the monitor as the endoscope entered my body.
It was the most extraordinary sensation. Not in the least euphoric but more like being drawn into your mother’s arms as a small child and held there in the warmth, with the feeling that no harm can ever come to you. A golden, fluid, perfect place to be. I remember noting somewhere in the paperwork I was given after the procedure, along with the results, that I had just experienced my first dose of fentanyl (its dangers are now very clear to me).
It’s been a tough week. Facing my new reality is proving to be harsher than I thought. But in the midst of this confusion, on a shaky day, I experienced a moment of grace that began with the appearance of a letter in the mailbox, in the form of a striking, square envelope, with edges striped red and white—the telltale markings of air mail (such a rare occurrence). It sits propped up next to me as I write: it doesn’t feel like those thin blue air mail envelopes we used when I was a young. Instead, its paper is thick.
When I first handled it, I could also feel the thickness of the card inside. With no return address anywhere on its surface, and my address written in bold, block letters on the front, I hesitated, but eventually decided that this must be from Leslie Stuart Tate, a man I’ve never met in person, but who is most certainly one of the kindest human beings I know, and my very dear friend.
As soon as I’d opened it, I knew that I was right. Greeting me was the wonderful, whimsical image of an ailing pug on the front of the card (his wee face still speaks to me), but really, the magic was inside. There was the marvellous personality and expressivity of the handwriting of a man with whom I’ve only ever corresponded on line, explaining to me that he had waited to write to me till he was sure I was at my new house (there is so much of him in his handwriting, I’ve found myself running my fingers gently over the straggly and bold cursive letters).
And there was the matter-of-fact way in which, right from the first sentence, he fell into an account of Mr. Trump’s recent visit to England, some much happier news concerning his wife Sue’s family, and a recent film he much enjoyed.
Also inside the envelope was a very small book made of thick, unbleached paper, and featuring a most arresting cover image by artist Stanley Donwood. At only 34 pages, in a generous font, it’s actually a beautifully packaged essay by Robert Macfarlane—it is a melding of form and substance—titled The Gifts of Reading.
This lovely piece of writing, by an author that I did not know, cast a spell over me. Leslie’s choice was so deliberate and so perfect that holding it in my hands and reading its first few lines transformed the moment and, I think, the afternoon. The Gifts of Writing is a meditation on the meaning of life and the ways we choose to give. It’s about the wonder and mystery of books, and what it can mean when they are shared, over and over. It’s about how books are repositories not only of wisdom and creativity, but also of a way of life, a way of being in the world, a way of loving and a way of leaving the world.
Leslie’s gift helped me to feel that he understood what my days of battling the darkness might be like, and he reminded me of the vastness of riches that surround me: a happy home, beloved sons, a beautiful extended family, friends from everywhere I’ve walked in life, the writing I do and share, the reading…the giving and receiving.
The warmest of feelings spread through me, amplified by the fact that both he and his wife Sue had signed the card, right after the words: We love you.
I see now that a different sort of bubble had formed around me: a golden, perfect place to be, pushing out the darkness.
I realized as I sat quietly, holding the book in my hands as one would a talisman, that I felt this same glow the day I received my scan results from the colorectal surgeon at the CHUM: “On a eu des surprises, et ce ne sont pas de bonnes surprises.” (translated : « There were surprises, and they’re not good surprises”).
I don’t expect to ever receive worse news in my life (please, may it be so for the sake of all those I love so much), and yet that day, with Simon and Jeremy and Christian and his love, Vickie, beside me at the hospital, at the coffee shop where we met afterwards, on the train in which we travelled home together (Jeremy getting off just a few stops later), and for the rest of that evening, the force of their love, the glow of it, the warmth of it, the effect of pure saturation that it had on me…it’s what pulled me back from the awfulness of that day. From the shadow.
One truth eclipsing another:
You will die far too soon…
You are among the luckiest people in the world for having so many gifts showered upon you.
NOTE: Robert Macfarlane’s essay is also available online, in the Paris Review, with a slightly different title: “The Gifts of Reading Are Many- Robert Macfarlane reflects on what you give when you give a book”.