WHAT AM I AFRAID OF?

Stout, Jennifer; Untitled; University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone College Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/untitled-108170

October 31st, 2018

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

In my lifetime, a lot of what I’ve thought about is fabricated within the trap my mind has set for me by keeping me preoccupied with the future. I wonder if I haven’t spent at least a quarter of my life planning for the future, thinking of what would be, what might be… Worrying about what my children’s lives will be like (they are grown men of 27 and 35, for heaven’s sake) what will happen to them, and their children (with climate change and everything going on in the world, it’s hard to zig and zag away from those worries).

Until 2017-2018, there was also what would happen to me in teaching, as the school board went through endless personnel restructuring; how I would manage to hold onto my job and  do everything I wanted to do: teach, write, be a loving mother, daughter, wife, friend and grand-maman;, take care of my body and health; how I would fit it all in as I age, in spite of the cumulative fatigue and significant stress…How well I would live that “second life” (a life after life) promised to so many women who are mothers…

Peart, Tony; Fear of the Unknown; Darlington Borough Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/fear-of-the-unknown-44103

Would I be able to keep living with my husband? Would I ever find a way to redress the mistakes of my past that brought me to the place where I was: a mixture of daily passion, joy, love, buried sadness and marital stress…

When would my health begin to fail? (well, it was already failing, wasn’t it?). Would I be afflicted with breast cancer like my mum? Heart disease or lung cancer like my dad? Alzheimer’s? (I honestly never thought about a violent death)

How would I reconcile the different parts of me that pulled in different directions: the teacher, the emerging writer, the mother, the friend, the daughter, the disillusioned spouse, the person as yet undiscovered (because I feel that too—none of us ever stops changing and becoming)?

Aarrestad, Katharine; ‘This is the end of you’; Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/this-is-the-end-of-you-106556

Would there ever come a time when I got my life exactly right, that is, when I became the best person I could be—the very best version of Michelle, who got all her shit together and arrived at the end of her life having worked through most of the distractions and mistakes and simply become a genuine, good person?

(The worry generator in your own mind undoubtedly produces similar thoughts, like small, irksome movies that eat away at your serenity.)

And then there was my cancer diagnosis, that peeled away everything extraneous, and focused an intense beam. It brought all of my fears right in front of me, reducing my field of vision. What have been my worries since July? Not the big, broad strokes on the canvas. It’s the details of my life that are preoccupying. I have become myopic.

Brown, Neil Dallas; Shroud; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/shroud-83397

What’s chemo doing to my body? What is this change in the pigmentation of my skin? Is it dangerous? Permanent? Can a person develop melanoma while undergoing immune therapy and chemo? Are these changes to my body—its premature aging—reversible? Will my body recover its strength and musculature? How long will it take for my hair to grow in and for my body to return to its “normal”, familiar appearance?

And what about after chemo? Will there be radiation? Will every lesion in my body be hunted down relentlessly? Will there be surgeries? How many? What if the metastases make a spectacular resurgence? How much time will I have after this first wave of treatment ends before cancer returns? How many years like this year can I endure? How strong am I? What if cancer goes to my brain? How long will I accept to live with that before I choose release? What if it migrates surreptitiously to my bones? To my pancreas? (these are among the worse-case scenarios because they’re the most painful)

Deacy, Brendon; Stolen Woman; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/stolen-woman-19504

What if I can never teach again? Do I want to teach again? What if I run out of money? What if, what if, what if…There seems to be no limit to the apprehension my brain can manufacture.

So many waves of angst that could just keep rolling over me, drowning out everything else. Which they did for a while.

But something has happened. It rose out of my life and almost completely snuffed out the fear that I was stoking and that swirled around me. It emerged out of a thousand threads: from the thoughts, messages, prayers, benevolent intentions and wishes, warmth and LOVE of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who have hugged me, messaged me, called me, visited me and rooted for me since my diagnosis; from the impeccable, humane, professional and all-encompassing care I’ve received at the CHUM; from the radical transformation of my life which brought me to this peaceful house in this quiet town that is encircled by nature; from the tranquility I find here, which allows me to simply exist in moment after stressless moment; to the resolution of the sadness and pain of my marriage through separation; to the gift of TIME, which was foist upon me by the exigencies of chemo, and created large spaces of forced idleness that I filled by writing, napping, reading, thinking, listening to music alone, and watching television all curled up in a blanket…I know I’m repeating myself here, but it stills feels unreal to me.

Uhlman, Fred; My House in Wales; University of Warwick; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-house-in-wales-55850

The truth is, I’ve never been so stress-free. Imagine that. It makes no sense, but the fact remains that since I’ve learned that I have metastatic cancer, I’ve moved closer and closer to a place of calm and peace. Maybe that’s because these past three months have not only pulled me out, by the roots, of my previous life and patterns, but have also stripped away all of the weeds and strangling things in my life, placing me squarely before the starkest possible truth: that I am mortal, that I WILL die, that I have NOW, and that my future is unwritten. NO ONE KNOWS what lies before me, except that I will die, as will we all.  I don’t want to live for all eternity, so why should I be afraid? Or put another way, why should a fear of pain in the future cause me pain in the present?

On November 13th, I’ll undergo the first CT-Scan since I began chemo. The results could be crushing. They could also indicate that the treatments are working beautifully. They’ll be given to me roughly a week after that. There are indications from my body that there have been positive changes: certain symptoms of my cancer have simply vanished. What should I do with these thoughts in the meantime?

Mostyn, Thomas Edwin; Peace; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/peace-205642

In a lovely, thought-provoking novel by Matt Haig that I’ve just finished, titled How to Stop Time, I found this series of questions. To the question: What am I afraid of? ,  I would add: Why am I afraid?

 And then, I would turn to this list of questions, which is nestled at the end of Haig’s How to Stop Time, and I would delight in the answering:

 “And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I?

If I could live with doubt, what would I do?

If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over?

If I could love without fear of being hurt?

If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss tomorrow?

If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal?

Yes.

What would I do?

Who would I care for?

What battle would I fight?

Which paths would I step down?

What joys would I allow myself?

What internal mysteries would I allow myself?

How, in short, will I live?”

 [This is an excerpt from Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, Harper Collins, 2018, p.314]

Mostyn, Thomas Edwin; Peace; York Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/peace-8073

 

 

 

 

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN YOU’VE BEEN LIVING WITH CHEMO FOR A WHILE…

October 29th, 2018

  1. Looking at your face up close in a mirror, like when you’re putting on makeup, you see the small ravages of chemo: the darker skin over your lips that looks a little like a moustache from a distance; the much deeper circles etched under your eyes that cause you to use a concealer stick for the first time in decades; the strange complexion you have that’s like an unhealthy tan but is really hyper-pigmentation caused by the chemo (which has made appearances all over your body too) ; your missing lashes and eyebrows, thinned to match your bald head that is now growing a fluffy, bristly down that’s as white as your mother’s was. The eyes that look back are knowing, and that brings you closer to yourself, and perhaps, to the knowledge that you’re stronger than you thought.
Kim, Jung Hyun; Face; Birmingham City University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/face-32855

2. With everything that has been stripped away, you have never been more YOU. Accept yourself.

3. When you wear your beautiful, real-hair, expensive and stylish wig, no one can tell you have cancer. But oddly enough, you very often choose to leave the wig behind—which still feels like a disguise—and head out with one of the cool caps or beanies you thought to buy before chemo even started; before you lost a single hair on your head. The other day, at a local tea shop, the assistant greeted you saying: “Oh! I love your new haircut! It’s lovely!” and before you even took a nanosecond to think, you replied: “Oh, thank you! It’s a wig! I’m in chemo!”. You were surprised and a little dismayed to see her turn beet red from discomfort. That wasn’t your intention: it just came out that way !

You find that many things that once frightened you no longer do.

4. Your life is on a brand-new track. Your days have emptied out to make room for chemotherapy treatments and medical appointments, and tests, and rest, and recovery. In exchange for the loss of your ability to work and of such a big portion of your energy, you’ve been given lots of static time—the kind that allows for calmness, quiet, peacefulness, meditation, writing, reading, watching, thinking, listening, and just being. You’re more often alone during the day because you’re home, and you find that this solitude is mostly replenishing. You have never felt so little stress, so at peace. You can’t quite understand how this is so. You know it won’t (and shouldn’t) last. It isn’t life, but it’s your life right now.

Reuss, Albert; Woman in Chair; Newlyn Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/woman-in-chair-14926

5. Being open about your cancer and treatments, especially the way you have, with a series of blog posts, has not made you a pariah. Instead, it has opened channels with people you’ve never met and some you barely knew. It has deepened many friendships. It has given you AND others a different means of understanding cancer and its treatment, and of banishing judgement, isolation and misunderstanding. At least, that seems to be what you want and what others want too. You huddle with them, and it warms all of you.

6. During those low post-chemo days when you sleep, shiver, and drag yourself about, and know that your body is drained and struggling, it’s okay to submit to its needs. Your body is brave and tough and wants to get you to the end of this trial. It’s doing everything it can. Love it back.

7. The future is unwritten.

Munnings, Alfred James; Sky Study; The Munnings Art Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sky-study-4150