Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.
Started June 17th 2019
I was standing in the shower, a full ten months after beginning chemo, washing my hair and running my unreliable hands over the surface of my scalp, and what I felt was slippery curves and clumps of soft, slightly fuzzy hair that my shampoo-slick hands just glided over in a way that was completely foreign to anything I had every felt on my own head in the past, and I was reminded of the feeling of lambs’ wool, which was still often used to make the collars and cuffs of winter coats when I was a child—soft knots of newly grown warmth.
It was the manner in which the novelty and the foreignness of the experience coincided that instantly brought me to the fact of my cancer-grown white hair (though I’ve been colouring my whitening hair for years, it wasn’t THIS hair, which is what my body has produced under the influence of poisons shot through my system) : this baby soft, fragile, gradually thickening white hair and its inextricable connection to my cancer.
Every time I step out of the shower and stare at the reflection in the mirror, I’m reminded of all of the losses of the past year; all the ways that I’ve become alien to myself. Of late, what I see and feel is premature aging, which may be a sensation common to many or all who deal with a chronic and debilitating illness. I just hadn’t ever considered it before.
I live like a person with cataracts even though what I have is irritated corneas and burning secretions from my eyes caused by chemo. I live like someone with arthritis, even though what I’m experiencing (this is a more recent symptom) is inflammation in my joints (thumbs, knees, right elbow, right hip, lower back) and muscle stiffness, probably caused by the immune therapy I’m so lucky to be receiving (this is written WITHOUT sarcasm). I live like someone in the very early stages of dementia, even though I’m actually struggling with what’s commonly known as “chemo brain”, which plays havoc with my ability to keep time straight and retain some sort of coherent relationship with the calendar, as well as remember things, people, words and facts, that I once recalled effortlessly.
Turning into someone who has become, in effect, an old woman overnight, is part of the small but daily humiliations that accompany the treatment of my cancer.
I’m being schooled by this ubiquitous disease called cancer, and by its treatment. In the early days after diagnosis, the sudden medicalization of my life gave my predicament a shape and an energy that propelled me forward. I lived by a calendar of interventions and chemo and appointments with various specialists and scans—everything driven by an objective of…What was my objective? What was the medical team’s? I think that at first, I was just grasping at life. It was like being launched, with no warning, out of an airplane with a parachute for the first time, and hurtling towards earth, and hoping that the ground below would be flat and soft and safe—and that I wouldn’t end up broken and destroyed by the sharpness of trees or rocks or other unyielding things.
But somewhere in the past few months, it’s become clear to me that I now live in the company of death—with the awareness of death—almost every waking minute. This isn’t because of a morbid fascination that I have developed; it isn’t a symptom of depression or of giving up one iota of my desire to remain here, and LIVE.
It’s a side effect of my side effects, by which I mean: all of the injuries to my body caused by my treatment are the reminders that prevent me from any real escape and keep me tethered to cancer and mindful of it.
And, inexplicably, life seems to be conspiring to keep things this way. There was Rana’s recent death from cancer, which you know about. But there was also the death of Johane, a woman who was my neighbour for 38 years, who died of a debilitating disease last week. She was 62. And there is the illness (metastatic cancer), of a very close family member who is only 54, whose ongoing suffering is indescribably difficult for her and for everyone who loves her.
These have left me with depleted emotional energy and with diminished defences; these many losses penetrating me so easily, and then staying, as though my cancer had activated an emotional magnet or dish, pulling in these harsh realities…
What is a life well lived?
How long is it? 62 years? 54? 50?
What is this force that keeps me in the room with mortality? Do these deaths lessen Death’s grip on the private me: the Michelle who lives here, in this consciousness…who is 5 and 12 and 25 and 45 and 60 and lives in all of the memories gathered, the experiences lived (and sometimes just survived) ; the Michelle who now works hard every day to construct a sense of reality in which I’m able to live and with which I’m able to make my peace?
I’m now much more affected by the pain and suffering of those around me.
My sensors are heightened.
Is this useful?
In what way can I put these insights to good use?
Should I indulge in the sadness that comes with feeling the pain of others?
I’m having difficulty distancing myself from it. How could it be otherwise? But I realize that sometimes, it is better to be compassionate and useful, than empathetic and edging close to despair.
Is it unhealthy?
What can come of it: a breaking down of the barrier between me and death?
The ability to live in the shadow of death or with death at arms’ reach and not feel fear?
There’s something happening to me. I’m more permeable. More absorbent. Everything in this life feels more real and more grounded. I’m not afraid of the emotions of others. I’m at ease with emotional intimacy. I want to be trusted and entrusted with the feelings and thoughts of others.
In this room, there’s no space for pretence or forced gaiety or hostility or careless behaviour.
I want to love and feel and reach out beyond the unfiltered noise of the world.