“THIS IS THE MOMENT” 2018: About living with the cancer that has entered my life
A separate space dedicated to my journey through the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, which I received in late June 2018, featuring the stories that arise when the future is no longer projected in decades, but in moments and breaths.
Just a few days ago, I read an interview with a writer who described reading about and then experiencing what she described as hypergraphia—a clinical term which refers to the intense desire to write (or draw). The need to write one’s own story. She described the compulsion to write in the form of memoir as a very selfish act.
Of course I felt targeted by her opinion. I’ve been coming to THIS IS THE MOMENT for sixteen months, typing out essay after essay, entry after entry, and I’ve certainly been struck by the endless iteration of I, I, I, I…me, me, me, me…
And so, I do accept that I am in the grips of some sort of hypergraphia that may be needy, but isn’t pathological. I can’t accept that I might be doubly-diseased. Instead, I think that the first day after my diagnosis, when I sat down and wrote about what was happening to me, I was acting on a strong impulse to survive.
Still, as I sit down to write this, I have already filled THIS IS THE MOMENT with over 52 000 words. I’ve also been writing a regular book club blog for my favourite library, in addition to which Christian and I have been chipping away at a Harlequin romance (you read that right!) we decided to write together, and with the final chapter soon to be penned, we’ve passed the 57 000 word mark—which means we’ll have lots of editing to do.
I was doing the math the other night, lying in bed and thinking about hypergraphia, and with something like a hundred thousand words of prose drafted since the summer of 2018 (excluding Christian’s lovely words), I guess there is something compulsive about my writing.
I want to write in defense of hypergraphia. I’ve come to realise that for me (and many humans), writing is as essential as touching or speaking. It’s written thinking. It’s reaching out. It’s opening up—potentially to a crowd—by communicating to one person at a time. It can mean laying one’s self bare, privately and intimately on paper. It can also be like whispering into someone’s ear and them feeling as though you had only them in mind with your words. Writing can be the best means of sorting through what feels like chaos, pain, fear.
When the inner narrator—that voice inside your head that chatters incessantly—is paid some heed and an effort is made to capture, sort through, structure and transcribe its utterings, the result can often be salutary.
I began writing THIS IS THE MOMENT because I felt like otherwise, I would burst, or maybe implode, with the weight of what I’d learned. I did so too, because I wanted to stop shame in its tracks. I didn’t want to carry the mark of cancer alone beyond the protective wall that is my family. Writing about what was happening felt at the time, and still does, like opening up curtains to bright sunlight—letting in all of my loved ones, but strangers too.
* * *
I think that if you’re someone who writes a lot, then you’re most likely someone who reads a lot. The reverse is not nearly as probable, and that makes me feel lucky. A couple of days ago, someone close to me—to whom I’ve been sending books for years, hoping that they’ll provide him with hours of pleasure—wrote about one of these (Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay) on his Facebook page, even linking it with an online interview with the author. He loved reading it so much that he wanted to share his joy, plain and simple. He wanted others to have a shot at that same expansive emotion. Reading his post, my insides lit up like fireworks.
And so, hopefully, his words started a chain reaction, leading others to Zusak’s unique—and in this case beautiful—chain of words.
A person who writes will always have words to offer in lieu of their physical presence. Sometimes they’ll be arranged in a perfunctory manner, but more than likely they’ll be penned with an intention that’s a lot like the physical act of touching.
I think, I hope, that it’s the latter that fuels my hypergraphia.
Begun on October 15th 2019—while waiting for blood tests and my appointment with my oncologist (which both took place) and a CT-Scan, which was postponed to next week because the machine broke down.
I’m close to the age when I could have retired from teaching—but I wouldn’t have.
I would have kept at it for many more years, though I would likely have become a little pickier about the contracts I accepted, not wanting to drive around the planet anymore in winter.
That was the story of my life “before-cancer-moving-from-Pointe-Claire-and-separating-from-my-husband”.
I now associate the train with life since “my-cancer-diagnosis-moving-from-Pointe-Claire-and-separating-from-my-husband” and with the hospital and treatment. I sat in the train this morning considering how routine my existence has become and yet…
As I lined up to confirm my registration for blood tests on the 14th floor this morning, I had this thought: What if you had skipped the last 15 months and just suddenly –ZIP!—found yourself standing in line here at the CHUM, feeling exactly as you feel right now?
I would of course be terrified.
The altered condition of my eyesight, my skin (I’ve had two nosebleeds while sitting here in the first floor eating area, scribbling these notes down and running out of kleenex), my hands, feet, nails…The overall condition of my body would likely cause me to jump, startled, and perhaps shriek. My body–joints, spine, the works—is stiff and sore and rickety and alien. Without the fourteen-month-long, gradual erosion of my wellbeing, surely I would cry out in shock. Howl. And then just probably cry, frightened and uncomprehending.
Adaptation is a marvel and an obfuscator.
What human beings can get used to… Maybe that’s limitless. Or maybe it’s like the frog that sits in the gradually warming water until it boils to death.
These past fourteen months of cancer treatment have been a kind of immersive simulation of aging, with its sprouting of aches and pains, its limiting of movement, its incremental losses.
I like to think that aging is a gentler process; that it sneaks up on you slowly, though inevitably, and that for this reason, is less cruel than advanced disease in middle-age.
I’ve been observing the oldest among us. I would say “the elderly”, but that expression often comes with a hint of being patronizing. And yet, it’s a lovely word. I have been paying closer attention to our elders of late (nos aînés). Strangers as well as people close to my heart. I’ve felt that we are on the same path, mine shortened by the surprise of a new cancer in my family’s gene pool.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of 80 as the age at which I would consider a person old. No scientific reason. Perhaps the simple fact that when you enter your eighties, you can pretty much figure you have less than 10 years ahead. Several of the people I love the most on this earth are in their eighties now. They’re among the fortunate, because they still have health of mind and body. It’s biomechanics that’s messing with their lives. They ache in places that have just worn out.
I often wonder about their relationship with time. Do they see every day as expansive and open—though their remaining years are numbered—and simply push death into a muted space in their minds?
I can’t do it. This has everything to do with the tight time box in which I live. I can’t break out of the two-week cycle of treatment and the disruption and disturbances that drag along behind it. And I don’t dare think about what will happen when the cycles of this clinical trial come to an end. So…
How should I count time now?
– By the number of chemo sessions—24 equalling roughly a year?
– By the number of grey hairs that have appeared on my sons’ heads since this all began?
– By the expansion of my love for my grandchildren—those born and those I hope to see born?
– By the mountains of books I’ve been able to read through all this?
– By the friendships cemented through this ordeal which is NOT a wasteland?
– By the number of seasons that have passed: mindful of the sounds of each, the smells of each, the beauty of each?
– By the people I’ve met online as a result of reaching out blindly?
– By the length of the list of chemotherapy side effects I now live with?
– By the quality of the regrowth of white baby hair that now covers my head?
– By the number of evenings spent in the den with my sons and friends, wrapped in soft blankets and binge-watching shows on streaming channels, and DVDs?
– By the number of Dungeons&Dragons sessions I’ve participated in since my diagnosis?
– By the number of times I’ve stepped out the front door of this house in Hudson, inhaled deeply, and felt the goodness of the air?
– By the losses of loved ones that have come to pass these last 14 months, each a warning, a wake-up, a reality check?
– By the number of days’ endings, during which I snuggle into my bed propped up by a sultanic mountain of pillows and read till my eyes can no longer stay open?
– By the recurring meltdowns I’ve experienced—all fight drained out of my mind and body and sadness moving in?
– By my increasing, constant resistance to being trapped inside a small life of two-week cycles?
– By all of the lessons I’ve learned since having the wool peeled away from my eyes?
– By the degree of my transformation into a wizened and hopefully wiser woman?
– By the growing sense of an ending that I am moving toward ?
– By the increasing understanding that pain and love are a two-sided coin: the more I have experienced sadness and anguish, the more I have turned to love and the state of grace it makes possible?
On Friday, September 27th, Greta Thunberg came to Montreal to speak a little, but mostly, to act as a beacon—a shimmering example of what it means to have the courage of one’s convictions.
She, with her diminishing body (at least that’s what appears to be happening to her as her self-sacrifice to the cause of climate change siphons her energy), but growing presence on the world stage, is doing more than it seems possible to ask of any human of the twenty-first century.
She spoke very briefly and shyly before the march began. Her presence was enough: Montrealers were galvanized. Somewhere between 300 000 and 500 000 men, women and children showed up to the “Strike for Climate Change”.
My city was so beautiful that Friday. The turnout: unimaginable.
I had been invited by my good friend Ann to join her and her party at Mount Royal (or Mont Royal). Alas! Though every cell in my body—even the malignant ones !—wanted to be there….
To add one more person to the crowd;
To YELL how critical the imperative to radically transform our way of living on Earth is.
I just couldn’t:
Stand for 4 to 6 hours;
Risk exposure to pathogens in such an immense crowd;
Walk around for hours and hours with no reasonable hope of finding a bathroom (chemo leaves poisons in me that multiply my visits to the toilet as my body’s filters fight like mad to clear it all out).
So, sadly, and instead, I sat for hours in front of my laptop (we don’t have cable) watching the CBC live feed–as unscripted and as raw as such things get.
It wasn’t what it could have been (for me that is), but I did feel part of that happening. I felt joy. My heart beat faster as I scanned as many faces in the crowd as I could, trying to gauge the energy levels there on the ground, and the benevolence, the generosity of spirit, the commitment of the marchers.
They were THERE, commingling, and I was tucked 60 km away in Hudson, but I received so much from them. I was hope-filled. Maybe Montréalais (and Québécois?) are truly ready for the massive change that MUST begin—the complete paradigm shift we will hopefully survive—still connected and caring about each other and about our home planet.
It’s a maybe I want to put stock in. A few weeks ago, as a bunch of us—all of them friends who were originally Simon’s and Christian’s from work and other parts of their lives, men and women across several generations—played D&D together, one of the men, a dad in his mid-forties, said, regarding the Strike for Climate Change that still lay ahead: “Forget my generation [he’s Gen X], and every other older one. My generation went for the money, just like the rest did. it’s humans under the age of forty who have to take the reins and change the world.”
I think that intuitively, we all felt the truth of his words—the “You can’t teach and old dog new tricks” fatalism. But why accept that view?
The week following Montreal’s Greta-inspired strike, a La Presse columnist wrote a piece about the energizing effect of the event and the high so many were coasting on in its aftermath. And then he doused his readers with cold water. With the next federal election just a few weeks away, despite the regular sounding of the climate change alarm and the hundreds of thousands who marched with Greta in Montreal, according to the most recent poll, climate change is the number one issue for only 21% of Quebecers, whose top concern is taxes and the economy: the deciding factor for 36% of Quebec voters. Of no comfort at all is the fact that in the rest of Canada, 43% consider taxes and the economy most important.
Despite the negative effects of chemo on my eyesight, this rapprochement with death that I’m learning to accept as I live with advanced cancer has given me a different sort of clarity. When you live outside of the daily presence of death and dying, it’s so easy to cozy up to the illusion of a slippery, sliding timeline; to think of the future as something always there…undefined but lying waiting for you…And what gets lost is the urgency to live fully, which requires that you care about every moment.
How Greta Thunberg came to live with that sense of urgency is a mystery to me, though I suspect that there are far more humans like her than we might think—people who want to live long and full lives but who take not one day of it for granted. Such mindfulness can be a burden. It makes of some of us canaries in a coal mine.
On September 27th, I felt love for Montrealers and gratitude towards Greta Thunberg.
If you accept, as I very much do, that our beliefs, thoughts and intentions affect the physical world, then you may have experienced Friday’s march as a noetic event. A moment of elevation.
The people I know who were there on the streets, united in this single cause, felt it. All of them. Ann and her group. Cate and her gang. Anne-Marie and her companions…
Montrealers came together and lifted their faces to the sun, the blue and the clouds, and were passionate and impatient and sincere in their worry, and jubilant, offering their prayers for a future for all. It was a marvel to witness.
Montréal, je t’aime.
I’m always at risk of having hope, lightness of being and belief in the future trampled by my cancer and its effects.
Greta and my beloved Montrealers have helped redirect my energy. OURS is a fight worth engaging in. A future for everyone. The collective joy of being alive and filled with shared purpose.
A month ago, at a time which roughly coincided with the beginning of my second year in this clinical trial and the repetitive sameness of the life it has reshaped for me, something unexpected happened.
It was Monday morning, the chemo week Monday when I head into the CHUM to have my pre-chemo blood tests done, and to see my research nurse and one of the oncologists from the team who treat my cancer. Every part of this day is so familiar that it has become routine—from the moment I hop on the train at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue to the moment I get out of the metro and follow the short tunnel that leads directly underground to the first floor of the CHUM.
I often stop at the small café there and grab a decaf coffee before heading toward the elevator that takes me to the 14th floor. Once there, I immediately register my presence by swiping my medicare card under a scanner which then issues me a small white paper on which is written a number—something like PL025 (PL for prélèvement, or blood test). My nurse and doctors are also immediately notified of my arrival. It’s a routine I’ve performed dozens of times since I first began treatment. But four Mondays ago, nothing went to plan. The moment I stepped off the metro and started my walk, something wavered inside me. My autopilot shut down and with no warning at all, my eyes filled with tears and there was such pressure in my throat that I could barely swallow.
I was coming undone. Having some sort of quiet but perfectly visible meltdown. I continued walking down the hallway, past the angelic guard who greets every single passerby with a smile and words of wisdom, taking deep breaths and waiting for this destabilizing malaise to subside, but a wobbly inner voice repeated only Oh-oh, you won’t be able to get it together—you won’t be able to stop crying…, drowning out the part of my brain where my wits were being overridden and which shouted: “What the hell’s going on? You’ve never felt this way before. You LIKE the CHUM. It’s Monday, the EASY day. Get a grip!
But then came that vacillating, gushy need to cry again…
God. Well, this was a new low. I entered the elevator with shiny red eyes and the sniffles. Once on the 14th floor, I scanned my card while snot clogged my nose and throat. You know this feeling if you’ve ever had a good sob. Your pulse is elevated, you feel unsteady. Your breathing is shallow and rapid. You tremble. It’s completely embodied.
When my nurse, Chantal, arrived to greet me and asked how I was, I blubbered, like a baby, a rambling apologetic explanation that contained a lot of sorrys (or in this case, Désolée, Excusez-moi), rattling on about not being sure exactly why this was happening, although I did have similar experiences at home; that it didn’t even mean that I was sad, that it was just my wonky filters…
Chantal, who is the most serene human being on the planet, smiled gently, then hugged me and reassured me that I wasn’t the first patient to have emotions like this, and that she would be back once I’d had blood drawn, and we’d do my weigh-in + vital signs before seeing the doctor. Business as usual, was her message.
And so I sat and waited with sorrowful pink eyes and Kleenex in my hands, feeling mortified. I was on the cancer floor—Cancérologie—and I was such a depressing sight! What must the rows and rows of fellow waiting patients be thinking as I sat or walked here and there. Her treatment must be going poorly, or She must have recently received a brutal diagnosis or bad news…
And STILL, my chin was quivering, my mouth was dry, my breathing was shallow and my eyes, determined to remain fountains. When I was finally called in to see the oncologist, it wasn’t my primary physician, Dr. Aubin; it was Dr. Loungnarath, a lanky, curly-haired, imperturbable, youngish gastro-intestinal surgeon in oncology, who greeted me. And of course, the minute he asked: “Comment allez-vous?”, I started blubbering again, as Chantal watched, still smiling at me with compassion.
Dr. Loungnarath looked at me, and said (in French): “Well then, we’re going to give you an extra week off.” To which I responded a shaky “Thank you, I think maybe I’m a little weary (sniff-sniff).”
(Surely there are more dignified ways to get an extra week off from chemo.)
* * * *
I was back in chemo last Wednesday, smiling, and my composure regained. My veteran patient’s game face back on. But this time I carried with me a slight fear, or perhaps more of a doubt that I can count on myself.
What happened three weeks ago?
What short-circuited all of my defenses and let the floodwaters loose? (and what were those waters all about?)
I sat down and made a list of possible suspects, of possible triggers. It includes:
How small my life feels at times.
How circumscribed my days are.
How similar the weeks are: one on/ one off.
How small is the loop I live in.
How altered the future appears.
How I feel from day to day—the limitations of my body going through chemo
The limitations of my body in illness.
I suppose that what this amounts to is fatigue and a deep, bone weariness, that I’m mostly conscious of when it reaches a tipping point.
And this is how and when I slip into self-pity.
In her memoir Gather Together in my Name, Maya Angelou wrote that : “Self-pity in its early stages is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable.”
Have I allowed myself to snuggle up with such a nasty emotion? It just may be. And if so, then I can say that self-pity is a small, stifling place that I don’t want to go back to.
Since then, so many things have washed over me. One of them was a simple conversation with Simon one evening in the den, where we were watching Netflix together. It was perhaps one of the more melancholy and intense shows, and we started to talk about sadness, and how people deal with the pieces that are missing from their lives. Simon always has a broad perspective, and as we chatted, he mentioned that human beings are programmed to fixate on the negative aspects of their lives—on the missing or broken pieces; and he said that if you tell someone 25 positive things about them, and 1 negative thing, that they will almost surely fixate on that one negative thing…That we are made that way, And so he said: I try to not allow my mind to go there—to those places of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I try not to let my thoughts wander there. And I say to myself: you are one of the luckiest people in the world. You are one of the luckiest people in the world.
And I smiled. Because I remembered an exercise I used to have my students do in French classes, It was a questionnaire designed around select statistics and the world population. Things like: How many people in the world earn less than $5 a day? How many people earn less than $10? $2? What percentage of the world population has a university education?…
And of course, the survey revealed two things: the first was that, by and large, most people have shelter, access to potable water and access to the internet via cell phones; the second was that everyone in the classroom, because they are living in Montreal, is likely to find themselves among the top 10-15% of the world population in anything that’s related to affluence and abundance, and a social safety net, and standard of living.
I remember how the first time I put a group through this (I had them guess at the numbers in teams—they chatted away like mad), all I felt was indecently fortunate.
And so, Simon’s exhortation to focus on our common great, good fortune; and on the plenitude that is ours; and on the love, friendship and family; and to make gratitude a habit…
Well…it sure beats self-pity.
As a matter of fact, at a time when we are actually speaking in urgent and terrifying terms of apocalyptic climate change and mass species extinction, my self-pity is indecent, and I am a sorry-assed human.
If my tone slides back toward that small, stifling place, tell me to shape up.
I’m alone this morning. Christian now lives with Vickie, at her place in Verdun, and Simon is easing his way back to work at John Abbott College. That leaves me here, in a quiet house for a few days at least.
The sky is backlit that strange yellowy tint that is a harbinger of thunder showers. The smoke tree across the street looks like it’s glowing.
I awoke at 3:30 this morning. It happens sometimes, usually when I’ve gone to bed early. It isn’t a problem unless it’s on one of the nights before I have to go to the CHUM. Then it can make me a bit anxious and worried that for some inexplicable reason I’ll sleep in and miss my train. Like tomorrow, when I have a CT-Scan scheduled, or something added to my usual alternating weeks of “peace and normalcy” vs “chemo” (which requires me to be at the CHUM two days, and then head to the clinic in Rigaud—a 15 minute drive from here—on the Friday, to be unplugged from my Fluorouracil (5 FU) infuser).
It’s become quite a grind.
When I woke up this morning, in the predawn hours, my thoughts went—as they’ve been doing for a few weeks now—to the reality that this Thursday, August 22nd, which is Christian’s 28th birthday, will also mark the 1st anniversary of my bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments. It’s a jarring juxtaposition to say the least, but it’s certainly easy to remember and, come to think of it, the fact that it will always evoke my lovely Christian is gentling.
Our human minds are set for patterns and cycles and chronologies, which are useful for making sense of the life teeming around us. We understand the need to become accustomed to beginnings and ends. And change. And the evolution and devolution of things (well, most of us do). And that’s why, inside my head, there’s an invisible wall with chalk marks like those the Count of Monte Cristo scratched out in the Château d’If.
Those marks, that counting of days, is of course one of the devices that helps me cope with my stage 4 cancer and its treatment. I was put on this uncompromising, hopeful, difficult, medicalized path last year. As you know, there was real serendipity involved in my being chosen for this research protocol/clinical trial.
I’m not sure what the tone of this missive to you will end up being. I’m not feeling sad. But I’m feeling one year wiser. There are so many things I know now that I didn’t then, despite watching both my parents and so many others go through cancer treatment.
That’s because there’s the visible journey, and there’s the inner journey.
How strange! As I sat writing these last sentences, a Mary Gaitskill quote from my We Croak feed just pinged on my phone. It states:
“To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life, and art based on the empowering message and positive image is just such a refusal.”
It’s a strange coincidence that places before my eyes a (partial) reformulation of what I’m trying to get at, just as I’m struggling to do it, and at the same time, brands me with weakness as a writer if I tip toward a positive message…
Well, Mary Gaitskill and I are looking through a similar lens this morning, though our predispositions and perspectives differ.
If I understand her correctly, Mary Gaitskill is saying that death is ever present; that to be alive is to live with the daily encroachment of the finality of death, in the form of constant, incremental loss.
Of course that’s true, but also, not the whole story.
During this past year, I’ve clung to the gift of a clinical drug trial because it WAS a gift. It lifted me out of utter hopelessness and the terrible, threatening inevitability of the painful progression of my disease. It helped me to see and feel something other than fear and grief. It offered reprieve. It lifted my eyes to a new horizon: much shorter, and somehow hazy and impossible to visualize—or maybe that’s only because in all likelihood, it’s just another, less frightening path to an earlier death than I had imagined for my life. It sprinkled all of it with the tiniest amount of irrational hope—of the kind that allows a thin voice inside my head to whisper every now and then: Maybe you’ll win the cancer lottery and your tumours will just disappear or halt in their tracks.
I usually walk myself back from those thoughts, because though they’re necessary, they can also steer me too far from the here and now.
And that’s what this anniversary is really about. Negotiating the here and now. Every second of every day. Because I am aware of each passing second, or at least, more aware than most people, though I DO escape the tick-tock now and then and it is salutary (Mary Gaitskill be damned).
I wake up in the morning with my eyes glued shut by a gel that does what my tear ducts can no longer do. I remove the gloves that cover my hands upon which I slather a balm every night, to slow down the deterioration of my skin and nails. I observe the latter, which look like they may be headed towards disappearing altogether, as my cuticles encroach on the nails, which are frail and sickly and cracked and beginning to separate from the nail bed, producing a u-shaped white area on the top part of each finger nail. I often wake up stiff and sore and stumble to the washroom like an octogenarian with bad hips and feet. I take two pills in the morning and then wait 30 minutes before I can have a cup of tea (otherwise I can get heartburn). Everything I do in the kitchen, from starting the coffee maker to buttering toast hurts my hands. My nose is coated with a thick layer of hardened snot because my mucus membranes are working overtime to protect my sinuses from the fate my hands and feet are succumbing to. When the snot fails, I have nosebleeds (which can be triggered simply by standing up). My feet, ankles and lower shins are weirdly painful, stiff and numb at the same time. The inside of my mouth is red and hypersensitive (most of these issues are caused by the damage done by chemo to my epithelial cells). Although my eyelashes have grown back (though they’re thinner), I no longer wear mascara because I have to put drops in my eyes every two hours or else they burn and I can’t open them in sunlight and my vision gets wonky (again, epithelial issues—my corneas, in this case). No need to add mascara stains to that sexy mess. Last week, I was sick a whole day simply because my gut can’t handle food that has been in the fridge more than a few days (though everyone else enjoyed the chocolate sauce on their ice cream with no repercussions. Sigh). If I drink even an ounce of wine or beer, my hands burn (I still do, a wee bit, every now and then). My new shock of white hair is so soft it feels like petting a bunny rabbit. Last week, while with my grandchildren, I was on my knees assembling two one-hundred-piece puzzles and playing a round of Mouse Trap. Three days later, I noticed a very dark thick scab on the edge of my right knee. Confounded, I showed it to Simon who said: “You did that while kneeling down when you were playing with Penelope and Graeme!”. I’m not sure if I’m more upset that I didn’t even register the sore, or that it happened that way in the first place.
There’s more stuff like this. There’s the time spent going back and forth to the CHUM and to the pharmacy. There’s never knowing which days I’ll have lots of energy and which days I’ll feel frightened by my fragility.
It’s no longer possible to say mind-over-matter and push my body to work and go, go, go! Dinner out may or may not be pleasant; easily digesting it can be hit and miss. Just plain keeping up with the world is a gargantuan task for me. This is the cost of treating my cancer.
I cannot see the far horizon, or if I do, I am no longer in the frame. My children and their children are, though, and that gives meaning—profound meaning—to my here and now.
I had a difficult phone conversation today with someone very close to me. It required me, at the very end, to speak emotional truth that I knew the other person was not prepared to receive. It was very upsetting, stirring up old wounds, old traumas. But what has struck me since is that the pain of that conversation also traced a path directly to truth and to the cost of love.
This is the framework of my inner journey. What it feels like in here. Some days it’s tunnel-like, sometimes dark and cavernous. Other days, it’s like being lit up by fireflies at night. I feel electric and consciously alive in a way I had never previously experienced. That light is what life and love feel like. They illuminate our way. To the end.
I was told last week about someone (to whom I have no direct tie) who has recently received a diagnosis of lung cancer. Those last two words usually make my heart drop, but she was told that her cancer appears to be localized—that it doesn’t seem to have spread. What good luck wrapped up in her misfortune! She was put on a protocol of chemotherapy that requires only that she take a pill a day, at home, for the rest of her life.
To me, this is the stuff that science-fiction is made of. My understanding is that she was told that her treatment should be sufficient to allow her to live for a long time. This seems like magic. May her medical team be correct!
But then the person telling me this story said that she was having a terrible time. That the daily pill was making her sick, causing nausea and diarrhea. That she was depressed. Scared. Not managing. That she had said to one of her two children: This is the new normal, and I don’t know if I can bear it (or something very close to that).
The trusted person sharing this news with me wanted to know if I had any ideas about how to help her, because, though she lives here, in Montreal, her two grown daughters live out of province—one, thousands of miles away—and this mother of two is also divorced. She is alone a lot of the time, when she’s not at work.
The new normal. Three words that say so much. Three words that every human being who has received any kind of devastating news about their health (or, I would argue, about the health of a precious loved one) learns are both literally true and dismally euphemistic.
What this woman is trying to describe IS different than great upheavals such as being forced to move away from a place one considers home; or traumatic events such as a car accident, or the loss of a job…All of which can require tremendous adjustments and adaptation and cause immeasurable stress. But all of which leave their victims with a sense of still undefined horizons.
But this woman, this cancer patient, is referring to the feeling of having her existence hijacked overnight and waking up to a life in which she must face death every day. She’s lost sight of the horizon. Her goal is stark: to survive. The means to achieve it: to swallow every 24 hours a modern poison so strong, even death shuns it…at least for a while.
1 pill/day = life. This is the equation. These are the terms of survival.
If this is the new normal, then I don’t know if I can bear it.
Of course, at first, upon hearing about her, as far as I was concerned, she’d won the cancer lottery: one pill a day, minimal hospital visits. But the truth is, every time she takes that pill, she thinks of cancer and of death. And, it seems, every time she takes a pill, it makes her feel sick. I imagine, too, that it makes her feel vulnerable, and frightened, and alienated from her own body. And that her sense of the future has begun melting away, leaving in front of her a sparse, barren-looking landscape.
In this way, she reminds me of another cancer patient, a beautiful New Zealander who has lived most of her adult life in Sweden, and who began writing to me when she stumbled upon THIS IS THE MOMENT online. She reached out to me—she chose to make contact. And all I think she really wanted from this, at first, was to hold a virtual hand. To feel less alone but also, to feel kinship. She was so brave to do this. She wrote (and her words have stayed with me—they’re part of me now): “I still don’t know how not to be afraid”. I believe that I loved her from that moment.
I want to tell the woman struggling with the abnormality of her new normal that one branch of medicine that oncology has made huge progress in is the management of side effects, and that there’s no reason for her to be feeling so sick all the time—and that she needs to insist upon finding a specialist who can help her manage these debilitating symptoms of poisoning (and not to discount the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana).
I was told that she is someone who has always taken care of everyone around her. I want to tell her that her new normal will have to include arrows of caring and helping that come from the outside and work their way towards her. That she has to love herself better.
And then, I want her to find a way to plant a garden. It can be filled with plants, flowers and trees. It can be filled with friends, neighbours and family members. It can be filled with acquaintances newly made through activities in her community. It can be vital energy that grows in her workplace and helps her to feel useful and…”normal”. But she needs to grow her life till the daily pill is an afterthought.
It isn’t time to dig a hole and shrink within it.
I’m fortunate. I have people to drag me out of that hole—one that even writing can open up around me. They bring me to my grandchildren, friends, family and they bring the latter to me—and I try to remind myself, afterwards, of the tingling feeling of human connection and love that I surfed on for hours and days afterwards—and remember, too, not to give in to reflex behaviours.
This is the first post that I produce from the office in our house.
It took a full year of living here before I was able to muster the energy (mostly psychological I think) to clear the space—which had become the dumping ground for all of those I’m-still-not-sure-where-to-put-that-yet-so-let’s-stick-it-in-the-office objects—and make it a working, appealing place to write and spend hours of time (I’m so sorry Christian).
Well, it’s done.
Just in time. Ha! Tomorrow is my birthday. July 22nd. I’ll be 61 years old.
A decade ago, you would have mentioned that tomorrow I’d be 51, and I would have been as non-plussed as if you had told me that I would still have a nose or toes the next morning.
But this year, I’m finding the experience of my birthday peculiar. There’s the very obvious fact of my still being alive. Which is everything.
And maybe that’s it. Jeremy and Anne and the kids had us (a big chunk of the family) over for a birthday party for me last Saturday, the 13th, because this weekend, they knew they would be celebrating Anne’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. FIFTIETH!
Later today, we’re headed to my mum’s for a second birthday supper (she was at last week’s too), minus Jeremy’s gang. Finally, tomorrow after driving to see my grandchildren at their swimming lessons (yippee!), Simon and I will have some lunch and then go see a movie (Spiderman), because, well, it will be the actual day of my birthday, so more has to be done!
I was so happy last week at Jeremy’s, but also trying to find my bearings. And that same discomfort is making itself felt in anticipation of this afternoon’s program. I love all of the people who have sent me their wishes, who have invited me to their home, who have told me through cards and constant thoughts and actions that I am loved. Tomorrow, I anticipate lots of Facebook messages…
And yet, what I wish is that it all be wrapped up in one dense and compressed two-minute bundle of time. And be over with.
Turning 61 isn’t a shock to me—no matter the progress of my disease (there is NO progress at this time, as a matter of fact, and I can only be grateful every day and hope that this continues to be true for a very long while)—I did figure that I would be here this year. Everything ahead…that’s a different story. It’s all fiction, till it isn’t. That’s my narrative now, and maybe it should always have been so.
But this year, fêting July 22nd feels excessive. Enough about me! It feels like for the past twelve months, from the moment of my diagnosis, too much of every day has been about me. I’m human bindweed; I have invaded the lives of everyone I love, messing up their schedules, clogging their plans and adding a heaviness to their lives…
I have been made invasive by this incursive disease called cancer. It isn’t my intention to leach into other people’s lives, but it is my effect. And the people I love, they’ve been so…not just tolerant, but gracious! Kind. Reliable beyond the call of duty. Joyful. Helpful. Indefatigable. Good natured. Sensitive. Compassionate. Perceptive. Irreplaceable. Constant.
The best thing I could have done this July was give them all a break! But, observing our garden, Simon and I are learning all about the persistence of weeds, and how they cling to other plants and to the soil—in order to live.
I would prefer to be one of the maple saplings sprouting up in the part of our property that we’ve decided to leave fallow, and that Simon and I are rooting for, imagining a future, maybe a decade or two away, when the tiny saplings will have become lush and beautiful trees that blush every fall.
The most I can do, now, is hope to watch the saplings grow, unencumbered by weeds.
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.
My extraordinary friend Louise, who will turn seventy this summer, said to me (in French): “The thought of turning seventy, I’ve gotten used to, [it will happen in July] but then I think that the next milestone is eighty!” (she looks much younger and acts agelessly). I look at her and say: “Seventy sounds awfully good to me.” Ah. She realizes what she has just said. That’s how most of us live, isn’t it? Counting our decades before they’re hatched.
The list of my chemo side effects continues to develop insidiously. Lately, it’s eyes that tear and leak and burn almost all the time, causing dramatically reduced vision; joint pain all over the place. The other day, my right thumb felt like it had been sprained, and is still very sore; this happened as I walked in a parking lot, touching nothing (Ouch!). Instant injury. There’s my left knee, my right hip, my right elbow (preventing me from doing the cobra position in a sun salutation!); my lips are cracking and peeling; if I sit—the way I am now, to write—for any length of time, I can barely rise from the chair. Everything has become stiff and painful. I am the Tin Woman, like my partner in the land of Oz.
BUT (here is the loveliest of kickers): I have neuropathy in my hands and feet, which is why I’ve been taken off Oxaliplatin, as I’ve mentioned before. Probably temporarily. But what I love is what the doctors say. They say: Well, we’ll give you a good long break because otherwise the damage can become permanent.
I smile inside and out. A little, invisible balloon of hope rises from my fearful mind. It could become permanent. You don’t say things like that to someone you know will likely be dead in 2-3 years…At least I don’t think you would. And that’s enough for me right now. They’ve given a new meaning to permanence.
Last week, during one of the loveliest lunches I’ve ever had with my mum (who is 84), she says that of course, SHE DOES NOT WANT TO OUTLIVE ME (this is every parent’s nightmare—age has no bearing here). On the other hand, of course, as she is FULL of vitality and loves life, she wants lots more of it. I say to her that she looks just fantastic sitting across from me, and seems likely to be on track to reach well into her nineties. So we agree that we will try to leave this world as close together as possible, neither one having to live very long without the other. She seems satisfied with that. It’s a goal she can live with.
My son Christian and I are writing a Harlequin romance together. It was his idea, several years ago. It took us a while to get it on the rails. But oh, what fun we had thinking about it and planning it. It was an idea born well before we knew of my cancer. It was always meant to be serious fun: that is, something we would do for the joy of it, but with the wholehearted intention of having it published and earning income from it. We read some romance novels to prepare. Christian went to the Harlequin website to gather up all of their “How to” parameters. We’re more than half way in. It’s set in a place just like Hudson. It’s for real now. Not just pie-in-the-sky. We work so well together. I want to see this through to publication. I want it very much. And while he and I are busy making it happen, there is joy and lots of looking-forward-to. What I want most from this project is the doing, which keeps us close, and something more. Before I die, I want to know that Christian’s writing life is launched. I already know that he can turn out publishable books for the rest of his life—his writing voice is so distinctive, his mind a whirring generator of narrative (I don’t know how he keeps it all inside his head but that, apparently, is no problem at all)—but I want that to have begun. I want to see it and KNOW that he’s got his foot in the door..
And then there’s Simon, and this multi-generational living project he conceived of, that took one hell of an unpredictable turn last summer when I was diagnosed just as we moved into our new home. His twin, Jeremy, lives happily in Beaconsfield with Anne, and Penelope and Graeme (we’re all goofy, over-the-top in love with them). Jeremy’s life is also enhanced by the ineffable bond he has with Simon, and by his love for Christian (and let us not forget that his mother and father also adore him). But Simon’s vision of the future included this house in Hudson, which is nothing to him if it isn’t a home.
I don’t want to die before our friend Cindy has come and converted part of the house into her studio apartment. This was always the plan. I know that time will allow Simon to create “family” in one of many possible reconfigurations that are meaningful and love-generating. But I don’t want to die before others are here with us. I don’t believe Simon is meant to live alone for any length of time whatsoever. I don’t imagine many identical twins are, but someone as gregarious as Simon? There are things I want to know, that I want settled, and this one is important.
* * * *
Next month will mark our first anniversary here, in Hudson. This has been the year to topple all previous ones. I’m so glad that none of us is saddled with the gift of prescience.
The results of my latest CT-Scan came in a few weeks ago, and they remain favourable.
Once again, there are no new tumours and no growth of the existing tumours. Just like the two previous scans.
The CT-Scans give my life in treatment its rhythm. Every eight weeks marks a beat. Between the scans, if I’m feeling good, I do, on occasion, observe my mind escaping into flights of fancy, allowing me to experience surges of optimism; tiny glimmers of hope that work their way through the cracks in my defences, whispering indulgent thoughts like: Maybe this will last for years…Maybe the tumours will remain dormant…
These thoughts float just a little while, and I hold on to them because it feels good to experience buoyancy and light-heartedness. Just a little while.
And then another part of me shuts that down…but not before anxiety slithers in. Why would this happen to you? Why, when so many others experience the despair of treatment that isn’t working?
Over and over, every eight weeks, I go up, then down, then fall into something between hope and resignation.
I’ve begun to realize, too, that I am, in fact, living inside a very specific countdown. It’s a two –year countdown, and I’m now down to 15 months remaining. That’s the duration of the research protocol (clinical trial) I’ve signed on for. It hit me a little while ago that every month that goes by, every CT-Scan cycle, inches me closer to the end of the trial and its expensive immunotherapy drugs.
And then what will happen to me? The doctors tell me that my results are uncharted territory for them. That they have not seen what they’re seeing with my body’s responses in previous stage 4 patients with my type of cancer, and feel confident that it’s the immune drugs at work. This strange stasis that my body is in…How long will it last? And how long can a person stay on medications that aren’t meant to be taken forever (and cannot, because my life is simply not worth that much health-care money)?
I go up and down like this all the time. It reminds me that the word disease means DIS-EASE. I am uneasy inside my skin. I am not myself. I am besieged. And, as every person with a serious illness knows, this is simply the way it is, and I must keep finding ways to adapt and deal with it. And remember how fortunate I am.
* * *
I’m sorry for my tone. I received news yesterday that weighs heavily upon my heart.
I was scrolling through Facebook and suddenly, there was the radiant face of a woman I knew. It was Rana. The Facebook notice stated that she died two days ago.
Let me explain.
Rana was my French student four years ago. Born in Lebanon, she had lived many years in Kuwait before arriving in Canada and eventually Montreal. She was the mother of a beautiful girl who is now a teenager. She had a PhD in something related to nuclear pharmacology. She was an artist: a jeweler who also created works in which she combined painting, fabric and her jewelry pieces. She was a deeply spiritual person.
She was extraordinary. The company where she worked and where I taught French several years was very demanding of its staff, and so it happened once or twice that she was the only person in her group who was able to make it to class—which turned the latter into a private tutorial or, in our case, an hour and a half of one-on-one French conversation.
This is how I grew to know her quickly. In French, we would have said that we had des atômes crochus, a pretty expression that means that we instantly hit it off, that we spoke the same language (no matter what language each of us was using).
And then the contract ended, and I didn’t return to her company. But we remained in contact, on Facebook, and managed a lunch together one summer day. It was on that day that I realized just how beautiful a human being she was. Her life was not free of stress and problems. There was a scarring divorce that festered over child custody issues, and she had just moved into a new condo with her daughter. But Rana seemed to rise above the muck and remain just, true and decent. And always loving. It was also at that lunch that we discussed all of the things that lit us up; our shared view of life—its expansiveness, endless promise, and limitless possibilities to grow and love. We parted that day promising to make these meetings happen more often. We stayed in touch on Facebook.
But I never saw her again.
Yesterday, right after learning the world had lost her, I went back to Facebook to try to collect our years-worth of exchanges on Messenger, but her site had already been cleaned up and emptied out, and a new page, with a beautiful photo of her, opened recently, in preparation for her death, I suppose.
I left a message of condolences on her new Facebook page which is being curated by her cousin, I think. And then I sat with Rana here, alone, for a long while.
Rana succumbed to a cancer that had already ravaged her lungs and bones when it was diagnosed. I wish I could remember how long ago, but it was at least two and a half years. She had gone to the hospital with unbearable neck pain, and found out that a vertebra had collapsed because of a tumour growing there, that her tumorous femur was in danger of being crushed under her weight as well, and that her lungs were full of cancer.
I found all of this out after simply messaging her one evening—just to catch up on things. We immediately switched to our phones. From her hospital bed in Montreal’s Jewish General, she told me everything she was going through. I remember that her voice was full of energy. Her scientific-medical literacy made it possible for her to approach her situation calmly and analytically. She trusted in modern medicine. She trusted that she would receive good care, and that her pain would be managed. She believed her situation would improve.
I was careful about what I asked her and how I phrased things. I tried to match her energy and tone. We made plans to get together when she was well enough to leave the hospital.
We never did get together.
I was diagnosed and I think, meanwhile, she was beginning to fail rapidly.
She’s gone now.
Yesterday, after leaving my message on her Facebook page (which was filling up with wishes and expressions of love and sympathy), I didn’t cry. Not right away. It wasn’t, it isn’t what Rana was about. Rana is at peace. I know this. And she is everywhere. She was so loved.
Later though, the weight of Rana’s death grew heavier and heavier and I knew that as soon as I said out loud: “My friend Rana died”, that I would not be able to hold back my tears. Simon was the first to arrive, and I told him, and then, once he’d held me and spoken kind words to me, I spent a while in the kitchen, preparing supper and sniffling. And I was with Rana in spirit.
At bedtime, a second wave of tears hit, and this time they flooded me. My mind was stuck, wondering what her last weeks and days had been like.
Rana. I know she bared it all with dignity. I know that she smiled too, when she could, because I feel sure she believed that she would be united with her mother and others she had lost in her lifetime.
I don’t think she made it to the age of fifty. A beautiful branch has broken away from the tree of life.
When things get hard, in months or years to come, I will seek inspiration from Rana who was light and life and love.
I suppose that today, of all days, it’s appropriate for me to scream May Day! May Day!
It wouldn’t help my situation, or make any difference though, would it?
I started chemo in late August 2018, which means that I’ve just entered month number 9 of chemotherapy (these days, “treatment” feels too much like a euphemism).
Yesterday, I went to have my 4th CT-Scan done at the CHUM (including the original diagnostic scan). Since I began chemo, I’ve had a CT-Scan every eight weeks—a requirement of this clinical trial. By that count, I’ve passed 32 weeks of being poisoned for the sake of survival.
Yesterday started off just after lunchtime in such a weird and inauspicious way. With my scan scheduled for 3 pm, I planned to go first to the hospital’s open eating area on the first floor, where I’ve spent hours this year, waiting for whatever was next. It’s a vast, windowed, very bright space with dozens of tables where people sit—including many hospital staff—to eat and unwind.
This time, however, before I had even reached the escalator landing, I could see that there was something crowding everyone (they all seemed bunched up) and creating shadow. When I reached the top at last, I was met by an 8-foot high, 25-foot-long puffy pink tube, with lumps and bumps here and there on its surface. This was the monstrosity that was responsible for making seating far scarcer than it should be. When I walked further into the hall and found a spot to sit (I shared a table with a nurse who was on her lunch break), I realized that the big pink tube was a shadowy tunnel that people were visiting. But what I felt when I read the signage in front of it…
It was a giant section of intestine, made to be strolled through. It was there to educate hospital staff and visitors about colorectal cancer.
Fuck. Really? (That IS what I thought) I mean…really? It was hard to see it as humorous. It felt more…ominous. As mental preparations for a colorectal cancer CT-Scan go, this was truly awful. And definitely unwelcome. And I didn’t visit it! There seemed no need to go see tumours and polyps up close and Godzilla-size.
Thrown off somewhat, I ate quickly and then went up to the 14th floor for a blood test that’s now required by Bristol- Myers Squibb before each scan: a simple embryonic enzyme test, which, I think, measures tumoural activity (my results have so far been good, dropping steadily, which is what the oncologists want to see).
The only good, fat surface vein I have for blood tests is on my left arm. Just the one. There simply isn’t anything visible to work with near the surface of my right arm. This, as time goes by, will become a problem. My poor univein is beginning to harden, though up to now, the CHUM’s phlebotomists (drawing blood is an art!) say that it still has bounce (they say: Elle est encore rebondissante!”). But, because I knew that a catheter would be inserted into my champion vein for the Ct-Scan, I asked the nurse if he could perhaps use a vein on the surface of my right arm, one that Chantal, my research nurse and guardian angel, told me was big enough. He opted instead for a vein on my right hand. With his magic hands and a tiny needle, he managed to get what he needed. It was only when I entered the Tomodensitométrie area (in English, that translates as “computed tomography” or CT), that I felt pain and throbbing in my right hand. When the nurse installing the catheter in my left arm (in my plucky univein) saw my sore hand, she said: “Il vous a rupturé ça pas à peu près!” which translates to something like: “Whoa! He blew that one up good!”
There I was, back in an area I’ve written about previously, wearing a hospital gown, and not much else except my shoes and socks, in the company of close to a dozen others adults who looked about as attractive and gloomy as me.
But this, of course, is where it all gets so serious. And it’s when the culture clash between the worlds of medical professionals and the people they call patients is so clear to me. It must be hard to lead with your heart when the patients who stream through your department all look alike: gowned and pale, their education, work life and personal histories unrevealed. They, the medical staff, are so comfortable in their working environment and we, the patients, are anxious, and diminished, and longing to get out and go home. And the technicians who operate the super-high-tech diagnostic equipment are generally kind and polite and concerned that we fare well while inside the giant, noisy scanners and imaging machines, and tolerate the claustrophobia and the chemicals injected into us, while we lie there terrified of what these machines will tell the radiologist who will decode their data…
Yesterday, I sat waiting, in my gown, between a fifty-something man and an older, heavier woman, who gave off signals of wanting to be left alone inside her bubble. The man seemed content to sit in silence too. It makes so much sense: aside from each person’s disease or reason for being there, what is there to talk about? Apprehension was the elephant in the room and it was visible to each of us.
And then, the first woman was taken to her test, and another woman, younger (perhaps in her late forties), sat down beside me. We didn’t get to speak for long, because I was soon called, but in the brief time we had, I mentioned to her that I could see that this wasn’t her first scan, because she was sporting the same regrowth of grey-white hair that I was— though hers was shorter than mine. I just wanted her to know that I saw her as a sister-patient, that she had all my empathy.
Then she said: “And I’m going to lose it all again. My treatment isn’t working. It isn’t working And I have to start chemo again.”
It was such a heavy, meaningful, ominous thing to say, and as she spoke, there was still the trace of the smile that her face was meant to wear and that might otherwise come so easily to her…
My name had been called. What could I say? All I could manage was (in French): “We’ll see each other again here, with our beautiful pink complexions…” and then I was led off to the CT-Scan area.
What will her scan show? What will mine?
I should have taken her in my arms and just held her.
On Tuesday, April 15th, Notre-Dame de Paris, one of France’s greatest buildings and symbols, burned.
As is always the case in the 21st century, it was a catastrophic event that virtually everyone, everywhere, could watch. A disaster witnessed by human eyes on a planetary scale.
Human responses to its destruction by flame varied, people fitting the images being transmitted by every means possible to them into the critical context that made sense in their reality, whether it was religious, spiritual, political, cultural, economic, aesthetic…
I found it very hard to watch as the flames tore at the building, devouring it; billowing out, fed by the combustibles within and the oxygen provided by the ambient air. I wasn’t able to watch those scenes for very long. Something truly awful was happening in Paris, again, and for an instant, my thoughts veered to the possibility that this was one more nightmarish terrorist action, but they didn’t last. The day may come when extraordinary gathering places like the Dome of the Rock, or Hagia Sophia, or Notre-Dame de Paris fall to the same impulses that are tearing humans apart in the early 21st century, but surely, we’re not there yet.
It appears that, at least in the case of Notre-Dame de Paris, we were not.
I guess that by now, you’re taken aback by this post. What can this event possibly have to do with the very small, personal story of living with cancer that I’ve been telling, bit by bit and week by week, for the past 9 months, at this blog?
The impulse to write to you this time comes from a memory that was evoked as I watched the beautiful old cathedral suffering so much damage.
I’m not a traveler. I haven’t seen very much of the world with my own eyes. But I have seen all of Canada’s provinces except for Newfoundland (I’d love to correct that) and the territories to the north; and I’ve seen large swaths of the United States. I’ve also been to England (in the summer of 2015), and France (in the summer of 2012), each time, to visit one of my sons.
While in France, Simon, my friend Louise and I were based in Montpellier, where Simon was doing post-doctoral research. We branched out to Carcassonne, and also made sure to set aside three or four days to see some of Paris. I think we may have been a bit unlucky because we hit a heat wave, with temperatures between 31-34 Celsius that made almost everything exhausting and unpleasant (we spent most of our visit to the Louvre in the basement, trying not to pass out).
Then came the day we set off, on foot, to l’Île de la Cité, in the centre of Paris, on which Notre-Dame de Paris was built. It was the tourist season. There were crowds everywhere. The lineup to visit the cathedral had been forming for hours, the long, serpentine gatherings of people stood right out in the baking sun, waiting, so we decided to begin our day by visiting the adjacent attraction, which was a guided exploration of the catacombs that run under the Cathedral grounds. We were so happy to find ourselves out of the sun and hidden away underground, where it was cool and quieter.
We emerged refreshed and ready to join the lineup for the cathedral itself. It seemed to move much faster than we had imagined and soon, we stepped out of the heat and into the fresher, darker atmosphere of Notre-Dame.
I had no expectations going in. None. It was packed. There were people everywhere, bunched together, moving around with no sense of place or of decorum. They were probably just happy to finally have something to do and see. It was all so strangely anti-climactic.
And then, moving further in, I looked up.
To the vaulted ceiling which my eyes followed up and up to the roof; to the rows and rows of breathtaking arches, so beautiful, so impossible…
And I started to cry. Not just a few wet sniffles. I was overtaken by emotion so intense and so full that all I could do was cry and cry and cry. The tears spilled out of me. As I continued through the building, pushed along by people, I felt utterly filter-less. Defenseless. What did I feel? What was this emotional spillover all about?
I remember looking at the vaults and thinking of the people who had built them, painstakingly, at tremendous personal cost. Hundreds and hundreds of lives over centuries. Generation upon generation, dedicated to a single purpose, day after day. The vaulted ceiling was so beautiful. There was such presence there.
While I no longer adhere to any specific religion, I am a spiritual person and I think that I was also responding to the presence of the numinous in that space.
I don’t know what the human soul is, or whether it exists, but I know that on that day at Notre-Dame de Paris, I was immersed in emotion that I can only call soulful.
What caught me most off guard on Tuesday, when the images of the fire began flooding the internet, was the remembrance of that outpouring of tears on that day in 2012, and the recognition that moments like this have been part of my life over and over since my cancer diagnosis.
You see, one of the side effects of my new life with cancer is the sudden and surprising outpouring of tears and the constriction of my face and chest that accompany them. This has been happening to me from almost the very beginning. But they’re rarely tears of sadness, though I have those too. No, these tears are just like my Notre-Dame tears. They’re released unpredictably and they’re difficult to stop. I’m almost always with someone, in a conversation that, for whatever reason, veers to something small, or perhaps more substantive, that is just honest; true; real; and which becomes connected—even if only in me— to the ephemerality of my situation, to the essential nature of human life, to the deepest roots of love. It happens while I’m speaking. I just seem to melt into tears.
Most of my entourage knows that I’m fine. I say that I’m not sad, but that I simply have no more filters. I tell them that I realise that there’s no point trying to bury my tears. I can’t. They just flow, and seem to do so only when conversation has reached a soulful place. Even if the exchange is about someone else, my filters can fail. The membrane that separates me from a river of emotions is foundering.
These moments are like my experience inside Notre-Dame de Paris. They’re moments when all of the fear, compassion, pain, worry, joy, wonder, gratitude and love are flowing one into the other, and I am overwhelmed.
Why hold them back? My life has come to this. To times when what I’m feeling is the essence of my existence. I think my tears appear when words are insufficient.