1. Looking at your face close up in a mirror, like when you’re putting on makeup, you expect to see something in your eyes, or maybe a change in your skin, but really all you see is the unadulterated, adulterated you. The eyes that look back are knowing. And that makes you feel estranged from yourself, and maybe also sad.
2. You are as fetching and as fully You as you were on any preceding day.
3. Remember that no one else can tell. Cancer has no smell (to humans), no sound. Cancer is part of the person you’ve always been.
4. Your life HAS changed its track. Your relationship with time, your lifespan, is no longer conceptual—not just something “out there” that eventually runs out on everyone. Your horizon is different than everyone else’s (or at least, that’s how you feel, because you know nothing of most other people’s lives but you’ve just learned a lot more about your own). You think of them as looking far ahead, believing, as they should, that they will not die of the cancer that multiplies inside you, but of something else. They believe they’ll be spared, and why not? You did. You hoped. But cancer has torn a whole bunch of pages off your life’s calendar, and you don’t know how many years, or months or even days…
5. You shouldn’t hide your illness from the world. Cancer, like most profoundly life-altering experiences—losing your job, separating or divorcing, the death of a child, parent, spouse, or friend—is an extraordinary filter. You fear the effects of sharing, and you’re wrong. Your suffering is meaningful not just to yourself, but to others. Cancer gives those who love you, who care about you, who just simply like you—even strangers whose empathy response cannot be helped—an opportunity to show love, to give reassurance, to nurture, to feel close to you, to feel the most truthful emotions of life: fear, sadness, insecurity, vulnerability, need, gratitude, intimacy, loneliness and most of all connection.
6. Don’t walk around feeling sick because you’ve learned that you’re sick. You’ve likely been this way for a while (in my case, probably for years). Shake off this self-conditioning. Remember the insane, hectic, busy, active life you led just weeks ago? Well, you’re the same person who did all that. You have lots of vital energy and if you’re not in any kind of significant pain or distress, then the only thing that has changed is your awareness.
7. Don’t deny a single feeling you might have. I’m pretty sure that will only hurt more, and I’m convinced that each is appropriate. You’ll find yourself ambushed by sadness especially—a tight throat full of tears and pain that catches you in a manner that seems random, but which is often linked to flashes of true insight. Like when you hear people speak of travel plans and sense that this may now be forever beyond your reach; or when a discussion’s taking place about which quality of paint to use in the bedrooms of your new house and you realize that you will perhaps be gone long before the paint loses its glow, so who cares, and what does it matter? ; or when at day’s end, or maybe in the quiet of the house in the morning before anyone has awoken, you live intensely alone with the painful knowledge of your cancer, and resist it just a split second, wanting to disappear into the magical thinking that could make the fearful, difficult future go away and turn everything back to what it was.
8. Train your mind to smile, precisely at such moments. Train your mouth to turn its corners up. Think warm thoughts. Think about gratitude. Think about everything, everyone you have NOW.
No, that would be wrong. Ours is a long and winding narrative that, gathered up in my memory and in my very bones, is a whole universe. By some strange miracle of quantum mechanics perhaps, each and every decision we made, separately and together, each and every action and reaction, brought us to now.
If you believe in fate, then I am, we are, where we were meant to be; and if you don’t, then it was all so much bigger and incalculable than we are—my husband, my children and every human network sprouting from us or connected to us—that we were only ever meant to do our best and keep moving forward.
When I turn my gaze toward the days to come, I’m more aware now than I’ve ever been that any future I project myself into—in a new house, with a new version of my family, with new traditions and patterns, in a new town—is not my future, but rather a cinematic narrative fashioned in my mind, my predictive brain doing what it does best: imagining what might be in the simplest, most familiar images.
Most of me lives for this imminent future—the island of a life that’s there for me if I can only reach it— but a smaller, hardened part still grapples with the reality of it. In seven days, I shall have left my house on Laurelwood. So much has happened to bring me to the brink of this new life and yet, so much stands before me, casting shadow, that even this small patch of future still feels unreal.
And the network of people—family, friends, all my loved ones, who are here, now.
Their presence has been a constant in my life, not subject to hours and seasons in the way that most things are.
Their love thrums steadily and more and more loudly these days.
I’m so grateful to them for it.
In a message to a friend the other day, I likened the feeling of connection their love creates to the network of roots that link the trees, hidden away underground, hundreds, thousands of ramifications that bind them, allowing them to communicate and to nurture each other.
Illness clears the calendar of imagined, possible things. What’s left is the inevitability of medical appointments and treatments…and spaces in between. There’s no need, yet, to try to fill those spaces.
For now, I fill boxes and clear rooms. I staged my house for sale, and now I wait for my cancer to be staged. Who could have predicted it?
This blog is one of my favourite places to come to, but you wouldn’t know it in recent months, would you? I’m sorry about that.
I find myself in a corner—not of my making and certainly not of yours. Your presence out there creates a vast space. It’s a place where so many things seem possible.
But I’m so blocked, it’s awful. In BREAKING OPEN THE SKY, I told you parts of the story, but I know now that I have to tell some of the rest of it, or forsake coming to REEF, because I find myself unable to write anything else to you until I do. Because I’m all of a piece.
There’s an elephant in this room I share with you that sits alongside everything you know about me so far and about how I see the world. Elephant really is the right metaphor, because once in your life, it overwhelms everything else—at least at first.
What you need to know—in as few details as possible—which is coincident with my moving away to a new place and separating from my husband, is the fact that I have cancer, officially diagnosed only a few weeks ago, though of course, I’ve felt that something was wrong with my body far longer than that. Two weeks isn’t much time, and yet still, I feel that I’ve travelled a great distance since then.
The diagnosis is very serious. There can be no pretence that my very life isn’t at stake. And at the same time, there’s an abundance of hope. The nuts and bolts of my situation are that in a few days, I’ll be scanned and MRI’d and checked out in every way possible; that once my cancer has been “staged” (once we know how advanced it is), I’ll start weeks of radiation treatment; then I’ll be operated on and then, perhaps, receive chemo, although that’s still only a possibility (one that I won’t even think about until I have to).
Written out on paper, this looks bleak as hell. But it isn’t. Know this, because it matters. Know that I’m being treated in one of the best medical centres in the world for my illness. Know that the surgeon (a brilliant woman and extraordinary human being) I met just 10 days ago looked at me with the truest, most direct gaze and said that we would be heading toward curing my cancer. Know that she said this with genuine confidence and optimism. Know that the blood work that came back two days ago was very encouraging. Know that aside from the symptoms of my illness, I show no other signs of ill health, and look pretty great.
There. That’s the surface of this experience. It’s the generic. But beneath it is the very personal narrative of living with illness—with this particular illness. I don’t propose to turn REEF into a cancer diary, but I can’t ignore it either as it has, in important ways, hijacked my life.
During the first moments and days after the diagnosis was delivered by the gastroenterologist, each hour was about bouncing along waves: some of emotion, some of shock. Her face (yes, I’ve been treated by two female doctors so far) was so serious—deadly serious, really. I was with my son Simon and with my husband in her office, and she frightened us with her intensity—with the urgency of her directives.
My thoughts and feelings that overrode everything else at that time were of tremendous regret—at having neglected myself, foolishly, stupidly, for so long—and painful guilt, of the kind that comes from the implacable truth that what is hurting me is also already leaching into the lives of the people who love me most, and causing them suffering. These combined to create a deep sadness that threatened to erase every other consideration…for a while.
What was absent, what IS absent, is shame and embarrassment. Though I now carry the awareness of my cancer with me every second, I don’t feel tainted by it. This comes as a great surprise to me. I wrote to a dear friend earlier this week that it seems that whatever self-pity or squeamishness or revulsion I might have felt about being sick with cancer when I was a young woman, is gone. I don’t even think of the tumour, the illness, as something alien. These cells were produced by my body, and they are part of me for now. Just as my gall-bladder malfunctioned for years, so are these cells malfunctioning and wounding me now.
I’ve often seen people respond to their diagnosis of cancer with an immediate, overwhelming desire to get it out of their body as soon as possible, as though the very thought of it makes their skin crawl. But I’m surprised to realize that I don’t feel quite this way. I will be happy when the mechanics of my digestion are able to resume more normal functioning, but I don’t feel that I’m living with an invader (though I fully understand the meaning of metastasis). I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I feel less anxious, which helps.
The diagnosis of this cancer swept all of the scribbles off my agenda. I will not be able to work for a year. This is a certainty. Having to cancel classes, knowing that I will not have the richness of adult education and the joy of daily contact with my students in my life for at least a year, is a loss that I will feel deeply. I do already. There will only be targeted, fixed dates in my agenda during the next few months: the dates of treatments and tests, and of course the date of our move, July 5th. After that, all of the radiation treatment dates will be blocked. And then the date of surgery. These are the new signposts of my life. These are the brass tacks.
But already, so much has filled these agenda hours, each symbolic rectangle of time has been coloured in hues of green, blue, red, white and everything in between. These are the shades of love that have illuminated the past weeks. I have been at the receiving end of an outpouring of love and support—from my sons, husband, family, friends, students and neighbours— such as I never thought possible. Understand that, as always, this is everything. Know that love and support provide the alchemy that changes pain and fear and pessimism into acceptance and hope. Know that it matters. And know that right here, right now, it’s why I feel happy. Apprehensive, concerned, shaken, fragile, but genuinely happy to be alive, and fortunate, despite recent events.
About this video: Shot this morning, such a singularly gorgeous morning: even the sun feels upstaged.
The leaves speak and the birds answer.
(yes, that’s the sun pushing up off the horizon, flickering)
I’ve reminded myself and others that the “diagnosed” me is the same person who packed 250 boxes (with help!) and got this house ready for sale at super-speed just a few months ago while teaching full-time, and did all of those other things that have made up my life for years…while sick with cancer. As my surgeon said to me: cancer and I have likely been roommates for 5-10 years. It’s good to remember this. We walk with shadow every day: we’re simply made to look towards the light.
My cancer has reminded me of a book I read a few years ago, written by Gabor Maté, a palliative care specialist, psychotherapist, and caregiver for people who are living on the street, titled When the Body Says No. It came to mind almost the second I heard that I was seriously sick. It explores “the intimate connection between mind, body, and spirit through life stories and intimate interviews with dozens of people who have lived, died, and sometimes overcome chronic illnesses”. It speaks of “the cancer personality”.
There’s a deep lesson for me hinted at in the pages of Maté’s book. It’s a lesson I had already begun learning these last few years (a bit late) about self-love; about boundaries; about accepting one’s value as a human being; about the limits of what can be absorbed into a body; and finally, about the fact that receiving is the crucial concomitant of giving.
On June 6th, when we got home from the gastroenterologist’s, my son Christian sat with me right here at the dining room table, and, with the loveliest smile on his face, and looking right into my eyes said:
“Well, Mum, this is the moment.”
And when I said: “What moment?”
He replied: “The moment when every bit of love you’ve ever given; every kindness; every soothing kiss or hug; every act of patience and presence…this is when it all comes back to you tenfold.”
Until last Tuesday, I hadn’t written a word in two months; hadn’t posted anything here on REEF since February 10th. But the time has come. Except that I’m all jammed up, very much in I-don’t-know-where-to-begin territory.
In part, this is because REEF isn’t a diary. Though it’s deeply personal, I mean for it to be something that extends beyond me—always beyond. But these past months have been the culmination of a very personal odyssey.
Not everything written should be shared, and so I sit here feeling the push to write and the reflex to hold back. It doesn’t sit well with me.
“I see myself as an emotional writer, and believe that my writing works best and reaches my reader more truthfully when I’m able to draw from the emotional climate of my life at any given moment to help me make sense of my thoughts and concerns—which seems like a huge contradiction given that I’ve been told many times that I’m too analytical (my osteopath constantly scolds me for being too much “up inside my head”!). “
I’m happy I came up with this for Leslie, because I think it just may be true. It explains what happens when emotional reality overwhelms the space inside me and my ability to step back. What happens is silence.
Here’s what I’m willing to share—what’s necessary, to make way for the rest.
In the last five months, my husband and I have accepted that we must separate, after thirty-seven years of marriage and our entire adult lives together. Is this irrevocable? We don’t know. Time will tell. There is still deep and abiding love between us.
This is an outcome that was years in the making, of course, and by late last fall, we could both see the fork in the road ahead. No matter what the future holds for us, this decision means a series of endings. Life as we’ve lived it for three and half decades has come to an end. Our time in this house—our first and only house—is almost over. Life as Michelle et Sylvain, which has been all we’ve known since I was seventeen and he, nineteen and a half, will soon cease.
And so, over the past five months, we’ve ridden an emotional roller coaster whose ups, downs, frights, lurches and dramas belong to us alone.
You don’t have to know the details of our life together and the places where we went wrong, the pain and anxiety that follows us into each new day, to understand that in our small lives, separation has set off a seismic shift.
I’ve not been writing because each day, for so many months, has been weighed down by the implacable fact of ongoing deconstruction, and the fullness of it, that has kept me saturated in an anxious state of emotion, of watchfulness, and of wanting to salvage as much as possible.
And yet, on our families’ trees, my husband and I have helped grow new branches—three living sons and two grandchildren so far: new connections that will continue to grow together and also sprout outward. There’s no stopping this thing we started in adolescence.
I’ve not written because in addition to my full-time teaching, my husband and I, with the help of our sons, have put ourselves through the unforgiving, almost clinical undertaking of preparing our house for sale: what, in the business, is referred to as “staging” our house.
It’s a process that took us about six weeks (I don’t know if that’s a world record but it feels like it should be). Working together, we filled over two-hundred boxes with all of the stuff (books, mostly) that we want to bring into the next phase of our lives. They now sit in a storage unit. On hold. We threw out so much that we had to call the city to send a garbage truck over. My husband repainted rooms and fixed the small broken things that unhappiness had caused him, us, to neglect and let go for years.
We transformed our house into a series of clean, clear spaces from which we were as absent as possible. This process of staging, of excising yourself from your own home, is exhausting, demoralizing, cleansing and…therapeutic. With our sons’ help, my husband and I unburied ourselves.
And then our house went on the market. And sold almost overnight.
A young couple will soon make it theirs. They’ll say: It’s ours, but just like us, and the three families who lived here before us, they’re just passing through, their ownership of the property one of civilization’s most entrenched delusions.
They say they loved it from the moment they saw it. I learned that they came twice in one day to see it: once in the morning, then again in late afternoon. They wrote us a letter to say that it’s a house that they can grow into and grow old together in; that they love the natural light that fills it; that from the moment they walked through the front door, it felt like home to them. They say it will make them happy.
Since then, I’ve found it easier to let go of this cozy house that, in truth, was filled with happiness too. I look outward, and so does my husband. Our sights are on the horizon. Like everything else in the Universe, we’re on a trajectory taking us away from where we are now.
“We are not trapped or locked up in these bones. No, no. We are free to change. And love changes us. And if we can love one another, we can break open the sky.”
― Walter Mosley, Blue Light
“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
From Poets.org, I receive in my email Inbox, every morning, a poem. It’s such a simple thing to subscribe to.
What I know of poets and poetry is scant, and the luxury of these daily deposits is a much greater pleasure than I expected . The poems I receive are sometimes all angles and sharp edges. Some are cryptic and impenetrable to me. Sometimes, they annoy me and I send them to a small, merciless death in my Trash. There are days when a concept or an emotion in one of these poems grabs me by the throat for reasons I cannot explain—perhaps on another day, it would have passed me by—and finds its way into me. Sometimes I know exactly why I do, or don’t, like the poem. In either case, the possibility of such a visceral, immediate response is bracing.
This is the one I was sent this morning. I can share it because it’s part of the public domain. It’s so short! How could it have lifted me so easily? Well, it did.
Perhaps it was the lovely trinity of “time and change and sorrow”: three words to define life itself.
Or the fact that one’s heart is “the entrance-place of wonders”…
It doesn’t matter. It moved me to post it here. Enjoy, and do visit the Poets.org website.
I am glad daylong for the gift of song,
For time and change and sorrow;
For the sunset wings and the world-end things
Which hang on the edge of to-morrow.
I am glad for my heart whose gates apart
Are the entrance-place of wonders,
Where dreams come in from the rush and din
Like sheep from the rains and thunders.
Translation: That’s the [so-called] artist’s life.
I’ve heard this expression interjected into conversations for as long as I can recall, and like so many sayings, its meaning is slippery. In my translation of it, I added “so-called”, tentatively. C’est ça la vie d’artiste isn’t a completely innocent turn of phrase. There can be a little bit of Shakespeare’s salad daysin it: hints of youthful idealism and inexperience minus, alas, the connotation of heyday. Usually though, it falls under the pall of “so-called”: the implication that la vie d’artiste is more pretense, posturing and bohemian conceit than it is an authentic way of life.
I recently stumbled upon Léo Ferre’s “La vie d’artiste”, a sad song about disenchantment and love gone wrong under the pressures of struggling to live when making ends meet is a daily grind, and it occurred to me that I had a bit of all of those elements on my mind when my son Christian arrived home last Thursday night.
Christian’s return sometime after 11 pm capped one hell of a day. Whatever else the artist’s life may be, it isn’t boring. On the program that Thursday, he was booked first at the McGill Simulation Centre, where he’s been working year-round as an actor since early 2016, slipping into the skin of every imaginable patient or person the job requires, and picking up more and more hours. Yesterday, Christian was again playing Pat, a young man with cerebral palsy desperate to maintain an autonomous life. He’s one of Christian’s favourite characters to play.
That work done, he was off immediately, with little time to spare, to an old church in Westmounta bus ride away, where he’s been performing in Antigone for over a week and still has a couple to go. The Greek tragedy is this year’s production by Raise the Stakes Theatre, a classical theatre ensemble with a shoestring budget whose limits are absolutely eclipsed by its passionate approach to up-close-and-personal theatre. But there’s no escaping the hard truth that no one does theatre to get rich. And yet still, it was possible to assemble fifteen actors, four musicians and a production team made up of a half dozen creative and dedicated people, and draw them to rehearsals as often as six times a week, from 6 to 10 pm—the quiet hours in the beautiful old church.
And this they did for a month of rehearsals: out of passion, out of commitment, motivated by a longing to create, collaborate and perform; out of a need that I think I understand, and also, simply, out of personal loyalty to the director, and/or to each other.
But all of those extra hours that punctuate long work days add up, and not long after the play’s opening, Christian mentioned an infection spreading through the ranks (“a plague” was actually what he called it), causing fever, congestion and, worst of all, laryngitis. By Wednesday night, two actors, members of the Greek Chorus, were down for the count, leaving their mates, including Christian, scrambling to divide up their lines, drop some, and reconfigure the blocking of the affected scenes, all within hours of the performance. Then their director was hit with flu symptoms. And it began to feel like they’d all been cast, unwittingly, in a re-enactment of And Then There Were None. Regroup, recover, perform.
I’m not making light of their predicament. I’m flabbergasted. What drives them all? It isn’t the money: there’s none, which is the usual case with small theatre companies. The costs of mounting a production, the time invested, the long rehearsal period and the fact that money only comes in with each performance at the end of a very long cycle of planning and preparation: these test the elasticity of the budget to its limits.
What drives them is something so strong that it interferes with self-preservation.
That’s the thing about theatre: it’s alive. Whether Christian has transformed himself into a patient for some future medical doctor to learn from, repeating his performance as many times as necessary on any given day; or whether he has put himself out there on the altar of an old church on a weekday evening to bring to life ancient Greece with his fellow actors, he is embracing la vie d’artiste, in all of its poorly remunerated, often thankless, electrifying, anxiety-inducing, improvisational, collaborative and soul-expanding glory.
“Most of the truly remarkable experiences I’ve had in theatre have filled me with uncertainty and disorientation.”
― Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre
“Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good.”
― Terrence Mann
It included a snow storm and horrible driving conditions;
cold and biting wind;
teaching contracts that have tilted to the bad side of too many;
a constant cough that appears to be caused by allergies to what’s in the air at one of the places where I teach;
sad or worrying news about people I care about;
more sad or worrying news about them;
a heaviness I carry around, which is the weight of what I cannot change or resolve (at this moment in my life, it’s as dense as gold);
and a sense of being trapped in a power crusher, with the walls of time closing in and no way to stop them. No room (not for escape, but for breath and perspective and space to maneuver).
At such times, I walk about with the feeling that I could easily cry (and wouldn’t that feel good?), and that I am inadequate to the task of being a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good mother, a good teacher, wife, neighbour, human being …
While I tangled with all of these, the sun rose every morning, and my life–the single miracle from which everything flows—never failed in its task of moving me along.
My sister, hip deep in her own struggles, remembered to enquire about the wellbeing of a friend I worry about;
A son cooked dinner for me to come home to late in the day, once, and then again the next evening. His alchemical actions transformed food into love, meals into sharing, and weariness into wellbeing.
(How do any of us survive loneliness?)
A friend reached out to me and found my hand, though I couldn’t hold hers nearly long enough.
An afternoon and evening spent with my granddaughter and grandson yesterday took me sailing on a true-blue ocean of simple, hopeful joy. It saw their parents off to a Christmas party and the rest of us, my other sons and husband, together, making merry ourselves.
A first son fetched us a meal of fried, roasted and sweet foods that left us all with greasy fingers and feelings of satisfaction. He choreographed the day’s end: stories, baths, bedtime without mama and papa.
As the house went quiet, my sons and I—they with their extraordinary niece and I with my sweet-hearted grandson—lay in the dark next to the small and trusting bodies of these children who are the channels of all of life’s promises and reminders that we cannot fail them, and listened to them breathe in the dark, sometimes moaning softly, sometimes crying out as the day’s tiny storms caught up with them, entering their dreams.
Danielle, Christian, Louise, Simon, Jeremy, Anne, Penelope and Graeme and Sylvain, I love you. Thank you.