HOW SHOULD I COUNT TIME NOW?

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series

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.

Henry, George; Autumn; Paisley Art Institute Collection, held by Paisley Museum and Art Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/autumn-190155

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.

Meynell, Caroline; Beech Trees; Buckinghamshire County Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/beech-trees-230934

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.

MacWhirter, John; An Autumn Evening; Wigan Arts and Heritage Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/an-autumn-evening-162630

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?

Knowles, Mike; Rain Clouds Gathering, Autumn; Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/rain-clouds-gathering-autumn-120090

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?

Jaroslav Panuska Death Looking into the Window of One Dying (1900)

 

MOXIE

There are people who seem to have been born old.

People to whom it isn’t possible to attach anything other than the qualities of adulthood and maturity; upon whom the traces of youthfulness seem to have had no hold. People who can be projected into middle and old age with almost no effort of the imagination.

Actor Simon Oakland
Actor Simon Oakland
Actress Mary Wickes
Actress Mary Wickes
Actress Eve Arden
Actress Eve Arden

Sometimes, when I’m watching movies with my son Christian, older movies especially, we’ll fall upon great character actors at the beginning of their careers, and after admiring their craft, I’ll find myself thinking and often exclaiming: My God, he’s probably only 25 in this, but he looks 45!

A lot of it has to do with the styles of the period (was forties fashion designed to rush everyone into middle age?), and sometimes, it’s about the face, shape, movement and especially voice of people from whom all traces of lightness, silliness, innocence and of becoming have been erased.

junior-moderns-1944  1947-mens-sport-coats-two-tone-mont-catalog-292x500

There’s a bagger at the grocery store down the street that I feel very protective of. He’s been working there for several years but he can’t be more than twenty or so. He isn’t tall: maybe 5’6” or 7”. Some days, he wears glasses, but not always. He’s blond but his hairline is already receding dramatically and I expect he’ll have lost most of it before he’s forty. His body looks unloved: soft, with a belly already, and sloping shoulders that indicate humility, or the absence of self-confidence. The way his head leans forward exacerbates this. Not so much geeky as simply neglected. This is accentuated by the generic, shapeless clothes he wears. His face is gentle, mild and unassuming. You can barely hear him when he speaks.

body_2

There’s intelligence in his eyes, a presence, and something else. Resignation? Retreat?

Every time I see him, I have the thought that high school must have been such a desert for him and I wonder what his life’s like and what his plans are. Has he found love? Will he? What are his ambitions? What are his parents like? What home life does he return to?

It’s so easy to imagine him at forty, fifty and even sixty. Even now, in his youth, he doesn’t look or act young. It makes me feel that his life path is inalterable.

objectivity-subjectivityOf course, and thankfully, not a single part of this is necessarily true.

It’s simply the way I see him and my vision is often faulty. It’s easily fooled by my subjectivity.

My mum is a case in point.

Up until recently, she just wasn’t aging. At least not to me. For the past thirty years, which have seen her live through the loss of her father, aunts, mother and husband (my dad: to cancer at 61); then seen her regroup, reinvent a life for herself and fall in love a second time, she was always my vital, energetic, indomitable, beautiful mother. Eternally so.

While I’ve been painfully aware of the signs of aging in my own body and on my face and hands, my mum remained in stasis: always keen, active, lithe and unsinkable; her vital energy not having diminished one bit, her wits about her and her face still unlined.

And then, about five years ago, storm clouds gathered again. She’s been hit, in succession, by aggressive breast cancer and the ensuing chemo and radiation; she fractured her hip in a freak accident a couple of years ago while traveling, had it mended with screws and then, just a week ago, finally had it replaced.

She’s had the sh*t kicked out of her.

It’s during these past five years that it occurred to me that my mum is, in fact, growing old along with the rest of us. It’s still hard for me to think of her this way. And yet, the evidence is mounting. The gruelling, punishing periods of sickness, surgery, injury and more surgeries provided me with a glimpse into her fragility and her vulnerability.

We’re most exposed when we’re dependent upon the care of others. When getting out of bed is something we can’t do unassisted. When we’re dressed in drab hospital gowns and bedridden. When our veins are being pumped full of poison. When there’s no point in offering a façade to others.

My mum is growing older. She’ll soon be 82, and still, if you saw her, your jaw would drop. In spite of everything she’s been through, she’s more beautiful than ever. And just as resilient.

My mum last year
My mum last year

The morning after her hip replacement, my son Simon and I went to visit her at the hospital. I’d had an anxious night, worried that hers had been tough, that walking on her own would be too much.

We arrived to the sight and sounds of my mother being wheeled out in her bed by her nurse, both of them laughing their heads off, headed to get a hip x-ray done. The nurse was saying: “You’re a superstar! You’ve done more in one night than most people do in a week!”.

That’s my mum. I know she’ll never grow old because I know her superpower. It’s moxie.

MY HANDS

My hand
My hand (June 2016)

The other day, as I was reading near a window, I looked over and caught the sunlight on my left hand. It was golden, summery light; the kind that transforms my house and gives it a warm glow. Wonderful light for reading.

It was also unkind, unforgiving sunlight that seemed determined to expose me.

There, was my hand. For a nanosecond, it belonged to someone else. It belonged to the future. Attached to me but briefly alien.

My hand looked so old.

It was as if the bones and veins were working their way to the surface;

as if the skin were water receding to expose shapes at the bottom of a harbor.”
― Jonathan Franzen

 

While still in her thirties and forties, my mum often used to say that she hated hers because she had “old hands”. I remember that my father didn’t like her saying that. He’d answer: “I like your hands”, as though he took it personally.

In this, as in many things, I take after my mother.

The shape of my hands is fine: slender fingers, no swollen joints and no calluses.  But they still betray me.

While my husband’s are a uniform shade of the palest brown, mine are sun-damaged and mottled. In fact, the skin of my hands seems to barely cover the living tissue underneath. Like overstretched cellophane.

My husband's hands
My husband’s hands

 

Sometimes, when they’re playing next to me, my grandchildren—Penelope, four, and Graeme, two— will stop and trace their perfect small fingers along the veins that sit atop my hands like fat green worms.

My left hand is actually my better hand: it hasn’t done as much hard scrubbing or lifting; it has plunged far less frequently into hot, detergent-laced water.  It has held fewer heavy bags—like the kind I drag along with me everywhere I go to teach— and performed fewer hard tasks. But that hasn’t stopped a noticeable dark spot from appearing on the top, near my thumb.

My son Simon's hand
My son Simon’s hand

Then, too, my hands show the long term effects of taking medication for thyroid issues: they’re dry and embarrassingly rough. My nails are almost useless: they chip and break and are covered in tiny striations that begin at the nail bed and run to each fingertip; the cuticle is damaged, and I can’t do a damned thing about it.

I’m a tall woman with small hands. When I got married, my ring finger was size 4 ½; now, it’s a 5.

I envy the women my age who aren’t betrayed by their hands, who can look down at them as they type on a keyboard or do the thousand and one things that their lives require without being reminded that their bodies are, in fact, losing vitality every day and that their beauty must increasingly be found somewhere deeper.

See all the women seated, youth in their face lifts, old age in their hands.” —J.P. Donleavy, The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms:The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about New York

 

My left hand on my wedding day. Unblemished.

A while ago, while looking at some of our wedding pictures, my husband said to me: “Do you know what has changed the most about you? It’s your hands.”

I remember feeling relieved and even happy.

 

One time, when I was apologizing for the roughness of my hand as it touched my son Christian’s arm, he said: “Your hands are dry and warm and I’ve always associated those qualities with the very best hands.”

Which is about the loveliest thing he could have said and which still comforts me.

Christian's hand
Christian’s hand

I don’t wear nail polish. I’ve never had a manicure. I don’t remember often enough to use moisturizing cream on them.

My hands are ME.  They’re not glamorous. They keep me honest by reminding me who I am and how much living I’ve already experienced.

They can’t be hidden, so I may as well use them. And get over myself.

My hands extend into life and allow me to do so much, and to touch the people I love. In recent years, they’ve also encircled the tiny hands of Penelope, then Graeme, and felt their soft skin and the gentle curves of their faces and arms…

Penelope's hand in mine
Penelope’s hand in mine

Aging often feels horribly Kafkaesque. Simply looking into the mirror is a humbling and sometimes jarring experience.

But as long as they’re able to reach out to others, and as long as there’s someone there to touch, I have reason to hold my hands to my chest in an expression of gratitude.

417067_10151386912430111_910799657_n (1)
This is my hand, next to Penelope’s perfect face, just a few hours after she was born. I’m so happy that it’s my hand that provides the scale in this beautiful image.

We enter the world with fists closed and when we leave, our hands are open. He said I should make full use of the time given to me for my life.
― Debalina Haldar, The Female Ward

To receive everything, one must open one’s hands and give.”
― Taisen Deshimaru