LAYER BY LAYER, I SURRENDER

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT SERIES 

RECENT OBSERVATIONS FROM CHEMO BASE CAMP, PART 3

October 2nd, 2018

Last week, one of the oncology psychologists on staff at the CHUM called me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting her to talk about my experiences so far. While I thought of saying: No, no, that’s not necessary, I’m doing pretty well, blah-blah-blah, another part of me remembered the sadness I’d recently struggled with. How quick my reflex was to dismiss her invitation because I didn’t want to go back to the CHUM on my off-week (that is, my chemo-free week), and perhaps because dismissing her was also a way of making some of my medicalized life just go away…

Waterhouse, John William; The Lady of Shalott; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-lady-of-shalott-117690

And then I also remembered that I had booked an appointment for Friday at 2pm with Les Jumelles, identical twins who have been in business 35 years, helping people (mostly women) suffering with hair loss, and whose salon is just a 15-minute metro ride from the CHUM. And so, I said yes to the psychologist, Véronique, and booked us for noon.

Véronique is actually at the end of her training, and her PhD supervisor, also a woman, sat discretely against the wall, tucked away in a corner, and simply listened and took notes for the entire 80 minutes (we should have gone to 90 but Les Jumelles were also expecting me).

It was a strange experience at first. I’ve consulted before, for other reasons, and am convinced of the immense value of the therapeutic process, but to be sitting in a sterile room on a stiff chair facing two psychologists, at a time when I feel as though I’m falling from a great height, with no sense of where the bottom is…Well, where do you start?

Everything about what’s happening to me is contextual. My separation from my husband; my new, multigenerational home; my diagnosis and treatment. These are all so intertwined. There have been so many simultaneous changes. Attempting to convey any of this in 80 minutes…

In the end, what I wanted to express to Véronique (or else why bother consulting her?) was my distress, which is always here, inside me, woven between my hope, my daily life which is so full of meaning and so suffused with love, and woven also into my fears about the possible destruction of my life and of me, and the suffering that attaches itself to this, which I cannot help but observe, distraught, as it seeps into the lives of my loved ones. I want to get through this experience of cancer and chemo, get right through to whatever outcome awaits me, but I want to get there without causing pain to the people I love. This is impossible because it isn’t how love works. This was what I left Véronique with last Friday. She said that she’ll come and see me as often as possible while I’m in chemo, which may not sound ideal, but which is a very sensitive decision on her part, leaving me as much time away from the CHUM as possible.

Next, I had to set off to the wig shop. Just like my meeting with Véronique, heading off to the shop in a part of the city I rarely even drive through was something I had to do alone. I surprised myself by doing this. It was a secret that I had largely kept from myself: that I could arrive at this point.

My new wig, looking a little creepy on its “stand”

From what I had read (spurred on by wishful thinking), people treated for colorectal cancer rarely lost their hair. It wasn’t one of THOSE cancers. Their hair might thin, but they usually fared quite well. And then came the chemo, and by week three, all I had to do was pass a large toothed comb through my hair to collect handfuls of it that had detached right at the follicle. There were other similar torments: washing my hair in the shower and collecting the strands of hair, like thick dark ribbons, caught between my fingers and clogging the drain. I had my hair cut much shorter, hoping to save it, but it just made it easier to spot the dozens and dozens of strands clinging to my clothes and collecting in the corners of my bedroom. And then I realized that my hair was so thin that you could see my scalp easily, because my part was widening every day…

My thick, wavy hair, that I had just grown longer after years of wearing it short, had become the drip of the loss that is a daily reality when you’re in chemo. And I couldn’t stand it anymore. Couldn’t stand the feeling of decay that it evoked in me. So, I decided that I would do what I thought I would never do: I walked into Les Jumelles, feeling alone and not very tough, and I tried on wig after wig—most of which I thought made me look appalling—until I saw one that seemed, um, human, and that I thought maybe I could wear.

Palmer, Jean; Head; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/head-205760

A small cap was placed over my real hair, and the wig was placed over that, and there I was: straight-haired, with a long fringe that cut across my face. It was impossible for me to speak above a whisper, or to smile. Something was happening in that moment that felt unreal. Cinematic. Taking this step was for me, in important ways, a final retreat, or, looked at from the other side, a determined decision to walk toward all of what chemo means.

The women in the shop thought I might return on another day and have them shave my head and do some final adjusting. They were surprised when I said that I wanted my head shaved right away, and the wig styled and trimmed (with a shorter fringe at the front please!).

And then it was done, and I stepped out onto the sidewalk feeling like some false, floating thing was on my head, and that everyone would stop and stare (and maybe screech). No one batted an eyelash. I had already ordered beanies and caps that I would be able to wear when I wanted out from under the wig, and I wear them a lot at home. But out in the world, the wig, while still an alien thing, is also a valuable accessory because it allows me to walk around without a giant C, for chemo, stamped onto my forehead.

Today, the house is empty, and so it’s my time to write. I didn’t dress up, or put any makeup on, and I just covered my head with a dark blue beanie (no wig) and sat in from of my laptop. Within minutes, the doorbell rang, but I didn’t answer, because I didn’t want to be seen like this. The delivery man left a package by the door. It took just seconds for me to see that he had left the wrong package. Five minutes later, the doorbell rang again, and I knew I had to answer, and make the swap. And face this man.

This morning, after the deliveries.

Then, 15 minutes later at the most, the doorbell rang again (!!), and this fellow, whom I could see through the bevelled glass, seemed pretty insistent, because he rang another time, and just hung out in front of the door. Oh, man. Well, I answered the door. He was a lovely fellow coming to take measurements of the floors because we’re having work done on them. I had been expecting him at 7 pm.

Something is happening to me as I live with cancer and chemo. I’m being made to let go of more than I can count. And each time, I survive the loss. And each time, I am given something I didn’t have. Insight, clarity…I can’t say yet.

Layer by layer, I surrender.

 

 

 

SAMUEL

Henderson, Anne G.; Life Circle; Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/life-circle-59910

June 21st 2017

My day had an upbeat beginning. My teaching engagements have slowed to a trickle, so I have more windows of time to fill differently.

This morning, that meant accepting my mum’s invitation to a tea party at her house with Anne, my daughter-in-law, and Penelope and Graeme, my grandchildren (now 5 and 3).  While my mum and Anne stayed at the table a little longer enjoying each other’s company, I was called to a higher purpose—that is, playing with P&G (or Beans and Chuck Norris, as their papa calls them).

Aside from a bit of teaching preparation for tomorrow that still needed doing, the only other thing on my agenda was (and still is as I write this) an invitation to attend the vernissage of the latest collection of works by members of the Montreal Camera Club.

In between, I spent some time in front of this laptop. A couple of hours ago, an email dropped into my Inbox. It was from Miriam, a former student of mine whom I last saw in class last fall. Its title is MEET OUR BABY BOY.

These are just words to you. Happy and upbeat.

But in me, they’ve set off something altogether different: a swirling wash of feelings that have completely taken me over. Even as I sit here typing, I’m almost entirely absorbed in the emotional memories Miriam and Abmel’s newfound joy has awoken.

I feel such bliss for them. Such empathy and euphoria. And something close to disbelief, because this event is sublime, and laced with a residual sadness that has made me cry and left me with a pressure in my chest from so many more tears still wanting to be released, and my physical self just barely able to contain them.

Miriam and Abmel became parents on June 15th, at 9:12 pm. Their son weighed 7 pounds one ounce. A lovely time of day to be born. A perfect weight. In her email, Miriam wrote: “We are very happy and just wanted you to share our joy.”

How perfectly normal.

Munn, Michelle; Untitled 1954; Birmingham City University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/untitled-1954-32987

But no, no, no. NOT to Miriam and Abmel, who are in their early forties, who have lost several babies, I think, to miscarriage—the last time, at more than twenty weeks—a baby they could hold and touch and recognise as having everything and yet still did not live. A baby old enough to tear their hearts out.

Miriam was a beginner when she first started French lessons, and more than once had to endure the litany of beginner questions like: Are you married? Do you have children? How old are they? What are their names ?—to which her colleagues responded so naturally, but which required of Miriam tremendous grace and discretion. I only realised this later.

When she first became my student, and those questions came up and Miriam answered “No, no. No children”, with a polite smile, I thought that perhaps there was a fertility problem with the couple, or that they’d just chosen not to have any. Miriam was always so private.

But when Abmel, who was more advanced in his French, became my student, things changed between the three of us. While Miriam is ebullient and expressive, Abmel is quieter and more intense.

Anima 1
by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

He was struggling with his pain, and with a weariness that was in part the result of dealing with family problems back in his native Cuba, but more profoundly, with an incipient loss of meaning in his life.

Miriam is always warm and optimistic, despite the trauma of her losses, but Abmel’s was the energy of someone aggrieved. It isn’t just that he had the words to say more; Abmel wanted to say more; to express his feelings of growing dissatisfaction with a life in which career pursuits seemed hollower, and in which there was nothing, yet, that he could imagine on the horizon, to quell his unease.

Miriam stopped coming to French class a month early. I’d heard that she was very busy with work; that her department was overwhelmed by the effects of a recent project. And then, one Friday afternoon in December, after his class, Abmel waited till everyone had left the conference room and told me that Miriam was pregnant again. No, that’s not quite right: he whispered that Miriam was pregnant.

Fisher, Samuel; Mater et filius; Solihull Heritage & Local Studies Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mater-et-filius-55683

I remembered an earlier class when, speaking of the last child he and Miriam had lost, Abmel had spread his hands out in front of him—the width of a shoebox—his opposing palms slightly curved, as though touching invisible feet and an invisible head, to show me that THIS was the immensity of their loss.

On Abmel’s face last December, I could read everything. He didn’t smile when he delivered his news and I knew why. He was afraid that Fate was listening.

He didn’t smile because he was afraid to hope and to believe that this time could end differently. He didn’t smile because he was now on guard. Again. Thrown into a state of powerless vigilance. There was fear in his face and a tightness—each experience having further compromised his capacity for carefree joy. Abmel’s face is beautiful, and lined.

MEET OUR BABY BOY detonated in my Inbox. I had resisted contacting Miriam, asking for news. I knew that she was on precautionary pregnancy leave and I worried that if something had gone wrong, my inquiries would only cause her distress.

Downie, Kate; 12 Minute Baby; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/12-minute-baby-83821

MEET OUR BABY BOY. And attached to her words, a photo of baby Samuel, minutes after his birth, resting on Miriam’s breast. And on her face, an expression of completeness and peace.

I lost most of this afternoon to a flood of feelings that I couldn’t contain and that left me spent and all upside down and, improbably, calm.

A Lullaby, by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

Miriam and Abmel’s son Samuel is like my Christian: the life that vanquishes a grief that seemed bottomless.

His parents are not sleeping very much these days. Their lives have just expanded a thousandfold and are no longer their own. Abmel’s search for meaning is over. And Miriam? Well…I like to imagine her in the moments captured by Abmel’s photo.

June 15th, 2017

 Dear Miriam,

                 Today, you sit up in a hospital bed. It is early evening. Your bleary-eyed husband stands next to you, staring in awe at the beautiful new son you cradle in your arms, who is as fragile and miraculous as life itself. And imprinted on his tiny head and body are all the joys, sorrows and pains that Fate will cast upon him. But you will love him enough to make his journey worthwhile.

             And then, you turn him toward you. You lift him to your face, feeling his breath, absorbing his scent. And you bring him closer, ever so gently, so that his tiny head might nestle in the warm hollow of your neck. And slowly, slowly, you rub your jaw along the silky down covering his delicate skull, and then it happens: that long awaited moment of absolute remembrance. It is exactly as you knew it would be. It is timeless. It is sacred. And at long, long last, you tilt your head and kiss your son.

Collins, Cecil; Dawn Invocation; Towner; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dawn-invocation-73112