The way I’d been stating, with wonder and pride, that in the 15 months I’d been receiving chemotherapy, I hadn’t been sick; hadn’t caught the plague that felled Christian in the late fall of 2018; hadn’t even had a cold.
Tsk, tsk, tsk. All it took was the good ol’ norovirus.
On Thursday, November 14th, thinking that I had allowed for a period of “minimum safe distance”, I drove the 35km down the TransCanada to visit my mum, who had been sick with the stomach flu since the previous weekend. Her partner, a retired physician, was taking good care of her, but he had returned to his home in the city on Tuesday to look after things there.
My mum, who is the Energizer Bunny of octogenarians, was still weak from her ordeal and in need of supplies. So I scooped homemade chicken soup from our freezer, enriched it a bit with some gently simmered vegetables, bought some Yorkshire Gold decaf and also regular tea (for guests) and a whole assortment of dry biscuits from the British tea shop here in Hudson, picked up some bananas, some applesauce and delivered them the same day.
Looking fragile, as she does more and more, my mum was nevertheless visibly jazzed to have some company, and so, with my white cotton gloves on (because you can’t be too careful with stomach flu, even after 5 days), I warmed a bowl of soup for her, made the tea, and got the cookies arranged on a plate.
The conversation was lovely! My mum brightened, and soon we were talking about books and Christmas and a whole bunch of things I can no longer remember. I purposely—in spite of the multiple cups of tea—did not use her bathroom before leaving. As I left, my mum said: “We have to do this more often, it’s such fun; our conversations are so interesting.” That was mostly just a good sales pitch. Mothers want to see their children, and cancer (and the added distance between us since my move to Hudson) has made a serious dent in my ability to visit her in any kind of regular fashion.
There is so little I can do for her…so little I can do for anyone, that I drove home imbued with a feeling of having done SOMETHING to alter my general ineffectiveness.
The next day, Friday the 15th, Simon was invited to dinner by one of the coolest couples on the planet, Heather and Adrien: she, a geology teacher at the same college as Simon, and he, an anthropologist at Université de Montréal—who speaks at least 5 languages fluently. They live in the most cutting edge house in Hudson. It looks like something out of an upscale Wallander episode. It’s a giant wood bungalow with all of the wooden structural features (ceilings, beams, walls, the works!) exposed. It’s geothermically heated, and situated on several acres of woodland. They’re vegan and grow most of their own food (of course!). Heather and Adrien are at the forefront of preparedness for climate change. They’re also warm and kind and that’s probably why Heather thought to say to Simon: “Hey! Bring your mum!”
The evening was so lovely. Mostly, I just sat there dazed by everyone’s brilliance and the breathtaking scope of their knowledge. I’d time-travelled and somehow wound up in a room with a bunch of Renaissance polymaths.
And then dinner was served. And as the large bowl of tasty, multicoloured (there were beets!) roasted root vegetables served over basmati rice was placed in front of me—suddenly, as though someone sinister wearing a plague doctor mask had quickly entered and exited my field of vision—I felt the first gentle wave of noro-nausea move inside my stomach. The conversation was as animated as ever, but I was retreating from it, feeling hot and sticky and clammy as the waves of nausea started to build. I forced myself to finish my meal, sitting there like a stump, while the realization of what was happening to me became clearer and clearer, and then, in the gentlest, most urgent-without-sowing-panic voice, I asked my hosts: “Is there a bathroom nearby?.”
That poor powder room. Poor toilet bowl. It was hit with a thundering cascade of totally undigested, colourful root vegetables. Once. Twice. Oh God.
Twenty-four hours after visiting my mum, I was noro-infected up to my eyeballs. Is there a more mortifying way to experience a first encounter with brilliant and generous hosts? The odds are against it, I think.
Of course, this was just the beginning. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, and was up at least 10 more times, my stomach turning itself inside out. By the next day, it was like I had been scraped off the battlefield—like someone about whom the triage people would have said: We’re not sure about her.”
I spent Saturday in my bed, flattened under the covers, drinking only water and a bit of salt-spiked apple juice (I eventually switched to salted orange juice cut with boiled water—the hydrating mix recommended by the CHUM).
Sunday, I graduated to banana and some apple sauce and as much water as I could drink. And an extra-protein Boost I think.
I had my sights on Monday, which was my sister Danielle’s birthday. I wanted to keep my promise to her to take her out for BBQ chicken and GREAT fries (= Côte-St-Luc BBQ), and then bring her back to Hudson for the afternoon. I succeeded!
Tuesday and Wednesday, it was back to the CHUM for blood tests, my pre-chemo check-up and chemo itself. Back to the routine. Back to….just cancer and treatment. I had lost a kilo (2.2 pounds), but otherwise, I was good to go.
Except that…I wasn’t quite right. I still had occasional waves of nausea. Slight pain in my stomach. I was still skittish around food, and Simon was watching my intake like a hawk.
Then came the evening of Monday, November 25th. There we were, Simon and I, watching a movie while we ate the chicken parmigiana I had prepared. The movie was fun, the company, as wonderful as always and…oh no…my guts were out to sea. It was happening AGAIN.
This is the thing about the treatment of cancer (most especially after 15 months’ worth): it leaves you immune-suppressed. I had thought myself above this. I had developed a false sense of security. And boy, did my body let me have it. I spent another complete night heaving over the toilet bowl only this time, both ends of my digestive tract were expressing their outrage in tandem.
The next morning, with Simon off to teach but checking in with me every hour, I would have scared a ghost. I kind of looked like a ghost balloon that has lost all its air. I also had dark circles under my eyes (well, I think they appear when there’s no more moisture in your body tissue) and a chalk-white face. Every time I got out of bed (to get water, my hydrating juice and more water), I did it in stages, just to make sure I wouldn’t just slump onto the floor. I wasn’t sure I had measurable blood pressure.
And I slept and slept and slept. And when I awoke, I’d sip a bit more liquid, and then, at times, my mind would wander about, picking questions out of the air like: How many times in a row can you relapse with gastro-enteritis? Can cancer spread while you’re being desiccated by a virus? How much weight am I losing, I wonder? Will food ever appeal to me again? Could I just live on bananas instead?
* * *
Tuesday ended, then Wednesday, Thursday and so on. And here I am, living what should have been chemo week, but turned into a period of convalescence.
It’s Friday, December 6th. I’ve lost weeks of my life, and 3 kilos (about 6.5 pounds). Chemo was cancelled this week when blood tests indicated that my calcium and potassium levels disqualified me. Well, gee, d’uh. Call it dehydration or desiccation or The Great 15-rounder with the Norovirus, but expect a person’s electrolytes to be damned scanty when the final bell clangs.
I’ve been taking calcium (mint green coloured) and potassium supplements (white and looking alarmingly like suppositories) since Tuesday morning. I feel much, much better, but every visit to the bathroom is still a full systems check. I’m getting there. God bless electrolytes. And the love of sons who care for you and check in on you.
* * *
I hope you’ve smiled through this. Though every word of it is true, it was meant to make you chuckle and okay, cringe a wee bit too.
But during all of those days when I was just lying quietly under bedding, too tired and sleepy to read or watch Netflix or Britbox or anything else, I was still living. Lying there under the soft, warm weightlessness of my duvet, my head propped up by three pillows, able only to watch, through the window, the light changing outside, and hear the cars and occasional trucks zip up and down the street, I was mostly inside my head.
I feel as though I’ve just lived through a dress rehearsal for my last days—for my palliative weeks. I think I got a glimmer of what it might mean to become so debilitated that I can no longer, or barely, get out of bed; that I no longer have any sort of appetite. It’s easy for me to see why I might choose not to fight. No more 15-rounders. No more rounds at all.
The norovirus telescoped from out of my immune-suppressed chemo body which telescopes from my cancerous body…the tendrils getting thinner at each remove from the point of origin, until I could barely touch life at all…if only temporarily. This time.
I was recovering, quietly, in a home that is mine and also Simon’s and soon Cindy’s too, and it’s a place where I feel loved and safe. This fills me with gratitude. A place where I’m surrounded by books and all of the human experiences, stories and meditations these contain. This brings me joy. A place where the spaces left on the walls are decorated with the faces of family members—my children and grandchildren—and the artwork of friends. This gives me hope for the future. Their future.
My fifteen-rounder has brought death closer to me, and helped me to feel less afraid.
“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”- Charlie Chaplin
I got my second scan results, once again, through my sister-in-law who is a radiologist. She received my email at the beginning of her vacation (she doesn’t—can’t—take nearly enough time off), and promised to let me know how things looked as soon as she got back. When she did, I received a very brief email stating that things were “stable”: no new lesions, no growth of existing tumours. STABLE. I immediately replied, asking if that meant that nothing had shrunk, she replied again: yes, stable.
After processing her words a bit longer, I felt myself sliding down into a gutter of sadness. Of hopelessness. It was so precipitous, it was almost like the sweeping downward movement of a rollercoaster.
So much for my bravado. My morale is wobbly and vulnerable. My mind was filled with a frantic salad of thoughts such as:
– “Stable” means the drugs are (already!) no longer having the desired effect on the tumours/
– “Stable” means the beginning of the end, because if the tumours aren’t shrinking anymore, then the second we stop treatment, they’ll spread everywhere/
– “Stable” means the cancer has adapted; when I got the first scan results that were so favourable, there was a brief period when I thought: “Maybe I’m one of those people who will be “cured”, against all odds, of their stage 4 cancer. But I’m not./
– Maybe I’ll be dead in a year…perhaps two years…I won’t be part of the future.
I was hurtling down a steep incline, having lost sight of all of the answers to the question: What am I afraid of?
Like mountain climbing when, after a near catastrophic fall, you struggle back up to where you set your carabiner, and you see that you’ve moved well beyond chemo base camp, and that the stakes now feel even greater.
Then I thought to go online and just look at what the American Cancer Society has to say on the matter. I found what I was looking for under the heading “Managing Cancer as a Chronic Illness”. I read through the sections several times and each time, it was like pushing my mind’s refresh button. Each time, things were slightly altered.
I think that I’ve arrived at a crucial place: I must now accept that stage 4 cancer (barring a medical miracle) is chronic cancer—if you’re lucky. If it doesn’t spread like wildfire. A cancer that you can live with for a while (…to be determined). And living with chronic cancer means several things, including the fact that the life that you had before you were diagnosed is GONE. It will not be resurrected. GONE. Got that?
This was so from day one but I hadn’t yet understood and absorbed it.
Amongst all of the daydreams that sweep things back and forth in my mind was this notion that perhaps, if I was very, very lucky, perhaps one day this life I have right now would all be gone and in its place, my old life—the one that contained my work, my physical strength and stamina, my greater independence, my ability to travel, and the plans I shared with my sons about the future—would return. That I would have a life after cancer.
I know differently now, and should have sooner, except that, apparently, my mind relinquishes its patterns reluctantly, and holds onto its schemas the way very small children cling to their parents. I live and hope to keep living with cancer. That’s my new narrative.
Time is breaking down my resistances, and I can now see that I will be able to live with cancer for many months and, perhaps, years. This means a life lived close to hospitals, to medical care, to drugs and treatments. Regular medical intervention and supervision of my cancer and health, till I die. Freedom within those parameters.
This all coincided with bad news we received. Heartbreaking news, concerning a close member of our extended family; someone we haven’t known all that long but love deeply, who, at 53 years of age, has also been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of a different type, but who had the news thrown at her in a manner I consider violent and without compassion.
These coinciding events—my scans and her scans—sent me reeling, creating such a mournful feeling in me. I have lived seven more years than she. How can I not feel rent by this news?
It seems as though there will always be broken pieces to pick up and make room for in the mosaic of my life.
Yesterday, I was back at the CHUM for my routine pre-chemo tests, and spent a while with my oncologist, Dr. Aubin (whom I’ve mentioned before), who heads the clinical trial I’m participating in. I was waiting to see her before writing any of this to you.
She greeted me with a smile, and a cold, which she thinks she caught during her flight back from San Francisco where she and her team were presenting their work and findings so far. She was full of enthusiasm about the outlook of research in her field.
She examined me, and then we discussed my recent scan results, and when I mentioned that I was disappointed, she looked at me and said no, no, that she was very happy with the results; that the cancer is being controlled and that there was, in fact some modest shrinkage, and that all was well. That these sorts of fluctuations were to be expected. And she said it all with a broad smile, so I believed her, and told her that I have finally understood that my disease is chronic. That I know what this means. And she nodded, and smiled.
Before we parted, she said to me that working in oncology is a real challenge, but that patients like me made things much brighter.
It’s hard not to feel buoyed by such words, and so I shall try to knock some sense into myself and repeat to myself that the future is unwritten, and I shall try to narrow the swings of the pendulum to which my hope is tethered.
When I typed it, it felt like the only way to end a piece that was otherwise defeating. It isn’t in me to be bleak. I can’t bear pessimism for too long before I’m torn asunder, and I couldn’t bring myself to pass the despondency along to you.
But my God, in the week since the MARCH IN JANUARY, the news coming out of the United States has drenched us all with such vile and gut wrenching ugliness that the effect of reading it has been emetic.
It’s reconnecting me with my formal academic training. I am (or was) an historian by trade and the dark clouds emerging over the United States and spreading beyond its borders to parts of Europe are reminiscent of so many sinister periods in history that only the ignorant or the malevolent can ignore them.
This week, an unbridled Trump and his men did as much as they possibly could to shred the social fabric of their vast and beautiful nation in order to maintain the privilege and status of their small, coagulated, self-interested cabal.
The effect of this week on millions of people has been galvanizing.
How good it feels to know that it’s Trump’s executive orders targeting refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority nations that has just caused the pot to boil over in the country’s metropolises for the second time in one week.
Watching the crowds, live online, at Dulles, JFK, SFO and Logan airports yesterday chanting for hours and hours, selflessly and righteously in defense of the rights of ALL, got my pulse racing and overwhelmed me with an emotion that’s too complex to name.
The day ended with a temporary victory as a federal judge granted the American Civil Liberties Union’s request for a nationwide temporary injunction that will block the deportation of all people stranded in U.S. airports under President Trump’s new Muslim ban.
NO BAN, NO WALL, SANCTUARY FOR ALL!
NO HATE, NO FEAR, IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE!
NO BAN, NO WALL, NEW YORK CITY IS FOR ALL!
These were the chants in America’s big city airports—and the entreaties in countless hearts.
As I watched my Facebook feeds, I imagined others, just like me, all over the internet, bursting with a desire to join those crowds, seeing a petite Elizabeth Warren’s face and hearing her clarion voice urging the echoing crowd: “Let’s make our voices heard all around this world”.
I know many of us were listening and watching, and checking in at regular intervals. I expect that many of my immigrant students were. I thought of my former student Nima—a lovely Iranian man who has settled in Montreal but has hopes of living in Boston someday soon—being made to see himself as something odious in the eyes of the Trump administration, and what that must feel like.
I was moved when a childhood friend of my sons—a boy who arrived in Montreal (Dorval) at the age of eight, speaking “only” Farsi, German and English, but who was fluent in French by the time he was thirteen, went on to med school at McGill and is now a practicing neonatologist in California—wrote this on his Facebook page yesterday:
I have always abstained to post political comments as I am aware that nothing I have to say will be influential. Those, including myself (maybe through denial), who were encouraged to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on what type of president he will be once elected in office, can now rest assured that all doubt has been removed. To live in a “democracy” and yet fear that my parents (Canadian citizens) may be denied entry into the US to visit me because they were born in Iran is frightening.
After having been spat at by the White House, he remains, in my opinion, far too polite, far too gracious for his own good. Still, if the measure of a man is in how he expresses himself in difficult times and what he contributes to society through his work, then the man in the White House doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as this bright, young “immigrant”.
It means something more, that all of these expressions of resistance and human solidarity occurred the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day; that they happened on the Chinese lunar New Year.
The world has become as accessible as the closest internet connection. No borders can obviate the fact that on this improbable, beautiful blue planet, WE ARE ONE.
Learn this lesson quickly, Mr. Trump.
If a man is to shed the light of the sun upon other men, he must first of all have it within himself. -Romain Rolland
On this grey Sunday morning in Montreal, all I seem to be able to do is sit in front of my computer screen.
I was up early and had some lonesome time here; time to search online for feedback from yesterday’s Women’s March in Washington, those across the US and the world, and also here at home.
The images I’ve turned up are marvelous. Some snapped by friends (thank you Gail, thank you Alice, thank you Cindy) but most are by amateur and professional photographers I’ve never met.
It feels good to look at all of the faces. Many white women, for sure, but more than that.
I didn’t go to the March in downtown Montreal. My feelings about the marches were strangely unenthusiastic. And now, looking at all of the faces and placards in the photos online, I feel a pang of sadness and discomfort which comes at least in part from a sense of guilt.
I should have been there.
Should I have been there? Why didn’t I go? Why should I have gone?
I have to say that I feel relieved that so many mobilized yesterday. It HAD to be that way. Any other result would, I think, have been a counter-productive, booming, echoing failure with awful repercussions.
I feel immensely grateful to everyone who marched somewhere yesterday. THANK YOU.
There is, in part, a contradiction, an incoherence in my absence from yesterday’s March in Montreal. For the past six months especially, what’s been happening in the United States has ulcerated me. It has stained every single day and dredged up such intense feelings of dismay, despair and discouragement that I’ve felt both fearful and impotent.
The community of writers online has been furiously, obsessively expressing its outrage and resistance to the reign of Donald Trump and his dark entourage. At first, I couldn’t get enough of it. I read and read and read and commented and searched out more. I mentally fist pumped when I viewed merciless, bullseye parody, read especially caustic and effective zingers, or else brilliant pieces of journalism that laid out the facts of the sickness that now occupies the White House.
But with each week that has passed, I’ve grown tired of this same ocean of words. I’ve become wordlogged. I’ve started to feel myself being dragged down. Lost.
I’ve been reading less and responding less to the sentinel voices. Time to see something else. To feel something else. To see beyond.
Yesterday should have been my opportunity to ACT.
To DO SOMETHING.
Mobilizing must feel good. So, why didn’t I?
There was a certain defeatism in my passivity yesterday, as I imagined the grim, contemptuous and dismissive attitude of Trump, his people and the wider circle of opportunists buzzing around him now. Blowflies.
A feeling that the movement expressing itself yesterday, its message, its energy, its spirit, will soon be tainted, respun, labeled and diminished by the new President and all of his men.
I wasn’t sure what it would be like out on the streets of Montreal yesterday. I wasn’t sure what the crowd’s ultimate message would be. I wasn’t sure how idealistic, how innocent or how angry it would be. I couldn’t predict how many ways it could be misconstrued.
So I stayed home and kept an eye on Facebook.
There was lots of self-protection in my choice to do other things yesterday.
There were the voices of all of the people who have always been there to say It won’t make any difference to the things that I’ve advocated for and fought for in my life (they’ve often been right: this dismays me).
There was waiting and seeing.
Where are we headed, the vast WE who cannot accept what is? How will our course be plotted? By whom?
I don’t want the truth of our intentions usurped or hijacked.
And so, I hover. And wait. And read. And write. And converse. And live. And hope.
I sat down to write this blog post in the afternoon of Friday the 13th. I meant it to be uplifting. I meant it to say something about cyclical patterns that we all can observe as we live; about how rather than unfolding, time creates loops. I meant to talk about some of the beautiful loops; the ones that carry lessons learned and passed along.
But I was interrupted by the nightmarish carnage that tore into the social fabric of Paris yesterday. Which sickens me and which is an example of the other kind of loops. The kind that are amplified by their diffusion around the planet in a matter of minutes by this century’s information technology. The loops that fuel our predisposition to mistrust, to paranoia, and to knee-jerk reactions. The kind that make the world instantly small, but in the worst possible way because they bring a feeling of menace to our doorstep. Because they nestle right inside our minds.
I’ve spent the first couple of hours of this quiet Saturday morning browsing online, looking for confirmation of what seemed likely last night, and searching out measured and thoughtful written responses that I’ll carry with me throughout the days to come.
They’ll feed my own meditation on the cyclical patterns that I wish we could destroy once and for all, but that instead fill so much of the space and time we occupy. On the heels of November 11th—Remembrance Day to some, Veterans’ Day to others—we seem to have learned nothing. We have so far to go and so many lessons to repeat and repeat and repeat before we have learned to live as one.
The Parisians and tourists who were at the Stade de France, the Petit Cambodge restaurant, or at the Bataclan watching Eagles of Death Metal (a group from California) perform, didn’t know that they would soon be caught in something bigger and more terrifying than they could possibly imagine. They were, instead, doing what humans do best—coming together to celebrate and share with others. In the huge and diverse city of Paris, they had likely experienced many moments of peaceful and trusting human interaction that day; evolutionary evidence that we are capable of learning better ways of living in community.
Maybe it’s the right moment to tell you about one of life’s beautiful loops after all.
I’ve spent most of the past month traveling to different companies throughout Montreal to evaluate employees interested in taking French classes, supported by their employer
and sponsored by the Quebec government—my employer.
Ninety-five percent of them are immigrants. Most arrived recently, but some have been here ten years or more.
This week alone, I interviewed more that 70 people. They are, of course, as individual as their fingerprints. I met people from Iran, Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; from Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Britain, The United States, India, Israel, Israel by way of Eritrea, Romania, Russia and Bulgaria. I know I’ve forgotten a few.
It’s a counter-intuitive exercise.
A list of names is drawn up and handed to me when I arrive on site. I’m ushered to an empty conference room where I settle in with my stack of evaluation forms—one question grid per person.
I position myself facing the door, so that I can greet each of them with a smile.
Within minutes, the first candidate arrives. I have 10 minutes on average to assess their competency in French. The objective is to make sure they’re placed in the right group level so that they’ll learn, have a good time and won’t quit, and then go out into the office and the city and be able to live in French.
Ten minutes is awfully short. You would think that it’s impossible to greet a stranger, make them feel welcome, put them at ease, create a line of comfortable communication, evaluate their linguistic ability and even give them a sense of excitement about learning a new language… in 600 seconds.
Amazingly, it happens almost every time. We’re hardwired to connect, and in favourable circumstances, it’s almost as effortless as breathing.
One company stood out this week. It was the hardest destination to drive to, in a part of the city where the main arteries are a tangle of dead ends and strange exits. I was pulled over by a cop for driving in a lane reserved for buses (I was trying to read the addresses on the recessed buildings). He felt bad for me and tried to find the place I was looking for on his hand set. He couldn’t find it either.
I finally arrived, a little frayed, and was met by the company’s Accounts Payable Specialist who was visibly at least ten years younger than I had imagined him to be in our email exchanges. He greeted me with a warm handshake, a smile, and an offer of a cup of coffee or tea or water (many more offers followed during the three and a half hours I spent there).
Usually, I am then left to my own devices and simply wait for each candidate to show up. A system that often includes lulls.
But this time, my host took it upon himself to accompany each person to the door of my conference room as soon as the previous evaluation was done. This made things seamless and also invested the proceedings with a sense of solidarity and of importance.
When I was finally done, he of course appeared at the door, and we began to chat. It turns out that he arrived in Montreal as an eight-year-old child and found himself in Classes d’Accueil, the welcoming classes that help immigrant children transition into the regular French language school system here in Quebec, and the place where I began my career as teacher.
Once his French was good enough, he breezed through high school and college and university. I say breezed, but I know, of course, that he did this in his third language (he also speaks English and claims it’s better than his French, which is terrific!). I don’t know the circumstances that brought his family to Montreal, but I know that there was a period of culture shock and struggle.
And yet here he was: a perfect immigrant success story. In his mid-twenties and already managing a group of people a full generation older. Fulfilled in his Montreal life and fully integrated into Québécois society.
And eager to help the wheel make one more full turn for his colleagues.
Soon, as many as 25 000 Syrian refugees will arrive in Canada. Our newly elected federal government has made it a priority. Six thousand of these are expected in Quebec. Seventy percent of them are likely to settle in Montreal.
May they be part of a new cycle of community-building and acceptance; may they create a new and beautiful loop.