ABOUT RANA

PART OF THE THIS IS THE MOMENT SERIES

May 30th 2019

The results of my latest CT-Scan came in a few weeks ago, and they remain favourable.

Nicolas Martin, (b.1980), “Woman Sitting on her bed”

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)?

Jean-Michel Melat-Couhet, “Swept by the Wind”

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.

Jon Naar, “Shadows of Children on Swings”, Munich 1963

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.

Clyde Aspevig (b.1961)
“The Evening Still…”

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.

Photo by Ashley
Photo by Ashley Perreault

 

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.