19 September 2014
Yesterday I had my follow up appointment at the hospital to let me know what was next for me in the public system. I walked into the hospital where I had had that miserable appointment with my oncologist before chemo, the one where she frightened me with the potential proximity of my death in a way that left me gasping for breath. I felt a part of one of those time-lapse pictures suddenly. Me, six months ago, my curly hair around my shoulders, my surgical scars still red and angry, my eyes wide and hands trembling at the news about chemo that was in front of me. And then leaving the hospital that time, the doctor’s casual line about a 10-15% chance of metastatic cancer already in my body ringing in my ears, the possibility of a much closer death an unhappy companion.
And then there was yesterday. Chemo behind me, I walked in with my short hair and still failing nails (two gone and four more loose and the most unusual shade of green). We joked with the doctor there (not the same one) and he laid out the next steps in my care (“other than tamoxifen, all we really have to offer is surveillance”). We talked, bloodlessly, about recurrence—local and metastatic—and he gave the common doctor line: “Maybe you’ll get lucky and have the cancer behind you for good now.” Let’s hear it for luck--and eating no sugar and taking cancer-killing supplements and drinking yummy cinnamon green tea. (Although I have good reason to remember that luck comes in two forms because earlier in the conversation, talking about my age and lack of any contributing factors about getting cancer, the doctor had said, “Most breast cancer is just bad luck—you just had yours earlier than most women do.”)
Perhaps more than the short hair and icky nails, though, the biggest change as I walked into the hospital was that the shadow of my death walks alongside me now. During the whole experience of the diagnosis and the surgery, she was ever closer, and each of the significant dips of mood I took during that time were about coming to terms with the fact she might be closer than I had ever imagined. It wasn’t until that terrible appointment with the oncologist, though, that the shadow of death walked right next to me, impossible to shake off or relegate to a more distant threat some years hence. I stumbled out of that hospital six months ago with her clinging close, and she has not left since. And the weird thing is that I’ve come to value her presence in ways I could never have foreseen.
We have so much language—poetry, meditations, exhortations—about making the best use of the present, being fully in the moment, living your life to the fullest. Carpe diem and all that. I would have said I lived in that way already, and to a strong extent I would have been right. I have really been grateful, have really loved the people and landscapes in my life. But when the possibility of my own death walks close beside me (as it could always have—it’s just probability now that makes it more visible), each day really does have a different meaning.
Death is terrifying. Without a sense of an afterworld, it is a blank void, marked only by all that is gone. And it is endless. Even now, months after my friend Nicki died, I find myself suddenly thinking, “Nicki is still dead today.” Every day she’s still dead. Death is like that—every day. Yesterday I found myself missing my grandmother and somehow surprised that she’s still dead after a decade—hasn’t it been long enough? I have found myself exhausted and overwhelmed with sorrow at the thought of all that I’ll lose when I cross into that other side. But death is also a core piece of what it means to be human. Our lives are defined by death and informed and shaped by the distinctly human experience of knowing what is ahead for us.
Somehow I have made an uneasy peace—friendship even?—with the shadow beside me. While I still slip into terror from time to time and get lost in the gaping blackness, my experience more often is my sense of gratitude for the light each day. I find myself overcome with delight at the feel of the wind in my short hair, the sound of Aidan’s laugh, the curve of Naomi’s ear, the warm sleeping presence of Michael when I wake in the night. I am nearly giddy with joy after a fantastic workshop, or a late night conversation with a dear friend or when I nuzzle my nose into Dolce’s fur. I am almost singing—can you believe we get to live, even for the blink of time we’re on the planet? Can you believe we get to love each other? And to smell freesia in the spring? And to be warm and dry when the rain lashes and the wind howls? I feel the blessings in my life running like warm sand through my fingers, piles and piles, windblown and glittering in the sun. I have written about the ways cancer makes things bittersweet and it’s still so, but ahh, perhaps in my mostly sugar-free state I have come to relish every taste of sweet in the bitter. I don’t know whether death will walk beside me for four years or forty, but for today I am grateful for the light her shadow casts.
(Pictures today are of the many beautiful places I've been in the last few weeks: the hill road at dawn, with Michael at Cirque du Soleil, ducklings in Adelaide, and a rainbow over the Sydney Opera House. What a life!)