Busy. I’ve been busy. This week has been Get Back to the Gym Week, because no one is more of an avid gym-goer than me when I buy a monthly pass, as I have this month. Also, Back on Bike Week, thanks to a warming trend which will retrograde this weekend, when we get something like five inches of snow – just enough to make the magnolias look sheepish. I’ve been pursuing possibilities of freelance work. And tomorrow, I go to my second volunteer shift at a local synagogue, where I’ll help produce about 600 sandwiches for the needy, in three hours. I washed the lettuce last time, and I think that’s what I’ll choose tomorrow, too. I work alone at the sink by the window. The work is straightforward, and I don’t have to handle any noxious substances (like mayo, or gossip).
Today was going along pretty much on schedule. I went to the gym. I came home. Except that the day began with something like a portent. This:
One of the new bookshelves in my room fell off the wall at 7:15 a.m. Luckily I wasn’t sitting under it, and nothing was damaged, but it was close enough to freak me out. I sent a preemptive email of apology to our downstairs neighbor. Turns out, a max load on a shelf is a max load. I had too many unread books lined up there. Dust and plaster everywhere. Right in time for me to get the new wireless keyboard and mouse I’d ordered so I could really set up my writing space under that shelf…
As it happens, this week was also the first week since last summer that I have been able to enjoy reading, because my eyes are finally coming around. And as it also happens, my turn came up at the library for a book I’d heard about and been wanting to read, in spite of myself: When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. This book, by a gifted neurosurgeon and writer who is faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, has been widely praised by people I know who live far from Cancerland. In spite of myself, and even though I’ve avoided reading anything about cancer or terminal illness (mostly because I’ve avoided reading anything at all), I couldn’t put it down. I was about 2/3 of the way through it last night and planned to read a few pages before going to bed. An hour later I had reached the end of Paul’s manuscript and was a few pages into his wife’s devastating epilogue. I forced myself to put it down, but I still wound up sobbing to J about it before I could go to sleep.
All morning I knew I’d need to come home and face reading the end of the book. It troubled me. I came home and crawled into bed and didn’t read it for a while, and I didn’t clean up the detritus from the shelf collapse, either. Finally, I ate some lunch and then I read the end. It was as sad as anticipated, but also, there was beauty in it. And while I read it last night I was blown away by some things in particular that Paul had written, thoughts very familiar to me:
No one asked about my plans, which was a relief, since I had none. While I could now walk without a cane, a paralytic uncertainty loomed: Who would I be, going forward, and for how long? Invalid, scientist, teacher? Bioethicist? Neurosurgeon once again, as Emma [his oncologist] had implied? Stay-at-home dad? Writer? Who could, or should, I be? … I hadn’t expected the prospect of facing my own mortality to be so disorienting, so dislocating. (pp. 147-148)
I finished the book, had another sob, thought about napping. Instead I opened Facebook and learned that a fellow traveler in metastatic melanoma had gone in to the hospital again, in a lot of pain, and experienced a setback.
Is it here that I confess that when I first got sick, I tried really hard to avoid knowing anything about other people with my same illness? Sounds really obnoxious of me. I guess I thought I was protecting myself. I never went to any support groups, perhaps for the same reason I’ve never attended any Weight Watchers meetings, and the same reason I never joined a youth group. But something I have done quite often is made online friends. And so it has been with metastatic melanoma. I don’t frequent the message boards very much, but I have found other bloggers, and other patients have found me through this blog, and all of a sudden I have these connections and I’m just as grateful for them as I was when I was pregnant and had online friends going through that along with me.
I take it very personally when my friends are dealt a bad hand, so I’m pretty mad right now. But also hopeful, and possibly even prayerful (though the jury is still out on whether I can actually bring myself to pray). I’m pulling for you, K, and sending you the magic of that photo up there – no, not the one of the fallen bookshelf, the other one, with the fairy-dust magic of the Milky Way as seen somewhere in Queensland. I hope it ushers in the healing you need. And, since you, who festooned your gamma knife head frame with Xmas lights and tinsel, appreciate goofiness, here’s me and J being goofy a million years ago – I mean, just this past Monday night. Get well soon, kiddo. #fuckcancer