Blackall Range Nightscape, by LJ Mears on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

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

Goofballs United
Goofballs United

One thought on “Dust

  1. I will have to read this book, Deborah. I am so glad that your eyes are back and that the shelf fell down when you were not around. All prayers are valid and K knows that you are thinking of her.


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