A One-Armed Christmas

…means everything takes longer, everything is basic. Followers of this blog will know that all of the cancer surgeries and treatments have caused a rare but known side effect called radiation-induced brachial plexopathy. Basically, my right arm is paralyzed. I can no longer use my arm or hand or fingers.

And that doesn’t undo me. Oh, no. One-armed me is still me, only danglier. Slower. Pokier. Accidentally slappier . And this year, even with this new, unanticipated diagnosis, I’m hell-bent on making a heavenly, albeit klutzier, holiday. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

But how will I manage? How to set up the decor, the cuisine? Here’s the one-limbed plan:

  1. Let the tree standards sag. Yes, I said “sag,” and I am unashamed. (Skin and body parts are already there.) This year’s tree has fewer ornaments, fewer lights, and less perfect spacing. Silvery strings of faux pearls asymmetrically skim the branch tips in an uneven spiral ladder that, in past years, would have badgered my sense of organization into nighttime handwringing, but, lo, I have but five functioning digits this year, and this, dear reader, saves me. The stringed pearls and all the ornaments are uneven, atilt like drunken orbits, and I am, oddly, not unhappy to allow this unruly state of festive whimsy to take precedence over my need for faux-fir control. Let the ribbons reign askew, let the star steer south. All systems are jaggedly GO.

2. Packages shall remain in their original mail wrappers. Observe the box. Observe the plastic bag.(See photo below.) There will be no coiled ribbon adornments, no glittery paper sheen to enhance the gift itself. I am not yet able to use scissors with my left hand, and cutting and taping would require an ambidextrous choreography of such complication as to induce hysteria. I am somewhat sad about this. Otoh, it saves resources and paper. Boxes and plastic it shall be.

3. Vegetable chopping will be done by our teen and by my patient husband. From our teen I anticipate globally-circumnavigable eyerolls. She will likely take frequent breaks to scroll on her phone; I will gently urge her on to continue slicing the celery bits. But the mood shall remain lighthearted because beets, potatoes, beans and barley are a bounty to push back sadness. Like the oats and peas song, who knows how they grow?

4. I will remember what I can do. One arm is useless, the other has flourished. But two strong legs carry me to forests and trees and water. When I close my eyes, I can hear house finches and mourning doves singing the start of a day. Poems like this one, by Thomas Centolella, illuminate the ache, wonder and mystery of being here at all. And I can still read them. I can cackle and jump. I can plant and sautee garlic, hoard chocolate and recline. And food! One arm means an artfully poised wineglass during dinner. Let the singularity of my upper limbs not deprive me of a smooth cabernet, which I will gladly toast to this season. Glog, sugar cookies, rib roast and pie. A caress. One arm, ladies and gentlemen. The cat’s soft fur, a little spritz of perfume, a fistful of soil; cloudberry jam and a steering wheel in a car going who knows where. One arm, one arm, one arm can hold it all. Fist bump!

Thus the holiday goes. Everything will take longer and will be wobblier. Do not hand me the hot soup tureen. But look in our kitchen window and you’ll see the soft edges of steam from something warm, a dish probably held by two or three of us, ready to pass, season, or heartily eat.

Cheers.

This disheveled tree is a testament to lower standards.

You Gave Cancer Everything, and It’s Still Not Enough

I’m still alive.

And so grateful to be able to write those words.

I had scans in July and all the tumors are stable. No growth. Holding steady. Starboard as she goes.  Life has settled into a routine of chemo every three weeks, with one week of recovery and two weeks of near-normalcy. One week on, two off. This rhythm stabilizes my life and makes it easier to plan rest, meals, and activities.  It gives me hope.  And while I know I’ll be on chemotherapy forever, this chemical pace gives room for living and for life.

I am slowly learning how to accept the likely-permanent paralysis of my right arm.  It is a slow process. Dictation software helps, and my daughter and husband have rallied, too. But the magnitude of it – the utter uselessness of this limb now, the sudden, startling flopdowns when it’s unsupported, its fishlike swing and sway, its blankly numb detachment from the whole of my body’s honed, coordinated machinations, its sheer weight and cumbersome ostracism, a rogue gong, a flaying odd pendulum—is a continuous, displaced, awkward reminder of cancer treatment’s costs. What is the cost of living? What are you willing to pay?

 I think of Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “The Weighing.”

“The world asks of us

only the strength we have and we give it.

Then it asks more, and we give it.”

It is all we have, this sad giving. Reluctantly we open our fists, offer our veins, bare our heads, and display and platter our full selves for the reckonings of scan results. We hope for months, beg for years. We search online, query the doctors, roll over with the real and dream upheavals of this nightmarish, dazed half-life we plea to withstand. Oh we are a desperate chorus of endurers hoping to be whole.

And each day is one and one, the word  “more” a felt bead on a rosary we hope to hold.