Bodega Bay, CA

We love the sea.

My husband, daughter and I spent a few days at the coast just getting quiet, reading, drinking coffee, walking and listening. The landscape, it is not especially glamorous or light-filled, but we like it that way. I like the quiet serenity of it.

 

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The subtlety of the colors and layers reminds me to look more deeply.

Not everything has to be bright, or vivid. Not everything needs to move.

And yet it does.

 

 

“How are you?”

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tPhoto by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

It’s almost always meant well. The asker is curious: you have, after all, been diagnosed with cancer, and you haven’t seen each other in awhile. The asker wants an update. They want to know what’s going on. And so, there’s the initial hello, then the pause:

How are you? How are you doing?”

Sometimes it’s a text message. Sometimes an email.

“How are you doing?”

And you, bearer of the proliferating morass, standing politely with drink in hand, are expected to answer. You have perhaps just had blood drawn, perhaps your tumor markers are higher (indicating growth), your blood counts are off; or you have finished your most recent infusion, grasp fingers that sting with neuropathy, feel too tired some days to even get mail, are bald, breastless, riddled with grief, adrift at work, scattering bills and papers, forgetful, with eyes watering and home disheveled, lie in bed for hours, just brushing your teeth was a climb to Kilimanjaro; take-out dinner boxes litter the countertops, the diarrhea and nausea fluctuate in a horrid yin/yang, and perhaps your gums bleed, toenails have fallen off —

how are you how are you

And in the movie version, the dream sequence. Flashbacks to a past life. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred remembers her daughter at the beach. I think of running, my long hair with the car windows down, drinking Coke, summer drives with my little girl, hikes with my husband, raucous laughter over wine, faded glass over a country road somewhere, faded, fading.

how are you

Do you want to say, “Fine”? Do you want to say, “Hanging in?” I do, I do. I want to give a glib answer. I don’t want to remember, don’t want to talk. I am more than this disease, am more than an update, and cannot answer to this kind, albeit temporary concern. It is kinder sometimes to not ask, kinder perhaps to think what the question means.

I have erred in this, have erred in the asking. But now, on the receiving side, I find myself sometimes unwilling to reply.

Why?

Because the question can trigger remembering. The question can trigger the kind of response that is interrupted – my friend’s mom had breast cancer, too!- with an anecdote that has no bearing, does not help. Or suddenly help is offered, as is unwanted advice about “alternative” treatments. Pineapple cures. Coffee enemas. Or judgement. Or glazed eyes, a disinterest in the reply.

Better, maybe, to say “How’s it going?” or “How about those Dodgers?” Another way: “I’m here for you, here if you ever want to talk.” Or even, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here.”

We are all stumbling with how to ask, how to answer. Compassion is a given.

Yet sometimes it’s better not to ask. Sometimes coffee or tea is best. Sometimes a quick “I’m at the store – what do you need?” is manna from heaven.  Or sometimes silence and companionship – your presence –  are gifts enough.

But I want to add, feel it’s important to add: I always take it with kindness, as it is meant. The intent at the heart of the question is always welcome.

How about you? How do you deal with “How are you?”

“Who can become lost in a narrative,

     if all he can think of is the end?” 

– Mark Doty, “Lament-Heaven”

And so, with cancer comes the question: What is the new narrative of my life?

And others:

How long do I have left?

What is my treatment plan?

Logistics: Do I continue to save? Plan a world trip? Get rid of my old stuff?

Planning, the economic and spiritual foundation of modern American self-efficacy, is the Harley-Cancer-Davidson motorcycle driver that breaks you off, sidecar sidekick, and leaves you in the little rig by the side of the road while he takes off down the two-lane highway of certainty. Putt putt, sputter. Stop.

And here you are, ditched and detached in the Death Valley of all deserts, left to contemplate your options. It’s quiet all right. And there’s no driver for miles. What to do, what to do?

I struggle with this. If we continue the metaphor, with Death Valley and the unmoored, detached passenger, bewildered and shocked at the side of the road, I’m still sitting. Two years later and I’m still sitting, still scratching my head, looking at the map and trying to figure out how to get back home. Do you know what I mean?

It’s kind of tragic. It’s also, at times, patently absurd. And funny. I mean: no hair! And what’s a lopsided gal to do when running? Plenty of room to contemplate.

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Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

Many other survivors and friends have come past, offered advice, suggested lovely and some-odd things, and pointed out alternate routes. But I can’t go back. I can’t go back to the home of the Old Body, the Old Life. The new is here. And I’m still working out how to navigate life, work, the process of living with chronic disease. I want to rush it. I want to “make it work,” learn from it, deal, manage, fix – do all the productivity-oriented activities my previous and old life would have deemed necessary in order to overcome any personal obstacle. And in focusing on the corrections and fixes, I wonder if I’m losing some kind of view.

That is, just being, living, fully taking in the transition. The road. The sidecar mishap-tragedy that, like Emily Dickinson, tells it slant. Because even in this, there is a narrative. There is story, there is process, there is some nugget of love and living that wants to find a way.

Here now, it seems to tell me. Look at your body, the earth, even the rocks at the edges. Sit awhile longer and take it all in.

No more need to rush. For now, no need for fear.

 

Results, Pending

The CT scan showed that the tumor is shrinking. It’s gone down by about 1 cm.

This should be good news, and it is, but the rise of the celebratory music is dampered by the ongoing knowledge of cancer’s continued presence. I am talking about a lack of trust, a lack of belief in the body’s full capabilities. This lack is not pessimism, but rather the realization that this body can and has betrayed me. Faith in a long future is a vertebrae that’s been removed. One slight hunch is now always impacting movement, tilting each tentative step. It’s a little harder to look up.

“Continue the treatment until it shrinks further.” Then surgery, then recovery.

Then wait.

My old life feels like a harbor from which I drift further away each day.

I do not want to sound sad. There is always coffee, or sunlight.

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A friend or a flower.

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A note or a text message, laughter, friendship, good books, food, family, naps. You, they, these things:

  • are all the antidote.
  • are all I need.

And the truth is? We are always pending, are always, like the pendulum,

asway.

 

 

 

I Remember.

Flowers on the windowsill. Such pleasure in their colors and blooms.

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Yesterday a haze of exhaustion. Wandering. Up and down stairs.

Water.

My mind a sluice with this thought, that. No order.

Post-infusion low counts and a ton called not going on my belly. Aka: sit down. Aka: not today.

Taxotere. Cold slide into my veins and killing the quick cells. Do your work.

How the sun, beautiful wanderer, lights up all the kitchen jars and vases like a song through glass. I can almost hear it.

 

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Oh, warmth. Oh, living.

And arrival.  Here now.

What else was it that I wanted? What else did I ever ask for?

 

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