“Caution: Slippery When Wet”
My heart goes out to the beleaguered citizens of Haiti. If I could, I would wave my magic wand and banish all natural disasters. They are one of the enormous levelers in this world. In an instant, no matter how cushy or hellacious your current life is, a hurricane or an earthquake reduces your life and the lives of everyone around you to the pursuit of basic survival. And even the long, slow crawl back to so-called normal life depends on so many variables that are out of your control. Ask someone from New Orleans how long it takes to get your life back after your entire world is turned upside down. The answer? You don’t get your old life back. You only get to save what you can from the wreckage and rebuild the rest.
The phrase ‘natural disaster’ is an ambiguous one. The word ‘natural’ presumably means ‘not man-made’ in this case, or, according to Merriam-Webster, “being in accordance with or determined by nature […], occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural.” By that definition, you could describe life-threatening diseases as natural disasters, I suppose, however much you might suspect the causative influence of human-generated environmental damage. But in another sense, ‘natural disaster’ is an oxymoron. Because there’s nothing natural — meaning ordinary — about such disasters, be they tsunamis or cancer.
Whatever you call it, recovering from cancer usually involves rebuilding on many levels. Your life will never be the same, and neither will your body or self-image. It’s like having an über identity crisis. The recovery process can be complex, lengthy, and overwhelming. It’s never a surprise to me when someone feels like she just can’t cope anymore. What really amazes me is that most of us manage to endure. As my friend Linda D. used to say about life’s disasters, natural or otherwise, the reality of surviving cancer is that “life sucks, and then you live.”
And you know what? I don’t feel like dealing with another identity crisis. Really. I don’t even feel like having a good identity crisis, like the kind you have when you graduate from high school. Sure, it was positively thrilling to do all that soul-searching when I was around nineteen, when angst was my hormonal right. But I’m not nineteen or even forty anymore, and I’m no longer amused by melodrama. Besides which, I just HATE having to do anything over again. Including myself. I mean, been there, done that, did the therapy, ya know?
My friend, Sira, who grew up to be an archeologist.
The Big Dig
Then there are the folks who say that cancer made them better people. On my good days, I usually chalk up such assertions to poor grammar. They couldn’t possibly mean to give a disease all the credit, could they? On my bad days, I think they’ve swallowed the Pollyanna Koolaid, which you know I hate. Otherwise, if I take such a statement at face value, then I just don’t get it. I don’t even want to get it. I mean, good golly, what kind of a jerk do you have to be in the first place if it takes something as wretched as having cancer to make you a better person? What, you couldn’t do better on your own? Who the heck were you before? Bernie Madoff? Hitler, for god’s sake?
In case you might be wondering, I can categorically state that cancer has not made me a better person. Frankly, I think I was already a pretty darn good person before I had cancer, thank you very much. I already had a lot of character, in my humble opinion, and I really didn’t need to build any more. Now, in cancer’s aftermath, I am a much more tired, much less energetic person than I’ve ever been. Ever, ever. I think of what I was doing right before diagnosis, and I can’t get over how much sheer chutzpah I had. Now, I cuss a lot more. I forget things all the time, even in mid-sentence. It takes me about twenty times as long to do anything more complicated than to get out of bed in the morning. And some days, getting out of bed is complicated. I have less stamina and weaker muscles. I’ve gained weight. My skin looks like a topographical map unless I’ve just slathered it with moisturizer. My back hurts, my knees hurt, my shoulders are killing me, especially the right one, and I’m missing half a boob. I never did suffer fools gladly, but now I think there are way more of them out there than I ever previously suspected. And not only do I not suffer them gladly anymore, I actively avoid them when I can, tell them to bug off when I can’t, and, in particularly intransigent cases, rake them over the coals in this blog. Anonymously perhaps. But with gusto.
Yes, I will admit that I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned more of the ugly side of our health care system than I ever knew or even suspected. And I think because I work in it, my cynicism and disillusionment have thus increased exponentially. My skepticism certainly has. I don’t trust people as easily as I used to, especially the sort of folks who are supposed to take care of people like me when they are diagnosed with cancer. My having cancer did not make any of them better people, I assure you. And it’s made me more of a grouch than I’ve ever been in my life.
On the flipside, I do, somewhat grudgingly perhaps, accept more easily my own limitations, as well as those of the people I care about. And I am much more grateful when someone steps up to the plate and does what she does competently or generously, with good grace and decency. I always endeavored to be compassionate and empathic, which is one of the reasons why I work in health care. And those traits have been deepened now. I do indeed have a lot more to take to the table when I am treating my patients, who have usually just come home from the hospital after enduring their own tsunamis.
It’s taken me over a year even to catch on to what-all has happened to me and is still happening, and to find the right kinds of help for it. Only recently have I figured out how merely to enable myself to rebuild my life, much of which has been on complete hold all this time. Finally, this week, I have felt well enough to make a start. And so, tentatively, guardedly, I am sifting through the wreckage, figuring out what to toss and what I can salvage with a little spit and polish. Yes, fellow travelers, I think the Accidental Amazon might really and truly be starting to feel — drum roll, please — Better! Don’t get too excited. That doesn’t mean I’m all set now. It only means that at last I may have the wherewithal to begin the Big Dig. At the moment, I’m more of an archeologist. Later, I’ll get to be an architect again.
And after that, who knows? I don’t know what my reconstructed life will look like, but I do know that I will enjoy and appreciate living it very, very much.
The courtyard of my favorite museum, the Isabella Stuart Gardner, in Boston.
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