Last night, I got a welcome phone call from a friend, with whom I haven’t talked in months. She comes from around here, but met her German husband while they were both in grad school in the U.S., and now lives with him in Germany. She can speak Indonesian and Malaysian, and gets by in a few other languages, but she’s still working on her German. When she calls, she often remarks that it’s like a vacation to have an entire conversation in her native tongue. She’s one of those friends I don’t get to see or talk with very often, but despite long gaps, we can always pick up where we left off, as though our last gab was yesterday.
Both of us are delvers, maybe a little intense for the average person, but completely fun if you’re the sort of person who likes to turn over rocks, tell circuitous stories, and wander off on conversational tangents, all in aid of figuring out what this life is all about. And she has unlimited long-distance phone service, so we can indulge ourselves when we talk on the phone. She hasn’t been able to get Skype to work on her particular computer, but we’re hopeful of the future.
One of the great things about this latest conversation was that, when she asked me how I was, she really wanted to know. Honestly. And in detail. And it forced me to figure out how I was, honestly, and in detail. And I realized that I’ve been doing some silent stock-taking lately, but have not been ready or willing or perhaps able to articulate my thoughts, even to myself. And I really need to. But it feels a bit like having to answer one of those hideous, open-ended questions you sometimes face in the offices of guidance counselors or therapists or even human resource officers. Questions like, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I’ve always hated questions like that. Since cancer, they’ve become almost laughably irrelevant.
After a cancer diagnosis, your entire relationship with linear time changes. The past, the present, the future, all are filtered through the reality of cancer, even when you’re not conscious of that filtering. A few weeks ago, I passed the third anniversary of the date I was told I had cancer. And, of necessity, I’ve also been working my way through the rituals attendant upon that date, comprised of doctors appointments and lab tests and diagnostic imaging and tests for other kinds of cancer. So far, everything has been mostly all right, mostly normal. A few minor items need tweaking, but don’t involve anything more arduous than nutritional supplements. In six days, I get my next diagnostic mammogram. A week later, I see my breast surgeon again. Both of these events in particular make time stand still in an odd sort of way, make me hold my breath until they are over, whatever the result. Hopefully, they’ll result in nothing, and I’ll be all done and off the hook again until the next round.
Naturally, I still have to function in the meantime, go to work, do the laundry, feed the cats. But I’m aware of the background chatter in my head, a kind of vaguely audible fog that overtakes me sometimes and forces me to marshall my attention to complete whatever task is right in front of me, like driving in a straight line, for example, stopping at all the stop signs and going forward when the light is green. Sometimes it takes everything I have, plus some liquid caffeine, just to apply the rules of the road. I remember once, during a vacation in southern France, I got confused while driving through the narrow back streets of a small village and had to slam on the brakes to avoid a car full of trois gendarmes that came barrelling out of a side alley. We both stopped, and when I rolled down my window, I managed to apologize, explaining, “Je suis distrait!” Les trois gendarmes laughed charmingly, performing simultaneous Gallic shrugs, and proceeded on their merry way. I’ve always liked the French word distrait. In English, it means distracted, but it also reminds me of the word distraught. An alternate French word for distracted is éperdu, which can mean distracted or distraught in French, and includes the root ‘perdu,’ which means ‘lost.’ So, yes, I would say that lately, I am feeling un peu distrait, éperdu et perdu, and perhaps even a bit perturbé. In a fuzzy, sneaky, stealth sort of way. Sometimes, I can’t tell whether it’s these cancer rituals that are distracting me from my regular daily life, or if daily life is merely distracting me from all these lab tests and doctor visits.
Thankfully, I’ve been rather more splendidly distracted of late as well. An all-media art show opened here last week, which includes a photo of mine that won an award for Best Photograph. I’ve had excellent Thai food twice in the last week, once during a very pleasant outdoor dinner before the art opening, where I met some very charming, interesting people, and the second time at a wonderful, small local restaurant with one of my best friends. I’ve also been tagged by a friend to get myself up in full Edwardian kit to represent Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a two-time breast cancer survivor and the rebellious daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, in what is sure to be a delightful and poignant fundraising event in October. One of the guests of honor will be her niece, Elizabeth Roosevelt. As it happens, I have an Edwardian day dress, white, with lots of lace dripping off the sleeves and hems. Now I have an excuse to assemble the pointy-toed boots, the crocheted gloves, the lace parasol and the frothy, wide-brimmed hat to go with it, and to wear it all in public! It will be a distinct privilege to represent a woman whose autobiography was described as being full of “insouciant vitality,” and who once said, perhaps of her own particular brand of wit, “My specialty is detached malevolence.” Surely, in this day and age, she’d have made a right snarky bloggess.
In the meantime, I am enjoying the slow but steady lifting of the more pernicious, all-encompassing fog of fatigue that I have wrestled with since acute treatment was done. I still have to manage my energy on a daily basis, but at least I have energy to manage now. Because I have more energy, I find myself looking backwards and forwards at the same time, and it makes me dizzy sometimes. When I look backward, I see everything I have not been able to attend to in the past three years. And when I look cautiously forward, I realize that I might finally get to make some headway in this accumulated mass of undone, unfinished business. My bucket list these days is a mundane one. It may still include things like trips to Australia or New Zealand, to meet a couple of perfectly wonderful women I now know in both of those places. But expensive, long-distance travel is further down the list, behind a lot of items that would excite no one. Yet for me, it’s miraculous just to plan these duller tasks, to think I might finally get to finish regrouting the tile on the bathroom floor, or reorganize my art studio, or refurbish the perennial border by my driveway. When you spend years not being able to get out of your own way, and cannot afford to hire people to help you, or lack the wherewithal to organize a few friends to give you a hand, it’s deeply satisfying to be able to muster a little ordinary gumption.
Three years ago, I never had to adjust these daily, pedestrian expectations. If I wanted to mow the lawn or refinish my kitchen cabinets, I just set out to do it. And if I didn’t get something done, it was because I decided to do something else instead. Not anymore. My regard for such tasks has been radically and permanently transformed. On the one hand, I have had to let go of so many of them, and in so doing, realized how small and insignificant they are in the larger scheme. Far more crucial these past three years has been the pursuit of simple sanity, friendship, perspective, kindness, honesty, and the ability to laugh. The entire notion of keeping house has been condensed into something much more basic. On the other hand, being able to wrest more energy from the grip of fatigue means I have more choices now. And having more choices means having more freedom from the constrictions I’ve lived with since that day the C word applied to me. It means I’m still here, and for the first time in a long while, I feel like I’ve got the upper hand.
So now, I relish being able to look upon the small things, the insignificant tasks, the dull daily items on my list. My diagnostic mammogram still looms, but for now, I can finally make plans to take up a few tasks, one by one, with a sense of purpose that has been profoundly reinformed. There are still only twenty four hours in a day, but somehow, I feel like I’ve won back a little time.
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