Contents May Have Shifted
On the morning of Sunday, October 9th, one of my surgeons came to see me. She examined my incision and found things in order. She planned to run at least part of the Chicago Marathon that morning with her husband. Then she would take a nap before returning to work. She did not authorize my release before she left.
My brother had returned to Dallas. My sister Kathy and mom would come to pick me up–once I was ready to leave. My sister did not know Chicago well, but she had a GPS. My mom knew the city but disliked city driving. They were eager to pick me up ASAP while it was light outside
No one wanted me to go home alone to my apartment in the city. I had to return with them to my mom’s home. I was not happy about this, but I relented. When Dr. G awoke from her nap, she called in and gave me the “green light” for departing.
Mom was delighted to learn that we could get a parking voucher to offset the cost of parking while my sister came upstairs to collect me. The idea of paying to visit a sick relative stuck in her craw and gave the rest of us an excuse to tease her. My mom waited in the hospital lobby. Her gout had flared up and had made it painful for her to come up to my room.
I had the doctor’s permission to drive and to return to work. I was told my staples would be removed in three more days. I received some prescriptions. We piled into Mom’s car with Kathy at the wheel. The GPS chose our route. It featured streets with immense, deep potholes.
As we bounced our way south and then west for a trip to the north I tried to take control, but that infuriating voice of the GPS kept drowning out my suggestions. Does anyone like these bossy contraptions? Why is it illegal to speak on a phone or text while driving, but not to look at the device’s screen to judge your next move?
I gripped the handle overhead and lifted my behind off of the seat as we cruised up and down the road. Each jolt rippled through my body like the animation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Something was not where it belonged. I thought it was my bladder, which had been functioning well since my surgery. The pain was much worse than anything I had encountered in the hospital. I was barely suppressing tears. I kept thinking of the notice that used to be on every box of cereal and bag of chips I ever bought: Contents may have shifted during transit. My bladder appeared to be balancing on something dagger-sharp. It had never done so before. I imagined it had moved now that other organs were gone.
We were about to merge onto the highway when we saw a traffic jam stretching for miles north. I felt panic much greater than when I reacted to my diagnosis. Ten minutes later I was in so much pain that I begged my sister to exit the highway and head for a McDonald’s. My bladder had been operating, but it seemed the center of my central nervous system as we hit every bump in the road. The GPS was unhappy–it was “recalculating” with a miffed tone.
Kathy pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot. You may think the menu is too full of fat and calories, but the bathrooms are always clean. I stumbled from the car with my body doubled over and headed for the ladies’ room. Moments later I was a new woman! My bladder had tipped off of the fulcrum on which it had teetered. I never felt any serious pain again.
We reached Mom’s home without any further tears. Of course, once we were there, we were battling over where I would sleep. I have never slept more than a few hours a night on a regular basis. I have tried natural remedies, exercise, over-the-counter sleeping aids, hypnosis, even an occasional dose of Nyquil. I do not like to sleep in my bed. The last time I slept in my own bed was 2008. It was a bad night.
I wanted to sleep on Mom’s couch. She wanted me to sleep in her bed. She would sleep on a couch. She had the gout and needed her sleep as much or more than I did. The bed had no headboard, no handrails, and it was high off of the ground. I would end up lying on my back like a June bug. I prevailed, and the night was difficult. I wanted my couch, my quilt, my pillows, and my nightie. I managed a short nap while I wore the same clothes I had worn the day I checked in at the hospital. It was my first sleep since surgery.
I asked myself, why are you incapable of sleeping? I had my reasons. I kept thinking about the priest’s administration of the last rites, that child’s prayer about dying before I wake, the short life line on my right palm, those darn Cancer Center of America commercials in which Peggy discusses the fact that she had no expiration date, the due dates upon my forthcoming hospital and other medical bills, and my small bank balance. Sleep was fraught with unresolved issues.
How many have likened sleep to death? I now find myself unwilling to surrender any portion of my day to troubled dreams or dreamless sleep or death’s long sleep. Less than a week ago I was insisting my family respect my having signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. Now I am fighting for my life.
I think about my Grandma K. When she suffered a stroke, we called the priest to perform the sacrament for the sick. When the priest finished his talk with her, he annointed her with holy oil and pronounced her ready to pass.
Grandma said, “You mean to say that I am ready to die?”
The priest nodded.
She responded, “Shit!” Then she covered her mouth with her hand and giggled. Foul language was, in her view, a sin. Catholics are taught that even a thing that is not a sin is a sin if we perceive it to be so. By sinning she was no longer “ready.” She was in her nineties. I also recall a client’s unwillingness to complete her estate plan because it would mean she was ready to die. She was in her eighties.
Why do some of us wake up every day wishing that we had died in our sleep while others resist sleep so as to have more life? Who is braver? Who is wiser? Who lives longer?
Ever since I learned that I have cancer the contents of my life have shifted in ways I would not have predicted. Sometimes the box looks a little light, but the gravity of my experience has caused this perception. In fact, my diagnosis has made dense and more meaningful some of my more shallowly developed viewpoints.
For example, I have long been what others call a “bleeding heart liberal.” I have supported funding for things like medical care for the uninsured. When I did not have the funds to pay for health insurance, I supported a national health insurance plan that might lower the price of care. My beliefs reflected my sense of economic justice and my self interest. I’m not sure I was compassionate.
Since my diagnosis I have met many people in more dire health and economic situations than I face. I have been deeply moved by the sight of a man with cancer leading two profoundly disabled children with him through his treatment. He has no babysitter to help him. I have seen children leading a mother or grandmother through the county hospital because their relative was too frail to manage her own care. They are their parents’ caregivers when young enough to still need someone else’s guidance. A tattooed man in biker garb suffering a relapse of his brain cancer has insisted that I precede him for care in a first-come, first-served setting because ladies go first. A breast cancer survivor has begged me to get her some help when pain has overwhelmed her. I have given my seat in a crowded waiting room to someone’s grandmother who probably rode a couple of buses to show up for chemotherapy. I have seen young men sit among many older persons so that they can take their turns absorbing poisons that kill healthy and cancer cells. These are people who love life no matter how difficult it has become.
Suffering, poverty, and human dignity have faces that are becoming more and more familiar to me. In the past I have often given money to a homeless person on the street rather than to a charity because I respond to the individual homeless persons as people. But now I see the role of institutions, like my county’s hospital, in the care of the sick, and I don’t think I will ever be able to turn down a call for help from any of the institutions, foundations, and charities that serve cancer survivors and their families. Whether or not I have money to spare, I have time they have helped to make for me. I should give some of it back so as to help others.
I think the scale shows that the new configuration of my character is less and yet so much more than when it started. It is less remote, less self-serving, less insensitive. It is more compassionate, more appreciative, more committed. The trip I am on is making a difference.