What Passes for Normal?
Yesterday I hunted in my purse for a comb and realized I did not have one.
It has now been a little over four months since I finished chemotherapy and a couple of months since I lost my hair. My hair no longer stands up on top like Woody the Woodpecker’s. There is a cowlick on the left side of my head where the hair sticks out a little. It never did that in the past. I was in the restroom at school and tried to smooth it with wet fingers and thought, gee, maybe I could move my part higher and use the extra hair to hold it down. I emptied my purse’s contents on the counter before I realized that the comb had disappeared when my lack of hair became noticeable. The comb never made it back to my purse afterward.
I hunted in the rolling briefcase that is an adjunct professor’s mobile office and found no comb. But I did find four plastic spoons–concessions to the changes in my diet. I now eat applesauce at least once a day. I often carry a container of yogurt when I leave home in the morning. I never had a spoon with me before cancer. I started putting spoons there after I “sanitized” the ruler I use to measure margins on students’ papers so I could use it as a spoon when I had yogurt and nothing to eat it with. The metallic tang of that makeshift spoon brought me closer to throwing up than chemotherapy ever did, but I was worn to a nub and needed to eat even if I did not like what I ate.
I walked out to my car and hunted through it for a comb. I did not find one. But I did have an extra set of clothes that I had placed there when I had not yet figured out how to handle my burnt bladder and worried that I might need a change of clothes while at school. I brought those pants inside my home last night and moved them to the “charity” bag. I have lost enough weight that they are too big.
Underneath the driver’s seat there was a notebook in which I had jotted stray concerns to discuss with my doctor back when I saw her every month. In it I had written, “When can I expect to feel normal again?” The answer written there was “three weeks after the end of treatment.” It has been many more than three weeks and I am not feeling “normal.”
This week I learned that the supervisor who “reassigned my students to other classes” as soon as I was diagnosed with cancer had described me to a tenured member of the faculty as “insane” or “crazy” for demanding that the University do something to correct this discriminatory behavior. If the account I received is correct, that professor did not share the part of the story that reflected poorly on her. The professor who heard I was insane asked another colleague if I was crazy. She answered, “only if being terminated for having cancer can make you crazy.” He had not been told that I had been terminated for having cancer when I was described as crazy.
Maybe you cannot go back to the way things were before cancer–ever.
I spent time last night thinking about what is normal for me and for others in my position. Is it normal to turn the TV off when you hear Peggy talk about the doctor at Cancer Centers of America who said he examined her and never found anything on her that said she had an expiration date? That commercial makes me angry and impatient and sad all at the same time. It makes me angry because it makes me remember when I thought my cancer had reached stage three and I read that I had only a 45% chance of being alive in five years and later learned that my cancer was only stage one and my chances of being here in five years were at least double 45%. It makes me impatient because when I watch Peggy struggle to control her tears I resent the blatant manipulation of her fear (and mine) by a commercial concern looking to find patients and make money. It makes me sad because I know that I can be manipulated if someone offers me a remedy that might protect me from ever feeling again as Peggy does.
Is it normal to go to bed at night at age fifty-five and say to yourself, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” because you can no longer articulate prayers for things that might not come true? Is it living in the moment if you think you could die in a very short time if your next medical test has an unusual result? I have not given a single thought to my retirement years since I heard that my cancer might already be stage three. I receive bulletins and mail from AARP, but I no longer look at them. I have not given up hope that I will live a long life, not at all. But I have come to think that I have more important short-term goals to meet first. I sit and ponder the human condition. I call a family member or a friend to talk about our days. I answer a student’s need for reassurance with my complete attention and try to end the conversation by saying, “you’re going to make it,” as if they also feel that sense of time eclipsing opportunity. I think of getting a pet to keep me company when I am alone with my fears because I have seen how pets and their owners are both made brave by company as they answer the door to face a stranger. I think about committing myself to the activities of life rather than its financial security because security has become more, not less, related to having activity than having its price.
Is it normal to look at your own reflection in a mirror and appraise your parts like options on a used car? Have you ever thought of your bladder as you would a sunroof that seemed like a great feature for drives on a sunny day and now feels like a future source of leaks on a rainy one? I keep thinking that I have done a poor job of choosing what options were going to be important to me. I remember my cancer buddy Joe saying, “had I known I would live this long I would have taken better care of my body.” I remember my response to the question, do you ever look at your body and wonder why it has let you down? My answer was, “No, but sometimes I find it hard to meet the eyes of my own reflection because I feel like I let her down.” The truth is that I have felt my mortality at many times in my life. But now I feel as if I have made her acquaintance. And I find myself wondering, as one sometimes does when a neighbor has begun to drop by unexpectedly every day or always inopportunely, is there any gentle way to deflect these visits?
When did cancer become my buddy? I remember meeting the cancer patients who became my buddies as we went through treatment, but somehow the cancer that was removed October 7, 2011 has found a way to tag along for every day since that operation. If it has been excised, why doesn’t it go away?
I will be brutally honest about something I seldom hear people admit. There are days at a time when I don’t think about my deceased dad or the child I miscarried many years ago. But I think about cancer every day. Oh sure, those other losses happened twenty to thirty years ago and cancer “happened” only seven months ago. I anticipate that time will help heal me. But I sometimes let a day here or there pass after those two grievous losses when they were fresh experiences. I felt guilty about that forgetfulness back then. How could I forget someone so well loved, so lovingly conceived? I would feel delighted now to go a day without thinking about cancer. Yet its specter is there like a shadow on the sunniest of days.
Maybe “normal” is the wrong standard by which to measure how I am doing. Maybe normal has always been a standard in flux. Maybe the reason that I can forget those other losses is that I take them “for granted.” I usually use the term “taken for granted” when talking about someone who no longer concerns himself or herself with my concerns or vice versa. Sometimes that occurs because of the ease in our relationship that permits us to be inattentive and sometimes because our relationship is not much of a relationship at all. If “normal” is always a rupturing event away from being redefined, then it isn’t so much a relationship as it is a diagnostic tool that helps me relate to myself in a constantly changing world. I am always normal but normal means something different all the time. When little is happening then normal becomes comfortable, even when it is not. And precisely because of that easiness, once normal changes I will feel disturbed.
If that is normal, then to think every day of cancer after being diagnosed with it is normal. It is as normal as not thinking of cancer was when I did not know it was growing inside of me. Perhaps I can find ease even if I think of it every day because it means I can gently ease it out of my awareness just by paying it no attention when it intrudes.
I still have not put a comb in my purse, but I feel a little better about the fact that cancer is still my companion. Our way of relating with each other, now normal, could be of short-term duration, something much less serious than a “relationship,” one day soon taken for granted in the sense that we will part without fanfare or forlorn separation.