Ten Years and Counting
This past week marked ten years since my surgery for endometrial cancer. I am grateful for these past ten years. Some of them have been tougher than others, but I have never forgotten being told by a respected surgeon that my cancer was stage 3 and my life expectancy was significantly diminished. I am no more worthy of a commutation of that statistical death sentence than anyone else, but I credit my sister and her prayer circle for a respected oncologist’s one-month later statement that my cancer was more accurately at stage 1. I believe in miracles and, whether prayer brought a miracle or whether it made me feel I was receiving a miracle, I felt my time here on earth snapped back to something longer. I have tried to make what I can of the “extra” time I have received.
I teach at a different law school than I taught at back in 2011. In 2012, I returned to teaching at the law school that terminated me for being diagnosed with cancer. I returned right after I completed my chemotherapy and radiation treatments and before I felt “better” or even “stronger.” I had the experience of walking into rooms occupied by the supervisor who terminated me and seeing her excuse herself and walk out of another door to avoid meeting me. That was a small vindication because the law school never apologized, never accepted responsibility, and it was another 7-8 months before the law school paid me what compensation remained unpaid on my contract when I was terminated.
There was not much help offered by the legal system that has been my bailiwick since 1988. The EEOC decided not to take on my case. My case had low stakes for everyone except me. I imagine many people living through personal health crises have had similar experiences. I can appreciate their disappointment in finding that their voices, as well as their lives, can be eclipsed by cancer and other diseases. At the same time, when I did not have money for health insurance, the public health system in Cook County, Illinois helped me. I am grateful for that help and the experiences of going through treatment with so many others who were able to find aid in the kindness society extends to those in need.
I do my best to make sure those often forgotten individuals in need of representation and healthcare will someday be represented by young lawyers with passion for causes society has little energy to pursue. Some of my former students now work in public interest, public health, anti-discrimination, and social justice settings. Others give their time to causes as part of their pro bono efforts to make the world a better place for people without voices.
A former student once described me as a character from Poltergeist who helps lost souls “cross over,” saying, “All are welcome. All are welcome.” I aspire to such kindness.
Cancer was not the only health threat in the last ten years. I survived a flesh-eating bacterial infection in 2017 that nearly took my life. I am grateful to the surgeons, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals who have now saved me twice from grave danger. In the current pandemic era, it is tough to make doctor’s appointments and address our own health issues unless we are struck by something like Covid-19. I did make it to a mammogram appointment this summer but need to be more proactive so as to not squander my extra time here with family and friends.
Family and friends have seen me through my darkest hours. I am deeply grateful to my mom, my sister and brother, my nieces, my aunts (both gone now), my cousins, and my dearest friends. All of them generously nursed me through dark hours and helped me keep my spirits up. Barb was with me before and after my cancer surgery. She was with me when I met my oncologist and she took me to some of my toughest treatments like having a camera inserted into my bladder to evaluate the extent of radiation damage. That was quite a day! Dominique brought holistic healing and necessities like a comb and toothbrush when I found myself lying in filth in a county hospital bed over a long Christmas holiday when no family could reach me. Roberta sent out prayers and food for the soul. Mary paid for housekeping to keep up my home while I recovered. My niece Maureen and her now husband Justin came to Chicago to take me to a chemotherapy session. My brother Dan flew in for one of those sessions, too. My sister Kathy came for about a month to help with the numerous challenges of recovery. Joelle, a former student, became a good friend by listening and caring. Some of my former students wrote letters to DePaul University, at which I worked, to protest my firing. Meanwhile Moses, another suprevisor at DePaul, kept me on as an instructor in his certificate program. Roosevelt University kept me on as well. Their confidence in me means so very much even after a decade.
I cannot forget the many bloggers I met here on WordPress either. My blog was a big part of my recovery. The men and women whose blogs I followed were my guides, my friends, and my comfort. I hope I gave as freely as they did. I miss so many of them who met their fates with a grace that I can only hope to one day gather for my own passing. I understand now why thinking of cancer as a battle is misguided. After ten years, I still know it is there and could come back. I know that I recovered, but I did not “win.” I know that we as a society have “lost” many to cancer, but I believe those who pass from it cannot be viewed as having “lost.” Their lessons in courage, dignity, and love linger if we take time to think about mortality’s eventualities.
I can do more with the time given to me. These days I teach and care for my mom in my home. I hope to be able to do that as long as GWU Law will have me and my mom remains with us. It has been her wish that she be home. Sadly, with her Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body Dementia to contend with, home is where we once lived, a place I cannot take her to visit, much less live in. This is one of the lessons of cancer that I have learned. No matter how successful the treatments are, we do not get out of this world “alive.” I do believe in the afterlife, but it can be very hard to disentangle yourself from the painful beauty of this life, even when the pain outweighs so much of the beauty of it. In the effort to stay, we sometimes cling to the people and “cures” that once sustained us. It takes more courage to face death than I ever thought. When things happen in slow motion, I can appreciate how tough it can be to see death as our winning the battle, rather than losing it.
I guess the biggest differences between me today and me then are not the improved health, the new job in a familiar-but-far-from-home city, the growing generations of family that surround me, or the legacy of young lawyers that will continue when I am gone. What has changed most is a fatalism that I work each day to convert to acceptance. In that acceptance, I hope to one day find a new life. For that reason, October 7, 2021, means ten and counting.