Last week was the first time in ten months that my life did not run at full throttle. I taught an online class. I attempted to attend a faculty meeting until I was turned away by four downtown parking garages and returned home. Those were my only serious commitments for the week. My average week has included teaching as many as five classes. In addition to those ongoing commitments, I hemorrhaged until I had depleted two-thirds of the hemoglobin required for healthy life. I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I underwent major surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I spent two weeks in the hospital. I went through menopause.
Cancer–something buried in the middle of everything else I did–was just something on my weekly “to do” list:
1. Prepare five sets of lecture notes.
2. Grade 60-100 papers.
3. Grade about 20 exams.
4. Get treated for cancer.
5. Spend Saturday with Mom.
After all of these months, I finally sat down and thought about all that I experienced.
I read my blog entries from beginning to end. I went through my in and out boxes in my email account and moved all the cancer-related messages to a cancer folder. Then I took out the several journals that I kept over the last ten months. I skimmed them. Then I flipped through my calendar to read the entries for doctor’s appointments and treatments. I opened up my linen closet and tossed out every nightgown, towel, and sheet that bore stains from my uncontrolled bleeding prior to surgery, the orange medicine I took in December to alleviate bladder pain, several months of painful gastric and intestinal distress, and the bloody radiation burns I had around my hips from December to March. I put my wigs back in their boxes. I threw out all of the hair products that I used to use and have not touched since October. I started trying on my pre-October wardrobe and figured out how many items were too large to be worn again. I put them in bags that I plan to contribute to charity.
I emptied my camera and took a roll of film to Walgreens to get it developed. I transferred the few digital photos that I took during the last year into a folder. I stared for almost thirty minutes at a photo of blood clots that I had passed from my bladder in early December. They were so large that I found myself thinking that the photo appeared to have been “photo-shopped.” It was not.
I sat in front of my lighted 10-X magnification mirror and studied my new hair, brown, sprinkled with silver, short, wavy, and standing up all over the place. I evaluated the longer length of my eyelashes and my eyebrows. I studied the sparse white hairs on my arms. I determined that the calluses that formed on the tops of my feet and the backs of my hand during anemia and chemotherapy were all gone. I examined the ridges on my fingernails that mark the period when I was receiving chemotherapy.
I went to the full length mirror and studied my completely healed and nearly invisible hysterectomy scar. I have not looked at it in so many months that I cannot recall when it changed from red to white. If I did not know it was there, I would not be able to find it. I cannot even feel it with my finger tip. I studied the hernia that I did not know I had before October, which has become prominent after surgery and weight loss. I realized that I am still sort of numb at the top of my left thigh because some of the nerves around my incision site have not yet repaired themselves.
I opened up my freezer and resolved to eat in one week all of the vegetables I bought and could no longer eat once I hit that rough third week of radiation when my digestive tract felt burned. I uncovered a baggie filled with health bars that my friend Tracey made for me in early November. I ate one without feeling like its Chia, pumpkin, and other seeds would tear my intestines to shreds. By this time next week they will be gone. I finally used up the last of the paper towels and toilet paper that I bought from Peapod in December when I could no longer carry supplies up my back steps because I was physically exhausted. I moved the last two twelve-packs of ginger ale from the front closet to the refrigerator. That’s what I used to drink when I was a little nauseated after chemotherapy. It has no caffeine that might irritate my bladder.
After taking stock of the events as they relate to my home and my body, I felt tension like a twisted rubber band running from my ears to the back of my neck. The tension was not alleviated by letting go of so many items. It ratcheted up appreciably. I felt nauseated, as if I had consumed Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at one seating and then swallowed a bottle of seltzer. Everything that I had been absorbing without digesting from the time I was told I had cancer until now seemed swollen and expanding.
I cleaned my desktop off. I last did that in September 2011. I filed away all the receipts, notes, and address changes that I had accumulated. I moved to the floor more than one hundred magazines and books that I had marked for articles, assignments, lectures, and books I plan to write. They are now in piles so that I may systematically go through them before consigning them to bookshelves, storage, or trash. I made a list of people to contact because I never got around to answering Christmas cards, birthday cards, or other updates all year if they came from people who did not know about my “health crisis.” I read every last get well card that I received one more time before discarding them.
After I did that, I sat hunched over my desk because my body had become so taut with tension that I could no longer hold my head up. I felt as if my joints were made of glass and the effort it would take to get up and move might shatter them. I was “Tin Man” stiff with unreleased anxiety.
My eyebrows hurt. My cheekbones hurt. The sides of my nose hurt. Every prior effort to force my lips into a smile when I was asked how I was doing felt like it had been performed in reverse. My jaws hurt as though I had been chewing gum all day. I felt the weight of my own prior cheerfulness descend upon me like an avalanche or a crashing wave.
It’s only been about a week since I stopped racing around, but my primary reaction to the entire experience is that I am not the same person any longer. I could not figure out how to put these changes into words that would make sense of my experience.
My cousin Susie called yesterday. She doesn’t call herself Susie since she became an adult, but she will always be Susie for me. She has a way of getting me to open up about how I’m feeling that is better than therapy. All she has to say in her loving and measured way is, “How are you?” I start singing like a canary.
I still am not sure how I feel except that I sense that I am on the verge of a new wave of change and I want to measure how far I have come before I move on to the next place. In the last few weeks I have encountered two psychics that have told me that come October 2012 my professional life will be changing. I have heard recently from ten people who have ideas for new projects that we can work on together. I start new classes in another month. Two people have told me that I must do more to help others who have cancer or do not have health insurance. No one tells me what to do. I make that decision, but people are trying.
As I heard from Barb and Kathy during the day, the process of assessing the last year’s events continued. Nevertheless, by the end of the day on Sunday I was so stiff with tension that my toes were clenched like I wore a new pair of flip-flops for a run up the stairs at the U.S. Capitol building.
When I climbed into bed I felt older and more uncomfortable than I had since my hospitalization in December. It was like I had worked out with Jillian Michaels from Biggest Loser. I was physically and emotionally whipped. I stayed in bed for four hours and got up when the clock said 4:00 a.m. and I could not recall whether I had managed to sleep at all.
I now sit at my desk before my laptop and I am no closer to figuring out what has happened to me than I was yesterday. This past week I read Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World at 83 (Riverhead Books 2006), in which she wrote:
The writer Craig Vetter once remarked, “The Brooklyn Bridge was built by a guy who had a term paper to write.”
Maybe the last week’s efforts were nothing more than, and just as exhausting as, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, effort undertaken to delay moving forward. This is what I do know. I do not now have cancer. I want to live. I have important things to do. There are people I want to know better. I am grateful for all of the blessings in my life. Maybe that’s all there is to know.