Last night, over margaritas and enchiladas, I said to my husband, “I feel so good. Is there something wrong with me?”
Working his way through his flight of tequila, he smiled and said, “Maybe it has to do with being alive?”
Certainly that is part of it. Nothing makes you appreciate life quite like staring death in the face. Now, inching right up to the two-year anniversary of the Grim Reaper’s visit to my front door, it’s not an overstatement to say that I feel better than I ever have in my life.
Words to describe my current state of mind: strong. Calm. Energized. Excited. Optimistic. The list goes on. Old familiar feelings that are mysteriously absent: fear. Sadness. Anger. How did this happen? Will it last?
I’ve already speculated a bit about the things that have brought me to this place. I do not take lightly the benefits of medication. I am constantly grateful for the fact that I have an amazing life partner whose patience, humor and insight help me get through every day. There is, for sure, no question, that my outlook has changed dramatically, and, it seems, permanently (to the extent that anything is permanent) since my First Descent at the end of August. Still, even recognizing all of this, there is an inarticulable sense of magic and mystery to the way I have been transformed.
This morning, at the dog park, I sifted through my email while Lucy barked and ran and dug in the dirt. I saw a notice, from Planet Cancer, that one of my fellow fighters had posted a new blog entry about moving out of her home and in with her parents, as she endures the end-stages of Stage IV ovarian cancer. In an instant, I was choked with sadness – and that inescapable fear that comes with reading about someone who shares your type of cancer and is coming to their end of their fight. The world around me stopped for a moment. The brisk fall air, the wagging tails, the friendly chatter – all of it was suspended, as I went, in my mind, to the place where Alli now dwells. Staring death squarely in the face, and, at least in the way she expresses herself – beautifully, honestly, simply – without fear. Until seeing a human being do what she is doing right now, it’s hard to know what the word “hero” really means.
Two years ago, I walked into that same dog park, with Mike and Lucy, a few short hours after my first meeting with my oncologist. We had already been the CVS and I had just popped my first Xanax. I would be having surgery in just a few short days. It was not 100% certain that I had cancer, but pretty damn close. My entire world was collapsing around me. We stood in the pool of light from the overhead lamp, the dogs circling and playing at our heels, and a dizziness filled my head. I had no idea how much longer I would be alive.
Today, I am blessed to be be strong, cancer-free and full of life. I am still subject to a relentless cycle of check-ups, bloodwork and pelvic exams (OH, the irony!) Constant surveillance will be part of my life. But I have boundless energy, I have rehabilitated myself almost completely after nearly an entire year of being beaten down and depleted, having the life-force drained out of me. I am grateful for this new reality every single day.
It is so hard to know how to incorporate the knowledge of Alli’s cruel story into the landscape I now inhabit. My good fortune to be on the plus-side of the harrowing statistics is not impervious to the devastating impact of stories like Alli’s. As I read her words this morning, my chest constricted. The anger rose in me. Why?? Just plain fucking WHY??? Why should this beautiful young woman suffer like this? The best I can do, I tell myself, is to treasure my own health, hold those less fortunate close to my heart, and keep fighting with everything I have to help create a world in which the brutality of cancer no longer devastates the lives of young people in this evil, illogical way.
Lucy and I later returned from the park, and I shared with Mike what I had just learned about Alli. We took a moment together and acknowledged the unadulterated shittiness of it all. Then, knowing that I needed to cleanse my emotional palate, he said, “Here, read this. This will make you happy.”
And he directed me to the latest musings from Fridge, a fellow camper from Jackson who is just starting to build her life after graduating from college, and three years after her own cancer diagnosis. Fridge is a sweet, lovely young woman who I was delighted to share so much with during First Descents. I think of her as the little sister I never had.
I read her recent post, and was thrilled to hear the positivity and excitement in her words. It was clear, when she left camp at the end of the summer, that Fridge was struggling to sort out the direction her life would take, and that her cancer experience still had her in its relentless stranglehold. So to see her now, engaging in her world, getting involved, taking her runs, filled me with this palpable, warm feeling. She is not just “surviving.” She is out there, living and loving every minute.
It’s unclear to me exactly how to ride these waves – the currents of my own life, Alli’s tragedy, Fridge’s triumphs. It’s disorienting, dizzying. Hang on, I suppose, and honor it all.