In an attempt to measure the journey of the last two years, let me try to qualify different kinds of exhaustion. Today, I am, I admit, a bit wiped out. Last night, in celebration of Mike’s birthday as well as the second anniversary of my completing treatment for stage III ovarian cancer, we reveled with our dearest friends – as we had so many times over the course of my illness – playing poker, drinking with abandon, laughing uproariously, singing and playing air guitar. We finally opened the bottle of proseco our realtor gave us when we closed on our house, and followed it with beer upon beer. A lucky few of us even got to savor the last drops of a bottle of Jose Cuervo Tradicional. We did it up right.
Late to bed, and early to rise. The abundant windows in our new home are both a blessing and a curse. Light and air flow easily, and make the house feel cool and breezy even on warm days. But sleeping with the door in our bedroom open also allows poor Lucy, our faithful basset, an unobstructed view of the various forms of wildlife that populate the backyard. When the first birds start chirping at dawn, Lucy is up like a shot, and ready to hunt.
And so, somewhat unhappily, I was roused earlier than I’d have liked, and was ready to lace up my running shoes not quite seven hours after I finally shut out the light the night before. (Or should I say, earlier this morning.) Mike ultimately rallied as well, and we set out, both a bit spent, logging just shy of four and a quarter miles on a new route through the neighborhood and surrounding parks. Another humid morning, and cooling down at the end, I felt wrung out, my face burning with sweat. But my heart was beating with a calm strength and rhythm, and my legs felt like coiled steel springs. Running is honestly transforming my whole sense of my physical self.
Some hours later, after a big meal, a shower and steady stream of iced coffee and water, the fatigue hangs lightly but persistently over my skin. There may even be a nap in my future – a decidedly rare occurrence. Lately I have been running on a seemingly unending current of energy, so it’s odd, in a way, to feel myself sagging. Nonetheless, it makes sense, it’s logical and appropriate. My body is asking for rest that it needs and deserves.
Two years ago yesterday, I had my last out-patient infusion of Taxol and Cisplatin. Chemotherapy, after four months and 12 rounds of treatment, was over. I wanted so desperately to celebrate, but there was virtually nothing left of me. The exhaustion which wracked my body then was menacing, wrong, even painful – something no nap could ever cure. Twenty pounds below my pre-cancer weight, frail, pale, hairless, I was unrecognizable to myself. Worst of all, I couldn’t even muster the energy to do anything for my husband on his birthday, which, after my last treatment had to be pushed back (for the first and ONLY time) due to my diminished white blood cell count, ended up coinciding with my last day of treatment. My dear friend and neighbor Iva had to buy Mike’s gifts for me. I don’t even remember writing a card for him.
Most people I know who have gone through cancer treatment look forward to that final infusion with a kind of crazed, weary anticipation: Just get me to that last day, we tell ourselves. Choirs of angels will sing. There will be noise makers and pinatas, champagne will flow. The clock will be reset and life will, at that moment, begin again.
Not so, June 11, 2008. Like runners reaching the end of a sort of satanic marathon, perhaps a course riddled with pitfalls and traps, pits of snakes, fire-breathing dragons hot on our heels, my husband and I crossed that so-called “finish line” exhausted, afraid and forever changed. We attempted a birthday “celebration” of sorts – I invited our nearest and dearest, much to Mike’s chagrin – and we grimly ate pizza and salad and reflected, as best we could, on what we had all been through together. I fought as hard as I could to muster positivity and relief, but the metallic nausea ate away at my stomach and mouth. My abdomen swelled from the treatment that afternoon, and my bones begged to lie down and sleep. I remember crying quietly and steadily as my friends and husband shared their thoughts; it felt like I wasn’t even there.
Over the course of my cancer journey, Mike produced a series of videos assembled from footage which we shot during hospital visits, gatherings with friends, visits from family and the untold hours spent languishing at home. While there is no documentary evidence of that last awkward, poignant evening after my final treatment, there is a video memorializing the last cycle, including the final treatment. The miracle of what Mike did with these videos is that he managed to make something so excruciating and horrifying into something so beautiful and true. I am so grateful to have these records of my cancer journey. Here is the final one:
Last night, after a great deal of alcohol and yet another absurd poker game, Mike hit “play,” and we all stood around his computer and watched the memories unfold. I have watched these videos over the past two years, and seen many images of myself during treatment. None of this was new. But in that moment last night, after this riotous evening, on a day when I felt so alive and happy, and had so many opportunities to show my husband how much I love him, on a day when my hairdresser cut and colored my hair and BLEW IT OUT STRAIGHT, such that I could see, if only for a few hours, some version of the person I was before cancer – in that moment, there was no stopping the emotion welling inside of me. By the end, the tears were flowing. We all huddled together, and hugged, and they let me cry. We affirmed our love for each other. And then, while wiping my eyes and smiling with an intangible sense of relief, I downed a shot of Cuervo Tradicional.