You know you are a dedicated blogger when, after puking your guts out at 2 AM, you think, “This is going to be great material for my next post.” Welcome to my world.
I will spare you the details of said puke-fest. Suffice to say that it was the end result of some prolonged poor dietary choices (clearly one of the things I hate most about moving is the inability to prepare my own food), combined with an ill-advised decision to “finish off” the last of the Bailey’s over ice. (Sure, it’s one less thing to pack, but was it really worth it?) As I crouched on the bathroom floor, I thought about my beloved Jeff Bridges’ great puking scene in CRAZY HEART, but I also thought of recent noteworthy hurls of my own: in a taxi coming home from the fertility doctor, just weeks before my diagnosis; after ingesting a little too much Vitamin Water after my first surgery; and of course, following my first round of chemo.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that once I found my way back under the covers and mopped my brow with a cold washcloth, the tears just started. These are a new species of tears, the post-cancer variety. It’s almost a part of my breath; the emotion comes over me, and I exhale the sadness, the fear, all of it. It feels like shit, but there is an inevitability to it, and also immense relief.
I’ve written before about my PTSD associated with any kind of physical ailment. I am so enamored of my health now that any time I start to feel the slightest deviation from my standard of wellness, I get wiggy. So, as I was writhing in bed, battling my upset stomach and sipping seltzer before the puke finally arrived, I thought, “Well, here’s my cancer again. Back for more.” I hear the litany of questions my oncologist asks me at every check-up: “Any nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath?” OH GOD! VOMITING! Once you have been touched by cancer, it’s hard to accept that there are countless other reasons why your body might be out of whack.
I also heard the voice of the GI doctor I met with at the genetics clinic a few months ago, the one who so reassuringly told me that even though my CA125 is normal, there could still be other, undetected cancer lurking inside of me. Hence, the need for colonoscopies and upper endoscopies to screen me for the stomach and colon cancer for which I am now at increased risk. Flash forward to October (if I am still alive then, of course), when I report for my first endoscopy only to learn that I have Stage IV stomach cancer and only weeks to live.
This is not the way my mind normally works. But right now is not a normal time. Right now, I am living between houses – packing up my life in the city and painting rooms in New Jersey. Entertaining my sister-in-law and her two kids and preparing for my parents to arrive tomorrow. I am fantasizing about my new home, the plants I will grow, the art I will hang, the meals I will make, while at the same time feeling a deep sadness about leaving the community that we have been a part of for the last four years.
I remarked to a friend a few weeks ago, while discussing this huge transition, that cancer has made me decidedly less sentimental. And it has. Before cancer, the state of flux in which I am currently living would have left me unnerved, rattled, anxious. I could see myself weeping at random while packing up boxes and taking down pictures. There was in me, before cancer, this peculiar need to assign meaning and significance to my external surroundings that would always implicate the very essence of me, who I saw myself being. Changing circumstances, moving, uprooting, would often leave me wondering, Who am I supposed to be now? What’s going to happen to me, now that I am in Chicago instead of Philadelphia, or New Orleans instead of Chicago?
One of the unexpected blessings of cancer, and having survived its wrath, has been the realization that the certainty, the center, is within me. It does not change with my surroundings. It does not reside in a particular zip code, or within a city’s limits. My strength, my energy, my life force, is the constant that drives everything I do. It is nurtured and sustained by the people and places that I love, but it does not waiver. It knows no bounds.
I’ll freely admit that I am sad and indeed a bit torn about the move we are making. It feels like giving something up, like turning away from something – urban life, our wonderful block. But the larger part of this moment is about moving forward, making something new, something that is ours.
The other night, my sister-in-law asked me, rather apologetically (“I hope this isn’t an inappropriate question”), whether there was a part of me that was glad to be going somewhere new, “starting over,” after everything I have been through with my illness. It was a perfectly reasonable question, and I answered, honestly, “Absolutely.” For the garden which I love so much and which I am so sad to leave was also a den of piercing solitude for me during endless Spring days, when all I had was a New York Times crossword and an Ian Rankin paperback to distract me from my fear of dying. And the TV room where Mike and I liked to cozy up and watch the latest episode of CAPRICA is also the room where I slept when I came home from the hospital after my first surgery – where I woke up in the middle of the night in terror, with images of my insides being ripped open searing my mind. We exorcised the cancer demons from this house about six weeks after I finished treatment, but the truth is, the ghosts can never be completely erased.
So I will embrace the poignancy, the ambivalence, the mixed feelings of these last few days of our life in the city. Just as I will embrace the blank canvas that stretches before me in this place that we will truly make our own.