Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Some days it’s hard for me to keep track of what I’m thinking about. Certain common themes and mental threads stitch the passage of time together in a somewhat organized manner. But this life is very different from the one I led when my family was in its center and my job was to be a caregiver every day. Because I’m living such a loosely structured existence at this time, there’s plenty of room for digressing into a whole slew of random rabbit holes and seemingly disconnected ideas. Sometimes that’s fine but periodically, it’s unnerving. I can’t decide if I should just go with whatever the day brings or try to wrestle my thoughts and ideas into a more predictable order. Generally speaking, I suspect that most people prefer knowing what’s likely to happen rather than stepping off into the unknown. I know I used to feel that way. I was always trying to look down the road, get ahead of the game, make lots of plans and be prepared for the possibilities. After years of living with Michael on the shifting sands of cancer, treatments and scans, I’ve changed my view. The only thing I can say with certainty is, that absent an unexpected early mental decline, I think I have the tools to handle most of what life has yet to toss at me. What I was always most afraid of is still what I’m most afraid of – a catastrophic event involving my children, and now my grandchildren as well. Both Michael and I had discussed that fear many times. Each of us felt we could survive, however miserably, the loss of one of us. But we didn’t know if we could manage losing a kid. Aside from that constant, I don’t feel afraid of much else any more. I’m sure I’d feel scared if a person was trying to kill me, up close and personal, but that’s a long odds situation. The normal stuff of life, illness, insecurity, performance anxiety, feeling unloved, all the things that once felt overwhelming, simply don’t any more. I’m not eager to be sick, but a big part of that is my concern for my family who were forced to take on unexpected and early anguish because of their dad’s cancer struggle. I don’t want them to have to experience anything like that without a lot more distance between losing their dad and having something happen to me. But not everything is within my control. For myself, the fear of disease and death doesn’t hold the same power it once did. I’ve faced down so much death that it’s been demystified. Although it’s hard for anyone to imagine life going on after we exit, that’s not the same as fear.
I’m taking a molecular biology class right now. The subject is provocative. The focus involves the the tree of life and its branches which over the course of scientific study, has been modified and expanded. One of the most interesting pieces I’ve learned has to do with something called horizontal gene transfer. Basically this means that bits and pieces of DNA can move between organisms. If there is usefulness in the transfer, the genetic material blends together. If not, the new cellular matter will just die off. This kind of thing has been observed in bacterial life and is probably the reason why some microbes evolve into superbugs that are antibiotic-resistant. In other words this is not your garden variety DNA transfer from parent to child. So far, no one knows if these transfers are limited to the microbial world. And the microbial world that inhabits our bodies is a vast universe. To me that means there’s a long way to go in understanding the way our little bugs, which populate us in the billions, work their collective magic. While listening to the class lectures I started thinking about how Michael’s Merkel cell cancer was a biological success story. No matter how it was attacked, surgically, through radiation and chemotherapy, with targeted mutation drugs and with immunotherapy, it always managed to navigate its way through his body and pop up somewhere else. I’m talking about the success of his disease rather than the ultimate cellular failure of his immune system. A different point of view. If anyone could figure out how all this stuff works, cancer would always be curable. Such a long way to go.
And then there’s the aging process for those of us who are still here, living our lives as the inexorable changes that time wreaks upon us silently hums along. I notice that amongst my peers, the topic of health and body changes has become a lot more dominant than it used to be. In the past year or so, I’ve had friends who’ve been treated for colon cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer and adrenal gland cancer. They are at different stages with prognoses that also have varied possibilities. Suffice it to say that these people are engaged in a different world view than the ones they had prior to diagnosis. There is the friend who’s had a brain aneurysm and a person who suffered a catastrophic stroke. Then there are the kidney stones, the skin disorders, the joint replacements, the neuropathies and the weakening bones. And let’s not forget about aesthetics. Because of a healthy sense of humor that I’m fortunate to share with other gallows-minded types, I’ve had some uproariously funny talks about hairs growing out of the most improbable places. And what about the other ones that seem to have vanished overnight? Facial creases and crepey skin are other entertaining topics, not to mention age spots and tooth issues. Bodies aside, there’s the weird time thing. What magic got sprinkled over time management? Why does what once took an hour seem to require three? And what’s up with all the mulling? Not wine, mind you, but mind mulling? As the work world requirements diminish, there’s all this room for pondering the issues. Maybe it’s all navel reflection but things had to move a lot faster when there more external demands on time.
I’m now reading three books at once. I can’t decide if this is efficient. I’m trying to decide if I care about fixing things in my house or if I should spend all my money traveling before I can’t do it any more. I think about how to get out of this world before I forget who I am and become less mentally capable. I’ve seen that in action and am profoundly averse to participating in that lifestyle. How do I please myself while still caring for my family? I can’t figure out how some things work. While parts of me have slowed down why do I still have a strong sex drive when I’m only interested in sharing that piece with my person who’s dead? Why do I keep making long lists of books to read and places to go and chores to do when I know that I’ll never get all of it done? My mind darts off in multiple directions unconfined by anything other than the physical differences between me from the before and me now.
I keep swimming away, slowly and steadily. The water is still my friend, despite the chlorine which is probably pickling and brining my insides while most certainly contributing to my drying skin which must, like everything else, abide by the law of gravity. My 125 year old home has succumbed to gravity. There are gaps between the porches and the concrete steps up to them as the ground has sunken. There are hairline cracks in my plaster walls.
I don’t know the pace of these movements but they’re clear and obvious. As they are in me. As they are in my longtime friends when I actually look at their corporeal beings instead of into their eyes which is where our friendships truly reside. We are melting candles, still burning but slowly diminishing over time. Yeah. That’s the metaphor that works for me.