A Thousand Not-Yets

When you’ve been blinded by the sun,
when three months of struggle have turned into eighteen,
one drug to second, to a third, to a fourth
and your monsters have not yet been defeated,
when your bones sprout blender knives that turn themselves on at will,

when spring rains never came, but fires did
and the earth is now not only parched,
but scorched,
when your skin has become equally parched and scorched
when your dear friend, too, has been blinded by the sun,
screamed a thousand not-yets,
and now lies awaiting her passage
What then?

You are wowed by the brilliancy and strength of those called to sit vigil.
You talk to friends who make you smile,
perhaps indulge in an afternoon G & T,
sleep when you hadn’t planned to
lie awake while others sleep.
You cry,
and hold each other close.
You wait.

For rain,
for thicker skin,
for joy,
for summer.sun2

Patron Saint of the Plague

Had I known St. Valentine encompassed anything but Hallmark love, I may not have chosen February 15 as our wedding day. Not only did it land at the end of reading week (I was a student at the time, writing mid-terms and papers), but I expected proximity to be a good thing: St. Valentine was the Patron Saint of love, after all. Had someone informed me thirteen years ago he was also the Patron Saint of fainting and the plague, I might’ve moved our wedding plans to June.

Fainting and the plague have been ours for much of the past five years. We have become raw and bruised, but also humble and tender. We have become more honest and thick-skinned, and sometimes impatient, but also more gentle and understanding, and infinitely more patient.

We know our run may not last the expected decades most of us get, and so we hold hands in the night, and wrap arms, and share our tears, our nightmares, our grief. We also make a point of finding humour daily, of laughing together. We have fallen and felt shamed, but we have also got up again, and felt profound gratitude. We have been in the crucible and had our lesser selves exposed, and we have emerged, and reflected the light. We are in the crucible now, but we’ll emerge again. We’ll do all these again, hopefully many times.

The crucible is unbearably hot at times, utterly capable of destroying love. It is intense, creating chemical reactions that threaten destruction. It tests resiliency, and if we don’t bend, we’ve learned, we’ll break. It is terrifying, as we’ve both experienced the death of love in our first marriages.

Still, before all this, and perhaps primarily during all this, our love has grown. I hope the future holds easier and happier Valentine’s Days for us, but either way, through thick and thin, in the fire or not, I believe we’ll be in it together.

 

What We Want

What we want is to feel alive. To have an appetite. To have muscle. To move. To feel things, smell them, touch them, see them, taste them, hear them. To know safety and comfort. To have clarity and purpose. To know love, beauty. To feel empowered. To have hope.

There is, by the way, no such thing as false hope. Hope always goes against odds, and is exactly that—believing in and focussing on possibility.

My chemo this week threw me for more of a loop than I’d planned on, so — unbearably self-pitying and bored with the living room this morning — I ventured out. The melting snow and bright sun felt mocking, not soothing. This is the part we’re loathe to admit, or write about when we find ourselves in the crucibles of life: we despair. We do our yoga and our meditation to maintain resilience and optimism, and tap into an unexpected well of rage instead.

So out I went, into the bright sun, not knowing where to, thinking perhaps I might capture some beauty with my camera, or take a peek at January sales. Strike, and strike.

I drove by the long line-up at Edmonton’s Bissell Centre and was reminded of this fundamental truth: no matter what our station in life, we want to improve it. Mittens, a hot drink, a jacket.

My fatigue won out. I turned the car into the local grocery store and picked up some sushi, fresh raspberries, and the carrot muffins I’d been craving. (Yes, I still have an appetite, sort of at least, thankfully.) I looked at the fresh flowers and toyed with indulging myself, but they turned out to be too much to carry.

It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, my outing, but neither was it in vain. I remembered that I’m not alone, that bad times pass. I remembered the angels that minister to my physical and emotional health. I remembered to tell them thank you. I remembered my friend, in her own current hell, and sent her my love via the wavelengths of life that connect us all. I remembered the love of my parents, my husband, my children. And as I left the parking lot, I received a text from one of them. Medicine for my spirit. Their love and joy are baptismal waters for me, always.

connie child 5

(Yup, that’s me, back in the age of innocence. There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead…. I’m trying to remember the feeling.)

Hot August Nights, Cool August Mornings

Saturday found a tired and depressed me lying on the couch with my equally tired and depressed husband, me being very careful not to bump my very sore arm in any way. Listening to music and to summer sounds coming in through the open window, reading, napping, my more minor aches and pains gradually receded a little. For a while, it felt very much like the cabana we had in Hawaii all those years ago, minus the warmth of course, and the breeze and the sound and smell of the ocean, it being a cool rainy August day in northern Alberta. But still, it was lovely, so lovely.

What is it that is most potent in making an ordinary, tired, post-treatment afternoon lovely? It can’t be the exotic extras of tropical breezes, not really, not when the feeling is the same as the one that comes from the simple presence of the human being faithfully sharing the moment with you, can it?

That sore arm–it’s throbbing with yet another damaged vein, inflamed and hard and the diameter of a pencil just underneath my skin. This is what my treatment does to my veins and other sensitive cells: it burns them.

Earlier this week, friends tell us about their daughter’s pain, about their anguish, sweeping and soul-threatening. I think of another friend with cancer, of her family’s grief and fatigue. My nights are restless, morning coming too soon, way too soon, 5:30 AM too soon. I’m tired and want the blissful escape of sleep, and on one particular morning am weepy and angry, not the tiniest bit capable of gratitude.

So I drop the bar a little. Gratitude can wait; it will return in due course. For now the task is to tolerate the emotional and physical realities of the moment. I’m sick. I’m trying to get well, and this is, as one astute friend put it a few days ago, a challenging job. It is an exhausting job, and a boring, lonely, uncomfortable, and frightening place to spend so many of my days.

The living room abruptly feels beyond familiar and boring, impossibly and endlessly the same. I’ve clearly spent too much time in here over the past eight months, time enough to develop a serious case of treatment fatigue and cabin fever.

It’s too early in this chemo cycle for the idea that has now popped into my head. My body is fatigued, my blood counts are low, and I probably shouldn’t, but I’m alone, and a little impulsive at the moment—I start pushing furniture around to rearrange it all, so it feels a little different, gives me a little different view. I don’t have stamina enough for a bike ride or a walk, but this, the little bursts of energy required for moving furniture, this feels good.

I try to keep a gratitude journal of sorts, to remind me when I feel anything but thankful; I learned this not from Oprah, but from my parents. I decide now, in this little window of opportunity, to visit it.

I felt well, relatively, with my week off treatment last week, and my Folk Music Festival experience was, as always, rich and wonderful, delivering hot August days and nights, and sound enough to fill thousands of hours and ears. Also wonderful was the supper we had with friends the night before this last treatment. And then it was back to the Cross Cancer Institute, gratitude becoming a little elusive again.

The best kind of medicine arrived again though, as it always does. This time on day two of my chemo cycle, in the form of a friend dropping by with an impromptu lunch, bringing rice rolls, beautiful sweet corn from her garden, a lovely pineapple coconut loaf of bread, and an open grounded spirit, ready to engage, to understand my experience, and to be real about her own.

Staying grounded is vital. I have a number of reasonably reliable tools to that end, but none more so than face-to-face human connection.

Is that vein infected, I wonder for the millionth time? It sure is red and swollen. I’ll call the hotline tomorrow, or take it in to Emergency if it gets worse, I promise myself. For now, I immerse myself in Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. I’ve read it before, but the title beckons. I’m living with hungry ghosts of my own right now, ghosts that seem to have grown larger with illness, with being unemployed, with not knowing my future, with being unsure of my role, my purpose.

Maté reminds me that addiction arises from the desire to be free of wanting, free of longing for a different state. “The addict craves the absence of the craving state. For a brief moment he’s liberated from emptiness, from boredom, from lack of meaning, from yearning, from being driven, or from pain.” He reminds me that that emotional isolation, disconnection, powerlessness and stress are the conditions that create the neurobiology of addiction in human beings.

I don’t want to encourage this kind of neurobiology, and resolve yet again to resist the temptation to allow feelings of powerlessness and disconnection to grow during this period of unusual stress. I drag my husband and my throbbing arm to see a musical radio play at The Fringe Festival. I love Edmonton for these things. The play is funny and silly, the singing beautiful, and it keeps me smiling.

Afterwards, we do what we do less often now that I’m not well, but used to do regularly: on our way home, we stop at a little wine bar across the street from where we live. I have a blueberry tea, and we share some snacks, and I’m still uncomfortable with my arm, but it’s lovely to be out.

When I wake this morning, another overcast and very cool August morning—eight degrees when I first check—I gingerly check my arm. It’s still tender, but not throbbing, and less red, just an angry, enlarged vein. Friends have suggested brunch. We end up on a rooftop under heat lamps, and, again, it turns out to be a couple of hours of the most excellent kind of medicine. My vein will heal, as will the rest of me.

Rocky Terrain and Chemo-brain

hanaI woke too early today, too much on my mind, envious of my sleeping husband. I read an article on the health and cancer-treatment benefits of intermittent fasting, thought about it for a little while, and found myself responding contrarily. When isn’t intermittent fasting an unavoidable, built-in, and unpleasant feature of cancer treatment? Besides, endorphins and pleasure, essential to healing, can be hard to come by when you’re in cancer treatment, and food has always been a reliable stand-by for me on that front, so I doubt I’ll be voluntarily restricting intake anytime soon.

So I make myself a piece of toast with butter and soft mild Gouda, and feel a little less contrary. But you’ll forgive me if this post is all over the place? Attribute it to the rocky terrain I’m on, or chemo-brain? To chipping a tooth yesterday, on a piece of toast of all things? To noticing I’m losing my very, very short hair yet again?

It’s Day Four of this round, going better than last, and the one before. Fresh morning air is coming in through the open door. I feel a moment of gratitude. One can be contrary and thankful in the same breath, right?

I got out on a bike ride on the weekend, and out to eat, and to the Heritage Amphitheatre at Hawrelak Park for the Father John Misty show, thanks to my sister for the last minute nudge. Got a very warm welcome from friends, another endorphin rush. I felt good, very, very pleasantly surprised, almost normal.

I’m not normal anymore though, and I never really forget. Even when I think I have, even when I’m having a great week.

I really did have the loveliest birthday week. Family and friends were beyond generous and kind. I even had all three kids here with me, including the far-away California one, which was a lovely, lovely birthday gift. But here’s the thing—treatment is difficult even when it’s going as well as it is for me this time around. And what happened back in February—when treatment definitely did not go well—has lodged itself in deeply in some part of my brain, from where it occasionally rears its roaring head, as it did the day before my most recent chemo last week.

I’d calmly headed out for my usual pre-treatment blood work and consultation at the Cross Cancer Institute, seeing no clouds of any sort on the horizon. This is routine and straightforward. But what should have been a brief and uneventful visit stretched to three hours, and submerged memory, like an angry volcano, had time to erupt.

The lab took five minutes. A consultation with a new resident took six. The consultation with my oncologist took another six. Ninety-five percent of my morning was spent waiting, seeing so many sick people come and go. This, if you need help imagining the problem, is a lot of time to absorb the treatment fatigue in the air, the oceans of grief and fear in worn-out bodies and fear-filled faces waiting with me, waiting, waiting.

I’m finally finished, leave, and see immediately that I planned poorly. I need to talk to someone, vent a little tension, but it’s a workday, and nobody is available on short notice. One dear friend is enduring her own Cross Misery at this moment. Nothing is wrong, but everything is. I can feel the surge of a powerful wave of regret and need. Today may well have been my last chance for a couple weeks to milk feeling well, to eat out, to have fun, and it’s quickly slipping away. And I need to put into words all the hope, courage, fear, grief, denial—and in some cases, relief and joy—carried in the halls of the Cross.

No problem, I tell myself, I’m an adult. I’m hungry, I’ll lunch alone and run some errands, and talk later. I do this, but did not anticipate lunch would feed the powerful wave of emotion that had hit me. It did. The house was empty when I returned, and when my husband eventually did get home from his meeting, I no longer trusted myself to talk much. I filled in the broad strokes, but they were slate gray and brown and not terribly pretty.

I get on my new birthday bike, which has been the best gift ever. I won’t go hard, I promise my sore muscles. But I do go hard, and further than I planned. On the way home I stop at the grocery store and fill my pack. I think I have my bearings. I get home and remember—chemo tomorrow. And the wave crests. The limbic part of my brain now fully trumps the logical. I wanted today to be a party. I want not to be on the sidelines most of the time when others get to enjoy wine and a bounce in their step and easy untroubled nights. I’m teary and angry and self-pitying.

My husband was patient, and alongside my fear and anger, I felt much empathy for his listening ears. And in the night, his arm around me, I know that though my experience is mine alone, I’m not at all alone.

I finally step back a little from the ambush and see a bigger picture again. It’s been a lovely, lovely ten days, no chemo, so many moments of joy. At my mom’s sunny dining table, I’d eaten my first big plate of food in five days, and it was so good. I left with a satisfied tummy and a giant bag filled with leftover goulash and mashed potatoes, mashed yams, homemade apple sauce, bread, broth, oatmeal cookies and honey cheesecake (for my bones, I tell myself). Have I mentioned that my mother is 80?

A wide river of birthday pleasures is where I was camped for ten days. We ordered in giant platters of amazing Greek food on my daughter’s birthday. And on a perfect, velvety summer evening the night before my own birthday, in the backyard of some very gracious friends, we all ate mountains of divine BBQ’d chicken and couscous, and the most decadent chocolate caramel cheesecake ever. I was high on love and a giant glass of Sangria, last week’s chemo finally taking a proper back seat to my life. On Sunday we enjoyed another made-to-order evening in my sister’s backyard, complete with yet another luscious homemade cake—this one a creamy nutty layer one that is my mom’s signature cake. Birthday kindnesses and lovely, lovely words—words like drops of sweet cream—kept falling on me. A yellow rose and a box of chocolates, a cream-coloured rose from a roommate from 40 years ago, a giant bouquet of chrysanthemums. I felt ridiculously spoiled.

Then I say a bittersweet good-bye to my son, and with it comes an acute awareness that my children have quietly slipped by me in the passing lane. They are smarter, stronger, braver, more honest, and more talented and accomplished than I will ever be. This brings me great pleasure.

I wake early on the day of my treatment. I take care of appointment scheduling puzzles and housekeeping details and pay some bills, and I steel myself. I’m greeted by yet another nurse, who hooks up a juicy deep vein, and, after grimacing for a second, I smile and thank her, and settle in to watch and wait: A slow, clear, silently toxic drip that will beat up my cancer. I focus my mind. Allow the drug to do its work, exhale unwanted effects, and resolve to tolerate what I must with grace.

We finish, and pay today’s slightly smaller but sill giant parking fee. (Do they really have to charge cancer patients these rates?) We leave the dark parking lot and drive into skies turned very dark over the last hour. Hard, hard rain and hail fall, and then, just as suddenly, the sky is blue again, the air fresh. At home, on the balcony, the sun on my legs is warm and soothing. I fall asleep instantly. I sleep again after a little supper, and then most of the night.

Clear Skies, Cancer, Boxes of Chocolates

rain

I want it to rain. Rain, rain, rain, steady hard rain with the power to wash the hot, smoke-filled air and put a damper on the hungry forest fires raging out of control all around.

But then, I often want a lot that is beyond my control.

Just a few short months ago my doctor told me things were looking so good that I didn’t need to worry about resuming chemo until the fall. And just as I’d written my enthusiasm and joy about this amazing news, we learned that our niece had died of her cancer, and that our good friend’s cancer had gone on a massive offensive, progressing to where it had not been in many years, and later, that another friend who lives with chronic debilitating pain was suffering a turn for the worse.

I never did publish that post. It seemed gloating, self-absorbed. But then a short five or six weeks later, I got my own bit of bitter news—some suspicious pain, a reminder that I never did finish treatment back in March, some worrying test results, and an all-new treatment schedule of my own, one that was definitely going to interfere with my enthusiastic summer plans. No big surprise, but still, my husband and I sat down at the kitchen table and wept.

The good news was that we were going with a different drug, one that carried no risk of the horrible neuropathy and systemic pain I experienced in February, one that was going to be “virtually impossible to have a severe allergic reaction to.” This was calming, hopeful, gratitude-producing information.

Still, it is a chemotherapy, medicine on a mission to kill cells both problematic and essential. I tend to be both optimistic and anxious, sometimes in equal parts, sometimes in swings of extremes, but I set out for my first treatment relatively tilted toward optimism. It went well. Until two days later, when I again found myself weeping and cursing both the universe and our not-very-progressive state of cancer treatments. I spent nearly the entire time between my first and second treatment feeling miserable in old familiar and entirely news ways. And tonight, at 4AM two days into this most recent cycle, I’m insomniac (thanks to side-effect medications), and waiting desperately for rain.

Life, eventually for most of us, turns out not to be the proverbial box of chocolates Forest Gump’s mother promised after all. It has far too many bitter, not-at-all chocolate pieces, bad-tasting surprises covered in very bitter-tasting chocolate look-alike.

Still, through the heat this past week, I found sweetness alongside bitterness again too. My daughter has been wanting to accompany me to treatment for a long time now, and had the day off this time. She’s just finishing a move, and carrying sorrow and struggle of her own, but she put her curly hair up, and put on a bright yellow dress, and looking like the original blossom of beauty, drew smiles by the dozen walking through the halls of the cancer clinic with me. She held my hand as they started the drip, and we chatted, and I felt loved. The treatment was the most stream-lined ever, record-breaking for me. Not a hitch, in and out in an hour.

Another dear friend, highly skilled with tiny strategically-placed needles, offered instant nausea and pain relief and an amazing endorphin bath for my tears the next day. I felt loved. Another friend, by way of the music she makes, offered her version of prayer. I felt loved. Another offered steaks for the boys and birthday cake for two of us. I felt loved. Another yet is planning an intimate potluck birthday get-together to include a few other friends and our now-grown children. I feel loved. My sister, dropping in with a lovely plate of cooling watermelon in bite-sized juicy delights, had set a picture of me as her phone wallpaper. “I was having a moment,” she told me. I felt loved. My mom called to see what goodies she could cook up for us: Baked ribs for my husband, sugar-free apple-crisp for me, and who knows what else she’ll whip up. I felt loved. She’s 80, which is how long I plan to stick around in spite of the odds against me. Others texted and called, offering to come visit, or chat by phone, which I will joyfully accept with every significant return of energy I experience, I promise.

My youngest son, in excruciating back pain over the past month, picked me up from my needling friend’s place yesterday, and elicited the same enthusiastic looks and smiles as had my daughter’s sunflower-yellow dress the day before. No, it wasn’t a yellow dress, though it may have been as much his shorts and shirt as his charming grin. My son from California, the one who will be wearing his outstanding laugh and energy and medical mind, is coming for a visit, and will be here for his sister’s party, and mine, and his grandma’s, and just hang out with all of us.

I feel loved.

I have new and better chemo side-effect management pills this round, so should be much better by today’s end. Better yet, I get this week off treatment entirely. I’ll get to go to my daughter’s birthday party, and I’ll get to go to my own, and I’ll get to hang out with the kids. Love, like light on a horizon, or stars in a dark desert sky, beckons.

It may not be exactly the summer I planned, but I’m going to be hopeful the treatment schedule will accommodate at least one traditional highlight for me: Four days of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, for which we always go to great lengths to get tickets for. Many favorites coming this year: Angus and Julia Stone, Brandi Carlile, Danny Michel, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Harry Manx, Sinead O’Conner.

So alongside the box of imitation-chocolate covered bitter misery, there have been genuine chocolate surprises. And, from the weather experts yesterday, a promise of rain, lots of rain, cooler clearer air. I’m counting on them.

Dispatch from the Face-Plant Queen

Time for an update. First though, an anecdote, another nurse-lined hallway one. Waiting to see my oncologist yesterday after nearly five weeks in bed, numb clubs where I once had feet, a vacuum where I once had quads, and morphine and general mud where I once had brain tissue and balance, I decide to visit the washroom. Knees hit the floor first, then forehead. Nurses appear in an instant. “I didn’t pass out,” I reassure them. It takes a while, but I convince them.

“Nice goose egg,” they tell me. I make my way to the washroom; they’re right; it’s a goose egg. But it’s nothing, not in the greater scheme of things.

In the five weeks leading up to yesterday, I’ve travelled nowhere, and everywhere. From a first-round chemo reaction that felt like I’d been poisoned and charred from my skin to my bone marrow, to medication-induced oblivion, I’ve graduated to wobbly first steps down the hallways of our condo, the parking lot, once even to the mall in a wheelchair.

The excellent news is that my oncologist takes all this in without missing a beat. “It’s the Taxol,” she says, “We’ll remove it from rounds two and three,” she offers. I can’t believe my good fortune. Another two rounds of chemo, yes, but they ought not to be anything like that first one was. And then, icing: “We can postpone tomorrow’s treatment for another week if you’d like, yes, allow you to gain a little strength back.” I’ve almost won a lottery. Still, I’m frightened.

Back home though, I’m elated, hopeful, eager, and for a moment think my life might resume tomorrow. I swing back to fear. And back to eagerness. I speak to my family doctor about reducing medication dosages. My life apparently won’t resume tomorrow, and medications will be necessary for some time yet, doses titrated down slowly. “This will take months,” she says, but it will get much, much better, and it will pass. But it’s so nice to hear your voice!” I’m deflated. But how nice is that, a doctor who returns a call and changes a prescription without insisting on an office visit?

Patience has never been my forte. I will have to practice.

I love all of you. The young adults forever tied to my DNA and my soul, whose voices and eyes and bodies, even through the oblivion and across the miles were such potent medicine. The mother-daughter familiarity lying on the bed next to me when I surfaced from my oblivion states, whose smiles and tears made me remember all I needed to know in that moment. The man whose love has so often carried me over the years, and who is now completing an intensive course in patience, and in finding new TV series and bites of food just the right flavour for me, and in patience, and in domestic and kitchen literacy, and in patience, and in worry and sleepless nights, and in patience. The man and woman who gave me life, whose tears I felt across town, the sister who kept offering to drop anything on a dime to come meet my needs.

I love those of you who sent their magic from across the oceans, those who sent their love from the pews of their places of worship and got their friends on board to do the same. Those who, a short time ago, I knew only in a service-provider capacity who stepped beyond those bounds to offer their amazing healing skills, their empathy, their acute intuitions and minds and just the right metaphors and insights to get the frontal lobe of my brain crackling in ways that—science journals now tell us— literally and in measurable ways alter the biology of our cells. Those who breathed the endless human capacity to be selfless for an hour or two and from distances large and small simply channeled the divine. Those who offered to dance despite hardly knowing me, those who transmitted their energy through their hands on mine, their eyes locked into mine, those who refused to take offence at my family-only visitation request. Those who supported via healing circle ceremonies, bone broth, foot massages, wheelchair outings, fuzzy socks and pretty things in general, via stew and kabobs and open-eyed conversation for my tired newly-graduated nurse-husband.

They’ve been endless days and nights, and may be for some time yet, though hopefully not to the same degree. But the memory will fade, the injuries and fear will heal, the cancer will give way. And I hope that what will remain is the awareness of wealth, of divine holy goodness.