Monday, February 19, 2018

Letting go

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I was having a truly awful year.  It was when the imaging tech asked me, "Have you had cancer before?" as she rolled me into the CT scan.

Yes, that was the exact moment when I knew the Chinese superstition had been right after all.  My 48th year had been truly abysmal.  The Chinese Zodiac says that every twelve years we celebrate our animal year and it's supposed to be a particularly dangerous year.  That might mean relationship troubles, financial problems, or health issues.

I had tied a red thread around my waist in February 2017 to ward off any bad luck that might come my way during my animal year and wrote about it here.  At the time I did it for fun but now I was beginning to wonder if there was something to the superstition.

"No," I said.  And I wanted to add, "Are you saying I have it NOW?  Because I thought I was here for a test to determine IF I have cancer?"

But since I've never had cancer, I wasn't sure how these things work.  On TV I've seen people get a cancer diagnosis.  The set-up is always the same.  They're always sitting in a doctor's office, at the doctor's desk.  They have a loved one next to them.  The doctor gives them the diagnosis.  The patient asks questions.  The doctor answers with percentages and chances and probabilities.

The doctor's desk is always a darkish red wood, probably cherry wood.  I hate that kind of dark wood.  I don't think I'm alone here, am I?  Why haven't doctor practices figured out yet how much patients hate those dark red cherry wood desks?

Maybe they keep the desks ugly so that the news we get when we sit at them seems less ugly in comparison.

That makes sense.

I need for things to make sense right now.  Because getting a cancer diagnosis from an imaging tech, who has yet to roll me into the CT scan, just doesn't make sense.

Although in a way, it does.  Techs see thousands of patients every year and although they're not trained to interpret results, I bet they have a good intuition about the people who come into their offices for scans and tests.  In his book Blink, social scientist Malcolm Gladwell calls it the power of thinking without thinking. 

Sadly, techs aren't trained to keep their intuition to themselves.  I picked up on it.  Their seemingly innocent questions were the first rumblings of thunder in the distance.

As I waited for the CT results, the days jerked by, pixelated and in shades of grey.  When I had mental energy, I wondered what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it came to that.  Would I be the kind who commits to kicking cancer's ass?  Or would I submit to whatever God's will was for me?  I didn't think I had the energy to commit to kicking cancer's ass - I hardly had energy to floss my teeth every day.  But I also didn't want to just raise the white flag and check myself straight into hospice care.

Simply pondering my options was overwhelming, and so I succumbed once again to the grainy black and white images.  My reality was film noir, spliced with X-ray images.

One frame is the front porch.  It's dark and Grant is receiving a greasy, lukewarm dinner delivery packed in styrofoam and wrapped in a plastic bag.  Again.  He tries not to leave the door open too long because it's cold outside.  A single light bulb on the porch illuminates the scene.  His dark shiny hair reflects the light like a mirror.

One frame is the decorative pillows from my bed, in a pile on the carpet.

One frame is a text from Audrey.  She's re-arranging her schedule so she can pick Grant up.

The range of my emotions is as limited at the color spectrum of my memory.  I try not to be afraid because only people who have cancer need to be afraid.  I don't want to start playing the role of a cancer patient.  I'm afraid of even looking like a good understudy.

I feel numb.  It's like my emotions, faced with the flight-or-flight conundrum, have fled.

I don't have enough information to know what to feel.  

I feign cheerfulness.  I don't want other people to worry about me.  Because only friends of cancer patients need to worry.  But as I observe the faces of the people around me, I can tell I'm not doing a good job.  They all look concerned and confused.  I'm pale and when I laugh I start coughing.  My cough is awful.  It's more like a whole-body spasm.  When it's over I'm left wheezing and gasping for air.  I'm embarrassed at how little control I have over my respiratory system.

I try not to laugh.  I try not to cough.  I work from home.  A lot.

It felt like an eternity.  And then finally, my cell phone rang.  It was my doctor's office, calling with my results.  I happened to be at my office that day.  I walked outside to take the call and found the most beautiful bench under the most beautiful tree.   My office is right next to a park so there are lots of beautiful trees and benches.  And squirrels and birds and ducks.

If the doctor was going to give me bad news, I was not going to make it easier on him.  He was going to have to do it while I sat amidst all this beauty.  In comparison to my beautiful surroundings, the news was going to look truly abysmal.  I dared him.

"Your test results are in and everything is within the normal range.  The spot on your lung is a calcified granuloma.  I know you've never been diagnosed with pneumonia but you must have had it at some point in the past and the granuloma is sort of like scar tissue from that.  It's nothing to worry about.  We don't need to do any further tests."

Which is the best possible outcome I could have hoped for.  I should be grateful, and I am.

But I still don't know what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it ever came to that. 

I still don't know why I had this health scare this year.  Was it because it's my 48th year?  Or would this have happened anyway?  Would it have been worse if I hadn't had my red thread around my waist? 

I still don't know why doctor's desks are made out of that awful cherry wood.

Let it all fade.  

Let the black and the white blend together.  

Let the resulting grey turn to ash.  

I mix it with water, dip my finger in it and taste the fear.  Then raise my finger to the sky and watermark a giant question mark between the clouds. 

Trace it again and again until I can let go.

There are so many questions that will never be answered.

All we can do is let go.

Monday, February 5, 2018

January 31, 1998

It was a Saturday.  I didn't talk to Priya that day.  I don't know how she spent the afternoon but I bet she was studying.  She was the best in our class, partly due to her immense talent and intellect, and partly due to her dedication and hard work.

She highlighted one last term, made one last note in the margins, and closed her books for the last time.

Then she and Jennifer went for a late-night walk along the waterfront on Monterey Bay.  Priya had a cigarette and an espresso in her hand.  She and Jennifer stood in front of an empty row of parking spaces on the commercial fisherman's wharf.  They were in front of a parking meter which flashed "0 minutes left."

She was running away from him when he shot at her.  I hope that means she was running towards the end of the wharf, and that the last thing she saw was the moonlight shining on the ocean.

Her favorite poem was "Der Panther" by Rainer Maria Rilke.  

Der Panther

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf –. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

The Panther (English translation by Stephen Mitchell)
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

There is no good ending for a post like this.  You just suddenly realize that you're at the end.