Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Walking Lightly on Shattered Glass

Everybody wants the same thing
Everybody wants the same thing
To see another birthday

"Edible Flowers" by Neil and Tim Finn
(Everyone Is Here, The Finn Brothers, 2004)

For decades of my life, I took seriously the annual tradition of New Year’s resolutions, which combined two of my favorite pastimes: critical self-analysis and deferred gratification. I wasted precious years preparing for and against eventualities that never materialized. I harbored an overly idealized vision of the future until my mother’s death smashed my illusions into a million rose-colored shards. My subsequent melancholia gave new emphasis to the phrase hopeless romantic.

Marrying Luis, who is considerably younger, made me a hopeful optimist forced to live in the moment. The future became an unpredictable variable in our relationship that I cannot control. Having cancer made me a grateful realist with fresh appreciation for every moment. The future dangles like a tantalizing prize that I cannot assume is mine.

The countdown to another year is a reminder of the duality of cancer. Even as you are genuinely thankful for surviving the old year, you begin the new one wondering if you will finish. After a long dry spell, I finally made a new New Year’s resolution, sort of. To be precise, I decided to implement some changes after absorbing bad news that arrived coincidentally as my wall calendar expired. As depressing as the tsunami disaster has been to watch from a distance, nothing gets your attention as effectively as a giant wave that washes ashore on your beach.

Jan and Edie are the co-workers closest to me physically and emotionally. After being considered cancer-free for more than five years, Edie had twenty-four lymph nodes surgically removed, sixteen of which were cancerous, and has since learned that she will have to undergo chemotherapy again after radiation treatments. Jan’s husband, a non-smoker who successfully battled prostate cancer, was diagnosed with lung cancer and already began chemotherapy in preparation for a complex operation. Together we three form a Bermuda Triangle of medical doom.

Immediately after my doctor confirmed I had breast cancer in 2002, I cried pretty hard as my husband Luis drove us home. I knew I had to compose myself to walk in our front door and tell my son Chris, which I did in short order and I haven’t indulged in much self-pity in the nearly two years since. Sure, I leaked woe-is-me tears whenever I would hear a tragic song that sounded appropriate for my funeral, such as Edible Flowers. But, infomaniac that I am, I read every last fact-based bit I could find online about breast cancer, which helped me understand my pathology report, treatment options, recurrence rates, mortality figures and beyond.

I thought I understood cancer. I thought I found a happy way to live with cancer on my terms. I didn’t know how devastated I would be when someone close to me who has been the most conscientious patient ever got her cancer back. I didn’t know how helpless I could feel when someone who has been my friend and confidante throughout my cancer odyssey embarks on her own. I guess I conveniently forgot that cancer never compromises or negotiates terms.

Dealing with cancer in your life is a multi-staged process a lot like mourning. Perhaps, if I had spent more time in the beginning wallowing in the emotional phase instead of rushing into rationality, I would not have spent the past few weeks walking barefoot on shattered rose-colored glass. I would not have given my loving, sensitive husband weeks of nightmares after whispering into the darkness, "I think I’m going to die and I’m scared," weeks during which my own fog of fear finally began to lift. Maybe, as long as I live, I will always feel this way when I witness at close range the damage cancer does to one’s life, family, dreams.

After my mother died, I stored many of her belongings that I could not bear to discard. They filled a whole bedroom and made our home seem like a cramped furniture warehouse and storage unit. Since we moved to take in my brother fifteen months ago, our garage has been a storage project that I have tackled little by little when I felt well enough for the task, which leads me to my New Year’s resolution:

1. Travel lightly.

This means no excess baggage, actual or psychic. No unnecessary clutter, mental or physical. If I cannot plan for an uncertain future, I can sure as heck get organized in preparation for certain death, whenever it may come, so that I am not leaving any baggage or clutter behind for my loved ones. While I live and for however long, I will try not to create any baggage or clutter to weigh down my loved ones, which leads to my new resolution:

2. Find another pair of rose-colored glasses. Pronto.

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