Sunday, May 04, 2008

Emotional bookmarking

I am learning things that I’m so afraid I’ll forget, when life gets normal again. This post is for remembering.

Yesterday, my best friend came over for a CALL board meeting. I greeted her in the morning, stole a scone for breakfast, and went back to my room to get things done until she would be sprung at 3. I ended up blogging, chatting with Paul over e-mail, having an impromptu lunch with some dorm-mates, working on a reflection paper, and taking a nap. Then I called Orthodox Mimi, and we talked for the first time in I don’t remember how long. She said I sounded good. Everyone says so. The truth is that I have two things co-existing inside me: absolute, incredible, ineffable, grateful joy at being alive, and amorphous anger that I even have to go through this. And a third: wanting to remember and learn everything that I can.

The reflection paper is for my advanced preaching class; it’s revisiting a homily I preached two weeks ago. As I say it, “before I was me.” So far it’s roughly outlined, and the intro and conclusion are written. Here is that final paragraph:

Challenge in the future: Hold on to what this cancer diagnosis, and relief from the worst it could have been, has taught me. I looked death in the face, and escaped it. I don’t think I’ll have too much trouble finding my voice; I feel rooted, grounded, strong. But I don’t know what I sound like, yet. I’m the same strings: the same playful, creative, wry, moderately flaky, introspective self, with the same passions for healing, mission, and justice. But these strings are stretched over a soundboard that’s still re-forming. I’ve noticed that in the way I am with people; sometimes I want to dive into something, take my time, go exploring. Sometimes I have no patience for anything but the point. My whole sense of commitment—to life, God, engagement with the world—is deeper and more urgent. I’m not worried, per se, about translating this; but it’ll take some time to tune myself both to the resonance inside me, and to the world around.

I don’t know how else to describe it. I am me, but I am no longer who I was. She had a lightness of being, that I don’t know will ever be mine again. I have a depth that she sought, but did not imagine. My friends tell me that I’m more joyful; and they’re right; I’m tasting life so much more deeply. But I have a new, urgent seriousness as well.

This friend and I talk on the phone nearly every night. We’re close, and we’re in close touch. But I’d been so tired, and she’d been guarding some of her fear from me. Yesterday was the first chance we had to really talk. We walked down to a gelato place by the BART station, and both got chocolate-raspberry combos. (Mine had hazelnut.) We sat outside and talked, and walked to a quieter place on the Cal campus and talked some more. I don’t know if I said anything that I haven’t written—and I repeated myself lots. I keep needing to go back over the space between being well, being sick and not knowing how sick, and learning that my body was clean and I’d live. You might, also, if you go through this. Those few days are riveting, once you’re past living through them. Nothing makes you embrace life, like genuinely fearing for it.

She gets a look sometimes, that’s pure and total love and pride. She was doing it then—but she couldn’t talk about it. (I asked her, but truly I didn’t need her to.) I asked her, later, what it was like to watch me go through this. When it’s you, all you see is your own need—for people, space, or whatever’s in the moment. I can’t imagine watching someone I love go through a cancer scare. The old me would have been with them, but would have been so afraid to lose them, that I couldn’t have helped. Now? I don’t know. I know that death frightens me much less, now—and that nothing will ever truly scare me again.

What helps me most, is just letting me talk. Don't try to take care of me. I'm all right. I'm different, but surviving. You don't have to reassure me; my body already has. Just listen.

She told me about not letting herself be afraid, and about wanting to shield me from her own emotions. And about reading this blog at 12:30 in the morning, before we knew I was clean, and crying—being proud of how far I’ve come. And she hugged me tighter.

We had Kirala take-out sushi for dinner, and ate in the courtyard out back there. The conversation all day was peppered with practical details of when I’ll be sick, and what I’ll need, and how we’ll take care of me. Probably some of you know what it’s like, to be sitting outside on a beautiful day, eating your favorite food in the world, with your best friend, feeling alive, healthy, and strong—and planning for the sickness that you have everything but a definite start date for. The closest parallel I can come up with, is being released on your own recognizance before you go to jail. The difference is that I can spring myself, if this treatment is intolerable. (I won’t, unless it is.)

At the same time, I’ve had the flu. I know I can survive it, for a month, or for a year if I have to. It’s not chemo. It’s not radiation. Interferon is a chemical that human bodies naturally make, only not in the quantity that I'll be receiving. And I have a friend I can stay with, who can take care of me while I’m sick. I can take the summer off of working, and we’re already planning for me to. No one, including myself, is pushing me to do more than I can.

I told her one thing over dinner, that I was almost shy about saying. It sounds really weird—but it’s absolutely true. I know that this experience will imprint in me forever. But I’m so alive now—and I want to hold onto that, with everything I am, for as long as I can. I am so thankful that this cancer was caught early, has not metastasized, and can not kill me. I’m so grateful to be alive, and for all the things in life—my friends’ love, the sun on my skin, grass under bare feet. I’m growing through all of this, and I know it. And I am so thankful it is not worse. It so easily could have been. If I’d waited longer than I did, it would be.

I don’t want to go through anything worse than what I know is ahead of me—what I know is physically and emotionally survivable. I don’t like being sick; nobody does. At the same time, though, I’m wanting to drink every drop of this. It’s cancer and it sucks and it’s scary and the treatment is horrible—but that gift of being aware of life, is so invaluable and cannot be separated from the horror and the fear. I don't want to forget. I don’t ever, ever want to go back to being obliviously normal.

My left ear will be smaller than my right; I won’t know how different they’ll look until after surgery. As it is, I haven’t had a proper haircut since October. I got busy, then lazy, and didn’t know what I wanted. I’m thinking now of cutting it short again, once this all heals, and getting a warrior piercing.

“In your face, cancer. I survived you.”


Caminante said...

"I got busy, then lazy, and didn’t know what I wanted. I’m thinking now of cutting it short again, once this all heals, and getting a warrior piercing."

Do that. Paradoxically, it's claiming your body as yours and making the choice to change it (whereas your ear is not quite the same choice, no?).

People may wonder why I have six piercings on my left ear and only one on my right. It's because I am totally deaf on my left ear and have been since I was three (measles... unless it's from the high bilirubin count as a newborn). It has been my way of finding some use for this otherwise useless ear. Each piercing (other than the first pair one on either side) marks some event in my life (Ph.D., surviving CPE, M.Div. etc). So why not have a survival marker?

I do hope you are printing out these blog postings because not only are they beautiful in their own way but they are rich and deep.

Prayers continue.

Kirstin said...

Thank you so much, for this and for supporting me through all of it. I like knowing that you have survival markers too.

I write these longer ones in Word, so yeah, I have copies.

Thank you for your prayers.

Anonymous said...


Did you know that your body is asymmetrical? One foot bigger than the other, one hand bigger that the other and for us females, one breast bigger than the other. Your ear will be fine, and after awhile you won't notice the difference and neither will others.
It will be you badge of courage.

I have a moderate lymphedema in my right arm and in the beginning, after my mastectomy, I would tell people when they asked that it was that it was from an arm injury. I wasn't really lying, just not telling the whole truth. Then after a while I began telling the truth and it was rather liberating, because they would then ask how long I had survived my cancer. It is now 33 years.

My how the time has flown.

Prayers are continuing to ascend for you.


Paul said...

"A warrior piercing." I like it.

You go, girlfriend. You were prayed for in St Anna's this morning by me.

susan s. said...

You had Kirala? that's good! Eat them fish!

Mimi said...

She said I sounded good

'Tis true!

And, I love the piercing, you go, girl!