Five Years Too Many

This previously unpublished piece was written June 29, 2016 on a particularly hard day during a particularly hard time. I like it contrasted to the Best Day post because it’s amazing (and frightening) how we can bounce between loving life and being furious at it.  

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Last week I celebrated a grim milestone. While friends and co-workers around me celebrate births and marriages, I find myself, 30-years-old, in the yellow fluorescent lights of an office bathroom plucking grey hairs from my bangs. I’m only a few months into the break-up of my most recent relationship. I spend my days writing marketing copy and nights walking outdoors and listlessly scrolling through social media feeds.

How many of those brides and mothers have to ask themselves every day, “Is this what I survived for?” How many of the unemployed and divorced have to ask themselves “I was physically tortured for this?”

Last week marked five years since the day I ran into an emergency room with my mother, trying to convince the complacent staff that I needed immediate medical attention. “Do Not Pass Go” is what my family doctor said when I asked if I could change into yoga pants first. Five years later and I’m still waiting for my chance to stop and collect $200.

That day’s been running in my head on repeat every day for five years now. I remember the little black dress I wore to the office that morning and how the stiff fabric scratched against my skin as I received each piece of foreboding news. I remember not worrying about anything but my parents, who appeared to be doing enough worrying for all of Atlantic Canada. Even though I was the one on the stretcher, they were old and more prone to heart attacks.

Five years ago, two young men wheeled me into an oncology ward. While I can tell you exactly how many days I lived there, my brain… My brain is still in there. The sickly smell of flowers by the window and the dog-food stench of the day’s mystery meat for dinner. The face of every single roommate I had and how their skin took on this yellow-grey shade with each passing day. I barely recognized their pudgy, smiling, pixelated faces in the obituaries that followed.

I lost all sense of security and sense of self that day. Now, for five years, I’ve been waking up surprised to be awake again. Not dead. You would think I’d be more excited about mornings for someone who greets each one acutely aware that I am, yup, still not dead. The mild relief is instantly washed away with familiar panic. “Today I have to pretend that other things are more important than not being dead.” Pretending all day, every day, is exhausting. Spies and sociopaths out there, can you relate?

Five years ago, I lost all ownership of my body. I always thought being healthy was a choice. A choice to eat right, exercise and goshdarnit, have fun. Little did I know that my smug choices still couldn’t stop my body from eating itself inside out. I signed my body over to doctors and nurses who have since told me what to do with it and when. I look down at my scars and wonder who’s body I’m in, so I get tattoos to take control again. I’ve lost all sense of adventure–I’m scared to break my body more than it’s already been broken. For five years I’ve lived in fear of what my own body can do to me.

The superficial monotony of daily life is a hard contrast to the traumatic emergency that began unfolding five years ago. For moments at a time I forget who I am and actually care about what outfit I’m going to wear. I care because I want to impress people. Convince them I am a normal, functioning human who had nothing horrific happen five years ago. Just business as usual over here. The moments are fleeting as you can see. Everything in my new life leads back to that day five years ago when the world didn’t so much as crash, but smear and melt downwards like Munch’s painting “The Scream.” And I’ve been screaming alright. But it’s a dog-whistle scream that reverberates in tones only certain people can hear. Most of the time I can’t even hear it myself.

Five Years! What A Joy! To celebrate the worst day of my life! To be able to look back on all of the things I’ve accomplished. Like, showing up to appointments on time. Napping between infusions. Crying at inopportune moments. Laughing at even more inappropriate ones. It’s hard to distinguish between what features were caused by my being not dead or what was caused by having almost died. Which events gave me this perspective? Which ones gave me this dulled panic? Which ones gave me all this apathy for bullshit?  I want to point my finger at cancer every time and say “You. You did this. You made me grey. You are why I fail at relationships. You.”

I stay up past my bedtime every night because staying awake is easier than waking up. For five years I’ve been awake in this day, pretending like I can focus on something beyond being “not dead.” It’s a tiring pursuit. For five years I’ve been counting sheep, willing this day to drift from my brain. But we can’t recognize the hypnagogia until we’re torn from it. So five years later I am still going through the motions, hopeful that I’ll eventually drift from being “not dead,” into being alive.

The Best Day

Originally written December 18, 2012 and updated December 19, 2016

My brain wakes up before my eyes do. The air feels different, I can immediately tell I am in a larger space. The mattress is thinner, and my eye mask feels different. In less than a second, the memories from the last 24 hours come flooding back.

I am in the Moncton Hospital oncology ward. I have cancer. There is a giant mass in my chest that did not exist in my consciousness until yesterday. Today will be my first day on Earth knowing, officially, that I am a Person With Cancer.

I pull the face mask off my eyes and crack a smile. As my life crashed around me and walls whizzed by on my way to the oncology ward, I told my parents and hospital porter that I needed my eye mask to get to sleep. The porter laughed and teased me. Given my current situation, an eye mask should not have been my top concern. But he fashioned one out of paper face masks for me anyways. When he would later ask me how it worked, I would not have the heart to tell him that the sleeping pills kicked in before I even realized it was on my face.

As more thoughts and memories flood into my brain, the slight smile lingers. For today I may be a Person With Cancer. But best of all, today I am still alive. As far as I know, I will be alive for the next 24 hours, which, beginning today, is the best thing to ever happen to me.

————–

I feel a warm lump of smooth fur next to my face. A hair tickles inside my nose as the lump lets out a kick and a soft snort. I peel off my silk eye mask and see Buster, my dog, curled up next to my face once again. I let out a whisper of a laugh, for his weirdness always amuses me, and I don’t mind the bundle of warmth.

I gingerly sit up and look down at the hair covering my pillow. The hair belongs to no dog. This hair came off my head.

I knock a few things over as I try to grab one of many toques from my nightstand. The movement wakes Buster from his slumber and he is immediately excited to see me. Tail wags and cuddles ensue for several minutes until I remember the task at hand — putting on a hat to hide my head before anyone else can see it.

I begin to think about my plan for the day – I can only handle one task a day on treatment. Walking my dog is my favourite task. Despite the perpetual chemo hangover, I am excited for the day. For I know I will be alive for the next 24 hours, and in that moment, it is the best thing to happen to me.

—————–

The maritime sunlight makes it through the cracks in my black curtains and through my eyelids. My brain comes to as I realize my eye mask has gone askew in the night. I am awake earlier than I wanted to be, but I can’t go back to sleep. There is so much to do.

I turn off my alarm prematurely, check my smartphone, and giggle at the communications that came in through the night. It’s a Tuesday. A work day. As I think of the day ahead, I feel a rush through my chest. I breathe in deeply through my nose and fill my lungs with as much air as possible. I run my fingers through my short hair and give Buster a pet with my feet. It’s going to be a busy day, but it’s my day. For I have the next 24 hours of being alive, and that is the best thing to happen to me.

—————–

My ears are accosted with a saxophone belting out a high-high ‘C’. I feel my face smooshed against a soft pillow and as the intro for “Careless Whisper” continues, my first thought is, “I need to remember to change that fucking song.”

I rotate my face off the pillow and am instantly choking on fur. Cat fur. Hitchens has again curled next to my face to either feed off my warmth or feed off my soul in the night. I slowly move more pieces of my body and am met with a hard lump around my right knee. That familiar feeling is Buster in a deep sleep, deep under the covers.

The winter morning sun seeps through the blinds and I get a hint of the cotton candy prairie skies. I haven’t worn an eye mask since moving into this house. I just sleep well enough without it now.

I start moving like I’m making a snow angel to locate my smartphone in bed. Buster snorts, the cat gets spooked and runs away. The saxophone kicks in again just as I locate my phone and hit snooze.

I feel a weight creep through my body as my waking brain restores its memories and responsibilities. It’s Monday. When I sigh I hear an echo, and see Buster has wriggled his face from the under covers and is sighing too. “I know buddy,” I say. While the cat pounces expertly outside the room, Buster and I look grumpily at each other about leaving the warm confines of our nocturnal cocoon.

My long matted hair is piled under my head as I groggily scroll through news stories and messages on my phone. When the saxophone blasts again I resign to the fact that today I have face the world. The day feels daunting without a drip of coffee in my blood yet, but a recent recurring realization sets in. I’ve been granted 24 more hours to discover life as a Person Cured of Cancer, and so far, that’s the best thing to happen to me.