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.