I didn’t plan to travel as much as I did this year, it just happened that way. And I’m not done yet. I have at least one trip, possibly two left before I put the suitcase away till next year.
It’s been very good for me, physically as well as mentally. In May, I visited Copenhagen for the first time. In June, I took a road-trip from Virginia to a college reunion in Massachusetts. In July, I spent most of a week at a festival in Spain. And in mid-August, I went to Spokane, WA for Sasquan, the world sf convention. The difference in my physical condition now compared to the same time last year is virtually miraculous. I could walk reasonable distances without collapsing. On Saturday night, I went to the Hugo Losers Party––the one given by original co-founder George RR Martin––and didn’t go to bed till four a.m. Then I was up at 9-ish to meet a friend for breakfast.
Last year at this time, I was pretty feeble. This year, I’m hopping around like an ingenue. I appear to be well, so much so that you’d never guess I had terminal cancer. A lot of people didn’t know––they thought I was in remission. It was no fun to correct them. I hated making them feel bad. Seriously; I remember what it was like to be in their shoes. I have a lot more experience being them than being terminal.
I’ve been saying that more often in the last few weeks: terminal cancer; I’m terminal; treatment is palliative. There’s about a year and four months left of my oncologist’s original two-year estimate. Where did the time go?
Suddenly it’s September. My autumn allergies have kicked in with gusto. I haven’t made as much progress on the sushi novel as I planned (that sound you hear is God, laughing her head off). Just reading a book seems to take twice as much effort to concentrate as it used to. Even my character leaves something to be desired––despite my vow to cheer when good things happened to my fellow writers instead of giving in to jealousy, I got sniffy over someone else’s good fortune.
I’m probably going to have to die before that happens to me, I groused to my husband sulkily, then couldn’t resist adding: Oh, wait––good news! I’m going to!
And Chris, a man of intelligence, grace, and compassion, said, No, you aren’t.
Angry, jealous terminal cancer patient instantly undone by the eloquence of love.
I’ve made plenty of jokes about achieving success posthumously but none since the Diagnosis of Doom––I thought it would be too tacky. Now that I had, it was far more pathetically self-pitying than I could have imagined.
Self-pity is my instant time-out/take-a-moment/hit-the-brakes switch. I detest self-pity; it’s so easy to fall into and once you get some on you, it’s hell to scrub off. Self-pity is sneaky. One moment you’re consoling yourself after some kind of loss or defeat––could be major, like seeing a promotion or an award go to someone else––or something less consequential, like having a bad hair day and a fat day next to someone who’s just lost twenty pounds and is having their best hair day ever. (Why, God, why?) Then suddenly you’re telling yourself that of course you’re a failure––fat people with bad hair don’t get promotions or awards and you’re the reason you can’t have nice things. But you wouldn’t be that way if the world weren’t so cold and cruel to you while other people get not only everything they want but everything you want, etc., etc., etc.
(If you’re so virtuous you’ve never had an inner monolog like that, don’t even try to talk to me. Fuck off and d…don’t have fun.)
That shit isn’t me. I’m the woman who, absent a better offer, is going to teach a horse to sing in a year. I’m the woman crawling out onto the front step on her hands and knees to save her own life. I’m the woman who got so tipsy on chemo day, she pole-danced with her IV tree. I’m the woman who will tell you that everyone who woke up this morning won the lottery. I’m the woman who’s been defying the odds all her life and sees no reason to stop now.
I’m the woman who believes we were all put on this Earth to accomplish a certain number of things and is now so far behind that she can never die (that one always makes me laugh).
Then the sun gets low and the shadows stretch. My energy starts to flag and no matter how good the day has been, I’m tired. Eventually my mind turns to finding my location on my various axes––x, y, and z, but mostly t, for time.
I feel good; I feel strong. I feel no more mortal than I felt before I took up residence in Cancerland. Everybody, every single one of us, we proceed on the basis that, all evidence to the contrary, we will live forever, and I’m no different. Hell, I’ve actually been dead and I still can’t imagine not being alive.
Maybe my thinking about how much is left of the two years my oncologist gave me is a sort of mindfulness. Sure, it’s great to be optimistic, to go all in––and all out––to defy the odds. But even optimists are subject to natural laws. Once in a while, you get a miracle but miracles are scarce, not something you can, or should, count on.
You can work with the idea that anything is possible, and it’s probably true, more often that not. Anything…but not everything. I know, I’ve said that before; I’m old and I repeat myself––
Actually, that’s probably it––I’m about to get older. My birthday is coming up on 10 September; I’ll be sixty-mumble (I’m in my early sixty-mumbles). No, I don’t feel bad about being this old. To be honest, I’m glad I’m not younger––even at forty, I’d have been devastated at losing my hair and even more devastated by a hysterectomy. Instead, I went through a phase of ostentatious hair extensions and left my child-bearing years on Nature’s timetable. I know some breast cancer patients fifteen to twenty years younger than I am who aren’t so lucky. Fortunately they aren’t terminal––migod, how horribly unfair would that be?
Even if you’re healthy, when you enter your sixty-mumbles you start thinking about how many good years you’ve got left. You think about what you’d still like to do as well as what you never want to do again. As a writer, I think about the stories I have yet to tell and how to get better at telling them. I don’t think about stopping; I’m not going to stop. I’ll have to be stopped. Until I am, I’ll proceed on the basis…well, you know.
And now looking down the next eight days to my birthday, I feel a renewal of that strong, good, making-cancer-my-bitch feeling. Terminal? Feh. So what if I am? I can still make cancer my bitch.
Now I think of Rosemarie, my best friend from childhood. We ruled the solar system, partied with the Beatles, and saved the Earth at least once a week. Rose died of cancer in 2001. I remember what her brother Joe told me: she said it wouldn’t beat her. It might kill her but it wouldn’t beat her. She made cancer her bitch. So can I.
I guess that’s why I’m terminal. It can’t beat me so it’s got to kill me. But it won’t be easy…and it will still be my bitch.