Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

“Make a list,” prods another Caitlin, so I try again and again and again. Lists of places to go. Dreams to interpret. Careers I might have enjoyed. Enormous statues I want to see. Languages I have learned and promptly forgotten. My line items are alternatively boring, plausible, unlikely and all of them seem to include an unmet Canadian need to drive a Zamboni.

What strange math. There is nothing like the tally of a life. All of our accomplishments, ridiculous. All of our striving, unnecessary. Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable. We do too much, never enough and are done before we’ve even started. We can only pause for a minute, clutching our to-do lists, at the precipice of another bounded day. The ache for more — the desire for life itself — is the hardest truth of all.

—  Kate Bowler, from “One Thing I Don’t Plan to Do Before I Die Is Make a Bucket List”. At 35, the doctors tell me I have Stage IV colon cancer and a slim chance of survival. (NY Times, August 28, 2021)

Tuesday Morning Wake-Up Call

I beg your pardon, I hear my disease answer in reply to my many charges leveled against it—of trespass, hijack, squatting, invasion, vandalism, anxiety, psychosis, psoriasis (of the mind), catatonia (of the spirit), a Gordian knot (of my reason), poisoning, pollution, warping—I did not grow in you uninvited by the way you lived and the life that you were given to begin with. I started in you with time and from time. I opened my eyes thanks to you finding the combination to unlock my presence in you by the way you lived your life. I had no intention to riot against you, my host, upon whom I depended for sustenance and a quiet life—which is all I ever wanted. I did not intend to finish you and me in the process. As long as you lived on, so would I. As long as you left me undisturbed, I would keep quiet and dormant in you until the end of your days.

You see me as spikes, barbed wire, and broken bottles, all cutting edges in you, and you forget that you set me going, turned me on and cut me loose in your body. I did not expect it. All your talk, reading, and tree-hugging company, and demonstrations for good, signaled to me that I would not have a hectic life that charged to a rapid end for my host and for me, but that I would be in a quiet place, unseen and ignored and quite content to amble to an octogenarian’s crawl and walker decked with tennis balls for a snail’s mobility, staggering brakes and watch-paint-dry stoppage. I could see it when you meditated or did your yoga or ran or lifted weights or ate greens, lots of them, with poker-faced enjoyment. I stopped thinking of a day when I would be free to run to my end and in the process, bring about yours preternaturally early. [Read more…]

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

We hug across the gearbox console. I tell her I love her very much and she tells me she loves me too. I drive around the block of her school for her red face to clear and for her to stop hiccupping with upset. I beg her to forget everything bad that sprang out of my mouth. That I am a fool at the mercy of my diagnosis. That I lack the necessary control to be a proper father to her. She says she wants me to be her dad, none other, and that she loves me and she will be fine in a minute or two. She offers me my soaked handkerchief. I tell her to keep it in case she needs it again. She says that she is fine. We have never been closer and with such intensity—thanks to my cancer. We are late for the start of her school day. I tell her if she feels bad just call me or text and I will leave work and pick up her in under ten minutes. She says she will be fine, really. That I shouldn’t worry. That she feels better. She asks me how I am doing. I tell her I feel better too. We part with a brief lock of eyes and hurried mutual I-love-yous. Thank you, cancer. I called you a f*cker for turning up uninvited and ruining what was supposed to be the party of my life. Now I thank you. You turn up the intensity in my routine domesticity.

Walking. With Abby.

360 consecutive days.  Like in a row. Morning walk @ Daybreak.

Sun rises at 5:52 a.m, twilight is ~ 50 to 60 minutes earlier. You can do the math. Early.

I’m on I-95 N.  I shift in my seat and an electric current fires from lower back, through hip, down the leg and sizzles all the way down to the toes.

I’m back in Physical Therapy.  PT, is what the cool people call it. Diagnosis? Not pulled hamstring, but lower back (again). Two weeks in, better, but far from rehabbed.

I ease out of the car, and my conversation with my new Therapist flashes back.

“Where’s Abby?”

“Abby?” [Read more…]

Lightly Child, Lightly.

Later I went inside, out of the nostalgic sad autumnal smell of leaf smoke, and talked a few minutes to the girl propped in bed with her hair in pigtails. Despite the nausea, her eyes were extraordinarily bright. I thought she looked at me with the soft intensity, the tenderness, that I had seen in the eyes of too many people dying of cancer-the look that says how lovely are the shapes and colors of life and how dear the faces of friends, how desirable it all is, how soon to be lost.

― Wallace Stegner, All the Little Live Things (Penguin Books, December 1, 1991, first published 1967)


Notes:

  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”
  • Photo: Anne Jones with burning leaves

Tuesday Morning Wake-up Call

Everything that she used to take for granted produces a sense of revelation, as if she were a child again. Tastes—the sweetness of a strawberry, its juice dripping onto her chin; a buttery pastry melting in her mouth. Smells—flowers on a front lawn, a colleague’s perfume, seaweed washed up on the shore, Matt’s sweaty body in bed at night. Sounds—the strings on a cello, the screech of a car, her nephew’s laughter. Experiences—dancing at a birthday party, people-watching at Starbucks, buying a cute dress, opening the mail. All of this, no matter how mundane, delights her to no end. She’s become hyper-present. When people delude themselves into believing they have all the time in the world, she’s noticed, they get lazy.

~ Lori Gottlieb, from her new book titled Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed. Chosen as one of Amazon’s top 10 Books of the Month for April 2019.


Photo: via Newthom

Cancer, you’re not invited

tom-brokaw-cancer

For most of my adult life I have answered the question “Occupation?” with one word: journalist. I still do, but now I am tempted to add a phrase.

Cancer patient…

Even in remission, cancer alters a patient’s perception of what’s normal. Morning, noon and night, asleep and awake, malignant cells are determined to alter or end your life…

Age alone puts me in my twilight years; and cancer only heightens that objective reality. Yet I am not consumed by the prospect of death. When it intermittently enters my consciousness it has an abstract quality. I can’t quite get a grip on how this life might end…

Whenever I engage in this kind of reflection I fault myself for not shifting into a lower gear. What happened to the sailing lessons, the calligraphy course, that short story I had hoped to publish? […]

Cancer fund-raising events? Yes, if the distance and demands are not onerous. But is it possible that NBC News coverage of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, two very long plane rides away, would not be at all affected by my absence? I think it is.

Maybe it would be better if I just gathered our five grandchildren and we watched the occasion on television as I answered their questions. Then we would all go for Chinese food and plan our next get together.

Cancer, you’re not invited.

Don’t miss full essay by Tom Brokaw @ Tom Brokaw: Learning to Live With Cancer

 

Everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments.

kate-bowler

[…] Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. […]

…I find the daily lives of its believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. They face the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to accept crippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospital beds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works.

This is surely an American God, and as I am so far from home, I cannot escape him.

~ Kate Bowler, 35, was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer. She is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”

Don’t miss Bowler’s full essay here: Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me


Source: Thank you Susan.

Sun on skin, smell, particular light, that sort of stuff

marion-coutts

The template of self-image I adhere to is that of a happy person. Is this different from being happy? I have no idea. Before the crisis, the bad sank down somewhere I couldn’t reach or was too lazy to get to, and the good floated up as flotsam near the surface. I was usually near the surface too, sometimes impressively active and sometimes just bobbing and lolling, lolling and rolling, the one a front for the other. Bad and Good are weakened words now, blanched of force. Language is failing me too.

Optimism is an under-researched attribute. Where’s the science? Where’s the research? What do our brother creatures – the owls, crabs, bonobos – think about the bright side? What do optimists do under pressure? Do they continue to seek out slivers of silver the size of fingernails in the crushed, smashed and folded lining of the earth? Optimism doesn’t seem to be something you can just adopt. Equally, I can’t be rid of it, even in mid-fall. […]

I am a blessings counter. I am and always was. My family gifted me balance and ballast. By upbringing and temperament it was just one of those things that came with me. I link it to the most rudimentary physical sense of being-in-the-world: sun on skin, smell, particular light, that sort of stuff, and that in turn connects to the articulation of the stretch between being an individual – myself – and non-individuated matter. I have always been able to think of myself as matter: one and many, all-solipsist and nothing at all. Not anything.

~ Marion Coutts, The Iceberg: A Memoir


Notes:

 

 

When Breath Becomes Air

paul-kalanithi-book-cover-when-breath-becomes-air

In his foreword, Dr. Abraham Verghese closes with: “Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way… But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift. Let me not stand between you and Paul.”

And here’s Janet Maslin in her NY Times Book Review where she quotes Verghese and continues: “Dr. Verghese suggests not only reading “When Breath Becomes Air” but also listening to the overwhelming response it prompts in you. I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.”

I completed Paul Kalanithi’s memoir this weekend and agree with Verghese and Maslin – waves of Kalanithi’s words are still lapping my shoreline. And they won’t let me go.

The book is a selection of Amazon’s Best Book of January 2016“At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.  Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“The morning commuters began to animate the distant South Lake Tahoe roads. But craning your head back, you could see the day’s blue darken halfway across the sky, and to the west, the night remained yet unconquered— pitch-black, stars in full glimmer, the full moon still pinned in the sky. To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west, night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night. It was as if this were the moment God said, “Let there be light!” You could not help but feel your specklike existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.”

And another: [Read more…]

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