some words are hard to say. . .
i don’t think i will ever forget the first time i heard the word cancer spoken in a sentence in which i was the unspoken subject. i was groggy from anesthesia, but there was my surgeon, leaning against the curtain in the recovery room. he was dressed in street clothes, his backpack slung over his shoulder, headed home to dinner, i imagined, with his little brood up here in the leafy suburbs, where we happen to both share the same zip code. i heard him say “it was cancer,” and i heard him say he was so surprised. i don’t think i heard much after that. and for all the days since i’ve been trying on that word.
it’s a word that’s hard to say. it’s a word that’s hard to slip your lips around. especially when it belongs to you. and when the cancer in question is the one that was settled quite inconspicuously in your very own lung. i’ve thought a lot about the eight years since they first saw it there. no one thought it was cancer. they thought maybe it was a scar, from a pneumonia i’d once had. or an old broken rib. nothing to worry about. all those years. all those christmases and birthday candles blown. all those graduations and droppings off at college, and at law school. all those late late nights when a million worries kept me up, but never that one. never ever a worry that i had cancer in my lungs.
until december, when someone once again saw it by accident and decided we should not ignore it anymore. i owe that someone every year of the rest of my life. and while the next weeks of january into march were a wild, wild ride, it took till april 18 to finally figure out what it was, to finally figure out that the suspicious “neoplastic process” was in fact just that: neoplastic is another word for cancer.
and it’s gone now. they cut it out. all of it, we hope. my surgeon called the other day and in the cheeriest voice i might ever have heard, he said “congratulations;” said “it’s as good a report as we could hope for, knowing it was cancer.”
i am writing the word here, because words are how i make sense of life. i have always found my way with words. words on paper most of all. words on paper even more than words in air. words on paper are the tracings across the topography of my life. i find my way stringing one word to another, groping along from one to another till the sentence ends. and right now i am in a thicket that makes very little sense. for a few days there, i could not for the life of me tell which way was north, and which was south. i was all turned around, and upside down. i wept and wept some more.
but slowly, slowly, i am feeling my way. and i am feeling very brave. braver than i ever would have guessed. i would have guessed i’d crumble. but maybe all my crumbling is only in my imaginings. maybe, over the years, when i’ve played out my potpourri of disaster scenarios, i’ve been getting the crumbling out of the way, so that when the real thing came along i was practiced, i was ready to step boldly, bravely, even valiantly up to the plate.
part of being brave is learning to say those two words, strung together: lung + cancer. lung cancer. i am now part of an unwelcome sisterhood; i’m among the ones to whom those words now belong, and whose lives are shaped and re-shaped thereafter and ever after. and i am linking arms emphatically with the ones who know these hauntings and these hollows. i am, so help me God, intending with every ounce of will and fierce determination to be among the ones who say aloud that we’ve had lung cancer and we are here to prove you can live beyond it. you can live with it shrinking––day by day, month by month––into the distant distance.
i am still going to dance at my firstborn’s wedding, and my secondborn’s too (or whatever is the life event for which cakes will be ordered and flowers strung). i am going to sashay through my garden, the wise old woman who communes with birds and bumblebees and baby ferns. i will some day tell stories that include the chapter of the time they made the words lung and cancer a part of my vernacular. how never in a million years did i think those words would find their way into my narrative. but here they are. and who knows where they’ll take me, though i’ve a hunch it will be a heady, heady heart-swelling somewhere. i’m not one to leave life’s sheddings by the wayside, unstudied, unplumbed for all their wisdoms and epiphanies.
these might be the two hardest words i’ve ever said. but i am going to say them till they shrink in size, in wallop. i am going to say them till they’re stripped of high-voltage burn capacity.
we all have words that are hard to say, words we don’t think will ever be ours. words we don’t want to be ours: widow, widower, survivor, victim, divorcee, depressed, anxious, anorexic (the word that used to be my hardest one to say), amputee, diabetic, dyslexic, broken-hearted. maybe the point is to take on those words, slip our arms through their sleeves, make them a part of who we are, but not the whole of who we are. to be not afraid, nor defined solely by their simple syllables. but to allow them to deepen who we are, to add contour and dimension, to layer on the empathies. to shape our particular view of how we see the world. and where we find our place within it.
i don’t intend to turn this into a place where we contemplate cancer. not at all. but right now, it’s the woodsy thicket in which i am trying to find my way. if i—someone who never smoked a single cigarette, someone who never lived with anyone who smoked—can bring the words out into the open then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be such a surprise to the next someone who finds herself stymied by a spot on her lung that cannot be explained. i will be the first one to wave my hand in the air, and say, please don’t wait. don’t hesitate. bite the bullet and let them have at it. find out if it’s cancer or not. don’t dawdle. cuz dawdling does not buy time.
only courage buys time. stare it down, this cancer. let it know who’s in charge. let it know that you’ve no intention of letting it steal a day of your most precious life.
i have always known that life is fragile precious. i’ve known that since long before the day my papa died, and i somehow kept on breathing after he was gone. i’ve known it over and over and over again. i’ve known it on the day i got married, when walking down the aisle was something i never really knew i’d know. i’ve known it when i birthed each of my two boys, one whose birth almost felt as if it was about to slip away, but i was determined, and i was not going to lose the answer to the million prayers i’d prayed. i knew it, too, the night i miscarried my baby baby girl, a night as real to me as the ones that ended with babies cradled in my arms.
i’ve lived so many days i’d never thought i’d see.
and i am going to live even more. and i am going to say aloud that i once had cancer in my lung, but they cut it out, and now it’s gone. and i am going to tell the story of what it’s like to live emphatically after the doctor in the recovery room tells you he was so surprised. so so surprised to find out that it was, in fact, cancer idling in my lung.
cancer i hope and pray is gone. completely, totally, forever gone.
the two little bits i found this week seem fitting for a day of telling hard truths. first, musician Nick Cave’s advice to a 13-year-old:
“Read. Read as much as possible. Read the big stuff, the challenging stuff, the confronting stuff, and read the fun stuff too. Visit galleries and look at paintings, watch movies, listen to music, go to concerts — be a little vampire running around the place sucking up all the art and ideas you can. Fill yourself with the beautiful stuff of the world. Have fun. Get amazed. Get astonished. Get awed on a regular basis, so that getting awed is habitual and becomes a state of being. Fully understand your enormous value in the scheme of things because the planet needs people like you, smart young creatives full of awe, who can minister to the world with positive, mischievous energy, young people who seek spiritual enrichment and who see hatred and disconnection as the corrosive forces they are. These are manifest indicators of a human being with immense potential.
“Absorb into yourself the world’s full richness and goodness and fun and genius, so that when someone tells you it’s not worth fighting for, you will stick up for it, protect it, run to its defence, because it is your world they’re talking about, then watch that world continue to pour itself into you in gratitude. A little smart vampire full of raging love, amazed by the world.”
and next up, annie dillard on why we read and write at all….
“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?”
– Annie Dillard
and, this, maybe more than anything. . .
a little note: i am not going to share any medical details here, only the rumblings of my heart. please know that i have a team of angels on my side, medically.
what hard things have you done? and what lightened the load?