The Way Ahead

January 30, 2015

“I was cured all right.”
-A Clockwork Orange

 

So where do I go from here? Everyone’s experience is unique, but in my case beating cancer was the easy part. A few brief bouts of nausea, a temporary allergy to sunlight, anemia, and fatigue were as bad as the side effects got. Surgery wasn’t fun, but it went smoothly. When all this started in June 2014 I thought things would change significantly. I wasn’t sure how they would change, but I thought it would be dramatic and obvious. Instead everything went so easily it’s tempting to feel like nothing’s changed, least of all my outlook. I’ve always been an optimistic guy. The doctors helped me maintain that by telling me I could look forward to being cured. People with some other forms of cancer, if they’re lucky, go into remission, which merely maintains the status quo. The cancer could come back at any time. When I heard the word “cured” I thought it would mean I’d go back to being like I’d always been. Before the cancer I could say “I never get sick.” It was a time when I wouldn’t know my general doctor if you put him in a lineup of people who looked nothing like him. When I decided to see him about the pain in my leg that had been keeping me up at nights for a couple of months I hadn’t had a checkup in three years. I’d volunteer for medical experiments and the people doing the tests loved me because I was a medical blank slate: no allergies, no major medical issues, and not even any minor ones. I still have my tonsils, my appendix, and I’ve never had a broken bone. If I’d known then what I know now when the doctors told me I’d be “cured” I would have asked, “Like a ham?” And maybe they’d say yes, because it is sort of like that. Everything has changed. I’m still an optimistic guy, but I’m changed. There’s a cloud that I’m aware of every minute of every day. I will wear a medical bracelet listing my allergies and other issues for the rest of my life. I will have regular screenings for the rest of my life. I can’t take it for granted that the headache, the stomachache, or the persistent leg pain will just go away anymore. It’s a lesson I’m still processing. I’ve read about people in near fatal car crashes, or who just barely escaped disasters or other life-threatening events. They walked away feeling like the bravest person in the world, but a few days, or a few weeks later they’d have a complete meltdown. We don’t always respond immediately to trauma. In my case I was, metaphorically, in a car wreck that went on for six months. I was able to walk away from it because I had help, especially from my wife, who, metaphorically, was out there directing traffic, but as the only one in the car I need to, metaphorically, drive more carefully from now on. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s only useful if we apply whatever it was an experience taught us, and I need to be more conscious because the phrase “the rest of my life” has taken on greater significance.

 

The narrator of The Stranger by Albert Camus says, “Either way you’re going to get it.” He’s talking about two possible paths through a town, each of which has its problems, but also metaphorically about life and death. Whatever path you take the destination is the same. When I was young I thought that very profound. I’d never really confronted death, so I thought it was all that needed to be said about death, and life. Because death was distant and abstract it could be romantic. Dylan Thomas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson were all special, I used to think, because they died young. I even thought of them as almost lucky. It was an attitude I eventually outgrew, long before I’d outlived all of them. I realized that even if their reputations had fallen if they had lived longer that didn’t make death a better alternative. There’s no shame in old age. This was a conclusion I came to even while death was still an abstraction, something I’d experience through the loss of some friends and family, but that I didn’t think I’d have to face, or even think about, one-on-one until I was closer to the end of my allotted three score and ten. There’s physical death, which, with some exceptions, we experience only once, but there’s another kind of death, the kind that comes when an experience transforms us. It’s a kind of death we all experience as we age. I’m not the same person I was ten years ago, although I can’t put my finger on what exactly changed. Sometimes, though, it’s less subtle. I’m not the same person I was a year ago, and I know exactly why. I’m a long-time Doctor Who fan, and one of the things that’s always appealed to me is the Time Lord’s ability to regenerate. On the point of death he survives by becoming a completely different person. I always liked that, but never realized the significance. We come through traumatic events, especially those that make us aware of our own mortality, a different person. Like the Doctor I have all my memories and everything I had before my own regeneration, and like the Doctor I’m going through a settling-in period, a period of asking, “Who am I?” It’s necessary to get to know this new me, but it’s also an opportunity to make changes, which is even more important. A metaphor that non-Whovians might be better able to relate to is the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly. It’s a cliché, but only because it’s so damned accurate. The butterfly is still the caterpillar, but completely transformed. The butterfly can do things it never could before, but it’s also got new, and bigger, responsibilities. It has wings, which are fragile, and in flight it will be more exposed than it ever was as a caterpillar, but it will also see a bigger world. I have to accept new responsibilities, but I’ve also gained a whole new perspective. If I look behind me I may even have wings.

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