Monday, October 3, 2011

Prometheus Unbound: Part IV: Please Ignore the Eagle, The Attention Just Encourages Him

Recap: After 10 years of worrying that the condition inflicting constant cumulative damage to my liver might someday advance to cancer, I got the call telling me that there were indeed troubling spots on my liver. When last we met, I explained that while waiting for a definitive answer from my doctor I received instead a recommendation to relax and wait 6 months, at which time we'd take another peek and see if the spots had changed at all. I have spent the last three posts attempting to express the absolute depths of my despair at learning that my worst nightmares might be coming true. I have repeatedly mentioned the anxiety and fear and the crying and the grief and the nausea, um, ad nauseam as it were.

Admit it, you're a litte bored by the melodrama of it all, no? I mean, I know I was. In the first days after learning that I would have to wait 6 more months to find out anything definitive about the spots, I tried to maintain the same feverpitch level of sturm und drang, but after about a week I was exhausted and just so over myself. I don't remember if this is the case but I hope that at some point I realized that if I kept going at that pace everyone I knew was going to be secretly rooting for the cancer.

Not that there weren't epiphanies. We'll get to those. But the epiphanies came later. "Later" as in after the 2 months of the rending of garments and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Before the epiphanies I had to go through that awkward moment when the mood has passed and you're standing there in the middle of the broken glass, holding a sledgehammer and asking with Urkelian sheepishness, "Did I do that?"

It helped that the life I had "set aside" to deal with this crisis wasn't having any of that. It put on its "Nobody puts Baby in the corner" t-shirt, shoved me out of the way and kept doing its thing. I had no choice but to keep up with it.

I had a lot of talks with myself. The most important one went like this:

Me: What if you do have cancer? You can't change that. You can't worry cancer away. If it turns out that you do have cancer you are going to start feeling really terrible, really soon. You might have less than 6 months of good health left. Is this really how you're going to spend it? Really? Because if you have cancer you can certainly choose to spend your final days curled up in a ball, crying your eyes out and quoting Hemingway but you could also be doing something more productive. Damn't. WE could be doing something more productive. Either way, we're going to be dead. In fact, here's a little secret I've been saving for a moment just like this one: no matter how this liver thing turns out, you die at the end of this story. You can choose your own adventure but they all end the same way.

Me: I bend down to pick up a quarter and fall off a cliff?

Me: Nooooo...think for a minute.

Me: Oh. Ohhhhhh. Oh my gah. You're right.

Me: Duh. You're an idiot.

Me: But you think I'm pretty, right?

Me: Meh. You have your days.

Well, no, I was not going to spend my final days like that. Not just that, but I redefined what "Final Days" meant. Because they are all final days. You don't get any of them back once you've used them up and if you waste one, you can't make it up later. And, besides, it's later than you think. I spent the next 5 months learning how to live fully but striving for an authentic experience. Not a life overshadowed by the spectre of an early death. I didn't want to feel guilty every time I yelled at my kids just because I might die. I didn't want to shelter them, I wanted to challenge them and equip them with the things they would need to make their way through the world without me.

I wanted to stop ending each day going down a list of things I'd meant to do or to try or to see or to read but not be able to check off a single square. I wanted to stop talking about wanting to be in good physical condition and actually BE in good physical condition. I started going to the gym and eventually took up running. I reconnected with my inner athlete and together we push this old body as hard as it will go. I ran 13 miles just to see if I could. I was the only runner on the course and there were no corporate sponsors but it was still pretty sweet to walk into my house and announce that I was going to take a shower and then eat everything that wasn't poisonous or on fire.

I stopped being afraid to fly. I had real things to be afraid of now and they were camping out in my body. I didn't have the energy to be afraid of cancer AND be afraid of flying. Something had to give and I didn't have time to drive everywhere I wanted to go and my kids didn't have time to wait for me to stop being a wimp so we could experience the world as a family.

My frequently bothersome and occasionally crippling chronic anxiety all but disappeared. Turns out that you can take all that generalized anxiety, harness it and direct it at one thing until you get bored and take up a new hobby. Like running. Or traveling. Or pie. Oh, it's a hobby. Don't even go there.

I exchanged my old guiding philosophy of, "Oh, like you're any better?", for the less abrasive, "We'll sleep when we're dead."

And at the end of the 6 months when I had the second MRI and the doctor called with a smile in his voice and said, "Soooo, the good news is that the lesions are stable. However, we need to follow up again in 6 months because this is still not definitive.", I didn't go to pieces. I said, "Okay then. See you in 6 months." And 6 months after that when the ultrasound revealed a BRAND NEW THIRD LESION, I didn't spend the next 2 weeks in bed. And 6 months after that when the third lesion "disappeared" I didn't dwell on it for hours. And the 6 month intervals have just kept coming. Which is why I was surprised that it had been 4 years because I really expected an answer by now.

And even though I get a little anxious and morose a day or two before my ultrasounds or the regular blood work that has also been a constant in this whole story, it isn't the same as the old days. I can't fling myself around a room in despair like that anymore. The knees just won't cooperate and I have bursitis in my right hip. Which reminds me. This series hasn't actually been about cancer, or INRTAT or my journey to learning how to live. It's really been about turning 40, which I am poised to do this month.

There might have been a time when I would have had to "accept" turning 40. Where I would have grumbled about the lines on my face and the gray in my hair and the way that no number of tricep dips completely eliminates that tell-tale wobble when I wave to you from across a room. But that was a different time and at THIS time I couldn't be more delighted to be 40. I wouldn't dream of ironing out a single wrinkle or line. And you know, I can wear sleeves.

But, I'm not letting my gray show. I'm happy to be alive but only with hair that's brown all the way to my scalp.

In Shelley's 4-act play, "Prometheus Unbound", he revisits the ancient Greek story of Prometheus and Zeus in which, you know, let's not do this. Life is too short to pretend I know anything about this play other than the part where Prometheus is doomed by Zeus to spend all eternity having his liver eaten by an eagle and then gets set free somehow. My story is a little bit different in that, while we are both freed from the bonds that held us back from being fully alive, that stupid eagle is still following me and pecking at my liver. And eventually, only one of us is going to emerge ultimately victorious in this battle. But, in the meantime, while he's stuck eating tiny bits of my liver I'm devouring this life, one pie at a time. And I don't see how that's not winning.


  1. You have a gift. Not just the gift of life (well, life 6 months at a time, anyway)(too soon for that joke?), but a gift for telling stories that keep readers absolutely enthralled. When you are on the best-seller list, I'll be so proud to be able to say "I knew her when..."

    In addition to the superb story-telling, of course, is a beautiful story of life, rediscovered. As much as you hate sappiness, I'm going to tell you right now that I was in tears on this final installment. (They weren't streaming down my face or anything, but kinda welling up in my lower eyelid.)(OK, one just rolled down. Great. Now I have to redo my mascara.)

    You've inspired me, Z, to rethink my own priorities and how I want to spend my life. Wallowing in self-pity at what I am not, what I don't have, what I've already missed out on? Or putting all that behind me and realizing that every day could be the last day -- and making it count?

    Would it be too much to say I love you? Yeah, that's what I thought. :)

  2. Cecily and Dawn, thank you so much. If I had a ranking of the people I would most want to appreciate my writing (and I totally do not, who would do that? I wouldn't. This is my grocery list. Unless it isn't as weird as it sounds? Yeah. I didn't think so. Let's see: milk, orange juice...) you would be in the upper tier, so your words really mean a lot to me.

  3. May I join the fan club as well? There was a time when I was insistent that you write a book. But this will do for now ;) and we'll just print them all out and pretend. Since you're gone so much, flying around the country and eating pie and all.

  4. I agree with Cecily and Dawn. I adore your writing.

    As for cancer, I'm sorry that you have to always have that in the back of your mind. I do too. Mom had breast cancer when I was in high school. She had radiation to treat it and from that radiation, years later, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her shoulderblade. The shoulderblade had to be removed. But she stil lives. :-) but right now, One of my dearest cousins has stage iv breast cancer with mets to her liver. My sil's father was recently diagnosed with stage iv colon cancer with mets to his liver as well. A man at my church is also suffering with cancer.

    I will pray for your health Z.

  5. Thank you, Lisa and Julie. It is so comforting to have you both in my corner.

  6. My SIL died from breast cancer in 1999, she left behind two little girls whose lives will never be the same. I say that to let you know that I am fully aware of the suckage that is cancer, and I am so glad that you are here, and doing well. I'm sorry that I haven't weighed in sooner, but have been thinking of you since you began this story.

  7. This was so good and so beautiful. All of it.

    "Well, no, I was not going to spend my final days like that. Not just that, but I redefined what "Final Days" meant. Because they are all final days. You don't get any of them back once you've used them up and if you waste one, you can't make it up later."

    Thank you for this.