Thursday, 29 September 2011

Brain Zebras and Relatives

 My middle name means, “warrior woman.” Lately, I talk about fighting this cancer & my friends, meaning to encourage me and console themselves, talk about me being a fighter.

And I am. A survivor, a fighter, generally speaking.

Strange then, that I don’t feel I’m fighting cancer. I have the oddest intuition that “fighting” is not what I need to do. Ask anyone in martial arts – you never meet force with force. It’s just a stupid tactic and it doesn’t work. And if someone is screaming at you, does screaming back deescalate the situation? Generally not, if you’ll forgive me answering my own question.

I can’t help thinking that every one of our defenses begins as a helper. You can’t sing a note in front of others because once, as child, you were happily singing and someone snapped, “sing properly.” To protect yourself from hurt, you stopped singing – and even though now you may be grown and may have a beautiful voice, those old defenses are still there and you remain silent.

On the physical level – consider autoimmune diseases: the immune system, the very system designed to protect you from all manner of ills begins to mistakenly attack and destroy healthy body tissue.

Who is to say that cancer doesn’t start as the body’s way of defending itself?

I have a couple different images of my cancer.

The most recent is zebras. I have brain zebras. I refer to the following quote:
"Medical students are taught when hearing hoof beats, to think of horses, not zebras. Neuroendocrine tumours are rare and therefore are considered to be zebras." 
How does one picture fighting zebras? I mean, look at them, they’re beautiful and interesting. Admittedly they are not quite horses, but in terms of visualizing them as an enemy, it's pretty much a useless image.

So I fall back on my original visualization. The one that appeared almost full-blown & out of nowhere when I started thinking of the cancer in Mrs. Enid’s voice. 

My cancer is Auntie C., an enormous, gelatinous whale of an unappreciated relative who visits without notice and sprawls into my favorite chair. Auntie smells like unwashed laundry and cheap perfume. She has pale puffy skin and beady eyes.She stays for lunch and asks for it on a tray. Her bones, you know, they act up something awful. She expounds on subjects she knows nothing about, messes in everyone’s business and terrifies small children by trying to kiss them. She believes that she’s a generous and helpful soul and that the family cannot really do without her. 

I can’t say I love her. But I don’t hate her either. My job is just to make her go home without hurting her feelings too much.

So, no dragons or closet monsters for me. Just the struggle to get Auntie the hell out of my chair.

Monday, 26 September 2011


I wake up after five hours of sleep feeling robbed and cast aside….picked clean, angry. I want to throw things and listen to them shatter. I want to say something spiteful to someone who doesn’t deserve it. I am not: brave, philosophical, kind, reasonable or
even particularly sane. I want to hurt something back.

I accept and adjust and accommodate this new order of complete uncertainty. I tell myself that I have no option but to be patient, but this morning I feel like an animal about to chew off it’s own leg to escape a trap.

I’m beyond pissed.

I give the phone wide berth. I don’t answer email. There is a raging two-year old inside me. She just might own a gun. And while she can rampage through my apartment, I have enough self-control left to know she shouldn’t be going walkies.

In a while, I go back to bed. I wake the second time out of dream of being embraced by a friend. We are, bizarrely, dressed as pirates. We are holding each other, swaying slightly, like waltzing, four-four time. And it feels really good.

And it’s so very much worse than being angry.

The never-mores, they come and they go. Please. Let this one go quickly.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Travelling cat

Jan calls today to report on my Smokey. I ask, a little anxiously, if he ever sleeps with anyone.

It’s his favorite thing – going to bed at night, cuddling right up against my chest and purring loud enough to shake the walls. He only stays until he’s sufficiently reassured that he’s the most loved cat in the universe and then he wanders farther down to sleep at the end of the bed.

Jan says he comes to bed with her - or nestles against her when she reads. This tells me he feels safe and happy.

For the first three or four days of this little horror show, I couldn’t think of him without sobbing uncontrollably. He is my responsibility. I promised him I wouldn’t leave him. I promised to look after him. And suddenly I couldn’t. He symbolized all the losses and shocks bolting through my life…all the never-mores. And I missed him so much.

When Jan and her family offer to let him board, I’m so relieved, so grateful. And I'm also devastated at the thought of people moving him from home. Smoke is one of those cats who cannot bear a cage…not even a few minutes for transport. His skinny little legs turn into iron rods. His eyes bug out in terror. You look at him as you try to squish him into the carrier and you know that he is sure he is being killed.

The other thing is – sometimes in his life, he’s had to live with people who didn’t love him. He wasn’t beaten or starved. Just not loved, sometimes, not even liked. He was a sad, shy little fella when I got him, desperately glad to be petted or cared about if no one scary was around, if there were no loud noises to make him run and hide.

He isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. He doesn’t do cool tricks. He only has one facial expression. For the first few years he lived with me, he ran from strangers, hid when anyone came to the door. Not so cute, right? It’s the kind of nervous standoffishness that makes some people think, what a miserable little beast. Some folks take that kind of stuff as judgment. It embarrasses them to put a hand out for a friendly pat and have the cat arch down and skitter out of touch-range.

I knew Jan’s family wanted to have him, especially Jesse, Jan’s eldest son. I never worried he'd be treated kindly. But the question all along has been – would they love him? Would he have someone to cuddle against at night?

The answer is…(there is a big oh-oh silence as Jan and I talk)...
“there may be a little problem…about Jesse,” Jan says. About, ummm.. Jesse wishing he didn't have to go. About everyone kind of loving Smoke a lot. Of course he’s mine. Of course they would give him back anytime. But….

I guess this is the best bad news I’ve had in weeks. Maybe I can consider letting him move on knowing that he has a whole family to love him and a whole big house to roam. Knowing that because of Jan, Dave, Jesse and Neil, I don't have to let Smoke down or leave him to the random and often unkind fates animals sometimes meet when their humans can't care for them.

Still miss him though. 

Thursday, 22 September 2011


It seems our lives – or for that matter – our deaths, whenever they should arrive are not at all simply our own private business.

Of course John Donne said it much better with bells tolling for thee and me…but it’s a visceral observation at the moment. It’s lost all abstract quality.

A friend called me the other day and she was in shambles…sobbing her heart out. I had to get off the phone. I didn’t have the energy to comfort her over my situation. I was tired at the time and frustrated with the hospital and all the tests and I thought, “Hey. This isn’t about you.”

But it was about her. Of course it was. We’re friends. I’m her trusted confidant. And she lives over a thousand miles away – where she’s out of the loop and unable to see me, devastated and helpless to do thing-one.

I gave her a couple days to cry through it and pull herself together. And by the time I called back, I had real compassion for her pain. It has become real to me that we are part of a vast, intimately connected intricate network. We have no concept of how much we touch each others' every day, something forgotten, barely noticed, that we might have said or done will alter the life of someone else. It's a fractal world.

I’ve come to see this time, when I have to tell people my disturbing news, as an occasion when all of us have the right to be sad or upset. And I don’t deserve one iota more sympathy than any of the people who love me and are struggling to handle the shocking news.

So, I’m sending this to you all  - If there’s anything I can do to help, you just name it.


The abyss, it turns out, is stealthy. It’s always lurking there, of course – but I joke over it, try to keep my spirits up, try to make people laugh. And that’s good for me, for all of us, I guess – just not all the time.

I figure I’m in the cancer honeymoon. One big operation over, a week to let chemicals leave my system, time to talk to people and visit. I’m a little weak but not sick – and the most drastic visible change is short hair and needle bruises. Nothing too scary. Yet.

So my days are good. I feel blessed and relieved to be home. My fridge is full of food, lovingly tendered by caring people. I have my support team to call on.

And I’m caught up on Coronation Street and North of 60. All good, right?

At the end of the day, I watch British Comedies. Sensible me. Laughter as medicine.

And I cross the threshold of my bedroom door and there is it is. It’s like some kind of magic, how it can appear like that. I start to sob. It's loud and hard sobbing - snotty and scared and angry. And I’m railing aloud to the Abyss…I’m demanding to know if any sort of God lives in there.  And if so – what KIND of God? The mean old score-keeper of patriarchy? The one counting sparrow falls? I rant for me – but I rant for the starving in Africa and street people and victims of war and disaster, too. I’m not even trying to be sensible because I just want to know – If you are out there God, do you notice any of this? I mean, how is it I'm left with zero sense of a faith I once held dear? Is this hitting your voice mail?

And I cry it out. And then I sleep for two hours. Tomorrow, as Scarlet says, is another day.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Sandy charges $17.50 for my haircut. Sandy has lost a husband, a few businesses and god knows what else. She’s raised 3 kids in her hair salon, taken in immigrant stylists without a lick of English and gathered the displaced and lonely for Christmas dinners…
Or so I’m told. She’s a gritty realist and she’s kind.

When it comes to losing my hair – I cannot face chrome and glass and high fashion and a hopelessly young stylist. I want Sandy.

The front of Sandy’s establishment is The Bloomin’ Café – a wonderful small bistro, unbelievably out of place in down & dirty Spryfield. Frank, the chef, would impale himself on the nearest potato peeler rather than serve anything not made from scratch & you wouldn’t want to talk canned gravy in front of him. The prices are better than good. $8.99 gets you your grandma’s best roast pork dinner – enough to burst a few seams worth, too.

Go through to the hall and washrooms, and just past – and the salon opens up. Not huge but bright and airy. It feels calm there. Happy. Sandy’s granddaughter is in and out. Everyone seems to smile a lot.

Sandy doesn’t wince at the stitches. First, she takes a huge chunk of French Braid and cuts it off, throws it in the garbage with no show, no ceremony. And then she begins. I keep saying “a little shorter.” We discover how curly my hair is, now the weight is gone. I feel lighter and lighter as the cut goes on. Pounds of hair are mounding up on the floor. I tell her just to muss a little product in and not blow dry. I don’t want “style.” In fact, any attempt at “style” or a new look just seems obscene to me at the moment. I want to run my fingers through my hair and never pick up a blow-dryer again.

This is me now. The physical from-the-head-up me. It feels plain. Messy, like I asked Sandy to do. I’ll probably go shorter than this soon – but the shock factor should be minimized a bit by an in-between cut.

I look in the mirror. My energy is limited and running out fast. I stare at the face looking back at me. I try to comprehend that this is me now. This comprehension thing happens, one way or another, a few times every day now. How do I get through so very much change at this pace? The world is spinning under my feet and I am trying to balance in midair.


4:55 a.m. I've slept through seven entire hours - the longest stretch since this little Odyssey began. I wake up in my own bed, but thinking that I'm in a Quonset Hut. The room feels square and somehow metallic around me...the bed feels very high up - and I wonder if that's just my cerebellum still recovering from pressure and surgery. I have the amusing notion that perhaps I'm at Torchwood.  I'm functioning fine - or at least in the hospital, I felt normal. But the cerebellum took a kicking and it's what lets me know where I begin and leave off in space...and it has odd, mild notions that may be a little out of whack when I'm not completely awake.

For the first time in a week, no dreams waking me with a sense of cold dread. Thank you. I'll take it.

Two more days of steroids. I have a short stretch to start burning off chemicals, dyes, pills etc. My skin looks like parchment paper...dry as a riverbed. I burst into tears sometimes and it's impossible to tell when it will happen, for how long. I can't know the recipe...drugs? Emotional shock? Physical shock? Some cocktail of all of that?

It's good to be home. Friends have cleaned my place. The fridge has been emptied and restocked. The day I come home, it's summer-mild. A glorious sun is shining. My ceiling high plant is waving it's branches in the open window. Happiness seems inevitable.

I keep looking for Cat. Just out of my peripheral vision - and often. I feel his absence and never knew how often I checked to see where he was or passed a hand over this fur when he was sleeping. Late yesterday, I suddenly feel shaky and call C. I want to say I feel lost. That I miss my cat. I don't mean to cry but I do - and C., who is generally the soul of calm kindness vows to go get him right away and "anybody who doesn't like it can kiss my ass."

But no. I'll wait a little. There might be surgery yet - and another time away. I can't yank him around like he's a teddy bear. And besides, Jan tells me he loves his big picture window. And he comes out to rub on people's legs and purr. He flops down, belly up, to flirt. And they all like him. That's most important of all things for me - that he's with people who like him.

Today, I'll be getting a short haircut. Six months ago, that would have felt like a trauma right up there in the house-burning-down category. Now it's hair...more ballast to jettison. I look around this place that's been my home for a long time...and it's full of stuff. I've hated the amount of stuff for a long time - but now it looks pretty to me...comforting and cozy. But still too much. At some point, I want to hold a craft party and invite everyone I know (or friends know) who would love to take home extra beads, prefelt yardage, yarn, clothing & what-have-you. Feng shui clearing and party all at once, I think. I need to be travelling light.

My friends show me that all I want to carry right now, I can carry in my heart.