Well, this should be good for a couple of essays.
It began as a totally routine mammogram, the kind you sign up for every year just to keep the gynecologist happy. One exam led to another and then another. I was as startled as anyone you’ve ever seen when biopsy results came back. My family doesn’t do cancer. We get alcoholism or heart disease. Or strokes. Cancer wasn’t even on my radar. Neither my mother or sister had cancer. Then I realized they both died much younger than I am today. They didn’t live long enough to get it. Neither did they scarf up as much pharmaceutical estrogen as they could get their hands on for over ten years. When I thought about it that way the odds of me getting cancer narrowed a bit. So I’m going to have to get used to the whole idea of having cancer first.
Right now it looks like this isn’t the kind of cancer you die from. I’ve still got one more test to get read but so far this is looking minor as far as cancer goes. As the radiologist and surgeon tell me, this is “tiny” and worthy of only a lumpectomy and a round of radiation. Tiny is a very reassuring word when you’re talking about cancer. If I play my cards right I’ll get to squeeze the day surgery in between other commitments and then get out of having to do any Christmas shopping while I do the radiation.
Pretend I didn’t say that. I know what a sense of humor God has, especially in light of the human penchant for hubris.
Cancer has a pretty bad reputation. Just the word makes us think of our mortality. Over the last few years, as age sets in, one of my occasional pastime wonderings has been “How will it happen?” How will the end come for me? I think this is one of the least talked about hobbies of old people in between bitching about not having enough health insurance and not being able to get your doctor to call you back. Come on, everybody dies of something eventually. But you never really know how it will end. What will I die of?
Will I slowly wither away or go out in a blaze of glory? Everyone knows you get a much better funeral if you die young and tragically. Nobody wants to hang around long enough that there’s nobody left to attend their funeral. But the thing nobody knows is when and how it will happen. So I have this little imaginary contest of how things will end for me-- between breaking a hip or running into a Mack truck while doing sit-ups and driving a car at the same time.
I briefly had an exercise routine of doing sit-ups in the car. I thought I was a genius to figure that one out. You wait for a straight stretch of freeway then just lay your seat back as far as you can get it. Then you can do sit-ups while you’re driving. The only reason I stopped doing them (aside from the fact that I hate exercise), was the day I found myself driving between two 18-wheelers and figured they might be so startled at the sight of me doing my sit-ups that they would veer off course and run over me. It would be hell to get killed during exercises to stay healthy.
I finally settled on how I want to go: to be struck by lightning on my 90th birthday. That would be poetic, don’t you think? To be touched by the hand of God and called home in an instant. That would certainly be a blaze of glory. The frustrating thing is you don’t get to decide that stuff yourself.
For a couple of old nerds who don’t do sports, Beaven and I really stay pretty active. There’s always a tree to cut down or something to shovel around here. Beaven took about an hour to fall off a ladder once and as he bounced from step to air to ladder, legs and arms wildly flailing in the air, I thought calmly to myself, “This is how it will happen. He will fall and break his hip and lie around the hospital and get pneumonia and die. Maybe not now, but when it does happen, this is how it will happen.” We visited his Dad one day during his final years, when he was living alone in the country with much the same lifestyle we have now, and I noticed a rip at the knee of his jeans. When I asked about it he told me it was where the chainsaw had nicked him. With this kind of lifestyle, this is how it ends.
And I did fall a couple of weeks ago. I was building a table for our printer. I was leaning over to get a piece of lumber off the pile and stepped on a metal rod lying on the concrete floor. The rod acted like a ball bearing and I fell with my full weight onto my hip. Then I hit my head on the floor and the rest of me landed in a crumpled heap. Once I untangled myself from all the things I fell on I jumped up to see if I was still conscious. My next thought was to be impressed that I didn’t break a bone. I was kind of proud of myself, actually, to think I could sail through a fall like that with only a knot on my head and the mother of all bruises on my hip.
There are still a couple of tests to go before I have a prognosis and plan of action. I’m on hold for a few days. I’ll keep you posted and try not to get boring about it.
In my journey thorough life the path ahead has made an unexpected turn and I am reminded of what Barbara Jordan said in a commencement speech at Harvard University in 1977:
I don’t know here this afternoon what will be next for me.
I won’t know what the next step is until I get there.
I know that when I went to Boston, and Austin, and Washington,
I took with me everything I had learned before.
And that’s what I will do this time.
That’s the point of it, isn’t it?
To bring all you have with you wherever you go.
I invite you to journey with me for this next leg of the trip. It won’t be all serious. I asked a medical friend if I could make fun of having cancer and she gave me permission. There’s got to be some funny stories in there somewhere. I’ll find them for us.