27 April 2007

The Thing with Feathers

At the moment, this does not particularly describe me.

It's been a bad running week. I feel more like, say, a camel or a tapir than something that flies. Or a cheetah. Or even a lion, which, though it carries a substantial amount of heft, runs with a regal (though ponderous) grace. Over the years, I've come to realise something very important about my training: the first three miles always suck. Whether I'm running three miles or fifteen, that always stays the truth. One day it occurred to me that I'm like my old VW squareback. She takes a good twenty to thirty minutes to warm up and really get going into her comfortable, distinctively Volkswagen purr, even if I drove to work eight hours ago. It's just the way she is. And so for me.

Very occasionally, though, I am able to remember that there exists in this world something known as "perspective," and that the way I am feeling right this very now is not necessarily an accurate picture of the entire cosmos for all eternity. In fact, it's not even necessarily an accurate picture of anything. (My friend Keith once made a similar observation about the relative size of my chest, but that's a story for a different time.)

To wit:

Nine years ago this very minute, I was trying to fight my way out of general anesthesia after four-plus hours of cancer surgery. I had three thoughts upon waking: when can I see Joel, were my vocal cords okay, and--most pressing--when could I get ahold of a sandwich? Even then, I had priorities. To hell with am I going to die, will I lose my hair, how long will I be in the hospital, will I ever be cured, did they get it all. I was hungry, and when I am hungry I am to be taken seriously.

It will sound strange, perhaps even impossible, but that week remains one of the most hope-filled of my life. From my Saturday morning pottery class at the local community college (where we had an outdoor pit-firing in the wind and Lauren Silver said to me frankly, "What are you doing here?" I mean, really--what else would they have me do in the last 36 hours before my surgery?), to the Saturday night service at my beloved church (where Bill and I sang our favourite Rich Mullins song and I prayed it wouldn't be the last song I ever sang), to the deer leaping through the field next to the hospital entrance on Monday, straight through to the following Saturday afternoon (when both the emotional enormity and the sheer physical trauma of what had just been done to my body dawned on it) the world was one big, wide, inexplicable blessing.

I certainly didn't have wings, myself. I couldn't lift a chair. And yes, stupidly, I tried. Christ, for a few days I couldn't lift a soup spoon without some sort of assistance. My beautiful beloved night nurse angel (whom I will never, ever forget, do you hear me Tish Plum? I did read A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, and cried right where you said I would. You saved my life as much as the doctors.) broke into the freezer for me and we had a midnight celebration of strawberry ice cream when I could finally pee without a catheter. Which is usually about as much of a problem for me as eating. By the time I was released, I could stay awake for about an hour before sitting up became too much work and I needed a nap.

I was physically tethered for much of my stay, too. IV lines for fluids and drugs, drainage tubes, not to mention that the bed was so damned far from the ground that I mostly couldn't get out because I didn't have the strength to jump back in without a boost. And yes, Tish laughed at me for that, in case you were wondering. And morphine wasn't helping any, either. Oh, it helped with the pain all right (it didn't stop it, but it removed it from my body and threw it up into the corner of the ceiling where I didn't have to worry about it too much) but coherence and motor control--never my strong suits to begin with--were severely impaired.

But I cared not. I was alive, and I loved every minute of it. And it wasn't just the morphine talking, either, because I was only on that for about 18 hours. This was, of course, before I learned that after major surgery, it usually takes a few days until you really feel like hell on a hard roll; that a surprisingly large percentage of post-surgical patients suffer from mild depression; that your thyroid gland really does control just about everything relating to your hormones, your metabolism, your weight, your energy level, and thus a great deal of your sanity, and that not having one can be like one giant months- or even years-long Horrendous PMS Event while the doctors struggle to find the right dosage of replacement hormone, which they then have to take you off of every six months for three weeks to bring you to the verge of bloated, unenviable and worst of all unsalted, bland, white-rice-and-bananas-diet death so they can radiate the crap out of you for three days (which compounds the horror by giving you mouth sores, salivary stones, and the worst skin trouble you've seen this side of 13). It was also before I gained 15 pounds permanently--fortunately mostly onto that much-maligned chest I recently mentioned--but still had to figure out what an appetite felt like, because hunger was different now. It was before the long slow slide into serious depression that finally woke those around me up enough into getting me professional help.

(To be fair, it was also before fighting my way out of that depression; before running my first 5k and then Bloomsday and then deciding I wanted to run a marathon--deciding I could run a marathon; before loving to be alone; before loving my husband; before loving myself.)

But that first dreamlike week after hearing the word "cancer", I remember waking up at sunrise day after day in the room my mother had painted yellow after I left for college (the very same room I've returned to yet again) just to listen to the birds, after which I would go back to sleep for several hours. Or days. The sunlight on the yellow walls was holy. My hands on the sheets were holy. Everything was holy.

9 comments:

deirdre said...

Thank you for this. I was with my sister in the week after her mastectomy, watching and caring for her without really knowing what was happening for her. I could only imagine and love her.

colleen said...

I have a white feather that showed up in a hospital room when my brother Danny was dying. I look back at those times feeling a mix of trauma and grace. I must say I never felt so alive as those last weeks he was still here and just after he left.

Regina Clare Jane said...

How beautiful this was... I wish it didn't take things like this to make us see just how holy everything is around us and in us... but it does. After losing my dad late last year, it was hard to see anything holy about that- but I am starting to... and I know he would want me too...
Thank you...

Colorful Prose said...

I really appreciated this post, and your writing style is so fresh and honest. I feel ready to attack the workweek now.

Victoria Campbell said...

Thank You for having the courage to do this. I went through brain surgery just 10 years ago, followed by the dreaded radiation(teeth are rotting out now) and chemo. I wish I could write it all out, get it all out. maybe someday....

Stacy said...

Really vivid descriptions here ----- a lovely read.

Patois said...

Damn, that's good perspective through the first three miles of a run or three minutes of a morning. Happy nine years of celebration!

Sian said...

The sunlight on the yellow walls was holy...
Thankyou for that.

sundaycynce said...

This is a simply beautiful and inspiring post. May you continue your healing to wholeness in all ways!!