Life as an Extreme Sport


Everyone says you have to be strong in the face of cancer. Brave and optimistic, you put up this facade in front of everyone; patient, family, friends. And everyone in the house is doing it, straining the mask of proper behaviour to fractures. Because no one wants to burden anyone else, no one wants to be seen as weak, no one wants to have done something wrong.

Mom breaks, sometimes. She’ll see something on TV, or read something, or spend just a little too long along with her thoughts, and then the tears and frustration and despair and fear come pouring out, laced with apology for showing it in the first place. But the rest of us soldier on in our small rooms, alone save whatever furry beasts call us their own.

The stress is taking its toll. My parents have been bickering since I’ve been back, to the point that within 24 hours, over the weekend, I yelled at them both. Dad, for just not listening, and Mom for not letting Dad do anything to help, and faulting him for anything he did (whether it was good or bad). But the stress spreads – I find my temper getting shorter with everyone, friends and colleagues, and being online is a questionable idea. (And oh, my poor boss, who’s received a good chunk of temper, whether he realizes it or not. And lucky, lucky me for having such a dream boss in my life!)

I set up a meditation area in my bedroom last week, thinking that I needed the reminder to sit, to breathe, to center myself. Unfortunately, I’ve managed to get myself so wound up in the short time I’ve been back, with so many different stresses pulling at me at once, that physically staying still long enough to meditate makes me more tense and antsy than any good can cover.

I’m hoping that my 36 hour escape to Seattle later this week will give me the chance to take a deep breath and let the fractures settle back around me. That I’ll be able to unwind, laugh, relax in the company of people I’ve known for years. Where there are injokes that I’m a part of, and the last thing I need to worry about is, well, anything.

Of course, since I’ve already managed to tie myself in such a tight knot, I am worrying that returning to Seattle for the first time since moving in June will be the very wrong thing to do. That I will either be homesick, or…maybe worse…discover I don’t miss anything about it at all.

The sound of the TV is drifting down the stairs into my room, the low strains of my iPod and purring cats drowned by vague baritones and canned laughter. I keep drifting off to sleep with the rhythm of my breathing, only to have a particularly high-pitched noise snap me back awake. It’s a state I’ll drift in until my parents go to bed; too tired to do anything but lay here until sleep sticks and 5am comes. Lay here in my fractured pieces, knowing everyone is suffering from the stress, and no one is talking.

there are times when it’s not a good idea to be awake

It’s 3:00pm, approximately, on a Sunday afternoon. I have been awake close to 11 hours at this point. Perhaps it is no surprise that I am, in a word, cranky.

My arm is killing me. Another not big surprise, since I’ve probably done more sustained writing, reading and typing in the last two weeks than I have in the last year. Normally, I’m at least semi-sane at pacing myself. But I really outdid myself with stupid, especially the last couple of days. This does not make the cranky any better. In fact, it makes it worse.

I would make a crack about being driven to drink – Blogger alone has given me a massive headache – except that the reality is, I’m going to have to drive myself to the store to get alcohol, and the only option in Oregon on a Sunday is beer or wine. (I’d really like to find a nice bottle of vodka, and some tasty flavoured liquor to spike it with. But no, Oregon has to have the most asinine liquor laws in the nation.)

So instead I’m going to do what any sane person in my position would do. Remove the cat from laying across said fubar’d arm, dose myself with the various painkillers I have on hand, turn off email, crawl under a blanket, and forget the world outside my room exists.

watch her run with ribbons undone

She’s a rose in a lily’s cloak
She can hide her charms
It is her right there will be time
To chase the sun with ribbons undone

My sister and I have achieved an interesting balance of labour around the house – if you can call it balance. She takes care of almost all the domestic things; laundry, cooking, medications, running interference with relatives and family friends. (And does it all while continuing to work 25 hours a week, and study for the MCAT several hours a day.)

Me? My “job” seems to be the role I’ve always had in the family: to be the whimsical, off-beat, entertaining one. I go shopping, and bring back small bits of the outside for Mom. An interesting pattern, new clothes, great finds on shoes, funny stories about what I saw at the mall.

She runs like a fire does
Just picking up daises
Comes in for a landing
A pure flash of lightening
Past alice blue blossoms
You follow her laughter
And then she’ll surprise you

One of the harder things has been the fear. Fear that Mom won’t see the major life events that are coming, for all of us. To see my sister go through medical school, me graduate with my PhD, complete with Harry Potter-esque robes. To see my sister get married, have children, to see my brother get his life together and actually become that amazing human being that’s knocking around in his soul somewhere. To see me publish my first book, go on my first talk show, be interviewed for the news.

Today, that got just a little easier. One of the awesome people I work with updated the staff page, and I was able to show Mom. She’s known about it, of course – working my tail off would be difficult to hide. But knowing and seeing are two such very different things, and she was so happy when she saw. So proud. And I got a little taste, at least, of what I might not otherwise have.

But oh, I hope I have. I hope, I hope, I hope.

I don’t want to grow up Mom at least not tonight

the weight of time

As I may or may not have mentioned, I’m back in Portland for a few weeks. This is a scheduled trip – no catastrophic issues have come up.

Time is one of those things that we exist with and in, and it’s hard to step back and see just how much it controls. Not something so simple as what time a meeting is, but the big things. I’ve seen this lately, as I watch Mom struggle with one appointment after the next, new tests, waiting for results. Everything is a waiting game – waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting for the results of the tests on the fluid, waiting for tests on the lumps, waiting for the interpretation of the CT scan, even waiting for the effects of chemo to hit. After every hurdle cleared comes the next, and each one has this guillotine above it, just waiting.

She’s trying so hard to be brave, to be strong, to fight and remain optimistic. But this upcoming CT scan is looming large. They’ll compare the results to the baseline, and have empirical data on the progression, or cessation, of the cancer. She wants, she hopes, for good news, but is terrified of bad. And I keep trying to remind her that there’s also holding steady, which would be better than bad.

And I feel guilty, because when my mother is leaning against me, crying and clutching my hand, I give her the hope she’s looking for. I tell her that she hasn’t had her lungs tapped and drained since December, that she hasn’t been complaining of as much pain or discomfort, that she has more energy, she’s been feeling better, has more colour in her face. I do my best to hand her every shred of hope I can find, as I wipe away her tears, and bite the inside of my lip and wonder “what if we’re wrong? What happens if we do get bad news after the CT scan, after I – we all – have spent this time reassuring her as best we can? What then?”

What then?