A Castle of Loss…
Cancer, particularly Stage IV cancer, is a thug that executes a sneak-attack of felony battery and robbery leaving its victim beaten and deprived of health, community, friends, freedom, and control. It imprisons and isolates the victim creating a loneliness few people ever experience. No matter how many people are around, the cancer patient is walking a path alone. In a way, cancer is the ultimate “Green Mile.”
For most of the month of June, 2017 when I was first diagnosed, I was unable to communicate with my loved ones because I was mute and immobile—stunned, gobsmacked– I never saw cancer coming. I was like the straight-jacketed Percy Wetmore the other guards gagged and locked in the darkened padded cell. I was terrorized, sentenced to be alone and doomed in the dungeon of my castle.
I survived that month with the onslaught of scans and biopsies and telling my family and friends about my diagnosis. With every piece of doctor-provided literature I read, my life and my world were shrinking, and all I felt was loss. Nothing in the glossy pamphlets prepared me for losing my life, my future, my plans, and my goals. I was losing memories of my children’s life events that hadn’t even happened yet, like career success, weddings, grandchildren, holidays, and vacations. I finally understood what my mother-in-law meant when she said a few days after my father-in-law died, “We still have so many plans!” I still have so many plans, but cancer has robbed me of time.
What other things have been taken from me?
As Alan and I walked somberly through the hospital to the doctor’s office for my first treatment, my feet were slow and awkward as though shackled, and I couldn’t help but imagine I was walking the green mile. Wasn’t chemo just the first step toward certain death? I thought so, especially since my chemo regimen included a chemical derivative of mustard gas, and I was allowing, no – choosing, poison to be put in my veins. What choice did I have? I wanted to live. Death row prisoners have no choice in the manner of their deaths, and all prisoners hope for stays of execution. My only choice was to take the best and most current regimen for my type of cancer because it was the only thing that gave me hope to beat cancer. I think the role of the oncologist is to be a “peddler of hope,” and I was buying.
I had six infusion chemo treatments over eighteen weeks and then began daily doses of two oral chemo drugs and a monthly injection. The poison’s side effects are numerous, and my brain seems to be missing a few links as though I had a brief electrical encounter with Old Sparky himself.
Before cancer, I imagined my brain as a solid – a white and red jello-like consistency that’s been made with too little water in order to make an intricate and beautiful mold for a bridal or baby shower. Today, I envision it more like a sieve leaking out minute bits of memory, words, and names, and getting worse with every single dose. This state of “brain fog” has a slang medical diagnosis: chemo brain. And, boy, do I have it. And I’m saddened for its loss.
What other losses do I count? I can’t risk exposure to the outside world when my blood counts are down letting me know that my immune system is weak. In other words, it is too dangerous for my health to be around large groups of people, particularly children, for many days of the month which eliminates teaching – even teaching Vacation Bible school at church. Being imprisoned in my home takes me away from my career, my teaching friends/peers, and my community. I am home alone almost every day, and I miss my friends and my colleagues and my students. I am in isolation the majority of time like a death row prisoner who only gets 30 minutes a day outside the cell.
My daily chemo schedule also robs me of physical strength and stamina – both physical and mental energy. Imagine the flu’s onset with its fatigue and achiness when all you want to do is rest and recover quickly and get on with your life. With the flu, you can always see the end in sight. With metastatic cancer, the only end I see is suffering and death.
Is that it? Just imprisonment and walking through the valley of the shadow of death? No, certainly not. Because a castle of loss…
Is Still a Castle
Don’t get me wrong – I live in my dream house. It’s beautiful and spacious. Our home feels like a mighty fortress protected by my sentries, Strider and Stella. Natural light shining through all the windows onto the hardwoods glow like the warm ambiance of hundreds of candles, and we are nestled in the woods. Looking out, all we see are trees. We have no need for window treatments as our closest neighbor’s house can’t be seen from our house. The loudest sounds come from Strider and Stella, the birds in the trees, or an occasional gun shot. We live in the country, after all. It is peaceful – our own hermitage.
My family supports me in every way possible – especially Alan. He handles all the stressful aspects of cancer including the dumbassery of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies to keep me from being more anxious about the cost of treatment even though it creates more stress for himself. He is my love and my hero in this quest, a Lancelot to my Guinevere.
Our son, Michael, has chosen to continue to live with us to help, and seeing his beautiful face and getting precious time and hugs from him every day is strong medicine. I don’t know of many 25-year-old young men who would postpone their lives to help take care of a sick Momma. He is my heart.
In my castle, our two dogs keep me company throughout the day, and they have divided their roles. Strider guards the house, and Stella mothers me and knows (usually before me) when I’m having a bad day. Bless her heart! She has a tough job. She really hates when I lie on the bathroom floor to cool off from a hot flash, continually nosing me to get up, and it’s not a gentle nudge. She uses that nose like an appendage to the point where she can open doors with it. I am grateful for their presence, their care, and their loyalty.
Cancer has shown me who my genuine friends are, and they constantly and consistently check in on me, sending me prayers for miracles, texts that make me laugh, cards of encouragement, and gifts that astound and humble me with their thoughtfulness and generosity. When I’m trapped in my castle, they are my connection to the outside world, their expressions of love breadcrumbs to find my way back to the outside world.
I’ve been studying Job lately, inspired by his faithfulness to God despite his circumstances. When he was covered by agonizing boils from head to foot, he wished he had never been born, but never cursed God. I have cancer, but I don’t wish I had never been born because I wouldn’t want to miss any of the precious moments that He has given me so far.
I don’t think God or Job would mind if I paraphrased a verse. You know the one: Job said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I keep inverting the first sentence saying “The Lord takes away, and the Lord gives.” While some aspects of my life have been radically changed by cancer, more good things have come to me in the last year than I ever could have dreamed or imagined. The Lord has given to me abundantly, and I wouldn’t change a thing about this last year. Not even the cancer.