I bullied my way through it the first three times. This is the last time. And fate gives us these days of holiday when I can stop pushing myself, naturally and simply go through it. The shortest days and longest nights of the year. Social isolation at one of the most social times of the year. It's scary. And it's sad. Every life ends in death.
"First I was dead. Then I wasn’t. Then I might as well have been dead."
Left for Dead, Beck Weathers, 2000
Yesterday was a bad day. Sore in the shoulders and arms, sick in my stomach from the heartburn medication. Woozy just from being so weak. My schedule was walk, nap, walk, nap. I did two little walks. The day before I made it all the way around the block. Yesterday morning I didn't even make it to the second alley, I had to turn back. My heart was pounding and my whole body was trembling when I got back. Half a block. In the afternoon I tried again. This time I made it to the second alley. It was a small success. I do feel better for these walks - the little 'surgery recovery' walks. It was a fluid day yesterday too. Every time I felt a head ache coming on, or felt especially bad I had a cup of water. It made a difference. I peed a lot too. And I was up and down a lot peeing during the night as well.
My stomach is a bit of a mess. I'm trying to get myself off that heartburn medication, I think we went right to the full dose too fast, when perhaps that one bout of heartburn early on was only an anomaly. Now the heartburn medication itself is the problem. I'm trying to get my stomach back into some kind of better balance in these two weeks before I start the new kind of chemo. Trying to start as fresh, and healthy as I can.
Yesterday when I did my second little walk I felt death nearby.
This back alley is the route I always did with Moose. It is the shorter route that Moose and I did when he got too old to play, this is the route we did when it was all slow pain for him. It was the route we did when he didn't care about snow, or snowballs, or mailmen or any of the things that used to drive his life and give him joy. This was the alley where Moose and I encountered Kathleen and the big white dog by accident. Those two big old dogs still ready to fight to the death. Kathleen and I two old ladies getting pulled along across the shear ice, all that drama. It was exciting then. They are all dead now. Kathleen. Moose. The big white dog. And yesterday I walked past that spot slowly, doing the dying walk, and not caring. Not caring about anything really. It is all gone. Dead. They are all dead.
What makes me think that I should be alive, so many years after they are all dead, here I am, shuffling along to fight off death, and why? Kathleen died of cancer. I think it took a year or two, maybe three. She started treatment, she did not get better, she started treatment and she started dying all together at the same time. We are not positive that is not going to be my story too.
But there is no real reason to for me think that right now. I feel that way because in fact much of me is dying right now. Cells are dying all over my body. Blood, bone marrow, stomach lining, hair. Cancer. Cancer too. I feel death. I feel like I'm dying. It's an act of will to get up and walk out the door. It's an act of will to have a bath and get dressed. Lying down to rest is not to recuperate, it is to die.
"If I fell down, I was determined to get up. If I fell down again, I would get up again. And I was going to keep moving until I fell down and could not stand or I walked into that camp, or I walked off the face of the mountain." Left for Dead, Beck Weathers, 2000
Resting just kills you more. Get up. Get dressed. Go for a walk. Even if it turns into the death memory/reflection walk, go anyway. Keep moving. Remind your body to live. Push it towards life. And eventually it will start up again. Eventually you start being alive again, your cells start reproducing without dying and you come back, and it gets easy, it starts to happen all by itself again.
This is not a real, natural death. This is created artificially. When they stop the chemo the death part stops too. When the chemo leaves my body the cells can come back again. It feels like a real death though. In the moment, it is a real death. If this moment kept on like this I would surely die. And it probably would not even take that long either. Everything would just keep on shutting down, it wouldn't take so long to die like this. This is what I feel when I am in this low state.
I bullied my way through it the first three times. This is the last time. And fate gives us these days of holiday when I can stop pushing myself, naturally and simply go through it. The shortest days and longest nights of the year. Social isolation at one of the most social times of the year. It's scary. And it's sad. Every life ends in death. And when it gets to that stage, then all these things that brought joy in life don't matter anymore. That is really sad. That is the really sad part. That it doesn't matter. When you get to death's door, you don't care.
"That autumn I learned from my own example that a man can cross the threshold of death before his body is lifeless. Your blood may still be circulating, but - psychologically - you have gone through the whole preparation for death and endured death itself. You already see everything around you dispassionately, as from the grave." Cancer Ward, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1966
My Dad loved grapes and then after he died there was no one in my life who loved grapes the way he did. No one who loved snowballs the way Moose did. The joys of life. Still there. There are still grapes, there are still snowballs and other dogs love them. But they didn't matter to Moose anymore. They didn't matter even before he died.
Things fall away. And some of the best things fall away first.
I cooked a lot when I first got sick. I don't care about cooking right now. I don't care about knitting. Reading. I feel like I could die before I finish the book anyway. Die before the sweater is done. I don't care about finishing these things before I die. So why bother now. Why push myself when it's so hard to care, when it takes all this willpower just to keep putting one foot in front of the other and simply staying upright.
I still like my flannel sheets. They feel nice. I am more inclined to crawl into bed and lie there now. I know more about how to take care of a dying person now. Those intimate details. Sheets, towels, temperature. No demands. Kindness. Gentle.
We watched TV last night. My husband keeps us to a schedule. TV did not start until after supper. He made supper. I nibbled, that is the only way I can eat now, so I nibbled supper too. I didn't last long. I had to go to bed before the TV show was done. My husband was up by himself the rest of the night. I don't remember. He kissed me when he came to bed. I am surprised that he still kisses me with my bald head and my swollen, wonky eyes. He has a horror life of his own in this apartment. He is alone and not alone. When he thinks I'm asleep he tiptoes around the house. He is not free in his own apartment. He has to tiptoe.
Life of the caregiver. I was the caregiver after my brother's lung surgery. It was part of my day to go to the hospital, I brought breakfast and coffee from the outside world, I walked the halls with him. I remember that time we scared the family waiting for their loved one to come up from surgery; the looks on their faces as they watched my brother shuffle towards them, hanging onto his IV with four additional tubes of blood going out of the hospital gown pumped into a box at the bottom of the IV pole, white compression stockings. As we got close he looked at them and said, "I know why you are looking at me like that." They were embarrassed. Ashamed. Didn't know how to answer. "You think these white stockings make my legs look fat, don't you." They laughed. I laughed. My brother smiled at me. I had given him the white stocking joke. He'd already used it on the surgeon. We were in cahoots. He was in great pain during that time. He had a whole pain management team helping him to bear it. I walked away from it in the afternoon. Fed his cat, cleaned the litter box. Took care of his life when he couldn't do it himself. Every day I left the hospital. It was a horror to watch a loved one go through those medical procedures. His white, pain-face, the freaked out faces of the young women on his pain team. But it wasn't me.
Now it is me. It is my turn. We do not really know if this is it for me, time to croak, or if this is my year of horror medical life and then I get better and it all works out in the end. My brother passed his five-year cancer free, in remission, doctors sent him home to get on with his life test. We don't know how my story is going to go yet.
Right now, in the down moments it feels like dying. It feels like this is dying. It feels like I am dying.
I fake it in front of my husband. I just say I'm weak.
What is it about this feeling of dying that is different from just weak? No future. Partly that. Usually the things you want to do with your time are building on something, building towards something flying off into the future. This latest script is going to go on TV, going to be part of my career building, part of my reputation. When you take the future out of it, then things like the work you do become meaningless. In the moment it is not that meaningful. The future is what makes it worthwhile in the moment.
What does matter? In this moment, in this nearness to death moment what does matter? Comfort. The mental space to be at peace. Lack of pain, lack of fear. Am I afraid of death? No.
I don't know what comes next - after death. After the dying part is over and done with.
I even suspect it may be really cool, and full of connection and future, a nearby parallel universe where I can live this whole virtual life as a ghost bugging my kids and grandkids just as the family myth says my dad did with us after he died.
I could be the ancestor that intervenes and meddles on their behalf. It could be way more fun than being an old lady alive but not powerful in their lives. My kids and grandkids would probably even believe in my ghost. I think I'd like that. I don't think they'd be scared. They'd joke about it. Maybe it would even be me and Dad together, two ancestor ghosts in cahoots.
Or it would be letting go, blending back molecule by molecule into the universe, the general joy and oneness of it all. I have experienced enough tastes of that in my life to know that would be just fine too, and in many ways more tempting and satisfying. Lose myself, just let go and be free completely.
Either would be okay.
I don't believe in hell. Hell is what you make for yourself right here in your own life on earth. I don't believe in judgment. I have none of those fears of that kind of life after death.
Did I tell you that there is this grey cat that comes to walk with me and my husband when we are on the street together? It runs right up as if we are old friends and walks with us for a while, jumping around our legs all happy and friendly like a dog. More like a dog than a cat. It belongs to someone. It has a collar and tags. And it doesn't try to adopt us. It's just so happy to see us, and walks with us for a while, and then goes on its own way, into its own life. I have been joking that it's the spirit of Moose come back as a cat, with that lithe healthy body to play around in. Feeling joy again. The joy of life. And being happy to see us, but not sad, or needing to be with us. I like to think that. That is what I like to think.
But I don't know anything about the after death part.
Generally I am a person who embraces the unknown.
I don't mind that death is an unknown destination. I went to the Philippines without research or a plan. I went to the Arctic without research or a plan, just open to the unknown, just open to what might happen. I am okay with death and its unknowingness. I welcome that part.
"Hey Brad, Do you believe in life after death?"
"I'm not sure. I definitely believe in death after life."
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Aired on May 17, 2017
And the great thing about the impossibility of knowing for sure is that you can go ahead and think whatever you like.
So for me the problem is not being dead. The problem is dying, the transition, that is the hard part. It sucks.
But today is a day that I have. I am not dying today. Well yes I am dying, but it will turn around. This artificial, chemically induced mass death of my cells will turn around soon. Tomorrow is one week later. The drugs stay in for a week. The nadir is on Friday, that will be my lowest, most dead point. The second Saturday my body usually starts up again, all on its own, it turns a corner and I can feel it. I come back to life. It happens over the course of an hour or two. I can feel it happening. I can feel it once it starts. But it's like delivering a baby, I don't make it happen, I have no idea what triggers it. The second Saturday waiting for that day. Hoping it will happen for me one more time.
But the painful part, the chemo part will start to end sooner than that, tomorrow, perhaps today, perhaps Thursday. These sore muscles in my neck and shoulder, the sore throat, the sore butt, the sore hair follicles. Who knew you had so much hair, who knew each hair would be sore at the root as it dies and falls out. These acute pains will start to end. Just a few more days of this part. That is predictable. I can count on that. Each time is more sore. But the schedule is the same.
So today. What shall I do with this day. I can't do much physically. But the thing is that I can't really just sit. I will start to die even more if I just sit. So this is not a day to read and knit all day, not even to watch TV. I have to get up and move around. I have to eat, sleep, and move around whether I like it or not.
If I was really dying then I wouldn't have time for this infant lifestyle. I would be in the emotional world of saying goodbye, I would have the huge burden of helping my loved ones let go, it's a big hard job - dying. I feel dying in me, but I'm not in that big hard job yet. It's a quiet personal death that I feel. It's close enough, and real enough to scare people. And yes, I do feel this extra social responsibility. But this is nothing like what it will be when my time really comes around. So I get this odd moment of facing the feeling of my own death, alone, without the social responsibility of dying with your family all around you. It's a weird kind of gift.
It's Christmas. The gift giving season. I sit here looking at the little tree covered with ornaments that I made myself when I was a young woman, the ornaments that my kids made with me when I was a young matron.
There are ornaments that I bought in the Caribbean on pre-Christmas scuba holidays and in the Arctic on pre-Christmas shoot trips when I was middle-aged and just getting into the prime of my career.
This triggers memories of being a kid visiting the farm for Christmas. The beautiful old ornaments on that freshly cut tree. Candles. A bucket of water standing at the ready. The starry nights of the prairies. Walking through that endless darkness, unafraid because I was between my grandfather and my father, listening to their deep voices over my head. Doing chores. Feeding the pigs. Scratching the back of the old boar with a nail because he liked it and my little girl fingernails were not strong enough to scratch his tough old skin without a nail. Bristles. That loveable old guy really did have boar bristles. My mother with her Henna red hair and lipstick, never quite fitting in with those aristocratic German ladies, my father's sisters.
We've had those kinds of big family Christmas holidays right here in this apartment. All the kids and grandkids come to visit, squished in here together. Going out sliding on the hill, skating on the lake. Ballet in the theatre. Circus shows at Tohu. Cooking lobster. Eating out. Playing. Laughing. Dancing around the living room. Just being together.
My son and I, the two of us alone in Yellowknife, eating turkey and all the fixings right out of the pot. His house, his rules. Only one pot to wash. The two of us standing side by side at the counter, digging in, teasing each other, having a good time. My son waking me up in the middle of the night to see the northern lights. Those smaller little sub-family Christmases too.
Humans getting through the season of long nights and short days, getting ourselves through the deep loss of sunlight and warmth with distractions of colored lights, fire light and laughter. It's the shortest days of the year.
Now it's me and my husband, no one else is allowed to visit. They can't get on an airplane and just come to visit. Too many germs and viruses lurk between us. They are not allowed to breathe on me or touch me. My husband and I are doing the death Christmas together. Getting through it. Just the two of us. I cannot find any laughter this year. I've lost that gift.
The day begins. Time to start moving. Feeling awful. Feeling awful from just sitting still. Time to start moving.
This is the last of the really bad Red Devil chemo. Once I get through this part it won't be so bad. It will start to get better. Soon.
Brad Pitt: Big Questions With Even Bigger Stars
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Aired on May 17, 2017