VII. Love is friendship set on fire
Similar to a long distance marathon, pure adrenaline carried me through my race. I experienced the slow approach to the start line, stretching, warming up and mentally preparing for endurance through pain. Unsure of the race ahead, I cleared my mind, fed my soul and traveled to an ancient Roman city edging the striking basin of the Mediterranean in good company of a beauty who effortlessly makes my heart smile. I approached the start line carrying images etched in my heart of carelessly laughing, sipping potent merlot, and dancing under twinkling stars in a square full of Roman sphinxes and pillars. Images like these served as my motivation to win the race of life. The start line was crowded, to the left stood old friends with the confidence of weathering through past storms and to the right stood the new with the fearless excitement of overcoming a novel challenge. As I looked left and then right, I suddenly realized that they all looked the same. There my friends stood on the start line in pirate costumes looking nervous as hell anxiously waiting in silence for the heart pounding rush of the gun setting us off flying down the short yet seemingly endless track. Despite weeks of mental preparation, I was not entirely prepared for the loud pop of the gun. When the weight of the world hits, you eventually spin around but at first you don’t feel a thing. On your marks, set… Adrenaline sent me lunging toward a finish line still out of sight. Encouragement poured in from all corners of the earth. Piercing cheers and screams of support rang in my ears so loud and fast that the sounds of my own thoughts fell victim to deaf ears. Friends raced side by side to every chemo frantic to arrive at the finish line without stumbling along the way. Suddenly the finish line arose out of the horizon, gradually and blurry at first, and eventually becoming clearer and clearer with each blink of the eye, beat of the heart and gasp of breath. With the last bend of the track and chemo behind me, I was in excellent form. I skipped arm in arm with my nurse out of my last treatment and dramatically tore out of the hospital on the back of my biggest supporter ready to cross the finish line back into a reality without cancer.
I was winning the race on an adrenaline high and wrongfully never expected the low. Somewhere along the track, I broke free of the pack, running with such speed that a sudden pang of pain emerged physically and mentally. In a classic upset, I tripped over my own two feet just inches away from the finish line. The treatments were finally beginning to show the carnage on my body. I spent whole days wrinkled up in pain sipping tomato soup as if it were the water of life. My eyebrows finally caught onto my toxicity, packed their bags and moved out before I could convince them otherwise. The cheers and screams stopped abruptly with the assumption that I would continue to glide to an effortless victory after my last treatment. For the first time I could hear my thoughts clearly and with such poignancy that they shook my very foundation. I found myself sitting in a crowded restaurant hastily trying to shake my miserable desperation to enjoy the company of my favorite person. I glanced around the restaurant envious of the grins, merriment and lightness of those all around me. I momentarily imagined the twenty somethings that filled the restaurant discussing their concerns about careers, politics, boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-lovers, Halloween costumes and next weekend’s parties. There I sat amongst the cheerful trying to trick my mind back into a carefree twenty something existence by plastering a phony smile on my face. My eyes, gateway to my soul, betrayed my true mindset and slowly welled up with tears. Without hesitation, my confidant jumped up, grabbed the check and whisked me out into the brisk fall night. With my tears silently tearing into the blackest night, he grabbed my hand, turned on music that spoke to my heart and with every few steps gave me a twirl. I was engulfed in darkness, crying and laughing, walking and dancing, and suddenly I felt alive.
Arriving at our destination, we broke into the slowest of dances complete with his whimsical twists and effortless dips and my clumsy two step following his lead. With my chin resting on his shoulder, my hushed tears failed to cease but instead transformed from tears of desperation to those of pleasure. Somewhere in between swaying to and from, back and forth, side to side, I realized that I candidly enjoyed every last minute of my darkest days. Instead of a dance with death, this year will be remembered as one of the greatest chapters in my book of life. I’ll never know whether it was destiny or accidental or both happening at the same time, but there I found myself on New Year’s Day, bright eyed and bushy tailed from traveling solo across Eastern Europe with a new job in hand, enjoying brunch at my now favorite local restaurant. Across the table sat a new character whose charisma immediately caught my eye, the very way a lens gathers light, with his striking good looks, southern charm and witty intellect. He sat there with his animated gestures telling stories and drinking whiskey utterly unaware that he was about to spend the better part of the new year with the stranger across from him battling cancer. Springing into a new friendship, he offered to help me move into my new apartment. Aided by a full bottle of Jameson, he unpacked my entire life, including that embarrassing teddy bear, and all at once we were old friends who’ve just met.
Fast forward a few short months from that fateful New Years Day, my new friend became my constant. He persevered through my relentless two month long fever that drenched our sheets night after night right down to the mattress. He answered the call from my doctor with my biopsy results when I was out of reach in Croatia and kept the horrifying news secret to ensure that I enjoyed my time in paradise. He finished unpacking my life and took the last sip of that bottle of whiskey just in the nick of time to repack and move me into his apartment to ensure that I never spent an ominous night alone. He sat by my side through all of my doctor’s appointments, chemotherapies and medical emergencies. He was consistent in every way that I needed and in every other moment surprisingly and thrillingly unpredictable. He saved me in every way possible. With each dawn, I awoke ready to plunge into the depths of his imagination. At any given moment my constant could morph from Indiana Jones, to Captain Jack Sparrow, to Superman, to an actor.
With each new day, a new adventure. As an archeologist ready for a rousing dig, Indy held my hand and aided my doctor in ripping bone from my back during my biopsy. Captain Jack arranged for a party aboard his ship to plunder money for the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society. Superman whisked me away from my perils of reality to the center of the universe. The actor put on such a convincing show that I still break a sweat worse than any fever when I hit play on our political ad blooper reel (for your enjoyment below). The world is his stage and I’m fortunate to be a part of his audience. One might wonder, what happens when the heavy velvet red curtains descend and the luminous stage goes black? The true test of a person’s character comes when there is no audience and no one to impress. During my transition of doctors, I went alone to pick up copies of my medical records. Upon handing me my records, the receptionist remarked about her memorable first impression of my constant. She vividly recalled his dramatic burst into the waiting area, sweating, out of breath and wearing a mixed expression of urgency and concern, exclaiming, “Where is she? I’m late. Can I go in?” He left such a positive taste in her mouth that she feverishly insisted that I must hold onto my constant because his actions spoke louder and clearer than any words. The receptionist’s observations left me speechlessly grinning from ear to ear. In that moment time slowed, the air became still, and everything drew in as I realized that my constant was the most valuable person on my stage, curtains opened and closed.
As I sit in the audience of my constant, I realize that my very own spectators safeguarded my mind and sanity. I found that my emotions flowed effortlessly through my fingertips offering a cathartic release. Through my fingers, my audience followed me through every step of my journey and felt the shock, desperation, hope and joy. You followed through the pain of my hair loss and responded by chopping your own gorgeous locks or by sporting candy colored wigs.
You listened to my cry and need to be a part of a solution and donated your hard earned money to the cause.
You served as an outlet to share my twisted sense of humor. After I regained my strength, I began to once again use the metro for my commute to work. On my very first ride since therapy, I sat unknowingly on a seat under a handicap sign minding my own business completely enthralled in my latest book. At rush hour, this metro was packed tighter than any can of sardines and I was thrilled to snag the last spot. A perfectly healthy sixty something year old gentleman dressed in a suit boarded the car, took one glance at me and dryly stated, “Excuse me, can you please get up? These seats are reserved for senior citizens.” I smiled and politely gave up my seat and held onto the closest pole. This is where he made his fatal mistake. He leaned into the woman next to him and spoke loudly, “Can you believe kids these days?” Something shifted in my brain and my mouth broke loose, chuckling to myself. This man shot me his coldest quizzical look and asked what I found so funny, to which I calmly responded, “The irony that a man in good health asked a cancer patient to move from a handicap seat.” All at once the air was sucked out of the train and every last soul did not dare look away. With the same quizzical look plastered across his face he blurted, “You look too good for cancer.” I did not say a word, gazed into his eyes and lifted my wig exposing my baldness. The deafening silence was broken and the entire train laughed as the man drew his newspaper to cover his face. She who laughs, lasts and humor carried me through.
Above and beyond all else, you gave me a stage and helped me to document my battle by reading my blog. You provided an outlet for me to write hard and clear about my twister of emotions. In return for your time, I hope that my journey encouraged you to slow down and think and feel and reflect, even for a moment, on the things that all humans experience, happiness, despair, love, and death, and when all of these experiences twist together with the force of the most wicked tornado, that’s when you truly begin to live. Without suffering there is no life, for suffering helps to shape the tale and in the end we are all nothing but trillions of short stories knitted together in the blanket of history and I fully intend on making mine as memorable as possible. Fuck cancer.
P.S. – Today I strutted into my doctor’s office, equipped with my signature heels and electrifying pink wig, to hear the results of my chemotherapy. After hearing my results, my constant and I turned on music, broke into that same slow dance of life and continued on living. You already know how the tale ends, I WON. Victory is ours.