VIII. Poorer for my losses; stronger for my resolve
I longed for a seamless end to my blog and the end was beyond perfect. Each word blended beautifully together as a melody of life, “There is no sign of cancer and you are in remission.” My body responded with dancing, silently floating around my doctor’s office to a hypnotic score mesmerized by his touch as kind as summer. We left the hospital on a high and holding fast to tradition, headed to our bar to celebrate our victory. I longed to feel euphoria, the very sensation I felt in Croatia catching the first glimpse of the Adriatic Sea as I drove down the coast edging recklessly between the sapphire sea and jagged mountains. Instead I found myself walking home from our bar arm-in-arm blurting, “How anti-climatic!” He stopped dead in his tracks with a devilish grin overcoming his face. As he feverishly signaled to turn around, he whispered pointedly, “How’s that for anti-climatic.” Suddenly euphoric tingles toyed with every nerve in my body as I stood breathlessly engulfed in radiant reds, vivid pinks and glowing purples of a sultry sunset. We strolled off into our sunset ready to embrace the perfect ending.
I hastily assumed my body would follow my doctor’s remission orders. Hello stomach, are you deaf? I am cancer-free! I plaster on my smile to conceal my silent suffering and desperately ache for my perfect ending. Fake it till you make it. The source of my stomach pain is as clear as mud and my doctors continuously poke and prod as they uncover clues on their latest case. Instead of carelessly celebrating the beginning of the rest of my life, I endure procedure after countless procedure. I can’t escape from the hospital, and I find myself slipping further and further down the wormhole. It’s all an endless blur. Emergency room. CT scans. Ultrasounds. Blood tests. Endoscopy. Colonoscopy. Pill bottles overflowing in my purse. My stomach still fights me, stubbornly refuses to acknowledge my clean bill of health and leaves me searing with pain as though the lining of my stomach is on fire. Stumped and still scratching their heads, my team of doctors diagnosed me with visceral hypersensitivity as an aftermath of my chemotherapy. I now suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, intensified by stress. Stress? My stoic smile begs to differ. I curl the ends of my lips skyward to mask a year’s worth of pain and it’s rearing its ugly head in my gut. I am never cognizant of stress until time slows and transforms into a shimmering transparent barrier filled of once familiar faces swimming around me strangely. There is my Dad who chased me across the world visiting me on every grand adventure from Italy to Ireland, but decided to sit on the sidelines never by my side at any chemotherapy. There is my fearless sister, who as a pilot risks her life daily but waited in silence until after my treatments to send a mere single text to say, “I don’t want to cry, or be emotional, or connect with it, or see it.” There is my grandma whose memory took a turn for the worse this year and will thankfully never remember that I suffered from cancer. I’ll always love the shock on Christmas Day as she greeted me with, “What’s with that ridiculous haircut?” After acknowledging my own disappointments, which apparently take the form of creepy floating faces, I’ve decided to rebuild and think only of the past as its remembrance brings me pleasure. I will emerge from this tempest poorer for my losses and stronger for my resolve.
I should have known that rebuilding does not come easy for I remember standing amongst the city of Ieper’s tragic beauty, completely paralyzed in both awe and horror of its history. Here I stood trying my hardest to breath in all of its grandeur. Don’t blink or risk missing the imposing cloth hall, the elegant Gothic-style church, and the market square reeking of waffles smothered in melted Nutella. At first glance I was taken with Ieper’s spellbinding splendor, with my eyes delightfully gazing over its historic cobbled streets, manicured lawns and 12th century buildings. After adjusting my eyes to Ieper’s grandeur, I realized its beauty is only skin deep and the signs of past peril appeared and completely consumed the city. For I was in Belgium and the surrounding buildings were not centuries old after all, but instead utterly shelled to pieces during the First World War. Easily fooled by its rebuilt beauty, I found it hard to believe that I was standing in Flander’s fields, the origin of the poppy symbol and home of the bloody Western Front. Staring past the reconstructed beauty, my eyes found the deep scars of the artillery shells and the trenches, which still to this very day pocket Ieper’s fields. I find confidence in these fields that my scars of devastation will eventually fade with the beauty of rebirth.
As with Ieper, rebuilding comes with time and I take refuge in small moments. Finding happiness in ordinary moments comes when I breathe slowly, climb into bed and lay on my stomach next to him, staring side-by-side out the window into a shadowy dusk sprinkled with a light flurry of snow. Imagine such a glistening flurry against a cobalt sky where snowflakes appear as a million fireflies buzzing lightly through the air. Darkness replaced the dusk and our reflection began to transparently glow against the window. I didn’t dare look away, for this ordinary moment opened a portal allowing for transport into a magical element.
I am not the only one rebuilding for I rode out my storm on the wings of my constant. He put his own life on hold and surrendered the better part of his 26th year to spend it with me in and out of the hospital. Since curiosity has not yet killed this cat, I enquired about my constant’s reasoning to embark on such a treacherous journey. With a shrug of his shoulders, he modestly replied, “You looked like you needed help.” His next unprovoked thought made my heart skip a beat, “And it was fun.” I flushed pink with pleasure and my round blue eyes widened. In that moment my mind took off, climbing into its own time machine and pulling the lever to let the memories flash backwards one by one, only stopping for a split second at my favorite moments. Each moment appears as though it is a very high colored dream. I see a campfire illuminating the faces of a new circle of friends, ringing in a new year filled of whiskey and s’mores. I see a stroll through the woods next to him with a tranquil fall breeze playing across my face and leaves crunching musically under my feet. I see a soft drop of dew dripping slowly down the back of my neck as I lay in the cool grass gazing up at the enchanting mist of the star spangled heavens. With each stop in my time machine, a smile surfaces, happiness takes over and in that moment I realize that I’m wearing the smile he gave me.
I can never dream of repaying him for his unwavering comfort, but that won’t stop me from endless attempts. I fought for my life armed with rich memories of traveling the world. A shield of steel from swinging high above Amsterdam’s rooftops adorned with their steep gable facades during the famed Queens Day festival. A piercing sword sharpened from the shrill laughter of a mischievous Spanish youngster as he slammed me with a water balloon as soon as I exited a bus to Valencia. A suit of armor to help me escape from an accounting class to bathe in Bruges’ sun on the edge of its romanticized canals. My plan is to build him up with experiences to serve as armor against life’s inevitable demons. In August, I will whisk him from Turkey’s bustling Bosphorus, to Greece’s imposing pantheon, to Ireland’s medieval castles in hopes of acquiring life’s shield, sword and armor.
For my endings, I am getting back to my proverb-ian self: Time is a great healer. Today, on my 27th birthday, I am five months cancer-free holding my breath and pleading for the first year mark where the chances of relapse dramatically plummet. As I hold the line against the terrifying 40% recurrence rate for my elaborately named ALK-positive Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, I am beginning a new journey searching for that girl sitting amongst past destruction, smiling ear to ear, nose deep in Belgian beer. It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.