An Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today I completed my last radiation treatment. As far as I know, no detectable cancerous lesion has returned since then, which makes this a cautious but happy holiday. The caution is prudent, given the size and mass of the original tumor and the fact that it had metastasized to lymph nodes, thus increasing the chances that it will pay a return visit. If it does, according to my medical oncologist, it will do so “with a vengeance” having cleverly re-engineered itself to evade the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.   A relatively prompt death is likely.

I have believed in and witnessed the truth of the saying that “we die the way we live.” Among other things, I have lived a life of short-term pessimism and long-term optimism.   Things will work out in the long run, I have always thought, but the rub is in the present and immediate future.

Unfortunately for me and those committed to living with me, this has made me a rather troubled and troubling companion.   For if the diagnosis of stage 4 cancer does anything, it creates a shift in perception.   Whatever cuddly visions I have had of the long-term future quickly vanish into the thin air of fear.   Some say cancer is a wake-up call, but for me it has always been more than a challenge to wake up at all, let alone from a nightmare  that projects itself into the waking state of monthly hospital checkups, blood tests, radiation-rich carcinogenic body scans, and the harrow of waiting for results.

Yet without the battle there can be no victory, and today is a time for celebration. And in this very moment, as others around me are wont to remind me, things are looking good. And as I try to remind myself, this very moment is the only moment that matters; it is the only moment which this brave and betraying body of mine can ever embrace.

And, perhaps in spite of what you have been kind enough to read so far, I am not a whiner.   I have fully embraced my father’s dictum that life isn’t fair, and that it is all of our jobs to work with what we got.   And though it’s too easy for me to miss what is right in front of me, I’ve got a lot.

It is about 4 in the morning, still unaccustomed to the time shift from L.A. to Galway. Yesterday my wife and I walked over 5 miles along the coast in the gray chilly mist, as the sun set over the Atlantic between this continent and the Aran Islands. Gas-fueled flames in the faux stove heat this cozy AirBnB, a modern addition to a traditional rowhouse just four easy blocks from the pub-lined High street that twists through shops packed with a mix of tourists and locals. And peregrinating through the streets of this, one of my favorite cities, I am constantly reminded that there is nothing quite like the amity, charm and wit of the Irish. In this, the only moment there is, life is good.

So today I will struggle again, as I have each day, to find a suitable folder in which to file the fear that each of these bizarre symptoms that arrive daily, uninvited and unwelcome, are signs of the cancer returning.   No, they are just the creaking of an aging body or the teasing of my guardian angels.   I will, today, try again to inhale the crisp air of gratitude and allow its sweet calming effects to wilt the tension in my muscles.   I will, today, if only briefly, imagine the soft embrace of a mother’s arms in order to protect me from the ill wind, and soothe the bristles of expectation.

 

Flying on my Bicycle in the Blind

I spent one year of my life living at 24 Randy Road in Framingham, Massachusetts.   It was 1964; I was 10 years old and the world was in the midst of upheaval.   JFK was shot the year before, the Beatles appeared in the U.S., a war was developing in Southeast Asia, “the pill” had taken hold and a revolution in sexual freedom was in swing.   I was painfully shy, and my best friend was the bicycle that came with me from Queens, where I had lived for six years before.

Riding my bicycle was one of the few things in my life that I felt as though I could do confidently, and somehow the sense of being carried along while houses whisked by held a primitive feeling of safety, even serenity.   The sweet thing about living on Randy Road was that it was a hillside (one that shrunk considerably when I visited it with my kids more than 30 years later), which meant that I could get on my bicycle and with some help from gravity could pedal myself into tremendous speed while turning at the base of the hill.

I had repeated this act of cyclobatics so many times that I was confident doing it both with my hands off the handlebars and blindfolded.   I would close my eyes, stretch my arms out to the side, and become a human sail against the wind created by my movement.   One day, as I rounded the corner with my eyes closed, I had the wind knocked out of me as I turned into the trunk of a parked car.   I tumbled over the handlebars as one of them poked me in the chest, and ended up sprawled on the roof of the car and denting it with my very skinny body.   That was the last time I tried that particular trick.

Although my hands were not on the controls, I had at 10 years old what pilots call a “controlled flight into terrain (CFIT).”  Although my eyes were closed, I knew exactly where I was at the time; I just didn’t know what else happened to be occupying the space that I was entering.

CFIT accidents happen for many reasons, but one of the most common reasons is that pilots become overly confident in their abilities.   Confidence in a pilot is a good thing, but just like so many other good things, too much of it can kill you.   The problem with confidence is that it can easily bleed into cockiness, which is the kind of stupidity that leads to decisions like turning your bicycle into a car while blindfolded.

I don’t think that any amount of confidence could have prevented the cancer that came to reside inside my throat.   I have made many decisions in my life that I regret, but none that I could imagine could lead to this outcome.    Truthfully, I am not a big believer in karma;  I have known too many people who do mostly good things in their lives and suffer tremendously, and others who have done horrendous things and live peacefully.   I do believe, along with the great philosopher Martin Buber, that humans are basically good and evil, and the ones among us who live life fully manage to do more of both.

Yet, this cancer does feel as though it is a form of controlled flight into terrain.   Right before the first symptoms appeared I was in excellent health, doing yoga 3 times a week, going on long walks, exercising and eating well.   My life was in a better spiritual place than it had been in years.   Then, there it is, the parked car that wasn’t supposed to be there.

From flying on my bicycle to flying in my beautiful Diamond airplane, I am now on a different flight, a flight in which to a large extent the world of science and physicians are at the controls.  Whether one flies down the street with eyes closed, or carefully plots out the path of radiation to a tumor, the world can be a dangerous place in which to fly.