The radiation oncologist, a dark-skinned, diminutive Indian woman with a prominent gap between her front teeth who looked to be about my age, was reviewing my treatment options, as it were. There were really no options. I suggested that there was the option of no treatment, which momentarily rattled the normally even-tempered doctor.
“You’re too young and healthy,” she said. She left out the words “to die” but it was clear that was what she meant. I came to grow quite fond of Dr. Vora, although I did resent how much information she didn’t give me at the outset. Early on, she described the primary tumor as “bulky,” but later, after the chemo and radiation shrunk it to oblivion, she said it had been “massive.” She chose her words carefully, shielding me somewhat from the immensity of her task, yet she remained truthful. When I asked her if the radiation will prevent me from speaking or swallowing, she looked me directly in the eyes and said softly, “it’s a possibility.” Throughout the ordeal, she remained gentle with me, yet firm in her convictions.
Dr. Vora was one of a team of three physicians who took me through the early phases of my cancer treatment. The medical oncologist, who I also came to love and admire, managed to remain upbeat throughout, which, while slightly annoying, was also reassuring. He too was firm, but gentle.
Famed aerobatic pilot and avid golfer Michael Goulian, speaking about his dual passions, once said “Golf and flying take a lot of confidence and skill… If you grip it and rip it mindlessly, either on the golf course or in a plane, you won’t have much success.”
It is no wonder that good flight instructors seem to always watch how you hold the stick. They know it will reveal a lot about your confidence and even your overall relationship with flying. Gripping too tightly reveals your anxiety, and you will overcontrol the airplane. Gripping too loosely and you are likely not paying attention and have too frivolous a relationship with the airplane. It may end up controlling you.
I am not sure when I first heard the phrase, “firmly, but gently,” but I believe it was from my college fencing instructor, Charles Selberg. He was answering a question on how best to hold the foil. He even demonstrated a trick that I used to my advantage on several occasions: If you notice your opponent gripping his weapon too tightly, it is very easy to disarm him. Simply use your forte (the strong part of your blade) to aggressively swipe your opponent’s forte and his weapon will go flying out of his hand.
This little trick, this little hack as they call it these days, applies to nearly everything. How does one best hold a dance partner? How does one best discipline a child? How does one best negotiate a deal?
The emotional part of my cancer has been by far the most difficult mountain to climb. Prior to my diagnosis, I had no idea how difficult it would be for me to loose the cold grip I had on life.
People around me advised me to fight, but it never felt right for me to fight. The doctors were in charge and my function was simply to follow. Even faith seemed irrelevant. That too takes energy, and every ounce of energy left in me needed to be spent following, complying.
What exactly would I be fighting for? I was fighting to stay alive, but then and now that felt like the wrong fight. It is a fight I knew I could never win, and I didn’t even know who was with me in the ring. The real challenge was to let go. I needed to find a way to let go of expectations, wishes, the future, life itself. I needed to learn to say goodbye, something that throughout my life I never even began to do well.
When it came to this fight, the fight to end my desperate clinging to life, I was a failure, or as I believe my mother might have said, “a rotten failure.” I knew then and I know now that wanting something too much is a curse. As a therapist I always counseled others that wanting was healthy, but needing could get you into trouble. I did not merely want to live, I needed to live.
The thing I could not do was apply my little tricks, my sneaky alchemical algorithms to my own life. I could not find the right grip. I could not hold my life in my hands firmly but gently. I held on too tightly. And that, I fear, made it too easy for something to come along and wrest it from me.